Reading

Completed: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

This is the front cover art for the book Crooked House written by Agatha Christie (First Edition)Crooked House
Agatha Christie
(England, 1949)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an Agatha Christie. High school, in fact. But when I chanced upon a trailer for Crooked House, I couldn’t help but be intrigued—it referred to Crooked House as Christie’s most “twisted tale.” Having now read it, I’m more inclined to continue to think And Then There Were None as the more “twisted” of her novels. However, the mystery itself does indeed prove that the titular setting of much of the action is well named, and not merely for its physical appearance.

The victim is family patriarch, Aristide Leonides, and the cast of suspects his household: largely family, both by blood and marriage, but also including a former nanny and a tutor. Over the course of the novel, it appears at any given time that all occupants may have quite a suitable motive to wish Aristide dead—but which is the real killer?

This is the question that narrator Charles Hayward sincerely wishes to know the answer to, for Aristides’ granddaughter Sophia will not consent to marry Charles unless the mystery is solved, so concerned is she by who might actually be the responsible party, and that a dark cloud might hang permanently over the family.

I confess that, although Christie laced Crooked House with plenty of clues as to the identity of the killer, I never did stop to think about it long enough—or perhaps pay close enough attention!—to discern it for myself. But that did not prevent my thorough enjoyment of the fast-paced mystery, or my appreciation for the clever way in which Christie lays it all out both for Charles and for us while also hiding just enough that we can choose to stay surprised if we wish.

Read as a classic crime story for Back to the Classics.

Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Mary Barton by Elizabeth GaskellMary Barton
Elizabeth Gaskell
England, 1849

Poverty. Murder. Alcoholism. Political disenchantment. Class strife. Wealth inequality. Opiate abuse. Domestic violence. No, Mary Barton is not set in the troubled 2010s, though at times it felt as if it would fit within the current conversation, proving only that while we may have come some ways since then (the dire poverty and starvation scenes are, I hope, more extreme than any currently found in Europe or the US), we are still troubled by many of the same challenges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

He had hesitated between the purchase of meal or opium, and had chosen the latter, for its use had become a necessity with him. He wanted it to relieve him from the terrible depression its absence occasioned. (Chapter X)

Gaskell’s debut novel, Mary Barton does not appear to me to be as well-known as several of her others. Nor do I believe the writing to be a prime example of top-notch Victorian literature (based on my limited knowledge/experience; I may be off-base!), though Gaskell was clearly a keen observer of character. But it seems an important novel nonetheless, as it presented to her Victorian middle-class readers a vivid picture of the lives of the working poor, people whose desperation they were perhaps otherwise unaware of.

And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent,–of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family,–of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter),–of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their exciting feelings, and their desolate homes,–can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation? (chapter VIII)

Set in the mill town of Manchester, 1839-42, Mary Barton centers largely around the story of Mary, a young, sometimes naïve seamstress, and her millworker, unionist father John, as well as pieces of the lives of their friends, the Wilsons (George and Jane, their son Jem, George’s sister Alice and her foster son Will), and Margaret Jennings and her grandfather Job Legh. John has grown embittered by the hardships of his life, including the deaths of his young son, and later, his wife in childbirth. A secondary thread of the novel follows his descent from a decent, hardworking man, to a man poisoned by his hate for “the masters.” But the real story is that of Mary’s romantic entanglement with Harry Carson, the son of one of the millowners, the devotion of Jem Wilson to her nonetheless, and the consequences of their respective interactions. Unlike the love triangles of fluffier novels, this is a story that seems doomed only for despair.

Indeed, much of the novel is dark. The poverty of the millworkers—especially in times when work was scarce—was keen. Mortality was high. It seems a depressing sort of novel, yet Gaskell provided notes of hope throughout, whether the kindness of friends or complete strangers or the positive and cheerful attitude of another. And the through line of romance balances the political aspects of the story. It is clearly a political story, one that resonates over 150 years later, but it is also an entertainment, though one that illuminates a world that may be far different than the reader’s own. Somehow Gaskell balances these competing interests seamlessly, only dipping into the maudlin or overly-coincidental at select times. In the end, a satisfying read.

Some quotes:

“Working folk won’t be ground to the dust much longer. We’n a’ had as much to bear as human nature can bear. So, if th’ masters can’t do us no good, and they say they can’t, we mun try higher folk.” (Chapter VIII)

Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury. (Chapter VIII)

“Aye, dear; being patient is the hardest work we, any on us, have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing. (Chapter XII)

Then uprose the guilty longing for blood!–The frenzy of jealousy!–Some one should die. He would rather Mary were dead, cold in her grave, than that she were another’s. (Chapter XIV)

…he beset Mary more than ever. She was weary of her life for him. From blandishments he had even gone to threats–threats that whether she would or not she should be his; he showed an indifference that was almost insulting to her everything which might attract attention and injure her character. (Chapter XV)

“It’s not much I can say for myself in t’other world. God forgive me; but I can say this, I would fain have gone after the Bible rules if I’d seen folk credit it; they all spoke up for it, and went and did clean contrary.” (Chapter XXXV)

(I started Mary Barton for The Classic’s Club’s end-of-the-year classic spin. Alas, I both underestimated the length of the novel and started it too late to successfully finish by the December 31 deadline! Part of my Classics Club list.)

L'Engle · Reading

Completed: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(US, 1962)

Her mother carefully turned over four slices of French toast, then said in a steady voice, “No, Meg. Don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” (Ch 2)

I admit I approached A Wrinkle in Time with some trepidation. Although I had fond memories, it had been so long since I last read it, that I was afraid the magic might be gone.

I needn’t have been afraid. Not only did A Wrinkle in Time maintain the sense of magic I remembered from so long ago, I found much more insight in it than I would have as a child. L’Engle does not condescend to her reader, and so she creates a story that is not merely enchanting, but that imparts seamless lessons for living that extend to any reader.

“But nobody’s ever happy, either,” Meg said earnestly. “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy.” (Ch 8)

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of three children—Meg and Charles Wallace Murry and Calvin O’Keefe—who are tasked with the rescue of Mr. Murry, who went astray in space in a lab experiment gone wrong. It is a story of fighting against darkness—inner, outer, spiritual, here given form as “the Black Thing.” And it is a story of family and friendship and individuality and finding one’s place and learning one’s strengths. It introduces us to the fifth dimension, a tesseract, a “wrinkle” in time. And so Wrinkle is a science-fiction story. It is that rare science-fiction story—to my familiarity, at least—where a girl is a hero. And L’Engle makes Meg a marvelous, well-rounded hero. She is allowed not only her strengths, but her faults as well, indeed is told to use her faults. She is allowed to be both strong and weak, smart but a struggling student, determined and impatient and stubborn and angry and full of love.

Nor is Meg a “token” female character; Mrs. Murry is allowed not to merely be a mother, but a highly-educated working scientist, and the children are guided by the delightful—and wise—trio of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Nor do these wonderful women come at the expense of males: Charles Wallace and Calvin are essential to the story as well, their strengths and weaknesses playing off Meg’s and providing two more examples of intelligence and individuality and two more problem solving approaches as well; and, like his wife, the scientist Mr. Murry reminds us that even as adults we still struggle with the challenges life may throw at us and with how best to protect those we love.

Refreshingly, A Wrinkle in Time seems at times to be a celebration of the intellectual, while also providing a caution against the pure intellect and a reminder to guard oneself against smugness and superiority. In the end there is a strength greater even than book smarts or wisdom or determination, but this is a lesson Meg (and the reader) must learn for herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the world of L’Engle’s words and I am even more excited for my 2018 L’Engle reading project than I was even a month ago.

“Do you think things always have an explanation?”
“Yes. I believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” (Ch 3)

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” (Ch 9)

Read for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and as a children’s classic for Back to the Classics.

Reading

Completed: Blood Crime by Sebastià Alzamora

Book Cover: Blood Crime by Sebastia AlzamoraBlood Crime
Sebastià Alzamora
2012, Spain
Translated from Catalan by Maruza Relaño and Martha Tennent, 2016

This is the problem of human freedom: as soon as an individual believes he has attained it, the first thing he does is concentrate on eliminating his congeners. Order is reestablished when another person takes his life; almost without exception, order entails repressing the appetite for crime by committing another crime. That is why, more than anything else, war is the simultaneous fulfillment of the desire to kill accrued to all the individuals of a generation. A moment of collective deliverance, an enormous, devastating sigh exhaled from the depths of the souls of victims and executioners alike.

It is hard at first to know how to categorize Blood Crime. Is it a thriller, a vampire story, historical fiction, a war novel? It is all of these things, and so it is ultimately a horror novel of the most serious sort: a literary indictment of man’s capacity for evil.

Blood Crime is set in the opening months of Spain’s Civil War, focused on Barcelona and the horrors perpetrated there. Against a backdrop of bombings and political intrigues and murders–or massacres–a crime is committed that stands out even amid war’s horrors. An old priest and a young boy are both brutally murdered and drained of their blood. There are those who believe it to be the work of a monster, a vampire. And those who cannot believe, for there are already too many things too terrible to comprehend, how to add one more?

But fantasy monsters of various types and stripes linger, echoes of Dracula and Frankenstein, Gothic terrors, whose horrors become tame in comparison of the depravity of the minds of men–depravities justified in the name of War and Power.

Freedom, courage, and boldness, went the song, and it sounded like sarcasm to Brother Darder. Though, come to think of it, was was a colossal macabre joke. Brothers sacrificing brothers, parents informing on children, and children killing parents or having them killed; merchants of misery and whoremasters of death, gossipmongers of crime and peddlers of depravation. (Part 3)

There are glimpses of light throughout, however. The Mother Abbess’s tender concern for Sister Concepció, a young novice tormented in mind and spirit by the war and an impossible request, and with a looming danger she isn’t even aware of. Though the darkness closes in, both Sister Concepció’s very youth and the compulsion of those around her to protect her provide hope. There is the belief that man can effect positive change–despite war’s evidence to the contrary–championed by both Judge Carbonissa and Doctor Pellicer. The steady moral principles of Superintendent Muñoz, even in the face of unbeatable odds. These and other examples combine to bring a bit of uplift to an otherwise dark story. And in turn hope, that no matter how monstrous a person may turn, there will be those fighting against such monstrosity.

Reading

Anew Again

Walking path covered in snow
I’m Dreaming of a White New Year?

Happy New Year!

I do so like even-numbered years. There’s just something pleasing about the symmetry of a number divisible by two. (Not that I necessarily dislike odd numbers—I’m rather fond of nine, actually. But then again, it’s a perfect cube…) And, although I find I’m customarily optimistic at the start of a new year—it’s like opening a new notebook to that first fresh, clean, page—I still can’t help but think that 2018 is going to be a good year. It just feels that way.

As I was trying to get started here, though, I was actually poking around in last New Year’s post, and found I want to quote myself from last year:

I know many people are happy to see 2016 gone. It wasn’t kind to many of us[…]. Personally, however, I don’t believe it was quite the worst year I’ve had, as despite the negatives–and there were plenty–there were plenty of positives as well. And while there may be reasons to be concerned about what 2017 may bring, I find that I’m an optimist at heart, and have observed that although at times life may seem bleak, if we look hard enough we may find something to hearten us. While I don’t believe that it is wise to hide ourselves away from negative news, nor do I think it is healthy to focus solely on what distresses us, but better to look for the good as well and for what we may do, no matter how small. At unexpected times, I was reminded last year of how something as simple as a smile or holding out a hand to another can uplift someone when they are feeling down. And while I will lay out plans and goals for the coming year below, if I can just remember this, if I can endeavor to be always kind, even to those I dislike or cannot trust, then I will have accomplished something more meaningful than plowing through a list of books.

In many ways this still holds true—2017 wasn’t great, at least not for many people around me, but for me at least there were still many high points and experiences, from goals met to work accomplishments to new skills learned (Pottery! Can I tell you how excited I was the first time I successfully threw a bowl on the wheel? 🙂 ).

Of course, most of the goals met were work-related. Which I guess is still something, but I didn’t do as well with the goals I laid out here last January:

  • Deal Me In – lasted about a month and a half. Although it was nice to actually read some short stories for a change of pace.
  • Back to the Classics – big fail. Only read two books and didn’t blog about either.
  • Yeah, no, I didn’t read 8 titles from my Classics Club list. Only two, and I didn’t write about either. Whoops.
  • I DID read two recent works in translation (Zlata’s Diary and Blood Crime), but didn’t write about either. (Yet—there’s still hope for Blood Crime, since I just finished it.)
  • Children’s classics were successful, largely thanks to the fifth Classics Children’s Literature Event and a Beauty and the Beast hole I fell into.
  • I only made it to 24 finished books instead of the goal of 26, but that’s right around where I usually fall—and I had a couple reading slumps this year—so I’m not really disappointed by that.
  • And of course, as already mentioned, I did NOT do a good job of writing about my reading  in 2017. I really hope to improve upon that this year.

Outside of reading, I did much better:

  • I learned how to use many more of the settings on my camera, from adjusting aperture to shutter speed to a simple trick for cutting down the harshness of the on-camera flash (hold a tissue in front of it – it works!) Now it’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice.
  • I blew past my knitting goal (3 decent-sized projects)–I think I know where my reading time went!
  • I didn’t spend much time on Spanish so…oops.
  • And I didn’t go through all my various folders of papers, papers, papers. Another year. This year?

