Thursday, May 9, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: Three Men in a Boat

'In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”

What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell.  From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it.  As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.  They did not know, then, that it was my liver.  Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.'

I read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome for the Classic Comic Novel category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by blogger Karen at Books and Chocolate.  Apparently, the book started off as a travel guide for points of interest along the Thames.  That part of the book was a bit of a miss for me since I am not very well acquainted with British history. Nor am I familiar with boating and the technicalities of that such as using tow lines, punting, etc. 

Occasionally in the travelogue parts, the writing was flowery about sunsets and flowers and the like and the tone more serious.  But was it funny? Generally, yes. The sense of humor was very familiar; fairly broad and a bit silly. The punchlines usually weren’t terribly clever such as never finding a cab when you need one but when you don’t there are tons.  My first real laugh came when the narrator is describing his dog Montmorency, who “came to live at my expense…” That is a perfect description of the dogs and cats in my home. They live at my expense…total freeloaders! 😺

There is no plot. Three young men set off boating for two weeks on the Thames. Some shenanigans and minor disasters happen and there are many digressions, like the inadvisability of offering to store a wheel of cheese for a friend for any length of time or a friend who gets himself and his fellow tourists lost in a maze and almost lynched by the mob of people trying to get out.  

I read the unabridged text in physical form but because it was only two hours and twenty minutes, I also later listened to the abridged audio version narrated by Hugh Laurie  which was delightful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The 1965 Club: At Betram's Hotel and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I read two other books for The 1965 Club that I wanted to post about. The page count of the two books COMBINED is only a little more than half of the total page count of The Magus, which was refreshing.  I read both in a matter of a couple of days.  Also, both are by favorite authors of mine:

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie is the third to last of the Miss Marple mysteries. It is probably not the best jumping in point for any reader who is new to Miss Marple since it is fairly slow and the murder comes only very near the end.  Miss Marple, however,  is my favorite of Christie’s detectives and I unreservedly love all the books which feature her.  I just wish Christie had written more Marple mysteries for me to enjoy.  

The story is that Miss Marple spends a fortnight at Bertram’s Hotel as a gift from her nephew and his wife.  Miss Marple spent time at the hotel as a girl at the turn of the century and at first is delighted to discover that the establishment is practically unchanged since the Edwardian era. There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about how times have changed, in particular how young women of a certain class are not looked after by their mothers as they should. 

However, soon our elderly sleuth starts to notice that the hotel is too perfect …or rather a facsimile of an Edwardian Era hotel; she begins to wonder what the hotel is fronting behind its facade. Meanwhile, the London police are also taking a closer look at Betram's since it has been linked ever so tenuously to some recent heists. But it isn’t until absentminded Canon Pennyfather, who was staying at the hotel, goes missing that the mystery really starts. 

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut could have been written today it many respects. It is an angry satire about greed and America.  But it was to me mostly message and not a lot of story.  Personally I think Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Cat’s Cradle are better crafted.  But this short book might be like music to your ears if you are left-leaning and appalled by the lack of compassion in much of the current political scene in the West. 

The story (what story there is) is about two men named Rosewater.  The first one is Eliot Rosewater, who is the beneficiary of an enormous corporate trust fund, the Rosewater Foundation, which he is barred from managing but from which he reaps the cash rewards. The other man is Fred Rosewater, a distant relative of Eliot, who sells insurance and while not poor, is decidedly not rich. An ambitious lawyer working at the Rosewater Foundation realizes that if he can get Eliot deemed incompetent and convince Fred to sue as the legitimate recipient of the Foundation’s funds, he (the lawyer) can make a pile of cash on the lawsuit and subsequent transaction. 

There is a lot of quotable stuff in this book, but the t-shirt slogan and truest message of the book is this one, when Eliot is asked how he would baptize children. This is pure Vonnegut: 

'Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule I know of, babies-: God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Monday, April 22, 2019

The 1965 Club: The Magus by John Fowles

Confession #1: I actually read the 1977 revised version of The Magus, which was originally  published in 1965. Alas, the revised version is what was available at the library.

Confession #2: I read most of the book in March because this baby is over 600 pages long!

The Magus was John Fowles third published novel. Today, I think he is better known for his debut The Collector or his fourth novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman.  The reason I chose to read The Magus (other than its publication date) for the 1965 Club was because it is on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels in English of the 20th Century, a list I have been slowly reading through on since 1998.  I still have 25 titles left to read and cross off. 

The story is narrated by Nicholas Urfe and it begins very much like a 19th century novel, "I was born in  1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf, Queen Victoria." 

The first 50 pages or so are Nicholas recounting his childhood and education, bringing the reader to to the present day as he is in his mid-twenties and ready to flee gray London for a teaching job at a boy's boarding school located on a remote Greek island. Also Nicholas is fleeing an intense relationship with a young Australian woman which Nicholas is too immature to handle, though he doesn't realize it at the time. 

