Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

There is nothing more comforting after a long day than settling in with a mystery involving Hercule Poirot. And, The Murder on the Links (1923) is no exception. 

M. Poirot has received an urgent letter requesting his assistance in France. The plea comes from Mr. Renauld, a wealthy man with business holdings in South America. Unfortunately, by the time M. Poirot and his ever-faithful Hastings arrive, Renauld is dead. Stabbed in the back with a letter opener.  His body discovered on the golf course next to his villa's grounds. 

Mon Dieu! So far Dame Agatha has sweetened the pot with a whisper of blackmail, a grieving widow, a disinherited son, a possible mistress, a young woman on a train, a missing murder weapon, footprints, lack of footprints, young love, and a worthy protagonist for M. Poirot - a Monsieur Giraud of the Paris Sûreté. 

Unlike M. Poirot who uses his little grey cells, M. Giraud likes to dig about and look for the tiniest evidence of, well,  evidence. He is a bit brash and arrogant, and it will be a treat to see M. Poirot gently put him in his place.

One of the surprises that Dame Agatha has in store for the reader is a bit of gardening advice. So unexpected! I found this little exchange between M. Poirot and Auguste, the long-time gardener at the villa, to be delightful:

"I was admiring these magnificent geraniums. They are truly superb. They have been planted long?"

"Some time, monsieur. But of course, to keep the bed looking smart, one must keep bedding out a few new plants, and remove those that are over, besides keeping the old blooms well picked off."

"You put in some new plants yesterday, didn't you? Those in the middle there, and in the other bed also."

"Monsieur has a sharp eye. It takes always a day or so for them to 'pick up'. Yes, I put ten new plants in each bed last night. As monsieur doubtless knows, one should not put in plants when the sun is hot."

Yes, murder and gardening tips. What more could a reader want?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Practical Classics by Kevin Smokler

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School (2013). Not only because I like reading books about books, but also because author Kevin Smokler is smart, funny, and insightful in his takes on his chosen Fifty.

I will have to say that Mr. Smokler and I went to different high schools together. He graduated in 1991 and some of the books he writes about weren't even published when I graduated some years before that. 

I admit that I don't really remember reading much in high school. It seems that there was A Tale of Two Cities (which I struggled through then but loved when I read it as an adult), Gone With the Wind (which I remember hurriedly trying to finish for class at 3 a.m.), and DuMaurier's Rebecca. I am pretty sure there was a Shakespearean play - I don't know which one - but if I remember correctly we watched the movie in class. 

Not saying much for the school I attended although it was a good one. Maybe it wasn't the school; maybe I just didn't read the books assigned. 

In any case, Mr. Smokler's book introduced me to some 'classics' that I was not aware of. And, reminded me of some books I would like to read or reread. He frequently references and has a great affection for Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan (a favorite of mine), one of the books he used in compiling his own list.

He breaks his Fifty into ten sections that take a look at Youth and Growing Up, Identity, Inner and Outer Worlds, Love and Pain, and on through Working, Family, Violence and Loss, Ideas and Learning  (I especially liked this section), Heroes, and The Future.

He not only writes about the books, but also looks at movies that they may have spawned, references in pop culture, and the influences their authors may or may not have had on other writers.

On the one hand, there were many books that I have no interest in reading - not because Mr. Smokler makes them sound uninteresting - but only because I am just not interested in the subject matter. 

Here, though, is a list of ten books going on my TBR:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Candide by Voltaire
The Library of Babel (short story) by Jorge Luis Borges
Bartleby the Scrivener (short story) by Herman Melville
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again ( a journalism piece)             by David Foster Wallace
Fahrenheit 451 (reread) by Ray Bradbury
Metamorphosis (novella) by Franz Kafka
The Phantom Tollbooth (already on my list to reread) 
            by Norton Juster
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (reread) by Annie Dillard
The Remains of the Day (reread) by Kazuo Ishiguro

I recommend this book even if it has been a long time since you were in high school. See what classics you might want to add to your own TBR list. But beware: Things have changed!

