Saturday, July 31, 2010

Things Go Flying

Victoria: Brindle & Glass, c2008.
218 p.
Printed on 100% post consumer recycled paper

I noticed this book over a year ago as it came across my desk at work. Isn't that cover wonderful? It certainly caught my attention. Now that I'm into this year's Canadian Book Challenge, in which I've decided to read authors whom I've never read before, I picked it up. Thank goodness for my new self Challenge, because this was so worth it! (extra note: since all the authors I am planning to read are new to me, I'm going to include some biographical information for each one).

I loved this book; it was funny in a deadpan way, the characters were such individuals, the story was odd in a good way, and throughout the book there are discussions of other authors like Voltaire or Nietzsche. I love when books directly reference other books, such fun.

Well, this story begins with outlines of the four members of the Walker family: Harold, nearing fifty and going through a middle age existential crisis; Audrey, superior mother and housewife who also happens to be a bit of a control freak with a deep secret; and their two teenage sons, John and Dylan, who are very teenager-y. They are heading to the funeral of Harold's one time best friend, whom he hasn't seen much of in the last fifteen years. The set-up gives us lots of time to get to know each member of the family, and to show us how very different they all are, and how the worlds they live in are connected yet hold so many secrets that none of the others are aware of. I felt that the first few chapters moved a little slowly, but it quickly picked up and drew me in. The deadpan remarks and thoughts of both spouses regarding the other were funny in a restrained way, and also sadly revealing of a long and normal marriage in which intimacy has perhaps suffered somewhat.

There are so many secrets in this book, and they all begin to go flying as Harold begins to break down to a point that is obvious to all (including his co-workers and supervisor). Audrey resents the extra effort it is taking her to hold the household together, feeling that nobody appreciates it anyhow. Her sons are both taking chances out on their own, getting involved in things that she only has the faintest inkling about. As Paul Quarrington noted in a cover blurb, "the characters are trying to be unremarkable, but remarkable things keep happening to them." I think that captures this book perfectly.

Crazy things are happening to this family; Harold's crisis (plus a few cracks on the head) reveal that he has inherited his mother's 'gift' of hearing the dead, a gift he has never told anyone about. He tries to hide it, knowing that everyone would just think he was crazy. But his actions lead to a forced 'Harold Walker Action Plan' at work, the alternative to taking long-term stress leave. As one of the elements of this plan, he has to seek help. Feeling strongly opposed to seeing a shrink, he makes an appointment to see a Philosopher at the university. I loved this element; Harold feeling out of place at the beginning, while he talks to Will, a young, energetic philosophy professor about the meaning of things. Imagine my delight when at Harold's third visit, Will practices the fine art of bibliotherapy, handing him a copy of Candide to read before their next meeting. And in their following discussion, many of Harold's existential issues find a guiding principle to follow. Very enjoyable, especially because the author never becomes earnest or preachy while Harold has his breakthrough insight about cultivating our own garden in the face of all that is wrong in the world, all that we can not control. She retains her sly sense of humour and light touch in the narrative.

Audrey, meanwhile, has a huge secret of her own, one that she doesn't share willingly. Elder son John crashes their car, which results in a massive lawsuit; younger son Dylan is hiding drugs under his mattress and is convinced he should be an actor, never mind school. Then they find out that Harold has been a victim of identity theft with huge bills left lingering in his name everywhere possible.

Even as one thing after another happens this book remains light, clever and so entertaining. I enjoyed the way that Harold's Gift plays into the storyline and makes everything plausible. I loved the depiction of Harold's aimlessness as he nears fifty, and of Audrey's restlessness and desire for a bigger arena than the kitchen. I love the reappearance of Harold's former best friend (from the other side, of course). Even as the author makes a strong statement about how to live in this world when unexpected, illogical, difficult things happen to us, the story never takes itself too seriously. It is the story of a family muddling its way through modern life, with perhaps a few extra eccentricities, but overall very average. It also offers hope and a new way of looking at daily life in the midst of chaos. I really enjoyed this one. Having gone in to it with no expectations whatsoever, I was rewarded by an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read.

