Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Twenty years later…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…

I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!

There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.

The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.

Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.

On set with “Atticus” – Harper Lee and Gregory Peck

The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.

But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.

As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!

But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.

Harper Lee

I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…

Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 198…

Episode 198

Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…

Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…

The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?

Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…”

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . . 

* * * * *

Thriller

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…

The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.

WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.

WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?

For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…

The Blurb says: Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

GAN Quest: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Equal under the law…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Scout Finch and her older brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become fascinated by the story of the neighbour they have never seen, Boo Radley. After getting into trouble in his youth, Boo’s father has kept him in the family home all this time and, although he’s now a man, Boo still stays hidden from the world. Unsurprisingly all kinds of rumours and legends surround him, and the children develop an almost obsessive desire to see this mysterious figure. Meantime Scout’s father has reluctantly taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Many in the town think he should have refused to take the case, but Atticus Finch believes that all men have the right to equal justice under the law. Over the couple of years covered by the book, Scout will learn much about the prejudices and cruelties and kindnesses of the people in her small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

As with so many of the classics, I first read this long ago when the world and I were young, round about the late ’70s, I’d imagine, and my late teens. Of course back then it wasn’t really a classic yet – it had only been published less than twenty years earlier in 1960. Oddly, my major memories of it have always centred on the Boo Radley storyline rather than the Tom Robinson one, so at that time, had I been asked, I don’t think I’d have mentioned race specifically as the major theme of the book. I’d have said it was about how society demonises difference, how justice can be distorted by prejudice, and how poverty brutalises us. Over the years, as its status has grown, and as racism has become a subject much more to the fore over here than it was back in those more innocent-seeming days, I’ve accepted rather unthinkingly that this clearly is one of its major themes and felt for a long time that I should re-read it rather than relying on my frequent watches of the film (which I also think says more about Boo than race).

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Re-reading it now with all the current arguments around race in America in the forefront of my mind, it’s hard to see Lee’s portrayal as being as enlightened and forward-thinking as I’m sure it seemed back when the book was published. To modern eyes, her black characters seem to be very much a product of white wish-fulfilment. They are ‘good’ because they are respectful and subservient; they are intellectually inferior, not just through lack of educational opportunities but through ‘laziness’ and lack of ambition; and they are entirely passive, relying on a white knight to defend them, and not only in the legal sense of that word. Even Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, though more educated than most black people in the town through her family’s long association with white folk (as servants obviously), comes across rather as the stock black character of older American fiction, whose main function is to show how kind (or sometimes how cruel) their white masters can be if they choose. Calpurnia knows her place and accepts it gratefully, though it’s a lowly one. It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat ‘good’ black people better.

Even Atticus, generally held up as the pinnacle of just men, clearly doesn’t think of black people as in any way equal. He believes they have constitutional rights under the law, but that’s pretty much as far as he goes. There was an outcry a couple of years ago when Lee’s second book (which I haven’t read) came out and appeared to show Atticus as racist – while I wouldn’t go anywhere close to saying that about him in this book, I didn’t feel he could really be seen as fighting for equality either. Those of you who have memorised all my reviews (What? You haven’t??) will know that I criticised that other American novel always hailed as an icon of anti-racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for portraying black people more as pets to be treated kindly than humans to be treated equally. I fear this book left me with the same kind of taste, though a less bitter one.

Other aspects of the book have stood up better to the passage of time, I feel. The writing is wonderful, particularly Lee’s use of various levels of dialect to differentiate class and social status. Although I have reservations about the black characters, the white characters ring wholly true, as does the town of Maycomb which becomes a character in its own right. Boo’s story is still a great commentary on society’s wariness of “difference”, although I found the ending a little too neat – the point made a little too pointedly, perhaps – on this re-reading. This time around I was more moved by the rape storyline than Boo’s, though more because of Mayella than Tom.

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

(Men may have been equal in court, but I wonder if Mayella thought women were.)

Mayella’s story (the alleged rape victim) is devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of women denied education and opportunity, and the trial scene must surely be one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English language. Trying to avoid spoilers means I have to be a little vague here, but Lee does a marvellous job of showing both accuser and accused as victims of the white patriarchy. The callous treatment of Mayella both at the time of the rape and during the trial, (yes, even by Atticus), and the way she is then left in the power of the father who has been shown as a violent bully, if not worse, made me wonder who was actually lower down the social order – the black man or the white woman. Of course, Lee makes clear that poverty plays a major role here; one of the major strengths of the book is the comparison Lee draws between black and dirt-poor white people in terms of how they are treated by society, and of the subsequent resentment of the white people – Mayella’s father is more offended that Tom should have dared to feel sorry for Mayella than that he might have raped her. It’s a searing depiction of the sense of what we now call “white entitlement” that remains at the root of much of the race-related division in American society today.

So, although I found Lee’s portrayal of the black characters more than a little problematic, I think it’s fair to say that the major themes of the book – the inequalities inherent in the justice system, prejudice against difference, white poverty, the powerlessness of under-educated women – all still have much relevance to the race debates going on today, and to contemporary American society as a whole. Judged in its totality therefore, the book fully merits its place as a classic.

