The Rising of the Moon, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

 

“…find out moonshine, find out moonshine!”
— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Sc. 1

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The Rising of the Moon (Virago Press, 1996) (Reprinted 2000)

I’ll make an admission by way of an opening: the works of Gladys Mitchell are comfortable. Considering the nastiness of the world outside (especially at this moment in history), even a past with murderers on the rampage is preferable to a treason-dripping chaos-looming present. Once the reader is immersed in Mitchell’s various worlds, they may even feel that they are in a comfortable, secure place, one which is all too often derisively described by certain self-proclaimed cognoscenti as “cozy.”

Obviously, I dislike that term for a certain loose genre of detective stories (generally defined as those that are English and published prior to the 1960s). Intended to draw a distinction between earlier writers and the “gritty realism” (read: sadism and deviance) of many modern writers, “cozy” often comes off to me as a judgmental, even as a derisory designation. But if there is anything “cozy” in the world of The Rising of the Moon, it is offset by some of the most savage murders to date in a Mitchell novel. Continue reading

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My Father Sleeps, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

There are a number of points to recommend the writing of the late Gladys Mitchell, not the least of which is her literary styling and aplomb. Her best-remembered character, Mrs. (Later Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, is a wonderful blend of the eldritch, the omniscient, and the surreal, and the reader comes to feel, after a while, that they have encountered one of those rare immortals, an almost super-human figure which rightly and properly defies conventions like ageing and narrative vulnerabilities. In a sense, the Mrs. Bradley novels are a fantasy-land, a baroque played on the theme of the broader reality, and we are just along for the ride.

My Father Sleeps, by Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph, 1944)

The elusive first edition, published by Michael Joseph in 1944.

That being said, 1944’s My Father Sleeps is notably grounded in that reality which it seeks in some ways to subvert. But even hard-staked to the geographic bedrock, the spirit of place (as Lawrence Durrell might have said), of a novel like My Father Sleeps still feels a bit like a fable. It’s also a book which — moreso than usual in the case of Mitchell — demands the reader’s attention. Put another way, it’s a bit of a slog.

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All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward: A Review

It’s pretty safe to say that Americans have learned nothing from Watergate.

Specifically, they have failed to remember that if it walks like a scandal, looks like a scandal, and quacks like a scandal, then guess what? That’s right: it’s not a duck.

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All the President’s Men, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

As a generally ahistorical people, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that American institutional memory doesn’t go back forty or forty-five years (although if you question the validity of preserving and displaying monuments to figures on the losing side of a rebellion 150 years ended, be prepared for shrill cries protesting about cultural heritage). Hell, many Americans when surveyed can scarcely name the three branches of government (in this, they share something with the gibbering buffoon who they in their infinite wisdom “elected” in November, 2016). Arguably, the current crop of American voters have more real, real-time information available to them than any similar group in history. Yet that access to information is not always accompanied by a proportionate intake of facts or outpouring of rational, intelligent reflection on those facts. So the fact remains that if you are under the age of about sixty, and if you are not a keen reader, historian, or student of journalism, the events surrounding the Watergate break-in and the fallout which ensued are likely not well known to you. Let me suggest, for a moment, why they should be, and why the best place to start learning those facts is the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men.

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Sunset Over Soho, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

When I recently reviewed The Worsted Viper, I suggested that a map of the Norfolk Broads would be eminently useful to following the story. While Sunset Over Soho does not rely on a similar level of geographic detail, readers will find it useful if they know the general geography of London, as well as the locations of Spain, the Canary Islands, and France. Additionally, a nodding acquaintance with the events of the evacuation of Dunkirk will also be handy.

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Sunset Over Soho, by Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph, 1943) *

A number of Gladys Mitchell’s novels work through proxy characters, figures who stand in for Mrs. Bradley, or who are the primary focus of the narrative, until the yellow-handed crocodillian swoops in with a cackle and makes sense of everything (or sometimes not, as events warrant). In the case of Sunset Over Soho, that role is filled by an author, David Harben, a writer of literary fiction, expert on Norman architecture, and keen boatsman. Through a flashback narrative structure, we meet Harben already knowing Mrs. Bradley, before returning to their first meeting, on the banks of the river Thames. The disjointed narrative is something of a risk, but in Sunset Over Soho it works, and makes the story more interesting.

