I’m sneaking in a couple of quick reviews on the final day to join in with Simon and Karen’s latest reading week, The 1920 Club. Speaking of books that were published a century ago, I happened to review Chéri by Colette as one of my monthly classics last year, and I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton in advance of our May book club meeting.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
I don’t think I’ve read an Agatha Christie mystery since I was about … 13? (It was And Then There Were None.) But over the years I’ve watched countless Poirot and Miss Marple cases on TV with my mother. This was Poirot’s first outing, and it’s narrated by Hastings, the slightly dim Watson to the Belgian detective’s Sherlock Holmes.
One July, invalided home from the war at age 30, Hastings goes to visit old family friends at Styles, their Essex manor house: brothers John and Lawrence Cavendish and their elderly stepmother, who has recently (and somewhat shockingly) remarried. When old Mrs. Cavendish is found dead of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is brought in to sort through the potential suspects. Coffee and cocoa cups, a fragment of a charred will, a fake beard, a candle wax stain and a bolted door will be among his major clues.
Like Hastings, we as readers are quick to point to the obvious: hey, that foreigner who happens to be an expert on poisons, it’s him, right?! But as Poirot carefully explains, again and again, “If the fact will not fit the theory, let the theory go. … Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined, sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried.”
I rarely pick up a mystery novel, though when I can get stuck in I do tend to enjoy them. This was a super-quick read and I found myself turning to it more often than to other books on my stack that felt weightier in subject matter. In the end I find crime novels inconsequential, so can’t imagine needing to try another Poirot or Marple for another 20 years or so. But if you’re struggling to read in a time of anxiety, you could certainly do worse than a Christie novel.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has long been one of my literary blind spots. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece, sure: I studied it in school and have read it another couple of times since, as well as lots of background nonfiction and some contemporary novels that riff on the story line. But everything else of his that I’ve tried (Tender Is the Night was the other one) has felt aimless and more stylish than substantive.
Amory Blaine is a wealthy Midwesterner who goes from boarding school to Princeton and has literary ambitions and various love affairs. He’s convinced he’s a “boy marked for glory.” But Monsignor Darcy, his guru, encourages the young man to focus on developing his character more than his dashing personality.
Hugely popular at its first release, this debut novel won Fitzgerald his literary reputation – as well as Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage. What with the slang (“Oh my Lord, I’m going to cast a kitten”), it felt very much like a period piece to me, most impressive for its experimentation with structure: parts are written like a film script or Q&A, and there are also some poems and lists. This novelty may well be a result of the author cobbling together drafts and unpublished odds and ends, but still struck me as daring.
In a strange way, though, the novel is deliberately ahistorical in that it glosses over world events with a flippancy that I find typical of Fitzgerald. Even though Amory is called up to serve, his general reaction to the First World War is dispatched in a paragraph; Prohibition doesn’t get much more of a look-in.
I understand that the book is fairly autobiographical and in its original form was written in the first person, which I might have preferred if it led to greater sincerity. I could admire some of the witty banter and the general coming-of-age arc, but mostly felt indifferent to this one.
Intricate essays about writing in the wake of trauma, a feel-good novel about an odd couple on a trip to France, hilarious festive outtakes from a career in medicine, and a race-themed family memoir: I have four very different books to recommend to you this month. All:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth
(Coming from Goldsmiths Press [UK] on the 15th; already out from MIT Press [USA])
Like Anne Boyer’s The Undying and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, this is an incisive memoir-in-essays about the effects of trauma on a woman’s body. Specifically, Ashworth’s story starts with her son’s birth in 2010, a disaster she keeps returning to over the course of seven sinuous personal essays. A routine C-section was followed by haemorrhaging, blood transfusions and anaphylaxis. The effects lasted for years afterwards: haunted by the sound of her blood dripping and the feeling that her organs could fall out of her abdomen at any time, she suffered from vomiting, insomnia and alcoholism, drinking late into the night as she watched gruesome true crime films.
Ashworth toggles between experience, memory, and the transformation of experience into a written record. She admits she has lost faith in fiction, either reading or writing it (she is a lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of four novels). Her Mormon upbringing in Preston is a major part of her backstory, and along with her childhood indoctrination she remembers brief stays in a children’s home and in the hospital with chicken pox.
The essays experiment with structure and content. For instance, “Ground Zero” counts down from #8, with incomplete final lines in each section, then back up to #8, with each piece from the second set picking up where the first left off. Slashes and cross-outs represent rethinking or alternate interpretations. “Off Topic: On Derailment” encompasses so many topics, from excommunication to Agatha Christie to rollercoasters to Charles Dickens, that you have to read it to believe she can make it all fit together (elsewhere she muses on Chernobyl, magic tricks and hating King Lear).
“How to Begin: The Cut” started as a talk given at Greenbelt 2013, when I was in the audience. I especially loved “A Lecture on Influence,” a coy self-examination through creative writing lessons, and “How to Fall without Landing: Celestial City,” a meditation on the precariousness of the human condition. Her frame of literary reference is wide and surprising. This also reminded me of Sight by Jessie Greengrass, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; I would recommend it to readers of any of the above.
Some favorite lines:
“My God-hurt head has a hole in it or needs one; to let the world in, or out – I can’t ever decide.”
“how to write about everything? How to take in the things that don’t belong to you without being poisoned by them? How to make use of the things that live inside, those seedlings you never asked for? How to breathe in? How to breathe out? How to keep on doing that?”
“Some days it feels like writing truthfully about her own life is the most subversive thing a woman can do.”
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Akin by Emma Donoghue
(Coming from Picador [UK] on the 3rd; already out from Little, Brown and Co. [USA])
I’ve read Donoghue’s six most recent works of fiction. Her books are all so different from each other in setting – a one-room prison in contemporary America, bawdy 1870s San Francisco, rural Ireland in the 1850s – that it’s hard to pin her down to one time period or roster of topics. She never writes the same book twice, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Akin gets off to a slightly slow start but soon had me hooked. Noah Selvaggio, a childless widower and retired chemist in New York City, is looking forward to an imminent trip to Nice, where he was born, to celebrate his 80th birthday. He never guessed that he’d have company on his trip, much less a surly 11-year-old. This is Michael Young, his nephew Victor’s son. Victor died of a drug overdose a year and a half ago; the boy’s mother is in prison; his maternal grandmother has just died. There’s no one else to look after Michael, so with a rush passport he’s added to the itinerary.
In some ways Michael reminded me of my nephews, ages 11 and 14: the monosyllabic replies, the addiction to devices and online gaming, the finicky eating, and the occasional flashes of childlike exuberance. Having never raised a child, Noah has no idea how strict to be with his great-nephew about screen time, unhealthy food and bad language. He has to learn to pick his battles, or every moment of this long-awaited homecoming trip would be a misery. And he soon realizes that Michael’s broken home and troubled area of NYC make him simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than your average kid.
The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly here and makes for many amusing culture clashes, not so much France vs. the USA as between these Americans of different generations. The dialogue, especially, made me laugh. Donoghue nails it:
[Noah:] “The genre, the style. Is rap the right word for it? Or hip-hop?”
[Michael:] “Don’t even try.” Michael turned his music back on.
(At the cathedral)
[Michael:] “This is some seriously frilly shit.”
[Noah:] “It’s called Baroque style.”
[Michael:] “I call it fugly.”
But there’s another dimension to the novel that keeps it from being pleasant but forgettable. Noah’s grandfather was a famous (fictional) photographer, Père Sonne, and he has recently found a peculiar set of photographs left behind by his late mother, Margot. One is of the hotel where they’re staying in Nice, known to be a holding tank for Jews before they were sent off to concentration camps. The more Noah looks into it, the more he is convinced that his mother was involved in some way – but which side was she on?
This is feel-good fiction in the best possible sense: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy. With its spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes, I can easily see it being made into a movie, too. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay
(Coming from Picador on the 17th)
If you’ve read This Is Going to Hurt, the UK’s bestselling nonfiction title of 2018, you’ll know just what to expect from the comedian’s holiday-themed follow-up. It’s raunchy, morbid and laugh-out-loud funny. In the seven years that Kay was a medical doctor, he had to work on Christmas Day six times. He takes us through the holiday seasons of 2004 to 2009, from the sickeningly festive run-up to the letdown of Christmas day and its aftermath. With his Rudolph tie on and his Scrooge spirit intact, he attends to genital oddities, childbirth crises and infertility clients, and feebly tries to keep up his relationships with his family and his partner despite them having about given up on him after so many holiday absences.
This will be a stocking-stuffer for many this year, and I can see myself returning to it year after year and flicking through for a laugh. However, there’s one story here that Kay regrets omitting from This Is Going to Hurt as being too upsetting, and he also ends on a serious note, urging readers to spare a thought for those who give up their holidays to keep our hospitals staffed.
A favorite passage:
“A lot of the reward for this job comes in the form of a warm glow. It doesn’t make you look any less tired, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it’s worth a lot less than the social life you’ve traded it for, but this comforting aura of goodness and purpose definitely throws light into some dark corners and helps you withstand a lot of the shit.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt
(Coming from Scribe UK on the 10th)
“What are you?” This question has followed McWatt since she was eight years old. When her third-grade teacher asked the class if they knew what “Negro” meant, one boy pointed to her. “Oh, no, not Tessa,” the teacher replied, following up with a question: “What are you, Tessa?” But it has always been hard to put her mixed-race background into one word. Her family moved from Guyana to Canada and she has since settled in England, where she is a professor of creative writing; her ancestry is somewhat uncertain but may include Chinese, Indian, indigenous South American, Portuguese, French/Jewish, African, and Scottish.
The book opens with the startling scene of her grandmother, a young Chinese woman brought over to work the sugarcane fields of British Guiana, being raped by her own uncle. “To strangers, even friends—on some days also to myself—I am images of violence and oppression. I am the language of shame and destitution, of slavery and indenture, of rape and murder. I am images of power and privilege, of denial and shades of skin, shapes of faces,” McWatt writes.
Her investigation of the meaning of race takes the form of an academic paper, Hypothesis–Experiment–Analysis–Findings, and within the long third section she goes part by part through the bodily features that have most often been used as markers of racial identity, including the nose, eyes, hair and buttocks. She dives into family history but also into wider historical movements, literature and science to understand her hybrid self. It’s an inventive and sensitive work reminiscent of The Color of Water by James McBride. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading (or feels they should try) interrogations of race.
A favorite line:
“as I try to square my politics with my privilege, it seems that my only true inheritance is that I am always running somewhere else.”
I won a signed proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Have you read any October releases that you would recommend? Do any of these tempt you?
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
Agatha, a biography in graphic novel form written by Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeau and illustrated by Alexandre Franc, opens – appropriately – with the real-life mystery at the heart of Agatha Christie’s story. In December 1926 the celebrated crime novelist disappeared, prompting a full-scale police investigation. She had abandoned her car by a lake in Surrey and traveled by train to Harrogate, where she checked into a hotel under a false name. Was it all an elaborate act of revenge for her husband’s philandering? Christie strikes up a conversation with Hercule Poirot, her most famous creation, in the hotel room, while back in London a clairvoyant is brought in to confirm she is alive. The medium’s look into Christie’s past sets up the novel’s first half as an extended flashback giving her history up until 1926.
Agatha Miller was raised in a wealthy household in Torquay, Devon. I never knew that she was a flaming redhead or that her father was American. His death when she was 11 was an early pall on an idyllic childhood of outdoor exploration and escape into books – even though her mother opined, “No child ought to be allowed to read until the age of 8. Better for the eyes and the brain.” She first turned her hand to writing while laid up in bed in 1908, completing her first story in two days. She and her mother took an exciting trip to Egypt, and in 1912 she met Lieutenant Archibald Christie at a ball. During the First World War she was a nurse at the town hospital in Torquay, where she came across a Belgian refugee who – at least in the authors’ theory – served as the inspiration for Poirot.
The Christies’ only daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919. The following year The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first Poirot mystery, was published. Christie’s career successes are intercut with her round-the-world travels (portrayed as sepia photographs), marriage difficulty and a new romance with archaeologist Max Mallowan, and the occasional intrusion of real-world events like World War II.
Meanwhile, her invented detectives jockey for her attention: not just Poirot, but Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence too. You have to suspend your disbelief during these scenes. I don’t think the authors are literally suggesting that Christie hallucinated conversations with her characters. Rather, it’s a whimsical way of imagining how her detectives took on lives of their own and became ‘real people’ she cared for yet found exasperating – she often threatens to do away with Poirot as Arthur Conan Doyle tried to do with Sherlock Holmes. There were only a couple of pages where I felt that a conversation with Poirot was a false way of conveying information. For the most part, this strategy works well; when coupled with the opening scene in 1926, it keeps the biography from being too much of a chronological slog.
With the exception of the sepia-tinged travel sections, this is a book packed with bright colors, particularly with Christie’s flash of red hair animating the first three quarters. It finishes with a timeline of Christie’s life and a complete bibliography of her works – no doubt invaluable references for diehard fans. I’ve only read one or two Christie books myself (my mother is the real devotee), but I enjoyed this quick peek into a legendary writer’s life. I was reminded of just how broad her reach was: from Hollywood studios to the West End, where The Mousetrap has been showing for a record-breaking 63 years. Her influence cannot be denied.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. (This one is in paperback!)
Are you an Agatha Christie fan? Does this tempt you to read more by or about her?