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Archive for August, 2012

I just bought these two books for my personal collection:

Harold Bloom tends to be a rather irascible old fellow, but he is very scholarly and I’m interested in his opinion.

I bought this one at Barnes & Noble in print format, although it looks like it’s only available on amazon in kindle format. This omnibus edition contains five short novels by Steinbeck: Tortilla Flat, The Moon is Down, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and The Pearl. I am especially interested in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. I sort of hated Of Mice and Men when I read it in school, but I’m prepared to give it another chance since there is a more than remote possibility that my hatred stems from the fact that someone MADE me read it, rather than from the fact that it isn’t amazing.

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“You’ll feel better after a nice cup of tea, m’m.”

English tea

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot, one of literatures most recognizable characters. Poirot was small, neat, and a bit affected. He owes a great debt to Sherlock Holmes, who, although the two character’s appearances are entirely different, share the trait of using impersonal objectivity and logic in the solving of crimes.

Also introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Hastings, who fulfills the role of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock – the slightly dense assistant.

Growing up, my father was a great fan of Dame Christie, so I read probably dozens of her books. Even the solutions are mostly left to the dimness of history, though, so rereading them is a pleasurable exercise. One of the things that I enjoy most about Christie is her engaging characters. She frequently wrote about bright young things, as in this description of one of the characters: Mary Cavendish – as seen through the eyes of Hasting.

“I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body – all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.”

Reading Christie is like dropping into post-world war I English society. It feels vaguely Edwardian – an idealized period of peace and prosperity amongst the upper classes, but she will often obliquely acknowledge the tension that provided an undercurrent to British society during this time period. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is no exception to this idea, as all of the major players in the novel are members of the British leisure class. Major financial pressures on this class are alluded to throughout the course of the novel – things like whopping death duties (known in America as “estate taxes), and the immense costs of upkeep on giant estates that are relics from a rapidly disappearing era present significant burdens on the characters. The setting of Ms. Christie’s books is enjoyable and populated with well-dressed characters having tea, and playing vigorous games of tennis or taking long country walks.

Agatha Christie excelled at the puzzle subset of mystery novels, and was a master of the whodunit and the locked room mystery. Misdirection abounds, and the reveal is always a primary point to her books. No spoilers here – the journey is about 75% of the fun, but revealing the solution to the mystery in a book discussion is just plain mean. If people want to know whodunit, they should read the book.

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After reading The Moonstone, something a little bit easier makes sense. I was able to download:

for free on amazon. Apparently this is one of Ms. Christie’s few public domain titles.

I do plan to read more Agatha Christie. A lot of her work will be rereads for me, but they are so bloody fun, and it’s been so long since I read them, that it will excellent to reintroduce myself to her writing.

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While I was wandering about the internet this morning, I checked in on a blog I love, called Dead White Guys, which mentioned that the blogger was considering signing up for a Classics Club challenge which involved a commitment to list 50 classics to read over a 5 year period.

This is a rather enormous undertaking, and I have a history of being really bad at reading challenges. I have been meaning to embark upon a Dickens project every single January for the last five Januaries. I have contemplated, undertaken, and abandoned dozens of such challenges.

But this one sounds like more fun. Maybe it’s the long-term nature of it. Maybe it’s the serendipity of starting this blog and then finding the challenge. Maybe it’s my delight with the fact that there is a huge community of people who are blogging about reading books that were written hundreds of years ago, and that you can get for free online. Maybe it’s the chance to kill two birds with one stone, since I’ve added all 12 Dickens novels to my list. Completing the challenge will also complete the Dickens project.

Whatever it is that compels me forward, I’m in.

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This is a very long book, and took me more than a week to read. Part of this, no doubt, because I was reading other books as I read this one: ┬áthe second of James Butcher’s Codex Alera series, which I also managed to finish up last night.

Putting together my thoughts on The Moonstone, my overall impression is that I enjoyed it. I really liked the format a lot. I loved the way Mr. Collins told the story through narratives from multiple characters. This had the effect of hiding certain pieces of information from the reader until they could be revealed in the knowledgable character’s narrative. I thought that it was an interesting – and effective – writing device.

I also really enjoyed the characters. I really liked Betteredge, with his reliance on Robinson Crusoe for guidance, which has inspired me to add Robinson Crusoe to my list of books to read. Receiving the first part of the story from Betteredge was very effective. As a neutral narrator, his narration felt more reliable. Franklin Blake, as it turned out, provided some of the most interesting narration.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

With respect to the solution, I thought it was frankly rather silly and contrived. It all worked together nicely, and worked well in terms of the plot, but it was utterly unrealistic that someone could commit a crime while under the influence of opium and be unaware of it. This lack of realism didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book – it constituted a clever puzzle and it worked well enough. But it was silly.

There was a little bit of very decorous romance contained in the book.

Mr. Collins imbued this work with some social criticism, although not as openly and as obviously as his contemporary, Charles Dickens. He definitely doesn’t have the same level of┬áscathing social commentary as a subtext to this particular work. There are some hints at the inequitability of the positions of social class, especially when the book addresses the perspective from Betteredge’s daughter. The distinction between the servant daughter and Rachel Verinder is nicely exposed as being due to an accident of birth rather than to some inherent merit of mind.

I’m not going to bother to rate the books that I talk about in this blog. Anyone who manages to find their way here will be aware of the authors I am reading and discussing.

At this point, I plan to continue with a survey of Victorian literature AFTER I take a brief break to read something by the inimitable Agatha Christie from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

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Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary of Charles Dickens during the Victorian Age. He is widely credited with writing the first “detective” novel. He died on September 23, 1889. A little known fact about Wilkie Collins, according to wikipedia, include his prediction of the concept of “mutually assured destruction” that defined the Cold War era.

The Victorians are well known for writing tomes – books whose weight in words is exceeded only by the profusion of characters and events taking place during the book. The Moonstone is no exception to this rule, weighing in at a whopping 503 pages long – about twice as long as the average Agatha Christie.

The Moonstone can be downloaded free from any number of sources, since it is firmly within the public domain. I bought my own copy, for posterity’s sake, at my local Barnes and Noble.

The novel is told through multiple first-person narratives, the first of which is the longest, which was provided by Gabriel Betteredge, the steward of the large manor from whence the Moonstone was stolen. I’m about midway through that section of the book right now, and am very much enjoying it. Betteredge is a bit of a philosopher, dependent upon Robinson Crusoe to provide him with the guideance that he needs. Yet another book I’ve never read.

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Welcome to the dead authors club, where I will blog about the books of the past, all written by authors who are no longer with us.

This blog will not be only about the classics, although I do intend to read and write about a lot of classics.

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