1920s

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

2 stars

The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery - Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery was first published in 1929.  It was written by “Ellery Queen,” which in this instance is the collaboration of two cousin-authors:  Frederic Danny and Manfred Lee.  (Those names are also aliases.)  This is the first of the Ellery Queen novels – in this instance referring to one of the major characters in the series.  Ellery Queen, the character, is a mystery writer and amateur detective who assists his father, Richard Queen, a New York City police inspector.  “Ellery Queen” has also been used as a house name and a title which anthologizes mystery stories.

Overall, I expected better.  I was anticipating a better story.  Compared to stories about Lord Peter, Poirot, Nero Wolf, et al., this novel does not fare too well.  The first chapter is interesting and sets up what could be a taut and unique story.  However, the characters started to annoy me and I was very underwhelmed by the pacing of the story.

The Queens, father and son, really get on my nerves and annoy the heck out of me. The father, Richard, is supposedly an older man with a benevolent smile and gentle demeanor. Frankly, I find him churlish, moody, and immature.  The son, Ellery, reminds me of a big oaf.  He is allegedly broad-shouldered and tall, is constantly in a near-haze mentally, and fiddles endlessly with his pince-nez. His entrance into the story comes with some excitement – as if he is an intriguing character.  However, all he does is mope around and whine. He’s like an oversize turd who tries very hard to seem detached and wise. And between the father and son is a clearly co-dependent and exhausting relationship.

Not to mention Djuna, the non-white teenager that somehow Richard managed to bring into their home and subjugate into being a sort of manservant/cook.  Djuna is often compared to a monkey who simply adores his master, Richard. There’s a whole lot of weirdness about this.

Some readers have complained that this novel is “dated.”  Generally, I take “dated” to mean that it is difficult to read and enjoy without contextualizing it within a distant time period/setting.  Being “dated” does not necessarily mean anything, though, because there are heaps of works that are read and valued even though they are not recently published.  I do think we should read this novel (and others like it) with an understanding that it was written in 1928/1929.   Telephones operated differently and there was no internet. However, even for that dating it is difficult to accept as matter-of-fact the motive for the murderer in this story.

Anyway, the good parts of the novel are the actual setting and the props. I like murders in darkened theatres! I like that the theatre was presenting the stageplay “Gunplay!”  I like that there are a variety of characters – from rascal kids, to plump doormen, to sharp-witted policemen.  I like the props:  top hats and bowlers, evening capes and walking sticks, spats and decanters.  Heck, I am more comfortable with all of those items than with what I can accessorize with today!

I think the novelty of this story is that the authors supposedly put forth enough evidence/clues for the reader to race against the detectives and solve the crime.  Well, I guessed part of the solution – simply because it was the obvious.  I did not guess the murderer – or his motive – because that is a bit of a stretch.  And the “false leads” seem too convenient qua false leads.

The book is spoiled by the awfully annoying Queens and the horrendously slow pacing.  The pacing is so slow that chapters go by with literally nothing happening.  Put it this way:  most of the time I want to telephone the Queens up and tell them to “do something!”  instead of sitting around re-tracing their steps or sitting around snorting their snuff boxes. C’mon, get up and do work!

Anyway, I am glad I read it – to say that I read it.  I may try Ellery Queen again sometime, but no time soon. Really, this is only for the vintage-novel reader.

2 stars

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of WitnessClouds of Witness is the second Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers.  It was first published in 1926.  It is also the second novel that I have read in the series.  Once again, I am pleased by the effort and absolutely love the main character.

There is a whole lot that appeals to me in this novel, much of it the same as with the first novel.  I continually see similarities between Whimsey and myself.  He and I have that 100-mph mannerism that just can make the most boring story (a murder at a lodge on the moors) an exciting and interesting caper. And Bunter – dear, wonderful Bunter – is once again the epitome of perfect manservant.

The other characters in the novel are interesting as well.  The reader is allowed to come onto this property on the moors and associate with several members of the Whimsey family.  We get to know a lot more about Peter’s sister, Mary, and their brother Gerald.  Gerald, by the way, is the accused in this murder mystery!  We also learn that Gerald is not as droll as we had originally thought!

