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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Sayers’

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“What do you like to read?”

I get this question a lot: when I tell someone about my book-reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, or when someone sees the long book lists I keep here on the blog and at Goodreads. I also get it when a friend comes to my apartment for the first time and sees my bulging bookshelves. (Though in that case, it’s usually drowned out by, “Wow, that’s a lot of books.”)

Broadly, I love both fiction and nonfiction: novels, memoirs and biography, travel writing, mystery, poetry, middle-grade and young adult lit. But I’ve been thinking lately about a few sub-genres I adore.

These aren’t official classifications in most bookstores, but they share definite characteristics, and they are my literary catnip.

For starters, I love clever British mysteries – preferably with an engaging detective or two and not a lot of gore. Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie remain my favorites, but I also love Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd and Charles Finch. (All of these authors have created protagonists – some professional detectives, some amateur sleuths – whom I adore.) I am a longtime Anglophile, and there’s something about watching a mystery unfold in my beloved England – especially with plenty of tea and biscuits on hand.

Related: I enjoy the occasional dive into Sherlockiana. I haven’t read all the original Conan Doyle stories, but I have relished a few books and series that feature the great detective. My favorite Sherlock riff is Laurie R. King’s fantastic series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, but I also enjoyed A Study in Charlotte (a 21st-century YA take on Holmes and Watson), Nancy Springer’s middle-grade series featuring Sherlock’s younger sister Enola, and The Great Detective, Zach Dundas’ fantastic nonfiction history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. (Also, it’s not a book, but I can’t forget the BBC Sherlock.)

Continuing with the British theme: I love gentle interwar British fiction. Miss Read’s tales about the village of Fairacre fit this bill, as do D.E. Stevenson’s warmhearted novels of life in England and Scotland. These books are not dramatic or world-changing and that is precisely why I love them: they are stories of ordinary people living quiet, beautiful lives.

There isn’t an official name for this genre, but I love dual-narrative fiction that shifts back and forth in time, twining two different storylines together until they meet in the end. Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams both do this very well, but I’ve read other books that employ this technique to great effect. (Most recently: Maggie Leffler’s The Secrets of Flight; June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore; Natasha Solomons’ The Song of Hartgrove Hall.)

Like a lot of inveterate readers, I adore books on books. These include novels set in bookstores (Parnassus on Wheels, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore); books about the reading life (Ex Libris, Voracious, Howards End is on the Landing), and novels that feature books as a key plot point (The Word Exchange, The Bookman’s Tale). Jasper Fforde’s literary fantasy series featuring Thursday Next, book detective, is its own wildly quirky variation on this theme.

What are your favorite sub-genres? (And does anyone have a more elegant name for this phenomenon?)

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all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s no secret: Oxford is my very favorite place. In the world.

I fell in love with it more than a decade ago, when I stepped off the bus (after an overnight flight) as a wide-eyed college sophomore, who couldn’t believe her luck at getting to spend an entire semester in an ancient, lovely university town.

The ensuing four months, and the year I later spent there earning my master’s degree, only made me love it more.

all souls towers oxford england

I’ve been back to visit a few times, most recently a year and a half ago, but I’m always itching to go back. Until the next time, though, I always love (re)visiting it on the page. So here are my favorite Oxford books:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the first Oxford novel I ever read, and still the best. It’s a mystery, a love story, a feminist novel and a brilliantly rendered evocation of Oxford in the 1930s. Many of the streets and buildings have not changed, so the descriptions still feel utterly fresh. So do the insights on work and love, intellectual and emotional freedom, and whether it is possible for women to remain true to themselves and also be married.

Oxford Revisited is a slim, lyrical memoir by novelist and Oxford alumnus Justin Cartwright, whose love for the university matches my own. He writes about his time as an undergraduate and about Oxford itself: its ancient traditions, complicated architecture and captivating beauty. I got to meet him and hear him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival. He was kind and erudite, which made me love the book even more.

These Ruins are Inhabited was a serendipitous find: a memoir mistakenly shelved in the fiction stacks at the Montague Bookmill. Muriel Beadle was an American journalist whose husband was a visiting professor at Oxford in the late 1950s, and she describes their family’s time there with wit and spirit. Keenly observed and so much fun.

