Jaclyn Vorenkamp (Associate Editor) is reading Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.
If you’re having the kind of summer I’m having, you might agree with me that the best thing for it is a novel that gives you permission to lie on the couch in a dimly lit room even though the weather is gorgeous and everyone thinks you ought to be outside.
Such a novel would have to have some exceptional, even contradictory, attributes. It should entertain by being intelligent and witty in an undemanding way, like an excellent old friend, but not so easy as to embarrass me in front of my colleagues.
I found Dorothy Sayers on my friend’s bookshelf the other day, and took her straight back to the couch, where, after deciding it was enough of the outdoors to let fragrant breezes waft over me from an open window, I allowed myself to be introduced to Lord Peter Wimsey, the eccentric, aristocratic detective of Sayers’ crime novels.
I was surprised to find writing of such high caliber that I ripped paragraphs apart trying to figure out how Sayers produced such vivid effect with so few words. The answer was not complicated: she chose the simplest words and put them in perfect order. Then she was a ventriloquist, able to channel virtually any sort of person from any walk of life and depict him clearly with a single line of dialogue.
In Strong Poison, Wimsey solves the case of a woman who is falsely accused of killing her fiancé with arsenic; the woman is a fiction writer working on a novel about a woman who is falsely accused of poisoning a man with arsenic and it is her research into arsenic in all its forms and uses that makes her a suspect. The device is taken one step further when one remembers that Sayers herself is the third woman crime writer writing a novel about a woman accused, etc, thus creating receding sets of characters, like a clutch of ever smaller wooden dolls, one nested inside another.
Sayers pulled this off so smoothly that my attention never snagged on it, and the glorious day passed into night without my even noticing.
Gillian Ramos (Blog Editor) is reading Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.
When I think about Washington, DC, I think of politics and history. The vast majority of stories we tell about the city have to do with movers and shakers, wheelers and dealers, power and responsibility. But what happens when we pull back a bit and look at Washington as simply a city where people live their lives?
I’ve only just begun this book, having finished the first story, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” on Wednesday. It’s a gorgeous and vivid story of the importance of community and the earliest stages of disillusionment. We see Robert, a widowed father, struggle to shield his young daughter from tragedy. He relies heavily on a longtime family friend to continue protecting Betsy Ann while he is working. We see Betsy Ann grow up and pretend that she doesn’t notice Robert’s efforts to protect her – she recognizes how much he needs to feel needed. Robert is powerless to stop her from growing up and becoming her own person, and it is that powerlessness that pervades the story. The neighborhood is crumbling around them, but they’ve been too entangled in their delicate father-daughter dance to see it.
Edward P. Jones is a fairly new writer in my life, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in his rendering of our nation’s capitol.
Natalie Korth (Nonfiction Reader/Blog Contributor) is reading Music for Torching by AM Homes.
A.M. Homes’ humor is so dark that I wonder if something’s wrong with me for laughing. I’ve been laughing out loud on trains, in the library, in waiting rooms, and I’m glad no one’s asked me yet what I’ve been laughing at. Take this moment – suburban housewife Elaine comes in to find her husband looking in the mirror again. “‘You look at yourself more than anyone I know.’ Elaine says. ‘What do you see?’ ‘Decay,’ Paul says. ‘The early signs of rot.’
The “torching” referenced in the title happens early. Elaine tells Paul one night that she can’t cook – “I just can’t do it” – and then, playing some destructive and vaguely sexual game of chicken, they set fire to their Westchester (Homes got her B.A. at Sarah Lawrence) home by giving it a squirt of lighter fluid and tipping over the backyard grill. This is the first in a series of unbelievable attempts to bring some kind of feeling back to their anesthetized lives. These efforts only get more ridiculous – at one point a petrified Paul gets a trail of ivy tattooed on his crotch after a woman referred to only as “the date” asks him to.
But for all its absurd, hilarious surreality, Music for Torching has something serious and very real it’s trying to tell us. Today, after laughing at a bit of dialogue (“He ate somebody’s fingers.” “There but for the grace of God go I.”), I read these lines and then re-read them: “None are what they seem, none are what you think, none are what you’d want them to be. They all are both more and less – deeply human.”