Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie wrote this mystery late in her career, and there are definite moments of nostalgia, but it's also well-plotted and quite engaging. As Poirot explains just what was going on (which, on reflection was all there in the earlier parts of the story) to his friend Ariadne Oliver, there's lots of allusion: we get our own Lady MacBeth! I was very satisfied with this mystery.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Changing Places by David Lodge

This novel is an uproariously funny send-up of academia, full of self-conscious moments (most notably including the book Let's Write a Novel whose advice always manages to conflict with what's actually happening in the novel) and the game Humiliation (think: Never Have I Ever...with books!). I look forward to reading more of Lodge's work.

The Just Vengeance by Dorothy L. Sayers

This play reads like a medieval mystery play. It takes an airman shot down during WWII back to his home city, where he sees Cain's murder of Abel and Christ's crucifixion. The airman is trying to figure how justice works in this world and what he believes.

Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories starts as less detection than problem-solving. Parker Pyne, although labeled as a detective in the title, starts by helping people find contentment in their lives, without actually solving mysteries. Later, he does move on to mystery solving, as he travels around the Middle East.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple does not come into this mystery into very late in the story. So there's more exposition than detection, as it turns out. But there's lots of great misdirection, still.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy Sayers

This collection of short stories has some Lord Peter, some Monty Egg, and lots of other stories. I thought some of the stories were quite intriguing. I particularly liked "The Professor's Manuscript" (a Montague Egg story) and "The Milk-Bottles." The last story gets a bit super-natural before it's all said and done. A solid collection.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Hangman's Holiday by Dorothy Sayers

I enjoyed this collection of short stories. All the Lord Peter stories are available in the Lord Peter omnibus edition, but there are many more stories in this book. Montague Egg, a traveling wine salesman solves a number of mysteries (although these mysteries are sometimes more puzzles than murders). I also loved "The Man Who Knew How," which is a really creepy story.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Snow Angels by Stewart O'Nan

This book has interweaving chapters chronicling the destruction of two families. Although the first chapter reveals the basics of where the story is headed, it makes the trip in a beautiful and heartbreaking way. The real strength of this novel, for me, is its wonderful characterizations: O'Nan neither idealizes nor condemns, but instead creates wonderfully sympathetic people making both good and bad decisions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie

This mystery was actually written as a play; Charles Osbourne took the play and added the appropriate filler to make it read like a novel after Christie's death. The piece's origin on the stage is obvious, and you can see a lot of the nuts and bolts that are usually more well-hidden in a novel, partly I think to make the theatre-going experience that much better for the viewers. You can tell, also, that the prose isn't all Christie's, but the plot is quite good and more than makes up for it.

The Servant's Tale by Margaret Frazer

I enjoyed this mystery. It's set more outside of the convent than the first Dame Frevisse mystery, but she still manages to maintain her keen eye on what's happening. It also has a very good point about how dangerous a little knowledge can be. I loved the players, and I loved Sister Frevisse for her willingness to trust them.

Brown: the Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It reads very beautifully; Rodriguez has a real command of the language. Additionally, the book is full of allusion and neat references. Still, underneath that content, the politics of the book are vaguely disturbing, and the book itself is so self-contradictory that I don't know if it's possible to take it seriously at all. Rodriguez wants brown to signify everything--which means it ultimately is no help.

The Mansion by William Faulkner

I found this book repetitive at times (Faulkner rewrites parts of the story not only from the earlier two books in the Snopes trilogy but also from other parts of his career) and frustrating at others. I do think that Faulkner has developed and nuanced his idea of what it means to be a Snopes from when he introduced Byron Snopes in Flags in the Dust. I also can't help but let Linda get under my skin. I'm not comfortable with her character, even though she is the only one in the novel who doesn't have to listen to Gavin Stevens all the time.

The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Although I found the narrator of this book frustrating, it was a very challenging and enjoyable read. I loved the references to the Odyssey and to Proust especially. I also thought the implications of a return to primitive roots was very well played out.

