Envious Casca – Georgette Heyer, 1941

A week ago I would have called this one of my favorite mysteries of all time, but on re-reading it’s not as compelling as it used to be. It may be the falling tide of my interest in mysteries lowering all boats (as I get pickier with age) because all the ingredients still seem to be present: good British cozy setting, entertaining characters (well-meaning Uncle Joe, who manages to drive everyone straight up a wall while trying to be nice, is particularly memorable), the always-enjoyable locked room setup, funny dialogue and situations, and a heart-warming romance. But there’s a little too much telling instead of showing, and the solution is not as believable as one might wish. Maybe I’ve just read it too many times. I got out all the Heyers I kept (purged most of them years ago) because of recommending them to a library patron who loves Agatha Christie best of all and doesn’t find anyone to compare to her. She enjoyed the one (IMO inferior) Heyer mystery we had at the library (A Blunt Instrument, I think) and I’m going to lend her mine. Where’s Behold, Here’s Murder, though? I must have misplaced it…

Play Dead – David Rosenfelt, 2007

Oh, how I wanted to love this mystery, centering on a golden retriever who “testifies” in court to get his owner out of jail–in a completely realistic and believable way (ie no Lillian Jackson Braun-style anthropomorphization). It had great reviews so I ordered it for the library and put it on hold for myself; there was a hitch in the ordering so anticipation built for much longer than usual. And… it’s fine, no more. Lawyer Andy Carpenter, the narrator, has a not-particularly-funny wisecrack for every occasion. The story is told in present tense–bleurgh–is that popular simply because it allows authors to avoid the pluperfect? I’ve seldom/never found it to be anything but annoying as a technique. The solution was a little deus-ex-machina, especially because the dog, crucial in the beginning, is shuffled off to the side by the end. The golden rescue operation in the book is based on the author’s real-life Tara Foundation, but it’s only mentioned in passing. I would have loved more dog detail instead of rote courtroom scenes!

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith – Anne Lamott, 1999

(Another large print read on the elliptical trainer.) Lamott can be a wonderful writer with interesting things to say…sometimes. Other times she is a good writer who’s gratingly narcissistic and overdramatic. I’m afraid most of these essays show the second style. Her willingness to expose her worst sides is admirable (although where is the line between emotional bravery and exhibitionism?), and she’s certainly handled more adversity than most–I feel almost guilty that she gets on my nerves.

Good Dog. Stay. – Anna Quindlen, 2007

There’s been a lot of "it’s just a jump on the Marley & Me bandwagon," and it’s true that at a skimpy 82 pages for $14.95, this is basically an essay posing as a book. But on the other hand, Quindlen writes rings around Grogan and compresses almost all the emotion in a fraction of the space. A good third of the book is cute dog photos, which is a little confusing because some of them do seem to be of her two dogs (Beau and Bea), but taken by the same professional pet photographer (Amanda Jones) who did many of the unrelated dogs. (Alas, my favorite (p. 6, a Bichon Frise whose eyes are totally concealed by fur) isn’t on the website). One hopes this wasn’t some kind of kickback. But no matter, if you love dogs, the book’s a winner. (My favorite dog book ever ever is still Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Social Life of Dogs.)

O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance – Benita Eisler, 1991

Reading biographies often takes me a long time. The people move into my mental landscape, and I feel almost like I’m living life along with them in real time. (I had to return Ackroyd’s wonderful Dickens to the library eventually, before finishing it, so he’s still hanging out in my brain at the peak of his career.) For the past month or so my companions have been Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, thanks to this engrossing book. (Eisler was recently at the Historical Society researching George Catlin and his family, and it turns out she knows my mother, hence my interlibrary loan.) O’Keeffe’s art doesn’t speak to me particularly, but Stieglitz’s photos, especially his portraits of Georgia herself, certainly do. The story of their relationship, the rise and fall of Stieglitz’s galleries (from 291 to An American Place), and O’Keeffe’s path to the Southwest (which seems so inevitable now) are particularly interesting, as are the canny ways they positioned and marketed themselves in the art world. Unsurprisingly, neither seems like someone you’d want in your own circle–all kinds of power corrupt. Eisler has chosen wonderful plates, and each chapter also starts with a painting or photo. I can’t think of any other woman whose image is more striking or iconic than O’Keeffe’s. Her little sideways smile haunts me still.