"The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped; and hardly less clearly, but much more odiously, that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won. So on top of the excitement of the voyage in to the unknown, the taking wing again, I had an agreeable feeling of emotional triumph. A dry feeling; but I liked things dry. I went towards Victoria as a hungry man goes towards a good dinner after a couple of glasses of Mananzilla. I began to hum, and it was not a brave attempt to hid my grief, but a revoltingly unclouded desire to celebrate my release."

I'm not sure if it comes across in the above quote, but Nicholas is kind of an a**hat. It is something I as a reader had to wrestle with, since the book is entirely in Nicholas' point of view and we tend to want to empathize with first person narrators. 

Once Nicholas is on the island, he meets a mysterious millionaire, Maurice Conchis, who owns a private villa not far from the boarding school. It quickly becomes clear that Conchis is very interested in and possibly manipulating Nicholas, but to what end? As the book progresses, both Nicholas and the reader begin to doubt reality and question Conchis' motives. To say any more would be to go into spoiler territory. Just know that the original title of the book was "The Godgame".

I do think I would have appreciated the metaphysical aspects of The Magus more had I read it when I was younger.  As a novel, it is very much a thought-experiment and it asks some really big questions about psychology, religion, mythology, free-will, etc. It is a book I admired more than I actually enjoyed. 

I read this for the 1965 Club hosted by bloggers Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings and I thank them both for this opportunity

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: A Glass of Blessings

Unlike the single, excellent women who have been the mainstay of the other Pym novels, the protagonist of A Glass of Blessings is a young, married woman.   She and her husband, Rodney, have settled into a complacent but comfortable, childless marriage.  They live with her mother-in-law, Sylvia, in Sylvia’s London home in the mid 1950’s.  Between Rodney’s hours at the office, Sylvia’s assistance at home and the servants, Wilmet has little to do. She thinks she would like to do good works and she attends services at a nearby Anglican church regularly. But she hasn’t yet developed the kind of dedication or flair required for the selfless activity of organizing church bazaars or rummage sales. 

Image result for a glass of blessingsWilmet yearns for something more exciting from life. When she meets with her best friend Rowena, they reminisce about their time spent in Italy during the war when they were both WRENs and their now husbands were then dashing officers.  Throughout the book, Wilmet entertains the idea of an affair (or maybe just some heavy flirting). She considers a relationship with Piers, the rather feckless brother of Rowena.  Also, Rowena’s husband Harry would like to be more than just friends with Wilmet. And there is a darkly handsome new assistant priest at St. Luke’s…

A Glass of Blessings was a very low-key sort of romantic comedy; not much happens, yet subtly lots of things happen. Interestingly, it was narrated in the first person. I checked and of the six Pym novels I’ve read so far, only Excellent Women was also in first person.  For what ever reason, I feel that worked better with Mildred in Excellent Women, maybe because Wimet is often fairly clueless and I often wished for some authorial confirmation that she was being obtuse. 

Now that I know to look for them, I found many connections/references to other characters from Excellent Women, Less Then Angels and No Fond Return of Love as well as one to one I haven’t read yet (Jane and Prudence) which provided an added layer of enjoyment to the book. Some one needs to write a companion book listing all the characters and places and their crossovers for the entire Pym oeuvre similar to what Hilary Spurling did for Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. 

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 run by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate for the category “Classic by a Woman”.

Monday, April 1, 2019


I managed to read the requisite six books for this challenge but I had to switch out one of the originally planned reads for another title. But let’s face it, the prompts are just an excuse to read whatever I want! 

1. For my Josephine Tey book, I randomly picked To Love and Be Wise from the three titles I had left to read. I liked it. It reminded me a little of Brat Farrar. And for fans of Inspector Grant, he is very present in this one. 

2. The Elizabeth George book, A Banquet of Consequences, was not as terrible as I had feared. It was, in any case, better than the last two in the series and I will probably read the next book.

3. For the "New" category, I switched Out by Natsuo Kirino for The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing.  I first heard about The Big Clock from blogger Thomas at Hogglestock.  It is very much in the classic mid-century hard boiled/noir vein and was very entertaining.

4. I also really enjoyed Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters. The Amelia Peabody series, from which this title is the forth installment, has really grown on me. The characters and mysteries are cartoonish, but fun.  I also listened to this on audio which is particularly entertaining because the narrator, Barbara Rosenblat, is superb.

5. Similar to the Amelia Peabody series, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is also pure comfort reading. It is impossible not to love Mma Ramotswe and her gentle ways of solving people's problems. I also listened to almost all of The Kalahari Typing School for Men as narrated by Lisette Lecat who was very good. 