Faulkner's Fictive Architecture by William Ruzicka

This book explores Faulkner's architecture in several, but by no means all, of his novels. It has a good theoretical component, excellent floor plans, and fairly keen observations. It is organized by novel rather than by type of architecture.

William Faulkner and the Tangible Past by Thomas Hines

Written by an architecture professor with familial connections to Faulkner, this book provides an overview of architectural styles at play in Faulkner's fiction by style rather than by book. The architecture side of things seems solid. In terms of Faulknerian criticism, this book is an heir of Jane Haynes's William Faulkner: His Tippah County Heritage and William Faulkner: His Lafayette County Heritage, although this book has more areas related to Faulkner's fiction. O good overview of the architecture, and lots of beautiful plates.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Town by William Faulkner

The second part of the Snopes trilogy builds more consistently than the first. In it, Flem Snopes makes the main part of his bid for respectability, the footprints on his way up, as he actually works against the less-than-savory members of his family, including Montgomery Ward and I.O.. Eula Varner remains fascinating, especially to Gavin Stevens, who also takes a liking to her daughter Linda. Although we never get Flem's perspective, this novel really helps to flesh out his character.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A String of Pearls (Sweeney Todd) edited by Robert Mack

This reprint of a penny dreadful is the original source of the Sweeney Todd legend. Stylistically, it bears the marks of its quick production, multiple authors, and awareness of its (middle to lower class) reading public. The tale is Dickensian in scope--much more sprawling than the Sondheim adaptation. The major difference, though, is the motivation for Sweeney's villainy: Sondheim invents (or picks up on a later development of) a family for Todd so his tale is that of revenge, rather than greed. This book is very aware of the plight of the poor, and also that of the "insane." A quick and enjoyable read.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

In this novel, when Lord Peter has a car accident in East Anglia, he finds himself conscripted to help ring the bells for the nine-hour-long celebration of the New Year. He fills in ably (is there anything Lord Peter can't do?), and goes on his merry way. He's summoned back around Easter once a strange body is found in a fresh grave. This mystery is full of top-notch detecting (especially figuring out a note encrypted in the tolling of the church bells) and a dash of divine intervention (both in the means of murder and in the way a rather dubious character is brought to justice). There's also a fantastic hiding place for a long-lost emerald necklace.

Third Girl by Agatha Christie

This mystery is clearly one of Christie's later works; it's set in the sixties, England's changing, and Poirot's aging. In fact, one of the characters starts to come to him with a problem and then changes her mind because he's too old. Ariadne Oliver reappears, in fine form. There are some nice bits of mis-recognition in the text, perhaps even too many to make it entirely believable, but in the end it's well worth reading.

The Boomerang Clue or Why Didn't They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie

This mystery features none of Christie's usual detectives, the two people who end up detecting don't use the police, or have conventional techniques. There's a bit of a cover-up over the Evans of the title, and a double- and a triple-cross in terms of how you feel about the characters, but overall I found this mystery quite enjoyable. I particularly loved the moments when these amateurs thought they were being quite subtle and the other characters saw through their work.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace

I really liked this mystery, even though Lord Peter was nowhere to be found. I think the epistolary technique is very engaging in this case, and very cleverly deployed. I also thought the science of the solution (which didn't so much solve the mystery as provide evidence for the court of law) was well-done, understandable, and still rather subtle and accurate.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories contains more suspense/supernatural thrillers than out and out mysteries. Often, they are not the type of puzzles that require police aid or police intervention. Also, Hercule Poirot only appears in one of the mysteries. Still, I thought some of these stories were quite good, especially the title story, "Witness for the Prosecution," and "The Blue Jar."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