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1984, by George Orwell: An Authoritarianism Book Club Review

This is not the first time that I’ve read 1984. But now, the world of Oceania, of purge and Newspeak and Airstrip One and betrayal and IngSoc, doesn’t seem all that far off. It is April 5, 2017, and the clocks are just striking thirteen.

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1984, by George Orwell (Signet Classics)

George Orwell elected to build his world carefully. Where this novel is superior to predecessors like We and Brave New World is not just in Orwell’s peerless writing. Writing in the late 1940s, and coming off the success of Animal Farm, Orwell was concerned with the future of Britain as a nation just getting over the trauma of the Second World War. Atomic weapons had been used against civilian targets to end the war in the Pacific, and pessimistically Orwell saw no reason to think that they wouldn’t be again. War seemed to be the new normal state of the world, so there was no reason why the Peace should not be lost in favour of constant combat. The logical outgrowth? How do you keep a formerly democratic society — albeit a flawed one — involved in a state of War for thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years? Obviously, that would require a corrosively powerful totalitarian state, one which would combine the very worst tactics of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In short, it would require a state like the fictional Oceania, once given over to a Socialist ideology, but soon converted into a totalitarian regime paying half-hearted lip-service to English Socialism, or IngSoc. With this basic foundation constructed, Orwell could proceed to details.

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On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder: an Authoritarianism Book Club Review

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a deceptively small book. You will be surprised to get it in your hand. But really, it doesn’t need to be all that much larger. It shouldn’t take most people more than an hour to read. But in that time, if you are an American who has been paying attention since November 2016’s election, you will be shaken to your core. In short discussions written in language simple enough for even the porridge-headed voters of today, Snyder has explained what could be coming as a result of a minority making a stupid, selfish, bigotry-driven and wrong-headed choice at the polls, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, 2017)

On Tyranny is part warning from history, part meditation for today. Its concision suits people for whom the subtleties of politics and history might be too much like doing homework. As we have found, not a lot of people read anymore, and fewer still read with depth and comprehension of complex issues. This book is the antidote to that; it is short enough for even the non-reader, and general enough for the non-expert. However, if you are a reader, or if you haven’t stopped learning despite having left school, On Tyranny is an excellent introduction to the issues at hand. Although it is mainly geared toward the unique and perilous state of America in 2017, readers abroad may find it helpful to understand these issues, especially in light of other obvious attempts by the hostile forces of the Kremlin to undermine Western solidarity, whether in the case of the folly of the Brexit vote, the Dutch elections (at which they fortunately failed), or the upcoming French and German elections. If hacking and misinformation are the new version of “war continued by other means,” then there can be no doubt that such a war is under way. Knowing what to watch for next can only serve the cause of liberal democracy and all that it promises.

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Authoritarianism Book Club Review: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I honestly don’t enjoy reading about disfunctional, dystopian worlds very much. I find myself consuming more coffee than tea, and being commensurately edgy and perturbed. Honestly, I’d rather be back to detective stories, history books, poetry, and works of popular science. But the state of the world right now demands that we talk about other things, at least, sometimes. So here we are.

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We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Penguin Books, 1993)

Zamyatin’s We, readers are informed by translator Clarence Brown’s introduction to the Penguin edition (1993), was originally composed roughly between 1920-21, early in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the brutal deaths of the Tsar and his family. But due to the climate, We was first published in the United States by Dutton in 1924, in France in 1929, and finally in Russia in 1988. The English and French translations both worked from Zamyatin’s Russian-language original, but there were evidently some minor defects in that manuscript which led to a few minor issues with translation. However, the book was a minor success, and was claimed, perhaps most famously, by George Orwell as the direct progenitor of his own classic novel of a distopian future, 1984.

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