About the Author

Shari Lapeña worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers, where her mentor was David Adams Richards. Her first novel, Things Go Flying, was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunburst Award. She won the Globe and Mail’s Great Toronto Literary Project contest, and was shortlisted for the 2006 CBC Literary Awards. She lives in Toronto and is currently at work on her second novel, Happiness Economics.

(information taken directly from Shari's website...check it out)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Meatless Monday Book List

Although I'm meatless everyday, not just Mondays, I think this is a great initiative. If everyone ate meatless just one day a week it could have great environmental impact. And it might let people know that in fact, meatless eating is easy, healthy and very satisfying. So, in honour of Meatless Monday, I'm pulling an old post from the archives and re-sharing it here. Check out their site for lots of great recipe ideas and inspiration!

Aspects of Vegetarianism from May 23, 2008:

Dewey's latest challenge, though I'm coming to it late, nearly at the end of the week, was to pick a social issue that you are interested in and post some relevant books on topic. They don't have to be books you've read; they can be ones you are simply interested in reading. I have chosen vegetarianism as my topic, as it is a big part of my life and has been for the past 15 years. Though it may not seem like a big deal, compared to things like human trafficking , I see many issues tied to being a vegetarian, all of which concern me. (and there are food-based reasons for child slavery) There are moral elements, the question of animal rights, of health, of environmental impact, of equitable distribution of the world's resources... so I'll point out a few books on a few of these subjects. These are some I like; there are countless others!

First up is one I have had on my TBR for a very long time, but have not sat down to systematically go through, yet. It's a look at the philosophy & ethics of vegetarianism:

It covers different related issues in each chapter, and gives a solid philosophical ground for abstaining from meat.

And then one from a more personal viewpoint, former cattle rancher Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy. This is a fascinating look at how the conditions in commercial cattle farming led a fourth-generation rancher to become an evangelist for the vegetarian lifestyle. This is the writer whose book shocked Oprah and caused the infamous lawsuit brought by Texas cattle ranchers.

The Bloodless Revolution: a cultural history of Vegetarianism from 1600 to modern times / Tristram Stuart -- this is a book that I recently purchased and am loving. It should properly be called a history of vegetarianism IN ENGLAND however, as it's very British. But it's great fun, full of historical anecdotes that would make good dinner table conversation, plus it ties religion and empire, fashion, and aesthetic motivations into the many reasons for eating the meatless way.

Two books which can be depended on if you're interested in going vegetarian or even vegan for your health are Brenda Davis & Vesanto Melina's Becoming Vegetarian and Becoming Vegan. Both have tons of information to allay any family concerns that you're going to waste away to nothing, and to ensure that you are eating healthily and knowledgeably.

John Robbins' The Food Revolution is a good look at all of the issues you can have an effect upon simply by becoming vegetarian.
As the Publishers Weekly review of this one says,

What can we do to help stop global warming, feed the hungry, prevent cruelty to animals, avoid genetically modified foods, be healthier and live longer? Eat vegetarian, Robbins argues. Noting the massive changes in the environment, food-production methods, and technology over the last two decades, he lambastes contemporary factory-farming methods and demonstrates that individual dietary choices can be both empowering and have a broader impact. Robbins, heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice-cream empire (he rejected it to live according to his values), takes on fad diets, the meat industry, food irradiation, hormone and antibiotic use in animals, cruel animal husbandry practices, the economics of meat consumption, biotechnology and the prevalence of salmonella and E. Coli.

And just for fun, a vegetarian friendly novel which takes on the meat industry:My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.

