The Dead Writers Society

A blog about books and reading

Penguin Classics A to Z: Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Penguin Classics A to Z: Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel HawthorneThe Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published by Penguin Classics on 1852
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 304
Source: Purchased: print book

A superb depiction of a utopian community that cannot survive the individual passions of its members. In language that is suggestive and often erotic, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells a tale of failed possibilities and multiple personal betrayals as he explores the contrasts between what his characters espouse and what they actually experience in an 'ideal' community. A theme of unrealized sexual possibilities serves as a counterpoint to the other failures at Blithedale: class and sex distinctions are not eradicated, and communal work on the farm proves personally unrewarding and economically disastrous. Based in part on Hawthorne's own experiences at Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community, The Blithedale Romance is especially timely in light of renewed interest in self-sufficient and other cooperative societies.

The only other Hawthorne I have read is The Scarlet Letter. In choosing the books to read for this little project, I decided to rely in large part on randomness and serendipity.

The basis of this book was Hawthorne’s time at Brook Farm, a communal living experiment conducted in the 1840’s by several well-known American intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. The experiment was largely a failure in real life, and it was very definitely a failure in fiction.

The main conflict in this book comes from the relationship between the narrator, Miles Coverdale, and three other characters: Zenobia, a young woman of fiery beauty, Priscilla, more delicate than Zenobia, and Hollingsworth. Told from the perspective of Coverdale, we basically have a love triangle between Hollingsworth and Zenobia/Priscilla. Coverdale himself is apparently not romantically attractive to either of the young women.

In time honored fashion, Hawthorne spends most of his time talking about the romantic travails of his characters and very little time actually talking about the process of growing food or surviving in a socialist utopia. It’s all rather silly, really, with altogether too much swooning, weeping, and manly chest thumping.

So, overall, it’s not a difficult read, but it also wasn’t, to me, a particularly compelling one. I’m no fan of wilting flowers in fiction, and Priscilla was wispy and girlish, and spent an excessive amount of time fainting. Zenobia was slightly more interesting, although the absurdity of her pulling an Ophelia in her distress over losing the guy is just really a total fail in my view.

I think I’m probably done with Hawthorne.

There Was A Crooked Man

There Was A Crooked ManCrooked House by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow on 1949
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 236

The Leonides are one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That is until the head of the household, Aristide, is murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection.

Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

This is one of Dame Agatha’s stand-alones – not associated with either of her two primary detectives, Marple and Poirot, or with any of her repeating characters in the vein of Colonel Race or Inspector Battle. I was ready to accuse Ms. Christie of channeling her inner Shirley Jackson with this one, but she wrote it a full decade and a half in advance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of which it reminded me.

This is supposed to have been one of her ten favorites, along with:

And Then There Were None
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
A Murder is Announced
Murder on the Orient Express
The Thirteen Problems
Towards Zero
Endless Night
Ordeal by Innocence
The Moving Finger

I think she had a pretty good sense of her own work, actually, as I tend to agree with her with respect to And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Endless Night. I am personally rather fond of Death on the Nile, which didn’t make the list, and I didn’t find A Murder is Announced to be among her best. I’ve not read The Thirteen Problems, Towards Zero, Ordeal by Innocence or The Moving Finger. Roger Ackroyd was a solid puzzle, but just doesn’t make my top list.

I highly, highly recommend this one. It is gripping – I inhaled it in less than an afternoon. It is written in first person narration, dependent upon the perspective of a young man who is an outsider looking into the Leonides family – the fiance of Sophia, beloved granddaughter of Sophie. The patriarch of the family, the successful Aristides has been murdered, and every member of the clan, living under the roof of the crooked house, is a suspect:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Everyone in the house is just a tiny bit off kilter. This is really a character study of a true sociopath, a person who lacks a sense of empathy, and who is able to look at his/her fellow human being as an insect, under the microscope, pulling off the wings to see what will happen next.

I associate Christie so strongly with Poirot and Marple that I forget she was an accomplished story-teller in other contexts. As in Endless Night and And Then There Were None, some of her best writing comes in her stand-alone tales.

