Thursday, November 29, 2012

Finishing one, starting another

Okay, howsabout another update on what I've been reading?  Good.  If there are any objections I can't hear them with this waterlogged ear.

There's The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox by Stephen Jay Gould, about the compatibility of science and the humanities.  The late Mr. Gould was ingenious and charmig, but I don't have too much to say about the book right now.  I might come back to it in a future post.

A novel - or is it a novel?  It was in the fiction section - that I recently finished is The Emigrants by the late W.G. Sebald.  Sebald, who died in an auto accident in 2001, was a German who lived for decades in the UK.  It's not really a surprise that The Emigrants, as its title suggests, is built around four men who've been forced to leave their homeland.  There's a lot of documentary material here, including copious amounts of photographs.  At the same time, Sebald clearly embellishes things, adding connecting images like a boy with a butterfly net who all the men see at some point.

To be honest, I didn't entirely get it.  There are arresting passages, yes.  The tragic arc of these men's lives is poignant.  But the layout of the book doesn't really do it any favors.  There are many more narrators than just the four main characters, including the author figure himself.  What the book doesn't have is quotation marks.  There aren't many text breaks either.  So within each section things tend to run together in a frustrating way.  But I'm keeping my mind open to the possibility that the book needs more than one reading to really stick.  Since it's not really that long, I may go back to it in the near future.

The next novel for me, of which I just read the first five chapters tonight, is John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins.  Carr was an American author, but he was fond of Britain as a setting.  Coffins is set in London and is part of Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell series.  Fell was based, as many sources reveal, on G.K. Chesterton.  He might be characterized as the overweight Golden Age detective who isn't penned up in his brownstone.  (I'm as enamored as ever by the one who is, of course.)

The plot has to do with a proto-James Randi type who's threatened by a man claiming a vampiric nature.  It's the kind of story that Chesterton embraced, and in its ghostly overtones it would have appealed to Doyle too.  I'm coming to the conclusion that the Golden Age detective story was a kind of fantasy fiction, albeit one whose characteristics entailed a voluntary adherence to physical realism.  That's one of the things that interests me about it.


susan said...

You're right that Stephen Jay Gould was a very amazing man. If there was a general acceptance of his view that science and religion are two entirely separate fields of study, neither of which should make public commentary on the other, then we'd be in a much better place.

After reading through your review of The Emigrants I have to admit I'd have been unlikely to get past the first 50 pages. I try to give every book at least that much effort (or 100 pages for a very long one) but very occasionally can't make it that far. The lack of quotation marks and text breaks would have been too big a trial for my patience.

On the other hand the John Dickson Carr book you described does sound very interesting. You know I'm quite fond of mysteries of any era so long as they're well done and he's famous enough that I'm surprised at myself for never having read any of his books. Golden age mysteries that were set in a time before forensics, fingerprints, dna data bases, criminal profiling (on and on ad infinitum), are very cool, and yes, fantasies that can be sheer fun to try and solve. I just read Peter Lovesey's 'The False Inspector Dew' again recently and would recommend it as one of the best classic mystery novels ever written. I also must re-read the Father Brown books. Thanks for the reminder.

Ben said...

Gould's The Mismeasure of a Man is an excellent book too. It's quite illuminating on the history of scientific racism and eugenics, and how those arguments continue to sneak into the conversation today.

I employ something like the 50 page test myself. Generally if I can get past 100 pages without being totally lost, I know I'll finish the book. If not, maybe not. Again, I may return to the Emigrants one day if I have time, since the prose and the thought are both good.

Did I get The Innocence of Father Brown from you? I know it had Alec Guinness on the cover, and the stories were very good. Peter Lovesey sounds interesting too, especially the Peter Diamond series. And he's still writing, which is sort of encouraging.