This novel is basically a thriller set against the backdrop of the fourth crusade and a hunt for the Holy Grail. Mosse has added a unique twist to what the Grail actually means, but otherwise, it's pretty rote fiction. The labyrinth appears over and over again, but Alice can find out everything she needs to know about it from the internet. There are also three grail books, known as the Labyrinth trilogy, that remain rather opaque. By the end of the book Mosse apparently gets bored of her historical story and has a present-day character narrate it rapidly. I like the idea of witnessing history on which the book ends, but it's a little bit of a slog to get there.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

This book purports to offer a revisionist history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Gavin Menzies (who served in the British navy) pulls together a variety of types of "evidence" that he claims prove that not only did the Chinese visit America before the Europeans, but that they circumnavigated the globe, establishing colonies and perfecting their navigational techniques. Menzies begins his book with the tale of the discovery of maps that purportedly offer correct details about the Americas and Africa before Europeans sailed there. The book is narrated in a style that follows Menzies discoveries--and then exclaims that this particular Chinese expedition is the only possible explanation for these discoveries. Light on footnotes and contemptuous of the academic establishment (excepting DNA testing and carbon-dating when they "prove" its conclusions), this book seeks to position itself as unveiling the truth academics have been hiding from the world for years. Unfortunately, Menzies's only area of expertise is navigational (he cannot read medieval Portuguese, Catalan, or Castilian--much less medieval Chinese), and he has a habit of establishing tantalizing possibilities and then assuming that they must be factual because they are possible.

The underlying message of the book is that the Chinese were far more civilized than the Europeans of that time (arguably true) and that they would have been better colonizers of the world than the Europeans (more dubious--especially since here Menzies enters the "what if" game). This message, and the book itself, tends to ignore the fact that people with their own cultures and civilizations were already living in the Americas and that they needed neither Chinese nor European colonization. Inviting people to re-evaluate European voyages of discovery is not a bad thing, but the fact that Menzies felt the need to re-write so much history in such a slipshod way to make that argument bodes ill for his ultimate belief in its power of persuasion.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

This book is a bildungsroman that develops slowly but surely. I liked the thoughts about translation and interpretation based on the narrator's job. I enjoyed watching the bad girl show up time and time again. Mostly, I enjoyed this book because of the narrator's kindness and love not only for the bad girl, but also for the other friends he makes throughout the course of the book.

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

This book is part detective fiction and part apologia for Southern slowness in correcting its racism and bigotry. The story and the writing are alright, but not outstanding in comparison with Faulkner's other work. The real disappointment is that instead of developing sophisticated, challenging and nuanced perspectives on race through character development (as we see in Go Down Moses and Absalom, Absalom!), here Faulkner puts his ideas about how the North, East, and West should back off the South and let it dealt with race on its own terms and in its own time in the mouth of Gavin Stevens and then creates a story where two young boys (one white and one black) and an old, white woman unite to save a black man from almost-certain lynching. There's an element of the coming-of-age story, but mostly this novel is a frustrating and heavy-handed attempt at self-justification.

The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound

This poetry grew on me. It teaches you how to read it as it goes along. I was particularly moved by the poetics of exile and by the way that the poem acts as a museum of impressions. It works on the level of the quotidian, the level of the repeating, and the level of the eternal. I also love the appearances of many languages. I look forward to reading the rest of the Cantos.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This novel starts in a relatively realistic vein before moving to full-flung magical realism before all's said and done. The parts that seem over-determined in the first part (especially the names) fit in with the magical realism of the last quarter. I love the way the family fits together at the end.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

This book chronicles, as its title suggests, the last day of operations at a small town Red Lobster restaurant. Working with the skeletal remains of his staff, manager Manny tries to reach the very end with dignity and compassion. This little novel worked for me. Its ambitions, as far as they go, aren't huge in terms of plot--just 12 hours, and while the novel is very attentive to class issues, to economics, and so forth, it just isn't trying to be the Great Novel of the Proletariat or the Great American Novel--and succeeds the better for doing a more constrained vision well. The novel's style was enjoyable--which is to say it reads very quickly--and I wasn't struck with any annoying stylistic tics, but on the other hand, there were few passages I wanted to remember for their sheer beauty. I look forward to reading more of Stewart O'Nan's work.

