Every few years I go on a Brother Cadfael reading jag. (Reading, not viewing. I did not like the BBC/PBS series at all.*) Ellis Peters was a remarkable author. She died not long after what turned out to be the last of the series was published. The novels are rich with a kind of sensuous ambiance of color, scents, and personalities. No bad guy is truly bad, and most of the good folks have layers to them. There is always a pair of young, often star-crossed, lovers, a storyline that occasionally weakens the larger tale. The male friendships and bonding are powerful, giving the series some real (if sometimes credibility-challenging) heft.
Not all the books were good. A couple were almost perfunctory in their plot and telling. Cadfael himself never seems to suffer for it, but I wondered if Ms. Peters was finding her creation a tiring one after a time. But then came that final volume, Brother Cadfael's Penance, and one could see that all the young love was done with now. Nary a cooing dovelet pair in sight. She ended with a deep and resonant knell for men and their sons.**
I am always a sucker for stories set in the early 20th century. The Inspector Rutledge series by mother & son writing team "Charles Todd" had a powerful start and then stuttered and stumbled.*** The shell-shocked Inspector (we'd call it post traumatic stress disorder now) is much damaged emotionally -- having had to order the execution of one of his men during WWI -- but intellectually on fire; a man seeking to right grievous wrongs.
The internalized persona of the man he had killed provides the much of the series' literal meta-conversation. The ongoing conversation between Ian Rutledge and his conscience/tormentor Hamish McLeod lets the reader see the inside of the Inspector's agonized soul, a writerly technique that becomes, in time and in parts, obsessive, obligatory, and occasionally incredible. I found I had ceased to care for Rutledge, and when an author loses that kind of affection in his/her reader, there is no recovery for it.
Sadly, the Team Todd's second series about WWI nurse Bess Crawford, and which to my mind too conveniently parallels the successful WWI nurse Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, is running into the same problem of loss of affection. The last one I read (A Bitter Truth) will be the last for me, I'm afraid. Even granting it grace from my dislike of overly-dialogued books, the rushed ending with an orphaned child being handed round like some fought-over sweetmeat and the lead character unable to say no to a single soul saw me skimming the last 25 pages not in excitement but the desire to have it be over, please god.
More recently I am back into my other favorite reading site: Tudor/Stuart England. I read about this era -- almost feverishly -- with the same fascination I hold for works of paleontology. What captures me about these two disparate histories is the notion of The Other: times, people, creatures, events, and places that happened on this very planet and yet may as well have been fiction or science fiction. Such is their distance from our now.
The Tudor stuff, though, is as much fun for its dueling authors as it is for its Otherworldliness. I am reading the above two biographies of Mary Stuart, the famed "Queen of Scots" who lost her throne and head in her attempt to dethrone Elizabeth I. Both authors, Antonia Fraser and John Guy, claim to have used primary source material previously unreviewed. Both claim to have uncovered the "real" Mary. And as it happens, both also write rather well. So it's like watching the literary version of an operatic duet. Highly entertaining.
Ditto for the dueling Shakespeare biographies by England's Ken Burns Michael Wood; and Britain's American, Bill Bryson. Wood's breezy and delightful report was published a few years before Bryson's equally delightful and even whimsical bio. Wood makes much hay of the evidence and suggests we know a good deal about The Bard. Bryson, who appears to have looked at or around much of the same documentation, says we can know almost nothing. Between the two of them one gets an especially vivid image of what it was like to live and die in Elizabethan and Stuart England.
And the best part about reading about Shakespeare is that one then wants to see his plays performed. So my Beloved Spousal Unit and I are enjoying the largesse of our nearby public library. We watch a play (Burton and Taylor's Taming of the Shrew was the most recent), and then for several days after our language and the gusto with which we speak it is delightfully charged.
Only now, in writing this post, do I see I am lost in English History these many days. Ah well, there are certainly worse places to spend the mind's free time.
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* The production quality (settings, costumes, and lighting) seemed hurried and cheap. And although I've enjoyed Derek Jacobi in other earlier works -- he's become a bit of a self parody more recently -- I felt his portrayal of Cadfael was too aristocratic and otherworldly. If anything, the good herbalist was a man of the earth.
** She ended because she died. Would she, could she have gone further, one wonders. I recall reading somewhere that a 21st Cadfael manuscript was found in her papers.
** In the eyes of this reader, of course. And this reader admits to being an often impatient one. I don't like writerly tricks; I don't like seeing the cracks in the scenery; I don't like anachronistic speech; I don't like endless dialogue (my apologies to Jane Austen and my thanks to Emma Thompson for making her accessible to me!).
I am a demanding reader because I spend my entire working day analyzing the content of professional and scholarly writing, looking for structure, content, and information. I am very good at it but it has destroyed my ability to simply kick back with any old novel.