Isolarion by James Attlee charts “a different Oxford journey,” as the subtitle says: the relatively new, wildly multicultural East Oxford neighborhood of Cowley. I lived in Cowley during my second stay in Oxford and found it messy, confusing, sometimes frustrating and often delightful. Attlee brings it vividly to life.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

These are my faves, but I’ve read and loved a handful of other Oxford-centric books. So here are a few honorable mentions:

Fiction

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan is hilarious chick lit with a soul. It’s set largely in Oxford, since the two main characters (Nick and Bex, inspired by Will and Kate) meet there.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay is a highly entertaining mystery romp set in 1930s Oxford – essentially Gaudy Night lite. (With plenty of tea and biscuits.)

The Late Scholar takes Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (of Gaudy Night fame) back to Oxford, to solve another mystery. I usually don’t like fan fiction, but Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Sayers’ series is so well done.

rowboats river cherwell oxford

Nonfiction

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the famous literary group that included (among others) C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You can hardly walk in Oxford without tripping over a reference to those two, and this is an excellent look at their work and influence.

My History by Antonia Fraser is a coming-of-age story, a Downton Abbey-esque peek into the early 20th century, and a love letter to Oxford, where she grew up.

Surprised by Oxford is Carolyn Weber’s journey of finding faith and love (among other things) in Oxford.

catte street oxford

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

Any favorite books set in Oxford that you’d recommend?

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oxford wall blue sky

The old familiar way into Oxford, then. Down Headington Hill, which offers no prospect of the towery city; along a nondescript street to the roundabout always called “The Plains,” with no sight yet of anything remarkable; and then a turn onto the bridge, on the far side of which rises Magdalen College tower – Gothic at its most austere and beautiful, and shedding like falling petals into the memories of anyone who ever heard them, the voices of the choirboys from aloft, singing an annual welcome to the first day of spring.

—The Late Scholar, Jill Paton Walsh

I read The Late Scholar on my overnight flight to London a few weeks ago – particularly apt, since its plot features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (now Lady Wimsey) returning to Oxford (to solve a mystery, of course). I first fell in love with Peter and Harriet during my first long-ago spring in Oxford, when I read Gaudy Night and thrilled to every description of the city’s towers, golden stones and winding streets.

all souls towers oxford england

Like Peter, whose journey is described above (though he came by car), I came into Oxford the old, familiar way: on a bus from Heathrow Airport, through the countryside, half dozing for the first hour and then sitting up, alert, as we approached Oxford via the busy ring road.

all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s true that Headington Hill offers no view of the spires I love, but Headington’s high street has its own charms, and I relished every familiar sight: charity shops, alluring side roads, the Starbucks where I used to go see Lizzie at work and indulge in peppermint hot cocoa.

oxford view g&d's ice cream

We swept down the steep hill, past Oxford Brookes’ gleaming modern campus, the green bolt of South Park unrolling down the hill to our left, then swung around The Plain and rumbled over Magdalen Bridge.

magdalen bridge oxford england

I am never quite back in Oxford until I’ve caught a glimpse of Magdalen’s tower, tall and proud, its carved battlements tipped with gold in the morning sunshine. Then it was down the High Street, past Christ Church with its iconic Tom Tower, through a few back streets to the bus station, and onto the familiar cobblestones of Gloucester Green.

feet cobblestones

And then home, the old way – down St Giles and the Woodstock Road, past buildings and shops whose names all called out, dear and familiar to me.

st giles church oxford england

The pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to drink and argue about writing and theology. The Oxfam bookshop, though it was too early to stop and browse. The wishbone-shaped piece of land at the divergence of the Woodstock and Banbury Roads, where sits St Giles’ Church and its peaceful graveyard.

st giles church oxford england

The grand Roman Catholic Oratory. The unassuming Radcliffe Infirmary. A few familiar pubs, and several colleges bounded by their stone walls, over which leaned graceful trees, their leaves colored with the first hints of autumn.

katie leaves oxford

Peter Wimsey notes, later in the chapter quoted above, that “Oxford people return to base.” For Peter (as all Wimsey fans know), this means visiting Balliol, where he earned his degree.

balliol college oxford uk

For me, it means a pair of tall Victorian houses on a quiet street in North Oxford, where I spent a blissful semester as an undergraduate and many happy days as a postgrad student. They have sheltered hundreds of American students from my alma mater, and the sight of them always means one thing, deep down in my bones: I am home.

house 9 oxford uk

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

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“You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,” he said. “Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred.”

“But it is just a vision, Peter. The world we live in is not like that.”

“It sometimes is,” he said. “Besides, hasn’t it occurred to you that to be beneficent, a vision does not have to be true?”

“What benefits could be conferred by falsehood?” she asked.

“Not falsehood, Harriet; idealism. Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”

Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh

dorothy sayers lord peter wimsey mysteries books

As Lord Peter notes above, I do read mystery novels for fun and diversion (though I rarely figure out the solution before the detective does). But this articulation of the deeper order and meaning inherent in the genre made me want to stand up and shout “Yes!”. Detective stories portray the world as I often wish it were: chaotic at times, but with the possibility for justice and truth.

When real life feels seemingly random, a collection of subplots and loose threads (and occasional tragic events) that don’t always hang together, it’s comforting to reach for a mystery novel (or flip on an episode of Castle). I’m consoled and heartened by the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes, Maisie Dobbs, Miss Marple, Chet and Bernie, and even 11-year-old Flavia de Luce can trace the clues, find the killer, and wrap everything up by the last page. Although more cases will always crop up, every solution brings us a bit closer to the ideal of a just and peaceful world.

Do you agree with this vision of detective fiction? (And are you acquainted with Lord Peter and Harriet? As you may know, I adore them both.)

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book breakfast tea the novel cure morning

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
When Sarah Grimké turns 11 in 1803, she receives an unwanted gift: a 10-year-old personal slave, Hetty “Handful” Grimké. Although Sarah tries to free Handful, the two girls are bound together for the rest of their lives. Drawing on historical accounts of Sarah Grimké’s life, Kidd has created a rich narrative of loss, love and bravery, narrated by both Sarah and Handful. I especially loved Handful’s mother, Charlotte, and the portrayal of the city of Charleston.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, Amanda Gefter
Since she was a teenager, Amanda Gefter has relished long discussions about physics and the nature of the universe with her father. But when the two of them crash a physics conference to get the inside scoop on the nature of reality, their hobby becomes an obsession. A smart, funny, highly readable memoir-cum-exploration of spacetime, reality and various physics theories. Gefter makes her subject accessible even to humanities geeks. To review for Shelf Awareness.

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
A small girl arrives in Australia on a ship in 1913, carrying a small suitcase which holds a few obscure clues to her past. Taken in by a loving family and named Nell, she learns about her origins as an adult, and attempts to trace her biological parents. After Nell’s death, her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the quest, traveling to England to visit Nell’s childhood home. A multi-generational saga – part family history, part fairy tale, part Gothic mystery.

The Dirt Diary, Anna Staniszewski
Rachel Lee is so bummed to spend her weekends helping with her mom’s new cleaning business. But if she doesn’t, she’ll never make back the money she secretly took from her college fund. Cleaning the houses of all the popular kids in her grade, Rachel discovers some serious dirt – but is it ethical to use her newfound knowledge? A sweet, funny story with a likable protagonist. (A total impulse buy at the Booksmith and well worth it.)

Lord Peter: The Complete Stories, Dorothy L. Sayers
I can’t get enough of Lord Peter Wimsey, that bon vivant sleuth with a (long) nose for murder. These short stories featuring him were like a box of chocolate truffles – rich, varied and best savored one at a time. Bunter, that imperturbable valet, appears frequently and the last two stories include Peter’s wife Harriet, whom I adore.