6. Lastly, I liked Life Sentences by Laura Lippman but don't think it is her strongest work, though I think she is a good writer.  It felt like she wanted to break out of the mystery/thriller genre and write literary fiction but felt obligated to keep the crime fiction format.  I wish she had dumped the mystery aspect of the book and just written a novel about childhood secrets and adult regrets set in a racially diverse but also divisive Baltimore. 

It entirely possible that these will be the only crime fiction I read for the rest of 2019 but I hope not!  I do have the last Flavia de Luce novel on my TBR (just waiting for the audio to be available from the library) and I really want to tackle The Witch Elm by Tana French which I have checked it out twice and returned unread both times!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: Barnaby Rudge

I will lead in with what everyone notes about Barnaby Rudge: it is probably Dickens’ least popular novel.  The introduction by John Bowen the Penguin Classic edition that I read gave some explanations for this and the one that made the most sense to me was that Dickens’ prior phenomenal success with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicolas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop got in the way of his fifth novel.  Had it been his debut, Dickens would probably have been pleased with the results, but while it sold well, but couldn't touch the run-away popularity of his previous works, in particular, The Old Curiosity Shop.  Furthermore, Barnaby Rudge was inspired by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and I also agree with other readers that the adherence to a standard historical romance sort of cramped Dickens’ style.

While  Barnaby Rudge might not make the tippy-top of my list of favorite Dickens’ oeuvres,  I enjoyed the novel  more than I initially anticipated and I learned a lot since I knew nothing of the historical events depicted.  Also, for the fans, it has plenty of typical Dickens flourishes such as out-sized characters, comedic relief, amazing coincidences and biting social commentary.  

The book opens in 1775 cozily enough with a ghost story told in the Maypole Inn in Chigwell, about 20 miles outside of London.  The story is about an infamous murder that took place at the nearby Haredale estate some 15 years earlier. The estate is now run by the murdered man's brother, Catholic Gregory Hardale. Haredale is also responsible for his orphaned niece, Emma. At the Maypole, the reader is introduced to the blowhard inn-proprietor John Willet and his much put-upon son Joe. Later, we meet the true-hearted locksmith Mr. Varden and his shrewish wife and beautiful daughter (loved by Joe Willet) as well as the smooth and wily Mr. Chester and his noble son Edmund (who loves Emma Hardale). The titular character, Barnaby, is a young man we would probably term developmentally disabled now. He lives in London with his widowed mother but spends lots of time at Chigwell as well. 

Once everyone is established, the story then jumps five years later to the events leading up to the Gordon Riots which were violent, anti-Catholic demonstrations that took place in London.   Dickens being Dickens, he naturally manages to involve every character in the riots in some manner and tie up all the disparate narrative strands neatly by the end. 

I think this is possible the most violent Dickens I have ever read. Even more so that A Tale of Two Cities.  My favorite character was Hugh, who is actually one of the villains of the book.  I found him to be frighteningly realistic and also terribly pathetic.  

Also, for a nice note of trivia, Barnaby has a pet raven named Grip who often steals the show in the novel. Allegedly Grip inspired Edgar Allen Poe years later when he penned his possibly most famous poem The Raven. 

This book is my first completed book for the The Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 run by Karen at Books and Chocolate for the 19th Century Classic category. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

March Mystery Madness 2019

 Duh, I could have posted this in February... 

I am going to participate in the 2019 March Mystery Madness which was created by booktubers Lizzy Faye Loves Books and Troi Towel and is co-hosted by a slew of other booktubers.  I did it last year and it really helped me get to some of those mysteries that have been languishing on my shelves for uh, DECADES in some cases... 

The five prompts are: OLD, AGAIN, NEW, BORROWED and BLUE plus one bonus prompt. My interpretation of the prompts are as follows:
  • I am going to read an OLD Golden Age Mystery by Josephine Tey. I can pick from these three titles of hers that I still have yet to read: The Singing Sands, To Love and Be Wise or A Shilling for Candles.
  • I will give Elizabeth George a chance AGAIN. Especially since blogger Whatmeread indicated that George returns to form after a couple of real stinkers with her 19th in the Inspector Lynley series. However, I still have to read the possibly not great 18th title which is A Banquet of Consequences first. 
  • I might choose the NEW to me author Natsuo Kirino and her novel Out.
  • I will probably BORROW from the library the next book I have to read in the Ameila Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters called Lion in the Valley
  • I would like to read Life Sentences by Laura Lippman which has a BLUE cover.
BONUS: Read a mystery with a wedding in it.  I'm going to take a gamble here and hope that Mma Ramotswe and Mr. Matekoni get hitched in the fourth book titled The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

Any thoughts on the books I've chosen or any plans yourself to read any mysteries soon? 😃