Thursday, January 26, 2023

What I Read and Watched in January 2023

I read a variety of books this month: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer (sophisticated fluff), Beauty in the Word by Stratford Caldecott (on what makes for true education), Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (suspenseful audiobook that I ended up disliking intensely, reviewed here), and Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. 

I enjoyed several classic movies. It Happened One Night (1934) is a wonderful screwball comedy (with a little too much drinking) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It is one of only three movies to win the five major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing). The Whole Town's Talking (1935) had Edward G. Robinson, usually a tough-talking gangster, playing a mousy roll in a case of mistaken identities. It co-stars Jean Arthur who is always delightful. The Human Comedy (1943) was one of the hundreds of films produced during WWII to encourage those on the home front. Sappy by modern standards, it has good acting and storytelling; it was fascinating to see many major actors in minor roles except for Mickey Rooney who was at the height of his career as America's favorite adolescent. (Donna Reed would shoot to stardom three years later in It's a Wonderful Life.) This link leads to the library scene, "The Wonder of Books," which is a favorite. In the Good Old Summertime (1949) is a musical version of Shop Around the Corner. (All the songs were vehicles for Judy Garland and had very little to do with the story.) By the title you'd never know it was a Christmas movie. A must-see for all fans of You've Got Mail. I watched all of these on YouTube except for It Happened One Night, which I have on DVD.

Read anything good in January? Any other classic movie fans out there? 


Friday, January 13, 2023

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

I generally don't like romance novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction of a love interest for Detective Roderick Alleyn in this sixth Ngaio Marsh novel, Artists in Crime. Returning from New Zealand where he went for rest and ended up crime-solving (see Vintage Murder), Alleyn meets artist Agatha Troy on board ship. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start (of course!). Conveniently, the murder happens in Troy's art studio back in England and our protagonist has an opportunity to redeem himself.

I enjoy the literary allusions and Alleyn's ability to quote poetry, Shakespeare, French, etc. Not only did this book have Pride and Prejudice vibes, but it also reminded me of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels I read recently. Like Wimsey, Alleyn is a genteel detective who enjoys solving the mystery, but suffers from remorse at finding the guilty party. And like Wimsey, he also has a wonderfully charming mother in Lady Alleyn. There are nods to other fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Thorndyke. And some hilarious jabs at D.H. Lawrence. 

The writing is getting better with each novel: Up and down the passages the silence was broken only by the secret sound made by an old house at night, small expanding noises, furtive little creaks, and an occasional slow whisper as though the house sighed at the iniquity of living men. (p. 210)

Though not as lurid as modern mysteries, Artists in Crime has a little too much swearing, philandering, drugs, and grisly deaths to be in the "cozy" category. Oddly, I read these stories more for the charms of Detective Alleyn than for the mysteries.


Friday, December 30, 2022

Reading Year in Review - 2022

Happily I am well out of the slump that I had during the pandemic and read quite a bit this year. Here are the highlights...

Best Contemporary Fiction: Gentleman in Moscow. I usually ignore popular books, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this wonderfully told story (reviewed here). 

Best Devotional Classic: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law (reviewed here).

Favorite Vintage Fiction: The last two Lord Peter and Harriet Vane books by Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon. (reviewed here and here)

Favorite New Author: Ngaio Marsh. I've only read the first six, and while I did not always enjoy the mystery, I always grew in appreciation for the Shakespeare quoting detective, Roderick Alleyn, and his two sidekicks, Inspector Fox and Nigel Bathgate. A potential romance gets off to a rocky start in Artists in Crime, which I enjoyed very much because it had some Pride and Prejudice vibes.

The Audiobook that Knocked My Socks Off: Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson (review still to come)

Best Non-fiction (and FAVORITE of the year): You Are Not Your Own by Alan Noble (reviewed here).

What about you? Have you read any of these? What were your favorite books of 2022?


Friday, December 23, 2022

The One Year Book of Poetry by Philip Comfort

What normally passes for Christian poetry is often syrupy and singsong-y, but The One Year Book of Poetry is a wonderful exception. Its editors have done an excellent job of compiling devotional poems with hardly a touch of saccharine, and their  choices reflect a wonderful variety of styles from various centuries and Christian traditions. The well-known metaphysical poets are included such as John Donne and George Herbert, but there were many new-to-me poets such as Richard Crashaw and Thomas Traherne. The real strength of this book is its poetry for Advent and Lent, which greatly enhanced my thinking and praying during those seasons.

Each daily reading is two pages. One one side is the poem and the other side is a helpful explanation. Some longer poems are broken up into several readings, which is a painless way to learn to appreciate more complex poetry. This approach, however, is what bothered me this time through. Since I'd read this book twice before, I thought I would try to forgo the explanations and just enjoy the poetry. But I quickly noticed that most of the readings could not be understood without additional help. I'm not against helpful commentary, but I realized that this particular book is not an appropriate recommendation for someone who is looking for an introduction to meatier poetry. It requires too much effort.

