Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie - The 1944 Club

Oh I had such ambitions for the 1944 Club but as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men…  I hope I do get to Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge one of these days and I have The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow gathering dust here on my shelf. What I did manage to read was Towards Zero by the inimitable Agatha Christie.
I love Agatha Christie. All of her mysteries are fairly short and a total breeze to read. I always desperately want to know who did the crime and I almost never guess right.  
The book starts off rather slowly and confusedly, starting first with a semi-retired octogenarian solicitor named Mr. Treves ruminating on the many threads that lead up towards a murder,
‘“All the converging towards a given spot…And then when the time comes – over the top! Zero Hour. Yes all of them converging towards zero…” He repeated: “Towards Zero..”  Then he gave a a quick little shudder.’  
Then the scene moves to a man who made failed suicide attempt now convalescing in hospital and then to Superintendent Battle (one of Christies lesser known and lesser used detectives) solving a boarding school theft involving his teenage daughter by using psychology. The reader may wonder what is going on. Where are the dead bodies?
But then the story starts to move in to classic Christie mystery mode as a summer house party at  Gull’s Point, home of  widowed Lady Tressilian, starts to form.  For the cast of characters there are living at Gull’s Point  Lady Tressilian, bedridden but still formidable (and rich), and her companion, Mary Aldin who may not be as willing to give up her best years to playing nursemaid to an old woman as she seems.  Coming for a fortnight’s visit is Lady Tressilian’s former ward and heir, Neville Strange and his new, rather vulgar (and much younger) wife, Kay, Neville’s ex-wife, the long suffering Audrey and Thomas Royde who grew up with Audrey and has been carrying a torch for her for decades. Finally, turning up like a bad penny is lothario Ted Latimer who has the hots for Kay.
What could possibly go wrong?
Christie does a good job keeping the tension high and when the murder does happen, I was surprised at who was killed because it really could have been any of them; everyone’s tempers were quite frayed by that point.
The resolution of the mystery and romantic pairings are perhaps a little too convenient but honestly I don’t mind that. I had a lot of fun being duped by the red herrings and enjoying the upper class scene of pre-war Britain.
Many thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings for starting the club.  Even though I didn't get to everything I intended this time, it is always good fun thinking about the possible reading choices and checking out what other people read for the prompt!

Friday, October 5, 2018


I meant to post this LAST MONTH but then life got in the way. 

I definitely want to participate in Readers Imbibing Peril XIII which started waaay back on September 1 and runs through to October 31. This year it is hosted by blogger My Capricious Life.  

I mean, how could I skip this? It is the THIRTEENTH EDITION! Muwahaha!

At this point, however, I am only going to try for Peril the Third, which is to read only one book that fits within any of the following R.I.P. definitions: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural. I think I can manage to squeeze in one book in the next three weeks. 

I am planning on reading Slade House by David Mitchell which I meant to read last year for RIP XII but didn't get to. This is also a book I have owned for a while and as usual I have to push myself to read what I own instead of becoming distracted by new books or library books.

Another October Blog-event I hope to take part in is the 1944 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings between October 15 and October 21. 

Originally I had planned to read Dangling Man by Saul Bellow but because I am currently reading Humboldt's Gift by Bellow now I have decided against more Bellow. He is not the kind of author I could "binge-read" as the kids say.   

Instead, I think I am going to read one of the two Agatha Christie books published in that year: Towards Zero or Death Comes as the End.  I don't own a copy of either but her books read so fast and they aren't very long, I hardly feel guilty about sneaking them into my reading now and again. :)

Alas, here in Southern California, there isn't much weather-wise to mark the Fall season so I am really pleased when there are prompts to help me direct my reading choices!  Do any of you read seasonally or do you, like me, let external forces nudge you in one direction or another?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then, after that some angels got jealous and chopped him up into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

I happily chose Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the 2018 Back to the Classics category “Classic by a new-to-you author”.   As my online friend Kathy pointed out in her excellent review at Reading Matters, readers have Alice Walker to thank for reviving interest in Hurston’s work in the mid-1970s.  