The details:

Year of publication: 1949
Setting/Locations: primarily London
Narration: first person
Investigator: Charles Hayward (non-recurring)
Motive: pure sociopathy & curiousity
Murderer: [Yeah, right]

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot # 2)

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot # 2)Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
on 1923
Pages: 249
Source: Scribd

An urgent cry for help brings Hercule Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies facedown in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And for whom was the impassioned love letter in the pocket? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.…

Oh, Hastings. You ninny.

This is the second Hercule Poirot novel – and in spite of the title has almost nothing to do with golf. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since I find golf slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, but it was almost a deal breaker. I did not want to read this mystery. Based on the cover, I assumed it would be about a British guy in knickers geting clonked on the head with a five iron on the back nine. I read it purely for completeness sake – and I am glad I did.

The only connection to golf is that the body was buried in a location that was soon to become a hazard on a new golf course. Also, it is set in France, which I found totally baffling since I have never, not even once in my entire life, considered the possibility that there might be golf courses in France. So, I learned something there.

The mystery itself is quite a clever little mystery, with lots of misdirection. There is a funny rivalry between the vain Poirot and the equally vain and condescending Gireau, who is the inspector investigating the case for the French police. Poirot is frequently piqued at being mocked by Monsieur Gireau, and is able to prove his superiority in satisfying fashion. Hastings, though, is a total dolt. He gets mixed up with an acrobat known to him only as Cinderella, and ends up in a not-even-remotely convincing romance. It is silly, although Cinderella ends up proving her courage in a rather compelling way.

One of the things about Agatha Christie is that she has no qualms about depicting her female characters as just as venal, just as sneaky, just as mean, just as smart, just as strong, just as wilful, and just as brave as her male characters. It’s refreshing, really. Her character studies aren’t terribly detailed, but she stays away from stereotyping based on gender.

On the whole, I would put this in the midrange of Christie’s work. Not dazzling clever, like some, but still enjoyable.

Penguin Classics A to Z: The Ambassadors

Penguin Classics A to Z: The AmbassadorsThe Ambassadors by Henry James
Published by Penguin Classics on 1903
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 544

"I've come, you know, to make you break with everything, neither more nor less, and take you straight home'

Concerned that her son Chad may have become involved with a woman of dubious reputation, the formidable Mrs Newsome sends her 'ambassador' Strether from Massachusetts to Paris to extricate him. Strether's mission, however, is gradually undermined as he falls under the spell of the city and finds Chad refined rather than corrupted by its influence and that of his charming companion, Madame de Vionnet. As the summer wears on, Mrs Newsome concludes that she must send another envoy to confront the errant Chad--and a Strether whose view of the world has changed profoundly. One of the greatest of James's late works, The Ambassadors is a subtle and witty exploration of different American responses to a European environment.

Part of a series of new Penguin Classics editions of Henry James's works, this edition contains a chronology, further reading, glossary, notes and an introduction by Adrian Poole discussing The Ambassadors in the context of James's other works on Americans in Europe in Europe, and the novel's portrayal of Paris.

I collect Penguin Classics, black spine edition. They are readily accessible, and I really love the way that they look on my shelf (someday I will post a pic!). There are, believe it or not, more than 1300 titles in the series, spanning centuries and continents.

So, I have a small, but growing, collection of their titles. In an effort to start reading my own library, I’ve decided to do my own version of the A to Z challenge, using the first letter of the first *real* word of the title (i.e., not A, An or The) to pick my books. Of those, X & Z are going to problems – I’ve decided in advance to accept a book that contains those two letters in any part of the title or author name (which opens up Zola, for “Z”).

In any event, I will now get to the point. My first book was The Ambassadors by Henry James.

I am not particularly a fan of Henry James, although I’ve read very few of his books. I recall reading, and rather enjoying, The Portrait of a Lady. I think I’ve possibly read The Bostonians. To me, his work is reserved to the point of impenetrability, and nearly completely emotionless.

