Life According to Literature Meme

Today feels just slightly odd. For the first time in seventeen years “back to school” means nothing for me, which is taking a bit to get used to.

I came across this title meme via Danielle, and it looked too fun to pass up.  My tendency towards mysteries made finding suitable answers a bit more challenging, though!

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

How do you feel: Dressed to Steal (Carolyn Keene)

Describe where you currently live: The Philadelphia Murder Story (Leslie Ford)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Your favorite form of transportation: The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald)

Your best friend is: The Key to Rebecca (by Ken Folett)

You and your friends are: The Green Years (A.J. Cronin)

What’s the weather like: Ankle Deep (Angela Thirkell)

You fear: The Secret Adversary (Agatha Christie)

What is the best advice you have to give: Good Luck to the Corpse (Max Murray)

Thought for the day: Fair Tomorrow (Emilie Loring) (slight cheat, as I’m only part way through)

How I would like to die: Slightly Chipped (Laurence and Nancy Goldstone)

My soul’s present condition: Joy in the Morning (Betty Smith)

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Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 2:44 pm  Comments (2)  

The Paris Enigma

“In the life of every actor, musician, singer, or writer there is always a moment when they begin to play the role of themselves, and everything that they do in the present is merely a ceremony with which they invoke something from the past, And life becomes, for the artist or the detective, the incessant fine-tuning of their own legend.”

So far this year I’ve already read two books set at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, Black Elk in Paris and Murder on the Eiffel Tower, so I figured I would round it out with The Paris Enigma by Pablo de Santis.

Sigmundo Salvatrio is thrilled to finally be chosen as acolyte for Renato Craig, Buenos Aires’ premier investigator and co-founder of the international society The Twelve Detectives. But Craig is not quite the same since his final case and sends Salvatrio in his place to the first-ever meeting at the World’s Fair. Soon the detectives number ten, however, and Salvatrio must now assist Parisian co-founder Arzaky in finding the connections among a new series of crimes.

I think the book has a fascinating premise. It looks at the World’s Fair in two ways, as a global meeting ground where cultures are in contact as never before, and as a demonstration of the exponential progress of human creativity and technology. De Santis then takes these two ideas and applies them to the art of investigations. His detectives trade stories about past successes and debate the philosophical impetuses and implications of their trade. Their cases are written up in publications poured over by youth everywhere. Yet their orderly world of physiognomy and locked room puzzles is vanishing as crime becomes more senseless and widespread.

Personally I wasn’t as fond of the emphasis on secret societies, but that may be what the jacket meant by “a classic mystery with a modern solution.” The Twelve Detectives have elaborate rules and a history of feuds, and as Salvatrio and Arzaky investigate they meet groups like “crypto-Catholics” who see secret messages everywhere and interpret the new iron tower as an omen. De Santis pointed out the parallels between people who look for signs in large monuments as a guide to daily life, and detectives who look for the smallest signs at the scene of the crime and interpret them to explain events. Overall this inclusion was not gratuitous, but at times I feared it would become too Da Vinci Code.

The novel has some weaknesses, and the narrative seemed especially slow at the beginning. Some of this is done to put later events into perspective but it left me wondering when the story would actually start. On the other hand I felt things were hinted at and never fully explained, like whether there was a deeper relationship between Alarcon and the Craig family. Finally, there are a lot of characters. Early on I stopped and made a list of all the detectives and assistants, as well as their countries of origin. I didn’t really need to refer to it afterwards as de Santis continued to identify them in the text for a while, but twenty-four people is a lot to keep track of.

This book was translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem (de Santis is Argentinian), so it’s another one for the Lost in Translation Challenge.

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 12:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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Murder on the Links

I managed to finish my monthly Agatha Christie just in time–August is almost over, unfortunately!

In Murder on the Links, Poirot receives a letter from M. Renauld urgently asking for help. When he arrives at the Villa in France, however, the man has already been killed. What seems to the police like an open-and-shut case is soon complicated by South American secrets, love affairs, and above all a second body. Only the great Poirot would be capable of sorting through this mess to find the correct killer, and also patch up relationships.

