Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Nope, not talking about the Senator from Minnesota (that’s weird, right? The lines between entertainment and politics are weirdly thin these days. Was it always thus?). I am talking about the books I have been reading lately, which have been full of people who lack integrity. Now I am ready to read about Betsy and Tacy, whose biggest deceptions involved reading Lady Audley’s Secret on the sly (I just wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That would be legitimately inappropriate for a twelve-year-old).

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donohue

After I read Room (yeah, yeah, I read it), I thought it might be fun to read more books by Emma Donohue, especially after I discovered that she wrote about Sapphic love in Victorian London. I got The Sealed Letter for under two dollars at Bongs & Noodles, and I thought it would be great because it’s about Sapphic love and a scandalous divorce case. In Victorian London! What could ever be bad about that?

The problem is this: Sarah Waters has already sort of nailed Sapphic love in Victorian London. You know how when you have one specific type of book connected in your head with one specific GOD of that type of book, and then you can’t read any other book of that type without comparing it to the GOD of that type of book. This is why I have a hard time with dual timeframe books, because of AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard nailing it so hard in Possession and Arcadia, respectively. Or why I didn’t enjoy The Hunger Games as much as I could have because Patrick Ness was out there writing Chaos Walking.

Anyway, The Sealed Letter is about a lying liar called Helen who tells lies to her friend Fido, and she does adulterous behaviors and eventually she and Fido both become imbroiled in a scandalous divorce case (that Robert Browning weighed in on in a letter to a friend – he thought the two women were carrying on Sapphic relations). There wasn’t nearly as much Sapphic love as I was anticipating. I just wanted to go read Fingersmith. Actually I still do. Fingersmith. Hearts.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

So in the first half of this book, events occurred. One event, then another event, then another event. I couldn’t figure out what the point of all the events was! Subsequently, in the second half of this book, stuff was happening that all seemed related (that was a nice change), but it made me feel all weak and depressed and miserable. Like when Milo and Tock end up in the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth but it’s really hard to leave because the Doldrums have gotten into their brains. That’s exactly what reading this book was like. Bother.

I will say, the descriptions of the art were really cool. I love ekphrasis as much as the next person who knows what it’s called (yeah. Latin class. USEFUL.), and it was so interesting to read all the different art things that the characters were making. I wish I could do art. Artists are cool. I’d refer you to this chick, except that the full awesomeness of her art doesn’t come out until you can see her pieces in real life, because they’re mixed media, and mixed media do not always photograph to best advantage.

Oh, yeah, what it was about: It was about these two families. They were all very smart and each family had a son, and there was art and hysteria and psychopathy. It sounds like it should have been great but it just didn’t work for me. Psychopaths are lying liars. You heard it here first. (Well, probably not.)

The Small Room, May Sarton

My favorite of these three books. Litlove and Jodie of Book Gazing both read this recently and spoke of it very persuasively. It’s about a woman called Lucy who goes to work as a professor at a private women’s college; there she discovers that the pet student of a particularly impressive and well-respected professor at the college has plagiarized an article on the Iliad. Questions of psychology and individualism and integrity go flying around, and the characters answer them differently than Dorothy Sayers does.

Speaking of Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books in all the land, and it has to be said that I am more in sympathy with her characters’ unflinching demand for integrity in academia, than with The Small Room‘s professors’ desires to worry about the human element (the girl they would be destroying if her plagiarism was revealed). The thing is, people have to be responsible for the research they do. If they plagiarize, you can’t trust them again, surely, and even if they do some really good research, how could you trust that what they were writing was original?

Well, these were the things I was thinking about. I also loved thinking about the questions Sarton raises about the appropriate amount of distance between teachers and students. When I was in high school there were, let us say, certain teachers who behaved inappropriately with students. When I was watching In Treatment (had to stop because the therapist was being shady), I asked my father how, as a therapist or a teacher or anything, you head off people getting too attached. He said you have to have the boundaries clear in your head, and communicate them clearly (this far and no farther). May Sarton does a great job of exploring where the lines get drawn, and why.

Yeah. Good times. I love reading about jobs I will never have.

