Why Paperbacks? & Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

Tey daughter of time green penguin 4f84c02f94104d0dcb8df38c4a166c28I am a great reader of paperbacks.

I love their flexibility and lightness.  I scribble in the margins and put multiple asterisks next to passages without worrying about defacing the book.  (Later, unless you are James Wood, you will wonder why you marked those passages.)  Over the years the pages of paperbacks tan and the spines crack, and if you read them over and over, as I do, you occasionally have to replace them.  What is the lifespan of the average paperback?  Twenty years?  Fifty?

I always think the Beatles song is “Paperback Reader,”  when actually it is “Paperback Writer.”  I suppose that is because I read so many paperbacks I cannot imagine writing them.

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job so I want to be a paperback writer
Paperback writer!

Mysteries should always be read in paperback, don’t you think?

I recently rediscovered the mystery writer Josephine Tey.  Someone commented about her at this blog. Thank you!

I have had to replace my old paperback copies.

My favorite of her novels, The Daughter of Time,  is not just for mystery fans. She wrote her classics during the  Golden Age  of Detective Fiction (1920-1950), a period dominated by the likes of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes)  The Daughter of Time appeals equally to historians, scholars,  fans of Shakespeare’s Richard III., and skeptical readers of newspapers.  The detective hero so loathes the adage “There’s no smoke without fire,” that he spends the book proving its preposterousness.

In this historical mystery classic, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, the hero of six of Tey’s books,  is bedridden in the hospital with a broken leg.  Restless and bored, he does not feel like reading.    He dismisses the best-sellers on the nightstand as tripe.

And the books on the nightstand do sound awful.  There are Silas Weekley’s The Sweat and the Furrow, a romance called Bells on Her Toes, and Oscar Oakley’s latest tough-guy novel.

But Alan is especially displeased by a mystery.

“The Case of the Missing Tin Opener, by John James Mark, had three errors of procedure in the first three pages, and had at least provided Grant with a pleasant five minutes while he composed an imaginary letter to its author.

Then his friend Marta Hallard, the actress, brings him a quarto envelope of historical portraits.  He is fsacinated by a portrait of Richard III from the National Gallery by an unknown artist.  Grant, who has seen the faces of many criminals, does not think this is the face of a murderer.

And so he begins to investigate the case of Richard III from his hospital bed.  He borrows a nurse’s school history books, then asks a friend to buy histories and bioraphies at a bookstore, and then finds help from an American researcher at the British Museum.

Everything you have been told turns out to be wrong, as in a game of Telephone.  But you have to read the book.  This is really a case where spoilers will ruin it!

Tey is well-loved by mystery writers as well as fans.  In the mystery writer Robert Barnard’s introductin to my new Touchstone edition of The Daughter of Time, he says that her fans “regard her with love.  They give to their favorite Tey novel what they once gave to their favorite books of childhood, to The Wind in the Willows, Little Women, or whatever:  unconditional enthusiasm.”

True in my case.

Such a remarkable book, and it SHOULD BE READ IN PAPERBACK.  Does anyone want to argue that point?!!!!??????

Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites

Alice Hoffman marriage-of-opposites-9781451693591_hr

I try to catch up on new fiction in the summer.

No, I am not reading the Man Booker Prize longlist, nor the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize list.  I just pick up what interests me.

I recently read Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites, a lyrical, if uneven, historical novel about Rachel Pissarro, the mother of the artist Camille Pissarro.

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s early novels were pitch-perfect and stunning, characterized by magic realism and reviewed by John Updike, but she has long had her stylistic ups and downs.  She is both popular and proflific, so some of her books are much better-written than others.   One of her novels, Here on Earth, was chosen for the Oprah Book Club.  The Dovekeepers, a historical novel about the siege of Masada, was made into a TV miniseries.  Oddly, I have read neither of these.

But I love her books, and many are enchanting classics, or almost-classics:  her superb 2014 novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, is the dazzling story of a romance between Corialie, a young woman with webbed hands doomed to do a mermaid act for her father’s museum of “freaks,” and Eddie, a Russian immigrant photojournalist striving to become an artistic photographer.

