Thwarted desire, illicit desires, the fumbling search for lasting love, the sabotaging of happiness, both one’s own and that of others, deceit and self-justification, the thirst for exoneration and redemption – all these elements compete for primacy in Margot Livesey’s astonishing novel The House on Fortune Street.
In the first chapter, “A Soft Nest,” we meet Sean, a would-be scholar who is struggling to write a thesis on the poet John Keats. At the same time, he is in the process of committing to his lover Abigail by moving in with her. Trouble is, he has to leave his wife Judy in order to effect this momentous change in his life:
“He knew the syllogisms of romance. He had broken his life apart for her; therefore she must be the love of his life.
He and Abigail have been having a rapturous affair. He knows he should be overjoyed when he contemplates his future with her.
But that’s not how he feels.
At one point, having recently seen Judy, Sean finds himself reminiscing about a day they spent, shortly after their wedding, exploring the Cotswolds:
“They were driving from one exquisite village to the next when, in the middle of a field of cows, they spotted a small stone church. They had pulled onto the verge and gone to investigate. The door was locked, a bird’s nest wedged in one corner, but round the back they had found a couple of milk crates and climbed up to peer through the leaded windows. Sean had never forgotten the sight that met his eyes.The narrow nave was crammed not with pews but with statues of knights, maybe eight or nine of them, lying on their tombs, hands folded on their chests, dogs or swords or, in one case, a book, at their pointed feet. How peaceful and dusty they looked. He wished he’d asked Judy if she remembered them too. It would ahve been nice to be back together, even briefly, in that pool of memory where no one else would ever swim.
The novel’s next chapter is entitled “I Mark This Day With a White Stone.” We are now introduced to Cameron MacLeod, who, unlike Sean, will be telling his own story in the first person. Initially I felt frustrated by what seemed to me an abrupt transition. I was heavily invested in Sean’s story and wanted it to continue. But this novel follows a lateral, rather than a linear, trajectory. Livesey traces the links between various characters and backtracks to their histories from time to time. Thus are they illuminated for the reader.
At any rate, my annoyance faded quickly as Cameron’s story unfolded. It became obvious to me in pretty short order that where the art of novel writing was concerned, I was in the hands of a master. (The title of Chapter Two is taken from the diary of Charles Ludwig Dodgson, who is better known to the world at large as Lewis Carroll. His presence as a reference point in this novel is crucial to an understanding of Cameron.)
The other major character in the novel is Cameron’s daughter Dara. Dara and Abigail are fast friends from their university days. While Abigail has been strengthened by the need to virtually bring herself up – her parents were absurdly feckless – Dara has been deeply wounded by a crisis in her own family that has never been fully explained to her.
I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe Livesey’s writing. I think I’ve settled on one: “crystalline.” Her prose is crystalline, utterly precise, utterly beautiful without straining to be so. The House on Fortune Street, moreover, is liberally enriched with literary allusions – from Jane Eyre to Keats, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare.*
On a personal note: I recently completed a re-reading of The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers with an eye to leading a discussion of it for the Literary Ladies Book Club next week. I proceeded directly to a reading of Livesey’s novel and discovered two rather startling instances of synchronicity: in both books, a brother’s fate haunts his sibling into adulthood. Also, in both of these novels, the spirit of John Keats permeates the narrative.
Last December, when I reviewed Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe’s delicious candy box of a book, I made reference to the phrase ludic reading, for which I supplied the following definition: “that trance-like state that heavy readers enter when consuming books for pleasure.” I definitely entered a ludic state while reading The House on Fortune Street, emerging only reluctantly at the novel’s conclusion.
What a great selection for book discussion groups this will be. I loved it!
*There’s a misquote on p. 201, where Abigail says “There’s no art to find the mind’s conception in the face.” She identifies the quote as coming from Macbeth. It does, but she didn’t get it quite right. It should be:
“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
I wonder where this error originated, and I’m somewhat surprised that it didn’t get flagged by an editor, proofreader – or someone! A small cavil, you understand, that does not impinge on this book’s overall wonderfulness.
One of the many gifts I took away from Bouchercon was a work by British poet Stevie Smith. It happened on Friday Oct. 10 during one of our favorite sessions, “Come and Talk To Me: Three goddesses talking.” This was more of a spontaneous bull session than a panel discussion. The authors sat informally in front of the tables; the format worked wonderfully.
