Friday, 2 December 2016

Death Goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan

 
first published 2014, though written in the 1950s
 
 
 
Death Goes Dancing 1


[Trouble at a London performance of a top ballet company – the policeman goes backstage]

They pushed their way past a few members of the corps de ballet – girls who wore peasant costume for the first act of Giselle. Seen near at hand their heavily made up faces looked strange and he knew that already a rumour of disaster must have reached them. A murmur rippled through them as he passed with Lucien Darielle.

 
Death Goes Dancing 3


He caught a glimpse of the stage and the scenery for Giselle – the two cottages and the backcloth of hills and a distant castle – and also glimpsed what he had read of but never seen before; dancers warming up, chatting and wandering about behind the lowered curtains….

 
Death Goes Dancing 4

[he enters the dressing room] There was something fantastic about the sight of Sarne Saxilby, with her smooth black hair spreading out amongst the pots of greasepaint.

She was wearing Giselle’s peasant costume, the blouse of which left her neck and the upper part of her back bare…
 
 
commentary: Some of us round here (and you know who you are, Kate and Bernadette) are getting far too tied up in the Greyladies Press, who have the irresistible marketing line of Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone. I myself have both reviewed Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders (I mean, just the title tells all) and lured in Bernadette (I think Kate has only herself to blame). And after this I will have to get The Chimney Murder by EM Channon, which both of them have read. I have also been dabbling in their Susan Scarlett books – the lost oeuvre of Noel Streatfeild. And, there’s a book called Gin and Murder which sounds like a must-read.

And here we have what must be an archetypal Greyladies book. It was written in the 50s by Mabel Esther Allan (whom I associate with children’s books) but not published until Greyladies discovered it recently. We have a splendid Scottish policeman, DI Ewen Gilbride, who happens to be at the ballet the night the prima ballerina is murdered. Luckily he is an expert not only on ballet but on folk customs too, which turns out to be nearly relevant.

He interviews all the friends, relations and colleagues of the dead woman. He visits France and Italy in pursuit of witnesses. And in the end he solves the crime.

I enjoyed the whole thing hugely – it did not shock, or amaze, or startle me, there was nothing complicated or difficult about it. The writing style – and this is not an insult – was rather like a 1950s YA book. But it was a nice comfort read, and absolutely full of fascinating details of its time and milieu. When an up-and-coming but very young star dancer comes to be interviewed, Gilbride
had vague ideas that she might appear in slacks and a pullover. However when she came she wore a black fur coat over a turquoise blue frock
A nice distinction to show a moment in the timeline of the theatrical world.

After another witness interview, Gilbride thinks:
[Dale] looked, on first acquaintance, a man of integrity, but he also looked a man of strong passions. Perhaps not entirely English. Ewen made a mental note to look up [his] history… Foreigners were not always necessarily more passionate than Englismen but he was obviously deeply in love…
When Ewen finally gets home to his beautiful violinist wife
The sight of her slim figure in the graceful full-skirted blue velvet housecoat lifted his heart
It sounds a lovely garment, and the two of them and the housecoat belong to a simpler, statelier time. There is a moment where Ewen uses religious beliefs and practices to get to the truth of something – you just can’t imagine it now.

The book is prefaced by a rather interesting account from Mabel Esther Allan of her writing career: she was amazingly prolific, but also took it in her stride that some of her books remained unpublished.

I will certainly be looking out for more from her, and anything else Greyladies offers.

And this is for Wendy, in memory of a trip to see Giselle, without any murders, but quite as dramatic in its way.

Janet Karin as Giselle and Kaye Goodson as Berthe, 1962. 

Anna Pavlova in her Act 1 costume for Giselle, and dancing Act 2.

All from the archives of the National Library of Australia.

Louis MacNiece’s lovely poem Les Sylphides was on the blog a few years ago with another great picture from the NLA.





























Thursday, 1 December 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

 
published 2016


 
Swing Time 1
 


[London in the 1980s:The narrator’s father is always reading The Communist Manifesto]

‘Some people carry the bible,’ he told me proudly. ‘this is my bible.’ It sounded impressive – it was meant to impress my mother – but I had already noticed that he seemed to always be reading this book and not much else, he took it to every dance class, and yet never got any further than the first twenty pages. 

Within the context of the marriage it was a romantic gesture: they’d first encountered each other at a meeting of the SWP, in Dollis Hill, but even this was a form of misunderstanding, for my father had gone to meet nice leftist girls in short skirts with no religion, while my mother really was there for Karl Marx. My childhood took plane in the widening gap. I watched my autodidact mother swiftly, easily, outstrip my father. The shelves in our lounge – which he built – filled up with second-hand books, Open University text books, political books, history books, books on race, books on gender, ‘All the “isms”,’ as my father liked to call them, whenever a neighbour happened to come by and spot the queer accumulation.


 
commentary: Swing Time jumps around all over the place (perhaps like someone dancing, as dance is such a major theme of the book?) It has an irritating triple time scheme: the framing device is that the unnamed narrator has done something terrible, is in disgrace, is watching out for the consequences. So she is looking back at her childhood as a mixed-race little girl in North London, taking dance lessons with her new friend Tracey. And then we get chunks of her life in her 20s, leading up to whatever-it-is that happened. Dancing is the connecting line throughout: Tracey is a terrific dancer, and hopes it will mean she gets on in life. The narrator’s mother wants the way out to be via education and political knowledge.

In paragraphs and in pages, in lines and sentences and chunks of dialogue I enjoyed a lot of this book: Smith is such a very good writer, and can be entrancing. But overall I thought it was a mess, because none of the sections linked up. The two girls’ friendship was seen as a key element of their lives, but actually it wasn’t. The only really important incident seemed to be when Tracey told the narrator a bad story about her (ie the narrator’s – can you see how irritating this namelessness becomes?) father, which is instantly and undoubtingly believed by the narrator and acted on in a completely unconvincing manner. We are told portentously how important the friendship is, but without evidence. Tracey pops in and out of the later parts, but there is no connection, no reality about it. Her affair with another actor is never fully explained or given any closure.


swing time 2The narrator goes to work for a world-renowned music star – one who resembles Madonna in some ways – and the description of those years is very convincing, completely believable, rather like an insider tell-all story. There is a whole section in Africa, a country unnamed but apparently the Gambia, where the popstar, Aimee, wants to do good. Again, these sections seem very real.

The scandal, the bad thing the narrator did, is ridiculous when it finally turns up: I can’t explain why I think that without spoilers, but it seemed not serious enough, and the way it played out didn’t seem likely at all.

There were so many enjoyable parts to the book – the narrators’ parents’ relationship, as indicated above; the scenes describing dancing and films and various entertainments; the consideration of black culture and black contributions to dance; and the many excellent jokes and witty lines.

swing time 3

But to me there was a great yawning hole in the middle, where the separate parts just didn’t link up. I kept thinking Zadie Smith was going to pull it all together, make more sense of it, but it didn’t happen for me.

I had a similar conflicted reaction to Smith’s last book, NW, here on the blog.

The top picture is a 1970s fashion advert. The other two are entertainers Sammy Davis Jr and Pearl Bailey.














Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tuesday History: Boston 1918


The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers History & Mysterytheme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.



Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. For this particular topic I have very much been looking at more modern books, and this week is not going to change the trend. 

But not only that – it’s actually not that much of a crime novel. I have loved Dennis Lehane books: Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile were particular standouts. I knew The Given Day was a historical novel, but I assumed it would at least resemble his crime novels. Well, I thought wrong, buddy – though it certainly featured a lot of crime, and policemen. 

But I am committed to writing about it (it’s 700 pages long, for goodness' sake,  there was no time to work up something else historical), so here we go.

 

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane



published 2008


 
Given Day 1


Joe was dressed in his Sunday best— a chocolate brown knickerbocker suit with button-bottom pants cinched at the knees, white shirt and blue tie, a golf cap set askew on his head that matched the suit. Danny had been there when his mother had bought it, Joe fidgeting the whole time, and his mother and Nora telling him how manly he looked in it, how handsome, a suit like this, of genuine Oregon cassimere, how his father would have dreamed of owning such a suit at his age.


Given Day 2
 


Nora stood by the foot of the bed in her factory uniform— Ladlassie stripe overalls with a beige blouse underneath. She gripped her left wrist with her right hand. Danny poured three whiskeys and gave a glass to each of them, and his father’s eyebrows rose slightly at the sight of Nora drinking hard liquor. “I smoke, too,” she said, and Danny saw a tightening of his father’s lips that he recognized as a suppressed smile.

 
 
Given Day 3
 


commentary: I fully expected to love this book, and I really wanted to. But I didn’t. It was too long, too detailed and I found much of it very dull. And yet, it should have been a winner, and there were some excellent parts.