In this novel, Sayers both supports and mocks the peerage.  There are discussions on “the working man” versus the gentry.  We hear from a variety of people regarding this manner and are witness to the spectacle that comes from accusing the Duke of Denver of murder.  Sayers pokes fun at the pomp and circumstance and yet also shows an astute respect and caring toward the lordships.  It is definitely a novel that readers fond of Great Britain’s “houses” won’t mind reading.

Sayers’ ability to manage the characters and plot while also turning a phrase, providing misdirections, and giving subtle and witty amusements is impressive.  It is one thing to write a good story, it is quite another to write one that also has little asides of humor and show brilliant wit.  There are several sections wherein I had to visibly grin while reading because it was so skillfully written.

Some people might find Lord Peter to be a bit unfocused or random.  They may even think he is unable to be serious – he often seems to derail, interrupt, or wonder aloud.  I know this frustrates people – because I tend to feel that frustration levied toward myself more often than not.  Like Peter, though, I have a loyal group of friends that join me on all of my adventures.  Peter’s biggest help in this novel (besides the indefatigable Bunter) is Charles Parker.  Parker and Whimsey begin by combing the grounds of the property looking for clues:

“Serve him glad,” said Lord peter viciously, straightening his back.  “I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business.  If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.”   pg. 48, Chapter 3

I know that in this series, Lord Peter is supposed to “age naturally,” meaning, I think, that he doesn’t stay the same age for five novels and have 85 cases to solve per year.  Nevertheless, I have been unable to imagine him as more than in his late 30s. I know there have been some TV episodes, but I feel their portrayal is too elderly.  I don’t care what the chronology looks like – Peter is so youthful and energetic, he cannot be played by some grey-haired actor.

Doing more sleuthing, Whimsey is retelling part of the story to Parker, and Peter interrupts himself to ask Parker if he knows how to spell ipecacuanha.  Parker does:

“Damn you!”  said Lord Peter.  “I did think I’d stumped you that time.  I believe you went and looked it up beforehand.  No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head.”  pg. 103, Chapter 6

It really is not a stretch to hear myself saying those lines.  In Chapter 4, there is a small interchange between Peter and Bunter regarding Bunter’s mother – and it is priceless and amusing!  Whimsey surprised to learn that Bunter has one!  Nevertheless, though Peter surely aggravates the heck out of his friends, Chapter 12 demonstrates the loyalty and love his friends and family have for him.  And, honestly, even in dire circumstances, Peter still is sarcastic and obnoxious.  But in an almost self-effacing manner. Whew! Scary moments in that chapter! I am not any more endeared to moors having read this chapter.

With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) the vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) first love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) the aftermath of the Great War; (6) birth-control; and (7) the fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however.

Our plucky hero picks up his spirits and trudges onward across this miserable moor.  I confess I probably have had my share of moments wherein I have paused in some mundane task to consider these kosmically heavy concepts.

The resolution for the mystery is given in the end chapters of the book during the court case.  Part of the storyline of this novel is that this trial involves a Duke.  So, of course, Sayers wants to show us the rigamarole of the court case involving the gentry.  I am just not a fan of courtroom dramas/stories/mysteries, etc.  Make no mistake:  these chapters are exceedingly well-written and are actually very entertaining.  I am just not a reader with patience for such things.

4 stars

Metropolis

MetropolisI read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

Whose Body?

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers; New English Library; 1988

Well, the first book to be read and reviewed in 2014 happens to be a Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) novel.  Whose Body? was first published in 1923; I read the 1988 New English Library edition, which I picked up used for $1.80.  This novel is the first of Sayers’ novels, therefore it is also the first in her series starring the private amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.

I have been reading older books rather than freshly published ones.  I am trying to especially bulk out the 1920s and 1930s. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Random idea.  And I am not really serious about it, just something I am in the process of doing.  Hence, Sayers falls into this category.  She also falls into the category of early detective mysteries. But beyond that, one of the last things that a very old professor (Emeritus and with a lecture series named after them) was working on before they really retired [this can be taken in several senses] was commenting on the religious and philosophical ideas found in Sayers.  This may seem totally non-academic, but I must gently remind you this was more so busywork and senior-minded hobbying; the years for true academic research long past.  At the time I witnessed this work, the professor was 80 years old.  I was always slightly curious about their interest in the author/works.

