Tag Archives: Sayers

Ten Favourite Novels

My friend the Outdoor Voice recently asked for a list of my ten favourite books. Similar requests have been made by other friends via various social media at various times. This is a hard question. To make it easier, I decided to produce both a fiction and non-fiction list, thus (sneakily) doubling my choices.

These are my favourite novels. The first 9 are in alphabetical order by title (excluding “the” of course), and the tenth is my favourite book. Please note that Possession tops anything non-fictional I’ve read, so it would be my number 1 whether or not I made two lists.

  • The Children of Men by P.D. James
  • Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Killing the Shadows by Val McDermid
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
  • Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

And the top of my list:

  1. Possession by A.S. Byatt

I sat with this list for a couple of weeks. A few books almost made it, but then were cut in favour of others. I frequently consulted my database of books I have read (records kept since July 1993) in making the list. I excluded two series from consideration: The Chronicles of Narnia and the Potter books. Both of those are favourites, but in both cases the series must be taken as a whole, not split apart. I realize that you can get Narnia all in one volume, but the order is wrong in that volume (in my humble opinion of course).

Which of your favourites are missing from my list?

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Too Much?

Last year I resolved to read more older books. This year I resolved to do the same, but more. Fifteen days into the resolve, I wonder if it was too much to do a same-song-second-verse-a-little-bit-louder-and-a-little-bit-worse kind of resolution. It feels like it is taking a lot of concentration and thought to find the older books to read. But I thought the same thing last year.

I made the resolution again because I have more unread old books that I want to read. Last year having a goal that I wrote about here in public meant I read more far more of these than I would have otherwise. It also meant that I re-read all of my Dorothy Sayers books, which felt like a bit of a cop-out. In the fall almost all my older books were Sayers. Of course, now Sayers is out of the road, and I can’t use her as a fall-back this year. Plus there are a lot of other old books which are just as enjoyable as Sayers. I’ve just got to find them.

Currently on my Old-Book-To-Be Read Pile I’ve got A Passage to India (E.M. Forster, 1924), Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie, 1934), and Assignment in Eternity (Robert A. Heinlein, 1953). I’m currently listening to The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920, introduces Hercule Poirot) and have just finished Landfall by Nevil Shute. You might see a new pattern developing, but don’t worry — while it might be fun to revisit a select few Agatha Christie, I have no intention of reading the complete Hercule Poirot as I’m not a fan of Christie’s as I am of Sayers. The only other Christie books I’ll consider re-visiting are Death on the Nile and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m more likely to re-read most of Nevil Shute’s oeuvre. Shute worked with aeroplanes in the early 20th century and his fiction reflects his knowledge. The aerospace engineer  in me finds his books fascinating.

Last year I didn’t get to Dickens or Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells. They are on my list of authors to get to (through?) this year. Do you have any suggestions for other older books I should consider?

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Sleepless in Toronto

As noted previously, I’m re-reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. On this particular re-read, the chapter epigraphs have come into focus. I admired the epigraph for the chapter in which Lord Peter appears unexpectedly in Oxford, then naps in a boat on the river during a lazy spring Sunday. I find it even more apt now that I find I’ve drunk too much coffee and cannot sleep. The quote is attributed to Thomas Dekker, but doesn’t note which of his many works it comes from. A quick search of the internet has produced no obvious results except the continued attribution of the quote to Dekker without reference to the particular work. Here is Dekker on sleep, as quoted by Sayers.

Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour’s slumber, it cannot be bought: of so beautiful a shape is it, that though a man lie with an Empress, his heart cannot beat quite till he leaves her embracements to be at rest with the other: yea, so greatly indebted are we to this kinsman of death, that we owe the better tributary, half of our life to him: and there is good cause why we should do so: for sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want? of wounds? of care? of great men’s oppressions ? of captivity? whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings: can we therefore surfeit on this delicate Ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard, and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no, look upon Endymion, the moon’s minion, who slept three score and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it.

Now, lets see if I can get me some of that sleep, the golden chain, etc.

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Great Men/Women Theories

I am currently reading Dorothy L. Sayers again. I’ve made it to Gaudy Night in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Gaudy Night is one of my favourite of these books. Once, when I had it with me at church, Fee, an elder now with Jesus, informed me that it was one of her favourites. I know I liked it because of the interesting female lead. I think Fee might have liked it for similar reasons. As I read last night, I came across a passage that I don’t think I’d spotted before. I’ve been interested in the “Great Men” historiography of the nineteenth century because I’ve worked with women writing in the nineteenth century who had to deal with that kind of thinking. In Gaudy Night Harriet mused on a counter theory of great women. Here is her musing

