Sunday, June 19, 2016

A couple of good ones

I've been trying lately to limit my book selection to the Kindle Unlimited library. That's the e-book version of Netflix. You pay $9-something a month, and you can download any book in the library for no other fee, but you can keep just 9 of them at a time. So at this point whenever I choose a new one, I have to give back another.

The Kindle Unlimited algorithm, contrary to the name of the service, is limited in its skill. Once I read some mystery novels, that's almost all it shows me when I select "Recommended for You." Murder in the This, Murder in the That. I can browse categories, or popular titles, or new titles, or series titles, or just the whole thing at random. So I browse through a lot that I'm not interested in. Or I search the library for a particular author or title and find it is not part of the Kindle Unlimited library--not so unlimited after all. On the other hand, I've happened across some authors there that I've been glad to find. In some cases, after reading their books in the Unlimited area, I am willing to pay for their other titles. I'm pretty sure that's how I first discovered Elizabeth Goudge. The other two authors I've found there that I like are Angela Thirkell and Edmund Crispin.

For Angela Thirkell, the KU book I read was a non-fiction memoir called Three Houses, which, as the title suggests, was about three houses where she lived and/or visited when she was a girl. It's a well-written, good read. An interesting tidbit is a part where she interacts with a relative called "Cousin Ruddy," or maybe it was "Uncle Ruddy." Anyway, he was Rudyard Kipling.

I've only read a couple of her novels, as they are not in the KU selection and I've had to buy them. A great many of them are labeled "Barsetshire Series." Now, of course, Barsetshire was the setting of the Victorian author Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles: The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. Angela Thirkell has made that imaginary area the setting for her modern novels, taking place in the same era that she wrote them, the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I have read only two. The first one, High Rising, and a later one, Summer Half. They are quite entertaining, and the allusions to Trollope's novels are minor. For instance, there is mention of a Dean Crawley, whose grandfather was a clergyman in Hogglestock. That grandfather is of course Josiah Crawley, who is an influential minor character in Framley Parsonage and the central character of The Last Chronicle of Barset. Another time, a couple attends an event at Courcy Castle, and the de Courcys of that castle are not very likable characters in several of Trollope's novels, figuring especially largely in Doctor Thorne and The Small House at Allington. But Thirkell's novels are not "fan fiction," where they take the characters of a novel and continue the story (like the many attempts floating around to portray Elizabeth's married life with Mr. Darcy). They're just novels that occasionally have fun with the place names and characters in a small way. So far, no major characters or settings have been immediately derived from Trollope's work, just fringe elements.

High Rising is a story about a woman who after being widowed has established a good living for herself and been able to raise and educate her sons by writing middling novels--good but not great literature. One of the funniest threads of the stories is her youngest son, the only one still in school. She loves him dearly yet when he comes home from school he drives her nuts by constantly babbling about trains, his model trains, his friend's model trains, and the like. That boy reappears in Summer Half, some years older, now in his last years at school, where his interest has developed into a serious study of engineering and mechanics. That novel is about a young man who teaches a term at the school.

Edmund Crispin is the pseudonym of the author of a series of mystery novels featuring the character Gervase Fen, who is a professor of English at Oxford. The plots are kind of crazy and almost irrelevant to enjoying the story. I read in an online article that the TV series "Dr. Who" (which I've never seen) is influenced by the Crispin novel The Moving Toy Shop. In one book, there's a funny scene where Fen and a policeman talk to a man whose life seems to embody the Edgar Allan Poe poem "The Raven." He has a pet raven and a bust of Pallas in his study, tree branches tap at the windows, and his wife's name is Lenore, but he's completely ignorant of Poe's work. Fen and his companion are trying to conceal their laughter while they talk to him and each new similarity appears, and they also will make remarks that allude to the poems, sending themselves into more fits of compressed laughter. The characters will sometimes acknowledge that they are characters in a novel. In a chase scene in The Moving Toy Shop, Fen says words to the effect of, "Let's go down this street, after all Gollancz is publishing this novel." Another time, Fen is coming up with phrases like "Fen Comes Through" or "Fen to the Rescue," and then says that he's trying to help Crispin come up with a title. In Glimpses of the Moon, someone asks Fen if he knows who the murderer is and, when he says no, says, "But it's almost the end of the book." I've read all of the Gervase Fen novels already, both the KU and the ones I had to buy. There are only 9 of them. The author, whose real name was Robert Montgomery, published 8 of them in the 1940s and 50s, then there was a 15-year gap when he didn't produce a novel because of alcoholism, and then shortly before he died he finally published the last one, Glimpses of the Moon. In an early scene, Fen looks in a mirror and the narrative voice says that after 15 years Fen still looked the same--giving the standard description of Fen from the earlier novels--and then Fen wonders if novelists will ever come up with a better way of describing a character than by having him look in a mirror.

Good stuff.

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