* * * * *

I listened to the book this time on the Audible audiobook read by Sissy Spacek. For my taste, she speaks too slowly and I ended up speeding it up, which worked better. But otherwise, I think she gives a wonderful reading, every word clearly enunciated, every character beautifully interpreted and every emotional nuance ringing true.

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, despite all I’ve said, it undoubtedly gives a very clear depiction of race relations in the ’30s, and of attitudes towards race in the ’50s, so – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

Yes, though the question of race has been written about over and over again and will continue to be, this feels original to me because of the comparison drawn between the relative statuses of black people and poor white people; and the question of equal application of justice under the law feels original to me to for the time. Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

I love the writing and storytelling, and although I don’t think the prose has the same power and impact as that in the two books to which I’ve previously given The Great American Novel status, Beloved and American Pastoral, I’m still going to say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’ve said in the past (Beloved) that since “to some degree the whole of American society is still suffering from the after-effects of its foundation on slavery” it could be argued that books that tackle the subject of racism against the descendants of slaves in some way reflect the entire American experience. However… the small-town setting of this is too restrictive and the depiction of the black people is unfortunately too patronising for me to convince myself that this one does. I think what it captures is the white American experience. Therefore… not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * * * *

Book 14 of 90

 

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Some, no doubt, would simply dismiss it as a by-product of barbarism. Given Russia’s long, heartless winters, its familiarity with famine, its rough sense of justice, and so on, and so on, it was perfectly natural for its gentry to adopt an act of definitive violence as the means of resolving disputes, But in the Count’s considered opinion, the reason that duelling prevailed among Russian gentlemen stemmed from nothing more than their passion for the glorious and grandiose.
….True, duels were fought by convention at dawn in isolated locations to ensure the privacy of the gentlemen involved. But were they fought behind ash heaps or in scrapyards? Of course not! They were fought in a clearing among the birch trees with a dusting of snow. Or on the banks of a winding rivulet. Or at the edge of a family estate where the breezes shake the blossoms from the trees… That is, they were fought in settings that one might have expected to see in the second act of an opera.

* * * * * * * * *

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.
….The three looked at each other non-plussed. Then they looked around, but not a single person was in sight. Then, for some reason which, doubtless, psychology can explain, they stared hard at the water, though the water there was just as black and foul as it is everywhere else in the canal system of Bruges.
….‘Surely you’ve not dropped it!’ Eve Fincastle exclaimed in a voice of horror. Yet she knew positively that Madame Lawrence had.

From A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett

* * * * * * * * *

….Have I been too kind to empire? Perhaps. But there are plenty of works lambasting empires, ferociously portraying their dark and often brutal side. I have tried to show them in a different light. I have tried to suggest that they have been ways of dealing with some of the most difficult and challenging problems of modern states, how to manage difference and diversity. That that may not have been their initial goal, that empires arose for a variety of reasons, is not the point. The fact is that in acquiring and governing empires, the ruling peoples found themselves faced with a series of tasks that they had to solve on pain of the quick dissolution of their states. What I find striking is less the mistakes and occasional brutalities of empire than a remarkable record of success, one that nation-states would be lucky to match.

* * * * * * * * *

….Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up to Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practising medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line than ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

* * * * * * * * *

From the archives…

….“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 128…

Episode 128…

Woohoo! Down two this week, to 194! The dreaded 200 is receding into the distance! However, I have to confess to having a couple of NetGalley requests outstanding so it could go back up any time. But I’ll celebrate while I can…

The first three of this week’s choices are from my 20 Books of Summer list. Which I must admit is all going horribly wrong. I’ve abandoned three and have only read seven so far, and have only reviewed one. There’s still plenty of time though. Isn’t there?

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Megan Abbott’s last three books, all of which were told from the perspective of young girls. This one seems to be from the perspective of a mother of a teenage girl, so I’m intrigued to see whether this voice works just as well for me…

The Blurb says: Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. From a writer with “exceptional gifts for making nerves jangle and skin crawl,” (Janet Maslin) You Will Know Me is a breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley, this one is actually making its second appearance on my TBR. It was a People’s Choice pollwinner a long time ago, and then I went off the idea after reading several reviews that suggest it’s pretty harrowing. However, it turned up again on NetGalley recently, so I thought I should at least try it…

The Blurb says: One man is dead.

But thousands are his victims.

Can a single murder avenge that of many?

When Christopher Drayton’s body is found at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs, Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are called to investigate his death. But as the secrets of his role in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre surface, the harrowing significance of the case makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with far more deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

In this striking debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a compelling and provocative mystery exploring the complexities of identity, loss, and redemption.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. This one has been lingering unread on my Kindle for the best part of a year and I don’t know why, since I really like the sound of it. I also have the audiobook, read by Aidan Kelly, so am intending to do a joint read/listen…

The Blurb says: After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

One of my Classics Club re-reads, so I decided to try the audiobook, narrated by Sissy Spacek, this time. However, I have the paper copy on stand-by just in case…

The Blurb says: Beautifully narrated by actress Sissy Spacek, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary masterpiece is unforgettable. Capturing an ephemeral moment in Southern history, it explores uncomfortable truths about justice and the human condition.

‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the ’30s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will tolerate only so much.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an antiracist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or Audible.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *