I’ll confess… I didn’t get it. I picked this fairly randomly from the library’s selection of poetry, because I had a reading bingo prompt for a poetry book, and I wanted to give something new a try. It’s been a while since I’ve read poetry, so I’ll admit I’m out of practice. Nonetheless, it was hard to follow these through to the end, to get past the images and clever rhymes and half-rhymes and structures to see what he was ever trying to say.
In the end, I’m not sure I ever actually got anything out of any of these, beyond some very brief sense-impressions (several of them disgusting). There were a few funny lines and a few images I liked (“the compass gathered like a rose/into its bud” — clever!)… but overall, it just wasn’t for me at all.
Julian Symons was, I think, a good writer — just one I don’t get along with very well. He plays well with perspective and voice, and he can certainly put together a story — which is not an impression another repeat British Library Crime Classic author I detest gives me (John Dickson Carr, sorry folks) — but I just don’t enjoy his books. This is the third book of his I’ve read, and I think I appreciate them less with each successive book I read. It doesn’t matter that I know he did his research, or even that I’m curious about the true story that germinated the idea for him. I just… don’t like the book.
Which I hate to say, because I’ve enjoyed most of my tour into Golden Age crime fiction to one degree or another (E.C.R. Lorac’s books very much; Gil North’s, not at all)… but Symons’ work just doesn’t work for me. I’m always feeling like I picked up a smooth dry-looking stone and found a craggy wormy maggoty mess under it. It just leaves me feeling icky. There’s no characters you can really unambiguously enjoy, either because they’re fun caricatures or because they’re people you can root for: everything’s just complicated and messy, and the ending feels like a relief just because it’s over with (though it’s not a relief because it ends on a massive downer).
Not the era/genre of crime fiction that tends to end with the world set to rights, clearly!
I finally read Going Postal because I need to write a review of it for Postcrossing, in the not too distant future, and also because I needed a book I could borrow from Libby so I could read on my Kindle while on the treadmill. I expected to take some time over it and have a daily date with it while walking; I’m stranded somewhere partway through Monstrous Regiment because I kept stalling for no apparent reason. I didn’t have the same experience with Going Postal at all: it just seemed to smoothly hook me and draw me in and just keep on dragging me with it.
I’ve had a somewhat rocky relationship with Discworld in general, I guess. I remember reading the first few books (in publication order), and getting a bit tired of the humour; I got a bit tired of the running gags of Monstrous Regiment, too. Going Postal clicked with me, though; I was glad to finally meet the origin of some of the regular fan references for myself (GNU, for instance) and I found Pratchett’s humour to be, in general, less juvenile here than in Monstrous Regiment. There a few bits where I rolled my eyes a bit and wished he’d get on with it; the initiation bit was one of those. Yes, yes, postmen fall over rollerskates and get chased by dogs, I get it!
But for the most part, it really worked for me. And you can’t help but like Moist van Lipwig, really. He’s not a good man, except he accidentally kind of becomes one while playing the part. He has a kind of dedication to it — admittedly in fear of his life — and a wild enthusiasm, and the quirks of the postal service he organises are a joy.
This book is about the importance of sleep: the functions it fulfils for us, how that changes throughout our life cycles, and the consequences of not getting enough. It has a wealth of citations, and most of it was unsurprising to me, suggesting it’s a reasonable synthesis of the current state of our knowledge.
However, and this is a really big but, I lost count of how many times Gregory proclaims something and then admits in the next sentence or a footnote that it was a ‘small study’ and hadn’t been replicated in other studies, especially when she says it hasn’t been replicated in larger studies. The fact that she made it sound like these things were facts, when actually it was that shaky, gave me pause about more or less everything she said.
You can’t make big claims from small, underpowered studies. That’s just not how it works. They can be a testing ground, a starting point, but there’s no way you should be presenting them as fact in a pop-science book where people might actually think these are tried and tested facts, even if you explain the study is small. People just don’t grasp the significance of that (or rather, the fact that it’s probably not significant!).
I’ve also definitely had more engaging pop-science reads lately; Sue Armstrong comes to mind. Sleep can be a fascinating topic, but I found myself nodding off over Nodding Off.
The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, Barbara Burman, Ariane Fennetaux
Focusing on 1660 to 1900 (a very precise time range!), this book uses the tie-on pocket as an ‘in’ to dig into women’s lives via the historical records, including the physical records (pockets which have ended up in collections and museums), writing and court records. It’s a fairly academic book — lots of “meaning resides in the blahblahblah” type language — and also serves as a pretty comprehensive repository for photographs of extant pockets and their details, but it’s accessible enough if you have enough of an interest, and there’s a lot of fascinating detail.
What really surprised me was how long the tie-on pocket lasted, and the wealth of evidence the authors were actually able to show about how they were used, made, obtained, bought, bartered, pawned and gifted. They really do make a good entrée for the history of women’s lives; I thought one of the most interesting parts were the court records, giving us a glimpse into what women carried in their pockets and why.
Not the most riveting read, even for non-fiction, but the photographs are beautifully done and in full colour, and the subject is fascinating enough that I found it well worth the slightly dry and academic approach.