31 thoughts on “Lies and the lying liars who tell them

  1. Ekphrasis! I like it too. And there should be more blog posts that use that word. It always makes me think of my first year of college, sitting in the “great books” seminar that everyone had to take, listening to the professor talk about the whole shield-of-Achilles thing in the Iliad. He was explaining about ekphrasis and trying to start a discussion on it, not too successfully because it was early in the year and the Iliad’s kind of a hard sell for a room full of people who may not even be humanities sorts of people, and he asked, “So what does the ekphrasis DO here?” … no answer. So he answered his own question with: “It fucking interrupts the story!” Which I found really hilariously funny coming from this quiet-seeming skinny young-ish guy with a German accent. I liked him more after that class.

    Also, too bad about The Sealed Letter – I’d been curious about it but now I fear my reaction would be the same as yours – Sarah Waters is so good, and her Victorian London books are my favorites of hers.

    • He sounds great! For me “ekphrasis” snaps me back to Latin IV when we were reading the Aeneid and they were describing the doors at the Carthaginian temple to Juno.

      I have not given up on Emma Donohue yet! This book sounded like the most awesome, but looks can be deceiving. Her other books might turn out to be amazing.

  2. Sapphic love in Victorian London sounds good, but since it doesn’t measure up to Fingersmith, I’ll probably skip The Sealed Letter. I am cracking up over your reference to Milo in The Doldrums. I love your sense of humor!

  3. I think my Latin consists of about 10 words or short phrases (I never studied the language) but I love ekphrasis, the word and the concept. Just have to find a situation in which I can casually throw about this word πŸ™‚

    I can see how Waters has set the standard on Sapphic love in Victorian London too high, poor other writer who love this subject though.

    Have yet to pick up one of Hustvedt’s works, but they always look super intellectual and perfect, which scares me off. Plus, her husband has been writing the same novel for ages. Does she have dibs on creativity in their household, or do they both write like that?

    • I know, I never get to use the word “ekphrasis”. I’m enchanted that I was able to in this case.

      I forgot Siri Hustvedt was married to Paul Auster! And I hated the one Auster book I read. No wonder. They are too much alike. Good, now I can stop feeling guilty for not liking Siri Hustvedt. I’m writing off the couple forever. Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, still my favorite. :p

  4. I kind of worry about the same happening to me when I read Emma Donohue’s historical novels. I’ve seen her compared to Sarah Waters too many times, and there can only be one Sarah Waters. I own Life Mask, and I’ll let you know how it goes when I get to it.

  5. I just love the phrase “Sapphic Love” and don’t care how many times you use it.

    And now I am stepping off my pedestal of Mumsian omniscience to go look up “ekphrasis” in the dictionary. (This is all down to my having majored in linguistics/Arabic instead of English.)

    • Hahaha, I feel just the same. “Sapphic love”. I’m never saying “lesbian” EVER AGAIN. (Although they both refer to exactly the same thing, so I’m not sure what the difference is.)

      It’s not English, Mumsy. It’s Latin. You needed to take my Latin class in high school.

  6. I read my first Emma Donohue and Sarah Waters right around the same time and liked Life Mask more than Tipping the Velvet and more than Fingersmith too… which may be book blogger heresy! I think I like that her stories are based on real historical characters and so seem more realistic to me. Fingersmith may also have suffered because I read it in comparison with The Woman in White this year and liked the Wilkie Collins better.

    • Welll, it isn’t heresy, but I am surprised! I can understand about Wilkie Collins as well – I read The Moonstone for hte first time when I was thirteen, and he and I have been buddies ever since. :p Plus he’s an actual Victorian, rather than a twenty-first century recreation.

  7. Ok, I loved these reviews and think they were all very clever. I have not read The Sealed Letter yet, but I have read most of Donoghue’s other stuff, which is why it makes me sad that this one was not so good. I also think that The Small Room seems to tackle some interesting questions, and it is this book, out of the three that I am thinking about trying. I also loved the title of this post and love coming over here to see all your reactions to the things you have been reading.

    • But I probably went into The Sealed Letter with unrealistically high expectations. The component parts made it sound like it would have to be the BEST BOOK EVER. I need to try another Donohue book and just expect slightly less.

      Also? You are really nice. πŸ™‚

  8. Yay! So glad that you enjoyed the May Sarton. I admit I have never read Emma Donohue although I have read and loved Sarah Waters (The Night Watch is my best book of the year, I think). I read half of the Hustvedt, but after the incident that occurs I had to put it down (it being one of my obstacles to reading). But one peculiar thing – on my edition, Hustvedt’s name is spelled wrong on the cover. How embarrassing must that have been for the publishers?

    • Oh, I loved Night Watch too. I want to give Night Watch a hug and indeed read it over again right now.

      Yeah, the incident. I wasn’t expecting it (I read the end! but it didn’t say!), and I nearly stopped reading after it. I kind of feel like I should have stopped reading.

  9. Wuhu that The Small Room was your favourite book out of your recent spate of lying liar stories. I’m kind of impatient to get my hands on more books by Sarton, because this one was just a fast enough read for me to enjoy curling up with it against the cold weather but also felt like it was stretching me intellectually.

    Not about the book at all, but when I was in secondary school one of our teachers married an ex-student who he had taught (she was I think 19ish and had left school when they got together and they married a bit later) which we thought was exceptionally shady. But I think our school actually got off light re inappropriate teacher student behaviour after seeing all the novels available about dodgy teacher pupil relationships.

    • I know exactly what you mean about stretching intellectually. It wasn’t a heavy book that used up a whole bunch of my brain at once, but at the same time, it was a book that made me think. I liked that.

      That is so shady. There were some shady student/teacher activities going on in my high school (secondary school) too. Most of the time I was there I thought it was just rumors, but later on I discovered that there was some real funny business going on.

  10. There is a fantastic essay about plagiarism in Anne Fadiman’s _Ex Libris_, “Nothing New Under the Sun.” It’s got as many lines of footnotes as of text as Fadiman tries to account for the source of every phrase she uses in an essay about hiding and providing your sources.

  11. Al Franken is from MN, which is where I’m originally from, so your post title got my attention! I love themed reviews too — I think the Donoghue books sounds most interesting to me. I didn’t really like Fingersmith, so maybe this would be a version of that kind of book I would like. (Don’t hate me for not liking Fingersmith!).

    • I don’t hate you for not liking Fingersmith! I am a little sad, but it’s not one of those books that I can’t imagine a single reason for somebody not liking it.

      The Sealed Letter isn’t like Fingersmith at all really. And it wasn’t just the Sarah Waters comparisons that made it not work for me. I felt like it was a lot of the same thing over and over again – the protagonist kept being taken completely aback by the lies her friends told her, no matter how many times it happened. It wasn’t unrealistic, necessarily, but it was repetitive.

  12. I really liked Slammerkin, and I guess you could compare it to Sarah Waters for the historical feel, but I don’t remember any Sapphic love. But I think it’s set before the Victorian Era, probably very late 1700s. Great stuff if you like reading about clothes and fashion.

    And I so need to read more Sarah Waters — I LOVED Fingersmith, can’t decide which Waters to read next. Still haven’t read Gaudy Night either! Why are there so many good books and not enough time? I wish I could get locked in a library with a cozy couch and a good lamp. And snacks. Or a hotel with a good room service and a good pile of books.

    • Okay, I will try Slammerkin. I don’t know if I like reading about clothes and fashion, but I think I might.

      I say read Night Watch next. It might be my favorite. But all her books are good (except I haven’t read Affinity yet). But bump all the Waters down to a lower priority, after reading the Harriet Vane books starting with Strong Poison. I don’t know if they’re better books but I love them more. :p

      (Sometimes, when I feel like I’m not having enough time to read, I take a night where I stay up all night reading. As long as I only do it once or twice a year, it doesn’t get too exhausting.)

  13. Enjoyed reading your post! I didn’t know what ‘Ekphrasis’ was before and so I clicked on the link you have given and read more about it. Thanks to you, I learnt one new thing today πŸ™‚ I also checked the mixed media paintings at the link you have given, and they look wonderful!

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