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I usually have about three books going at once: one in the car, one or two on the nightstand, one in Spanish for my weekly class. Right now, though, it’s out of control. I am currently actively, if slowly, reading:

  1. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, begun during my study leave last week that focused on two topics: death/grief and African American history/fiction.
  2. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Paula Giddings, ditto. I only dipped into the first chapter, knowing that I needed to clear the pile before I got into a thick biography, but still. I started it, so now it’s on the currently-reading pile too.
  3. March, Geraldine Brooks.
  4. The Cure for Sorrow: a Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, Jan Richardson. Usually if I’m reading a collection of prayers or poems, I dip into it here and there, but with this one, I’m reading it straight through. Beautiful.
  5. The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez. In the car. Beautifully read by several different people, and I’m loving the book, but I’m impatient. It’s time to return the audiobook and take out the print edition, which I’ll be able to finish myself in a day or two. But with all these other books on the pile, when will that day come?
  6. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, via Audible on my smartphone. I usually listen to podcasts while exercising, but right now it’s all Thor and Loki and Neil, all the time.
  7. Soy La Hija de Mi Padre, Maria Elena Salinas and Liz Balmaseda. For Spanish class.
  8. The Bible and the People, Lori Anne Ferrell. On the one hand, I’m interested in anything about religion. On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in the history of the Bible. On the other hand, my mother gave me this after learning that the author was a seminary professor of mine (a great one). On the other hand, I have all these other books to read. On the other hand, this one is really being quite fascinating. All these hands add up to: I will leave it on the nightstand and keep nibbling, finishing it eventually.

Emily Dickinson’s complete poems are also always on the pile, but I won’t even count those. I read one when I remember (I fell off the one-a-day train ages ago), in order, and will keep doing so, but other books come and go while this multi-year project continues to spike my days with shafts of light.

No more new books! I must finish some, or my attention, which is happiest when split among a few different activities, will end up in such small shards that they’re good for nothing.

Do you read more than one book at a time? Which ones are you reading right now?

I’ve loved the story of John Henry since I first heard it, and I was really jazzed to learn that an excellent writer, Colson Whitehead, had written a novel about it. I am now reading it (John Henry Days) and it is not disappointing me. There are so many elements packed into that succinct legend: the struggles of African-Americans (and by extension any people coping daily with oppression); pride and strength and their limits; the shifting meanings of work and our dignity as machines do the work once done by human hands; the relationships among labor and capital, white and black; what it means to triumph over death. I don’t know yet where Whitehead is going with this, but so far he seems to have given deep thought to them all.

(Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en español)

I finished reading Maya’s Notebook! What a good book. It deals with drug addiction, the 1973 coup in Chile, police corruption and crime in Las Vegas, post-traumatic stress disorder, prostitution–but it isn’t an “issues novel.” It’s about growing up and love, family and the power of certain places: in particular, Chiloé, a Chilean island.

Isabel Allende’s characters and places could teach me or any writer a lot about the art of description. She can draw three personalities in one paragraph. For example, look at this portrait of the narrator Maya, her grandfather, and her grandmother:

If I start talking about my Popo, there’s no way to shut me up. I explained to Manuel that I owe my taste for books and considerable vocabulary to my Nini, but I owe my grandfather the rest. My Nini made me study by force, saying that “the letter enters with blood,” or something barbarous like that, but he turned studying into a game. One of those games consisted of opening the dictionary at random, putting a finger blindly on a word and guessing the meaning. We also played idiotic questions: Why does the rain fall down, Popo? Because if it fell up, it would wet your panties, Maya. Why is glass transparent? To confuse the flies. Why do you have hands that are black on top and pink underneath, Popo? Because there wasn’t enough paint. And so we would go on, until my grandmother would lose her patience and begin howling. (58, my translation)

I told my daughter about the questions game and now we play it too.

I love Allende’s talent for weaving humor together with serious issues. Here a government tries to recover the body of a drowned man:

They brought helicopters, sent boats, threw nets and let two divers down to the bottom of the sea, which did not find the drowned man, but they recovered a motorcycle from 1930, encrusted with mollusks, like a Surrealist sculpture, which will be the most valuable piece in our island’s museum. (437, my translation)

Reading a novel in Spanish is a good way to learn the language, as is living in Mexico for a while, but I will need something else. A class, to give me training in grammar. A self-imposed lesson in all of the forms and expressions of “poner”: poner, ponerse, disponer, puesto . . . After having looked up so many of these verbs and expressions on the way to finishing this book, I believe that if I understood all of them, the world of Spanish would open to me. They’re everywhere.