“Though of course,” Harriet reminded herself, “a woman may achieve greatness, or at any rate great renown, by merely being a wonderful wife and mother, like the mother of the Gracchi; whereas the men who have achieved great renown by being devoted husbands and fathers might be counted on the fingers of one hand. Charles I was an unfortunate king, but an admirable family man. Still, you would scarcely class him as one of the world’s great fathers, and his children were not an unqualified success. Dear me! Being a father is either a very difficult or a very sadly unrewarded profession. Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him—or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them. An interesting thesis for research. Elizabeth Barrett? Well, she had a great husband, but he was great in his own right, so to speak—and Mr. Barrett was not exactly—The Brontes? Well, hardly. Queen Elizabeth? [Note: no number as book written in 1935.] She had a remarkable father, but devoted helpfulness towards his daughters was scarcely his leading characteristic. And she was so wrong-headed as to have no husband. Queen Victoria? You might make a good deal out of poor Albert, but you couldn’t do much with the Duke of Kent.”

Excellent. I rather liked this line of thought.

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Projects Updated

I’ve got a couple of Reading Projects happening in the background of my reading this year. I’ve fallen off the LOST reading list a little. I’ve been finding those titles a bit weird and depressing. One shouldn’t be surprised at this really, as the show is a bit weird and sometimes depressing. The LOST list is meant to expand my reading horizons, so I will keep at it.

On the other hand, my reading old books resolution has been sailing smoothly along. I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter Wimsey set in order. That is something I haven’t done in years. I am enjoying it very much. I’ve just finished Strong Poison in which lots of couples get together from previous mysteries and Lord Peter Meets His Match. Plus there’s a mystery. I’d forgotten about the fake seance in this one, and quite enjoyed Miss Climpson’s antics in that episode. All the silly characters at the edge of the Wimsey mysteries are always rather fun.

How is your reading for the fall of 2013 going? Is it required? Or is it all for fun?

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K is for Key, as in the Key to the Cipher

Today’s Post is brought to you by the letter

Where K is for Key. As in cipher key.

I like books about codes. As in secret codes, not writing code as in computer programming. There are some similarities between coding and encoding, but for now, let’s leave it at I like books about secret codes.

I’ve mentioned Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson before in this blog. I called it twisted history at the time. Cryptonomicon is mostly about codes, as in secret codes and encryption systems. I really like this aspect of the book. Enigma by Robert Harris also includes a lot of secret code stuff in it, as the action centres around Bletchley Park, home of English and Allied code-breaking operations. Bletchley Park also features in Cryptonomicon. I’m sure there are other books that feature WW2 code breaking, but those are the two I know about and enjoyed reading.

Codes also feature in Have His Carcass, by Dorothy L. Sayers. HHC features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finding bodies and solving murder mysteries. It comes after Strong Poison, and before Gaudy Night. If you like the characters, HHC has them, PLUS, as an added bonus, it has secret codes. And spies. And all kinds of cool stuff. You should check it out.

I’ve got A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar on my shelf to read. It is also about cryptography. I’m interested in the subject, and think the book looks fascinating, so I’m not quite sure why I haven’t read it yet. So many lovely things to read though, that could be part of it. I get distracted by other shiny books.

Update: You may remember that I thought I might read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies but wasn’t sure because of the person who recommended it. I’m almost finished and totally hooked on Robertson Davies. Now I can say I’ve read Davies!

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True Confessions about Poetry

I mentioned in a previous post that I once had a dim view of poetry — something about it all being pretentious hipster blather. I have modified my opinion, partially because James Sire and Eugene Peterson convinced me that Poetry was worth reading. I’m still not a big poetry reader, though I am learning to read it better. With that in mind I have acquired some books (big surprise) so I can have poetry to read.

I started trying to read more poetry because I realized that I couldn’t understand poems that I liked that my friends wrote. I got bits of the poem, but I’m sure I’m not plumbing its depths. I have smart, well-read, articulate friends who write interesting things, but if I can’t understand them, possibly I should become better read. Anyhow, there are still lots of poetry books on my to-be-read list. Here is a smattering of what I’ve not read.

1. John Donne – most of his oeuvre. I’ve read some of his Holy Sonnets, but not many. I’m still working on it. I’ve got a book of Donne’s poetry that I dip into now and again. One thing I’m learning is that poems cannot be read quickly, nor does it seem that books of poetry are necessarily meant to be read cover to cover.

2. Danté, The Divine Comedy. I realize this is rather a long work, in three parts, but I do intend to read it. All of it. I have Dorothy Sayers’s translation which I hunted down for years, and only found one volume at a time in used book shops scattered throughout Ontario. In this search I also found a copy of Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland. That is also on my to-be-read list.

3. Milton, Paradise Lost. I do research on women who interpreted the Bible in the 18th and 19th centuries. They all read Milton. I figure I’d better get on that.

4. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve got the collected poetry in the Penguin volume on my shelf. These poems have made the recently published list 25 Books Every Christian Should Read. This reinforces my inclusion of Hopkins on my list.