Which is exactly how I felt about The Ambassadors. No one ever really does anything – the writing is bloodlessly beautiful, and unaffecting. There were moments, for me, where it felt like the characters might consider doing something (anything!), and then they never did.

Henry James makes me feel like I am missing the point. It’s not unenjoyable. I may read more, just to see if a deeper understanding of his writing helps me to get him. But, generally, I much prefer his contemporary Edith Wharton. Anything but bloodless, reading Wharton is, to me, like opening a vein.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha ChristieSparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
Published by Harper Collins on 1944
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 288
Source: Scribd

Six people reunite to remember beautiful Rosemary Barton, who died nearly a year before. The loving sister, the long-suffering husband, the devoted secretary, the lovers, the betrayed wife - none of them can forget Rosemary.

But did one of them murder her?

I listened to this one on audiobook – rather out of order, as it turns out, since this is the last of the Colonel Race books. I’ve not read Colonel Race 1 through 4, so, obviously, I didn’t read them in the right order.

But, that’s all right. Because Agatha wrote in the decades before the cliff hanger, and she didn’t really do multi-book narrative arcs. So, it’s all good.

My husband and I drove down to Eugene, Oregon today for the spring scrimmage. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, warm-ish, and Autzen stadium was full of Duck fans. It was really a great time. For our drive, I recapped him on what had happened so far in the book, and we queued it up. We didn’t quite finish it before we got home, so we muted the golf and finished it up in the comfort of our family room.

I honestly had paid little attention to the fact that Christie wrote more than Poirot/Marple books. I organized up a Christie reread project on my primary blog yesterday, and was stunned to learn that she had written a few more Inspector Battle books (I loved The Secret of Chimneys, after all), a short series with a pair of sleuths name Tommy and Tuppence (I’ve never read any of these), the Colonel Race books, as well as a few straight up stand-alones, and a whole bunch of short story collections.

Nary a Poirot or Marple to be found in Sparkling Cyanide.

I wouldn’t call this one of her best, but we both really enjoyed it. It was fun to listen with someone, because we were able to bounce solutions – the crazier the better – off of each other. The solution was clever (aren’t they always) but firmly guessable. I figured it out before the end, although not a lot before the end. There is both a mechanical puzzle to solve (how did the cyanide get into the champagne glass) and an identification puzzle (the whodunnit).

There’s even a bit of a romance thrown in, just for fun. It’s a Christie romance – not particularly developed, little focus, although it is important to the solution.

Nowhere near as brilliant as Murder on the Orient Express, not as charming as The Secret of Chimneys, and not as confounding as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But still a lot of fun.

The Audio-files: A Christie Re-Read Is Undertaken

The Audio-files: A Christie Re-Read Is Undertaken by Agatha Christie

Several months ago, I joined scribd. This was around the time that they added audiobooks to their catalog. I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie since my youth – my parents owned a number of her detective stories and I read them all. There are so many of them that it is, truly, impossible for me to remember which ones I’ve read, and which ones I have not. About a decade ago, I was in Barnes & Noble, and they had a display set up of her most enduring and popular works, reissued in hardcover. I fell in love with these books, and spent many months collecting them. The covers were deliciously matchy-matchy:

Christie collage

I’m not sure how many I ended up with, as since that time, my daughter also fell in love with the classic detective story, and has absconded with some of them to college. I do want them back, but they provide her with a delightful escape from the rigors of chem and bio, so she has them with my blessing. I am now unable to find this series, so I’ve begun filling in my collection with the Harper Collins trade paperback editions, which aren’t as pretty, but they have nice covers, and they also match nicely.

I have a thing with matching books. It’s an illness, actually.

In any event, back to scribd. When I was browsing their audiobooks, I noticed that Dame Agatha was smashingly well-represented. There were dozens of audiobooks available.

Audio   Agatha Christie   Scribd

See what I mean. That’s just a few of the audiobooks I dragged into my personal Audio: Agatha Christie folder.