Another good exercise is this one that you’re reading: translating some of the entries of this blog into Spanish. (Or, as in this case, writing it in Spanish and translating it into English.)

Corrections are welcome.


(Click here to read this post in English)

Terminé de leer El Cuaderno de Maya! Que bueno libro. Se trata de adicción a las drogas, el golpe en Chile en 1973, corrupción policial y crimen en Las Vegas, el trastorno por estrés postraumático, prostitución–pero no es una novela des <<asuntos>>. Es del crecimiento y el amor, la familia y el poder de ciertos lugares: particularmente, Chiloé, una isla de Chile.

Los caracteres y lugares de Isabel Allende podrían enseñar mucho a yo o cualquier escritor sobre el arte de descripción. Ella puede dibujar tres personalidades en un párrafo. Por ejemplo, mira este retrato de la narradora Maya, su abuelo, y su abuela:

Si empieza a hablar de mi Popo, no hay forma de callarme. Le expliqué a Manuel que a mi Nini le debo el gusto por los libros y un vocabulario nada despreciable, pero a mi abuelo le debo todo lo demás. Mi Nini me hacía estudiar a la fuerza, decía que <<la letra entre con sangre>>, o algo así de bárbaro, pero él convertía el estudio en juego. Uno de esos juegos consistía en abrir el diccionario al azar, poner el dedo a ciegas en una palabra y adivinar el significado. También jugábamos a las preguntas idiotas: ¿por qué la lluvia cae para abajo, Popo? Porque si cayera para arriba te mojaría los calzones, Maya. ¿Por qué el vidrio es transparente? Para confundir a las moscas. ¿Por qué tienes las manos negras por arriba y rosadas por abajo, Popo? Porque no alcanzó la pintura. Y así seguíamos hasta que mi abuela perdía la paciencia y empezaba a aullar. (58)

Le dije a mi hija sobre el juego de preguntas y ahora nosotras lo jugamos también.

Me encanta el talento de Allende por tejer humor junto con asuntos serios. Aquí un gobierno trata a recuperar el cuerpo de un hombre ahogado:

Trajeron helicópteros , mandaron botes, tiraron redes y bajaron dos buzos al fondo del mar, que no encontraron al ahogado, pero rescataron una motocicleta de 1930, incurstada de moluscos, como una escultura surrealista, que será la pieza más valiosa del museo de nuestra isla. (437)

Leer una novela en español es una buena manera de aprender la lengua, como es vivir un rato en México, pero yo necesitará algo más. Una clase, por darme entrenamiento en la gramática. Una lección autoimpuesta en todas las formas y expresiones de <<poner>>: poner, ponerse, disponer, puesto . . . Después había buscado tantos verbos y expresiones dichos en ruta de terminar este libro, creo que si entendía todo de ellos, el mundo de español me abriría. Ellos están en todas partes.

Otro buen ejercicio es este que estás leyendo: traducir algunas entradas de este blog a español. (O, como en este caso, escribirla en español y traducirla a inglés.)

Se agradecen las correciones.

A funny thing about being in Mexico: although I’m not taking a class or working with a tutor at this time, just being here is giving a boost to a longtime project, that of reading Isabel Allende’s novel El Cuaderno de Maya in the original Spanish. I started reading it in 2013, I think, and I often joke that Allende has published three books in the time it’s taking me to work my way through this one. It’s the truth.

We own the English translation (Maya’s Notebook), and I could read it in a couple of days, but I worry that that would sap my motivation, and so I plod along in Spanish. Usually I read a couple pages at a time, once or twice a week, just enough to keep ahead of my weekly meeting with my Spanish teacher. Our hour is mostly spent in my reading a paragraph aloud in Spanish, then translating it into English, then our discussing any questions or mistranslations, and going off on various tangents of language, culture, or literature. Then we repeat. It is an excellent way to learn the language. Guillermo brought in a couple different novels; one by Junot Diaz was just confusing, but when I’d read the first couple of paragraphs of Maya (which you can read here, or in English here), I was so captivated by the character’s voice that I didn’t want to stop. So we knew that that was the one.

Last summer, I set myself the goal of finishing the novel by the end of 2015, but could not keep up the necessary pace of 2-3 pages per day. But here in Mexico, I am motoring through at a pace of 10-12 pages at a sitting and have read about 80 pages in the past couple of weeks. It’s just so much easier now. I love her writing, and I can’t wait to find out what happens. And I have time. And Allende’s language is all around me.