A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon
I worried from the title and first few pages that this might prove too flippant and shallow from me, but I was wrong to worry. I quickly settled into it, and it’s obvious that Southon knows her stuff, takes deep joy in it, and knows where she can skimp on explanations a bit in order to get to the meat of things. She gives a lot of context without getting too bogged down in it, while telegraphing that the point is coming; if you really hate comments like “bear with me, we’re getting to the good stuff”, then it won’t work for you… but mostly, I thought she did a really good job.
The idea of a book about murder in Rome gave me a bit of pause, since I didn’t think they really had such a concept… and indeed, I was right, and Southon acknowledges that it’s a very modern way to interrogate these sources, and that in many of the cases described, no one batted an eyelid (the murder of slaves, particularly). As she says, though, the deaths and the attitudes to those deaths still tell us a lot about Roman society and the place of various people within it.
I was intrigued by the topic, but didn’t expect to find it a pageturner; that it was says something about how engaging Southon’s writing was. I found it deeply enjoyable — particularly as it was one of those books that had me turning to my wife to delightedly ask ‘did you know?’ and read bits out or wave my hands excitedly as I connected up bits and shared the fun.
Another book read to review on Postcrossing’s blog eventually! This book delves into the history of addresses: we take them for granted now (especially on Postcrossing, where I spend some time every day verifying people have put their addresses in as a standardised format recognised by the UPU), but they’re a relatively recent innovation — and surprisingly powerful, shaping a number of areas of your life. Access to healthcare, benefits, job opportunities, credit, personhood… and of course, the state’s ability to find you when you’ve done something illegal or discouraged (it’s not all positive!).
Mask digs through examples of the uses of addresses for things like epidemiology (the famous map revealing the cholera outbreak centred on the Broad Street Pump… and the less famous story of the recent cholera outbreaks in Haiti), examples of vanity addresses, and instances where the names of streets reveal our history, biases and politics.
I felt like I learned a lot, when I put this down, but right now it’s hard to summarise, partly because it’s pretty wide-ranging. The recurring theme is identity, though, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things about addresses that I’d never considered in that light.
Wish You Were Here, Rita Mae Brown, Sneaky Pie Brown
Wish You Were Here is another of the books I read to potentially review for the Postcrossing blog someday. It will fit in perfectly there, because the main character Harry is the postmistress of a small Virginian town, and one major clue in the murder investigation she gets wrapped up in is the delivery of a postcard showing a gravestone, with the message “wish you were here”, to each of the victims.
The mystery was okay, but I didn’t get too much into it because the behaviour of the cats and dogs bothered me. I have bunnies; I get the temptation to anthropomorphise them — truly, they make it too darn easy. But that doesn’t mean it works for me written down on the page, and sometimes the cats and dogs felt like an opportunity for the author to grandstand about very human concerns. (Though with what I assume and hope are nods toward canine and feline sensibilities in the repeated theme of the cat and dog thinking that mentally ill people should be killed as children, as they would cull sick kittens/puppies from their own litters. This doesn’t come off, really, and I dearly hope I’m correct in attributing this as an attempt to make their narration sound a bit more like a dog or cat.)
Even putting that aside, I also didn’t think the antics of the animals added much to the story. Not much could be communicated between their side of the investigation and Harry’s, and it didn’t read as believable behaviour when they did communicate.
Also, a relatively small niggle, but at one point the police officer in charge of the case goes to the retired doctor to ask him questions about the mental health of everyone in town, which he readily answers, with detail. I’m fairly sure a retired doctor must still uphold medical confidentiality — and even if it isn’t a law, I wouldn’t trust a doctor or retired doctor who didn’t. As a person, let alone as a doctor.
I had a number of niggles like that, like wondering how Harry’s nickname is Harry, even to her close friends since childhood, when it comes from her ex-husband’s surname (not her own).
All in all, it just didn’t come together for me, partly because one of the central conceits left me cold. Fun as a one-off, but I won’t be continuing the series.
Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire, M.R.C. Kasabian
I liked the sound of Betty Church, a female Inspector in Britain, in 1939. She’s been injured in the line of duty, losing her arm, which her superiors are trying to use to get her out from under their feet… but she doesn’t want to go, so she has a favour called in and gets sent back to Sackwater, the town where she grew up. So far, so good — and in fact I followed her through her first days back in Sackwater, until her constable arrived.
At which point I tuned out, since her constable is a girl smart enough to cheat her way into the police by using starch in her hair (to make herself look a bit taller) and weights in her petticoats (to make herself a bit heavier)… but silly and childish in every other way. It just doesn’t match up, and it immediately grated on me. It grated on me so much that shortly after she’s introduced, I gave up.
I don’t mind a bit of humour, and up to that point it was fine… but ugh! After that, I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that girl.
Patience & Esther: An Edwardian Romance, S.W. Searle
Patience & Esther is a cute graphic novel featuring a lady’s maid and a parlourmaid in an Edwardian house, who become friends, fall in love, and decide to make their way in a world that is beginning to talk about women’s suffrage. Esther is in fact Indian, and the comic is also very positive about Patience’s weight. It’s a sweet story, focusing on the love between them and their will to make their way instead of their setbacks. It’s worth noting that there are several very explicit sex scenes as well.
I feel like the impulse to make it a very positive love story was nice, but it made the whole thing lack bite for me. I quickly realised that in every case they’d figure things out. There’s definitely a place for that, but with only the barest edge of reality in there (when Esther has trouble getting a job) their triumphs felt easily won as well.
Overall, it’s enjoyable and I like the art style, plus the notes at the end about some of the historical details.