What I’ve been reading lately, part 5

[Previously: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4]

One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Argument — Andrew Rilstone

Rilstone is one of my very favourite writers — his blog is packed with all sorts of fascinating meditations on politics, Doctor Who, religion, Marvel comics, and pretty much anything else you might think of. He has a habit of leaping bafflingly from subject to subject, then pulling back the curtain and showing you how they were connected all along. Very clever, very enjoyable.

This particular book is his most recent — and, to be honest, perhaps not a good entry-point unless you’re interested in British politics and culture. More broadly, Rilstone engages with the problem of arguing on the Internet, and determining who is and isn’t actually interested in arguing as opposed to preaching. But for newcomers to his work, I’d recommend starting instead with George and Joe and Jack and Bob (his book on Star Wars or Do Balrogs Have Wings? (on Tolkien and Lewis).

Through the Looking Glass — Lewis Carroll

I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland recently, mostly to give me the context for re-reading this one, which I remembered more strongly. In my memory, it’s not so much whimsical as outright disquieting, and my re-read confirmed that impression. There’s a pretty consistent nightmarish quality, as when Alice finds that every path she takes towards the centre of the garden brings her back to the house, or when she has to run as fast as she can merely to stay still. The centrepiece of the book, to my mind, is this exchange with Humpty Dumpty:

“That shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Would it be too much to describe that exchange as chilling? I think not. It starts as a knockabout word-game, and pivots suddenly to become a blunt assertion of power. I don’t know what Carroll intended by this passage, but to me it carries all kinds of thought-control resonances that are all the more disturbing in these days of a government that’s out to celebrate to 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta by repealing the Human Rights Act.

The Girl on the Pier — Paul Tomkins

I know of Paul Tomkins from his writing about football: he’s a careful, objective writer about Liverpool, the team I support, and has his own subscription website, The Tomkins Times (which I’ve written a couple of guest pieces for). I’ve been on mailing lists and websites with Paul for about 20 years now.

But although he’s written half a dozen books about football, The Girl on the Pier is his first work of fiction. The obvious point of comparison is Nick Hornby — not just because he, too, first established himself with non-fiction about football, but because the whole tenor of the book has a similar feeling of an ordinary bloke, writing straightforwardly and honestly about apparently everyday events that have deeper implications.

At least, that’s true of Part One, the first three quarters of the book, which reads like an engaging first-person memoir. But Part Two takes a distinct left turn into darker and more ambiguous territory. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but it’s a book that amply repays reading: I sprinted through the last third, keen to find out what had happened. It wasn’t what I’d guessed; but I wasn’t disappointed.

The Listerdale Mystery — Agatha Christie

Continuing my chronological trawl through the complete works of Agatha Christie, I came to this collection of light short stories. They didn’t do a lot for me, feeling mostly insubstantial and not playing to her strengths. The exception is the story Philomel Cottage, which is worth reading in isolation.

Stardust — Neil Gaiman

I got behind in writing these posts, and it’s now been a couple of months since I read Stardust. I literally cannot remember a single thing about it.

Having also read American Gods and Neverwhere, and responded to both with a hearfelt “meh”, I am about ready to give up on Gaiman as a novelist (although I am much more impressed by his graphic novel Sandman — at least, the two volumes that I’ve read.)

Why Didn’t they Ask Evans? — Agatha Christie

Nothing much to say about this one, beyond that the title is curiously resonant, and does turn out to be crucial to the plot. I suppose it would be asking a lot of Agatha Christie to not only churn out two or three books a year, but make them all memorable. Some are merely competent, and that’s OK: they leaven my heavier reading.

Here’s a thing. Of Christie’s 66 detective novels (ignoring for now her twenty or so short-story collections), 33 — exactly half — star the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Why so many? I know that Christie came to hate and resent Poirot long before the end — she found him “insufferable” by 1930, and some of this attitude leaks out in Captain Hastings’ narration. By 1960, Christie was calling Poirot a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”.

So why did she keep writing Poirot books? Simply, because they work so well. (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans suffers from his absence.) The Poirot books are more memorable simply because the character is more memorable. Even when his characteristic traits have descended into self-parody, they still give us a convenient framework to hang the narrative on.

Something similar, but much stronger, happens with the writing of P. G. Wodehouse. I absolutely love the Jeeves short stories, and could happily read a hundred of them, even though they all have exactly the same plot. As ably summarised by Andrew Hickey:

Bertie has a new piece of clothing that Jeeves disapproves of. Bertie refuses to get rid of it, and Jeeves goes into a sulk. A friend or relative of Bertie’s gets into trouble, usually to do with romance, and wants Jeeves’ help, but Bertie says “no, I am just as good as Jeeves, and anyway, he’s in a sulk” and comes up with a solution by himself. The solution makes the situation worse, and what was one problem involving two people is now three separate problems involving five or six people, and the one with the biggest problem is Bertie. Bertie then says “Oh, OK then, we’ll ask Jeeves”, and Jeeves comes up with a solution which places Bertie in a hideously embarrassing situation, but which eventually sorts everything out to the point where everyone is happy. Bertie tells Jeeves to get rid of the piece of clothing of which Jeeves disapproves, and Jeeves says he’s already done so.