The “goddesses” in question were Rhys Bowen, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penny, wonderful writers all and terrifically entertaining to boot.
At one point in the midst of a spirited exchange, Louise paid homage to the power of poetry by quoting some lines from “Not Waving But Drowning.” If memory serves, these were the lines: “I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.”
There was a collective gasp from the audience. The image was so immediate; the words so terse and full of anguish, we were temporarily stunned into silence.
Here, in its entirety, is “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
It’s one of those obituaries that you knew you’d probably be seeing before too long, but would rather not have seen at all…
In straightforward, unadorned prose, Tony Hillerman shone a light on the Navajo and Hopi cultures. (I was not aware that the author himself had recorded some of his books. I have listened to George Guidall’s readings, though, and I recommend them highly.)
In addition, he took New Mexico, a land that for some of us was as remote and exotic as Tibet, and made it real and immediate. Hillerman’s wonderfully evocative novels are the reason my husband and I have twice journeyed to the Land of Enchantment. The stark, majestic landscape, the deep blue skies, the smell of pinon – I’d willingly go back again!
The author, in the landscape he loved.
On her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Sarah Weinman has gathered a bouquet of tributes to Tony Hillerman.
No song title here – just a straightforward acknowledgment of Poe’s supreme importance to the history of crime fiction.
The panel consisted of:
Shelley Costa Bloomfield, PhD. [Photo not available] Dr. Costa Bloomfield teaches art and literature at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She is a scholar of crime fiction and has written several mystery short stories. She is also the author of
She resides in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which seems wonderfully appropriate, considering her area of specialization.
Pettit is a sort of Poe groupie (as you might surmise from the above picture). He maintains a blog on which, among other things, he champions the claim the city Philadelphia has to the furthering of Poe’s genius – and even to his remains! He rode this hobby horse humorously and enthusiastically throughout the session.
This panel was like a really good college seminar, the kind that made you feel as though someone had opened the top of your head and was pouring great stuff – legal stuff! - into your brain. I was particularly delighted to see Louis Bayard, whose novel The Pale Blue Eye so powerfully evoked Poe’s brief tenure at West Point.
Bayard’s newest work, The Black Tower, is set in Paris and features Eugene Francois Vidocq as the main character. Bayard said that he had become familiar with Vidocq while doing research on Poe.
I first heard of the renowned – if at times, slippery! – founder of France’s Surete Nationale (now called Police Nationale) from Guilty Parties, the colorful survey of the history of crime fiction by the late Ian Ousby.
Bayard mentioned that Vidocq’s notoriously unreliable autobiography is one of the earliest examples we have of “truthiness in memoirs.”
Shelley Costa remarked on the breadth of Poe’s influence on subsequent authors of horror tales and detective fiction. It’s hard, she continued, to overemphasize Poe’s centrality to the history of American literature, despite the fact that his tales seem to float free of a specific time and place.
Daniel Stashower read Poe as a child and found, upon returning to his work as an adult, that it retained its power to thrill and terrify him. I am currently half way through Stashower’s book on Poe and the murder of Mary Rogers.
Panelists went to some lengths to correct the impression that Poe was a wild-eyed maniac, but from what I’ve read so far in The Beautiful Cigar Girl, he appears to have been unstable and erratic. His mood alternated between angry outrage and deep melancholy. Worst of all, he had a fatal weakness for alcohol, which he nonetheless could not stay away from. His feelings for his child bride Virginia were obsessive – “we loved with a love that was more than love…”
Poe was known to have been influenced by a multi-volume chronicle of true crime variously called the Newgate Calendar or Malefactor’s Bloody Register. Who wouldn’t be curious about a work so titled?!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readily acknowledged his debt to Edgar Allan Poe (Note the date at the bottom of this article):Yet, Conan Doyle apparently could not resist this gentle jibe in A Study in Scarlet:”
“You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his cigarette. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
Two stories were singled out that I haven’t read and would now like to: “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” The latter apparently illustrates Poe’s unfortunate tendency to shoot himself in the foot with regard to his own best interests.