I really enjoyed this book when I first read it, as it features an American woman of Japanese descent who is hired to make a tv program featuring American meats, to air in the Japanese market. She is supposed to highlight All-American families cooking with beef, but ends up learning more and more and as a result moving farther and farther away from her instructions -- until the last family she highlights is a lesbian, vegetarian couple.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Spicy Reading: Let's Eat Peanut Butter

I'm sure that everyone has by now seen the infamous Old Spice Guy talking about the wonder of words, those non-pictures that communicate anything to other minds, found in books, in libraries ;)

But just because I've been loving watching it over and over, here it is again:

And there is also the nearly immediate excellent spoof that was made for the Harold B. Lee Library -- it has already had over a million hits itself:

All this wonderful, goofy concatenation of Old Spice and libraries inspired me to create a thematic book list -- here are

Some Old Books that have something to do with Spice

1. Campbell's Tea, Coffee and Spice Reader

This is a delightful book from 1920 which covers all the latest teas and coffees, where they are from and the best blends to use, then provides an alphabetic listing of popular spices in the same line; where they are from and how to use them. I love the author's note at the beginning:

"The writer does not challenge Criticism but honestly courts it. If, in the perusal of this work, you find an error, or an article, which, in your judgement, is incorrect, or incomplete, and you have more authentic "data" at hand, please forward same to the author."

2. Spices, their Nature and Growth; the Vanilla Bean; a Talk on Tea

In 1915, McCormick & Co. put out this pamphlet -- and they are still in the spice trade! This is a pretty little book, with colour plates of all the basic spices they discuss, including tea, plus a few period recipes... including the slightly questionable Banana, Pimento and French Dressing salad. Hmm.

3. Deadly Adulteration & slow poisoning unmasked (1839?)

Something that these old books seem very concerned about was the frequent occurence of adulteration of spices - this was common with tea and coffee and many other household goods as well - and it could be deadly. Here is an early "consumer beware" guide to the many ways such items could be adulterated, and there is a whole section on spices.

4. The compotus or yearly-account roll of Thomas Syngleton, monk, keeper of the common stock of spices (custos communiae specierum), and chamberlain of the monastery of St. Mary, York, from the Sunday after the feast of St. Michael the archangel, 1528, to the same Sunday in the year 1529 (1851?])

This book with the super-long title tells us a bit about the expansive use of foreign spices in English monasteries - as it says in the introduction, the expenditure on spice in 1528, according to this document, was over 38 Pounds, when at the time a sheep was going for 2 s.

5. Spices and How to Know Them / Walter Gibbs (1909)

Another introduction to the history of spices, this has wonderful photos of spice plantations from all over the world. Chapter II is all about adulteration again - a going concern, with the strong admonishment "Spice millers should not be counterfeiters!"

6. Cinnamon and Angelica / John Middleton Murry (1920)

An odd little play dedicated to his wife, Katherine Mansfield, it features Cinnamon, Prince of the Peppercorns, and Angelica, Princess of the Cloves (also Miss Vanilla Bean, housekeeper to Cinnamon). Quite melodramatic considering it all begins lightly and the naming is so tongue-in-cheek.

7. Pepper & Salt, or, Seasoning for Young Folk / Howard Pyle (1913)

A collection of folk and fairy tales gathered up by Howard Pyle, for as he says in the preface, "One must have a little pinch of seasoning in this dull, heavy life of ours".

8. The Story of Ginger Cubes / Christopher Morley (1922)

This hilarious epistolary tale begins with an ad man being taken to hospital for "a badly dislocated sense of proportion and exhaustion of the adjective secretions". It continues with letters between a varied cast of characters all focused on their agency's attempt to come up with a new campaign for Ginger Cubes, a form of medicated confectionery (including an idea to dot them with sugar and sell them as 'digestive dice') Great fun, though brief!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Green Dolphin Country

Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, c1944.
575 p.