Well, so, I started reading this novel with zero expectations. I did not know what to expect and I did not demand anything from the novel.  It starts off a little jarringly, I have to say.  The main character, Lord Peter Whimsey, is en route somewhere – but we join the story as he is requesting the cab driver to turn around and return to his house.  At first I was not sure what to make of the character or the story. I was really not sure that I would get through this novel in one piece. But Whimsey grew on me. And then I realized why I was becoming so fond of him….. he reminds me of me.

Seriously.  I didn’t realize it at first, but then I couldn’t help but notice. He’s not a dandy or a fop.  He’s this eccentric, extremely witty, aristocrat. A bon vivant, which is more or less…..well… me. He is an expert in foods and wines and wardrobe and he LOVES BOOKS and folios and incunabula.   Whimsey is 100mph and is a lot of excitement. Maybe this likeness tainted my enjoyment of the novel just slightly.  But also, his mother reminds me of my mother a bit, too.

“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas.  Most people don’t associate anythin’ – their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’  lot of noise and going nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ’em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?” – Lord Whimsey, Chapter 7

Here’s the story sans spoilers:  a body is found in the bathtub of a certain simple-minded little man named Thipps.  Thipps has no idea who this is or how the body got into his bathtub.  Also, a self-made man of some repute has seemingly gone missing, wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Lord Whimsey investigates with the help of his friend in the police, Detective Charles Parker and his totally awesome butler/valet Mervyn Bunter.  I suspect if I had a butler, he would have to be exactly like Bunter. And, really, Bunter is as much to credit for the resolution of the case as is Parker and Whimsey.

Sayers writes this novel utilizing lots of dialogue.  You have to follow along with discussions more so than descriptive prose.  This is okay because the majority of the characters say witty, interesting things.  One of the difficulties, though, is that Sayers does include dialect and slang and such.  So, unless you are British and/or reading aloud, it can slow your reading down just slightly until you get used to the “sound” of the voices.  I can see how this might drive some readers batty.  I got used to it and pressed onward without incident.

Sayers was criticized for the novel having a slightly anti-semitic tone.  Well, I am not going to really get into that – I do see how the criticism came about – certain characters do make some typically obnoxious statements, but I do feel it is par for the course with the setting and times of the novel.  It does not affect the novel in any major way, though.  Also, there is another detective that is investigating the case (Inspector Sugg) and it is hysterical whenever Whimsey and Parker mock him.  They obviously do not bear him ill-will, but they do get a kick out of mocking him.  So, the reader probably should take most of this novel on that level.

Anyway, I am definitely going to read more of Lord Whimsey’s series.  I am glad I read this one and I did have fun with it. Wrote down three quotes and laughed aloud a couple of times.  Also, I might start shouting for Bunter.

3 stars

The Big Four

TheBigFourThe Big Four is Agatha Christie’s fifth Hercule Poirot book, fourth novel.  I enjoyed it, Poirot was a lot of fun, and it was good to have Hastings back in the story.  It was originally published in 1927 and some of the language is not as politically-correct, as we say nowadays, as one would think.  Christie was, obviously, a spunky and sharp-witted woman.

The Big Four is perfect for people who are new to Poirot, I think, and don’t really enjoy cozy mysteries.  This is really a mystery/thriller and really seems a prime candidate for some film company to use as a summer blockbuster.  Adjust a few things, get a couple solid actors, and shazam! a movie.   The storyline speeds along much quicker in this novel than in the previous ones and there are more physical confrontations.  In the previous novels, Poirot and Hastings do not really deal with situations in which they are in true physical danger.  Generally, they are involved in intellectual battles.

The Big Four is actually an international group of anarchist criminals.  There are four and we are to believe that they have a hand in many worldwide occurrences.  In fact, today, we would call them a terrorist cell.  Christie, I feel, was trying out Poirot on a big stage – international events and crimes that affect the world, not just some small UK village.  I kind of want to ask Christie:  “So, how do you feel about Poirot and Hastings on this level?”  I think Poirot is much more charming on a smaller scale, but I do want to say that this story seems to make Poirot even more unbelievably impressive.

At points, the reader will truly feel that Christie is pulling a bit too much from Doyle’s Watson, Sherlock, Moriarty, Irene setup.  And I’m okay with it.  Other readers may want to complain about using a recycled idea.   Another small complaint:  Hastings rushed off to Argentina, but in this novel it seems like he is in England with Poirot (and for no other reason than hanging out with Poirot) for at least two years.  I mean, what was all the googly-eyed romance about his wife about if he can take off to England for years?  This was a bit odd.  On the other hand, yeah, we missed Hastings, so who cares about his silly wife in South America?

I probably should give this novel 3 stars.  However, I am giving it 4.  I cannot help myself… I still love Poirot and Agatha is a Dame Commander, so who am I to criticize?  I think I will try to cast this movie in my head this evening. Should be a fun supper activity.  And thinking about a book after the last page is done good and read is a good sign!

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but OF COURSE I have to give this FOUR stars!)

4 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars

The Murder on the Links

The Murder on the Links – Agatha Christie

The Murder on the Links is the second “Poirot” novel by the famous author Agatha Christie.  It was first published in 1923.  I read the first Poirot mystery last year and I finally acquired and finished this novel.  I think that the novels are both good – but this one is somehow more developed.  For one thing, the most significant development is that Poirot is more vibrant, talkative, and active.  In the previous novel, there are moments when the reader might believe that Christie expected the character Captain Hastings to be the major character, supported by the aloof and quirky Poirot.  In fact, in the first Poirot novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), Poirot is not even a really likeable character.

This novel starts off very interestingly – Poirot receives a letter requesting him to come to France under the employ of a man who thinks that his life is in grave danger.  Immediately, the characters are off and running, traveling to France.  One of the things I liked about this novel was that the action, so to speak, was immediate and was continued throughout.  None of the pacing was off.

My main complaint about the novel is that the twists and turns, red herrings and deductions seem a bit overwritten.  I feel that the latter half of the book has too many twists and turns for it to be a perfectly written mystery.  Nevertheless, the twists are explained fairly well and Poirot is always fun to follow around.  Still, I think the mystery was a bit too entangled and there were too many “deltas.”

I also think that the title is a bit deceptive.  This book really has nothing to do with golf whatsoever.  I do not know, really, what a mystery about golf might entail (I’m not really a golf fan), but I do think it would have to involve more than someone dying nearby a golf course that is being constructed.  Maybe even there could be a golf club?  Normally, I do not comment on book titles, but this one probably should have been entitled something different.

However, this is not to say that this is a bad novel.  It is a fast read – the pages fly by and the story is interesting and engaging.  Fast reads are not necessarily good reads, but it doesn’t really speak well of a book if one describes it as tedious or undeveloped.  I mean, honestly, who in 2013 would think that following a goofy detective and his sidekick around in the early part of the 1900s would be engaging?  Let’s face it, for the majority of the book, Hastings and Poirot do a lot of walking back and forth, traveling to and fro, and making general circles in the township.  Nevertheless, I was following right along and actually interested in where characters were walking to next!

Poirot has a little competition in this novel, as well.  Another “star” detective is called to the case.  This detective represents the very detail-oriented empirical approach to detective work. Poirot (as he will remind you endlessly) pays evidence only a fundamental concern, instead focusing on the psychologies involved in the case and working from cause to effect.  The detective, Giraud, is as obnoxious about his method as Poirot is about his own.  Therefore, there is a new twist to Poirot’s interactions, which is a neat counterbalance. I also really dig Poirot’s insistence against “sentimentality” and passion.  Although basing his methods on psychology, Poirot refuses to draw conclusions based on emotion, sentimentality, or passion.

Hastings is a bit of a fool, though one truly believes he has a good heart and really does his best.  This character’s role is to support Poirot, clearly, which sometimes means doubting Poirot.  The dynamic that develops between the two characters is worthwhile reading.

Overall, I am thinking this is not Christie’s greatest novel.  Still, it is a very interesting and charming read. The novel is not perfect, but it is a satisfying read that allows the reader to build their study of one of the most famous detectives.  I would really recommend this to anyone who would like to read a short novel that has wit and charm. It probably is not something a person who likes a chance to figure out the mystery would read – after all, Poirot never gives you all the clues.

4 stars

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious AffairI finished Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  This is the Bantam 1974 edition.  This is actually Agatha Christie’s first published novel (1920) and it also introduces the famous Hercule Poirot. In 1990, an episode based on this novel was aired as part of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series in the UK.

All things considered, this is a really good first novel.  I mean, let’s face it, some writers published dozens of books nowadays and never reach this level of novel.  Not that this is a great novel, by any means, but there is an inherent quality to it that seems almost lacking in a lot of the mass-marketed novels.  I am not trying to be overly critical, but I really can appreciate the efforts of Christie in this novel.

The plot is really kind of lame – especially in 2012.  But it is necessary for the reader to at least try to keep in mind that the setting and culture of Christie’s novel is very different from our own.  This novel takes place at Styles Court.  This is a manor house on a large property.  Again, not something that many Americans in 2012 have a referent for.  It takes place during the time of WWI, which does not overweigh the novel, but hints of the effects of the war pepper the novel nicely.

The novel is narrated by the main character, Arthur Hastings.  He is invited to spend time at Styles Court by his friend John Cavendish.  And this whole part of the novel seems really strange and foreign.  Inviting people to stay – for almost an entire summer – at one’s house is rare.  Particularly if these people are not even close family.  And then, after a murder occurs (or any like tragedy) for those houseguests to stay onward and not leave also seems odd by today’s standards.  I feel a lot more awkwardness and discomfort would be called for.  But being a houseguest at a country manor during WWI is not exactly something I have experience with.

We are introduced to Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot – and he is enigmatic, weird, and arrogant.  He also comes across in this novel as loveable, intelligent, and quirky.  He’s actually quite loveable as a character.  And often Hastings gets frustrated with Poirot, but remains drawn to this Belgian eccentric because Hastings, too, has a mind and heart for the detective scenarios. Poirot is probably the descendent of Sherlock Holmes – the odd, brilliant, English detective – but there’s no fun in comparing the two at this point.  Poirot and his Belgian-French are a whole lot of fun and though the reader, too, is frustrated with Poirot’s antics (he constantly hints and misdirects, but never really unfolds all of his ideas) the reader also learns to cherish the character’s exuberance.

As I mentioned above, the plot is lame.  And the whole thing is a bit convoluted.  Poirot is frustrating.  And there’s really no way the reader can guess early on who is the murderer and why.  So why am I giving this four stars?  Because the writing is so erudite – Christie’s prose leaps from the page.  The writing is beautiful – not stilted or cluttered.  There are no unnecessary pages of descriptions, purple prose, or filler chapters.  The author’s actual use of language is very good.  None of this seems carbon copy from “How to Write a Novel in a Month,” so to speak.  In laymen’s terms:  it’s just a really charming read.  And now, it’s actually kind of become a classic in it’s own right.  I recommend this to everyone. It’s short enough that it won’t tax anyone, nor put them off whatever else they are reading. Don’t fret too much about the details of the case, but relish the novel as a cool vintage enjoyment.

4 stars

We

WeZamyatin finished this novel, in Russian, in 1921.  It was suppressed in Russia for a long time, only being published there in 1988.  Meanwhile, it was published in English in 1924.  I read this Penguin Classics edition with the really awesome cover.  The cover is from Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City by Anton Brzezinski.   There is another edition from Penguin Classics that’s cover is Georgii Petrusov’s Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko, but I find that artwork icky and disturbing and I love the colors and vision of the copy I have.

We takes place in the 26th Century – which is largely why it is considered a science fiction novel, I think.  To be honest, I feel like most people place dystopian novels in science fiction because they just do not know where else to put them.  While this takes place in the future, it does not contain any truly science fiction elements.  I read this novel for two reasons: (1.) I am plodding through a stack of Russian literature; (2.) I am reading all the dystopian literature available.

This book is not for everyone – I can see how any variety of readers would become frustrated or bored by the novel. Also, if you had no fun reading Brave New World or 1984, then you will probably dislike We as well.  However, it should be noted that We was actually published prior to either of those novels.  Orwell openly admits that he was “inspired” by We, Vonnegut admits stealing some of the ideas in it, and Huxley (Brave New World) has been accused of plagiarism from many novels including We.