As far as the reading I did do, nothing really jumps out for highlights. There were a lot of rereads—among them, I finally started in on a reread of the Harry Potter series (I’ve been thinking about this for years), and I finished a reread of the first three books in the Raven Cycle before I read the final book in the series. There were a lot of fairy-tales, including manymanyversions of Beauty and the Beast. It turns out there can be too much of a good thing…

I did, for the first time ever, successfully read the entire Bible in a single calendar year. Although I wasn’t reading it as literature per se, there were a few “literary” highlights that jumped out: On finishing I Samuel, the thought that sprang to mind was that it really read as quite the action adventure story (Saul v David – plenty of intrigue and excitement!).  Also, the introduction to the book of Ruth in the Norton Critical Edition I have highly praised its literary merits—for its tight structure, especially.

I also read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was good–but I read it in a prose edition, and really want to reread it in a poetic translation (which is why I haven’t written anything about it, actually.) And there were a few other new-to-me books – the above mentioned translations, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Barton [Classics Spin selection which I’m about 1/3 away from finishing], ‘Salem’s Lot – but nothing really jumps out.

So that’s my reading goal for 2018: read great books. Not just books I love or enjoy or comfort reads, but GREAT BOOKS. I ended 2016 with a couple, but it just didn’t happen in 2017. So no grand reading plans–short of the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge–I don’t have any set lists or goals. No numbers to reach. No challenges to hit. Just find and read really good books, books that won’t leave me alone after I finish them, books that will reward reread after reread. (Oh, and write about them here.)

I’m open to participating in other’s one- or two-month long events, but that’s about it. I’ve mentioned it here previously, but I won’t be hosting a Classic Children’s Literature Event this year. However, if you’re interested, I’m reading A Wrinkle in Time to start the year – I’m planning on posting on January 28th, so if you want to participate in a really informal RAL, please feel free to join right in!

Outside of reading, I’m limiting my goals as well. This year is one I want to make more about being deliberate: with how I spend my time, in what I acquire (or get rid of), in what I create, in what I read. And it is a year when I want to focus on finishing: all those many projects and lists I feel are constantly hanging over my head. These aren’t specific goals, I know. Which makes them hard to measure. (Though, truthfully, if I have fewer projects on my to-do-list at the end of the year than I do at the start, that would be an acceptable measurement.) But right now those ideas–being deliberate, focusing on finishing–are where I’m feeling drawn to focus. Fortunately, my TBR pile qualifies as a very deliberate list to finish…!

Happy Reading!

Reading

Completed: All the Crooked Saints

The first miracle was this: making the darkness visible.

Sadness is a little like darkness. They both begin in the same way. A tiny, thin pool of uneasiness settles in the bottom of the gut. Sadness simmers fast and boils hard and then billows up and out, filling first the stomach, then heart, then lungs, then legs, then arms, then up into the throat, then pressing against eardrums, then swelling against skull and eventually spilling out of eyes in a hissing release. Darkness, though, grows like a cave formation. Slow drips from the uneasiness harden over the surface of a slick knob of pain. Over time, the darkness crusts in unpredictable layers, growing at such a pace that one doesn’t notice it has filled every cavern under the skin until movement becomes difficult or even impossible.

Darkness never boils over. Darkness remains inside. (Ch. 4)

Cover: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie StiefvaterAll the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
US, 2017

When I first heard about All the Crooked Saints, I didn’t think I would rush out to read it when it came out; something about the description failed to grab me. But as it grew closer to publication date, and seeing more about it online, I decided to place a hold at the library and a short time after its release I had it in my hands. It turned out, for various reasons, to be the perfect book at just that time.

Set in 1960s Colorado, All the Crooked Saints is the story of the Soria family, some of whose members can perform the miracle of giving physical shape to another’s darkness. That person must then complete the hard work of overcoming the darkness for themselves, and a Soria must never help—for then their own darkness will be made manifest, and a Soria’s darkness is said to be greater than any other’s.

Although it is not a very long book (around 300 pages if I recall correctly), it is even lighter on plot, with a story spanning only a few short days. But with a wide and varied cast of characters, it is more intent on their inner lives and the desolate, but beautiful, landscape that surrounds them. Each character carries some sort of “darkness,”—either of their own making or of external forces (or a combination of both)—whether or not it has been made manifest for all to see. Just as the physical form of the darkness prevents the pilgrim from leaving the confines of the Soria compound, so their previous internal darkness prevented them from leaving some hinderance behind, from moving forward. Although at times the point seemed overly-direct, All the Crooked Saints is Steifvater’s metaphor for how she feels we should all approach our own inner demons, with hard work that ultimately only we can solve, not anyone around us, a message no less true for its directness. And ultimately it is also a story about hope, something that is so easy to lose when all of the news and social media around us seem to want to inspire us to despair instead.