I read this book in high school sometime; I can't quite remember when because all I recall about it is that I got about half way through and thought, what a dumb book! But, since I've been reading a lot of Elizabeth Goudge as an adult, and since I have (hopefully) a much wider viewpoint than I did at 14 or so, I tried again. This was partly inspired by the fact that I had bought a copy in a second-hand shop quite a long time ago, and thus added this title to my list of reading for Emily's TBR Challenge. I think I'm nearly halfway through my list of 20 reads from my own shelves, and it has certainly been a rewarding effort overall.

I still don't like this one as much as some of Goudge's other books though -- too much of a saga for me. And I had a few problems with the depiction of New Zealanders especially. The main characters are from the Channel Islands and they end up pioneering in New Zealand, where the Maori are depicted as bloodthirsty savages with superstitious traditions, and the missionaries trying to convert them are upright and holy. The missionaries are shown with a bit of complexity and she does have non-missionary characters who are more open minded, but the view of the natural superiority of the white, Christian way of life does colour the whole book. Of course, Goudge's Christian outlook flavours most of her work, but in her books with more modern settings it doesn't seem to jump out and whack you over the head quite so forcibly.

Anyhow -- here is the main storyline: Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are young sisters (16 and 11) on the tiny island of St. Pierre, when they meet the other main character, William Ozanne, age 13. He brings light into both their lives, with Marianne deciding that she will have him, while to William and Marguerite as well as to the reader, it is clear that they are the two who belong together.

Lots happens, they all grow to early adulthood, and William goes off in the Navy, and through a twisted but believable situation in China, misses his boat to accidentally go AWOL. This means he can never go home to his own country, so instead he heads off to New Zealand to homestead there. Eventually, once he's got on his feet a little, he writes home to ask Marguerite to join him. However, due to a bit of drink and the inherent lazy habits of thought he seems to possess, he writes "Marianne" instead, and changes the course of all three of their lives. This is the great sticking point of the book. Would someone REALLY make such an error? It feels like it is a forced moment, necessary to the rest of the story, but it certainly takes some suspension of disbelief. Goudge is at pains to explain in the introduction that this happening was inspired by the real life situation of one of her ancestors -- this really did happen, and just like in the book, her great-uncle kept quiet about his mistake and made the best of it. Nonetheless, because something is true in real life does not mean it works particularly well in fiction, and I felt like my whole reading was a bit flawed because of my lack of ability to feel that this was a natural event.

There is lots to enjoy in this book if you like Goudge's style of writing -- fairly old-fashioned with lots of descriptions of nature, of spiritual crises, of deep thoughts on various subjects. I do happen to like it, so persevered even though I was starting to feel the book was dragging on a bit. William and Marianne have to work out their troubles in New Zealand, while Marguerite, left behind in the Channel Islands, has to make some kind of life for herself, especially after her parents die. She becomes more and more religious, and her struggles provide Goudge with much opportunity for the kind of spiritual and faith-related writing she loves. There is one character in New Zealand, William's best friend and Marianne's frequent nemesis, who is a fascinating creation. I missed him once he left the story's inner circle.

Overall, if you like historical sagas and don't mind a bit of Christian content and can overlook the dated racial references, this one was okay. There is simply too much in the book to discuss all of its settings or even the different stages in the character's lives: it carries on from the girls' childhood to their old age and reunion of all three main characters in St. Pierre. As always, though, in reading Elizabeth Goudge, I found many quoteable selections. I'll share a couple of them, to give you a taste of her writing and her philosophical bent.

Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short.

I suppose it's always a mistake to hate, she said to herself, because when the people you hate suddenly turn around and do great things for you it puts you at such a ridiculous disadvantage.

...she knew also that what the world sees of the life of any human creature is not the real life; that life is lived in secret, a reality that moves behind the facade of appearance, like wind behind a painted curtain; only an occasional ripple of the surface, a smile, a sudden light or shadow passing on a face, surprising by its unexpectedness, gives news of something quite other than what is seen.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Co-Reading Ethel Wilson

The Equations of Love / Ethel Wilson; afterword by Alice Munro.
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1990, c1952.
263 p.