I said I would be happy to read a shopping list written by Harper Lee. I might have gotten my wish. This is not a novel: a story. It is an essay trying to become a story and not really succeeding in being a story or an essay.

I’m sure a lot of new writers have manuscripts like this in boxes under their beds, which is where they should stay. You have to write a lot of dreck to learn to write the great stuff, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of–don’t I post my own drawings here, bad as most of them are? You can see a common phenomenon here: a talented, deeply thoughtful novice has some ideas she wants to explore, and by God she’s going to explore them, and story be damned.

I was going to describe what happens to the story after Jean Louise discovers that her boyfriend and, far more crushingly, her father are members of a Citizens’ Council, but I can’t improve on Adam Gopnik’s concise summary in The New Yorker (July 27, 2015: 68): “Shocked, she confronts [Atticus], and starts on a series of static and prosy debates–first with her uncle Jack . . . and then with Atticus himself–about integration, the N.A.A.C.P., the Tenth Amendment, and other fifties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and ‘Honey, use your head!’s to make them sound a little more like dialogue.” Gopnik left out the boyfriend and aunt; she goes a few rounds with them too.

There are interesting ideas in there, even 60 years later, though they’re most interesting to me as a window into that period of our racial struggles–they are social history. But, as I said: not a novel. At this point in her writing life, Lee hasn’t figured out how to embody ideas in plot and character yet. They’re just air.

It’s a joy to see her terrific descriptions of characters and places. You can tell that this writer has a lot of talent. She has a lot to learn about dialogue and pacing, but those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird know that she will quickly learn it, and superlatively. Reading Go Set a Watchman, though, is like skipping along through a meadow of interesting characters and then suddenly finding oneself knee-deep in mud, unable to move. The characters stop talking to each other and start lecturing the reader through each other. The drama of their relationships grinds to a halt as we’re forced to listen in on an improbable family dispute that reads like an op-ed page. The most interesting dramas from the point of view of a Mockingbird reader–the confrontations with Calpurnia and Atticus–don’t make much sense because we don’t know these characters well enough to have a context for the conflict. (As readers of the previous book, we can interpret them as the characters by the same name–but, as I wrote in my previous post, that doesn’t quite work; the backstory is too altered. We don’t know this Cal or this Atticus–but, not to dodge the central issue raised by this book, I’ll write more about him in my next post about this book.)

The best parts of Go Set a Watchman are flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, and you can see the seeds of Mockingbird there, in incidents that didn’t make it into that book, such as the revival and baptism she, Jem and Dill put on in the yard, or her countdown to suicide when as a hopelessly naive twelve-year-old, she is sure she’s been impregnated by an unwanted French kiss. Lee’s astounding ability to convey what’s in the mind of a young girl comes through even in third person, and even with an omniscient narrator, which is used as clunkily here as inexpert writers do tend to use it, the reader popping suddenly into a secondary character’s head and popping out again. By the time she writes To Kill a Mockingbird, just a couple of years later, she is in masterful control of voice and point of view, and those portraits of places and people have become the verbal equivalents of Constable landscapes and Rembrandt faces. Sadly, that book remains her only successful novel.

Go Set a Watchman has been described as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, we see Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, her father Atticus, her uncle and aunt Jack and Alexandra, in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. But “sequel” is a misnomer, because a sequel is the continuation of a story. It becomes clear almost right away that the past of the characters in Watchman is not the past told about the characters with the same names in To Kill a Mockingbird. The editor of Watchman, Jonathan Burnham of Harper, qualifies it as “Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel,” and the many ways in which it is not a sequel have a significant impact on our interpretation of each book (more on that in post 4). The experiences of Scout1 are so different than the experiences of Scout2 that it’s best to read Go Set a Watchman as alternative history.

I’m not talking about minor changes and absences. Watchman can’t refer to every incident, even every important incident, in Mockingbird; that would be silly. And one key character who almost certainly did not exist in the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, Henry Clinton, remains in Go Set a Watchman because Lee needs him there. That’s not what makes it an alternative history novel.

Rather, I’m looking at three core events of To Kill a Mockingbird, events so central to the story that their omission makes the adult Jean Louise of Watchman a different person than the grown-up Scout who narrates Mockingbird.