It is set in 1918/19, mostly but not entirely in Boston, and deals very much with real events, including the aftermath of WW1, and the influenza epidemic. As the book ends, Prohibition is about to come into force. (This occasional strand of the book was certainly thought-provoking: a legal decision made, a huge change in the lives of the populace, an idea that many people think is ridiculous, unworkable and will have unintended consequences. Various aspects of modern life came to mind...)

Normally this kind of a book is a 'sweeping saga', covering many years and generations, but this is far from the case here: he has chosen his tiny canvas and sticks to it. (Just like Jane Austen and her few families in a village.)


There are three main plotlines:

Danny Coughlin, from an immigrant Irish family steeped in police culture, finds himself torn between family loyalty, his respect for the police service, and the awful treatment of the police by their superiors. His struggle, and the book, will culminate in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, a dramatic and shameful series of events. He also falls in love, despite various travails.

Luther Lawrence is a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston on the run from his past. His story – which was the most compelling part of the book for me – shows the difficulties and endless humiliations of black life. He is trapped by the customs of the age, and by his own past.

Babe Ruth, famous baseball player, is a character who appears in bridging chapters in the book: his thoughts and feelings are imagined, and he has one meeting with Luther and a glancing encounter later.

A long way into the book, Danny and Luther become friends and their future will then be entwined. (Apparently there are two more books by Lehane, this is a trilogy, though I’m not sure how much these two characters will feature – the other books seem to be about Danny’s brother.)

There were some great things about the book. Sentences like these:
This terrible smallness of men was bigger than him, bigger than anything. 

How did two people vanish from each other’s sight in the same house? 

He wished he could have died on any other day but this. This one had carried too much defeat with it, too much despair, and he would have liked to leave the world believing in something.

--and there is a very fine passage where one man reminisces about his dead colleague and childhood friend, even though both are very flawed characters, and one is downright wicked.

On the downside - it is far far too long at 700 pages. There are hardly any women characters of any note. One, Nora, Danny’s love, is well done, but the others are wasted – particularly the woman terrorist who provides the only real surprise in the book.

The baseball sections are meaningless to those of us with no interest, and it isn’t really clear what any of the Babe Ruth sections are for.

It was readable in its way, I didn’t want to cast it aside, but it didn’t catch fire for me, I never minded putting it down, and I didn’t long to pick it up (unlike Lehane’s other books). It did seem to be immensely well-researched, but Lehane most certainly did not push his findings too hard at the reader. On the other hand, we did have the issue mentioned in one of my previous History &Mystery pieces: all the nice good characters were magically non-racist, believed in their fellow-men, respected women and their rights etc etc.

Some people think this is a Great American Novel. I wish I could recommend it more, given my high regard for the author.

Last year I read another very long book about policemen (this time in a 1960s setting) The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith, a book that infuriated and charmed me in equal measure. I would be a lot more likely to read that one again than this, which didn’t provoke any very strong feelings, apart from faint boredom at the dull passages. The good stuff (and I hope I have made it clear that there was some) was buried too deep.

Children gathering firewood in Boston in 1917, from a collection of child labour photos at the Library of Congress.

Young woman working in a factory, also 1917, same collection by Lewis Hine. (It is a very striking set of pictures of young people on the streets and at work in Boston in that era, well worth a look.)

Picture of Babe Ruth in 1919, when the book was set, playing for the Boston Red Sox, also from the LOC.




























Monday, 28 November 2016

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

 
published 1964

12th book in the James Bond series


 
You Only Live Twice

And then, following the path on the other side of the lake, two strolling figures came into his line of vision and Bond clenched his fists with the thrill of seeing his prey.

Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword while his left was hooked into the arm of his companion, a stumpy woman with the body and stride of a wardress. Her face was totally obscured by a hideous bee-keeper's hat of dark-green straw with a heavy pendent black veil reaching down over her shoulders. But there could be no doubt! Bond had seen that dumpy silhouette, now clothed in a plastic rainproof above tall rubber boots, too often in his dreams. That was her! That was Irma Bunt! Bond held his breath. If they came round the lake to his side, one tremendous shove and the armoured man would be floundering in the water! But could the piranhas get at him through chinks in the armour? Unlikely! And how would he, Bond, get away? No, that wouldn't be the answer.


 
You Only Live Twice 2


commentary: What a strange book this is. It has a memorable, dream-like feel to it, and the Japanese setting is very well-done and intriguing. Fleming, as was his wont, includes plenty of local colour and explanations, with his safe assumption that 99% of his readers had never been to Japan and were not likely ever to go. So the multiple details include James Bond dressed up as Japanese (!!), and the local ways with raw fish, fugu and even live lobster (which crawls away from Bond).

