These are the first 29 posts from “Talk about books”, from 22 November 2020 to 22 December 2021, most recent first:
Peter Abrahams’s impaired heroes
Oblivion, Nerve Damage and Delusion [2021-22-Dec]
Three novels from the mid 2000s by Stephen King’s “favorite American suspense novelist”, featuring protagonists who have the odds stacked against them, even more so than is usual in suspense fiction.
Andrew Marvell, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”
“Mine own precipice I go” [2021-09-Dec]
Marvell shows the two different parts of the human individual complaining bitterly about each other. But they are more alike, and more deeply interdependent, than either will admit.
“After all, Zen was just a policeman”
The moral trajectory of Michael Dibdin’s Venetian detective [2021-24-Nov]
If you don’t read Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen books in order, you might think the detective is an unusually inconsistent series character. But he gradually becomes less law-abiding from book to book, over the first 8 novels in the series.
“A wormhole to another place”: Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes
The Irish short story in the 2010s, no. 2 [2021-10-Nov]
All but the last of the 11 short stories in this collection are set in Belfast, a city from which Caldwell’s young protagonists can’t escape soon enough.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
A long-delayed reread [2021-27-Oct]
It took me more than 30 years to get around to rereading Margaret Atwood’s best-known novel. That’s because I was unfair to it on first reading.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s short stories: Nocturnes
“The wrong kind of ugly” [2021-13-Oct]
In the four novels by Ishiguro that I’ve read so far, he subjects his protagonists to merciless scrutiny, allowing them to expose their own shortcomings. I wondered if he might be kinder to the characters in his short stories. He is … a bit.
Fugitive women: Lisa Lutz, The Passenger; and Laura Lippman, Sunburn
“You can never see anything clearly when you’re running” [2021-30-Sep]
Two gripping pieces of crime fiction about women on the run, both perceived by the people they’re trying to leave behind as being more blameworthy than they are.
Creature and creator in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
“Did I solicit thee | From darkness to promote me?” [2021-15-Sep]
Victor Frankenstein is a negligent and deluded creator, more conscious of his responsibilities to his own species than of what he owes to the being he has created. Have we any reason to expect better from our own creator?
Kate Atkinson, the Jackson Brodie series
Some jolly murder mysteries — but that’s just the start [2021-02-Sep]
Some commentators have seen the Jackson Brodie novels as cozy mysteries, but that view overlooks the threats to, and brutal treatment of, children and vulnerable women in the series.
Your favourite author’s ambivalence about justice
Attempting to equate the incommensurable [2021-18-Aug]
Ambivalence about justice is almost universal among humans, so it isn’t surprising if the work of your favourite author exhibits it.
Felicia C Sullivan, Follow Me into the Dark
“It deepens like a coastal shelf” [2021-04-Aug]
Felicia C Sullivan is one of the two best writers of short stories on Medium. Her only novel so far is just as powerful and remarkable: a story of mothers and daughters, child abuse and a serial killer.
Uncovering the hidden side of Margot
The truth about “Cat Person” [2021-21-Jul]
When the short story, “Cat Person” appeared in December 2017, it was claimed that many New Yorker readers didn’t realize that it was fiction and took it for memoir, or a personal essay. The truth is complicated.
Middleton and Rowley, A Fair Quarrel
“Coward do more than bastard?” [2021-07-Jul]
The main plot, by Thomas Middleton, of A Fair Quarrel, which he cowrote with William Rowley, seems to make use of the idea of a “just war”. Yet, the play was performed some 8 years before Grotius’s De iure belli ac pacis (1625) appeared, and many years before it was translated into English.
Scott Turow’s judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers [2021-23-Jun]
Corrupt judges and blinkered, self-righteous prosecutors threaten the integrity of the criminal justice system in Scott Turow’s novels — but they’re not all like that.
Alan Glynn’s Winterland, Bloodland and Graveland trilogy [2021-09-Jun]
Alan Glynn’s trilogy starts in Dublin, with greedy property developers and compromised politicians, then broadens out to show the influence on that limited milieu of a multibillion-dollar private investment fund.
“To overreach the devil”: William Empson partly rewrites Marlowe’s Faustus
Empson’s insightful errors, no. 3 [2021-27-May]
William Empson thought that Marlowe’s Faustus must have had a plan to cheat the devil and escape hell, otherwise the story doesn’t make sense. It’s a good insight but I believe Empson reached the wrong conclusion as to Faustus’s intended escape route.
Morally neutral at best: Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends
And a few paragraphs about Normal People [2021-12-May]
Frances, the young narrator of Sally Rooney’s first novel, isn’t sure whether she has a personality or not, but she has quite a distinctive voice.
Midnight’s Children: “A thousand and one dead ends”
A cure for optimism [2021-30-Apr]
Salman Rushdie’s second novel is the most important English-language work of fiction of the second half of the twentieth century. How was he supposed to follow that?
On “Dover Beach”: Ian McEwan’s Saturday
Techniques of conflict-avoidance, some successful [2021-11-Apr]
Ian McEwan’s rationalist, materialist brain surgeon may lack an artistic education but not a sharp analytical mind. He is good at avoiding conflict but does not believe that all conflicts can be avoided.
Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Wilkie Collins’s Armadale
The complications of gaining an inheritance by marriage [2021-28-Mar]
On first reading of Fingersmith, I thought the plot was too complicated. But conspirators can’t often afford elegance, precision and minimalism.
An epical forged cheque: William Empson reads Ulysses
Empson’s insightful errors, no. 2 [2021-14-Mar]
William Empson advanced a scandalous, “hidden” interpretation of Joyce’s Ulysses. He wasn’t exactly wrong but I suggest that he missed an important part of its significance.
Roisín O’Donnell, Wild Quiet
The “Irish” short story in the 2010s [2021-28-Feb]
Most (not all) of these stories deal with questions of identity, nationality, origins, and displacement or migration. Again and again, O’Donnell asks what it means to be Irish and exposes inconsistencies in our assumptions about the answer.
Tana French, The Likeness
A novel of doubles, reflections, parallels — and deceptive resemblance [2021-15-Feb]
The second novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series has an alluring premise: a discarded undercover identity being adopted by the detective’s doppelgänger; and it further illuminates the relationship at the heart of the first book.
Tana French, In the Woods
The compelling start to a unique crime fiction series [2021-31-Jan]
The first novel in Tana French’s innovative series featuring detectives from the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad. Detective Rob Ryan investigates a murder which echoes his own disappearance as a child, 20 years earlier.
William Empson and Andrew Marvell’s widow
Empson’s insightful errors, no. 1 [2021-17-Jan]
One of the twentieth century’s greatest literary critics saw, as if by instinct, that scholarly attempts to discredit the woman who claimed to be Andrew Marvell’s widow were wrongheaded, but his argufying against those attempts is hopelessly misleading.
Helena’s kink: Jillian Keenan on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“The more you beat me, I will fawn on you” [2021-03-Jan]
An idiosyncratic interpretation may rescue what, at first sight, might seem to be Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play.
Reading Wuthering Heights with aphantasia
When I first read Wuthering Heights I was in my 30s. More than 20 years later, I learned that I have no visual imagination [2020-21-Dec]
Dervla McTiernan’s female characters
The Rúin and The Scholar [2020-06-Dec]
A police procedural series featuring a male detective sergeant puts brilliant resourceful female characters at the centre of each story.
Welcome to Talk about books
Links to seven previous posts of mine under the general heading of “book discussion”, intended to give prospective readers an idea what to expect from the newsletter.