Over the last year, Buried in Print has been reading through all of Ethel Wilson's works as well as biographies and critical works about her. I really admire Ethel Wilson, and feel that she needs to be more widely read; she is clever and sharp and so very enjoyable. Just a few weeks ago, Buried in Print announced that she had only one of Wilson's books left to read and then, sadly, there would be no more 'new' works to discover. This sentiment was shared by me -- in fact, this was the last unread Wilson I had as well, and I have been putting off reading it for ages just for that reason. It seemed that this was the perfect opportunity to read it together. Which we did.

Conveniently, The Equations of Love is made of up two novellas: "Tuesday & Wednesday" (which Buried in Print preferred, and has already written about!) and "Lilly's Story", which by chance is the one I preferred. So pop on over to Buried in Print to read our thoughts about Mort and his wife Myrtle, the main characters of "Tuesday & Wednesday".

The topic under discussion hereinafter is "Lilly's Story". The title seems plain and straightforward, but don't be misled; with Ethel Wilson not much is just what it appears to be at first glance. Lilly's Story is certainly the story of Lilly Waller, but it is also about the story that Lilly creates about herself and for herself, and which is infinitely flexible. Buried in Print shares a excerpt from a letter Wilson sent to a friend regarding the theme of these two novellas:

Letter To John Gray, July 19, 1950

"It is curious, but both Tues. and Wed. and the W.L.F. [Lilly's Story] are, really, studies in self-deception and lies. I became much interested in this, having observed how influential deceptions (self and otherwise) are in personal, group, and national relations. Personal relations, however, came within the scope of my own story. Truth is sometimes absolute, but very often a relative matter, as we know, yet frightfully unethical (because the lies win) but so is life, very often."
Some may be inclined to call Lilly a pathological liar, but I think her powers of invention are more than a simple pathology. They come into force once the young girl Lilly (neglected child and now young woman on her own) has someone to consider other than herself. Lilly gets involved with a Chinese cook who gives her luxurious gifts of silky lingerie -- however, he is stealing it from his employers, and when the theft is discovered she flees Vancouver to keep herself from getting involved in the mess. She has an eye for making the best of things, and finds herself living with a Welsh miner. Nature takes its course and she finds herself pregnant.

The depiction of the Chinese cook is somewhat troublesome to a modern reader, but in the afterword, Alice Munro discusses how this was one of the first novels to refer to the Chinese presence in British Columbia at all, and that the depiction, while broad, is much the same as the broad strokes with which Wilson draws other characters such as the Welsh miner who is the real father of Lilly's child, or the old English Major who is her first real employer.

As Buried in Print comments:

At times I did feel as though she was challenging conventions of her time (even just at the basic level, including a life for her Chinese characters beyond their interaction with the families they worked for even if it's only acknowledged, not actually shown to the reader)... But even in that context (and doesn't it sound as though I'm simply trying to "excuse" a favoured writer for having erred?) some parts of her sketches of these characters is offensive. Or, if not outright offensive (for yes some of the other characters are defined unkindlyand broadly too), they do, at least, niggle.

All this action is just the beginning of the story, and things take off from here. Lilly realizes that she has a child to care for, and it is the making of her. She flees once again, and this time paints herself as a widow. She invents Mr. Walter Hughes, a Saskatchewan farmer from a slightly higher social standing than she is herself, and she is determined that her daughter is going to avoid the stigma of an unmarried mother and make someting of herself. Lilly's silence and power of focus on this idea carries her through her whole life; each time she sees that a situation is threatening her daughter's future, she moves instantly to change it. More stories follow, and a whole life builds up for them, one that Lilly will do anything to maintain. She has absolutely no compunction telling stories that will bring her to a place of safety & security. The repeated line "A girl's gotta live, hasn't she?" sums Lilly's attitude up neatly. She forcibly shapes her world through her stories.