In the usual mystifying manner, Bond at one point ‘finds a Palomar pony to run with’, which seems to have the meaning of finding a drinking companion, and also needs to have the word ‘poofter’ explained to him.

There is an extraordinary passage on the kamikaze phenomenon (as described by the Palomar pony):
It was a terrible and beautiful thing to see an attack wave going off. These young men in their pure white shifts, and with the ancient white scarf that was the badge of the samurai bound round their heads, running joyfully for their planes as if they were running to embrace a loved one. The roar of the engines of the mother planes, and then the take-off into the dawn or into the setting sun towards some distant target that had been reported by spies or intercepted on the radio. It was as if they were flying to their ancestors in heaven.
I’m going to pinch the Wikipedia description of the main plot: ‘Tanaka asks Bond to kill Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a politically embarrassing "Garden of Death" in an ancient castle; people flock there to commit suicide. After examining photos of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond discovers that "Shatterhand" and his wife are Tracy's murderers, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt. Bond gladly takes the mission, keeping his knowledge of Blofeld's identity a secret so that he can exact revenge for his wife's death. Made up and trained by Tanaka, and aided by former Japanese film star Kissy Suzuki, Bond attempts to live and think as a mute Japanese coal miner in order to penetrate Shatterhand's castle.’

Dr Shatterhand! What a great name.

We are helpfully given a long boring list of plants that might be poisonous, and there does seem to be one hole in the plot: we are repeatedly told that the Japanese care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide, so it doesn’t make sense that they are so anxious to get rid of what is excellently described in the book as ‘a Disneyland of Death’. Also, could Bond not have infiltrated the garden by pretending to be a would-be suicide?

But it is churlish to ask these questions, as there is so much to enjoy. I liked this description of the debased British who have lost their moral fibre:
we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure - gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.
With a few changes (lottery instead of pools, pop stars and celebrities instead of aristocracy) it sounds like a newspaper editorial of today.

Bond has a go at haiku, and uses Freddie Uncle Chuck Katie as a euphemism while discussing the Japanese lack of swear words. He eats pemmican (just like the Swallows and Amazons of recent blogging). There is a fascinating encounter with some huge and worrying statues.

The whole thing is terrific fun, with a surprising ending including James Bond’s obituary. But there is still another Bond novel to come…

Photo of Japanese warrior from the National Museum of Denmark.

Archer drawing from a 19th Century book on Japan.



















Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Corsets, Cakes & Ale

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

 

Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham


published 1930 - this extract looking back 30 or so years
 
 
Cakes and Ale 2


She undid her bodice and lowered my head till it rested on her bosom. She stroked my smooth face. She rocked me back and forth as though I were a child in her arms. I kissed her breasts and I kissed the white column of her neck; and she slipped out of her bodice and out of her skirt and her petticoats and I held her for a moment by her corseted waist; then she undid it, holding her breath for an instant to enable her to do so, and stood before me in her shift. When I put my hands on her sides I could feel the ribbing of the skin from the pressure of the corsets


 
Cakes and Ale


[The next morning]
We dressed in silence. She did not put on her corsets again, but rolled them up and I wrapped them in a piece of newspaper. We tiptoed along the passage and when I opened the door and we stepped out into the street the dawn ran to meet us like a cat leaping up the steps. The square was empty; already the sun was shining on the eastern windows. I felt as young as the day.
 
 
commentary: It has long been a contention on this blog that Somerset Maugham writes some of the best women characters in early 20th century literature. He was famously gay, but apparently described himself as “three-quarters ‘queer’, one quarter ‘normal’” in the idiom of the day. He certainly had relationships with women, and the narrator’s love affair in this book is apparently openly and recognizably based on one of his own.

There are other roman a clef aspects. The novel tells the story of a late Victorian writer who marries twice and becomes a grand old man of letters as he becomes more and more feted in his old age. By this time he is married to a much younger woman who guards his reputation fiercely.

I have recently read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Thomas Hardy, but even if I hadn’t, I think the connection would be very plain. Driffield’s first wife in Cakes and Ale is quite different from the first Mrs Hardy, and the locations are different, but many many other details make the story clear. Maugham said that he didn’t know Hardy, and that he didn’t particularly mean him to be the novelist in the book, but really that sounds disingenuous.