Louis Bayard stated that Poe was neither a naturalist or a realist. He was primarily interested in fugue states, or “dark symbolic constructs.” Marvelous locution, that, and illustrative of the bracingly high tenor of this panel discussion.
What a terrific discussion we Usual Suspects enjoyed Tuesday night! There was so much to talk about with regard to the “Bawlamer” allusions liberally sprinkled throughout By a Spider’s Thread, we were almost late getting to the meat of Laura Lippman’s intricate and fascinating tale. And what a great story this is, full of surprising twists and turns. As Mary Edna pointed out (and weren’t we delighted to have her back among us!), the initial premise seems simple and straightforward, but before long, the reader is drawn into a web of lies, deceit, and startling revelations.
Mark Rubin, a prosperous Orthodox Jewish furrier, hires P.I. Tess Monaghan to find his wife Natalie and their three children. At first, it seems like a simple case of a runaway wife, but gradually, facts come to light that lend the situation a strange, opaque quality. Why did Natalie leave? Why is she in Indiana, a place where neither she nor Mark have any connections? And who is the man schlepping this ad hoc family from motel to fast food joint to laundromat? All very peculiar. At least, at the outset…
Barbara, the group’s fearless – and extremely conscientious – discussion leader got us started by passing around a brochure for Greenmount Cemetery. Like Mount Auburn Cemetery, which we talked about last month in our discussion of The Escher Twist, Greenmount has a fair number of august personages interred within its grounds.
Barbara then launched into a list of place names and retail establishments associated with Baltimore. A goodly number of Usual Suspects members are born and bred in Charm City, and they responded readily when queried about Bibelot, Hampden, Hutzler’s, and the like.
Next, Barbara rattled off some of the Yiddish and Hebrew terms that appear in this novel. It was time for Pauline and I, the group’s resident Ashkenazim, to step up to the plate! And in fact, we discussed, among other things, the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. This exercise was fun: in particular, I was gratified that the meaning of various Yiddish expressions – shonda, goyim, kibbitz - so little used of late, has stayed with me.
Ancestors summoned once again? Oh, yes, yes indeed. I actually listened to the book this time, having read it first when it came out four years ago. Barbara Rosenblatt is a wonderful reader. When she got to Tess’s interview with Natalie’s mother Vera Peters, a Ukrainian immigrant, she really nailed the accent. I gasped out loud: she was channeling my grandmother! (Thanks, Barbara.)
We then moved to a discussion of the dramatis personae. By a Spider’s Thread has a large cast, but even the minor characters are fleshed out in an effective manner. The heart of this novel, though, lies in the evolving relationship of Tess Monaghan and Mark Rubin. Initially, Rubin comes across as rigid and reserved, but as the investigation proceeds, he and Tess have a series of utterly engrossing conversations during which he allows the mask to slip. At such moments, Mark Rubin stands revealed as a troubled, vulnerable man. True, he could be authoritarian, and probably took advantage of the culture’s preference for submissive wives. But he genuinely loves Natalie and the children – especially his eldest son, Isaac.
Isaac is one of my favorite fictional children. What a terrific mix of resourcefulness, loyalty, and just plain gutsiness this kid is!. He may be hundreds of miles from his father, but his determination to be reunited with the parent he adores is unwavering. Isaac’s devotion is the most effective testimony possible to Mark Rubin’s essential goodness.
Tess Monaghan is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father. At one point, she engages Mark on the question of why he wears a yarmulke (sometimes referred to as a “beanie” by the uninitiated!). Does he really want all his actions evaluated on the basis of his Jewishness? Here’s the salvo he fires back at Tess:
“‘You like the game you play, shifting between identities, confusing people. With me, you act like a shiksa naif. But I bet when it suits you, when you’re around more unambiguously goyish types, you play the Jew.’
Tess hotly denies that she’s playing at any sort of game, but to herself she admits the truth of Rubin’s observation. (I feel that as a protagonist, Tess has much in common with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, but when I voiced that opinion, no one picked up on it.)
We all agreed that it’s been a real pleasure to watch Laura Lippman grow as a writer over the years. Marge has observed that she’s a great ambassador for Baltimore, and I think that’s very true. What the Dead Know (2007) has won award after award, but IMHO, By a Spider’s Thread is just as good, and just as rewarding a reading experience.