Monday, July 29, 2013

National Geographic Adventure Classics: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

The Journals of Lewis and Clark (2002)published by National Geographic, is part of its Adventure Classics series. The original journals, which run to over one million words of text, have here been abridged by author and editor Anthony Brandt. In his forward, Brandt tells the reader that he has modernized the spelling, grammar and punctuation in the interests of readability.

I am all for that. I am not a scholar and don't really need to read every word of the accounts of the two-and-a-half year expedition in their original form. I also appreciate that between the actual journal entries he has written summaries, of times during periods of wintering or inactivity, detailing any information that seemed important. 

This edition also contains sketches and maps from the original journals. The letter outlining the mission of the expedition written by President Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis is here. There is a list of the expedition members - including Lewis's dog, Seaman - and a six page list of supplies needed for the journey: mathematical instruments, arms and accoutrements, ammunition, camping and clothing supplies, Indian presents, medicines, and provisions.  

That list alone makes for fascinating reading.

The book begins with entries from Lewis's journal of his journey from Pittsburgh, in September 1803, on his way to meet with William Clark and begin the expedition the coming spring. The immediacy of the entries is mesmerizing. He writes of the difficulty of traversing riffles (I guess he means rapids) in the Ohio River, the deep morning fogs, and days of rain that soak supplies and self. 

September 17, 1803
I found on opening the goods that many of the articles were much injured (from the rains and leaking canoes), particularly the articles of iron, which were rusted very much. My guns, tomahawks, and knives were of this class. I caused them to be oiled and exposed to the sun. The clothing of every description 
also was opened and aired. 

This work kept me so busy that I ate not anything until after dark, being determined to have everything in readiness for an early start in the morning. 

All this before the true adventure even begins. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Corps of Discovery: Lewis & Clark Expedition

I was delighted recently to discover that the 1997, two-part program created by Ken Burns on the Lewis and Clark Expedition is still available for viewing on 

What a treat to watch. Here we have the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their start from St. Louis with 30 volunteers and Clark's slave, York. Their goal was to head up the Missouri River to explore the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase and to find the Northwest Passage - a waterway that would lead to the Pacific Ocean. The passage wasn't there, but boy, what adventures they had. 

The ultimate road trip with no road!

The film is amazing. I like to think I know a little about American history but other than the fact that this expedition took place, I had no idea how difficult and extraordinary and important the trip, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, was. 

From May 1804 until their triumphant return in September 1806 the explorers encountered Indian tribes (some friendly, some not), mosquitoes, herds of buffalo, prairie dogs, antelope, wolves, mountains, snow, wildflowers, deserts, massive rock formations, Sacagawea, loneliness, hunger, ice, rain, sickness, fatigue, and finally, the Pacific Ocean. Amazingly, there was only one fatality - early into the trek a Sergeant John Floyd of Kentucky died from appendicitis.

I highly recommend watching this documentary if for no other reason than a chance to see the varied and gorgeous landscape of America's plains and mountains. Just type in Lewis and Clark in's  search box. Each part is less than two hours long and I can promise you its discoveries will stay with you for days to come. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Britain in Pictures

I have been doing a bit of book sleuthing this morning about a series launched in 1941 by Collins (now HarperCollins) called Britain in Pictures. Apparently, the 132 books in the series were designed to boost morale at a time when Hitler was threatening to cross the English Channel.

The books were written by some very famous writers - George Orwell (The English People), Edith Sitwell (Women), Graham Greene (Dramatists) - and covered everything from British boxing and birds to cricket and farming. There is even a volume on British hills and mountains.

Each slim book is octavo sized and contains black and white illustrations and 'plates in colour'. 

