“The clever men at Oxford/Know all that there is to be knowed./But they none of them know one half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad!” (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)

I’m in Oxford at the moment, a city I love.  I thought I would look this week at novels set in Oxford, and although there are lots to choose from (I guess lots of writers chose to evoke their alma mater) I’ve picked two crime novels, as Oxford seems to encourage this type of story.  I’m not sure why this occurs, but maybe it’s because it’s seen as such a respectable institution and it’s fun to think of a seething mass of violence and intrigue below the calm façade.  Here’s a picture of Oxford’s most famous fictional detective, to compensate for the fact that I’m not looking at any Colin Dexter novels:

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Firstly, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin.  This was the first in a series of novels featuring the sleuthing Oxford don Gervase Fen, and is from the Golden Age of Detective fiction, written in 1944.  The opening paragraph struck a chord with me:

“To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.  And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped”

Well, the woods and fields may be much less evident, but otherwise… seventy years on and nothing changes.  Travelling on this train are Gervase Fen, his friend Sir Richard Freeman who is Chief Constable of Oxfordshire and wishes he was a don (while Fen wishes he was police officer) and various members of a drama group, who will return to London with their numbers somewhat diminished. Fen is a likeable, eccentric don, whose “normal overplus of energy …led him to undertake all manner of commitments and then gloomily to complain that he was overburdened with work and that nobody seemed to care”; he distracts himself on the train by wishing for “’A crime! …A really splendidly complicated crime!’ And he began to invent imaginary crimes and solve them with unbelievable rapidity.”

The first murder, of uber-bitch Yseult Haskell, takes place in a room in college close to Fen’s office, and so much to his delight he is distracted from his work on minor eighteenth-century satirists to investigate:

“His usually slightly fantastic naivety had completely disappeared, and its place was taken by a rather formidable , ice-cold concentration. Sir Richard, who knew the signs, looked up from his conference with the Inspector and sighed.  At the opening of the investigation, the mood was invariable, as always when Fen was concentrating particularly hard; when he was not interested in what was going on, he relapsed into a particularly irritating form of boisterous gaiety; when he had discovered anything of importance he quickly became melancholy […] and when an investigation was finally concluded, he became sunk in such a state of profound gloom it was days before he could be aroused from it.  Moreover these perverse and chameleon-like habits tended not unnaturally to get on people’s nerves.”

I’m not going to say too much about the plot as its nearly impossible not to give spoilers.  But if you think the eccentric Fen is someone you’d like to spend time with do look at The Case of the Gilded Fly.  I loved the dry, yet gentle humour in the writing, and it was a well-paced, easy read.  My favourite character however, was one of the minor players; unlike a lot of detectives, Fen does not have a complicated romantic life filled with encounters with unsuitable lovers, but is married to the brilliantly indulgent Mrs Fen:

“After she had greeted the Inspector with a slow, pleasant smile, Fen seized up the gun and handed it to her, saying:

‘Dolly, would you mind committing suicide for a moment?’

‘Certainly,’ Mrs Fen remained unperturbed at this alarming request, and took the gun in her right hand, with her forefinger on the trigger; then she pointed it at her right temple.

‘There!’ said Fen triumphantly.

‘Shall I pull the trigger?’ asked Mrs Fen.

‘By all means,’ he said absently, but Sir Richard surged up from his chair crying hoarsely: ‘Don’t! It’s loaded!’ and snatched the gun away from her.  She smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Sir Richard,” she said benignly, ‘but Gervase is hopelessly forgetful, and I shouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing.  Is that all I can do for you gentlemen?’”