Addendum: The discussion was running long, so I didn’t get a chance to mention an outstanding project whose goal is nothing less than the preservation of Yiddish literature. Called The National Yiddish Book Center, it was founded in 1980 by MacArthur Fellow Aaron Lansky and is located in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Click here for video of the Lawrence Block interview (which we attended), a video tribute to Block, an interview with Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, and finally John Harvey interviewed by Otto Penzler.
Five different versions of “Down in the Hole” were recorded for the opening credits of each of the The Wire‘s five seasons. I liked best the one performed for the fourth season. It sounds the least professional – like a couple of kids from the ‘hood trying to get it together. The artists, a group called DoMaJe, are identified by the HBO store as “a group of Baltimore teenagers.” I could find no other information about them.
These were the panelists who were on hand to discuss The Wire and Homicide:
Yes – THAT Peter Robinson – author of the Alan Banks series! Marge’s and my mystery-writing idol! We’ve been reading this fine series ever since Gallows View came out in 1987 and haven’t missed once since.
One of our greatest satisfactions as librarians (library associate, in my case) was watching this writer go from strength to strength and urging his books on eager readers. (Here’s my review of Friend of the Devil.)
It’s been some time since I’ve watched Homicide, but, as to The Wire,,,
It is one of the most riveting programs I have ever seen on television. Ron and I had just finished watching the last episode of Season Five the night before the first day of Bouchercon, and my head was still filled with these unforgettable characters: Bubbles, Bunk, McNulty, the courageous and beautiful Kima Greggs, Avon Barksdale and his ill-fated nephew Dee, Lester Freamon, the ultimate outside-the-box thinker on the force – although “Bunny” Colvin certainly belongs in that category as well, the charismatic “Stringer” Bell, the equally charismatic Omar Little, and Snoop, the killer with the heart of ice…
Well, I could go on – but you get the idea.
At one point, the panel was asked why viewers found drug dealers and killers to be such compelling characters.. Wallace Stroby observed that “Every villain is the hero of his own story.” (Spoken like a true crime novelist!) The series is marked by a combination of a mordant wit and violence which sometimes built up slowly and at other times comes out of nowhere in a way that is both shocking and terrifying., The stories reflect a complete lack of sentimentality and the almost total futility of good intentions.
Fans of The Wire differ on their favorite seasons. For veteran journalist Stroby, it was Five, because of the on-the-money re-creation of the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun. For me, actually, that was the least engaging, possibly because it suffered by comparison to earlier set pieces. For me, season Two, which was about the Port of Baltimore was especially powerful. The acting, always top notch in this series, was especially good in Season Two. There are three actors in particular whose performances, I think, will always haunt me:
Some viewers could not stomach the violence in The Wire, and I can understand and sympathize with that aversion. There were times when I wanted to turn my face away – and, in fact, did. But even worse than the actual physical violence was the violence done to people’s lives – the blighted childhoods and the lives ruined by prostitution and drugs.
Amid all the devastation, there is one powerful redemption that occurs near the end of the show. It brought tears to my eyes; I had been desperately hoping it would come to pass, and was profoundly grateful when it did.
The Wire is David Simon‘s baby, and he deserves all due credit for it, and for bringing on board such world class crime writers as Richard Price, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane. Between the fabulous performances, the terrific dialog, and completely absorbing stories -a triumph.
Here are some of the novels by the panelists:
I’ll admit up front: I chose to attend this particular discussion because Martin Edwards was one of the panelists. We had the pleasure of meeting Martin last year in Harrogate (Yorkshire, UK). I’ve read the three Lake District novels and Waterloo Sunset, the latest Harry Devlin, and enjoyed each of them greatly. (Martin also writes a terrific blog.)
Here are the Lake District books, in series order:
Laurie King also took part in this discussion, as did the following authors:
All were most entertaining and enlightening on the subject of their craft. Alison Gaylin’s work in entertainment journalism has obviously yielded plenty of material for her fiction. I have to say, though, that at this particular panel, the handsome and genial Martyn Waites all but stole the show. In addition to being a novelist, he has worked in theatre and television, and also done stand-up comedy. It showed – his stories were hilarious!
