The Roundup features all the books I read over the month of August. It was a strange and busy month, and it threw me off my reading groove. I didn’t want these titles lost forever to the blog, so I’ve gathered them all in one post.
The Dead Shall Be Raised by George Bellairs
Having been pleasantly wowed by the first Detective Inspector Littlejohn mystery I’ve ever read, Death of a Busybody, I went into this double feature volume with mild expectations and wasn’t disappointed. In the first tale, The Dead Shall Be Raised, Littlejohn and his wife Letty are spending their Christmas holiday with friends in the town of Hatterworth, after their Hampstead flat is damaged in an air raid. During a festive Christmas evening, the remains of a man who had gone missing in 1917 are uncovered, and Littlejohn is persuaded by the local superintendent to aid in what soon becomes a case of double murder dating back to the years of the first World War. The second tale, The Murder of a Quack, Littlejohn is called to the village of Stalden to investigate the death of Nathaniel Wall, a homeopathic practitioner, or ‘bonesetter’. Mr. Wall’s body is discovered hung up inside of his own surgery-room by his housekeeper and the local constabulary. Renowned for his skills and well-liked by the villagers, Mr. Wall didn’t seem like a man with many enemies, so who could have murdered him in such a brutal fashion, and why?
While both stories are typical procedural mysteries, the elements that made Death of a Busybody so entertaining and enjoyable are very present. The Dead Shall Be Raised, the denser of the two, is chock-full of colorful characters and memorable scenes, even a few tense moments where you think you’ve sussed out the perpetrator but it isn’t what you expected. The Murder of a Quack is more of a straightforward procedural, not as twisty-turny and perhaps a bit grimmer. I did let out a happy yell with the return of Littlejohn’s trusty associate, Detective Sergeant Cromwell.
I’m now well and truly hooked on the Littlejohn Mysteries, and I do hope that The Publishing Powers that Be release more of George Bellairs’s (real name Harold Blundell) work, because I will eat it right up.
Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson
Nigel Nicolson, the youngest son of writer Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson, ‘co-penned’ his mother’s passionate memoir of her marriage and the affair that very nearly ended it. Although referred to as an autobiography, Vita’s manuscript only covers a small portion of her life, beginning at her youth spent at Knole, followed by her marriage to Harold, and ending after the collapse of her tumultuous love affair with Violet Trefusis. Vita and Harold’s marriage would survive and continue to flourish until their deaths in the 1960’s.
The book is broken into five parts, with Nigel supplementing Vita’s account with letters, diary entries, and his own insight. The union between his parents was one of deep respect and acceptance. Both took a number of lovers over the years; Vita is known for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, who used her a muse for the novel Orlando. But the couple remained very much devoted to each other and their home.
Vita and Harold’s estate, Sissinghurst.
There’s nothing sensational or tawdry about this book, as Nigel does an excellent job of presenting it in an objective and tender manner. He doesn’t hide the fact that his parents were both the product of their class and time, doesn’t try iron out the wrinkles in their personalities or pass judgement. The passion behind Vita’s writing and in the letters she and Harold exchanged speak for themselves.
Concerning the affair between Vita and Violet, I did find myself bubbling with frustration over the melodrama between everyone involved. At times, while reading I had to shake my head at what I felt was Vita’s callous behavior cultivated by her tempestuous emotions for Violet, who comes off as spoiled and emotionally demanding.
At one point, as I was knee-deep in the exhaustive whirlwind of Vita and Violet’s affair, The Husband interrupted me to ask about the book. I replied, “Rich people having affairs with other rich people and running away to fabulous places! Oh, the drama!!!”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
It’s been a two and half weeks, and I’m still processing this book in my head. The simple gist of it is as follows: Yeong-hye is a dutiful, if unremarkable housewife. Her ordinary office stooge of a husband, referred to only as Mr. Cheong is content with the staid pace and predictability of their life together. But everything changes when, after experiencing a vivid dream, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to stop eating meat. Mr. Cheong is outraged, but his normally-meek wife refuses to back down. Things really begin to escalate when Yeong-hye starts refuses sex with him. One awkward business dinner later, Mr. Cheong turns to her family for help, but their efforts only serve to make matters worse, and Yeong-hye’s behavior takes on a disturbing edge.
Told in three parts, each from a different perspective, The Vegetarian has a lot to say about the patriarchy in South Korea, as Yeong-hye’s husband and father react to her refusal to eat meat in varying degrees of chauvinistic outrage. In Mr. Cheong’s eyes, his wife’s decision is act of selfishness and inconsideration, while her father takes it as an act of rebellion. In one chilling scene, after her mother and sister fail to appeal to Yeong-hye’s emotions and get her to eat meat, the man orders Mr. Cheong and her younger brother to pin her down so he could force-feed her himself. He fails to unclench her jaw, and in a rage, strikes her hard across her face for her defiance. This scene marks the beginning of the deterioration of not only Yeong-hye, but of those surrounding her as well.
At a deceptive 183 pages, this book isn’t a quick and easy read. Deborah Smith does a fine job of translating the book from the original Korean, but kudos to Han Kang for creating such a dark, yet sad and moving tale.