What a woman. Next, a much more recent tale (2005) whose title tells you exactly what to expect: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez (trans. Sonia Soto). The novel is narrated by a postgraduate mathematics student, who shortly after arriving in England finds his landlady murdered, discovering the body at the same time as his hero, Professor Arthur Seldom “a rare case of mathematical genius”. The Professor is there because he received a note telling him that something would happen “the first of the series” followed with a mathematical symbol, a circle.  As more people die, Seldom continues to receive notes ending with symbols, and believes the murderer is taunting him specifically as he wrote a book on mathematics where he argues that “except in crime novels and films, the logic behind serial murders…is generally very rudimentary…the patterns are very crude, typified by monotony, repetition, and the overwhelming majority are based on some traumatic experience or childhood fixation”. Some serial killers may take that as a challenge…

The two start working together, using their academic approaches to try and decipher the logic of the murders.  There’s a lot of maths talk, but it’s not overwhelming even for someone like me whose dealings with numbers is limited entirely to their monthly budget.  The combination works well and doesn’t feel forced:

“There is a theoretical parallel between mathematics and criminology; as Inspector Petersen said, we both make conjectures.  But when you set out a hypothesis about the real world, you inevitably introduce an irreversible element of action, which always has consequences.”

Can they make their hypotheses apply in the real world and solve the symbolic series in time to prevent more murders?  What do the symbols really represent?  The Oxford Murders is a short novel and not particularly complex despite the setting in elite mathematics; it’s well written but if you’re a crime aficionado you may find it a bit too straightforward.

The Oxford Murders was made into a film a few years back; from this trailer I would say it’s a fairly faithful adaptation:

Here’s my attempt at a vaguely mathematical end: from the shaded area of a Venn diagram of Oxford and books, here is a picture of one of the most beautiful libraries you’ll ever see – the Radcliffe Camera in central Oxford.  The picture’s wonky because it was blowing a gale and I was up the top of the tower of St Mary the Virgin, where the wind was so strong I thought I, or at the very least my phone, was about to get whipped off the viewing balcony into the square below.  Thankfully we both made it back intact.

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“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Oscar Wilde)

I inherited all the great loves of my life from my mother: literature, the theatre, film, Islay single malt whisky, and cheese that will blow out your nasal passages from 50 metres. We don’t agree on everything: Kris Kristofferson remains an enduring source of contention (me: total  1970s love god, have you seen A Star is Born? She: eyes are too small. Neither of us is willing to back down.) These enormous differences aside, we get on pretty well, and so Mother’s Day is a source of celebration in my family.  In the UK Mother’s Day is 10 March (for once I’ve managed to post on time, in fact a day early as tomorrow will be spent cooking up a feast for the family), so to any of you who aren’t from the UK, Ireland or Nigeria (ie where Mother’s Day is the 4th Sunday in Lent), I apologise and ask that you view this as a postponed/pre-emptive post depending on when Mother’s Day occurs for you. I’ve chosen one book written about a mother from the point of view of a child, and one written from a mother to her child.  Both merge fiction with biography and contain significant sadness, but both are about the triumph of the human spirit. Well, mother-child relationships can be among the most complex…

Firstly, a novel that my English teacher at school thought was very nearly perfectly written: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985, my copy Vintage, 1991).  Oranges tells the story of Jeanette, who grows up in an evangelical household in the north of England.  Her mother is a strong, dominant and domineering woman who initially believes Jeanette will help her in her idiosyncratic crusade against sin.  As Jeanette gets older, she realises she is attracted to women, and acts on this.  Her refusal to subdue who she is to the will of her mother leads to a failed religious intervention (almost exorcism) and eventually a breakdown in their relationship.  If this sounds utterly heavy and depressing, let me assure you it’s not.  Humour runs throughout the whole of Oranges, a gentle prodding at the absurdity of life:

““You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,” declared Pastor Finch.

My mother blushed.

Then he turned to me and said, “How old are you, little girl?”

“Seven.” I replied.

“Ah, seven,” he muttered. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven branched candlestick, the seven seals.”

(Seven seals? I had not yet reached the Revelation in my directed reading, and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked….)

…”Yes,” he went on, “how blessed,” then his brow clouded. “But how cursed.” At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich into the collection bag;”

The narrative is interspersed with a fairytale that echoes the main narrative. This serves to broaden the perspective away from its immediate setting, and emphasise that while it is a unique story that is being told, it is also something familiar to us all, a fable.  We may not all be northern English, evangelical Christian and gay, but, in the words of the author:

“Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried.”