A panel on the writing of historical mysteries, featuring:
Rennie Airth writes the John Madden mysteries. Madden is a shell shocked World War One veteran. I read and enjoyed the first novel in this series, River of Darkness (1991). The second was Blood-Dimmed Tide (2001), and the third, Dead of Winter, is due out next year.
Benn, an author new to me, writes about Billy Boyle, a Boston cop who’s a distant relative of Dwight Eisenhower. The books take place during the Second World War. (And I just have to say – I love this author photo!)
Sharan Newman writes a popular series set in France in the Middle Ages and featuring Catherine LeVendeur, a scholar and novice nun. I read the first one, Death Comes As Epiphany, and enjoyed it a great deal. Newman has recently published Shanghai Tunnel, a novel set in Portland, Oregon, in the nineteenth century.
Jeri Westerson’s debut novel is Veil of Lies: A Medieval Noir. It is the recipient of an enthusiastic starred review in Library Journal.
The Todds write the acclaimed series featuring Ian Rutledge, Scotland Yard detective and tormented veteran of World War One. (The phenomenon of the collaborating mother and son intrigues me. If my own mother [of blessed memory] and I had ever attempted such a thing, sparks would have been flying by the time we reached the second page!)
The moderator, Laurie R. King, kicked things off with the famous opening lines of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past Is another country; they do things differently there.”
(I’ve never actually read The Go-Between, although it sounds like a novel I would love. The 1970 film , starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Michael Redgrave, was terrific.)
This was a great discussion. The authors were most articulate as they described the challenges of researching their respective periods, and then integrating that research into their novels in a manner that was effective but not intrusive.
They mentioned some interesting potential stumbling blocks. For instance, Charles Todd was going to refer to the first Queen Elizabeth as “Elizabeth I.” Well, that doesn’t work when you’re writing about England in the 1920′s. Up until that point in time, there was simply “Queen Elizabeth.” And in fact, until the abdication of Edward VIII (latterly known as the Duke of Windsor) in 1936, the British had no reason to think there would be an Elizabeth II in their future.
The authors warmly recommended Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard and also a book called Akenfield. Come to find out, not only does the local library not own it, but this classic portrait of an English village by Ronald Blythe is out of print in this country. Not to worry; I have my ways of obtaining these choice items. (I’ll probably have recourse to abebooks first.)
Both Charles Todd and Rennie Airth have familial connections to the First World War. Airth sung the praises of the British Library as a source of materials bearing on “the Great War.” He recommended The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain (1918-1939) by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. The work of historian Lyn Macdonald was praised for its vivid first hand accounts by veterans of the conflict.
Growing up amid the great storytelling traditions of the South had a profound influence on Charles Todd. He offered this poignant observation about the soldiers of the First World War: “They just went off to war and didn’t ask why.” Todd, Benn, and Airth all agreed that letters from the early 20th century and genealogies were enormously helpful – also “there’s no substitute for going to the place and talking to the people.” All three were immensely grateful for the amount of archival material now available online.
As for the medievalists on the panel: Sharan Newman confessed to being drawn into the Middle Ages by the story of Abelard and Heloise. [Slight aside here: I first heard the names of these famous lovers in the lyrics of the Cole Porter song "Just One of Those Things", as sung by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald:: "As Abelard said to Heloise,/ Don't forget to drop a line to me please." This is the kind of witty, sophisticated song writing you got from a Yale graduate in the 1930's!]
Newman recommends sermons for historical research: “If someone is preaching against something, then it’s a good bet that folks are doing that something!” Go to SharanNewman.com for terrific links to sites concerned with medieval history and literature.
Jeri Westerman told a great story about her effort to attain an authentic feel in her description of medieval swordplay. She positioned a side of beef in her backyard and stabbed it repeatedly – all the while hoping the neighbors were not watching!
Laurie King commented on how helpful she found the old Baedeker travel guides in her research on the early 20th century. This reminded me of my rather singular experience with Madame de Genlis’s little phrase book…
One of the many privileges that Marge and I enjoyed as Bouchercon attendees was the chance to cast our vote for the 2008 Anthony Awards. As is usually the case with Your Faithful Blogger, virtually no one that I voted for won! That’s okay – all were deserving.
Click here to see the nominees and winners.