Earlier this year I read two other poetry compilations: Six Centuries of Great Poetry and Great Poems of the English Language (1936, OoP). Even though I did not understand all the nuances of every poem, I was able to appreciate the rich language and beautiful imagery of most of them without additional commentary. For me, this is the best way to learn to love poetry.

Do you have a poetry book that you love and can recommend? 


Thursday, December 8, 2022

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

It is not uncommon in anthologies for one or two stories to fall flat, but Silent Night: Christmas Mysteries had good variety and good quality throughout. In addition to well-known authors such as Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Margery Allingham, there are lesser-known writers such as Marjorie Bowen and Leo Bruce. Edgar Wallace is an author I’ve often seen mentioned, but had never read before. H.C. Bailey, too, has fallen from favor, but Agatha Christie was a big fan of his.

All of the story choices were quite good and most were more suspenseful than I was expecting. Because of my enormous love for all things related to John and Charles Wesley, I got a huge kick out of the mention of their family ghost in Edmund Crispin’s story.

In spite of the title, I would not classify this as a cozy read. I can only remember one story that was light-hearted. An example of the general tone of the stories can be found in this paragraph from “Cambric Tea.” Bevis Holroyd went angrily upstairs; he felt as if an invisible net was being dragged closely round him, something which, from being a cobweb, would become a cable; this air of mystery, of horror in the big house, this sly secretary, these watchful servants, the nervous village doctor ready to credit anything, the lovely agitated woman and the sinister sick man with his diabolic accusations, - a man Bevis had, from the first moment, hated – all these people in these dark surroundings affected the young man with a miasma of apprehension, gloom and dread.

This collection is part of the British Library Crime Classics. Some writers from the golden age of detective fiction have not held up well, but after this anthology I’d be willing to trust any book put together by Martin Edwards.


Friday, November 25, 2022

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

I don’t know the last time I’ve enjoyed a book this much. I read the whole thing with an impish grin on my face and a constant chuckle in my throat. 

At the end of the last book (Gaudy Night), Harriet Vane finally accepts Peter’s proposal of marriage. Busman’s Honeymoon begins with various letters expressing opinions on the match, which are delightful in their cattiness. Then there were darling extracts from the Duchess of Denver’s (Lord Peter’s mother) diary, which primed the pump for my continued enjoyment of the book.

If you are looking for a cracking good mystery, you may be disappointed with all the dialogue about marriage, but for me those conversations were what made the book my favorite of all the Lord Peter novels. Sayers herself described it as “a love story with detective interruptions.”

Sayer’s novel are loaded with scrumptious literary references. Lord Peter and Inspector Kirk cheerfully exchange quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning, Keats, etc. I wish I could find an annotated version of this novel to save me time from looking up translations of the Latin and French, but as it was, I looked up about half the references and was richly rewarded in discovering their meaning. Frankly, most of them were discreet reference to sexuality that would have made me blush considerably in my younger years.

There is a lot of (discreet) talk about previous liaisons, expectations for the wedding night, etc., which I could appreciate after my three decades of marriage because they showed Peter and Harriet wrestling with every aspect of their marriage, not sugar-coating the past, but showing their growth in understanding of what true love entails. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them come to grips with the tough realities and indescribable joys of marital commitment.

In spite of all the fancy quotes, Lord Peter finally concludes: And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? – I love you – I am at rest with you – I have come home.

As if the love story weren’t enough, the mystery is quite good. AND BUNTER GETS HIS DUE as the devoted, unruffled servant - so much so that Harriet jokes that maybe she should have married him instead of Lord Peter. I don’t know a thing about wine, but the care with which Bunter handled the liquor in this book was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

A delightful read from start to finish. This is not a stand-alone novel. It is necessary to read the previous novels to get the full impact of how Harriet and Lord Peter are piecing their new lives together. Bravo to Dorothy Sayers for showing the beauty and complexity of it. 


Friday, November 11, 2022

Anthony Esolen on the Importance of Memorizing Poetry

Although I am not a Catholic, I am a fan of Anthony Esolen's insightful articles in Crisis Magazine. I recently discovered his more lighthearted weekly newsletter “Word and Song,” which is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of truth, goodness and beauty. Three times a week he writes out his thoughts on various poems, songs or movies. 

He began a recent post with this verse from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

A book of VERSES underneath the bough,

A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness –

That wilderness were paradise enow!

He then goes on to elaborate on the meaning of the word “verses” and how poetry and song have been an integral part of previous civilizations because they were the best way to hide the stories & poetry & truths in one’s heart. He regrets that our present generation “no longer has the VERSES in our soul.”

He adds, “People nowadays often scoff at this sort of thing, calling it “rote memorization,” but that misses the heart of the matter entirely.  You can’t really “own” a song unless you hear it sung and you can sing it yourself, and poetry is essentially song.  When you commit a poem to heart, when you get the VERSES within you, you must engage your imagination; you see and hear things that make the VERSES fully present; you exert your voice, and you hear your voice; your body moves, and the movements have meaning; all kinds of memories, actions, emotions, thoughts, and feelings come into play and involve themselves with the poem.” (from Oct 24, 2022)

I highly recommend this brief and delightful newsletter.