tisdag 6 januari 2015

Middlebrow reading

OK then. I have to confess that for most of the time, in spite of my interest in Dickens and other Victorian novelists and a general willingness to watch Shakespeare plays, I'm a typical middlebrow culture consumer. TV-wise, I watch costume dramas slavishly, but have not got round to testing The Wire yet, and my Our Friends in The North box set that was going for a song is as yet untouched. I don't even feel tempted to try Breaking Bad or True Detective. As to books, this is what I've been reading the past month or so:

1) Havisham by Ronald Frame, a prequel/retelling of Great Expectations, giving Miss Havisham's story. This novel is good on Miss Havisham as a business woman, and you'll be pleased to hear that Frame's Miss H got to have some fun in society before being seduced. In other ways, though, she turns out to be a bit of a disappointment - less mad than in Dickens, true, but also more calculating and less a victim of blind passion. She only dons the wedding dress - which she regularly changes for a new, identical one - after having been betrayed by her best friend as well as by Compeyson. I felt more sympathy for Dickens's version. Frame sticks to the Shropshire doctor ending: a bit of a downer in itself, but this is the sort of serious-minded book where you're glad that the author hasn't come up with a new, even more depressing ending.

2) The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. Kostova's The Historian was a big hit when it came out, while this, her second novel, received some slighting reviews from what I recall. Nevertheless, I plumped for The Swan Thieves as the Leda motif seemed more enticing than a vampire story. As it happens, there isn't much swan talk in the book, but I enjoyed it, and am inclined to think that the bad reviews were largely down to the well-known second-novel-phenomenon where critics punish an author whose first book was hyped (often by the self-same critics). Strangely enough, I liked the contemporary plot line best, where a psychiatrist who treats an artist who has fallen prey to an obsession interviews the artist's two plucky exes: his wife and his girlfriend. This was interesting relationship drama. I was less impressed by the parallel historical plot about a female Impressionist painter and her uncle-in-law (also a painter) who develop romantic feelings for each other. This plot assumed an interest and sympathy for the characters - the woman Béatrice especially - that I didn't feel. Still, a good holiday read.

3) Rereading of Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger, purely for fun. This must be one of her best. The latest TV adaptation of this book is one of the more faithful ones, and you can see why (though there was no lack of sex appeal on the part of Elsie Holland in the adaptation).

4) The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak; this is the historical novel I'm reading at the moment. The protagonist is a girl spy at the Russian Court, who befriends the future Catherine the Great when she arrives as a poor German princess destined to marry the crown prince. Very promising so far, though books with historical spy plots depress me a bit as I'm forced to acknowledge that I would never in a million years have been a good spy myself. This is a drawback when fantasising about spy masters, whom I usually fall for (not so sure about Chancellor Bestuzhev though).

See what I mean? Not a trashy reading list by any means, but not full of future Booker Prize winners either. Quite simply, middlebrow.