Lethal Lesson by Iona Whishaw

I did take a break from Maisie Dobbs to read the latest in the Lane Winslow series from Iona Whishaw. (I really need to read a stand-alone novel…) It’s a great continuation in these stories set in the interior of British Columbia after WWII. The plot in this one is particularly good, keeping you guessing in the best possible way. And, like Jaqueline Winspear, you learn a lot about the roles of women amidst difficult cultural constraints.

I write this in the week when 200 bodies of indigenous children, most from BC tribes, were found on the grounds of an old boarding school in Quebec. Here is a quote from Dorothy L. Sayers which speaks to the constraints against women and the racial hatred that forms so much of our society:

To oppose one class perpetually to another–young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man–is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it–not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill–in fact, upon you and me.

-Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (1947) (Another good read on the subject.)

So if you’ve gotten into the Lane Winslow stories, I do recommend Lethal Lesson.

More Maisie Dobbs

I haven’t written for a month now because I am totally engrossed in the whole Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series. These are just so good. I’m reading number 7, The Mapping of Love and Death, and I just finished the really superb number 6, Among the Mad. Winspear does such an excellent job of describing all the parts of the post WWI era, and does so with care and accuracy. Her plots are perfect elucidations of the circumstances of the time, and in each book I learn more and more about the aftermath of that horrible conflict. And, of course, in learning that I get a new window into war’s horrors and challenges in any era.

Getaway: Food and Drink to Transport You by Renee Erickson

This book landed on our porch this afternoon. It just came out last week, and I was happy to order it as I am a Renee Erickson food fan. I love to eat at The Whale Wins. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was totally blown away when I opened it! The “Getaway” part is the commentary and recipes from Rome, Paris, Normandy, London, Baja, and Seattle. Included are her favorite restaurants from those places. It is a beautiful book, with the writing and all shared by some of her friends. We’re excited to cook from it and have already picked a recipe for tomorrow night!

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs Series

Thanks to my friend Pamela and my cousin Michelle, I’m totally hooked on another post-World War I detective series. Maisie Dobbs, whose business cards read “Psychologist and Investigator,” is the perfect character to describe London in the late 1920’s and 1930’s and the difficulties and traumas following “The Great War.” Winspear is a good writer, and she is careful in her research. When I read books set in London, I always keep my London map handy to see where they are in that vast metropolis. I’m not fond of writers that make up streets and locations, and Winspear does none of that. Her locations elsewhere are also “spot on.”

Maisie helps us see all the opportunities of the era and also the continuing roadblocks for women. She is an intricate and interesting personality, and I am enjoying these books immensely! I’m reading #3. There are 16! Hooray!

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

My book group just read this very good book. It’s an interesting premise. A young woman, Nora, is weary of her life and is piling up regret after regret. She decides to end it all and finds herself in an in-between place that is a library. The books are all her possible lives. Guided by the librarian, Mrs. Elm, she moves from life to life, always risking really being dead. It all sounds rather defeating, but it is an encouraging and endearing book.

As I read it, I was reminded of other things that have similar themes. The movie Bedazzled (with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, not the more recent one), the shapeshifters that appear from time to time on any of the Star Trek series, and all other stories that have people sliding from one reality into another. Nora begins in her “Book of Regrets,” which is big and thick. It gets slimmer as things go along. Mrs. Elm is always asking Nora to stand in her “root life” as she ventures into new arenas, and I found that phrase to be helpful and illuminating. You really want Nora to succeed, to find the life she’s meant to be in. That tension makes this a really good read. It’s funny and charming and not nearly as dire as the plot sounds.

Make your way into the Midnight Library and see what you can discover about your own root life.

Ronald Blythe

On this Earth Day 2021, I’m thinking of people who are observers and listeners. They help us see and hear the world around us and open our minds to the treasures and sorrows of the earth.

Ronald Blythe is one of those people. He is most famous for Akenfield, a fictionalized account of the life of one English village in Suffolk from 1880 to 1966. The way I began to read him was in two of his collections of his columns for the Church Times, “Word from Wormingford.” The first collection has that title, the second is called Out of the Valley. Blythe is a Lay Reader in the Church of England. His columns, and hence these collections, are from his observations as he makes his way from one village church to another all around Wormingford in Essex, in the valley of the river Stour. Blythe is a wonderful writer, and the reader is drawn into his world through his gentle and compelling stories. In an interview with The Guardian he said, “What I basically am is a listener and a watcher.”

Blythe has written many things, but I invite you to enter into his Wormingford world with these two lovely books. Since they are a collection of newspaper columns, they are lovely to pick up and read just a bit from time to time. They offer great reflections for Earth Day or any day.

Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, by Crystal Downing

I tend to read anything about Dorothy L. Sayers, so I was intrigued by this new volume (2020). When I was a parish pastor I often quoted Sayers in my sermons, and not just the theology! Murder mysteries are a great source for descriptions of what humans do. So this book seemed right up my alley.

I have to admit that I was seriously disappointed when I started out. I thought that it was over-simplified and didn’t quite do the depth of Sayers’ thought justice. I also thought it was really geared toward evangelicals. I told a couple friends about my frustration with it, and Joan Beck did a little research and listened to a recording of Crystal Downing at the book launch a year ago. It turns out it is geared to evangelicals, using Sayers’ to help them think a little differently about Christian faith. This really helped me read the book from a different lens.