The Marriage of Opposites is a historical novel, the opposite of  the magical Museum of Extraordinary Things.  Still, Hoffman’s style can be incandescent.

In  sensuous prose, Hoffman describes the island St. Thomas in the early 19th century. The theme of racial persecution is constant throughout the book:  the Jews fled from Europe during the Inquisition, and many settled on St. Thomas after the King of Denmark passed an edict proclaiming that  freedom of religion would be practiced on St. Thomas.  The  businessman father of the rebellious Jewish heroine, Rachel, was carried onboard the ship in a basket by his  African slave, Enrique,  to escape persecution in St. Dominique. On St. Thomas, he freed Enrique. Many, however, did not free their African slaves.

Growing up, Rachel runs wild on the island with her best friend, Jestine, the daughter of an African  maid and fortuneteller, Adelle. Naturally, Rachel’s mother disapproves of Jestine, and wants her daughter to conform in the Jewish community.  She is especially furious because her nephew, Aaron, whom she has raised as her son, is in love with Jestine. Mixed-race marriages are forbidden.

Rachel longs to escape from her mother and the island and see Paris with Jestine, but meanwhile she becomes a writer of stories.  A fan of Perrault’s fairy tales, she steals a notebook from her father’s store and records the fantastic stories he hears from old women.

One of her fairy tales is emblematic of a primary theme, the fate of characters stolen, deserted, lost, or rejected by their mothers.  The girls watch the turtles when they come  to the beach to lay their eggs.  Old women on the isalnd tell a story of a human mother who gives birth to a  turtle.  The woman leaves the baby on the beach, where it is raised by turtles.  The baby  grows up to be a Turtle Woman with moss-green hair.

Hoffman writes,

You couldn’t see her shell unless she was in the sea. She could have easily disguised herself and join our world, eating in cafes, dancing with men who found her beautiful, but instead she’d chosen to live in the world of the turtles.

Later, Rachel, who  is married off to a widower to save her father’s business, does not know love.  She is, however, a perfect stepmother:  she adores her husband’s children, and, later, the  children of her own..   But only after her husband’s death does she fall in love:  his nephew, Frederic Pissaro, comes to the island to take over the business, and he and Rachel fall in love at first sight.  But the Jewish community forbids the marriage, saying that she is Frederic’s aunt.  They live together and have children.  And their overcoming being outcasts in their community is one of the most great conflicts of the book.

Jestine also learns what it is to be powerless and then to take her power bacl:   she has had an affair with Aaron, Rachel’s cousin, whom she loves, and an illegitimate daughter, Lyddie,. Aaron lives in Paris, but he and his infertile wife steal Lyddie and take her back to Paris.  Jestine is devastated.  But what can she do?  She starts a business sewing clothes more beautiful than any woman can get in Paris.  She never gives up on Lyddie.

Hoffman is excellent at exploring the sadness  of women,  and their strength as they overcome unhappiness.  But then something happens:  she decides to write about the future artist, Camille.  She switches  to his viewpoint, and here’s the problem:.  I signed on for the story of Rachel .

Hoffman does eventually switch back to Rachel’s point of view, but  I never quite got back into the novel after that.

Hoffman’s enchanting novel will be perfect for some readers, but seems uneven to me. I am not its ideal audience.

I seem to be on the every-other-book plan with Hoffman!  I look forward to her next one.

The Boringness of Dreams & My Mother’s Strawberry Shortcake

I dreamed about my mother.

Dreams are boring.  Skip to the strawberry shortcake if you like. 

Mom, age 30, and I.

Mom, age 30, with me.

Here is the dream.  There was a feast.  It was not a crowd you want to join.  People were laughing cruelly.  I glimpsed my mother trying  to belong.  She could not.  And then I glimpsed her from afar:   she left the room, crying.  A woman smirked and barred my way:  “She deserves it.”  I knew it was a dream, and I was determined to control it.  I hurried past the vicious guard (or whatever she was) and followed my mother into the restroom.  I WOULD save her.  I saw feet under a stall, then they disappeared. Was that she?   I opened the door.  There she was, crying but alive.

