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Victorian literature was full of lady detectives

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Robert Burns Birth Certificate Goes On Display
Not actually a Victorian lady detective, but wouldn’t it be great if it were?
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of December 9, 2018.

For poets, performers, and attendees alike, the Gathering is a celebration of the American West, a chance to connect to their Western heritage and past generations. “It’s a real broad cross section of people,” Cannon says. “By and large, it’s women and men from ranching, people who live that life, who live in open spaces, and who have daily encounters with animals and work. It’s a great perspective for poetry and stories.”

Like Cher’s “totally,” Janine Barchas’s study on the language in Emma reveals a surprising abundance of “very,” a bland kind of word that most style guides suggest avoiding. Things are so emphatically “very busy and very happy” in Highbury, that it might seem the characters doth protest too much. In an isolated place, driven by measured manners rather than action, where even an accomplished heroine like Emma has never seen the sea, language is what makes everything happen. All power and control exist through language.

This year I read mostly while nursing. My daughter was born in January, and those short winter days gave way to long nights spent with her sleeping against my chest — a tiny burrito in zip-up pajamas, her rhythmic breath against my neck — or waking up to eat, nearly falling asleep in that primal bliss, with the radiator hissing and clanking behind us, my finger stroking her cheek to wake her up again. I read so much about motherhood. Or maybe it was that everything I read seemed to be about motherhood. Grad school had taught me new ways to read, through various theoretical lenses, and so did my daughter. She taught me how to read with one arm, in stolen chunks of time, in half-delirium, in the long hormonal soup of the fourth trimester.

Think of a long sentence as a poem and it will always be clear, because each part of it will unravel in little musical phrases, with all the different parts coloring one another without it ever feeling discordant. The one indispensable quality in a long sentence is that it must divide into these smaller pieces to be chewed and swallowed one at a time, and still always be moving, with each short phrase, towards completion. A long sentence should feel alive, awake, kinetic, aerobic — like a poem.

One day I found myself with a book in my hands written by a man I know, formerly a good friend of mine. I got a shock; it was an absolutely unexpected encounter between him and me. There in the dispatch hall, where I placed approximately 40 of his books in the crate for preordered products — meaning I knew what people would read and what they considered a good Christmas gift — it was as if I were the chambermaid and he were the guest. It was as if we were showing our true faces. At first I thought nothing, and after that I thought simpleminded things. I measured my life against his with the yardstick of, which I didn’t have, unlike him. The man is part of the world in which a person can feed a wife and child by working a job he enjoys. With his book in my hands, I didn’t want to think much and I didn’t think much. I thought: I bet he has time right now to think about his next work; it would have to be called a work, and he’d have to be called a successful writer.

The Victorian era’s fictional male detectives stand on the shoulders of real male police officers whose precedent and authority imbue the fictional counterparts with a modicum of realism. But much of the detective work completed by fictional lady investigators is based on assumptions of what a female investigator would be like — and this means that such characterizations are often rooted in stereotypes about female abilities and interests, rather than observations about objective unisex workloads and professional expectations.

5. Be reasonable

Bookshops might seem an endless trove, but our range is finite. Some things don’t exist. And some things shouldn’t.

Woman in pearl earrings and a purple tracksuit: Do you have a children’s picture book about the Holocaust? I’m looking for something inspiring.

Me: … No.

Pearl Tracksuit: Have you heard of anything like that? Could you get one in?

Big, florid, deep-voiced man with his polo shirt tucked into his jeans: (lugubriously) Do you have Mark Latham’s new book?

Me: (delighted) No!

Is it needlessly cynical to read a pompous celebrity’s very bad novel purely in order to dunk on it? Yes. But the true joke is on me, because it’s physically impossible to dunk on a novel that is already dunking on itself so hard. Bob Honey is an exercise in ass-showing, a 160-page self-own … Nothing hangs together. Often when critics compare a novel to a “fever dream,” they mean it as a compliment, conveying that the book creates its own otherworldly universe and dream logic. When I say that Bob Honey is reminiscent of a fever dream, I mean that it’s nonsensical, unpleasant and left me sweaty with mingled horror and confusion. … Scattered throughout is the sort of gleeful racism and misogyny that qualifies Penn’s work as “darkly comic.” … It’s not often that you read a literary novel about which the most flattering adjective you might use is “derivative,” but such is the case here

With plenty of actual white men falling from their pedestals, it has seemed, ever since, that Atticus might do so, too. No longer a model of courage and decency even in his fictional daughter’s eyes, he turned out to be a man very much of his time — and, perhaps even worse, of ours, as old prejudices resurge, hate crimes proliferate, and arguments rage about the merits of maintaining civility in the face of bigotry. …

Atticus was suddenly on all the wrong sides, fighting for all the wrong causes. It’s hard to imagine a less auspicious moment to try to bring the character back to life — and yet, for the first time ever, Lee’s beloved father figure is on Broadway, in a new theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s not clear, though, whether Atticus is enjoying a revival or taking his final bow.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.

Schaler says she had always loved Hallmark Christmas movies and found a special comfort in them when she was reporting on front lines. “I called them my Hallmark therapy,” she says. “I came out of very difficult stories — war zones and what have you — and I really counted on them. … They were my way to let go of the stress and to have faith and hope and love again, and restore what I needed to go back out there.”

When a health issue took her off her feet for three weeks a few years ago, she used the time to study her beloved genre and take a stab at writing a holiday tale herself — from this came The Christmas Prince. “I knew 18 minutes in is the first act break, they can’t kiss before 10 minutes in,” Schaler says. “I studied it like I was in Afghanistan studying a war-zone situation.”


Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!

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