The French commissary on the case has also brought in M. Giraud of the French Sureté, who is the type of detective Poirot deems the “human foxhound.” Giraud is concerned chiefly with evidence such as hairs and burnt matches, using them to corroborate his suspicions. Poirot, on the other hand, seems to focus unnecessarily on trivial matters like broken wristwatches and overcoat lengths. He makes secret guesses along the way but believes that everything is evidence, rearranging his theories as new facts present themselves. In his opinion no detail is insignificant or coincidence; a solution will not be accurate if it fails to take everything into account, just as every piece must be used when putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

I continue to be amazed by the astuteness of Poirot’s little grey cells. Unlike the forensic deductions of Holmes, the beauty of this method is that the reader feels they could have perhaps figured it out if only they had been more astute. I prided myself that I had been able to figure out a major point long before Hastings, when Poirot was outlining the known facts for him, but as for the second part of the case I was pretty surprised by some of the twists. With Christie, it’s never over until the last page!

I really like Hastings in the David Suchet adaptations, but for some reason he comes across as a little more annoying to me in print, at least the early books. He is quick to jumpt to conclusions and doubt Poirot, being ruled by his passions and senses rather than his intellect, but can actually be intelligent when he stops and thinks things through. He also has an incorrigible weakness for pretty girls. He is married by his next appearance, however, so perhaps a wife will restore him to more rational behavior.

Next up is the short story collection Poirot Investigates. I have to check and see if we have this specific book, but we do have several short story omnibuses so I could pick them out if need be.

Published in: on August 30, 2009 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Murder at Longbourn

I heard about Murder at Longbourn over from the girls at Jane Austen Today, and am really looking forward to reading it when it comes out. The main character, Elizabeth is participating in a Murder Dinner at her aunt’s Cape Cod B&B Longbourn when one of the guests is murdered for real.

I’m always on the lookout for mysteries that are on the lighter side without being trashy or too obvious, and this looks like a good candidate. I like the fact that that it doesn’t try to retell or continue Pride and Prejudice (like so many books on the market). Instead it simply pays homage to the themes and details of the book while also showing an appreciation for literature on a broader scale–as evident in the following quote.

Aunt Winnie also noticed the room’s other inhabitant. “Elizabeth,” she said formally, “I’d like to introduce you to Lady Catherine.”

It was a cat – a regal-looking Persian with preposterously fluffy white hair. Under her breath, Aunt Winnie added, “I briefly considered calling her Mrs. Danvers, but she’s clearly above domestic service.”

This is from the first chapter that Tracy Kiely has available on her website.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 10:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Library Loot

I promise that there will be more actual book reviews soon–I’m halfway through Murder on the Links and loving it, while More Die of Heartbreak is much tougher going. I had to renew it at the library today, and while I was there I couldn’t help myself…

library-lootBridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding. I don’t think I need to explain this one. For the Everything Austen Challenge.

The Paris Enigma, by Pablo de Santis. International society The Twelve Detectives has its first meeting at the 1889 World’s Fair–and eleven survive. It’s up to the rest to preserve their lives and organization by finding the killer. For the Lost in Translation Challenge.

Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The first Martin Beck police mystery from this Swedish couple. For the Lost in Translation Challenge.

This Dame for Hire, by Sandra Scoppettone. Faye Quick, secretary at a New York detective agency, takes charge when her boss goes off to WWII. If this is anything like the Paige Turner mystery series it seems to resemble I’ll be happy.

The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. The followup to their two earlier books, which I absolutely loved–think Harry Potter meets Jane Austen. I’m a little wary about the time gap, but fully expect to enjoy this.

And, of course, a quick look at the used book rack, a habit I really must kick. I passed up a beat up Thorn Birds paperback since I prefer to borrow books I’m not sure I’ll like. I couldn’t say no to a hardcover of Saturday, though; if it’s anything like Atonement, which I read last month,  it’ll be worth owning.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Literary List: Bee is for Book

With the black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers in the back garden, oregano around the side, and cucumbers/cantaloupes galore with the vegetables, we seem to be singlehandedly keeping the local bee population thriving.