She died two years ago.  I suppose that’s why I dreamed.

And perhaps it reflected the last years of her life.

At the assisted living facility where she lived for a few months before we discovered she could not survive there (she fell and broke her hip and was not found till morning), nobody spoke a word at her table in the dining room.  They rushed away as soon as they were done.  “Where do they have to go?  Why hurry?” she asked.  (It was the same later at the nursing home.)  She knew some of the people at the ALF from “real life.”  One was a cheerleader type, a woman who played bridge with my mother, but otherwise ignored her.  So, so like school.

All, all are dead now.

Mother had a comfortable life until she got sick in very old age.

I am grateful for all she did for us.  She raised us in domestic comfort and air conditioning.  I think of her driving us to the library in the heat, taking us to movies.  I saw ALL the movies.

My snobbishly-brought-up husband was an Eagle Scout, wants the windows open both in winter and summer, and wants the air conditioner off even when it’s 90 degrees.

I insist on comfort.  There is no more giving in to the camper/bicyclist/hiker on issues of extreme heat (91 degrees today; heat index, 104).  The AC goes on!

Without Mom would I feel I have to endure?

She was more domestic than I, but I also like her philosophy of cooking. For years I cooked complicated vegetarian dishes.  This summer it is just too hot.  My mother took us to restaurants, or cooked easy, fast meals.  No slaving in the kitchen for her.  What was frozen Stouffer’s tuna casserole for if not to save time?

Strawberry shortcake (though we put more whipped cream on top)She thought mixes were better than homemade cakes, and did not even bring out the Bisquick for Strawberry Shortcake. Here is her recipe:  No baking required.

MY MOTHER’S STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

INGREDIENTS:
Strawberries
Sponge dessert cups (usually sold in the same section as the strawberries)
Reddi-wip or whipped cream equivalent.

DIRECTIONS:

Slice the strawberries and put them in a bowl.  Add sugar.  Recipes often call for three tablespoons per four cups, but you can add more sugar if you like it sweeter.  Let the strawberries sit for at least half an hour.

Top the dessert cups with strawberries and as much whipped cream as you like.  It’s delicious!

P.S.  I suppose you could buy an angel food cake and do the same thing with the strawberries!

Mosquito Trucks & Who Stole the Bug House?

A mosquito truck.

A mosquito truck at night.

The drone of the mosquito truck is one of the eeriest sounds of summer.

On hot, sticky nights, you can hear mosquito trucks chugging down the streets spraying their fog of pesticide.  They sound like a monstrous mix of a very slow tank and an ordinary street cleaner.

My heart always accelerates with fear when I hear them.

But not all fear the pesticide.

In Jill McCorkle’s short story, “Billy Goats,” children chase the mosquito truck on bicycles.  Apparently this was common in the ’50s and ’60s.

We popped wheelies in pursuit of the mosquito truck, which was a guarantee on humid summer nights. We rode behind the big gray truck, our laughter and screams lost in the grinding whir of machinery, our vision blurred by the cloud of poison.

Actually, I never saw or heard a mosquito truck when I was growing up in Iowa City.  Perhaps too many people spoke up against pesticides.

They do spray in this city, though.

During drought summers, I sit outside and read. This wet summer, the mosquitoes are dive-bombing.

The mosquitoes spread disease, so I suppose the spraying is necessary.  I am quite sure we could not walk in the woods if they didn’t spray.

But I hate it.

Recently we put up a “bug house” so we could sit outside and not worry about the mosquitoes.   Actually, it’s called a screen tent.

The bughouse

The bug house

I don’t sit there much.  I don’t like looking at the yard through the screen. And the bugs follow me in anyway.

Still, the bug house is a part of summer.

The other day I came home  from the store after a fuck-up with a coupon–the purchase had to be rung up twice, and it involved three people–and  THE BUG HOUSE WAS GONE.

Who stole our bug house?

I told my husband about it.

He took it down to mow the lawn.

Thank God!

It’s better to have a bug house than not to have one.