The tension is slow and steady throughout the story; Wilson's eye for detail and telling gestures reveals Lilly and her motivations clearly, perhaps more clearly than Lilly sees herself. The characterization is quite intriguing, with Lilly the most developed character of all, everyone else in her life simply a tool toward her goals. Near the end of the story, Lilly has settled into a solid position and things look good for her retirement; her daughter has married well and she has lovely grandsons. It is at this point that a figure from her past reappears and she once again flings herself into motion, fleeing to Toronto and inventing a sick aunt that she has to care for.

The idea of Lilly's starting all over again tired me out -- it made me feel so exhausted for her sake, that all this work would have to be done over. Fortunately, like a cat, Lilly's flexible storytelling allows her to land on her feet. Although the ending was a bit unexpected, it seemed possible in Lilly's world that she would end up with a bit of deserved rest and comfort. And it was a comfort to know she wouldn't have to struggle too much longer -- unless of course, something else turns up to threaten her carefully constructed life story. But by the end of the story you are so swept up in Lilly's struggle that if there wasn't a kind of happy ending, Ethel Wilson might have had a reader's rebellion on her hands!

I really enjoyed this read. Lilly was a fascinating character, and she is totally transparent about the idea that one's life is a story we construct to suit ourselves. This is an idea that I've been intrigued by for a long while now, and in this story, the actual functional construction of a life story is detailed. Lilly, however much she insists on the truth of her creation, still has the sense of humour to realize that is all a construct. For example, she rides the train toward Toronto near the end of the book, and has to cross Saskatchewan:

Lilly, sitting with folded hands, looked intently at the tiny buildings of lonely farms as the train sped on and left the farms behind, disclosing more. Afar off, remote from village or train, she saw small isolated dwellings. Was it there I lived? she thought with a slight sardonic smile, or there, with Walter Hughes? She took the train guide and memorized the names of stations through which the railroad passed. At least, she knew now where she had lived, and the unfamiliar and endless prairie was her nearest familiar friend.

Walter becomes a very real figure throughout the tale, the belief in his existence by so many people nearly strong enough to create a real person. Buried in Print agrees that Walter's creation and solid reality in death was a wonderful touch:

...the way our understanding of her "husband" took on incredible, credible dimensions is great fun and goes right back to the heart of the story, authenticity and meaning. It was one of my favourite parts of the story as well: "Walter Hughes, Mr. Walter Hughes, what would Lilly do without you? In life you were nothing, not even a shade. In death you are the strong support of Lilly Waller and her pretty baby."

Another element that I liked about this story is that is firmly embedded in Ethel Wilson's fictional world. These two novellas were published in 1949, immediately after she had published her second novel, The Innocent Traveller (a wonderful book, by the way). The Chinese cook that Lilly becomes involved with works for the family of The Innocent Traveller, and there are small ties to the earlier book that anyone who has read both can trace. Quite effective!

If you haven't experienced Ethel Wilson previously, I highly recommend her. Her writing is clever and pointed, and I especially love her short stories - they suit her style so well. As this is the last fresh Ethel Wilson for me, I think I'll now have to follow the example of Buried in Print and read the biographies.

**Read more about the first story in this set of two novellas, Tuesday & Wednesday.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Canadian Book Challenge 4

I am a few days late this year posting about the beginning of the new Canadian Book Challenge 4(this is its 4th year going). This is one of my favourite challenges, infinitely customizable. The only rule is that you read -- and review somewhere online -- 13 Canadian books over the course of a year, from one July 1st to the next. (July 1 is Canada Day, for those of you outside of our fine country.)