The narrative is written in the form of diary entries by D-503, there are 40 entries in total.  Through the character’s diary, we learn much about the form of society in the 26th Century.   D-503 lives in a place called OneState.  OneState is the totalitarian society governed by the Benefactor and his Guardians.  The entire urban society is constructed out of a type of clear glass – which allows the Guardians to police and spy on all of the citizens, even in their private apartments.  The structure of society is regulated by the Table of Hours, which details what activity each citizen should be doing at what specific time.  Naturally, throughout the book we see that citizens work for the sake of OneState because it is their duty and responsibility – they do not work for personal accomplishment or personal finance.  Work tends to be the focus around which the lives of the citizens are built.

Except for Sex Day.  We are told that after the 200-Years War, society split into factions.  OneState developed while hunger was being eradicated and after that, the Lex sexualis was promulgated.  In OneState, any citizen has the right of access to any other citizen as a sexual product.  This plays somewhat of a large role in the book because on Sex Day, for an hour the couple is allowed to drop blinds in their apartment, thus being able to hide from the authorities for the time.  I find it vaguely significant that in all of the major dystopian novels, sex plays such an important role.  One might think it would be food, education, technology, etc. But it’s usually sex.  Anyway, this control of sex in dystopian novels has the effect of removing crime and disorder from the society (no more jealousy or rape) and it also micro-manages the births and generations of new citizens.

All the citizens of OneState are given a letter-hyphen-number as their “name.”  They are not called “citizens,” but rather are referred to as Numbers.

D-503 is a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics.  He understands numbers and formulae quickly and on a deeper level than most of his fellows.  He has been put in charge of building OneState’s latest project:  the INTEGRAL.  This machine is something like a spacecraft, it’s purpose is to spread the values and commands of OneState to all other nations/planets.  Of course, at the start of the novel, D-503 is pleased with this work and spends his day dutifully carrying out his assigned task.  D-503 encounters the revolutionary and disobedient I-303.  He falls in love with this woman.  D-503 begins to have dreams, he loses his focus on purely rational thinking and logical explanations, and he begins to be an accomplice to her deviations.

I-303 takes D-503 out from OneState.  OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates OneState from the remainder of the planet.  There, D-503 realizes that there are humans living outside of the boundaries and forces of OneState and that there are many Numbers who wish to rebel against OneState and rejoin the rest of humanity.  D-503 blames his law-breaking on the fact that he is ill.  Having dreams and ruminating on love and drinking alcohol are all symptoms of his having developed a soul.  Throughout the novel, D-503 grapples with what this means.   Late in the novel, OneState makes its citizens undergo the Operation (something like a lobotomy) which removes people’s imaginations.  By doing this, the effort is to squash any notions of revolution or hope.

There are two main questions that move throughout the novel in order to answer the ultimate problematic presented here.  The first is what it means to be We or I.  Some of this shows through in terms of the “we” between D-503 and I-303 versus the “we” between D-503 and the whole revolutionary group.  D-503 frequently latches on to the concept of “we” and wonders how his allegiances have shifted and what it is that constitutes the “we” anyway.  The second main question deals with the concept of revolution.  Some of this is historically relevant to the Russian Revolution, but the point is the same:  one must think that either there can be a last/final revolution, or there is no limit to revolutions possible.  By forming another revolution, I-303 shows D-503 that it is always possible to overcome the authority of the State.  The State tends to dupe its citizens into thinking that the revolution that brought it into existence is the last/final revolution, so that it can secure itself from any uprisings.

The overarching problematic of the novel is the comparison and contrast of the idea that happiness = freedom or the exact opposite.

I am giving this novel four stars because it is the genesis of 1984, Brave New World, etc.  I like the themes and concepts that Zamyatin plays with here and I think it is definitely a book one should read and then re-read.  However, I withhold a star because some of the writing itself is tedious.  The character D-503 tends to be a bit whiny and babbles a bit more than he should.  There are some sections where I lost track of the story and what D-503 was even trying to get across.  The novel uses plenty of the technique of not finishing sentences except for a series of ellipses.  This is okay, but after awhile, a little grating on the nerves.  Anyway, I recommend this one for the smart people, the fans of Russia, and the dystopian-lovers.

4 stars