Bees also abounded in a few of my summer reads, which got me wondering as to what other fiction features these honey hoarders.

  1. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie King. Mary Russell stumbles upon a retired Sherlock Holmes tending bees.
  2. The Language of Bees, by Laurie King. The ninth Mary Russell story picks up the theme again.
  3. Murder on the Eiffel Tower, by Claude Izner. Several people die suddenly after receiving bee stings.
  4. The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. A lovely story most are already familiar with. It also just happens to sit alphabetically next to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice on my shelves.
  5. Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne. Who can forget his rain-cloud disguise in an attempt to snag some honey from the hive?
  6. The Honeybee Mystery, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. I still have a fond spot in my heart for the Boxcar Children series.
  7. Chalice, by Robin McKinley. About a beekeeping girl in a magical land. I’ve read other YA fantasy by this author.
  8. The Honey Thief, by Elizabeth Gaver
  9. The Keeper of the Bees, by Gene Stratton-Porter
  10. The Glass Bees (New York Review Books Classics), by Ernst Junger

I had to do some searching to come up with the titles at the end of the list so I can’t comment on them. Some books came up that only had the word in the title, and I’m sure there are other books about bees that don’t necessarily mention it. Any I should add to the list?

Published in: on August 28, 2009 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

One More Chapter…

I realized that part of my problem with Moll Flanders may have been that there were absolutely zero breaks in the text. Personally I am a huge fan of the psychological process known as “chunking,” which has to do with short-term memory but basically involves breaking information into smaller chunks.

For some reason I really rely on this when I read. I hate stopping in the middle of a chapter if I can help it, and whenever I reach the end of a large section I feel somewhat of an urge to stick a bookmark in and take a break, unless it’s a huge cliffhanger. On the other hand, if it’s a book I’m carrying around with me I try to sneak some in whenever I can, no matter how few pages.

Do you prefer to read in time increments, in chapter allotments, or just whatever inclination you have at the moment?

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Yellow Dog

“Now, don’t ask me to arrest X. Because you’ll agree, Monsieur le Maire, that anyone in this town–especially someone who knows the principal characters involved in this business and, in particular, the regular customers at the Admiral cafe–could be that X.”

The Yellow Dog is my first investigation with Inspector Maigret, about whom Georges Simenon wrote over seventy mysteries. They are slim volumes (150 pages here), but often praised for their dark realism.

Late one night in the small seaside town of Concarneau, M. Mostaguen is shot at from an abandoned building. There is no provocation and little evidence save the appearance of an unknown yellow dog. The mayor calls in Maigret, and soon incidents happen to other members of the group that frequents the Admiral. Who is committing all the these crimes, and how are they linked?

This French story was written and set in 1931, as you can probably tell by the evocative art deco cover. I love this Penguin edition-it’s a small book, almost square, and fits comfortably in your hand.

I must agree with the “dark realism” attributed to Simenon. He captures extremely well the effects of these crimes on the small town–fear of an unknown assailant, concern about reputation, morbid curiosity, and the invasion of outside reporters. I could feel it myself, wondering what the next strike would be. He also deftly parallels the stewing situation with the weather–the stormy and overcast days give a restless unease to a town usually occupied by fishing, while the blue sky prevailing means the end is in sight. This gesture could easily have become cliche, but here it just helped contribute to the overall atmosphere. Though dark in that they realistically portray crimes the events of the story are neither bleak nor unsavory, sometimes even tinged with pathos.

I will have to read more in the series before I can form an opinion about Maigret himself. He is a good foil to his brethren Holmes and Poirot. He scorns deduction and hard evidence as jumping to conclusions but also doesn’t display any little grey cells. Instead he seems to rely on primarily intuition, letting the drama play out within reason  as he considers the situation and rules out possibilities. As an additional contrast, his young assistant Inspector Leroy would much prefer to rely on hard evidence. This is an interesting concept, and successful here despite the impatience of others. It gives Simenon the opportunity to focus primarily on atmosphere, but also the leeway to not quite play fair with readers. Since Maigret seems to rely primarily on hunches the details of the case are not brought to light until the final scene–I really believe he didn’t know them beforehand, and there is certainly no way the reader could have figured it out.

