Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry

Some years ago when she lived in L.A., my sister and her friends used to compete as to who could spot the most celebrities. Perhaps everyone in L.A. does this. It didn’t matter which celebrity it was; elderly Jack Lemmon counted as much as the then-young and glamorous Warren Beatty.

I first met a celebrity when I was still a shy and skinny kid. My parents were considering buying land on Piney Island, which is located next to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. While looking around, we visited the owner of Misty, the pony made famous by Marguerite Henry’s book, first published in 1947. I don’t remember how my parents connected with him; friend of a friend probably. What I do remember is that during the visit, my siblings and I got to ride Misty herself.

To be sure, it was just a brief walk around a paddock, Misty being pretty geriatric at that point, but still thrilling for this horse-mad girl. I’d only ridden briefly, during a couple of sessions at Happy Hollow Camp. The horse I rode there was named Ironic, a word I at the time thought meant iron-like and therefore appropriate for this huge, strong brown beast with an imperturbable air. Even now, when I know the correct definition, hearing the word ironic always brings back a brief memory of horse-smell and meadow grass, and my own secret meaning.

Regular lessons were out of the question—too expensive—so I compensated by creating a whole stableful of imaginary horses, each with an elaborate history. I exercised them regularly, cantering up and down the neighborhood alleys, but have to confess that I didn’t pretend to muck out their stalls, partly because I’d never actually done that part of caring for a horse and partly because, well, I wasn’t stupid. Imaginary horses have their drawbacks but at least they don’t poop.

At one point, there was a rumor going around the neighborhood that a family on the other side of Roland Avenue was stabling a horse in their garage. We didn’t have a garage, but I pleaded with my parents to let me turn the dusty place in back of our house, under the sunporch extension, into a stable. It seemed an obvious place: with the steep hill beyond, no one on the street below would be able to see that we had a horse there (one horse? perhaps several!) and the neighbors on either side were sufficiently elderly or far away that they wouldn’t notice our violation of city ordinances.

Of course it never happened. And it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to indulging that childhood passion by taking riding lessons. I will never own a horse, but welcome my weekly visits to the farm. I rationalise my distaste for imposing my will on an animal by recognising that the horses have a job to do, even if it’s only to teach me this skill, just as the cat’s job is to dispose of mice and crickets and the dog’s job (when we had one) was to protect the house. Just as, for that matter, my job is to sit at a desk for a certain number of hours each week whether I feel like it or not. And, since the horse can’t talk to me, riding has made me more conscious of—and I hope more adept at—reading body language.

Someone on one of my maillists mentioned this week, after hearing of Dick Francis’s death, that it was reading his mysteries set in the world of horse racing that inspired her to take up riding lessons in her mid-thirties. For me, it was this book that made me want to ride, back when I was a girl. What a treasure for any girl with no prospect of ever earning enough money for lessons much less a horse of her own, this story of two children with a dream of owning a pony, a story that actually happened! Paul and Maureen Beebe want not just any pony but the legendary Phantom, a mare who has never been captured in any of the annual pony roundups on Assateague. Paul participates in the roundup for the first time and comes across Phantom and her foal, whom he immediately names Misty.

It’s always a little scary to reread beloved books from childhood, but this one holds up well. The details of life on Chincoteague, which I didn’t notice as a child, delighted me: frying platters of oysters dredged in cracker meal, using a mixture of goose grease and onion syrup to prevent a cold, “treading” for clams by feeling for them with your toes and lifting them out on your foot. I confess I got excited all over again, reading about Pony Penning Day, when they round up wild ponies on Assateague, swim them across the bay to Chincoteague, and herd them down the main street to the pens. The event is a town celebration, and people come from all over to enjoy the feast, watch the annual race of local horses, and buy the colts who are being thinned from the herd. Then the remaining horses are allowed to swim back to Assateague and resume their independent lives.

I haven’t been to Assateague in years. I almost don’t want to know if the ponies are still there or if the annual roundup still happens. My vicarious participation in Paul and Maureen’s story is one of my most beloved memories of childhood, along with that meeting with my first (and still my favorite) celebrity. Maybe there’s still a part of me that believes the fantasy of buying my own pony at one of the Assateague roundups will one day come true.

And Then, by Natsume Soseki

In Soseki's early works, he made sure that they conveyed some kind of lesson, conforming to the then-common notion that fiction should have an educational purpose. The title of this work makes it clear that there will be no definitive ending hammering a moral home.

Daisuke, a 30-year-old Tokyo bachelor, seems from the outside to have a most pleasant and undemanding life. Having received an excellent education, he is supported by his father and brother in his own home where he is free to study his books, visit his sister-in-law, and indulge his aesthetic tastes. However, Daisuke is plagued by anxiety, often feeling his chest to make sure his heart is still beating. His family believes he is intended for great things someday, but he continues to drift from day to day, full of romantic notions but afraid to take a definitive step in any one direction lest he have to deal with the consequences. He is cared for by his elderly housekeeper and his houseboy, Kadono, whom he teased into taking the job, criticising Kadono for being lazy because he didn't work, never noticing his own hypocrisy. With his intellectual and aesthetic talents, he feels superior to his father and brother, who are both successful businessmen.

This life is disrupted when Hiraoka, an old school-friend, and his wife Michiyo move back to Tokyo. For the last three years, Hiraoka has been working in the provincial office of a bank but got caught up in a scandal when one of the men working for him embezzled funds. As a result, Hiraoka resigned and is now asking Daisuke for help in finding a new job and a place to live. Back in the days when they were close, Daisuke actually helped along Hiraoka and Michiyo's marriage, but now he is dismayed to see how distant they are from each other and Michiyo's ill health. He examines his memories of how close he was to Michiyo before the marriage, before his then-best friend asked for his help in gaining her hand and he felt honour-bound to comply.

First published in 1909, four years after the end of the Russo-Japanese war, And Then reflects Soseki's sense of being in the cusp of two cultures. Daisuke's father is part of the culture of pre-Restoration Japan, with its authoritarian precepts based on the Samurai code, while Daisuke's other friend Seigo, a writer, looks ahead to the new culture, with its more naturalistic morality that values individuality over conformity. Daisuke is disillusioned by the heroes of his father's generation, but has not taken the next step of envisioning what a new hero might look like. Daisuke's detachment reflects Soseki's own detachment in writing his earlier novels, where he forced the story to a conclusion that would convey the desired lesson instead of, as here, allowing the story to follow naturally from the characters themselves.

In Chaos and Order by Angela Yiu, I found the interesting notion that And Then is actually based on a traditional form of Japanese drama. In addition to the history plays (jidaimono) of the puppet theater (joruri) and kabuki that feature Samurai warriors, there were love-suicide plays (shinjumono), usually featuring commoners, sometimes a prostitute, who are caught up in a love affair that is in some way a transgression, some kind of forbidden love, where their suffering can only find relief in death. Romeo and Juliet of course comes to mind as a Western equivalent.

I find this very interesting, this idea of using a traditional form but playing with it and the reader's expectations. As Daisuke begins to admit his love for Michiyo, now forbidden because she is married, he invites her over for tea and in preparation fills the room with lilies. This delicate scene took me by surprise, as perhaps it took the readers of Soseki's day by surprise, by not following the script I expected. Being surprised is a good thing, and I very much liked this book, with its (to me) unexpected turns and lovely descriptive passages.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

My friend Jill recently completed an art project where she took a six-foot-tall branch, curved like an “S”, and hung from it at intervals paintings of people who had been important in her life. The hangers are separated by clear plastic spacers, making the stick look even more like a spinal column. She plans to be videotaped walking with this staff down the streets of her hometown, signifying the way we carry our past with us wherever we go, while also being supported by that past.

Gilead is a book weighted by the past. The year is 1956, and John Ames is a 76-year-old preacher in the small, midwestern town of Gilead. Nearing the end of his life and concerned at not being around to support his young wife and raise his seven-year-old son, he writes a series of letters to the boy. These letters are what make up the book. Since he assumes that the boy will not read them until he is grown, Ames includes descriptions of the boy's daily activities and of the townspeople, such as Boughton, Ames’s best friend, and Boughton’s son Jack, who is Ames’s godson and a bit of a ne’er-do-well.

In attempting to pass on life lessons to the boy, Ames talks about his own father and grandfather, both preachers, both also named John Ames, but with very different views. Ames’s grandfather preached his flock into the Civil War, conducting services with a gun in his hand, declaring that there could be no peace while people were enslaved. Ames’s father was vehemently opposed to all war and many of the anecdotes have to do with the testy relationship between the two. The relationship between fathers (of all kinds) and sons is the backbone of this book.

As befitting a preacher, the events Ames recounts are given a religious framework. A scene where his father breaks a biscuit and gives him half is considered communion. His father taking him to Kansas to find his grandfather’s grave in the middle of a great drought is compared to Abraham leading Isaac up the hill.

All the preaching left me cold, making the book seem like one long rambling sermon. I have to confess I was pretty bored the first time through. I found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. There were some promising signs—a few asides that hinted at the possibility that some of the relationships might be more tangled than they appeared—but they came to nothing. Still I was left with the sense that I had not heard the whole story, a not-uncommon problem with first-person narratives, as I’ve mentioned before. We never hear from the other characters, only occasionally a scrap of dialogue quoted by the narrator.

A story should have dramatic ups and downs, we’re told. Here, however, the hills and valleys are as flat as a Midwestern cornfield, forcing the reader to be even more aware of each gentle slope. I liked the book better the second time through. I knew what to expect and could slide over the Bible stories. I found I liked the narrator, especially his appreciation of the small things of this life: going into his old church in the pre-dawn silence, watching his son blow soap bubbles. He’s trying to make sense of his life, circling back to certain incidents over and over. I found this part very true, being haunted by certain incidents, not necessarily the ones we think at the time will be important. Ames says, “. . . you never do know the actual nature, even of your own experience, or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.”

Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping, is one of the best books I’ve ever read, so I wasn’t surprised that the language here is lovely. In describing the way his son looked at him when the boy thought he was laughing at him, Ames says “It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks.” Like the old church which carries its history in every broken step and ancient bullet hole, the language shimmers with Biblical references, yet it is plain and powerful in its simplicity. Ames’s life too has been a simple life, but one filled with grace. A good man, at least by his own account, Ames wants to hand on to his son what his father gave to him. As he says, “There are many ways to lead a good life.”

Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley

First published in 1913, Trent’s Last Case dates from the earliest days of detective fiction, at the beginning of the Golden Age that featured Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Bentley, who was a friend of G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown books, wrote this story to poke fun at the genre. As P. D. James says in her marvelous Talking about Detective Fiction, “Bentley disliked the conventional straitjacket of the orthodox detective story and had little respect for Sherlock Holmes.”

However, a funny thing happened once he started to write: a real story began to emerge and he couldn’t resist writing it. Most writers are familiar with this magic. You can outline all you want, but once you start writing, the story can take you places you never intended. And you’d better hope it does, because otherwise the story won’t ever come to life, in my opinion anyway.

There is much to like about this book. Philip Trent is a painter who has fallen into occasionally investigating stories for a newspaper. The paper asks Trent to investigate the death of American tycoon, Sigsbee Manderson, who was found shot outside the English country house where he and his wife, Mabel, spend their summers. Is it murder or suicide? At the house, Trent runs into his chum, Inspector Murch with whom he has a friendly rivalry as to who can first figure out the answer to their cases. They even have rules: “It was understood between them that Trent made no journalistic use of any point that could only have come to him from an official source. Each of them, moreover, for the honour and prestige of the institution he represented, openly reserved the right to withhold from the other any discovery or inspiration that might come to him which he considered vital to the solution of the difficulty.”

As James says, “Bentley is seen as an innovator, not a destroyer of the detective story.” Two of his innovations are that Trent doesn’t actually solve the case, but he does fall in love, and that romance becomes a major part of the story. This romance was one of the things that bothered me about the book. Trent falls in love with the widow, knowing full well that he shouldn’t get involved with a suspect in the case, and much of the story concerns his conflict over his feelings for Mabel and the possible consequences of his actions.

Bentley does a good job with both the romance and Trent’s internal conflict, treating them subtly but with convincing emotion. Chalk it up to a personal preference, but I’m not too fond of mixing genres. I’d rather keep the romance in romances. Sure, there are exceptions: I loved Sayers’s Gaudy Night and Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning. I think those two books work because the characterisation is so strong, not just of Wimsey and Campion, but of all the characters.

The plotting here is terrific, with many twists and turns, and a satisfying conclusion. Less satisfying is the character of Trent. In the beginning of the book, he talks a lot of piffle, as though trying to sound like Bertie Wooster, but somehow is not as amusing. Then, once he starts on the case, he drops all that and becomes a normal, intelligent young man bent on solving the riddle. At the end, however, he returns to this banter that doesn’t quite work.

It’s hard to keep the tone of a book consistent from beginning to end. Some writers use the same tone for every book, while others try to vary the tone from book to book, coming up with ways to remind themselves as they go, such as associating a particular piece of music with the book. Writers of a series of books featuring the same detective have the difficult task of maintaining the tone throughout the series.

Maybe Bentley’s original satirical intentions kept him from keeping his tone consistent and from putting his imagination into his characters. It’s unfortunate because, with a little more work, this good book could have been great.