The Month of Letters 2016 is Coming

       I have been reading To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield (Gotham Books: New York, 2014) in preparation for this year’s Month of Letters (;, coming, as it does, in February. In the introductory chapter, “The Magic of Letters,” Garfield writes eloquently about what we are in danger of losing:

Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen (p. 19).

Letters have their own oxygen; they breathe something of the souls of their authors. They carry tone in the impression of their letters and need no emoticons to convey emotion.

            Join me in writing letters this month. Leave some history behind. Remind someone she or he is important. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day. Send a lecture to your children. Thank someone for something. Tell your best friend about your day.

            If you haven’t written a letter for a while, give it a try again. If you can’t think of anyone to whom to write, you can find a vibrant community of new acquaintance through the Month of Letters website. And if you do join in, drop me a line.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith. Mulholland Books (Little, Brown and Company), New York; 2015. Hardback. 497 pages. ISBN: 978-0-0316-349933-2.

     I was reading and just finished Career of Evil, the third installment in Robert Galbraith’s* mystery series. Detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott receive a severed leg at the office and it soon becomes apparent that someone from Strike’s past is trying to destroy him through Ellacott. The plot twists several strands into the tale of a serial murderer and provides the reader with welcome information about the histories of the protagonists. We learn about some of the old SIB cases Strike believes have come to back to haunt him and find out the details behind Ellacott’s withdrawal from college. Interwoven into this tapestry are the impending nuptials of two couples: those of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the later ones of Ellacott and her fiancé, Matthew Cunliffe.

     The complexities of the plot allow Galbraith to highlight various kinds of violence against women and the different ways women react to it. While none come away unscathed, it was a relief to see some of the women fight back. Ellacott particularly shows unexpected strength, extricating herself from an attack from which we at first expect Strike will have to rescue her.

     The narrative suffers, though, from too many ostentatious lacunae, too many places where we are told someone will do something in a way that almost taunts us with the awareness that vital clues are being withheld. And in the end, the resolution rests on Strike failing to see something that turns out to have been too much right before his eyes for us easily to believe he could have missed it.

   Despite these flaws, Career of Evil is still a good read and, as a part of the kind of longer story that unfolds in a series, provides another layer of foundational information on which to continue to build more exciting mysteries for Ellacott and Strike to solve.


*Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling

Review of The Vintage Caper


I was reading The Vintage Caper (Vintage Books, 2010; 0307389197), a work of charm and temptation by Peter Mayle. Detective Sam Levitt eats and drinks his way through Marseilles to solve the theft of five hundred bottles of rare wine belonging to an obnoxious Hollywood collector. The mystery is less the point of the novel than an excuse to write about life in southern France and to introduce us to some engaging characters. There are some nice little twists — the victim is more villainous than the perpetrator of the heist — but delightfully, there were no fraught car chases or moments of unbearable tension. The book is merely a joy from start to finish, and I am quite happy that it is the first in a series. I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with Mr. Levitt and friends in the next installment.

Review of A Good Year by Peter Mayle


            Peter Mayle’s A Good Year (Vintage Books, 2005; 0375705627) provides a blueprint for how to revive one’s existence. One merely needs to give up one’s old life, inherit a vinyard in France, and give one’s self over to the pleasures of food, drink, countryside, and good company while solving a minor mystery or two. Mayle’s characters revel in the charms that Provence has to offer, and we enjoy every moment right along with them.

            The protagonist, Max Skinner, leaves London when he inherits his uncle’s estate in France. His hopes of making a fortune from it seem dashed when he discovers that the grapes seem to have been specially bred to make people gag. His life becomes even more complicated when a putative cousin shows up and threatens to throw a wrench into his already crumbling plans.

            The apparently minor mystery of the vinyard’s inability to produce palatable wine leads to convoluted schemes and mercenary villains. There are clever counter-schemes and a satisfying resolution. A Good Year invites us all in for Provecal banquet, and it is an invitation worth accepting.

Review of Carol Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity

IMG_7216          I’ve been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity* as part of my research for a paper I’m about to give on identity in the medieval poem Sir Orfeo, so I read it with double perspective: first, for its usefulness for my research (yes, I’m willing to use a book and then just set it aside), and second, for its enjoyability. M&I was a joy on both counts. Bynum’s discussions of identity and werewolves (Buffy the Vampire Slayer even gets a mention) provided me with new insights and approaches to take regarding my topic and even gave me the inspiration I needed for my title. Bynum manages a style that is both erudite and easy to read, and her scholarship is of course phenomenal.

           Over the course of the text, Bynum uses werewolf tales to show how Medieval culture perceived the issue of identity, that identity was considered to persist through changes (such as becoming a werewolf) from hybridity and metamorphosis. She calls on Dante, Ovid, Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales to illustrate her argument, and concludes that

Our concern with how we can change yet be the same thing — our fascination with the question of identity in all its varieties — is inherited from traditions. The identity we carry with us questions — and by questioning conforms — itself. In this sense, we are all Narcissus, as we are all also the werewolf, a constantly new thing that is nonetheless the same (p. 189).

         What surprized me about the book is that it comprises four lectures Bynum gave on various occasions and that those lectures are presented with no attempt to blend them into more cohesive book chapters. I’m not sure whether this omission matters, but it did recall for me an on-going discussion about expectations in the humanities about how books ought to be presented and whether the requirements for dissertations should be changed to allow collections of essays to make it more possible for students to complete their doctoral degrees.




* Carol Walker Bynum. Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005).