Oranges is fantastically well written (when the author was just 24) and succeeds in being challenging and complex, but also easy to read and reassuring.  The language is poetic and exacting but never overblown:

“We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old tanks but the council took them away.”

Oranges is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and so of course, I highly recommend it.  The author was asked if it was autobiographical.  Her answer: “No not at all and yes of course.”  For those of you who enjoy it, I also recommend Why Be Happy when you Could Be Normal?,  Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, (the title taken from a question her mother asked her when she came out) which shows the story behind Oranges, and also beyond it.

Secondly, Paula by Isabel Allende (1994, my copy Flamingo, 1995 trans. Margaret Sayers Peden). Tragically, in 1991, Isabel Allende’s 28 year old daughter Paula fell into a coma caused by porphyria, and died in 1992 having never recovered. Paula is the story Allende writes for her daughter as she waits for her in the hospital, bringing her novelist’s sensibilities to the story of her family’s life:

“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost. The legend of our family begins at the end of the last century, when a robust Basque sailor disembarked on the coast of Chile with his mother’s reliquary strung around his neck and his head swimming with plans for greatness.”

Those of you who enjoy Allende’s fiction will find the same style here, and some very recognisable characters from The House of the Spirits. Allende writes vividly and with love of and for her family past and present.

“[Your grandmother] was drinking cheap pisco, and hiding the bottles in strategic places.  You Paula, who loved her with infinite compassion, discovered the hiding places one by one and without a word carried off the empty bottles and buried them amongst the dahlias in the garden.”

“Celia and Nicolas have asked me to come home to California for the arrival of their baby in May. They want me to take part in the birth of my granddaughter; they say after so many months of being exposed to death, pain, farewells, and tears, it will be a celebration to welcome this infant as her head thrusts into life. If the visions I had in dreams come true, as they have in other times, she will be a dark-haired, likeable little girl , with a will of her own. You must get better soon, Paula, so you can go home with me and be Andrea’s godmother.”

Time is not linear or earthbound in Paula, as the family’s past, present and spirits all exist in a mother’s story, evoked in a hospital room. The final third of the book sees Allende stop talking to Paula and instead speak to the reader, as she loses hope that her daughter will recover.   However, the death of her daughter is not an irretrievable loss for Allende who has an acute awareness of the afterlife and sees her family around her whether they are alive or dead.

“She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterised all the acts of her life.”

Paula is a hugely affecting narrative of one of the hardest experiences a mother can live through, but ultimately the enormity of the familial love that surrounds Paula is the strongest force, and this makes it a great Mother’s Day read.

Here are the books alongside the gorgeous Kris.  To my mother I say, Happy Mother’s Day, Maman, and I hope titling this post with a quote from your beloved Oscar compensates for my insistence on presence of Mr Kristofferson.  And yes, I am planning a substantial cheese plate for the meal tomorrow, don’t worry….

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“There are two types of women in the world: those who like chocolate and complete bitches” (Dawn French)

Happy New Year! (for those of you using the Gregorian calendar).  It is one of life’s small cruelties that if you live in the Northern hemisphere, a grey, dark, cold time of year is also inexorably bound with resolutions to lose weight.  It’s entirely illogical: your body is bound up in layer upon chunky layer of clothing, and all you want to eat is comforting, stodgy carbs.  Far better to start a diet in March – its brighter, starts getting warmer, the prospect of salad is less likely to send you howling in despair from the room (unless that’s your modus operandi all year round, and you are not alone).  There’s a sense of approaching summer and the associated disrobing to act as an incentive to lose those extra layers you’ve acquired that you can’t hang in the wardrobe.  But right now its January. So, until those spring-like days, let us glory in girth, fellow book-lovers, and embrace loose baggy monsters.  This was Henry James’ term for those long Victorian novels, and they are perfect for this time of year.  If the holiday season has left you feeling like a baggy monster yourself, settle down with a huge book: you can wallow, a verb that suits your newly enormous body, in its vastness & lose yourself and the dark days that surround you; you can claim it’s a novella and make your body look smaller by comparison, optical illusion being so much easier than giving up all the fun stuff; and if you go for a paper version rather than an e-book the weight itself will act equally as well as a gym workout for your biceps (er, maybe). ‘Tis the season of the baggy monster!

