How We Fight For Our Lives and The Secret Adversary: 20 Books of Summer, Books #3 & #4

61386777268__a9b5ee01-86d3-421b-9d93-e6cd106df7e6How We Fight For Our Lives is a 190-page memoir by poet Saeed Jones that is electric and unflinching. I read it in one day because I found it so compelling. It’s a coming of age story about being a Black gay boy and later young man from Texas, as well as an incredibly moving account of his mother’s untimely death from heart failure. (Get those tissues ready, readers.) I had enjoyed Jones’s poetry before, which is what attracted me to this memoir. Also, I follow him on Twitter and find him insightful and entertaining. He’s a lyrical and vivid writer. He doesn’t shy away from the uglier parts of his journey, such as when a man he has a sexual encounter with attempts to beat him to death because he can’t deal with his own internalized homophobia. His account of his maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist religion, where at one point her preacher asks God to “put every ailment, every disease on (Saeed’s Buddhist mother) until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit,” is harrowing and tragic, especially in light of his mother’s heart condition.

I made myself a promise: even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own.

Maybe she had been right about me after all. Worldly: “concerned with material values or ordinary life rather than a spiritual existence.” Worldly: “experienced and sophisticated.”

Of course I wanted to see the world, to experience its fullness. I wanted to be a real part of it, rather than the passing shadow I so often felt like. I wanted to devour the world.

I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.

If this feeling was what my grandmother meant, I wasn’t sure I would survive it after all.

But I couldn’t turn to her now – not anymore – to name whatever was having it’s way with me. So we drove on, an old woman and her grandson, alone together, making their way through one last gorgeous summer evening in Memphis.

A haunting, at times hard to read but so compelling that I couldn’t stop reading, memoir. (This was my first of five “off the list” picks for the 20 Books of Summer challenge.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A 180-degree turn now to my fourth challenge pick, Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922.) Fiction Fan put this one on my radar and I’m grateful! It was very good fun, what I’d call a real romp. It features the terrific twosome of Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Crowley, childhood friends who reconnected during the First World War, when Tuppence was a hospital volunteer and Tommy was recovering from an injury. A few years later, both young and broke, they run into one another on the street and hatch a plan to run an advertisement and become adventurers for hire.

“Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”

“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”

They soon become embroiled in a caper involving some very sensitive and important documents that were passed to a young lady named Jane Finn on the ship Lusitania as it sank. The papers and the young woman are both missing, and it’s vital that the “good guys” find both before the “bad guys,” who are a shadowy international crime syndicate with Bolshevik leanings led by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Brown. They want to destabilize the government which is already under pressure from Labour unrest. Tommy and Tuppence get themselves into one tight spot after another and it’s very entertaining watching them use their wits to dig themselves out. This novel had a zippy pace and energy that I haven’t encountered in the Poirot and Marple mysteries I’ve read so far. I was completely dumbfounded by the twist ending, suspecting the entirely wrong person of malfeasance. Christie is once again the queen of misdirection. I will definitely read more of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these? Do they appeal? How is your 20 Books of Summer Challenge going, if you’re participating? I’m on my fifth book, which I hope to finish tonight.

Sunday Afternoon Bookish Ramblings

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Big Reading Life Manor, and I think Spring is finally on its way. We’ve had a few sunny days here and there, enough to matter, and daffodils are blooming. On my walk in the park earlier today I noticed blossoms on the trees (don’t ask me what kind of trees, I don’t know) and that made me happy. I will seek out and clutch any tiny happy thing I can find these days, and being outside, blue skies, and new life blooming will definitely fit the bill. And as I’m writing this the ice cream truck just went past our house! That’s DEFINITELY a sign of Spring!

I got my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds yesterday. As usual I’ve purchased way more seeds than I have space in my yard for. But seeds are cheap and dreams are big, and who knows how crazy with planting I’ll get this year? It’s still about a month too soon to plant anything really, except maybe the peas (Tom Thumb, which are supposed to grow easily in pots) and the arugula (which I’ve never tried to grow.) I’m such a haphazard gardener but I’m a Master Yard Putterer.

