The low point of my reading year – I truly liked only two of the five books read during this period. The tone was established by starting off the month of April with one of the worst books I have ever read….
1. Drood – Dan Simmons
Stranded over the weekend in Fresno for work, I picked this up on a whim . The premise sounded interesting – exploring the story underlying Dickens’ unfinished last work “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” from the viewpoint of Dickens’ good friend and fellow novelist, Wilkie Collins (who wrote the fantastic “The Lady in White” and the better-known “The Moonstone”). However, I have rarely read such a distasteful book (although Zafon’s awful “The Angel’s Game” springs to mind). While I am fine with the premise that Collins was jealous or envious of Dickens, surely there is a way to present his character as something more than a sniveling, repulsive, evil wretch. The character consistently repeats his complaints, provides way too much personal bodily information, and displays a series of heartless characteristics in his dealings with the women of his household. While some of this could be put down to his opium addiction (perhaps also responsible for the repeated hallucinations of a green woman and his irrational fear of some other supernatural thing that lives in his kitchen staircase, to which he fed his maid, but is not further explained), the reader does not need to be constantly hit on the head with this – we all knew of Collins’ drug problems before reading this novel. Somewhere in all this is the actual plot about a gaunt death-like figure named Drood, but this storyline devolves into Dickens’ character chasing some abracadabra about Egyptian cults living under the strees of London, scarab beetles, and killing dogs in lime pits. If any of this were tied together by the cult myth, it might be interesting, but it’s incoherently left twisting in the wind at the end of the novel by a pathetic “I made it all up” line from Dickens. So, in summary, the book is 800 pages of Collins’ whining, leading up to a dream bait-and-switch. I’d intended to read the Dickens’ work as a companion to this book, but my hatred of “Drood” acted as a mental roadblock. Maybe in a few years I can forget the horror that is “Drood” and read Dickens’ book unscathed, but I doubt it. Have I sufficiently expressed how much I dislike this book? Moving on…
2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley
A lovely palate cleanser after “Drood,” this is the tale of how a precocious girl in a small 1950’s English village solves a local murder. Left to her own devices by her absentminded father and teenage sister, the grandly-named Flavia de Luce spends most of her time experimenting with the full chemistry lab in a closed wing of the house, reading, and wondering about her equally-grand and adventuresome dead mother. A dead body in the garden changes all that, especially as it is an acquaintance of her father, who is fingered for the crime. On her trusty bicycle, “Gladys,” Flavia sets about gathering clues and generally getting into equal amounts of trouble for every good lead she finds. This is a quick and delightful mystery, plus it exposed me to a new piano piece (Paradies’ “Tocatta in A Major”) which when played, gives the charming visual of Flavia flying down a hill on “Gladys,” braids streaming behind her.
3. The Adventures of Mr. Thake – Beachcomber/J. B. Morton
I first heard of Beachcomber (the pseudonym for the author of a long-running humor column in England’s Daily Express) in one of the Lyttleton Hart-Davis letters. One of them related that they’d seen J.B. Morton (Beachcomber) on the street shouting into a postbox, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!,” with a concerned crowd looking on. Hilarious – I knew I had to investigate. It turns out that J.B. Morton was a giant of British humor – both the Goon Show and Monty Python can be traced back to him (I would venture that A Bit of Fry and Laurie owes a debt as well). Plus, P.G. Wodehouse loved his stuff, which is enough for me, right there. But, wait – there’s more! The satirical columns in the Irish Times authored by Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen (don’t ask) also owe much to Beachcomber’s column. [If you’re interested, “The Best of Myles” is a great collection of many of the columns. While not every bit is a winner, many pieces are sheer comic genius, such as the ongoing advertisement for the service which will thumb through all the unread books people buy for decoration and make them look sufficiently used, with various levels of service ranging from inserting railway tickets as bookmarks and going all the way up to providing erudite margin notes and fake inscriptions – you really have to read it to understand the sustained hilariousness]. All these comic greats certainly were onto something, so I ordered the only volumes of Beachcomber’s work that I could find. Most books are collections of the Beachcomber columns but he did write a novel or two, one of which is “The Adventure of Mr. Thake.” Mr. Thake is a bumbling Bertie-Wooster-type who sends letters to his friend, Beachcomber, recounting the mishaps he gets into on his travels around 1930’s Europe and America. There are funny situations, but the highlights is the running bit about the odd and unnecessary objects that his valet Saunders (left at home) continues to send while never managing to send the items requested – an anti-Jeeves, if you will. Overall, a very funny and satisfactory introduction to Beachcomber (as you’ll read in future posts, it gets better).
4. The Man in the Brown Suit – Agatha Christie
I don’t even recall why I picked this up. It was probably more out of guilt, because I don’t really enjoy Agatha Christie as much as everyone else does and I always feel like I should give her another shot. I’d previously read “Death on the Nile” and couldn’t even get through the Roger Ackroyd one – while they’re far from awful, I’m not bowled over. Anyway, this entry didn’t change my opinion, plus it suffers from a girlish romance subplot which is frankly just embarrassing to read.
5. Miss Buncle’s Book – D.E. Stevenson
Miss Buncle is an observant spinster who is struggling to make ends meet. She tries writing a book to make money, but lacking in inspiration, she bases it on the people in her village. While their characters are virtually unaltered, she gives them the chance to make a different choice in life (i.e., two lonely elderly people are made to start up a romance in her book). It’s a smash hit and soon everyone in the village is reading the new bestseller, of course, recognizing themselves. What is to be done about Miss Buncle – censure her or congratulate her? The townspeople are in an uproar, but even more strangely, some of the villagers begin to act more like their characters in the book, with a happier result for (most) all involved. This is a harmless light read, good for a cosy evening or a long coffeeshop morning, but nothing more.