Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.

 

I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

Mon ami, Poirot: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

StylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie

Originally published, 1920.  I read a Bantam Books paperback, printed around 1976 (cost $1.75 at that time!).  182 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 novels.  Crime Titles.

Other books I’ve read by Christie:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Hercule Poirot, especially now that I feel I know him a little better.  His rationality, little gray cells, and famous “method” all provide a feeling of safety in the face of the most convoluted, red-herring-ed murder tale.

But Poirot had to be born sometime, and it was in this short novel that Christie introduced him to the world.

It was also Christie’s first published novel.  She wrote it during WWI, while volunteering in a hospital pharmacy.  The novel was supposedly written as the result of a bet to see if she could compose a mystery where the reader would be unable to spot the murderer.  It took Christie five years to find a publisher, and proved to be one of her greatest triumphs; it has never been out of print since 1920.

The novel is set in a great country house, Styles Court, inhabited by the wealthy Cavendish family, their guests and servants.  The domineering, widowed matriarch, Emily, has recently married a much younger man who is beneath her social class.  The misalliance has created a rift in the Cavendish family, many of whom fear the loss of their inheritances.  Then, Emily is poisoned with strychnine — either in her coffee, her evening cocoa, or perhaps in her bedtime tonic.  It’s all incredibly complicated, with dozens of clues, everyone a possible suspect, several medical men with conflicting ideas, lawyers and Scotland Yard on board.

Poirot to the rescue.  Evidently Emily had been responsible for Poirot’s presence in the village:

“…it is by the charity of that good Mrs. Inglethorp that I am here…she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my countrypeople who, alas, are refugees from their native land.  We Belgians will always remember her gratitude.”

But Poirot is no mere refugee — he is “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police” — readily identified by young Mr. Hastings, who is recovering from war wounds at Styles Court.  Out of loyalty and gratitude to Emily, Poirot sets out to find her killer.  In his turn, Hastings becomes a kind of factotum and companion to Poirot, and is basically our stand in.  Whenever the mystery becomes incredibly complex and confusing, Hastings voices the readers’ frustration to Poirot:

“I was hardly as clear as I could wish.  I repeated myself several times, and occasionally had to go back to some detail that I had forgotten.  Poirot smiled kindly on me.

“The mind is confused? Is it not so?  Take time, mon ami.  You are agitated, you are excited–it is but natural.  Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place…..”

I have to confess that at times I appreciated, rather than enjoyed, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  I found many of the characters thinly drawn, almost chess pieces moved around on a huge board by a master hand.  Or sometimes I felt like I was inside a puzzle square — the kind you try to move tiles around in a particular order, but are thwarted because you can only move them in particular directions.  If Miss Cavendish was in the library with the cocoa cup at 9:30 then she couldn’t have been the person to burn the incriminating letter in the billiard room at that time, and so forth.

But the characters of Poirot and Hastings are endearing and real.  Poirot is the meticulous detector of truth and lies and Hastings is us, stumbling behind and trying to understand what is going on.  I wonder if Christie came up with these characters and formula in response to the Great War.  Did she feel a need to bring order and meaning to the destruction of a genteel, ordered way of life enjoyed by the English upper class before WWI?  For Poirot soothes the confused, horrified Hastings who represents that class and is reeling from a horrific crime — not necessarily the death of Emily Cavendish-Inglethrop — but a much larger horror.

And no, I wasn’t able to spot the murderer.  Of course we have to leave that to Poirot.

 

Massive Book Haul at Second Story Books, Rockville, MD

“I can’t believe you’ve never been to this place,” my friend admonished.  “And you…a librarian!”

So off we headed to Second Story Books, a used book warehouse-book store-antique shop located just outside of Washington, DC.  Several happy hours later I emerged with this:

Second st 5

They had to give me the top of a produce box to haul all my treasures away….

And I swear I had gone there with just a few items on my list!

My goal was to locate some more Guardian 1000 novels, specifically, two more Agatha Christies, a Kim Stanley Robinson and some others.  I found a few of the titles I was looking for, but, ahem, got a little carried away.

It was also so good to get a healthy dose of book shelf serendipity, innocent of friendly algorithmic nudges from our friends at Amazon/Goodreads.  In fact these days, the idea of getting my hands on a hunk of pulp I legally own — and can lend out to a friend or just give away to someone — really appeals.

Second Story Books in Rockville, MD.  Used book heaven.

Second Story Books in Rockville, MD. Used book heaven.

Did I have to get down on my hands and knees a few times?  Get a little dusty?  Sure, but I had forgotten the thrill of the chase and the fun of exploring through books I knew nothing about but looked so good….

And Second Story Books has a friendly and helpful staff!  Plenty of signs point out the way to appropriate shelves, and there is a map up front to help you get oriented.

The “annex” on the far side of the store had more treasures that haven’t been sorted yet, posters, old newspapers and other interesting items.

And so, the haul!  Here’s the damage, organized by author (of course).  I’ve marked the Guardian reads:

  • Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country (loved his Walk in the Woods!)
  • Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary (Guardian 1000)
  • Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage (Guardian 1000)
  • Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (Guardian 1000)
  • Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (Guardian 1000)
Helpful staff are better than algorithms sometimes....

Helpful staff are better than algorithms sometimes….

 

  • Philippa Gregory, The Red Queen (Guilty pleasure category!)
  • Lynette Iezzoni, Influenza 1918 (Love medical history….)
  • John Kelly, The Great Mortality (Same as above)
  • David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (Guardian 1000)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast (still can’t find Year of Rice and Salt, which I need for the Guardian read.  Trying to get into Sci-fi so I can relate to my nerd friends).
  • Alison Weir, The Life of Elizabeth I (another guilty pleasure, but on a higher level).

So, that’s the haul!  Everyone, enjoy the rest of the weekend.  Happy reading!  L.

A Challenging Year: 2012 Guardian 1000 Reading Progress

tree with books2012 is come and gone and I’m evaluating my progress towards reading the Guardian 1000 best novels.

How did I do?

The facts:  104 titles read.

Don’t be impressed:  only 14 were read this year.

When I started the Challenge in early 2012 I decided to give myself credit if I had read the book and remembered it so well that I could have written a review if I wanted to.

So, more on the titles I’ve given myself prior credit for in a minute.  What about the 2012 reads?  Here’s a quick summary of my impressions:

  • Most surprising:  probably the two books by Elizabeth Gaskell.  North and South and Cranford were both wonderful, modern, fresh and totally unexpected.
  • An author I’d never heard about but loved:  definitely David Lodge.  All three of his books were witty and wise.  I always judge a book by how much it makes me think and I’m still thinking and smiling about Nice Work.  Angela Thirkel was also unknown to me.
  • Most overrated:  Lucky Jim  Maybe it just hasn’t aged well.  An unlucky choice by the Guardian editors.  I also felt a little of the P.G Wodehouse novels were over the hill at this point.  Oh, well.
  • Books I’m glad I read but struggled through:  both the E.M. Forsters.  I have great trepidation about A Passage to India.

So, on the whole its been a good year but I really need to step up.  If I only read 14 titles a year, I won’t live long enough to finish the list.  Is this even doable?  Is it worth it?  This year has brought real delights when I read a book that I never would have except for the Challenge, but is that a good enough reason to carry on?  I might be having a moment of darkness in my soul for the Challenge, so bear with me.

As I mentioned above, I have given myself credit for the following titles from the Guardian list:

  • Read in School :  Great Expectations (Dickens), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce), Pride and Prejudice (Austen), Jane Eyre (Bronte), Wuthering Heights (Bronte), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne), A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway), The Plague (Camus), Les Miserables (Hugo), The Jungle (Sinclair), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain), The House of Mirth (Wharton), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Lord Jim (Conrad), The Red Badge of Courage (Crane), For Whom The Bell Tolls (Hemingway), The Call of the Wild (London), All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque).
  • Yes, I was a Weird Kid Who Read A Lot:  The Wind in the Willows (Grahame), And Then There Were None (Christie), To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), Little Women (Alcott), Villette (Bronte), Rebecca (du Maurier), Gone With the Wind (Mitchell), Oliver Twist (Dickens), Animal Farm (Orwell), Black Beauty (Sewell).
  • I Read Because I Wanted to Read “Everything” By the Author: Breakfast of Champions  and Slaughter House Five(Vonnegut), Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden (Steinbeck), Of Human Bondage (Maugham), The Man of Property (Galsworthy), Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy), Babbitt, Elmer Gantry and Main Street (Lewis), The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald).
  • I Hid These From My Parents:  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Spark), The Godfather (Puzo), Rubyfruit Jungle (Brown), Love Story (Segal), Valley of the Dolls (Susann), The Painted Bird (Kosinski), Sons and Lovers (Lawrence).
  • Laugh Out Loud Funny:  The Uncommon Reader (Bennett), Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding), Cold Comfort Farm (Gibbons), Catch-22 (Heller), The Confederacy of Dunces (Toole), The Witches of Eastwick (Updike), The Loved One (Waugh), The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Weldon), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Age 13 3/4 (Townsend), The Shipping News (Proulx), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey).
  • Made Me Cry or Made Me Mad:  A Time to Kill (Grisham), The Secret History (Tartt), The Daughter of Time (Tey), Middlesex (Eugenides), The God of Small Things (Roy), A Suitable Boy (Seth), The Color Purple (Walker), The Mill on the Floss (Eliot), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Vanity Fair (Thackeray), The Corrections (Franzen).
  • War Books:  Cold Mountain (Frazier), The Tin Drum (Grass), The Kite Runner (Hosseini), From Here to Eternity (Jones), Andersonville (Kantor), Confederates (Keneally), Tales of the South Pacific (Michener), Suite Francaise (Nemirovsky), A Town Like Alice (Shute), Maus (Spiegelman), Sophie’s Choice (Styron).
  • Weird Stuff:  Jurassic Park (Chrichton), The Bell Jar (Plath), The Bluest Eye (Morrison), The Golden Notebook (Lessig), Quarantine (Crace), The Human Stain (Roth).

For now,  I’m definitely going to carry on with the Challenge.  Thanks for reading this blog this year and please send me any thoughts — even if you just think I’m crazy to try this.

Happy New Year to you and may you find your Challenges — planned and unexpected — fulfilling in 2013.

Only connect….a hiatus and a status report…

I have missed my Livritome blog so much!  Even more, I’ve missed reading my lovely Guardian novels.  Here’s the explanation:

  • Got bogged down in Howards End.  I mean, really bogged down as in I hated it.  I hadn’t come up with a contingency plan to deal with a long, weighty Guardian read that I hated….so didn’t know what to do.  Blog about the hate?  Keep drudging through?
  • In early October I started a MBA program.  Since I also work full-time, every spare minute has been spent reading business cases instead of Guardian titles — and certainly all drudging through Howards End came to a halt.
  • Conclusion:  got an A in my first MBA course!  I have a two week’s break and so the other day picked up Howards End off the pile and plunged back in and guess what….I’m seeing my way through it after all!  I think I’m actually now looking forward to finishing it and blogging about it very soon.
  • Strategy:  in addition to finishing Howards End, pick some very good, Guardian read that is SHORT — so I can finish before the end of my break.  Would it be possible to sneak in another non-Guardian, like book two of the George R. R. Martin series?  Or at least, March, by Geraldine Brooks, which I’ve already dipped into?
  • Question:  would Livritome readers be interested in business books, as well as novels?