Sunday, May 31, 2009

Books read in May

Notes & Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre, Eugene Ionesco (translator Donald Watson)
A collection not only of Ionesco's own writings, but which also includes a famous (in its day) exchange of letters and articles between Ionesco and his critics. This is a highlight of the book and a valuable piece of commentary on Ionesco's theatre. It's nice to read it in the original English - in the book's original French, this section had to be translated... Touch of irony there.
This is another book that replaces the French version on my shelves. The funny thing is, there was one specific Ionesco quote that I remembered from this book, concerning his fascination with language: "Ils se parlent. Ils se comprennent. C'est ca qui m'etonnait." ("People talk to each other - they understand each other. It's that which astonished me.") But damned if I can find it anywhere in here. I can't even find it on Google now. Has the memory cheated?

There then followed a bout of Poirot-mania. The Lovely Jo and I have progressed from watching ITV3's patchy Poirot repeats to renting and buying the DVDs (and renting other "1930s detective" DVDs, of which more may follow), to re-reading the books.

There's a catch here in that at the start of the month we didn't own any of the books - readers may recall that I once went through a Christie phase, but all the books went down to the second-hand shop years ago for reasons of space. The books that both of us have read this month and are likely to read over the next few months as well are therefore a mix of library copies, friends' copies, and a few select titles that I decided I would actually like to own after all.

(I've discovered a very attractive edition of Christie's novels that was apparently sold as a partwork about five years ago, several hundred copies of which have since ended up in second-hand bookshops. However, as seems to be the way with partworks, the later issues had smaller runs and it doesn't look as though anybody who stuck it out as far as Curtain is prepared to sell their copy second-hand. I'm keeping my eye on Abebooks, but in the meantime a cheap paperback edition is holding its place on the shelf.)

They're pretty good reading - light, entertaining, only a couple of hundred pages long. They're like book candy. You can pop a couple in in a week without difficulty.

Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, Agatha Christie
This one's a keeper. I could go on about it all day - the murderer's unusual method, the startling ending (so who's really won - Poirot? the murderer? both?), the whole dramatic scope of it (it's really Poirot vs the very idea of murder itself, as much as it's Poirot vs the murderer).
The only problem with it is that it's very definitely set in the 1940s (when it was written and then locked away, just in case Christie didn't survive WW2 - it seems to be set just after WW2, although at the time this must just have been wishful thinking on Christie's part), which doesn't fit too well with Poirot's continued career during the '50s, '60s and '70s. Apparently this is a well-known problem within Christie fandom, which most fans prefer to address by fudging the dates in this one book and simply pretending that he wasn't over 100 years old when he died. Personally I prefer ITV's solution of setting the entire rest of the series in an endlessly repeating 1936.

The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot, Anne Hart
Looked like it might be an interesting overview of the Poirot stories, but it doesn't go far enough for my liking. It's descriptive, but not interpretative (it doesn't even try to tackle the Poirot age problem). It does, however, give a good analysis of Poirot's character, and it's very light reading. Also manages to avoid spoiling the endings of the books, for the most part.

Murder in the Mews, Agatha Christie
Four novellas - or at least, three novellas and a moderately long short story. The short story is fairly negligible, but the other three are pretty good.

Mrs McGinty's Dead, Agatha Christie
Better than I'd remembered. It's got quite a lively sense of humour, which contrasts with ITV's idea that their more recent adaptations should be darker to reflect the allegedly more serious tone of the later books. Also gives a very good picture of small town life in the 1950s, and the everyday characters are a profound contrast with the upper class set of Poirot's '30s adventures.

The Clocks, Agatha Christie
First time of reading this one. A little bit turgid, and Poirot doesn't even show up until halfway through. When he does show up, he's on a dare to solve the case without leaving his flat, so in effect this is Christie trying to please the readers by including Poirot while pleasing herself by sidelining him. Poirot also plucks the final revelations out of the air rather more than he usually does, which makes for unsatisfying reading.
What is interesting is the way that this book comes across as a spy thriller (but thankfully not in the line of Christie's other, slightly dodgy spy thrillers) for most of its length. It almost feels like an attempt to spoof James Bond, who at the time of publication (1963) would have been stealing the crime-lovin' public's attention away from Christie's old-fashioned detectives. The Colonel Beck material is brilliant, though. I'd love to see him turn up in a Jasper Fforde novel. He's so obviously a Jurisfiction agent working undercover.

Three Act Tragedy, Agatha Christie
A middling novel. For no particular reason it features Mr Satterthwaite, crime fiction's greatest undiagnosed split-personality sufferer, although he takes a back seat to Poirot and doesn't actually solve anything here. Bizarrely Christie tells you right up front exactly whodunnit, and then trusts you to forget she said anything. Hey ho. Even if she hadn't, it'd be pretty easy to guess it outright.

The Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie
The second ever Poirot novel, and the one in which she marries off Captain Hastings. The prose is still at an early stage of development - characters and the narrator repeat entire phrases within paragraphs of each other in a way that's somewhat awkward for the reader. There's also a certain amount of melodramatic shennanigans between Hastings, the future Mrs Hastings and Poirot that doesn't sit too well with me. I'm inclined to think that the ITV scriptwriter made the right changes with this one. Can't really see the love interest's daring denouement acrobatics working in any way.

Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Halfway through this one. First time of reading, but I know how it ends thanks to the TV adaptation. So far the prose is good and the backstory is only a little bit improbable (it'll get more so by the end...). Subject to a final opinion after finishing, I'd place this in the second tier of Christies.
Edit: Yes, not quite the top ten but a high second-ranker.


Christopher Pittard said...

I think I bought the Anne Hart book from Exeter Library as one of their "come to the end of its shelf life" bargains. Still haven't read it, though. Exeter Library was kinda useful for that kind of thing - strikingly so on the occasions that I bagged the whole twelve volumes of Anthony Powell's *A Dance to the Music of Time* for £2 and Perec's *Life: A User's Manual* for - wait for it - 60p. And the best thing was that these last two weren't even battered after years of use; they were brand new, didn't even have Dewey catalogue stickers on them, and were clearly a "wait a minute, nobody's going to actually borrow these" extravagances on the part of some junior librarian who got a shot at the budget. Exeter readers' loss was my bargain price gain, and also a contributing factor to the current fiction waiting list of 285 books on my shelves.

I digress... Charles Osborne's *The Life and Crimes (ya see?) of Agatha Christie* is a nice biographically inflected guide to the novels which doesn't lapse into hagiography, although there are occasional flashes of the Daily Telegraph in the prose (I nearly said that's true of Christie anyway, before remembering that compared to Dorothy L Sayers, Christie is practically Lenin). And you should look up Pierre Bayard's *Who Killed Roger Ackroyd*, a post-structuralist (yet also Freudian) reworking of... well, y'know. I bought the hardback before realising that the paperback would come out as a pastiche of my beloved green Penguins.

Speaking of which... your choice of edition disappoints me, Toon. I know the partwork of which you speak, and if the stock of second hand bookstores and charity shops are anything to go by, the publishers seriously overestimated the popularity of *Murder on the Orient Express.* Other than the classic green Penguin, I'd strongly recommend the Fontana editions from the 1970s. Readily available in any second hand bookshop, same text as all the other editions, but with added super-freaky cover art. And I know you'll like that.

John Toon said...

I already have looked up Bayard, Aguers you tuppenny tart - you made me buy his book in Hay that time! Will keep 'em peeled for Osborne... perhaps the library...

What, if you know, of Robert Barnard's "A Talent to Deceive"?

You're bang on about the excess of Orient Express (I think it must have been one of the early promotional editions - the first couple that flood the newsagents before it goes subscription only).

But I think you misapprehend my taste in book covers. I favour the abstract and simplistic - the partwork edition's monochrome covers with the little inset photographs and sans serif lettering please me very much. The marbled-effect inside covers are a nice little extra. The '70s Fontana covers, I've always found a little too busy. (Downright slapdash in some cases - what the hell's happening on the front of Sad Cypress?)

Now I did have a fondness for the '90s Fontana covers - the pastel colours, the small artistic rendering of representative objects on the cover, the Deco lettering... I used to arrange them on my shelf in chromatic order. Is that so very wrong?

John Toon said...

Sorry, not Sad Cypress - Nemesis. Should have checked that one before I commented.

Christopher Pittard said...

Well, maybe I should have known better - in SF terms I'm certain you'd prefer the understated enigmatism of, say, a Christopher Priest cover than an airbrushed robot grasping an exploding planet (my SF knowledge doesn't reach so far as to provide a likely name for that kind of cover, so add your own). Having said that, it's damn tricky to see what's happening at all on my copy of *The Glamour.* Which is half the point, I suppose.

The 1990s (or at least, late 1980s onwards, since I'm sure I had one in '89) Fontanas - I can appreciate that, and have a clutch myself, although the 1990s HarperCollins editions account for most of mine (again, all kinds of colours, but the Deco cover typeface ditched in favour of something a little more London Undergroundy. As far as I can see, though, the texts are just the Fontana ones in new livery). Mind you, I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that it's a bit too studied a look, and may instead gradually replace them with green Penguins or, where this isn't possible (i.e. anything after the 1950s, I think), go for all out Fontana freakiness. A portrait of the novelist as an ELP cover...

You bought the Bayard in Hay, at my insistence? Are you sure this wasn't one of your visits without me? Either that, or this has completely dropped out of my mindbox. I know nothing of Barnard except seeing a couple of his books around and thinking they looked a bit, well, *Midsomer Murders.* I may be wrong. Staying with the interwar stuff, I would instead point you in the direction of John Dickson Carr and his not entirely convincing alter ego Carter Dickson, who built a career on the locked room mystery, impossible crime, etc. I would look at some online bibliographies first because the variance in quality is, to be honest, violent; *The Hollow Man* is usually seen as the best, complete with postmodernist chapter in which the detective breaks off to lecture about the locked room genre and admits that they're all in a novel and there's no point pretending otherwise. Now come on - I know you'll like that.

Speaking of postmodernist shenanigans, what think you of Alasdair Gray? I read *Poor Things* a couple of months ago and will be finishing *Lanark* imminently...

John Toon said...

Yes, that's about the size of it - when you love a genre whose line in "realistic" painted book covers extends further than perhaps it should into the Land of Embarrassing Images, it tends to put you off "realistic" painted book covers in general. Nothing like the starkly coloured image of a woman with naked and physically impossible breasts quailing in front of a tentacle to put you off reading a book in public.

Incidentally, the technical term for "that kind of cover" is "shit". We in the know would describe it as a "shit book cover". Well, maybe not all of us. Some would describe it as "kitsch" and pretend that it's good - it takes all sorts.

(Extra-incidentally, there was a seminar item at the World SF Convention a few years ago, led by two women and a bra designer, devoted to critiquing an SF artist whose particular forte was (and, I believe, is) images of women with breasts larger than their heads. This was the exact same year that he won the Hugo Award for Best Artist. I won't repeat what I said at the time. I think they probably said it all, and better.)

The '90s HC Christies - are these the ones with the very blocky artwork covers? I didn't like those at all. The cover for "Mrs McGinty's Dead", in particular, is an abomination. Now the more recent HCs with the out-of-focus photographic covers and the little "POIROT" embossed on the bottom corner - now you're talking. The downside with those being that they're about twice as thick as any other edition owing to their large print and the fact that each chapter has to start on a fresh right hand page. They also seem to have more than their share of typos. I wouldn't want to actually own one.

Funnily enough, I've got "The Hollow Man" on order from the library right now. I've been meaning to, and it'll make a little break in the middle of the Poirots. Alasdair Gray I know nothing about.