Her dress was wet, and so was her skin. This was because, despite the porch roof, it was raining on her. Rain originated from nowhere and spattered on her hair and face and shoulders and clothing, then ran off the stairs and formed a fast-running rivulet into the brush. Every part of her dress was covered with monarch butterflies, their orange-and-black stained-glass wings likewise soaked. They clung to her, unable to do anything but slowly move their wings or climb across the fabric. (Ch 3)

Unlike her previous novels, All the Crooked Saints departs from Stiefvater’s beloved Celtic mythology in favor of Mexican folklore, and also sets aside her more familiar fantasy techniques for the realm of magical realism, stretching and straining the bounds of reality in such a matter-of-fact way, that even the more surprising of the miracles seem natural. The previous Stiefvater fiction I’ve read has always remained so grounded in the familiar world, however, that this doesn’t feel so great of a departure, and at times, it seemed to me less “magical realism” and more “tall tale” – prompting me to wonder, what the bounds are of each? A line of investigation, if my library pile weren’t pointedly reminding me of other obligations, I would follow up on sooner rather than later.

Reading

Completed: ‘Salem’s Lot

As I ease my way back into blogging (i.e., struggle to remember that I’m supposed to take some time to actually write about books), I recalled two things:

1) I never remembered to “close out” my Readathon post. If you’re deathly curious, I managed 248 pages over 6.25 hrs of actual reading time. Which, admittedly, in a 24-hour period doesn’t sound like a lot, but a) I was unfortunately rather sleep-deprived heading into readathon and b) for me that’s rather good lately. Those 248 pages included rereads from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (‘textbook’ version, not the movie screenplay version) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, both by JK Rowling, plus a good chunk of Blood Crime by Catalan author Sebastià Alzamora (accidentally timely, given the recent political upheaval in Catalan/Spain).

2) I had a draft of a post I had started this summer for a book that, given the “spooky season” we are just departing seemed completely appropriate to finish up and share now. [Yes, I’m a little behind. I’m calling this progress.]

‘Salem’s Lot
Stephen King
US, 1975

Cover: 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King (mass market paperback)I picked ‘Salem’s Lot off my bookshelf this past summer on a whim—I was looking for something that would read quickly, to kick-start me back into better reading habits, but also a “gown-up” book to convince myself that I was capable of reading anything more complex than Beatrix Potter. (Slow reading spring, can you tell?) Though long, it worked—I found I could fly through pages even in just a short sitting, which is often all I have available.

‘Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s vampire novel, an exploration of the idea “what if Dracula arrived in the 20th century US?” As such, it is—King acknowledges—heavily indebted to the 1897 Bram Stoker novel. But even with my fond familiarity with Dracula (I’ve read it twice) and the clear direction of the story—I had a fairly good idea shortly in who would/wouldn’t survive—I found it compulsively readable.

This was actually my first King novel, and really one of my few forays into the horror genre. I didn’t find it particularly frightening or even chilling; perhaps I’ve been jaded by the realities of actual events, but I find I am frightened not by fictional monsters, rather the real ones. Interestingly, King investigates this: some characters struggle to accept the reality of vampires in their community, because aren’t vampires fiction? Which forces the reader to realize, hey I might not be scared by this book, but if vampires really DID exist, really DID have such power—would I recognize it in time? More importantly, the vampires are ultimately a stand-in for the real monsters that King—and the reader—knows exist. The horror is not the something supernatural lurking in the dark of abandoned houses, it is the something all-too-human committing unspeakable acts, whether behind closed doors or openly but without correction.

In the end, what I found most interesting about the novel—though I enjoyed the story—is how it serves as an artifact of its time. The descriptions of hair styles and clothing. The references to wars, both Korea and Vietnam that are current in a way they aren’t today. The “politically incorrect” speech of the era, and the casual references to political corruption from an era in which the Watergate Scandal still poignantly stung. And yet we can still find parallels today, reminding us that though technologies may change (how would this story be different with cell phones?!), the human condition has not.

Although after one book, I’m not yet so much a Stephen King convert as to say I wish to read his entire backlist, I could see reading more at some point down the road—recommendations welcome!