This week’s reading:
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
And Four To Go, Rex Stout
In The Best Families, Rex Stout
The Golden Spiders, Rex Stout
The Second Confession, Rex Stout
The Knight of Maison-Rouge, Alexandre Dumas
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, Boris Akunin
Natural History, Justina Robson
So, here’s an interesting note. If I (as I really ought to) count the Borges book as nine books, which it collects, then I’ve read more than a book a day this year. Even if I don’t, I’m only five short, which is pretty neat. It makes me want to read five really short books this weekend!
Admittedly I didn’t read the Borges all this week; I’ve been reading a story a day or so since January 1st. For me, that’s the only way I can get through Borges. More than one story at a time and my brain starts to hurt. Plus he’s got such a clear and familiar vocabulary (knife fights, mysterious figures, doublings, untrustworthy narrators, imaginary worlds) that if I read too many at once, they start to blur.
The Collected Fictions is, well, a collection of all Borges’ short fiction. It’s in order of publication, which makes reading it something like a recapitulation of his career. What shocked me was how early all his famous stories came, and how much he wrote after them. I see why the later stories are less famous; they somehow seem like pallid reflections of the earlier ones, with the same themes returning again and again, like ripples on a pond that lap against the shore, gradually losing force. Not that I didn’t enjoy them! But they don’t have the same shock of brilliance, to me, particularly reading them after having read so many others.
I may just be a fan of early Borges, though, as my favorite of the collections I haven’t read before was A Universal History of Iniquity. I love the idea of retelling history as though it were a story - something I think Stoppard was trying to do, and mostly failed, in The Coast of Utopia.
Anyhow, the other gem of the week was The Knight of Maison-Rouge, a recently-rediscovered Dumas novel with the usual quota of love affairs, swashbuckling, and villainy. Unfortunately, it turns out rather tragically, which isn’t really Dumas’ metier as far as I’m concerned. There are some really fantastic scenes around the various attempts to get Marie Antoinette out of prison, though!
What I admire most about Dumas is how firmly he places you into the very swift narrative flow of his story. He cares about plot and it never lets up, yet without ever feeling silly. Very nice.
Aside from those two, it was largely a mystery week. I enjoyed some more Rex Stout - pleasantly formulaic, with top-notch dialogue and narrative voice - and discovered Akunin’s new series. Think the more domestic bits of War and Peace crossed with Agatha Christie! It’s very, very late-nineteeth-century Russian, and he captures the world wonderfully well.
Finally, Natural History is one of the few sci-fi novels I’ve read to have largely non-humanoid protagonists, which is an impressive thing to pull off. Her world’s great and I liked the characters, but I wanted to see more of the world, both for curiosity’s sake and for clarity. I also found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, if beautifully eerie. Overall, I’d give it a firm B+, but with the note that I’d definitely read more of her.
And on that note, folks, Shabbat Shalom!