The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin
A witty, ingenious compendium of novels to cure almost any ailment, from wanderlust to a stubbed toe, from the common cold to being disappointed in love. The only downside: some of the remedies (i.e. the novels) are depressing! Took me ages to finish because I read it in snatches, but highly enjoyable.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, Katherine Pancol
When Josèphine’s ne’er-do-well husband runs off to Kenya to work on a crocodile farm, she’s strapped for cash until her trophy-wife sister Iris makes her a deal: Josèphine will write a historical novel and pocket the royalties, but Iris will get all the credit. (Of course, it’s not that simple.) Frothy, a bit racy and très French, this novel was so much fun. I hope its two sequels get translated into English.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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dorothy sayers lord peter wimsey mysteries books

As my periodic reading roundups show, I am on a serious Dorothy Sayers kick this fall.

I blame my friend Hannah.

Back in August, Hannah suggested Sayers’ Gaudy Night for our occasional book club’s September meeting. I had read and loved Gaudy Night during my first stint in Oxford in 2004 (it’s set there), so I happily agreed.

I was a bit worried I wouldn’t love the book as much the second time around, but Sayers’ intricately plotted mystery, multiple literary allusions, witty asides, and musings on the love story of two complex people were even more appealing than before. I sighed happily when detective fiction writer Harriet Vane and gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey got their happy ending – and this time, I had a much deeper appreciation of what it took to make their relationship work. (I am perhaps a little wiser than I was as a college sophomore.)

After Gaudy Night, I reread Busman’s Honeymoon, the story of Harriet and Peter’s honeymoon, which (of course) involves a murder mystery, and also contains several moving scenes of two independent people trying to adjust to marriage. Then I reread Strong Poison, in which we meet Harriet as she is on trial for poisoning her lover (she didn’t do it). Lord Peter helps get Harriet acquitted and promptly falls in love with her.

I’ve always loved Harriet: she is whip-smart, witty, independent and kind. She longs for someone to love, but she wants true love and a partnership of equals – a tall order both in 1930s England and today. I found her to be much as I remembered her, but I appreciated Lord Peter and his wry sense of humor much more this time around. So instead of completing my reread of the Harriet oeuvre right away (sadly, she appears in only four Sayers novels), I went back to the beginning of Lord Peter’s adventures, picking up Whose Body?.

Lord Peter is a World War I veteran, the second son of a duke, which means he has money, but no real responsibilities. He is tall, blond and languid, with swept-back hair, impeccably tailored clothes, and a monocle. He’s also thoughtful, curious, droll, honorable, and adept at hiding his keen intelligence under a buffoonish exterior. He and his manservant, Bunter, fought in World War I together, which bonded them for life. (Peter occasionally has flashbacks of his most traumatic war experiences.)

Peter’s hobby – indeed his vocation – is solving mysteries, often in tandem with Scotland Yard, and Sayers invents all kinds of entertaining cases for him to investigate.

I’ve worked my way through most of the series this fall, reading Lord Peter’s solo adventures for the first time, and finally rereading Have His Carcase (the other mystery featuring Harriet) when I came to it in the series’ sequence. I’ve got The Nine Tailors waiting on my bedside table, and I’ll probably pick up Sayers’ short stories featuring Lord Peter (there are lots).

I’m also curious about the continuation of Harriet and Peter’s story, picked up by Jill Paton Walsh at the request of Sayers’ estate. I’m usually skeptical of fanfiction-esque projects like that, but I love Harriet and Peter and I wish Sayers had written more books featuring them together.

I love Sayers’ mysteries because I love a good story, and the ingredients are all here. Engaging characters – Lord Peter, Bunter, Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, Peter’s elderly undercover assistant Miss Climpson, his scatterbrained mother, and especially Harriet, who is still my favorite. Lots of action (though the endless train timetables in The Five Red Herrings were not my favorite plot device). Fascinating settings – Sayers sends her hero all over the UK, from a Scottish village to a country estate to a London advertising agency to my beloved Oxford.  And most of the stories don’t wrap up right after the murderer is found, but wind down more slowly to satisfying resolutions.

Along the way, in every book, we get dozens of literary quotes and quips, lots of Lord Peter’s witty asides, colorful descriptions of local people, and a vivid portrait of life in Britain between the wars. So much fun.