I happen to know about this series through three books that I bought on a now-long-ago trip to England and Scotland. I didn't know at the time their history:

English Novelists by Elizabeth Bowen, English Gardens by Harry Roberts, and British Universities by S.C. Roberts

Each volume runs about 50 pages. Two of my copies still have their original jackets. I bought the three for two pounds each. I don't remember if I purchased them in London or one of the other towns I visited. 

Oh, yes. I was the one going through customs declaring 'books' while everyone else was bringing home woolens, pottery, and tea sets.

Now three does not a collection make, and these three books have been languishing all alone on my shelves for many years, but in the age of the Internet, I feel a little thrill of excitement at the prospect of finding more. 

Who could resist the books that cover Villages, Postage Stamps, Wild Flowers, and The English at Table? And, what fun it will be tracking them down!

Perhaps you, dear readers, have one or two of the series gathering dust on your bookshelves. If so, let me know, and maybe we can strike a bargain.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Visiting Cannery Row with John Steinbeck

One of the classics that Kevin Smokler looks at in his book Practical Classics is John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  The action of this 1945 novel takes place in Monterey, California. I have actually visited the area and seen the fish canneries (now shops) and had my photo taken under the street sign.

The novel concerns marine biologist Doc and his group of friends: the madam of the local bordello; the grocer; and, a group of itinerant men known as 'the boys' who occasionally work in the canneries.

It is a story of community and, Smokler writes, was Steinbeck's way of reliving his early life in California with his own group of friends. Steinbeck, already wealthy and famous, was in his forties when he wrote this, his twelfth novel. 

Smokler writes:
He wrote Cannery Row out of longing for the place that held part of his youth, now gone. 

...of places where special things happen and memories dwell, of everyone around you knowing and looking after you, of nothing mattering outside your circle of friends. 

I recently picked up a paperback copy of Cannery Row from the library sale table. I think I paid 50 cents for it. It sits here in a stack by my reading chair. It may be time I revisited Doc and his world.

Here is its opening line:
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

It is that nostalgia, that dream, that Steinbeck was hungering for.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I can't tell you how helpful and entertaining A Jane Austen Education (2012) was. Author William Deresiewicz mixes memoir, biographical and historical information about Ms. Austen, and recounts how reading her novels helped change him from a brash, self-absorbed, know-it-all to, at least, a much less brash, self-absorbed, know-it-all. And I say that in the kindest way.

I learned a lot, along with the author, about what Ms. Austen's novels were about: friendship, family, romance, love, making mistakes, wisdom vs. wit, character, feelings, making choices, change, learning, new experiences, boredom, loyalty, inner riches, reading, being useful, community, intimacy, and thinking. 

Wow! I had no idea. And all that in just six novels written before her death in 1817 at the age of forty-one.

Really, this was a fascinating book and one I highly recommend. It won't matter if, like me, you have only read one of Ms. Austen's novels, the education is here. I highlighted many, many passages. I must say that sharing Mr. D's insights and experiences with the characters - Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland, sisters Marianne and Elinor, and Fanny Price - has inspired me to give Our Jane another try. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Books about Books

Kevin Smokler

I love reading books about other books... Clifton Fadiman (The Lifetime Reading Plan), Michael Dirda (anything by him), Nancy Pearl (Book Lust), Anne Fadiman (Ex Libris). 

So it is no surprise that the discovery of a new book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, sent me running to the library to check it out. Though it has been a while since I was in high school and I may or may not have read any of the books author Kevin Smokler revisits, I do believe I will enjoy this book. 

Here is a bit from his introduction:

Either we can be the kind of reader that read Invisible Man in high school and never looked at it again, or we can be the kind of nut who reads it once a quarter and gets angry when someone doesn't appreciate it exactly as much as we do.

Those of us who love the simple act of reading, I suspect, are somewhere in between. Practical Classics is my attempt to find a place for this kind of reader, someone who loves to have worlds opened up by books but finds the act of reading as joyous as fainting into a chocolate cake.

Who knew there would be cake!