Five Books to Read after a Biking Breakdown

Yesterday I took a bike ride.

I It was 88 degrees, but it has been so hot that it felt cool.  Although the trees have that frumpy end-of-summer look, it’s lovely to pedal through the woods.  But then, despite frequent breaks to guzzle water, I registered that I was riding unusually slowly. And so I took a coffee break in an air-conditioned cafe.  All better, I thought as I walked into the heat.  But I was so exhausted on a steep hill that I got off my bike and walked.  That NEVER happens.

It was a biking breakdown, obviously. Too hot, too long.   Once home, I sat on the couch and drank water for two hours. My husband went off to buy me a huge bottle of Diet Coke.  Did I get off the couch at all?  No, except to make dinner–just to prove I was not defeated.

I spent hours reading, but I discovered that you don’t want to read anything too demanding after an exercise breakdown.

So here’s a list of


1.  My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa MoshfeggOblomov meets Gogol in this dark comic novel about a young woman who decides to sleep for a year.

The narrator is beautiful, blond, and smart.  Everyone does her bidding because she is always the prettiest one in the room. Her best friend says she looks like Kate Moss.   But  her parents have died, her boyfriend doesn’t love her, she disdains her only friend,  and she has a ridiculous job as a receptionist at an art gallery.  When she inherits money, she decides she wants to sleep in her expensive Manhattan apartment for a year. A psychiatrist prescribes many drugs for her “anxiety,” most of which make her sleep.

The narrator is unsympathetic, but the book is very, very funny; at the same time horrifying and sad.  One of the drugs causes blackouts during which she wakes up to find she has shopped (where did she get the white fur coat?), gone to clubs, and ordered Thai food.  Things get darker, darker, and darker.

A very fast read by the winner of the PEN/Hemingway award for her first novel, Eileen.

2.  Something Happened by Joseph Heller.   Who can ever forget Catch-22, the satiric American classic about World War II? (If you like Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, you should enjoy Heller’s novel.)  But I used to swear that Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974, was even better.  Was I right?

Heller satirizes the discontent of an  American middle-aged man, Bob Slocum, who is living a life of quiet desperation but at least has a sense of humor about it.   He would rather be at his horrible office than at home with his family, and isn’t that the American way?  Fans of Mad Men will love the atmosphere, but I have to warn you, NOTHING HAPPENS. It is essentially a monologue by the narrator Bob Slocum.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote in The New York Times in 1974:

“Something Happened” is so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small dose, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or John D. MacDonald’s “The Hangover,” to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his major character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end.

3. An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton.  The Hugo Award is the only fan-voted and fan-administered science fiction award.  If you’re a literary award junkie, you will devour this even if you’re not an SF fan.  Walton, a brilliant writer, critic, and Hugo Award-winning SF writer, has an unusual approach to analyzing the process of nominations.  She criticizes not only the winners but looks at many great books that might have been equally deserving.

She writes in the introduction:

I don’t think the best novel always wins. I think it’s very hard to say what the best book of the year is. Most years, there’s no single obvious best. It’s much easier to say what the top five are. I thought it might be interesting to take a historical look at the individual years and consider what was nominated and what won, to look at what else could have been nominated and wasn’t, and how well the selected books have stood the test of time. I wanted to look at the nominees to see whether the Hugos were picking the best five books, not only at the winners. It’s easy to find consideration of Hugo winners. I wanted to do something different—to revisit the winners and nominees in context.

4.  They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak.  To my knowledge, no one on Earth (maybe on Mars) ever reads this science fiction classic.  Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since  1979.  This radical satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere.  Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men. You never know when Earth will be taken over for its real estate.

5. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  Set in Corfu, this brilliant Gothic is a homage to The Tempest. The narrator, Lucy,  an unemployed actress, decides to join her pregnant sister, Phyllida, the wife of a rich banker, on vacation at a villa in Corfu.  There is beautiful scenery but many strange events:  the maid’s son drowns on a boat trip with an English photographer, someone shoots at a dolphin while Lucy is swimming near it in the sea, and the moody behavior of a composer, Max, who lives in a villa up the hill, seems strange:  does he have something to hide?  But Max’s father, a retired actor she has always worshiped, is charming.  When Lucy learns about a smuggling ring, she makes some very smart decisions.  But are they smart enough?

Summer Books in Progress and Mary Stewart’s “Wildfire at Midnight”

Oh, dear, I have neglected the blog lately.

This week I have unplugged from electronic devices and devoted time to observing “nature.” Often I don’t get beyond the yard, and I certainly don’t garden, but I agree with Alan Lightman, author of In Praise of Wasting Time, that doing nothing is a good way to replenish creativity.  And it’s delightful, when it’s not too hot, to sit outside with a book.  Birds twitter chattily and fly in and out of the trees and shrubs.  I don’t remember ever seeing so many birds.  Perhaps I never looked up from my book!

A little nature goes a long way:  naturally I have several books in progress, including an 800-page Victorian novel. Such a satisfying experience!  Why were the Victorians such splendid writers?  Were they harder workers than modern keyboarders?   Look forward to a gossipy post on a three-volume 19th-century novel soon.

You may be surprised to learn that I am also making my way through a few galleys.  I don’t usually go the Netgalley route, because I tend to get behind, but this time I selected only books I might read anyway and did not go rogue with unknowns.  I am currently reading Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise:  More Stories, a collection of 22 offbeat short stories by a brilliant American writer whose fiction, published mostly by small presses in her lifetime, was revived in 2015 when FSG published A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, Selected Stories (which I wrote about here.)  I will post on Evening in Paradise this fall.

My Mary Stewart book of the summer.  I adore Mary Stewart, whose Gothic novels were popular in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and whose heroines were my role models.  As a young girl under the influence of Stewart I considered becoming an actress (like Lucy in This Rough Magic), a veterinarian (like Vanessa in Airs Above the Ground), or a teacher at Cambridge (like Rose inThe Stormy Petrel).  The Stewart heroine I most resemble is Camilla, the Latin teacher in My Brother Michael, and believe me I never dreamed that would happen. (This is one of my favorites, and I posted about it here.)

Stewart’s beautifully-written novels can also be read as travel books, because Stewart’s smart, plucky narrators are always on vacation in exotic places and her  descriptions of landscape are lyrical.   And the romantic plots are both entrancing and formulaic:  the heroine (a) travels to Greece, France, Austria, or a gorgeous island to take a break from ordinary life, (b) meets two men, one of whom is a hero, the other a villain, and it takes a while to figure out which is which; and (c) eventually solves a mystery.

This summer I chose to reread Wildfire at Midnight, Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956.  Is it her best?  No, and do not start with it.  But it is set in Scotland, and I have always wanted to travel there.  I would love to visit Skye in 1953, when the book is set.

The narrator, Gianetta, a model in London, has as much work as she can handle, but her personal life is empty.  And don’t worry about her being a vacuous beauty–far from it!  She’s very bright and thoughtful.   She misses her ex-husband, a brilliant novelist, and regrets divorcing him: he was unfaithful.  In need of a vacation, she desperately wants to leave  London, which is crowded with an influx of tourists for the Coronation. So when her parents  recommend a hotel on Skye, she takes their advice.  The mountainous island is gorgeous, threaded with forests.

This is a murder mystery, but you read it for the atmosphere, the landscape descriptions, and the witty, almost theatrical dialogue, because the plot is slight.  One of the guests is a famous actress, Marcia Maling, whose doctor has ordered her to take a break from the stage.  When Gianetta learns Marcia has brought a car and chauffeur to Skye, she exclaims, “Is that what you call vegetating?”  Marcia replies,  “Well, I hate walking.”

On her first night at the hotel, Gianetta relaxes.  Stewart goes a little crazy with ellipses here, but I love the description of comfortable boredom.

I yawned and stretched a toe to the blaze, and drank some more sherry.  Idly I turned the pages of an old society weekly which lay at my elbow.  The usual flashlighted faces, cruelly caught at hunt suppers and charity ball,s gaped from the glossy pages… beautiful horses, plain women, well-dressed men… the London Telephone Directory, I thought, would be far more interesting.  I flicked the pages.  There were the usual photographs of me, this time poised against an Adam mantelpiece, in one of Hugo Montefiror’s most inspired evening gowns… I remembered it well, a lovely frock.  Here was the theatre page–Alec Guiness in an improbable beard, Vivien Leigh making every other woman within reach look plain, Marcia Maling giving the camera the famous three-cornered smile, staring at vacancy with those amazing eyes….

Gianetta’s ex- is staying at the hotel, and will they get back together?  What about that nice Alaistair?  Will He Be the One?   Although this is not a locked-room mystery, there is murder on the mountains and the guests are the main suspects.   It is suspenseful, though not Stewart’s most original plot.

Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael

I love Mary Stewart.  Perhaps she is my equivalent of Daphne du Maurier.  I discovered The Moon-Spinners when I was nine, and have read and reread her books.   Stewart is the most literary of “romantic suspense” writers, and her books might just as easily be called “travel suspense.”  Her intelligent heroines are always on vacation in exotic places, where they stumble into danger, help solve a mystery, and fall in love with a sexy, articulate man.  Stewart’s physically-fit intellectuals are more my type even than Jamie in Outlander, who has set the bar since 1991. And I am quite surprised that I never met such a man in Greece, Corfu, Crete, Austria, etc., because I knew  from reading these books that it was supposed to happen!

I recently reread My Brother Michael.  I particularly like this one because it’s set in Greece, mostly in Delphi, and the epigraphs are from Sophocles’ Electra.  And the quiet heroine, though likable, is a little mousier than some:  in other words, we could compete!

The thoughtful narrator, Camilla, a Latin teacher who recently broke up with her fiance, is sitting alone in a cafe in Athens on vacation.   She writes in a letter to a friend, “Nothing ever happens to me.”

But she still enjoys Athens.

…It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all but the most adventure-hungry.  That is the impression that Athens gives one.  Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating–but particularly talking.  The second one remembers in Athens is not the clamour of the impatiently congested traffic, or the perpetual hammer or pneumatic drill or even the sound of chisels chipping away at the Pentelic marble…  [but] the sound of Athenian voices arguing, laughing, talk-talk-talking, as once they talked the world into shape in the busy colonnades of the Agora, not so very far from where I sat.

Then an adventure happens to Camilla.  A Greek stranger enters the cafe and drops car keys on her table.  He tells her the car she has rented for Simon in Delphi is ready.  She protests that she did not rent the car, but he insists she left a deposit and says, “And Mademoiselle said it was a matter of life and death.” And then he leaves.

So she goes to Delphi.  She had planned to go anyway.  And her trip to Delphi is hilarious.  She is not a good driver, and she gets stuck behind a bus packed with people, chickens and goats.  The driver won’t let her pass, and I can just visualizes the macho Greek who accelerates every time she timidly approaches.   Finally a bold woman driver races past the bus, with much blowing of the horn, and Camilla follows in her wake.  And this is appropriate, because the other woman, we learn later, is Camilla’s doppelgänger.

But where is Simon?  In Delphi, she cannot find anyone who rented a car. She meets  a charming Englishman named Simon, who takes her on a  moonlight tour of the temple and theater at Delphi, and because.  Because he is a classics teacher he is the perfect guide.  I wanted to rush off to Delphi and pray to Apollo!

But Simon has a serious reason for visiting Delphi.  He has come to pay homage to his brother Michael, who worked undercover in the Resistance on Parnassus  during World War II.  A Greek traitor murdered him.    And in his last letter home he mentioned that he had discovered something valuable.

In the course of the book Camilla and Simon drink ouzo and retsina, climb Parnassus, and encounter some truly sociopathic thugs.

It is very exciting, well-plotted and beautifully written.

If you haven’t read Stewart,  let me recommend starting with my favorite,  This Rough Magic, set in Corfu, which plays with the theme of The Tempest.  I blogged about it here.

But I have enjoyed most of her books.  I especially like the ones from the ’50s and ’60s.

Mary Stewart’s Centenary: A Giveaway of The Wind off the Small Isles


Want a free copy of the new edition of Mary Stewart’s lost novella?

Mary Stewart fans, unite!  September 17 was the centenary of Stewart’s birth.


My favorite Stewart book.

I love Stewart’s beautifully-written Gothic novels.  Her independent heroines travel to exotic places, exchange witty repartee with devastatingly attractive men, and stumble upon crime scenes and solve mysteries.  Today this genre is known as “romantic suspense.” What they don’t tell you is that Stewart quotes Shakespeare, Keats, and other poets.

For me it started with The Moon-Spinners, Disney’s movie based on Stewart’s novel.  Afterwards I read Stewart’s  novels over and over, wanted  to wear a pink pants outfit with matching kerchief like Hayley Mills’s in the movie, and travel to Crete.


Hayley Mills in the outfit!

This summer I reread two of Stewart’s novels, Thunder on the Right, which I wrote about here, and The Ivy Tree, a cross between Daphne du Maurier’s  Rebecca and Hitchcock’s Vertigo:   it is narrated by a woman who is a dead ringer for a dead woman, or is she?

Excerpt from an earlier edition of The Wind off the Small Isles.

Excerpt from an earlier edition of The Wind off the Small Isles.

Mary Stewart’s long-lost novella, The Wind off the Small Isles, first published in 1968, was reissued in September.  (You can read about it at Leaves & Pages or at The Guardian here and here.)  Although this novella is captivating and rather sweet, a Gothic about two writers’ assistants (one female, one male) who discover the truth about a nineteenth-century couple’s elopement on a volcanic island, it is a a one-time read for me. Does anyone want it?  Anybody is the U.S. or Canada is eligible (I have postage cost issues with the rest of the world, alas!), whether you have won a previous draw or not.  It’s a matter of getting a book to a good home!

If you would like The Wind off the Small Isles, leave a comment here or email me at

In Which I Imagine Myself as a Gothic Heroine/Detective: Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right & Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective

Bike 'n' Read

Equipment for a Bike ‘n’ Read (or a Collapse ‘n’ Read!)

It’s not the heat, but the humidity, they say.  Halfway through a bike ride the other day, I collapsed on a bench, whether because of the heat or the humidity I couldn’t say.  As I guzzled from a water bottle, I felt as wan as the heroine of a Gothic novel after a hard day preventing a murder in the French Pyrenees.   You know the Gothic formula:  You arrive at a convent in France to visit your cousin before she takes her vows, only to find she is dead, and then your questions are deflected by a Spanish nun impersonator who lives at the convent but has not been allowed to become a nun, and eventually you’re running through the woods and nipping down gullies  in a storm…

thunder on the right stewart old paperback 13414472That’s how things go for Jennifer Silver, the artist heroine of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right I love Stewart’s Gothic novels of the ’50s and ’60s, which in recent years have been called “romantic suspense.” (What is “romantic” suspense?) Although Stewart’s Gothics are not available as e-books (the most portable books for a bike trip), I have a small nifty paperback that fits in my bag.

Stewart (1916-2014) was a brilliant writer of elegant novels about bright, witty young women  (actresses, veterinarians, artists, secretaries, etc.), who,  usually while traveling abroad, stumble upon a mystery, and  fall in love with a dashing man.  My favorite of her books is This Rough Magic: Lucy, an actress, visits her sister in her villa on Corfu, and not only rescues a beached dolphin with the help of a surly musician, but discusses the origins of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with his father, a famous actor who believes Corfu is the setting.  And of course there’s a crime or three to solve…

Thunder on the Right (1957), her third novel, may not be her best, but it is a page-turner.   The heroine, Jennifer,  is very smart and literary: immediately upon arrival at the creepy convent, she wryly is reminded of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothics.  The nun impersonator Dona Francisca’s story of Gillian’s death from pneumonia after a car accident doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t Gillian contact Jennifer after the accident? Why didn’t she tell them she had family?  And why do the nuns say the gentian was Gillian’s favorite flower because she admired the deep blue, when Gillian was color-blind? And, yes, Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, Stephen, shows up miraculously at the hotel in France and helps her figure out what happened, but Jennifer does most of the sleuthing on her own. And that’s why we like Stewart’s heroines.  They are smart and independent.  Of course they want (and get) romance as well.

thunder on the right stewart hodder 51y4TO2Ya+LGothic novels are for girls (I’m going for alliteration), but police procedurals are for everybody.  I recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, and began with The Last Detective, the first book in the series.  As Louise Penny says in the introduction to the Soho Crime edition, “Peter Lovesey plays with perspective, with the trustworthiness of the narrator, with your loyalties as a reader.  And he does this by engaging not just your head, but your heart.  What is crime fiction, after all, without caring?”

Peter Lovesey The Last Detective 51OOXqg8dPLDetective Superintendent Peter Diamond is not particularly likable:  he  is fat and surly, there has been an inquiry about one of his investigations, he is exasperated by technology, and he is unhappy with his position with the Bath Regional Police.  He and the Assistant Detective, John Wigfull, have different philosophies:  Diamond goes for hunches, interviews, and confessions, while Wigfull is a believer in technology, technology, technology.  When the corpse of a woman is found in a lake, it takes weeks to discover her identity, despite technology.

When we first meet Peter, he is napping in the morgue after a long night.  Lovesey explains,

Peter Diamond was entitled to put his feet up. Ever since the phone beside his bed at home in Bear Flat, near Bath, had buzzed shortly after 1 a.m., he had been continuously on duty. By the time he had got to the scene at Chew Valley Lake and viewed the body, the local CID lads had set the wheels in motion, but there had remained decisions only Diamond could make, strings that only the man in charge could pull. He’d pulled more strings than Segovia.

Lovesey the last detective british $_1Finally, the corpse is identified as Geraldine Snoo, a “washed-up” soap opera actress. Geraldine’s  husband, Gregory Jackman, an English professor, had not reported her missing, though he had not seen her in three weeks.  Did he kill her, or did they just have marital problems?  The other suspect is Dana, an attractive chauffeur whose son Gregory had saved from drowning.  The two have become friends, but say they are not lovers.

