Monthly Archives: February 2010

Christie Fan(atic)s

Of course I realize that I’m not the only one who loves Agatha Christie’s mysteries.  There are lots and lots of us around — that’s why her books have never gone out of print since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first published in 1920.  She wrote her last mystery, Postern of Fate, in 1973, when she was 82 years old. And they’re all still in print, more than 35 years after her death.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Christie’s mysteries on these rainy, weirdly spring-like days in Seattle. (Maybe it’s the grey skies.)  I just finished reading the last page of a “must read” for Christie fan(atic)s — Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making (Harper 2010) by John Curran.  Did you know that, as Curran says, “It is possible to read a different Christie title every month for almost seven years … And it is possible to watch a different dramatization every month for two years.” 

Pretty impressive, isn’t it?

What especially interests me, though, is why people enjoy her books so much, and, more specifically, why I read and reread her mysteries on a fairly regular basis. (I’ve never read one of her non-mysteries, all of which were written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.)  The odd part for me is that her great strength, which is her genius at plotting, is something that is generally not important to me in what I read.  I’m always much more interested in character development and the quality of the writing than I am in what happens in any particular book. The books I love best tend to be character, rather than story, driven and always, always distinguished by gorgeous writing.  But Christie’s characters are as thin as paper; they tend to be stock characters — the dim-witted housemaid, the bluff retired army officer, the ne’er do well child who leaves home at an early age and returns as an adult.  Even her major characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have no depth.  Poirot is always described in terms of his mustaches, his love of tisanes, his compulsive neatness, his egg shaped head, and the little grey cells he puts to good use for detecting.  And Miss Marple, dithery and a knitter, is a whiz at reading people.  But that’s all we know about them — there’s no inner life for us to discover.  And don’t get me started on Captain Hastings — I was very happy when Christie sent him off to the Argentine to raise cattle!  Plus, her writing, while hardly clunky, is not what you read the books for.  Her actual prose is serviceable and unobtrusive.  But her storytelling is brilliant, and her talent for writing the puzzler sort of mystery is unmatched. I can’t think of anyone else who can give the reader all the clues necessary to solve the case, and yet whose ability to disguise them in such a diabolical fashion means that you’re unlikely to guess whodunit before all is revealed in the last scene. 

Over the years I must have bought hundreds of copies of her books.  I’d start out by reading or rereading one of them and then feel compelled to read them all.  When I finished, I couldn’t imagine ever reading them again, so I’d donate them to the library book sale or give them to friends. Then, a year or so later, perhaps, I’d be lying in bed and a scene from one of her books would flash into my head and I’d want to reread it; so I’d have to buy a copy, since (sadly) it was unlikely to be in at the library at just the moment I wanted it.  Inevitably, after finishing that one, I’d want to go back and reread them all again (always, of course, having forgotten in the meantime who the murderer was).  Which meant I had to buy them all once again. This has happened too many times for me to count. I was very happy when the publishing company Black Dog & Leventhal reprinted several of them in hardcover, because, psychologically, they’re harder for me to give away.  I just went through this same process — obsessively rereading her oeuvre — and now have another complete set of her mysteries.  I sincerely hope that I’ve learned my lesson and will not get rid of any of these.

My all time favorite novel of hers is one in which neither Poirot or Marple appears. It’s called either Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? or The Boomerang Clue, depending on where and when it was published.

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Audio Books

I’ve just come to the party of audio books listeners.  I’m a bit late but, as they say, better late than never.  (I am so late that I sometimes regress and call them “books on tape,” which is weird, because I never listened to those, either.)  I‘ve never had any negative feelings about unabridged audio books.  At talks I gave, people would frequently ask me if listening to a book “counted” as reading it.  I believe it does, but I also think it’s a different kind of experience than reading something on the page.  When you are reading the print version of a novel, for example, it’s just you and the author, mano a mano, collaborating on the book.  When you add another person — the audio book reader — it changes the whole dynamic.  What the author says and how you respond to it is now mediated through the reader’s voice.  Many people I know choose their audio books by who the reader is, rather than by the topic or the genre.  “I’ll read anything Jim Dale reads,” I often hear people say.  So, yes, it is reading; and yes, too, it’s a totally different experience.

So my not taking advantage of audio books was not based on anything more than that my life didn’t provide the sort of activities that many people partake in as they listen (gardening and cooking, long commutes, etc.).  But then I realized that audio books might be a good incentive to bicycling or walking on a treadmill at the Y, or when I’m going for a walk by myself.  And so it proved.

I’m just now beginning my fourth book.  The first one I listened to was Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, but at that time I was still trying to figure out how to download from the library’s website onto my IPod Nano, so the chapters ended up out of order and the book didn’t make a lot of sense — it was as though I were listening to it under “shuffle play.”  So by about halfway through I had to regroup and find it in print and read it that way.

Then, after many emails back and forth between me and a very helpful man named Andy Hird at Overdrive, the company in Ohio that sells the downloading service to libraries, l successfully downloaded and listened to Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, which I really enjoyed.  Kate Reading, the aptly named reader, did a good job, I thought, conveying the many characters in the mystery, from a black teenager to an Oxford educated scholar.  My major feeling, though, upon finally finishing it, was how long it took me to listen to, and how much quicker it would have been had I read the print version.

My next choice was Sharyn McCrumb’s The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which is one of her series of books based on traditional Appalachian songs (they’re called her “ballad novels”).  C.M. Hébert splendidly reads this particular one.

I really loved this book, although I found it terribly sad.  The narrative alternates between the stories of two accused murderers: one in the 1990s and the other in the 1830s.  But while I was listening to it, my mind kept wondering what it looked like on the page:  What typeface was used?  Was the 1830s account printed in italics?  Did the author use quotation marks or dashes to introduce speech?  I didn’t miss turning the pages, but I did have a real desire to see the pages themselves.  Weird, isn’t it?

It won’t keep me from listening to more audio books — in fact, I’ve just downloaded another Val McDermid novel and another of McCrumb’s ballad books, The Rosewood Casket, and I’m looking forward to them both.

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“That First Fine Careless Rapture”

There’s a category of books that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  Every time I go to a used book store (usually Magus Books, here in Seattle), I see all these wonderful novels on the shelves that I am oh so tempted to purchase, even though a) I’ve already read them, and b) I already own them.  (Since I have my books shelved alphabetically by author, I can even easily find them — once a librarian, always a librarian.)  That palpable yearning to buy, again, books that I’ve already read and remember with enormous fondness and pleasure, made me realize that there are some books that I love but will never read again, because I don’t want to spoil “that first fine careless rapture” (as Robert Browning said in a totally different context in his poem “Home Thoughts, From Abroad”) that I had when I first read them. 

I have become aware that I have a fear that this rereading will leave me disappointed and wondering what I saw in the novel the first time.  This has happened to me before.  When I reread Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for a class I was teaching, I was stunned at how much it had changed since the first time I read it, which was in the early 1960s, right after it won the National Book Award in 1962.  It meant so much to me then — I totally identified with the main female character and I was swept up in Percy’s fine writing.  But this recent rereading left me cold — I was impatient with the characters (although the writing was still magnificent) and just didn’t see now what I had seen in it then.  Why had I liked it — loved it, even — so much before?  What did that say about the person who was me those long years ago?  This train of thought threw me into a serious funk, because I didn’t want all those years to have changed Percy’s book into one that didn’t interest me now. 

So then I started thinking about the books that I felt I’d better not ever reread because I loved them so much the first time.  And here’s my list (so far), in no particular order:

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins

John Irving’s The World According to Garp

Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip

Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman

Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound

Clancy Sigal’s Going Away

David James Duncan’s The Brothers K

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan

Even as I write this, though, I find myself thinking about how terrific it would be to pick up Kay’s book again and be drawn into the world he created, and those fascinating characters, and wondering if I’d cry at the end of the book as I did the first time I read it; and how I’m sure that I would still adore The Odd Woman, even 35-plus years after I read it for the first time, and that family Duncan invented…. But I’m going to try to resist.  All the novels on my list were perfect for me the first time I read them.  Perhaps it’s too much to ask to have them remain the same book, when I’m no longer the same person who first read them, so many years ago. 

 I’d love to hear what books fall into this category for you.

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