And yet, I find I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for Wodehouse’s non-Jeeves stories. I’ve made several attempts on Lord Emsworth and the rest, but the only ones that do anything at all for me are the golf short stories. Somehow, it seems that Wodehouse just struck paydirt with Jeeves, and quite rightly mined that seam for all it was worth. That character (or rather the pairing of Jeeves with Wooster) is magical in a way that Wodehouse’s other creations are not. And the same is true of Poirot: however much one enjoys her Tommy and Tuppence stories, or the Harley Quinn stories, no real impression of those characters remains. But no-one forgets Poirot.

I’m not sure what to make of this. I merely note it down as a true fact, in the hope that some insight will strike me (or. more likely, a commenter) later.

[Read on to part 6]

10 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 5

  1. You are, of course, entirely wrong about Wodehouse’s Blandings stories which are superior to J&W in every way (the fabulous introduction to Summer Lightning includes the passage: “A certain critic–for such men, I regret to say, do exist–made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained `all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”)
    On the other hand, there is also perhaps an argument that a lot of this is dependent upon the context in which you first encounter someone like Wodehouse. I had read almost all of the Blandings novels, probably several times, long before I read any of the Jeeves & Wooster stories, and, as a result, I found it hard to set aside my first love (although I admit that, if I were forced at gunpoint to pick a Wodehouse to recommend, it would most likely be “Right Ho, Jeeves”. )

  2. David Starner

    I remember Harley Quinn, and Tommy and Tuppence, and Miss Marple. In some ways, I don’t read Miss Marple because of that; she struck me as a smug, self-righteous character who was simply intolerable.

  3. David Brain, it’s encouraging to read this about the Blandings novels. Maybe I’ll give them another try, then.

    David Starner, I’ve yet to read much Marple, as she only becomes a major player later in Christie’s output and I am reading strictly chronologically. At this early stage I’ve only encountered her in Murder at the Vicarage, which I thought was OK, and The Thirteen Problems, which I enjoyed a lot. So fatigue has yet to have a chance to set in.

  4. re Through the Looking Glass, on the meaning of words:

    This is weird, and actually vaguely unsettling, but the back-and-forth between Alice and Humpty Dumpty about “which is to be master” is actually relevant to the current “debate” (it shouldn’t be, but it is) about the “confederate” flag (many supporters argue it should be the *soldier’s* flag. whatever).

    It’s like–one side is saying “it means this” and the other side is saying “no, it means *this*” and because the flag does have great historical significance, the debate doesn’t completely follow political party lines. It mostly does, but not completely.

    And it’s like: the fact that anyone (pretty much always a white person) can still argue that, that flag is, today at least, anything other than a symbol of hate, bigotry, and murder, shows just how much *privilege* (read: POWER) they still have.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  5. David Starner

    I’m basing my Miss Marple off reading some of the short stories. Perhaps I should read some of the novels, but I have a large pile of Poirots and 87th Precincts to read, to mention just the mysteries, so chasing down the Marples seems unnecessary.

  6. David, what is this 87th Precinct of which you speak?

    Wyrdwyrd, the Confederate flag thing is pretty weird. It is, and has always been, a symbol of institutionalised racism. When people say they want to keep it because of the heritage it represents, that is a heritage of institutionalised racism. It really is that simple.

  7. David Starner

    The 87th Precinct is a series of police procedurals written by Ed McBain (who also wrote The Blackboard Jungle under another of his many pseudonyms) between the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s got a cast of police officers who do the whole Poirot/Nero Wolfe thing of having a history in books set in the period they were written in without actually aging; Steve Carella is sort of the main character, but there’s about four characters who can take lead depending on the book. It really is based on the precinct, and not just any one character. The big thing that stands out about it for me is the location; it’s set in an ersatz New York City that is almost a character in itself; you can feel the weather, the migrations, the ethnic tensions, the cultural conflicts.

    There seems to be a correlation between better authors and not being bigots; I don’t know how much of that is good writing demands good characters, and how much of that is authors who are bigots by modern standards don’t get reread, or what. Ed McBain has a diverse cast, including a couple of deaf characters, black and Jewish cops, a number of Puerto Rican characters (though I don’t remember if any of them became part of the main crew), and even a meet in a 1950s gay bar where the cops were thinking “man, sucks to be them” and “all the straights here just to watch the queers are real jerks”, which struck me as fairly progressive for the 1950s.

    I should read them all in order at some point, but I don’t read enough fiction to get through them all in a reasonable amount of time. In particular, the setting changes over time, but the style does as well; the books written in the 1970s get pretty dark.

  8. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 6 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 4 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 14 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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