I’ve gone for an obvious choice of baggy monster, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2. My copy: Penguin Classics 1965). Writing about Middlemarch is really difficult for me as it’s my favourite novel ever.  Ever.  And I find when things are that close to me, I can’t really explain them or talk about them objectively.  Lots of people can’t bear George Eliot and find her too intellectual and moralising.  Fine – I have no come back.  She’s both of those things.  But if you give Middlemarch a chance, the rewards can be huge.  The characterisations of the inhabitants of this middle-England town are fully drawn, as the length of the novel allows for such scope.  There is no reliance on stereotypes (Mr Dickens, take note), and even the unlikeable characters are understandable.  Eliot can be as witty and incisive as Jane Austen (“plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy  and investigated by science”/ “she held it still more natural that Mr Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her.  These things happened so often at balls, and why not by morning light, when the complexion  showed all the better for it?”), but for those of you who share my brother’s view that Austen is just “full of silly girls giggling behind fans” rest assured she’s also very different.  Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown up people”, by which I think she means that the story continues beyond marriage – the ultimate purpose of the plot is not achievement of a socially acceptable breeding arrangement but more a study of how people work, individually and within society.  There are big themes tackled: politics, education, professional fulfilment, religion…If that sounds dry, I promise there’s enough plot to keep you going, with the various stories of the ambitious Dr Lydgate, idealistic Dorothea, vacuous Rosamond, immature Fred Vincy… and now I’ll stop reducing Eliot’s great characters to a single adjective.  It’s also got Will Ladislaw in it, a Byronic hero who can easily equal Darcy in the “pouting air of discontent” love-god stakes, it’s just that the latter’s PR is so much more tenacious.  One of my tutors once told me he re-read Middlemarch regularly, and the final few paragraphs always made him cry (not that it’s  a tragic ending, just realistic).  I hope if you give Middlemarch a go, that it truly moves you.

In the course of writing the above paragraph I’ve realised that this post will turn into a baggy monster itself if I continue to attempt to capture these vast panoramic books in any sort of meaningful description.  So, like so many New Year’s resolutions, I’m going abandon my good intentions and instead write about a book that (in my copy) runs to a comparatively succinct 222 pages. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (published 1989. My copy: Black Swan, 1994), unlike the baggy monsters, keeps the plot fairly simple – Tita and Pedro love each other, tradition dictates they can’t be together, so he marries her sister to be around her.  You may not get a wallow in the depths of 800+ pages but it’s still a great choice for this time of year.    Firstly, its set in Mexico (and I should admit I read it in translation, if you can read it in the original Spanish so much the better) so if you can’t afford a warm holiday away from all the grey you can at least travel between the pages of a book.  Secondly, each chapter has a month title and an associated recipe and is hugely evocative around food: vicarious calories are delicious and also involve no cheating from your diet if you are insane enough to try and lose weight in January.  Amongst quail in rose petal sauce (March) and northern style chorizo (May) there is also a recipe for making matches (June), just in case you wondered. Finally, it is magic-realist in style: the female protagonist’s birth sees the kitchen awash in tears “When the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack – it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.” A bit of unreality – just what you need to help face the harsh realities of a northern winter.

So settle down with a great (in terms of both literary value and/or size) book and enough provisions to see you through (e.g. Kendal mint cake, or a family bar of chocolate.  With the latter you can always claim to be striking a blow against sociocultural constructions as a method of control (or something) by eating it all yourself.  This also works for family bags of crisps) and enjoy! I was planning to picture the books alongside some mojito cupcakes that I’d made for a friend’s birthday, but they went totally wrong – possibly due to the fact that my scales broke and so I guessed all the ingredients weights.  Hmmn, thinking about it, that’s almost definitely where my error lay. This succeeded in putting me in a cranky mood and incapable of thinking of another picture so instead here is a baggy monster who lives with me.  Proof, if proof were needed, that the world is a better place for having baggy monsters in it.

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