The "Challenge" part of it is set by each participant. As host John of the Book Mine Set says, you can count every Canadian read or set yourself a more thematic challenge. I like to give myself a bit of an extra task to make it feel challenging -- after all, I know I will already be reading a lot of Canadian literature over the year. The first couple of years I participated I followed the original setup of reading one book for each province and territory (and that IS a challenge!) Last year I set myself the task of reading 13 novels from the prairies. That was great fun as well. I pondered what to do this year, and think I've finally come up with a theme that I can run with. So -- this year, for my Fourth Canadian Book Challenge, I've decided to read 13 Canadian novels by authors whom I have never read before.

About half of my choices for this challenge over the past few years have been new-to-me authors, but this year I am going to make a concerted effort to find authors I haven't read, to count toward the challenge. It's always a great way to find new reading and to share new discoveries -- and the final round up on John's blog each year is a fantastic resource for anyone looking for titles in order to join in this year. With this kind of theme in mind, I'm not making a list in advance but will be selecting books as I go, according to whim.
If you enjoy setting yourself a challenge and have been meaning to read more Canadian literature anyway, you couldn't do better than to join in on this one!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night / Dorothy Sayers
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, c1935.
557 p.

What great fun I had on my recent holiday reading this detective novel! I've been meaning to read it for ages, but just got my hands on a copy in time to take it with me on my mini-break last week. Now I must go back and read all the Peter Wimsey books in order, as I think I've fallen a little bit in love with him!

I've done things backward, starting with the book at the end of the series - but many people have told me it is the best so I wanted to start with it. Also, Lord Peter and Harriet's romance is a strong part of this book and is so very well done (for those of you who've read it, the river scene? Fanning myself...)

Starting out with quotations, Latin, Oxford settings, sonnet writing and so much philosophical discussion, this novel gripped me almost immediately. I love the depth of the characters, and I love the fascinating discussions the group of female Oxford scholars get into with Harriet. It makes me nostalgic for an Oxford I never knew (and never could have) -- quite an authorial accomplishment, I think.

I do have to admit that there are large swathes of the novel that I didn't understand. There are many literary allusions that I missed, but when I did catch one I felt so proud of myself ;) And I did really feel the lack of a Latin dictionary -- I am sure a grasp of Latin would have added to the experience, especially the ending. There are also elements of the social structure that I didn't quite get, for example, in discussion of a certain woman, Harriet and the Dons look at each other significantly and say something like "You know the way that is" and "Exactly". But I didn't know how it was, and I knew I was missing some fine point of social expectations and meaning regarding women's characters in 1930's England. Nonetheless I enjoyed this novel immensely. I often enjoy reading something I don't quite understand fully, a habit I picked up in childhood. And this novel did make me feel woefully uneducated at times, but never excluded from the story and its many rewards.

In this novel there is no actual crime to investigate; but there is implied threat followed by real violence - Harriet and Peter are trying to pinpoint the potential for crime before it moves beyond nuisance to something very serious. When Harriet is called to Oxford, it is because there has been a string of obscene grafitti and messages and various unpleasant incidents seeming to be aimed at the educated women in Harriet's alma mater, Shrewsbury College. Since any noise about a scandal in the college would damage the still precarious state of women's education there is great need for discretion; thus Harriet's involvement, and by extension Peter's, rather than the police being called in.

The setting and the motive for the nasty incidents all combine to give us insight into Harriet's mind and the reasons for her resistance and eventual capitulation to her love for Peter. It is extremely well written, challenging to read and yet easy to follow even when skimming the more abstruse elements.

Rewarding and entertaining reading, certainly. And a couple of favourite quotes:

However loudly we may assert our own unworthiness, few of us are really offended by hearing the assertion contradicted by a disinterested party.

"The trouble is," said the Librarian, "that everybody sneers at restrictions and demands freedom, till something annoying happens; then they demand angrily what has become of the discipline."

Other views:

Kerry at Pickle Me This is intrigued by hysteria among the teacups

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot says "Before I can even begin to try to be coherent, I need to get this out of the way: the! river! scene! AHFHGF!!@ "

Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles thinks that "It’s a mystery novel and also an illustration of just how much a “mere” mystery novel can do."