In addition, Maugham very much hurt the feelings of Hugh Walpole – a novelist well-known at this time, but now largely forgotten – who seems clearly depicted as Alroy Kear in the book.

You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the novel, which is short, satirical and satisfying. Maugham uses it to make many points about the literary world – this getting it off the chest is often bad for a book, but I think it works here.

Maugham plainly agrees with me that his women characters are better than anyone else’s – his 1st person alter ego Ashenden criticizes fictional ‘winsome types of English womanhood, spirited, gallant, high-souled’, and then has this rather startling passage:
We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised that they care to see themselves thus limned.
He also has a go at various writers and writing styles, and artistic ways, and even English food – taken to a gentlemen’s club, Ashenden ‘sighed as I thought of the restaurants round the corner where there were French cooking, the clatter of life, and pretty, painted women in summer frocks.’

I loved the book – the vision of a certain kind of provincial life, the young man being taught how to ride a bicycle by the Driffields, the nuances of class, the busy London life, the streets and the landladies and lodgings. And the section above comes from a lovely description of a first sexual experience – I was charmed and enchanted by the corsets carried in newspaper and the happy morning.

My friend Sergio at Tipping my Fedora did a great piece on this book last month: I really recommend it.

Particular favourite Maugham books on the blog are Being Julia (aka Theatre) and The Painted Veil – both of which were made into terrific films in recent years.

The pictures are corset adverts of the era.




















Friday, 25 November 2016

A Double Dose of Christianna Brand

 

Heads You Lose & Death of Jezebel

 

Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand



published 1948
 
 
Heads Jezebel 2


Death of Jezebel is notoriously hard to get hold of: second-hand copies are very expensive. I caught a glimpse of what seemed like a cheap version, clicked and waited. 

When it turned up, much to my surprise it was an audiobook on CDs. I had not been paying enough attention. Unlike many of my blogging friends, I don’t really do audiobooks (when I’m driving I like loud music I can sing along to very tunelessly) but as this seemed to be the only way to take in this one, I listened.

Of course this means I can’t, as I usually do, include an extract, and I am also wary of making certain kinds of criticisms – it seems to be unabridged but if I missed a point I can’t go back and check, can’t be sure it wasn’t just me not listening properly.

So - I was glad to read it, though I didn’t like it as much as others do. One of the good things is that it combines knights on horseback and a cod-mediaeval pageant with a weird post-war Ideal-Homes-type exhibition. 

This must make it unique. 

The post-war atmosphere and the people looking and hoping for comforts in a brave new world are particularly well done.

The pageant is actually quite hard to visualize, and most of the time I just took Brand’s word for what was possible. Because the point of this one is that it is a bizarre impossible, locked-room-style mystery: everyone seems accounted for, so who could have killed the rather horrible woman playing a damsel at the top of a tower? Men in helmets and cloaks are near her, but how could they reach…? And are they identifiable in all that armour?

Incidentally, a discussion of the death of the Biblical Jezebel is similar to one in Agatha Christie's Crooked House, published  a year later. (And the character of Jezebel comes up in Nabokov's Speak, Memory and in this LP Hartley novella.)  

Brand brings in both her separate series policemen, Cockerill and Charlesworth, and the book goes on and ON producing false endings, viable solutions, and false confessions. She is always a great one for the very convincing explanation that falls apart, but in this case I really think she overdoes it. Locked-room fans rate it highly – I found it too difficult to keep changing my opinion of the characters, or trying to work out who was impersonating whom. And too many mentions of the mackintosh. I’m not really sure I got every detail of the crime at the end either – were there false family members or not? This is where I need a paper copy. However there was one final surprise regarding a helmet that was both horrible, and had me nodding my head in admiration…


 So being in a Brand mood I then moved on to this one: 


Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand


published 1941




An ancient butler arrived with a loaded tray, walking as daintily as a cat upon his corn-tormented feet. ‘And a parcel has arrived for Miss Fran…. It’s on the table in the hall.’

‘It’s my new hat,’ cried Fran, leaping to her feet and clutching him by the arm. ‘Is it a hat-box, Bunsen? … How lovely! I asked them to send it down, but I never thought it would arrive so soon…not that I could wear it here, it would shake the village to its core. You wait, Granny! You’re always complaining that our hats nowadays aren’t as ridiculous as yours were in the year dot. Well, this one is.’