Crystal Downing is, with her husband, the co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College where most of Sayers’ papers are housed. So she had access to many things I haven’t read, and I was very happy to have that resource. I did appreciate the last couple chapters on The Mind of the Maker and politics and religion. Downing did an excellent job of lifting up Sayers’ core thinking and putting it in context for the 21st century.

Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti Mysteries

When the latest Donna Leon showed up in my Kindle list the other day I realized I have never written about these books in this blog. Leon, an American who lived in Venice for a good portion of her adult life teaching English literature at a nearby university, wrote her first Brunetti novel in 1992 and has faithfully turned one out every year since. These are really good books. Inspector Brunetti is a likeable and smart police detective who reads Roman writers for pleasure. His wife, Paola, teaches English literature at the local university and loves Henry James above all else. They have two children, and through the years we have followed them as they grow toward adulthood. In fact, one of the loveliest parts of the these novels is her descriptions of Brunetti’s family life, which includes detailed reporting on the food! Delicious!

The Brunetti family gives interesting insight to Venetian life, as Paola is the daughter of a very wealthy long-time Venice family (her father is a Count), whereas Brunetti comes from a middle-class background. By setting her characters this way, Leon is able to give a broad view of Venetian history and its contemporary challenges.

Brunetti’s colleagues are entertaining and resourceful, and so these stories are really good. Venice is always fascinating, but these books give you an every-day look at this city, and I always learn a lot.

Although these have been translated from English into many languages, Leon has never let them be translated into Italian, which I think is rather lovely. She still wanted to enjoy her time there without being besieged by her neighbors about Brunetti and the possible crimes he solves! Venice is actually a rather small town.

So here is the list. Read them in order!

Death at La Fenice (1992)
Death in a Strange Country (1993)
Dressed for Death (1994)
Death and Judgment (1995)
Acqua Alta (1996)
Quietly in Their Sleep (1997)
A Noble Radiance (1998)
Fatal Remedies (1999)
Friends in High Places (2000)
A Sea of Troubles (2001)
Wilful Behavior (2002)
Uniform Justice (2003)
Doctored Evidence (2004)
Blood from a Stone (2005)
Through a Glass, Darkly (2006)
Suffer the Little Children (2007)
The Girl of His Dreams (2008)
About Face (2009)
A Question of Belief (2010)
Drawing Conclusions (2011)
Beastly Things (2012)
The Golden Egg (2013)
By Its Cover (2014)
Falling in Love (2015)
The Waters of Eternal Youth (2016)
Earthly Remains (2017)
The Temptation of Forgiveness (2018)
Unto Us a Son Is Given (2019)
Trace Elements (2020)
Transient Desires (2021)

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

My friend Joan Beck recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. She knows I love words. She knows that because she loves them, too. And this is a book for word lovers. It’s a lexicographer’s novel.

Ever since Dr. Samuel Johnson published his influential dictionary in 1755, the fascination with dictionaries and word meanings has grown among English speakers. Perhaps the most famous ongoing effort, begun at the beginning of the 20th century, is the Oxford English Dictionary – the OED – which continues to be the standard for the language to this day. In the late 1970’s I joined the Book of the Month Club so I could get a free copy of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It came with a magnifying glass and it is still open on a dictionary stand in our study.

The Liar’s Dictionary is about the made-up Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, begun at the end of the 19th of century, never completed, and supposedly published once around 1930. When it began it had a huge staff of lexicographers all writing definitions and etymology on index cards to be sorted alphabetically and eventually printed. This fascinating novel follows one of the first staff people as he works on the book and alternately about a young woman who is one of the only two people left working on it in the 21st century. The last Swansby in charge is wanting to scan the book for a last attempt at publication. But they discover that someone one hundred years before had inserted made-up words into the whole operation. So it becomes the job of Mallory to go through the whole dictionary and find all the invented words.

The story is way more complex than all that, and the word play is amazing. And it is laugh aloud funny in many places. I once played a game of Scrabble with a friend where we decided to only use words that aren’t words, but had to follow all the rules that make words words. Harder than it sounds, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. P. Winceworth finds that to be the case in 1899 as he inserts fake word after fake word into Swansby’s dictionary. And a lot of other things happen along the way.

The stories around dictionary creation are fascinating. Watch the movie The Professor and the Madman on Netflix, or read Simon Winchester’s 1999 book of the same title. But in the meantime you can get hooked on words in the sometimes true, sometimes false, world of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

Sap Rising

This lovely commentary from the UK on the essential ennui of ongoing COVID restrictions and hope for the Spring came to my inbox this morning from my favorite print/design/card company, Cambridge Imprint. It’s worth the read, especially for these sentences: Now that it seems to be almost over, it no longer feels like letting the side down to admit that this was a hard winter. The third lockdown was a lockdown too many. The tank of resourcefulness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity had run low. People were no longer sharing photographs of bread that they had baked. Like Dylan Thomas temporarily abandoning poetry during the war, I would have preferred to spend the last two months lying in a hot bath, sucking boiled sweets and reading Agatha Christie. The ordinary routine of life was so unrelentingly the same. All this getting up in the morning only to go to bed again just a few hours later. The washing up from one meal seemed to run seamlessly into the cooking of the next. There were no landmarks to steer by and nothing to look forward to. What was the point? Here is the whole piece: https://mailchi.mp/cambridgeimprint/invitation-to-the-cambridge-imprint-studio-sale-4749833?e=b16c72a4de