Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* - Agatha Christie - After Death on the Nile, I wasn't itching to read another Christie mystery, but I had already ordered this one from the library, so I thought I'd just check it out. This one is told in the first person by a doctor in a small English town where Hercule Poirot has just retired. After a woman commits suicide and her supposed lover is found murdered, Poirot and the narrator conspire to solve the mystery. I loved this book - immediately I realized that I just enjoy first person narratives much more so than third person. There is something about the point of view or the certainty of the descriptions that is much more engaging for me. The plot had twists and turns galore with secrets kept and lies revealed in every chapter. If you read one Christie novel in your life, make it this one. And don't forget, that when it comes to solving the mystery, it's always best to suspect everyone!!

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Now is the Time to Open Your Heart - Alice Walker When I was in college, I did a fellowship in the African-American studies department. My thesis was called "Survival Through Storytelling" and it focused on Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God - both of which are stories told by one female character to another female character. The basic point was that women survive the pain of abuse, the loss of a child, illness, love, and ultimately life by telling their stories to other women. Writing that paper transformed the way I view my relationships with other women - in a very positive affirming way. But, as much as I savored every word written by Walker and Hurston in those books, after I finished my paper I could never bring myself to read another book by either of them. I wanted to, but I think I worried that it would shatter this perfect memory I had of their influence on my life. So, it was with great hesitation that I started to read Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. This novel is the story of Kate, a woman in her mid-fifties, who embarks on a journey of self-discovery along the Colorado River. Her story (and those of the people in her life) are told through dreams, flashbacks, and memories. Walker's writing is poetic and I was happy to be reading her again, but this is no Color Purple. I do think, however, that I am going to make more of an effort to seek out other books by Walker and Hurston - I think they will be a wonderful reminder of the influence stories have had on my life, and how lucky I am to have so many amazing women to share all of mine with!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Man's Head - Georges Simenon : Recommended to me by Aunty Marji, A Man's Head is authored by France's (via Belgium) most successful crime writer. In his lifetime (1903-1989), Simenon wrote over 200 novels, 75 of them featuring Inspector Maigret, the star of this book. A Man's Head begins with a convicted murderer in prison the night before his execution. Maigret, the inspector who put him there, believes that the man might be innocent, and orchestrates his escape - hoping that eventually the convict will lead him to the true murderer. I started reading this book standing up at my dining room table - 20 minutes later I was still standing. I was entranced right away, and read the book in an hour long sitting. This is the best of the mysteries/crime novels I have read this month, and I'm eager to read more of Inspector Maigret.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Through the Arc of the Rainforest - Karen Tei Yamashita This was the Stanford on-line book group's pick for the month of April. A political satire of sorts, the novel is set in Brazil and follows a cast of characters in their quest for fame and fortune at the cost of the environment. There are aspects of magical realism throughout - including a Japanese man with a sphere orbiting in front of his face, carrier pigeons who traverse continents, and a three-armed man who falls in love with a three-breasted woman. I enjoyed learning about the characters and following their individual stories, which all came crashing together at the end. It was like an adult version of the Lorax, with colorful bird feathers instead of truffula trees.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Big Sleep* - Raymond Chandler : This novel first introduced private detective Philip Marlowe. It starts off with Marlowe hired to investigate a case of blackmail...several murders, a pornographic book ring, and numerous double-crosses later, Marlowe unwinds the mystery (except the death of the chauffeur). I found this story incredibly difficult to follow - I'm not sure if I just wasn't that interested in the writing, or if it was particularly convoluted. Marlowe is like Sam Spade in his roughness - and at one point in the story his comments toward a homosexual character were very off-putting (I tried to remember that the book was written in 1939, but it still turned me off to the story in general). I'm glad I decided to read some of these early detective stories just to see what they are all about. But, I don't see myself picking up too many more.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How to be Alone - Jonathan Franzen : Years ago I read Franzen's The Corrections after the whole Oprah Book Club debacle. I hated it. So, I was a little reluctant to read his book of essays. But, I was pleasantly surprised. It reminded me of how I really disliked Richard Ford's novel The Sportswriter, but I loved his collection of short stories Multitude of Sins. I guess some authors are just better to some readers in different genres. The 14 different essays in the collection explore the idea of being alone in a world full of people. The first essay concerning his father's Alzheimers is incredible. He has a number of essays, including his famed "Harper's Essay" that explore the fate of the modern novel and what it means to be a writer in an increasingly non-literary world. Franzen is pretentious and strikes me as a little too into his suffering as a genius the world can't yet appreciate, but he has some nice perspectives on the United States Postal Service, American prison culture, and technology. I wouldn't read these all at once, but piece by piece, Franzen is well worth spending some time alone with.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Portuguese Irregular Verbs - Alexander McCall Smith : From the author of the #1 Ladies Detective Series, this is the story of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld and his adventures through Europe. The only word to describe this book is "absurd." Each chapter is a self-contained story about Professor Igelfeld, author of the tome Portuguese Irregular Verbs. He is convinced of his genius and forever getting himself into uncomfortable situations caused by his over-inflated sense of importance. It is silly and ridiculous, but also a lot of fun. There are a couple more books in this series, and I definitely plan to read them.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Death on the Nile - Agatha Christie

( I read this one while on a short trip down to LA - mostly on a park bench in Westwood, in front of a mystery bookstore which was a nice little find ( The story takes place on a Nile cruise - the beautiful and wealthy Linnett Doyle is the focus of everyone's attentions, including affections and jealousies. The clever and arrogant Detective Hercule Poirot is also aboard and takes a special interest in the love triangle Mrs. Doyle has created. When a murder occurs on the boat, Poirot sets to interviewing the passengers and solving the riddle. The formula of this book was very similar to the only other novel I've read by Christie, Murder on the Orient Express. It was a fun read, though I find the character of Poirot to be a bit irritating.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Maltese Falcon* - Dashiell Hammett I never knew this was the story that introduced Sam Spade and that it is set in San Francisco! The story starts out with the death of Spade's partner, Miles Archer. As the cops attempt to find the murderer, Spade sets out to solve his own mystery of the "black bird." If it weren't for the literary significance of this book - as one of the first in the "hard-boiled" detective genre - I don't think I would have particularly enjoyed the story. There are some memorable characters (the "fat man" for one), but Spade is not a likeable character, and the femme fatale of the book, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, is incredibly annoying with her constant lying and whining. The story moves slowly, and then unfolds quickly as characters explain everything that has happened, tying loose ends a little too conveniently. But, it was a fun read - and the copy I borrowed from the library had photographs of the city taken in 1928 - of all the places mentioned in the story. So, it was fun to see old time San Francisco and picture Spade setting up meetings at the St. Francis, taking cabs to the Ferry Building, and otherwise traipsing around town in search of the elusive falcon.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Plot Against America* - Philip Roth : Lately, it seems like I've seen Philip Roth's name everywhere - so, I decided I better get started on reading all his books. The Plot Against America is set up as a "autobiography" with an eight year old Philip Roth as the narrator. Charles Lindbergh, national hero and anti-semite, has just defeated FDR as President of the United States. The country is torn between people who wish for Jews to assimilate into mainstream culture and for the country to stay out of Europe's war, and the "ghetto Jews" who are suspicious of Lindbergh's alliances with Nazi Germany. This is a fascinating exploration into "what could have been" and a forceful commentary on what happens when people refuse to question authority. Though fiction, this is a damning critique of American life that portrays some of our national "heroes" in a less than flattering light. From a personal perspective, I couldn't help thinking throughout the book that while Lindbergh's presidency threatened the Jewish existence in Roth's novel, by eliminating FRD as president before the bombing of Pearl Habor, it may have prevented the internment of the Japanese-Americans. The book takes a turn in 1941/42, but either way, there is no mention of the camps. Roth's writing is powerful. He is a fabulous storyteller and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Full Cupboard of Life - Alexander McCall Smith (#1 Ladies Detective Agency - Book 5) - This is the fifth book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series set in Botswana and featuring Detective Precious Ramotswe, her mechanic fiance, her typing school prodigy assistant, and my favorite knucklehead mechanics' apprentices. In this one, Ramotswe is approached by a wealthy lady who wants to know which of her various suitors isn't just in it for the money. But, the "mystery" takes backstage to Ramotswe's own dilemma about her never-ending engagement, and her finance's troubles dealing with a dishonest mechanic. This was a very quick read, and nothing particularly dramatic happened in this installment, but I love these characters and their observations about life. Not a must read, but a fun continuance of the series.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

All Rivers Run to the Sea - Elie Wiesel : This is the first volume (of two) of Elie Wiesel's memoirs (author of Night and roughly 39 other books). Wiesel's time at Auschwitz is covered in the first 100 pages. What follows is a beautifully written account of his life following - how he became a journalist, his encounters with world leaders, his various romances- and his never-ending struggle to be a voice for those who died in the Holocaust, as well as to help find the voices of his fellow survivors. The book is filled with philosophical questions about religion, love, and survival. Wiesel is a wonderful story-teller - filled with humor, sadness, and of course - hope.