It certainly was. She came back with it perched on her little dark head, smiling and nodding, turning found to let them admire its wonders, blushing a little at the look of James’s sleepy brown eyes. Pendock felt his heart turn over in a sickening roll as he watched her, so sweet and gay and unaffected, with the absurd little bunch of flowers and feathers perched on her silky head. ‘Do you like it, Pen?’ she said, coming up to him, smiling innocently into his eyes.


commentary: It's a long time since I read this, and it starts off well enough, though the murders are gruesome. But half way through it all came back to me: it has a spectacularly bad ending, a grave disappointment. 

It contains traces of many other Brand books: decapitations, hats and hatboxes (see also note below on the hat picture). Silly girls who are indulged by Brand, while others are criticized, though the reader cannot see a cigarette paper difference between them. In this one, Fran (who actually has a minor role in Jezebel) is completely selfish, insensitive and I thought unpleasant, but her feelings are apparently ‘real’ as opposed to a disliked character, Peppy, and a maid, who are both mocked for how they react to violent death. (The maid is hilariously ‘nervous’ that there’s a murderer about – imagine.)

It rattles along, and the body of the book is really not bad – but the ending is awful, ridiculous. Again I’m not really sure about various aspects of the solution, but I also didn’t care. It is not a good book.

Brand wrote two of the great murder stories, Green for Danger and Tour De Force, and either would be in my group of top mysteries. The others (including Jezebel) are reasonable reads. But Heads you Lose is bad, in my opinion.

The knight approaching the tower is an illustration by Kay Nielsen for a 1922 book, East of the Sun and West of the Moon,  via Flickr.

The hat picture is the one I used for another hat-based Brand mystery, London Particular. The photo is from George Eastman House, and was a cover for McCall’s magazine.
















Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thanksgiving

 



 


Today is Thanksgiving in the USA, the fourth Thursday in November.

It’s one of the nicest of festivals: I found it very friendly and inclusive when I lived in the USA, and celebrating being grateful has got to be a good thing. And on a practical note, usually the cooking is shared and presents are not involved, so it isn’t too hard or expensive on anyone.

Unsurprisingly, it can be something of a setpiece in American novels.

On the blog in 2014 I featured Benjamin Markovits’ The Other Side of Winter as a Thanksgiving entry: I liked the description of a young woman hosting Thanksgiving for the first time - she has become the hostess, she is no longer the young woman flying home. She is claiming responsibility… turning into one of the grown-ups.


Thanksgiving Pies
 

In those recent slice of life books like Hanya Yanagihara’a A Little Life and Lauren Groff’s Fate and Furies, it’s part of the yearly round as we follow the characters. I have commented before on a strange manner peculiar to certain novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing, but the year’s progress is marked out by these feasts.

One interesting point is that it doesn’t feature in 19th century literature, and there’s a reason for that: because Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863, and was not a general or widespread feast till later. So there is no Thanksgiving in Tom Sawyer or Little Women (though Alcott did write a short story about it) or What Katy Did.



But late 20th Century and 21st century authors make up for that.

Jay McInerney, Richard Ford and Truman Capote and Suzanne Berne all have scenes at Thanksgiving – it’s the perfect setting for a family row, the introduction of a new and vexatious partner, revelations of secrets and fights over old grudges. There’s a Thanksgiving weekend in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

Jane Haddam’s holiday series of Gregor Demarkian mysteries obviously features a Thanksgiving entry: A Feast of Murder in 1992.

Glenn Savan was a very up-and-coming writer in the 1980s, and died too young: his White Palace had a very memorable Thanksgiving scene.



Perhaps because of its late arrival on the scene, there’s no historical chronicler in the way that Charles Dickens became the patron saint of the family Christmas – but there’s a case for Anne Tyler as the prophet of Thanksgiving now. They feature in quite a few of her books, fitting in well with her usual path through the year and long view of family relationships. In The Accidental Tourist there’s a hilarious and wince-making scene where there is a  fear of the turkey poisoning the guests. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant it’s one of the many meals Ezra tries to get his family together for. And last year’s Thanksgiving entry on the blog came from her most recent book, A Spool of Blue Thread – there’s even a son-in-law, Hugh, who ‘owned a restaurant called Thanksgiving that served only turkey dinners.’ No-one writes about families the way Tyler does, and her dialogue is both exact and hilarious.

With thanks to my friend Shannon for pictures of her prize-winning Thanksgiving tables.
The family and pies are from the Library of Congress. The card is from the NYPL.

I hope readers might add some more Thanksgiving scenes in the comments (surely there must be more themed crime novels), and in the meantime:

HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL BLOG READERS