Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hallowe'en Party

by Agatha Christie

A Hercule Poirot mystery.  A young girl is drowned in the apple-bobbing bucket at a Halloween party after announcing that she had witnessed a murder.  Poirot investigates and learns that the girl was a habitual liar, but he uncovered a series of crimes and cover-ups in the small town as well.  Soon, Poirot is fitting everything together, but not before the killer strikes again.

This is a fantastic work by a master.  I’d never read a Christie mystery before, but it’s clear she’s an old hand by the time she wrote this one, 1969.  There are a couple of bits that clang awkwardly (repeated comments about the habits of the young and the state of criminal psychiatry), but of course, the book is a product of the era.  In terms of the mystery itself, Christie is eminently fair with the clues, but no less skilled with the red herrings.  The final scenes are done particularly well, with the suspense high and filler kept to a minimum, without any extraneous exposition.

five stars

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

by Walter Mosley

Socrates Fortlow, released from prison after 27 years for murder, tries to live with honor in Watts, without giving in to his murderous rage.  This is a collection of stories that originally appeared elsewhere, but interwoven with new material.  The immensely strong, guilt-ridden Socrates helps rid the neighborhood of a killer, takes in a young boy, convinces a man to stay with his wife, and insists on his rights when dealing with authority like the grocery store where he applies for a job.

It’s an amazing book, strong and blunt yet subtle.  Socrates is an all-too-human character: deeply flawed, but just trying to make his way in a world where the odds are stacked against him and to do the right thing.  He’s more than just a repentant man dealing out rough justice; he represents the anger and frustration inner-city blacks face dealing with crime, drugs, gangs, and absent fathers.  This is gritty and thought-provoking reading.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Fish! Tales: Real Life Stories To Help You Transform Your Workplace And Your Life

by Stephen C. Lunden, Harry Paul, and John Christensen

A self-help book for ailing companies that I read for work. Told as a rather sappy parable in an irritatingly simplistic manner, its message is composed of four parts. One, Choose Your Attitude: even if your career choices are sometimes limited, one can decide to act “world famous” rather than complain. Two, Make Their Day: do something to catch customers’ (or co-workers’) attention and give them something to remember. Three, Be Present: pay attention and act like it. Four, Play: have some fun at work. All of which boils down to: stop complaining and actually do your job. As usual with books intended for managerial types, there’s a few grains of inspiration here wrapped up in an insult to someone with intelligence.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Outsiders

by S.E. Hinton

Set in Tulsa in the '60s, this young adult novel tells of the fights between the greasers and the wealthier Soc kids.  Ponyboy Curtis, a greaser raised by his older brother, gets caught up in a fight that ends with a Soc stabbed to death.  He and Johnny, the scared greaser who did it, go on the run, but return after saving some children from a church fire.  When Johnny dies, pressure builds on Ponyboy and Dallas, his wild friend.

I think I first read this in, maybe, seventh grade – decades ago.  It’s got a few stilted bits of narration that sound corny or misplaced, but hell, Hinton wrote this when she was sixteen.  Given that, this is an incredible piece of work, harrowing and seeming all too real.  Ponyboy’s introspective narration is amazingly effective, weighty with emotion. 

[read twice]

five stars

Monday, June 25, 2007

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

by Lewis Carroll

Alice walks through a mirror and meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Knight, Humpty Dumpty, and the others in a vast game of chess.  She goes across the field and becomes a queen at the end.  This volume is just as funny, madcap and memorable as Alice in Wonderland.  I liked the reappearance of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, now under the names Hatta and Haigha.  It seems clear to me that the White Knight (who is probably the funniest character) is supposed to be Carroll himself, with his “gentle, kind eyes” and distracted, thoughtful air.  But nearly every section has something incredibly clever, or absurdly inventive.  And John Tenniel’s illustrations are unsurpassable. 

[read twice]

five stars

Sunday, June 24, 2007

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

by E.L. Konigsburg

A sixth-grader named Claudia and her clever little brother Jamie run away from home out of boredom, just for some adventure.  They stay in the Metropolitan Museum and decide to try to solve an art mystery: whether Michelangelo sculpted the statue called Angel on exhibit there.

This book won the Newbery, but it is easily the most juvenile of the winners I’ve read this year.  This book has very simplistic episodes and lacks a level that adults can enjoy as well – it’s written directly at children and no higher.  Beyond that, I just didn’t enjoy it – the children do nothing exceptionally clever, and Mrs. Frankweiler is a rather unpleasant old lady, to boot.

[read twice]

two stars

Friday, June 22, 2007

Alice In Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll

Alice falls asleep on a river bank, goes down a rabbit hole, and it’s all nonsense from then on. Truly one of the most inventive and wonderfully, amusingly absurd books in the English language, a delight to adults as well as bright children. The poems are a high point, including “You Are Old, Father William” and “’Tis the Voice Of the Lobster.” Of course, the wordplay (who knew shoes under the sea are made of soles and eels?) and bizarre characters are what keeps this book in the collective consciousness. I especially enjoyed the Kafka-on-Prozac trial of the Knave of Hearts at the end.

[read twice]

five stars

[followed by Through the Looking-Glass]

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Wrinkle In Time

by Madeleine L'Engle

Meg Murry, an ugly duckling and social outcast, and her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace, a super-genius with some kind of empathic power, live in a small town with their mother.  Their long-absent father is a source of town gossip.  When Meg meets Calvin, another “strange” child, and the eerie “witches” Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit, the three children tesseract across space and time to find their father, imprisoned by the evil IT on a faraway planet.

It’s a very strange novel, an allegory about the problem of evil and the grace of God wrapped in social and science fiction.  It won the Newbery, and probably deservedly so for its novelty and depth of imagination at least.  I can see how it would resonate deeply with a shy, introspective, smart child.  For me, it was a bit too quasi-mystical (Mrs. Whatsit becoming a male winged centaur on Uriel?  Wha?), but fine reading overall, with a good resolution.

three stars

Friday, May 11, 2007

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

by Al Franken

The 2004 paperback, with added material on the utterly baseless Fox lawsuit over the subtitle ("a fair and balanced look at the right".  What can one say about this book?  It’s enormously funny but at the same time rage-inducing.  The sheer hypocrisy of the right is one thing, but the fact is that Bush’s administration is destroying American values and the middle class.  That is no exaggeration and no joke.  Franken paints a picture of a Bush who is no amusing bumbler, but a shrewd, if ignorant, politician using a false stupidity as a front.  His deliberate lies and anti-intellectual attitude brought about a war that has cost so far 430 billion dollars, even as he cuts all programs that might possibly benefit American society, and rewards big corporations for despoiling God’s creation.  A truly evil presidency. 

four stars

Saturday, January 20, 2007


by Herman Melville

Having never read this classic but knowing a bit about it, I think I was expecting a dry, meandering discourse.  But what this book is, is possibly the finest American novel.  Seriously, I never believed that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a rival for the title of Great American Novel, but this just might be it.  It has its share of meandering discourse, but also unexpected humor, both high and low; sheer drama; poetry; amusingly dated amateur scientific investigations; tragedy; and, of course, what may be the greatest character in American literature, Ahab.

Ahab is a masterpiece; he’s a compressed ball of madness and drive powered by a monstrous will to power, but Melville tempers his character with flashes of humanity and compassion, flashes which are driven back by Ahab’s overriding thirst for vengeance.  While the entire opus has some of the most eloquent prose this side of Shakespeare no kidding it’s Ahab who gets the really good lines.  “Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye'll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet.”  This is, quite simply, a mind-altering masterpiece.

five stars