Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Reading for Distraction. . .

I thought some of you might enjoy this short essay by poet Molly Fisk on Not Reading -- and I'm curious to know whether any of you have ever tried going without reading for a challenging period, or have you had that challenge imposed on you by circumstances. I doubt I've ever gone more than two days, tops, without reading, and like Fisk, I'd be resorting to toothpaste tubes and bus stop schedules in a pinch. . .

At the moment, going through a bit of a rough patch (as you may know if you read my other blog), and I'm not managing anything that demands too much concentration. One of my daughters had just finished Peter Robinson's Before the Poison which she'd picked up at one of those charming little mini-libraries just down her block. Do you have one in your neighbourhood? About the size of a (small) rabbit hutch, most of the ones I've seen are fitted with glass doors, sit on stilts/legs to keep them out of the wet, and generally have a shingled or metal-covered roof. Neighbours are free to drop off and pick up books -- no charge other than the expectation of considerate, courteous use of the great resource.  I hope no one believes these replace the value of a full-services library, of course, with the research skills of professional librarians, but what a great way to recycle and to encourage reading -- keeping it visible in our neighbourhoods. We have a little one across the street from our Vancouver apartment, although I've yet to walk over and check it out (maybe someday when I finished the pile I've amassed right here. . . ha!)

But I've digressed, haven't I?! I was telling you that my daughter just read Robinson's Before the Poison, and you've probably already guessed that she passed it along to me. I'd ignored it when it was published, just because it wasn't one of his Inspector Banks' mysteries, which I like very much.  But with a free copy in my hands and no appetite for heftier reading, I was glad to dive in.  I can certainly understand why any writer of a longstanding, successful mystery series based on a single detective might want to take a break occasionally, and the one-off Before the Poison is very readable. I like the central character well enough -- there's always such a limitation for writers, I suppose, in developing the characters of their police detectives who, overall, seem much less likely as a group to have sustained personal relationships than characters with other careers.  Robinson sets a mystery, this time, for a composer of film scores, something that allows Robinson to indulge his love and knowledge of classical and popular music in an extension of what he does via Inspector Banks (if you read the Inspector Banks' novels, you might already know that there are Spotify playlists available to complement several of the titles in that series. Check them out here).

If you know the Inspector Banks' books -- or their television rendition -- you'll know that Robinson does setting very well, and in this novel, he's able to give us even more of rural Yorkshire along with some vibrant scenes of village life. We also get flown and Eurostarred to more exotic climes (a stretch in another direction than the one Inspector Banks took recently, bringing us along for the ride, to Estonia)

Robinson plays with different voices in this mystery,  experimenting with the literary ventriloquism (as I can't help but term it -- that structural tool that inserts pages from other written texts into the main narrative. Diaries, letters, a murderer's planning notes) that Reginald Hill used to deploy so successfully in his wonderful Dalziel and Pascoe series (oh, I miss those and lament Hill's passing regularly, for such selfish reasons). Here, we get pages from a convicted murderer's wartime diary as well as chapters from a published account of her trial. Both introduced texts help build a sense of the period, strengthening the continued presence of the past in the estate the film composer has purchased, sight unseen.

It's probably this interplay between past and present that determines whether readers will respond enthusiastically to Beyond the Poison, or like me, feel a bit "Meh" about it. If you're drawn to period writing, you might quite like this. The research seems solid, and there are some important questions raised about military intelligence and actions as well as the ethics and politics of warfare, including the ethics and politics of government secrecy in the post-war period. Putting the novel on this firm footing, eventually -- and I suppose I'm veering awfully close to Spoiler Alert here -- saved it, for me, from the supernatural shoals I thought it steered too close to from the outset.

Overall, though, a well-written distraction that I'd recommend you read should your daughter ever pass along a copy. Or you find your own at your nearest library. If you've read the Fisk essay I recommended at the start of this post, you'll know that she was instructed NOT to read because that distraction allowed her to avoid issues that needed to be allowed to surface. I take the point but, like Fisk, I am generally very glad to have distraction ready at hand. Happy Reading!

btw, while I suspect it may be a while before I find time, energy, or inclination to write much about it, I did want to say that I finished the 3rd Knausgaard in his My Struggle series. Boyhood Island is my favourite by far, although it acquires the depth it does, as well as the relief found in its relative lightness, from the work the previous two novels did. Increasingly, I see how there is a synergy that makes the network between the volumes in the series quite astonishing, really. I don't know that I'll ever find time to reread these, but I know academic careers are likely to be built studying them -- the work is groundbreaking in so many ways. Have you read Boyhood Island yet?


  1. I really enjoyed the Donna Leon Inspector Brunetti books I read based on your recommendation. I need to remember to look in the mystery section when I visit the library. Right now, all I want to read is history...European, 18th century to I might as well give in to it. I have Reading Lolita in Tehran sitting here and have no desire to open it.

    I'd like to try Knausgaard again, in order. And there's more to come that hasn't been translated yet, isn't there? I'm not sure how to describe what puts me off about his books...but...the story and the technique seem to come forward in turns...when one is strong the other subsides somehow. Ah well.

  2. One can live without more things than we assume,but for me,please,reading is one of the last to give up !
    Peter Robinson is waiting on my long list,I was watching Inspector Banks and liked it
    I would love to have little mini-library in my town. I donate a lot of books or give them to friends,but this would be perfect,like somewhere in hotels I visited
    I am reading The Waters of Eternal Youth,last one by Dona Leon,released on March 8th,Georgia. Do you like to read history or history novels? I like both-have you found something interesting lately?
    And I completelly agree Frances,there is one non-Brunetti book by D. Leon,I have it for years but didn't start reading yet.
    In future couple of weeks I'll restart Knausgaard'second book. Or not!