What have I been reading lately? Well, I just finished Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, which is the fourth Miss Marple Book. Jackie @ Death By Tsundoku asked me a few weeks ago if I planned on reading ALL of the Agatha Christie novels, and until she asked me I don’t exactly think I had a plan to. But I was like, “Yeah, I think I DO want to read all of her novels!” And another reading goal is born. It will take me years, but that’s fine with me. There’s nothing like an Agatha Christie for fun escapism, if murder mysteries are your thing. The Moving Finger was good, about smutty anonymous letters being sent to virtually everyone in a small town, and the perilous aftermath of that. Miss Marple doesn’t even show up until 2/3 of the way through and that’s was fine with me, because I enjoyed the narrator, Jerry Burton, so much as a character. The thing a modern reader has to watch out for with Christie is that sometimes she’ll slide in a racist or homophobic line or two here and there, and it sort of jars you for a minute. I note them, think, “Yikes!” and move on, remembering that in 1942 things were different. On the plus side, it confirms how far we’ve come, right?

I listened to Colton Whitehead’s poker memoir The Noble Hustle through my library’s Libby app, and that was fun. He reads it himself and I liked his voice very much. A magazine paid him to enter the World Series of Poker and write about it. I’m not very interested or knowledgeable about poker, so the interest in this for me was mostly in learning more about one of my favorite authors. He’s funny! Darkly, cynically funny, and his main target is himself. I can see now why his fiction feels so cerebral sometimes… he freely admits to being someone who is “anhedonic,” unable to feel pleasure. Which is one reason he has such a good poker face – he’s “half dead inside!” This is the kind of sardonic humor Whitehead uses throughout the book. You get the impression that his glass is perpetually half empty but you can’t help but like him anyway. If you’re interested in this memoir I highly recommend listening to the audiobook.

Currently I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety for my Classics Club and Buddy Read with Rebecca and Smithereens. I’m about 40% through. I LOVE IT. That’s all I’ll say for now.

What’s up next? I’ve got a stack a mile high, as I’ve been going nuts putting library books on hold lately. It’s nice to have a lot to choose from, isn’t it? Besides the above stack I’ve got Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden, Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, and my own purchased copy of Jenny Offill’s latest book Weather. I hardly know what to pick up next! Well, perhaps I should start with one of the Irish books seeing as how this is Reading Ireland Month and I haven’t even started, whoops!

How is everyone? Are we able to read with all the political news and coronavirus stuff going on? I know my concentration has been crap the past few weeks because of it. I hope you all are staying well and have a good tall stack of books to keep you company even if you aren’t. I hope to catch up on reading all of your blog posts soon. Be well and hold on – Spring is coming!

Five Sentence Reviews : Two Classics and a New Best Seller

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G.Wells

This is short – my edition was 131 pages including an Introduction and a Forward by Margaret Atwood. It was descriptive, atmospheric, and unsettling, and the beginning is mysterious enough to hook the reader. I can see it’s rightful place as a science fiction classic and also how it’s exploration of science and ethics would make for great classroom discussion. But I can’t summon much enthusiasm for it. It’s pretty bleak and parts of it are very disturbing. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple #3)

Another short book- my paperback was 207 pages- but this one felt MUCH longer. Intriguing premise: a young attractive blond woman is found strangled in a country estate library and of course there are many suspects. Miss Marple didn’t make much of an impression on me here and she disappears for much of the book. The end provides a great twist but it took forever to get there. I love Christie’s other great detective, Hercule Poirot – am I just being too hard on Miss Marple? ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

This was delightful; it reminded me of Elinor Lipman. A baseball player struggling with the “yips” and a youngish widow who isn’t exactly grieving meet when one rents an apartment in the other’s overly big house. Sparks smolder slowly and eventually burst into flames. I appreciated the modesty with which the romantic scenes were written ( I don’t really want a play by play.) This was a cute, smartly written novel about the value of good therapy, true friendship, and two people on the journey to wholeness ( but not co-dependent!) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A request for you Christie fans out there: What is your favorite Miss Marple book?

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (#20BooksofSummer book 5)

408478My aunt is the one who started me on Agatha Christie.  She gave me an anthology with five Hercule Poirot novels in one (Death on the Nile, Murder On the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Thirteen at Dinner) when I was about 12 or 13.  I read The ABC Murders first and I was hooked.  I fell in love with the way Christie constructed her puzzles and the way Poirot assembled all the clues to solve the murders.  I loved Poirot’s rather healthy self-esteem and his friend Hasting’s amusement at him.  Even back then I wasn’t one to binge-read an author, though, so I didn’t make it a point to read every Christie.  I’d read one here and there throughout the years, which is why it’s taken me until now, some 28 years later, to read the very first Poirot mystery published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. After enjoying this one so much, I think it’s high time I filled in the gaps in my Christie reading!