Go Down Moses by William Faulkner

I enjoyed returning to this book. I'm not sure what to do with the misogyny this time around. I am more convinced than ever that fragmentation is important to this book, though whether we call it a novel or not is perhaps not the most relevant question. I'm also interested in the inclusion of "Pantaloon in Black," which for all its beauty and power, seems to me a way of dodging the race question by deflecting it onto a character that only appears once in a body of fiction that's so invested in repetition. This collection is really fascinating, and still bears much re-reading.

Tintenherz by Cornelia Funke

In this book, readers can bring characters to life from books. I found the story's pacing a little off (but that could be a language issue, as I was reading in German). I liked the general concept, and of course, I'm sympathetic to anything that investigates the magic of books, but I'm not sure that pulling Meggie away from school for ages worked for me, in terms of suspension of disbelief, and also, I was a bit skeptical of Fengolio's ultimate solution of re-writing. At any rate, I'm going to continue with the second and third books of the series.

Omnibo by Suzanne Freeman

This novella is side-splittingly funny, but also raises some pertinent questions about where we get our food, how we treat our fellow-travelers (both human and animal), and at what price we live in a consumerist society. It's also a quick read.

Awakening by John Galsworthy

This second interlude gives the reader only the perspective of the youngest Joleyn Forsyte, which is a little disorienting, especially after you've gotten so close to his father (who's away almost the entire time).

In Chancery by John Galsworthy

This installment of the Forsyte Saga continues to delight. I'm amazed by the skill Galsworthy shows in making both Irene and Soames so sympathetic. I'm also interested in his use of Victorian techniques in an increasingly modern world. I look forward to the third volume with great expectations.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Jubiabá by Jorge Amado (trans. Margaret Neves)

This book was very intriguing and left me with a lot of questions. I'm particularly interested in the way genre works--Baldo as a samba writer and as an ABC writer, Gordo as a poet, and our narrator as a participant in the moment and someone looking back. There's a brief spoof of a modernist novel and some attention to epic form, as well. I'm also interested in the ways that religion (Macumba), the eye of mercy, slavery, and class consciousness connect up. If anything, this novel works as a bildungsroman and Baldo's transformation from bandit-hero who wants his own ABC to organizer who wants an ABC for the strike is an important part of that work. There are some gendered absences in the novel, especially for Baldo: Lindinalva and his mother are both conspicuously absent and Aunt Luisa departs early. Finally, I'm still trying to figure out why the novel is named for Jubiabá and not Baldo. Very intriguing--an entertaining example of social realism from the 1930s.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

This novel is quite interesting. It doesn't read quite like Sayers unadulterated, of course, and one might notice the literary references are less subtle and the characters slightly updated (also one wonders whether knowledge of WWII changed some of the foreshadowing). The book is as much a psychological novel about Peter and Harriet (as indeed, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Holiday turned out) as it is a murder mystery. There's also some heavy-handed and rather self-conscious theorization about why it isn't frivolous to write murder mysteries (hope for a world in which things are neatly ordered)--and you do end up wondering which author these fears come from (especially as the beginnings of the draft were started as Sayers put away her murder mysteries for more religious and academic work [like Harriet's treatise on Sheridan LeFanu]). Of course, it's a pleasure to see the Wimseys again. If you expect another Gaudy Night, I think this book will disappoint you, but if you don't ask it to be what it's not, it may pleasantly surprise you.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

This mystery was a bit slow in starting, but I liked the way it worked out in the end. Bunter is particularly well-done (and independent) in this installment. I particularly liked the development of the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Her reflections about the process of novel writing were illuminating, to say the least. Ultimately, it turned on a really good fact, in my opinion, and I liked the ciphering and decoding mid-way through. Very enjoyable.