5. As mentioned above, I do research on 18th and 19th century women who interpret the Bible. These well-read women often read poetry. I’ve acquired 2 volumes of 18th Century Verse — one the New Oxford collection and the other a smaller collection by Penguin. I need to read those poems to understand the women I research.

I’ve got other books of poetry lurking on my shelves. I know I’ll read more. Soon.

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Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

Since I quoted from Dorothy Sayers yesterday when I introduced Mystery Week on the Backlist, it seems best to continue with DLS. I think Gaudy Night is at the top of my Preferred Mysteries list. It might be a tie at the top with Val McDermid’s Killing the Shadows, which I will discuss here tomorrow. But on with Gaudy Night and the general wonder of DLS.

Sayers was a very interesting person. She wrote all kinds of things including essays (two are now published in a small book entitled Are Women Human?, a lovely feminist piece), plays, short stories, and detective fiction. She also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, though she died before completing Paradiso. I worked very hard to acquire my set of the DLS translation of Dante. Of course I haven’t read it yet, but it is there, on my shelf, waiting for me to get up the courage to start.

I think Gaudy Night is one of the best Lord Peter Wimsey novels Sayers wrote. It doesn’t even have Wimsey as the main character. The key point of view character is Harriet Vane. Of course Lord Peter shows up from time to time, and even aids in the solution of the mystery, but most of the work is done by Harriet. I like Harriet’s character slightly better than Peter’s character, so this is possibly one reason I like this book. The other reason is the female academics who populate the book, as it is set in a women’s college in Oxford. Sigh. Oxford, the dream-land of academics. Sayers wrote the book in the 1930s with a contemporary setting. It is very interesting to read the book as a feminist work — which it is, I don’t think it can help being that — from the present time and see how far we’ve come. Or not in some cases.

GN has a large collection of very strong and interesting female characters, something that doesn’t often happen in fiction. I like it for the academic setting (places I wish I could live and work) as well as the interesting cast of characters. And, of course, Miss Vane. You should totally read it. If you’ve already read it, you should read it again.

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Agatha and the World of Mysteries

USA Today reported today that, despite being dead, Agatha Christie remains a best-selling author. This is not mysterious — people like mystery stories, and Christie is one of the best-known mystery writers in the English-speaking world. Why do people like mysteries you might ask. Well, let me tell you. Or at least let me give you a theory or two about why people like reading detective stories.

Eugene Peterson lists some mysteries in his extended book-form reading list Take and Read. In the introduction to his list of ten he suggests that one reason people might read mysteries is “that right and wrong, so often obscured in the ambiguities of everyday living, are cleanly delineated in the murder mystery.” We thus read these stories because they provide us with “moral and intellectual breathing room” in the confusing ethical stew in which we live. Hmm. I’m not sure I buy this argument as Peterson presents it. Lets see what else is out there.

Dorothy L. Sayers, a writer of great detective fiction, had a slightly different theory on the popularity of the detective novel. In her really interesting essay The Mind of the Maker she noted that people like to think that life is like a problem that can be neatly solved. This, she argued, is not true. Life is not like a problem to be solved, rather it is like a medium for artistic creation. However, scientific methods have given people the illusion that life is like a problem and it can be solved, and people want be convinced that this is true. This, Sayers argued, is precisely why detective fiction is so popular. Here is the complete paragraph where she makes this point:

“The desire of being persuaded that all human experience may be presented in terms of a problem having a predictable, final, complete and sole possible solution accounts, to a great extent, for the late extraordinary popularity of detective fiction. This, we feel, is the concept of life which we want the artist to show us. It is significant that readers should so often welcome the detective-story as a way of escape from the problems of existence. It ‘takes their minds off their troubles.’ Of course it does; for it softly persuades them that love and hatred, poverty and unemployment, finance and international politics, are problems capable of being dealt with and solved in the same manner as the Death in the Library. The beautiful finality with which the curtain rings down on the close of the investigation conceals from the reader that no part of the ‘problem’ has been ‘solved’ except that part which was presented in problematic terms. The murderer’s motive has been detected, but nothing at all has been said about the healing of his murderous soul. Indeed, a major technical necessity of the writing is to prevent this aspect of the matter from ever presenting itself to the reader’s mind.”

With Peterson, Sayers argued that detective fiction simplifies things. Contra Peterson she did not think this gives us “intellectual and moral breathing room;” rather, she argued it provides the reader with a comforting illusion that life problems can be solved. Sayers then explained one of her detective novels and showed how in that book she’d presented readers with three problems based in the main idea, one solved, one partially solved, and the third insoluble. Good mystery novels can thus present the realities of life, not just comforting illusions.

Why do you read mysteries? Or why don’t you? (Interesting point: C.S. Lewis didn’t read mysteries, even though he and Sayers were friends, he didn’t think much of her detective stories.)

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