Set in the midst of World War One, the book is narrated by Captain Hastings, on leave from the war and at loose ends.  He meets an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites him to stay for a while with his family at Styles, their estate in Essex.  The reader knows from the beginning that something shocking has happened by Hasting’s opening narration:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.  Nevertheless, in view of the worldwide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story.    

140290Cavendish explains to Hastings that his stepmother, Mrs. Cavendish, who raised him and his brother Lawrence from the time they were young, has recently remarried.  Hastings is taken aback – a quick mental calculation tallies her age at about seventy (gasp!) John explains that everyone in the family, and even Mrs. Cavendish’s stalwart “factotum, companion, Jack of all trades” Evie Howard, disdains the marriage and the new husband, and thinks it’s nothing but a money grab. We are also told that both Cavendish brothers are hard up for money, even though their stepmother has always been generous to them through the years.  So immediately the reader is alerted that there is much tension in the house at Styles, and we are invited to dislike Mr. Inglethorp, “the rotten little bounder,” even before we meet him.  Christie ends the first chapter with a delicious bit of foreboding spookiness:

A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind.  Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.

Soon we are introduced the the inimitable Monsieur Poirot, who is staying in the village with some of his fellow countrymen – Belgians – who are refugees from the war.  Mrs. Cavendish’s generosity has allowed them a place of refuge.  We get a marvelous physical description of Poirot’s appearance and fastidiousness (“I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”) but all too soon he is gone and we are back at Styles with Hastings.  The very next night Mrs. Cavendish awakens everyone in the household with her strangled cries of distress, but the doors are all locked from the inside.  When the men break down the door they find her convulsing, apparently dying from some sort of poisoning.  With so many suspects and so much tension in the air, it is up to the famous Belgian detective Poirot to start assembling the facts.  When Hastings tells him of the events of the previous night, Poirot  humorously tells him, “You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully.  Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable!  But I make allowances – you are upset.”  I enjoyed a good chuckle at that one.

This was a smart, delightful beginning to Hercule Poirot’s mysteries, and I can’t believe it took me all this time to read it.  I have to say that I was once again bested by Christie’s brilliance and had no clue who was behind the murder.  Hastings and Poirot have a playful, light and easy rapport, with Hastings standing in for the clueless reader as Poirot sheds light on the case.  Poirot gently needles him throughout and Hastings exhibits a generous spirit while an easy target.  There was one glaring instance of casual racism that took this twenty-first century reader out of the narrative for a moment.  It involves the discovery of a chest of dress-up clothes and disguises that the Cavendish family use from time to time during a “dress-up night.”  Apparently it was great fun to put on wigs and costumes to impersonate people of other ethnicities.  I know that this was published in 1920, so I make allowances for that sort of thing, but it still jarred me for a moment.

Yet it was a minor detraction from an otherwise superb mystery, and a grand introduction to a classic detective and his straight man.  A glance at the Goodreads list of Poirot mysteries tells me that I’ve many more books yet to enjoy, and I’m thrilled at the prospect.  Just don’t expect me to read them all anytime soon!

So this was my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer.  I am starting to doubt that I’ll be able to complete all 20 by the beginning of September, and I’m certain that if I do, I won’t have reviewed them all by then.  My blogging pace this summer has been glacial.  (I’ve made my peace with that – I think.)  If you’re participating in Cathy’s annual tradition, how is it going for you?  Are you on pace to complete all 20 in time?

 

 

The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life.  In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs.  There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot.  It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain.  My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school.  She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked.  This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple?  And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.

murder-at-the-vicarageIn any case, I’m glad I finally tried one.  This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead.  I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one.  The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.

It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work.  I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times.  The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny.  He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,

“My duty,” said Griselda.  “My duty as the Vicaress.  Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”

“Who is coming?”

Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.

“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”

“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said.  “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”

“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.

My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me.  It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long!  I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible.  Or perhaps it’s just this particular title.  Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?

Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it.  There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer.  The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed.  She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her.  As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot.  I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it.  There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read.  I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers.  No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.