First, at one point in Go Set a Watchman she strolls toward her childhood house and “steels herself for Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s onslaught” (112). In other words, in Watchman, Mrs. Dubose is still alive. I read the passage several times to see if it were perhaps meant as a flashback, and I’m pretty sure it’s not. The idea of putting Mrs. Dubose at the center of one of the most important events of a novel simply hadn’t occurred to Lee yet. And so we have an adult Jean Louise who did not sit with her brother afternoon upon afternoon while he read to an old woman who piled racist abuse on their family as, unbeknownst to the children, she fought to free herself from morphine. The incident with Mrs. Dubose ends Book I of Mockingbird. It is the experience that Atticus hopes will prepare them for an unwinnable fight in the courthouse, and it parallels it. But this Scout never had that experience.

Second, there is no Boo Radley in Watchman. Oh, I know he could well be dead by then, with no Radleys remaining in that house by the time Scout is a woman of 26. But even so, it is hard to imagine that an adult Scout, returning to her hometown and walking down memory lane in her old neighborhood, would not spare a thought for Boo Radley–unless he hadn’t been invented yet in her creator’s mind. Boo is the title character of Mockingbird (a designation he shares, of course, with Tom Robinson, and by extension with black people in general). His story frames the novel; it begins and ends it; it shapes Scout’s entire adult consciousness. How can there be a grown-up Scout who reflects on the summer of the trial without Boo Radley crossing her mind? Answer: this is a different Scout.

And finally, the Jean Louise of Go Set a Watchman is a woman who never saw Tom Robinson unjustly convicted. The story she identifies as pivotal to Atticus–pivotal to her understanding of who her father was and is–is similar enough that we know it’s the seed of Mockingbird, yet crucially changed.

Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. (109)

Need any reader of To Kill a Mockingbird be reminded how important it is to the story, and to the development of Jem and Scout as characters, that Tom was not acquitted, but was convicted? Here are a few passages in case it’s been a while:

   “Aw, Atticus, let us come back,” pleaded Jem. “Please let us hear the verdict, please sir.”
“The jury might be out and back in a minute, we don’t know–” but we could tell Atticus was relenting. “Well, you’ve heard it all, so you might as well hear the rest. Tell you what, you all can come back when you’ve eaten your supper–eat slowly, now, you won’t miss anything important–and if the jury’s still out, you can wait with us. But I expect it’ll be over before you get back.”
“You think they’ll acquit him that fast?” asked Jem.
Atticus opened his mouth to answer, but shut it and left us. (210)

I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty .. . guilty . . . ” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. (214)

“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it–seems that only children weep. Good night.” (215)

Although “things are always better in the morning” (215), that despair soaks into the novel and forms the narrator Scout’s account. Remember the haunting terms in which she recounts the moment of the verdict, linking it to the crisis of the rabid dog that Atticus had to shoot?:

   What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty. (213)

What was devastating was not just the conviction of a man who was obviously innocent, but the realization that it had been inevitable: that it was surprising to no one but themselves. Miss Maudie tells them, “[A]s I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that” (218). They learned from the verdict what every adult already knew: that under the comfortable exterior of Maycomb was the vicious impenetrability of a lynch mob. That disillusionment was what made the “children’s heart break” (282). And the Jean Louise of Watchman never experienced it.

I wish that Go Set a Watchman were a sequel, so that I could spend more time with the woman who emerged from these experiences. But the Jean Louise of Watchman isn’t her. She had a different childhood.

Next post: a novel or an essay?

When the news broke that another Harper Lee novel was to be released, like millions I felt excitement and trepidation. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) when I was twelve and have reread it every few years ever since. The characters live in my consciousness like people I have actually met. One time my sister and I were talking about the book and I said something about Miss Maudie Atkinson. “Oh, Maudie’s great,” Erika said, exactly as if we were talking about a favorite neighbor of our own. So the question of “What the hell happened to Atticus in the next twenty years?” is important and (despite internet scoffing about people’s being upset about a fictional character) anything but trivial. It’s at the core of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) and very relevant to our lives in the United States in 2015. But it’ll be the subject of my fourth post on this book. This post is about something different.

The trepidation I felt had mostly to do with the circumstances of publication. Lee is deaf and blind now, and the communiques about this new book–actually written before TKAM and set aside–came entirely from her executor. Was someone just cashing in on an old draft that Lee never wanted to see the light? She had been asked, of course, why she’d only published one book (to which she once answered that she’d said all that she had to say); she could have had GSAW published anytime; why wasn’t it published until after she was incapacitated? It was suspicious.

As soon as I began the new book, my suspicions grew. Whole descriptions were almost identical in the two books: not the fleeting descriptions such as one expects in a series (“Harry had jet-black hair that was always untidy, bright green eyes, and a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt”–repeat seven times), but vivid portraits such as no writer would deliberately use twice. For one of the most obvious examples, here are two portraits of Scout and Jem’s Aunt Alexandra:

To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, however, Alexandra was the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip.

When Aunt Alexandra went to finishing school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning; she was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn.  (Go Set a Watchman, page 28)

. . . . To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Popular Library paperback edition, page 131)

The reason for the similarity is obvious: when writing her second book, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee mined her earlier draft for some of its best passages. That makes complete sense.

Surely, then, if she decided to take GSAW out of her file cabinet 50 years later, she would read it for such repetitions and rewrite these passages. The most likely explanation for the fact that they keep appearing is that Harper Lee was not involved in the publication of this book. This is a deeply sad and disturbing fact. When people wondered whether Go Set a Watchman could possibly attain the standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird, I said I didn’t care; I would read Harper Lee’s shopping list. But damn it, only if she wanted me to. (It’s also possible that she gave the go-ahead but did not reread or edit it for publication. Given the craftswomanship she put into TKAM, I don’t give it serious credence. But who knows.)

I’ve had it happen to me: a mix-up in the editing process led to an earlier draft of an essay I wrote (this one, in fact) being included for publication. Later printings corrected the error, but I wince at the knowledge that the half-formed, awkwardly-stated thoughts that I and the editors wisely removed are out there on people’s bookshelves.

It was not easy to read Go Set a Watchman, and one reason was my growing remorse as I felt as if I were peeking into someone’s private papers. Harper Lee has given me so much, and it appears I have repaid her by reading an inferior draft that she never meant anyone to see.

Next post: Not the same Scout

My wife and daughter put their heads together for a really excellent birthday present for me: bringing our collection of Agatha Christie books to completion, including her memoirs and the so-called “romances” published under the name Mary Westmacott.

I left the latter unread for years, thinking of Harlequin romances, but they’re not romances in that sense, nor even all primarily about a romantic relationship, and when I finally picked up Absent in the Spring I was delighted. I’ve read two more since, and like Absent, they contain some of her best writing. In them she goes into all the detail of characterization that she usually skips in the mysteries. With her whodunnits, she relies heavily on types–often playing them up in order to pull the wool over our eyes, but still, there they are: the likeable rake, the bright young career woman, the buttoned-up solicitor, the taciturn retired Army officer from the far reaches of the empire, the maid named Gladys with bad adenoids and nothing much upstairs. Writing as Mary Westmacott, she delves into character with surprising subtlety. Absent in the Spring remains my favorite of these so far, as it was Christie’s; she described it as “The one book that has satisfied me completely.” The Rose and the Yew Tree stands out for its treatment of politics, an area of life that, in her mysteries, Christie usually gives a comically cursory treatment. In the spy novels, especially, you can almost hear her shrugging her shoulders (“Must give them a bad guy”) as she dashes off a description of some dastardly (and unlikely) coalition of Communists, Fascists, and international drug runners. In The Rose and the Yew Tree,she actually gets into the dynamics of a political campaign, and seems to both respect those inner workings and know what she’s talking about.

We owned almost all of the mysteries already, but many were cheap paperbacks so decrepit that the covers came away in your hand and you would occasionally get to the final pages only to discover that they’d gotten lost. Munchkin helped Joy work through the list and pulled out books that needed to be replaced. She is so pleased with her role in this drama.

Instead of presenting me with the gift, they appropriately gave me a puzzle: “Your present is hidden in plain sight in the house.” It took a few hints for me to get there (“Okay, which room?”), and then I noticed something that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there before.

“Wait, did you buy all the missing Westmacott books?” I asked. “Is that my present?”

Joy said, “It’s not so much a book as a concept . . . ,” and the penny dropped.

So now I’m enjoying reading classics I had been reluctant to pick up because the pages didn’t stay put, and marveling at her genius. Often, some minor weakness obscures the excellence of the book; rereading it reminds me just how good the book is as a whole. Yes, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! relies on a Marple ex machina to extract a confession from the killer, so that the book ends on a whimper more than a bang, but the mystery keeps you guessing right up until that moment, leading us down the garden path and giving us one of Christie’s many pleasing non-recurring main characters, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Yes, Poirot is incapable of going on vacation without stumbling over a corpse, but at least The Labors of Hercules does show that he is actually a private detective who occasionally learns about crimes from being hired to solve them. I love her short stories, and these are funny, full of twists, and completely devoid of Hastings. Hastings is such a Watson that he makes Watson look like a genius. Christie so longed to be done with the “insufferable” Poirot that she wrote the account of his death in the late ’30s, putting the resulting novel into a vault to be published posthumously (in fact it was published shortly before her death); I wish that she had given Hastings the push at the same time. It would have been a great gift to her devoted fans for us to see him die, preferably from his own thickheadedness, the same quality that inflicted so much pain on us. But again, the small weakness can make me forget, in retrospect, how great the book is. Even while I’m rolling my eyes at Hastings, his creator is doing some of her best stuff, as in Peril at End House and Lord Edgware Dies.

And as I’m reading, I’m noticing how many different ways she goes about the problem of narration, adapting it to the mystery at hand. Maybe she ditched Hastings early on (he doesn’t appear for 35 years) because, once having broken away from the tyranny of Arthur Conan Doyle, she realized she seldom needed a first-person narrator. She elevated the unreliable first-person narrator to the status of legend–anyone who thinks it’s “cheating” for the narrator to deceive the reader would be happiest staying away from Christie–but third-person narration also serves the aim of deception. In And Then There Were None, with no detective and every character very actively a suspect, being able to move from one character’s point of view to another, as third-person narration makes possible, allows her to suggest multiple red herrings (it’s also by far the best use of one of her favorite tropes, the nursery rhyme). Cat Among the Pigeons, which I recently reread, also moves quickly from one point of view to another, creating a sensation of having the magician flash a card just a bit too fast to be properly read. You know the evidence is right before your eyes, but you can’t quite see it. By the time I found out who’d dunnit, my paranoia had reached fever levels. It made the solution deeply satisfying.

And now we have them all (minus a couple of hard-to-find holdouts that the family detectives are still tracking down). Now, which one to read next . . . ?

As I drove to work today I was musing about a new installment in my very occasional series of appreciations of Ursula LeGuin. When, a little later, I saw her photo in my Facebook page, I thought, “Oh no! She’s died!” (Sorry, Ms. LeGuin. I have a morbid turn of mind.) Fortunately, she was just being cranky about Amazon, and this is not a eulogy.

As a teenager and earlier, I read my share of teenage-problems books, about people my age dealing with such issues as divorcing parents, homosexuality and homophobia, friends who shoplift, siblings who bully, hypocritical adults, you name it. But one of the problems I struggled with most was absent from all of them: the growing realization that I cared about ideas, that I was in short an intellectual, and that this was not all that common. In fact, if any of the kids in these books were even interested in ideas, it must have been one of those background characters, a girl reading in the last row who didn’t even get a character description. I’m not blaming these books; they were busy with other matters, and many of them handled them beautifully. I’m just giving some background about why it was a gift and a revelation to open up one of LeGuin’s least-known novels, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, and discover Owen and his friend Natalie.

Owen is an intell9780553128642ectual. He’s not only good at math and science, but loves them. He’s not only going to go to college, a bright kid taking the expected next step; he’s looking forward to being part of a community of scientists doing experiments for the sheer passion of finding out what is true. His parents don’t understand this, and expect him to go to State, which is local, affordable, and familiar; one of the chief conflicts of the slim book is his difficulty sharing with them who he really is and what he longs for. I didn’t share that particular problem–my parents enthusiastically encouraged our intellectual explorations–but I was perfectly aware that to much of the world, and especially my peers, I was an oddball. One teacher who gathered together students who, in his words, cared about a “life of the mind,” gave me a haven, and others did too, both teachers and friends. Still. Just being offered that phrase, tasting it on my tongue, was like a secret pleasure hidden away from the grim hallways of high school, where we were supposed to do well in class but we were viewed with suspicion if we actually loved the life of the mind. And here was a book about loving it.


Oddballs find their own communities in time. The kid who thinks no one else loves railroad trains finds the rail club; the girl who wants to not only play the viola, but compose music for it, connects with other musicians who take her seriously. We grow up to see a world beyond our families and the 29 other people in our class, and find kindred spirits there. Sometimes, when that hasn’t happened yet and we’re confined to a world with such a small population that very few people in it seem to resemble us, we find our communities in books. Somewhere out there, this short novel assured thirteen-year-old me, there were people who shared my passions. It might be very far away from anywhere else, but I’d find Owen there, and Natalie, and Ursula LeGuin herself.

(Available through my local indie bookseller, and yours)

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