I don’t drive a lot, so I haven’t really spent a lot of time listening to audiobooks. However, recently, I’ve been listening while I clean, and in the dribs and drabs of time I spend alone in the car. My daughter is about 2 hours away at college, so driving down to pick her up is prime listening time. I’ve also been trying to get back into crafting, especially cross-stitch, and listening to an audiobook while I stitch or knit is a great way to double my pleasure. So, I’ve been listening to Christie’s brilliant detective stories.

The fact that many of them are rereads by no means reduces the pleasure. Christie was an amazing plotter – one of the best ever, in my estimation. Rereading her books enables me to catch many of the clues that she plants that lead to the ultimate resolution, which are easily missed the first (and even second) time through. In addition, listening to a book is an entirely different experience than reading it. My consumption is forcibly slowed, so I’m not able to race to the finish. And the books are a great length for listening – between six and nine hours long. Long enough to be immersive, but short enough that they don’t take me weeks to finish. So far, I’ve listened to: The Murder on the Orient Express, The Secret of Chimneys, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’ve just started Sparkling Cyanide, which I am quite certain is new to me.

Do the Dew(ey) – 24 hour readathon Hour 3 update

Dewey leaf

Well, it is hour 3 for most participants, but it is hour one for me. Being on the West Coast, I just can’t drag my bones out of bed at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. So, here I am, around 30 minutes into my #readathon!

Opening meme:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

I am in Oregon City, Oregon, which best known for being the end of the Oregon trail! Also, we possess a municipal elevator that hovers like a space ship over downtown.

OC municipal

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

I’ve themed my read a bit, with fairy and other fantastical tales. I think I am most looking forward to Bitter Greens by Kate Forsythe. I’ve heard such amazing things about it!

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

Chocolate caramel pretzels!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

I have to interrupt my reading fun this evening, because my rock-loving, guitar-playing fifteen year old son has a concert!

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

This isn’t precisely my first, but my first coincided with the Kathleen Hale debacle, so it wasn’t very successful. I’m looking forward to fun, community, and reading.

Classics Spin Spun


And gave me The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins! I really liked both The Moonstone and The Woman in White, so odds are good for me on this one.

Classics Spin!

I love the classics spins! I select 20 books, number them one through 20, and then next Monday my friends at the Classics Club will pick a book for me. My list:

They are in reverse order! Hover over each book cover to see the assigned number.

Reading Political Satire Aloud to a Teen: George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Reading Political Satire Aloud to a Teen: George Orwell’s Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell
on 1945
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 152
Source: Borrowed: print book

Tired of their servitude to man, a group of farm animals revolt and establish their own society, only to be betrayed into worse servitude by their leaders, the pigs, whose slogan becomes: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." This 1945 satire addresses the socialist/ communist philosophy of Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Guitar Hero, my 14 year old son, is not an abstract thinker. In the first place, he is 14, and a boy. As well, he was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, which manifests itself in several ways, one of which is that he doesn’t really do well with abstraction.

So, when he was assigned Animal Farm as part of his social studies unit on the Russian/Chinese revolutions, it made sense that we would read and discuss it together. This turned out to be an awesome way to gain a deeper understanding of Orwell’s classic satire-masquerading-as-a-fable-about-anthropormorphisized-animals. For both of us.

Because even though my son doesn’t really do abstraction, he had several flashes of insight in this book that were amazing to observe. And the opportunity to talk through things like abuse of power, and corruption, and hypocrisy, and propaganda with him was a lot of fun for both of us (more for me, though, probably. Lol).

This is the part where I point out that Orwell was really brilliant in his ability to reduce totalitarianism to a few pen strokes, a pig in a dress, poor Boxer the draft horse who gave his soul, and ultimately his life, to an ideal that was never going to be anything other than corrupted, and some ever changing rules about equality and animalism.

I wondered if he would get that breathtaking moment, at the end, when the “commandments” have been reduced to simply one:

All Animals Are Equal.
Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

And he did. He totally, totally did. Which was amazing.

Rating Report
Overall: five-stars
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