Have you read any of Sayers’ novels featuring Lord Peter, and/or Harriet? (Or Jill Paton Walsh’s novels?) What did you think?

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book culture shop interior nyc

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, ed. Jenni Ferrari-Adler
I loved this collection of essays on solo dining and cooking, featuring writers ranging from Laurie Colwin to Ann Patchett to several folks I’d never heard of. Some folks cook gourmet meals for themselves; some folks cobble together leftovers; some folks make the same comfort food over and over. (I made Amanda Hesser’s “single cuisine” eggs recently.) Essay collections can be uneven, but every single piece here is delicious.

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes
I loved Moyes’ previous novel, Me Before You, and also loved this story. Edouard Lefevre, a French artist, paints a portrait of his wife, Sophie, before leaving to fight in World War I. Sophie and her sister are forced to cook for the occupying German forces, whose Kommandant is fascinated by the painting. Decades later, the painting hangs in widow Liv Halston’s ultramodern London home, a gift from her husband. When the artist’s family brings a lawsuit, claiming the painting was stolen, Liv delves into Sophie’s history to prove it wasn’t. Page-turning, heart-tugging and rich with historical detail.

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers
Harriet Vane, recovering from a murder trial (detailed in Strong Poison), escapes to a quiet coastal town, where she promptly finds a dead body abandoned on a rock. The body is soon washed away by the tide, but Harriet mounts an investigation. Lord Peter Wimsey, who never can keep his long nose out of a mystery, arrives shortly and the pair of them pursue the case up and down the coast. Engaging and fun, full of red herrings and witty exchanges between Harriet and Lord Peter.

Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones
It is difficult to overstate my love for the Muppets. I grew up on Sesame Street, and I love the Muppet movies and The Muppet Show – the whole Muppet world. I especially adore Kermit the Frog, who was in many ways Jim Henson’s alter ego. This brand-new biography of Henson – packed with quotes from Frank Oz, Henson’s wife and children, and many others who knew him well – was utterly fascinating. The last chapter, which detailed Jim’s memorial service, made me weep. Thoroughly researched and so much fun.

Heirs and Graces, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Her Royal Spyness) is invited to a stately home in Kent to help groom the duke’s new Australian heir for high society. But the duke soon ends up dead, stabbed by the heir’s hunting knife – and complicated family politics give several people motive for murder. The plot of this one fell rather flat, and I missed Georgie’s Cockney grandfather, who only made a cameo. Not my favorite of the series, though still fun.

Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, Lacy Crawford
I picked up this novel after reading Lindsey’s glowing review. Anne works as an independent college admissions counselor, assisting wealthy high schoolers and their parents with applications and essays. But while she helps her students find their voices and take charge of their own lives, she’s stuck in a holding pattern, afraid to pursue a different career or find real love. Crawford’s writing is sharp, insightful and compassionate, and her characters come alive through their essays. Thought-provoking and wonderful.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio
August “Auggie” Pullman was born with a severe facial deformity, so he’s always been homeschooled. But now he’s starting fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and all he wants is to be treated like a normal kid. Narrated alternately by Auggie, his older sister Via and their friends, Wonder traces Auggie’s journey through the school year, from science projects and English class to the social politics of the lunchroom. Heartbreaking, funny and ultimately hopeful.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
I loved Rowell’s Attachments, and loved this book too. Cath Avery is a shy, confused college freshman, overwhelmed by the new world she finds herself in. She retreats into what she’s always loved: writing fanfiction about Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque magician). Her twin sister, Wren, is pulling away from her; her surly roommate’s ex-boyfriend is awfully cute; and she’s worried about her dad, left all alone in Omaha. A sweet, funny coming-of-age story and a fun look into the world of fanfiction.

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein
I loved Wein’s Code Name Verity – this novel is a companion to it. Rose Justice, American transport pilot and aspiring poet, gets captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck, where she and a tough, ragtag group of women work together to subvert the SS guards and stay alive. Heartbreaking (and told in horrifying detail), the story extends from the camps to the Nuremberg trials after the war. Sobering and yet stubbornly hopeful.

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