Maigret also doesn’t seem as idiosyncratic as other detectives like Holmes, Poirot, or even Nero Wolfe. His one concession to this convention seems to be continually smoking his pipe. He is impatient with those who would interfere or rush him, like the mayor, and usually withdrawn. At the same time he has a good heart, acting almost parental towards Leroy, and also solicitous to the waitress Emma (who was a little confusing for me, having just read about a different Emma.)

As this was translated from French by Linda Asher,  it’s my fourth book for the Lost in Translation Challenge. Two more to go!

Published in: on August 26, 2009 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Emma, Volume 3

Just like Volumes 1 and 2 from Kaoru Mori, Emma: Volume 3 is sheer delight. The artwork continues to be beautiful and the Victorian detail impeccable.

With Mrs. Sotomar’s death Emma has left London behind her, and on the train she befriends another maid. Tasha convinces her to come work at the country house belonging to a wealthy German family. Here Emma must adjust not only to life without Kelly and William, but also to being part of a large household staff.Meanwhile, in Emma’s absence William forces himself to become the perfect aristocrat his family wants him to be.

The volumes are divided into chapters, and each chapter has a one-page epilogue. Sometimes they reveal things about plot or character, but just as often they are a touching miniature like the two children watching a falling star.

My single complaint is the volume of minor characters. Sometimes I find it hard to keep track of everyone and tell them apart, though perhaps this would be easier if it were in color. I realized that the best way is to look at people’s eyes, which actually vary a lot in terms of size, shape, and shading. We do get to see more of William’s siblings here, especially his sister Grace. It seems like there’s potential for story lines involving them as well.

Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 10:58 am  Comments (1)  
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Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Yesterday was Angela Lansbury day on Turner Classic Movies. Today she’s probably best known as author/sleuth Jessica Fletcher from “Murder She Wrote”, or Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast The one from her repertoire that we chose to watch was the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

In a WWII English village, Miss. Price is less than thrilled to receive three orphaned evacuee children. After all, she’s secretly busy trying to complete Mr. Brown’s mail-order course on witchcraft in the hope of contributing to the war effort. However, when the course ends without the final promised “substitutiary locomotion” spell, she and the children go off of the flying bed to track down both Mr. Brown and the spell–and wind up on a zany adventure!

I can’t tell you how much I love this movie. When we were younger we had a few videocassettes of movies taped from the library for whenever we were home sick. All of them were favorites we had watched countless times over–The Rescuers; Robin Hood; Milo and Otis; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. For some reason many of the older movies are not as widely known today, and I’m not sure why.

Many have pointed out the similarities between this Disney film and Mary Poppins from the same era. Both feature a single female caretaker with magical powers, and a fabulous soundtrack by the Sherman brothers (including “The Age of Not Believing” and “Portobello Road”). Both have actor David Tomlinson in the male role. And there are parallels to many Mary Poppins scenes–the great dance on the roof, popping into the chalk pictures, and the out-of-control tidying up. Nevertheless, it is still a fresh and entertaining film that somehow missed the success of it’s twin.

One more similarity–both were based on popular children’s book. I knew about Travers’ Mary Poppins series, but was suprised at a booksale a few years ago to find a copy of Bed-Knob and Broomstick. It was written by none other than Mary Norton, of Borrower fame. I’m sure the movie made some changes other than pluralization, so I’ll have to read it one of these days and compare.

My mom recalls seeing the movie in theatres when in first came out, and she commented that no one at the time made any fuss whatsoever about Miss Price learning to be a witch, a far cry from the parents up in arms over Harry Potter. Harry is a little darker than the splendid technicolor special effects here, but her observation is valid. Isn’t the value of make-believe the whole point of the song “The Age of Not Believing”?

Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment