The Dead Feeling of Winter

I’ve always believed I was meant to hibernate, what with my ample reserves of stored body fat, ability to recycle my urine and the overwhelming urge to sleep under a pile of dead leaves. But after a rather awkward conversation with HR during which I determined my company does not do ‘hibernation pay,’ I have temporarily put this impulse to one side.

Winter makes me all sleepy and blah and the energy I would usually put towards reading instead goes towards just keeping warm. Plus, I’ve gone back to school part time and most of my reading is definitely not for pleasure.  So there’s been a lull. And I failed my Goodreads 2014 challenge. The shame.

Here’s what I’ve managed to put away the last couple of months:

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters.  Oh book, I still don’t know how to feel about you. Shortly into this, I found myself thinking, “I bet I know what happens.” Then it happened. By that time, I was about halfway through and figured I might as well finish it, even though it was a dreary slog without one likeable character. Then it got good – real good.  Waters is a great writer of suspense and that’s what saved this book in the end. If I could somehow meld together the outstanding first half of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch with the second half of this book, it’d be amazing. Anyway, I know Waters landed on many 2014 Best Of lists, but not mine.

The Paying Guests didn’t help my reading rut and it took The Murder of the Century: The Guilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars to dig me out. Paul Collins writes a tight, fast-paced account of body parts scattered around late 19th century New York City and the race to find out who they belong to and who did the scattering.

The story of the murder is interesting enough, but the real draw is the race between the police and the New York tabloids (led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst) to get to the truth (or whatever sells, in the case of the papers). The lengths the tabloids went to (and the depths to which they stooped) to stay one step ahead of the police for exclusive scoops were both appalling and ballsy. And never dull.

In between moping around and counting the days until spring, I did a little digging up of ancestral bones (metaphorically speaking) to find that I am descended from Mayflower passenger William Brewster. I spent many subsequent days loudly proclaiming myself to be American Royalty until I realized that a) no one was going to bow to me and b) so were around 30 million other people.  Nonetheless, it kindled an interest in the people who so bravely conquered the new world and subsequently did horrible, horrible things to Native Americans.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrook is where I turned to find out more about Brewster and his fellow Pilgrims. As I read, I tried to find some similarities between me and my 12th great-grandfather. But alas, there seems to be little that’s been passed down from the spiritual leader of a group of colony-founding pioneers to me, an atheist afraid to go camping. But the book was great – clear, concise and never dull, it takes the readers from the early days of the Pilgrims, before they set off to Europe, right through the end of King Phillip’s War. And Philbrook never makes excuses for the treatment of the Native Americans by the Pilgrims’ descendants.

This coming year looks to be a great one for readers and I’m particularly looking forward to Erik Larson’s new release Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which is out in March; Jon Ronson’s newest, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, also out in March; and Matthew Pearl’s, The Last Bookaneer, released in April.

If you’re a classic movie fan, 2015 will see the release of new books about Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and the general decadence and debauchery of that Hollywood age.  More info on those can be found here at our sister site.

Le Retour d’Hercule Poirot*

When I first heard that author Sophie Hannah (of whom I admittedly knew nothing) was reviving Agatha Christie’s inimitable Hercule Poirot, I shook an angry fist at the sky and shouted many impolite phrases heavenward.

As pigeons scattered, parents shielded their children and two dozen people filmed me with their phones for You Tube, I vowed never to read this unwanted, unwarranted addition to the literary world.

But then I found out that Christie’s estate had given its blessing. I started to think about how  I’ve read possibly all of the original HP mysteries and wouldn’t it be great if this new one somehow turned out to be OK. Then I read a review of it in the Telegraph that was actually positive. And that thing I swore I’d never do, I did.

Reader, I didn’t hate it.

The Monogram Murders is the mystery of three people killed on the same day in three different rooms of a rather upscale hotel. All three bodies are identically positioned, with a monogrammed cufflink in each of their mouths. Poirot and his sidekick – not a Hastings or a Japp this time, but a Catchpool of Scotland Yard – set off to follow a winding path of clues and red herrings, before Poirot masterfully pulls it all together and solves the whodunnit.

I was relieved to find our Belgian hero appears much the same (and – minor spoiler alert – no worse for wear after Christie killed him off in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case). Sure, he refers to his moustaches in the singular now and is maybe slightly more loquacious than I recall, but Hannah ultimately succeeds in ensuring he remains the fussy, self-assured, but endearing, sleuth that Christie originally created.

The book is also true to the Christie trope of having numerous potential murders who are all assembled together at the end for Poirot’s final unraveling of the mystery – and what an unraveling. Because, again similar to many of Christie’s stories, this ending has so many moving parts that I would have welcomed a schematic diagram to help me through it.

But that was always half the fun of Christie – figuring out who was the real criminal and how she was going to wrap up all those loose ends in one final chapter. Hannah does a good job of giving the reader a satisfying ending and a thoroughly enjoyable read. While I thought I’d never say it, I’m happy to admit how hopeful I now am that she’ll give us another Poirot page-turner soon.

Up next: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty, which I started last night and is so far entertaining and informative while making me hyperventilate slightly with its unblinking perspective on our ultimate, shared end.

*translation courtesy of Google because it’s been a long time since high school French

Better Late Than Never: Summer Reads

The beginning of the summer brought great intentions. I was going to set up a blog and review every book I read during those hot, hazy months. I was going to be prolific and it was going to be amazing and publishers all over the world would be sending me their books, begging me to attach my golden approval to their author’s words.

So I read lots of books and I set up this Word Press site and then…well, there were a lot of distractions this summer. There was the creative writing course I decided to take in June. That was time consuming. Then there were A LOT of Dateline NBC episodes that I hadn’t seen before. That’s important viewing if you don’t want to be killed by a loved one. And Candy Crush…so much Candy Crush.

And now here I am, second week of September, forced by my own lazy hand to blog my summer reads in the early days of fall. Reads that I barely remember due to an abundance of summer beer. Let’s hope it can only get better from here.

The Quick by Lauren Owen

I’m obsessed with Victorian London, and was super-excited by this book simply because it took place in that time period. The first 100 pages were tremendous, perfect, exactly what my black, wizened heart needed. Then there was a twist and I was like ‘Awwww damn, I didn’t want it to turn into THAT kind of book.’ But, because I’d invested some time in it, I persevered and was glad I did because the rest of the book was just as good, despite the genre switcheroo. And that’s all I’m prepared to tell you about it because I don’t want to ruin the surprise if you don’t know about it already. Rest assured, the characters are likeable, interesting, believable (even in an unbelievable story); the plot is suspenseful; the writing is tight; and if you love Victorian London you won’t be disappointed.

Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

If I were to ask you what the two least funny historical subjects would be, you very well might answer presidential assassinations and the Puritans. And you’d be wrong, my friend. Because Sarah Vowell has taken both of these subjects and turned them into books that are both edumacational and humorous.

I love history, but weep the tears of my dead ancestors when it’s dry and boring. The past is full of stupid, silly, dramatic stuff done by eccentric people dressed in funny clothes. There’s no need to make a book about it sound like a lecture in chartered accounting. Vowell clearly agrees as she visits the sites were such things took place, bringing along her friends and young nephew, and educating us all about presidential murders and the early days of the great United States.

The Wordy Shipmates, the book about the Puritans, was particularly entertaining. Never a dull moment when you’re settling a new continent with that bunch. Vowell takes the reader from 17th century Plymouth to modern day Mohegan Sun casino and, in the process, inspired me to noodle about on ancestry.com only to discover my own Puritan background, thus explaining my deep-seated disapproval of Christmas celebrations and love of buckle hats.

The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

I can’t remember how I came across this book.  Maybe through a mention on Book Riot? In any case, it was an enjoyable read – quick, moderately suspenseful, with an interesting plot. It’s a literary mystery that name drops a number of famous authors in conjunction with an enigmatic, somewhat threatening, collector. Kind of like a meal at Bertucci’s – satisfying, but not hugely memorable.

The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh

Again, another one I can’t remember how I found, and an older book as well. It’s the true story of two cops, two criminals and a murder in a Los Angeles onion field in the early 1960s. The book starts slowly – Wambaugh spends several chapters illustrating the everyday lives of each of the four men. While this made me nearly give up early on, it pays off later in when those ordinary details contrast with the extraordinary story of the murder and its aftermath. It’s a chilling, tragic story where everyone is a victim in some way.

Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

In addition to Victorian London, I’m also obsessed with North Korea (did you know the North Korea government recently announced to its citizens that it was opening up a human rights investigation into the events in Ferguson, MO?). This is the true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the few people (maybe the only) born in a North Korean labor camp to escape. An engrossing and appalling story of what horror goes on behind the vaguely entertaining facade of a country stunted by its cruel leaders.

Behind The Curtain by Dave Berg

This is the ‘behind the scenes’ story of The Tonight Show: the Leno years. I’d rather eat my own hair than watch ten minutes of Leno doing anything. But I do love a book that spills the details of what it’s like to get a TV show on the air night after night and throws in some juicy stories to boot.  This isn’t that book. Berg really loves Leno and there’s little here apart from stories about how great he was. It does little to shed any light on the inner workings of the show, Leno’s inability to get along with his fellow late night hosts (Letterman, O’Brien), basically anything remotely interesting. It’s like listening to your grampa tell you the story of the time he shook hands with Lindberg. It’s cute to see him still so excited by the memory, but doesn’t leave you with any insight into the man or the context of his work.

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

I once grew my roots out long enough so I could see how my natural hair color looked. It was interesting to see the results, but ultimately an unsatisfying waste of time that I could have spent with better hair. This is the novel version of that.

Hat tip to Koch for writing a book without one likeable character, full of unpleasant medical and human hygiene details and a scene involving an eye that made me turn to drink for a week, yet still kept me reading till the end just to see how it all turned out. But really, I shouldn’t have bothered.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Both this and Koch’s book got a fair amount of buzz this summer.  This, by far, is the better of the two books. Written in chapters of present day and flashback narration, it tells the story of Tooly Zylberberg, owner of a bookshop in Wales and possessor of a mysterious childhood peopled with enigmatic characters. Her own understanding of who these people really were and how they came to be involved in her life is muddy, but eventually the pieces come together and there are some genuinely moving moments of realization and humanity. Tooly is also an admirable heroine – smart, independent and complex.

Rustication by Charles Palliser

I confess, I can’t remember if I read this during the summer. It may have been a few months before. But I loved The Quincunx (doesn’t that word sound dirty) and was goggle-eyed with excitement when I heard he had a new book out.  Again, it takes place in Victorian England, so of course I was all over that. Rustication (which also sounds a bit dirty, but isn’t) is creepy, atmospheric, mysterious, strange and engrossing. It would actually be a great read as those dark, cold winter nights close in and you huddle under a blanket in a chair by a fire.

Feel free to leave comments that agree or disagree with the above and let us know what some of your summer reads were.