Not only does Lovesey describe the workings of the jaded detective Peter Diamond’s mind, but he also details the work habits of the two suspects.  Lovesey  changes t point of view to give us a window first into Gregory’s first-person narrative (a kind of interview soliloquy), and later  Geraldine’s.  Gregory  has been harried by his department chair into organizing a Jane Austen exhibition about her life in Bath–and he is not a fan of the Janeites or of the biographical approach to literature. His attention has been on the exhibition rather than on his mentally unstable wife, who spends much of her time visiting friends.  Dana, a former taxi driver  is  a chauffeur for a CEO. The job was a godsend:  she has struggled as a single mother to pay for her son’s private school, and her boss also lets her drive the car after hours, so long as she logs the miles.  As her friendship developed with Gregory, she tracked down some letters by Jane Austen (as yet inauthenticated) for him as a gift. The letters have disappeared, and Geraldine is dead.

Fascinating!  Either Gregory or Dana could have done it and…

An excellent read!  Mysteries are so good in the summer…

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael, & Three Literary Links

Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart

On May 9, the novelist Mary Stewart, author of romantic suspense novels and an Arthur trilogy, died.

All my life I’ve enjoyed her elegant Gothic novels, as we called this genre when I was growing up in the ’60s: Stewart’s are probably the smartest Gothic mysteries ever written.   Her charming, witty, well-educated heroines quote Shakespeare, Milton, and Sophocles as they travel around Corfu, Austria, France, Greece, Crete, Damascus, and other exotic locations.  These intrepid narrator-heroines, who were my role models when I was a child, all have jobs: they are actresses, veterinarians, and Latin teachers on vacation. They stumble upon a mystery and fall in love with the hero or villain or both, and once they’ve distinguished which is which, they risk their lives to  find clues and solve the crime committed by the smugglers, thieves, or killers..  And they’re all so cool about it.

Mary Stewart My Brother MichaelAs an homage I decided to reread one of her early novels, My Brother Michael, not because it’s the best, but because the heroine, Camilla, is a Latin teacher.  Is it possible  Camilla inspired me to pursue classics?

As the novel opens, Camilla is alone in Athens in a cafe writing a letter to the woman who was supposed to travel with her (she broke a limb).  She writes,

“Nothing ever happens to me.”

That said, things begin to happen.

At the cafe, a strange man approaches her,  insisting she is “Simon’s girl.” He is delivering keys for the car she hired to drive to Simon in Delphi.” Camilla explains she doesn’t know Simon and she did not hire the car, but the man insists on leaving the key anyway.  So she pluckily decides to drive the car herself, since she had planned to go to Delphi anyway.  She will deliver the car to Simon and go back on the tour bus.

She has some difficulties:   along the way she gets stuck behind a bus which accelerates every time she tries to pass, denudes a cockerel of his tail-feathers, and cannot reverse her car.

At Arachiva, Simon, who is English, takes over: he insists he is not the Simon she is looking for, but he, too, is staying in Delphi, and will drive her there, and find her a hotel.

It turns out that Simon is a classics teacher at a boys’ school (small world) but is here not for the antiquities but to learn what happened to his brother Michael during  World War II when he was working with a guerilla group.

Camilla visits various Greeks with him. Who were Michael’s friends or enemies?   The novel proceeds quickly, with its glimmer of glamour and sex.

My favorite book by Stewart is This Rough Magic, which, as you will guess, plays with the theme of Shakespeare’s  The Tempest.  Among Stewart’s best mysteries are The Moon-Spinners, This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds, and Airs Above the Ground.

If you like Daphne du Maurier, you are likely to enjoy Stewart.

Stewart also wrote a King Arthur trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.

You can read her obituary in The New York Times.

2.  In The Wall Street Journal, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is recommended as a commencement gift.

A Confederacy of Dunces” draws so heavily on its locale, in fact, that Louisianans have wondered how—or if—the novel’s peculiar charms might appeal to readers in other places. They needn’t have worried. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, and more than 3.5 million copies of the novel have been sold around the world. It’s been translated into more than two dozen languages. A stage version of the book is reportedly in the works.

3.  Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post Style Blog about Karen Joy Fowler’s acceptance speech for The PEN/Faulkner Award for her stunning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I wrote about here.

4.  If you’re in Chicago June 7-8, you can attend The Printers Row Book Fest.   The line-up includes James Patterson, Lidia Bastianich, Stuart Dybek, Barbara Ehrenreich, Joseph J. Ellis, Bill and Willie Geist, Jon Langford, Lorrie Moore, Walter Mosley, Justin Roberts, Mavis Staples, Cal Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Colson Whitehead and Andrew Zimmern.