According to the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Harper Perennial Modern Classic that I read (pictured), Hurston was the preeminent woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. Gates suggests that her work fell into obscurity by the late 1950s and early 1960s possibly because her writing did not reflect the politics of other African Americans artists and thinkers of that era.  Gates goes on to compare Their Eyes Were Watching God with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’ve not read that novel, but I was reminded of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening because Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in my opinion, primarily about one woman’s attempt to break free of societal constraints put upon her sexuality and her ambitions.  The book does indirectly address racism, but it is incidental to the rest of the narrative.

First published in 1937, the story is about Janie Crawford who is raised by her grandmother. Nanny was born into slavery and has a conservative view about marriage and wants Janie to marry the older, financially stable Logan Killicks.  But Janie at 17 has a more romantic view of marriage and what adventure life can offer her, if she is willing to chance it.  Eventually she gets her opportunity and without giving too much away, I think that this is ultimately a very positive and life affirming book, even if there are struggles along the way.

The dialogue is written entirely in dialect while the narrative is in standard American English. This does take some getting used to and it would have been much easier to read if Hurston hadn’t imitated phonetic pronunciations quite so often. On the other hand, while I read the print version, this book in audio would be pretty amazing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Back to the Classic Challenge 2018: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Possibly my favorite category on the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate is to read a book from the 19th century because I love Dickens and Trollope and look for any excuse to read them.  This year I chose The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, published in 1841.   

According to the introduction by Norman Page of the Penguin Classic edition that I read, The Old Curiosity Shop was not intended to be serialized but rather was meant only be a short story about the inhabitants of a  London curiosity shop related by the fictional Master Humphrey  in a periodical titled “Master Humphrey’s Clock”.   But Dickens’ reading public didn’t want short stories narrated by Master Humphrey; they wanted a novel about Little Nell and her Grandfather from the shop.

And so the author obliged them by writing a story about Little Nell and her Grandfather’s quest to escape the clutches of the evil money-lender Quilp.   Quilp tries to mastermind their retrieval with the help of the obsequious lawyer Samson Brass, Brass’ sister Sally (who may be a villainess but is still a better lawyer than Samson though not allowed to practice due to her gender), and Nell’s ne’er-do-well  brother Fred.  Tangentially allied to this side is also Fred’s drinking buddy Dick Swiveller.  On side of righteousness is Nell and Grandfather’s former servant Kit who is thrown out of a job when they leave London but who regains his fortunes and finds support in the most unlikely corners. As usual, Dickens loves writing about coincidences and chance encounters. Most of his novels in my experience couldn’t happen without them!

As often is the case with Dickens’ novels, the bad guys are the most interesting characters. Little Nell honestly does not have any personality other than her saintliness.  My favorite character was Dick Swiveler. As his last name suggests, he is able revolve or pivot and his character arc, while only a small part of the novel as a whole, was most interesting to observe.

I only have two more Dickens' novels to read: Dombey and Son and Barnaby Rudge.  I would rate The Old Curiosity Shop on the lower end of my personal list. While all Dickens novels revel in sentiment, I personally found that this one was particularly obvious in its depiction of good vs. bad.    This observation should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because essentially I adore Dickens and think he is a genius. His least successful effort is well worth reading in my opinion and The The Old Curiosity Shop was wildly popular in its time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

This title was recommended to me by blogger Kathy at Reading Matters in her review of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In that review, Kathy mentioned that Johnny Tremain was a a children's classic  in which the child protagonist was allowed to be imperfect, which made for a more complex and ultimately more fulfilling reading experience. 

So imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered that I actually had a copy of the book! I am not sure how I obtained it. It might have actually belonged to one of my siblings and just migrated to me. The copy I read does not have the Newbery stamp in gold foil on the front (unlike the pictured version in this post ) and it is priced at only $3.50, so it must have been first purchased sometime in the late 70's/early 80s.   

I agree with Kathy that Johnny is an interesting and realistic character. He is not idealized and he does not always make the "right" decision.  His arrogance gets him into trouble more than once. But he is also quick thinking and loyal which earns him friends and support when he most needs it.

For a book aimed at 12 year olds written 75 years ago, I thought the story was pretty gripping reading it as an adult now!  Only the last chapter sort of loses the plot a bit.  I was a little disappointed that the book completely sidesteps the issue of slavery but I guess that is not uncommon for a book written in the 1940's. 

The story takes place on the cusp of the American Revolution in Boston. Johnny becomes involved with many of the key players in that conflict, such as Paul Revere and John Hancock and he also takes part in certain events like the Boston Tea Party. There were quite a few names that I had to google; if I learned about them in elementary school, I have since forgotten.  

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate for the "Children's Classic" category.  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: Passing by Nella Larsen

For the category “Classic with a Single Word Title” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate I chose to read Passing by Nella Larsen.  This book had been on my list for quite a while now so I was really glad to use this excuse to get to it. Passing is one of my favorite kind of books in that it is a novella that reveals multitudes in just over 100 pages (114 in the pictured Penguin classic that I read). I am always in awe of authors that can successfully pull that off.

The story is told from the point of view of Irene Redfield, an African American who is light-skinned enough to pass as “white”, though she only occasionally chooses to do so for small things where this gives her an small advantage, such as having a glass of iced tea in a Chicago hotel restaurant that would normally not allow blacks in.   In all other respects, Irene lives what she considers to be a fulfilled life in 1920’s Harlem, NY, an active member of the growing black middle class.  However, while having her refreshing glass of iced tea one hot afternoon, she runs into an old school friend, Clare Kendry.  What Irene soon discovers is that Clare doesn’t just "pass" from time to time but lives permanently as a white woman. No one in Clare’s social circle, particularly not her white husband, knows about her true origins, which means that she has had to cut off all ties with her former black neighborhood and friends. This chance encounter brings Clare back into the orbit of Irene’s life which has both seductive and dangerous consequences for both women.

As previously stated, there is a lot packed in these pages. Clearly the construct of race and racism, both overt and internalized, is the main focus, but there’s a lot of other subtext that can be read between the lines. The introduction by Thadious M. Davis emphasized repressed sexuality between Clare and Irene which isn’t something I picked up on personally, but I did think there were interesting intimations about marrying for security and the roles one plays in marriage as a woman that one can also tease out of the narrative.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The category Reread a Favorite Classic from the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was definitely the hardest choice!  I rarely re-read, but if I "have" to, what book to choose from so many favorites? 

I ultimately decided to re-discover Wuthering Heights.  The first time I read this book I was 21 years old and my real inspiration to read it was the Kate Bush song (♫♯"Heathcliff, its me Cathy, I've come home, I'm so cold, let me in at your window...").  I am glad to have read the book so young and to have the opportunity to re-read it now 30 years later. The book portrays destructive and all consuming passion which I think as a young adult I could inhabit and even admire. Now in middle age, I see the tragedy and senselessness of it. I don't think that either interpretation is right or wrong; it is more a matter of age and experience playing into the reader's perception. And in my mind, that is what makes a classic "classic" in part: the ability of the work to engender different impressions or interpretations upon multiple readings. 

It is also so interesting to read this on the heels of Bel Ami since there isn't any likable character in Wuthering Heights either.  Even Nelly Dean, the servant telling the tale to Mr. Lockwood, is suspect in my mind.  First of all, we only have her word that what she is relating is how it happened and secondly, she does cause small amounts of harm when she withholds information from the other principals in parts of the story.  

I think that most people are familiar with the story of Heathcliff and Cathy who due to their upbringing and personalities can't live without each other but also can't, in the society and world they inhabit, live with each other.  The  result of their inability to be together as they wish leads to tragic misunderstandings, long memories and cold-blooded (or maybe fiery-hearted?) revenge. 

Upon re-reading I did not remember ANY of the second volume! Which makes me wonder if I did read it 30 years ago...I think I did but with little thought to what I was reading if that makes sense!

What I really enjoyed most upon re-reading (Note: I actually listened to most of this on audio, narrated by Carolyn Seymour) was the structure of the book and the way the narrative is framed.  Mr. Lockwood is renting Thrushwood Grange 20 years or so after the events of the book take place and the story is then related to him by Nelly over the course of a few nights. I just love the way the story is wrapped in a story which is wrapped in a story.