2010 Reads – June

With no further ado…

1. 4:50 From Paddington – Agatha Christie

I was glad I gave old Agatha one last chance, as this one was very enjoyable. This is a “Miss Marple” mystery, who is delightful, but the other characters were also well drawn. At the center of this mystery is an apparent death on a train, witnessed by Miss Marple’s friend who was a passing train headed in the opposite direction. The police don’t follow up on her story, but Miss Marple believes her and sets out to investigate, with the help of young Lucy Eyelsbarrow, another enjoyable character. Lucy gains employment with the family at the center of the mystery and is witness to family secrets, poisoning attempts, and more skullduggery. Overall, an entertaining mystery.

2. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien – Anthony Cronin

Brian O’Nolan maintained a civil service job to support his mother and 10 siblings, and therefore wrote under two different pseudonyms (Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen). As well as being fluent in Irish, he wrote some of the strangest and funniest books in the English language (At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman) as well as the Irish Times column I mentioned in my previous post. I was very curious to know more about him and this is one of the only biographies I could find. While it certainly taught me a lot I didn’t know about the Irish uprising and mid-century life in Dublin, it provided little insight in Brian O’Nolan himself, besides his rampant alcoholism. Still, I think the biographer did a good job portraying his seemingly-unknowable subject and the book maintained my interest. However, I would only recommend this for the most fervent fan of O’Nolan’s work.

3. The Best of Beachcomber – J.B. Morton

Definitely the delight of the month, this selection includes many of the wacky characters that peopled the Beachcomber column, including that outrageous and libidinous rake, Captain Foulenough, as well as Mr. Justice Cocklecarrot, who presides over the strangest and funniest trials imaginable. If you cannot get into sheer silliness and nonsense, you should stay away from this book. However, if that sort of thing delights you, I highly recommend Beachcomber. My personal favorite is “Life at Boulton Wynfevers,” which recounts the narrator’s fond memories of being head aquarium keeper for Baron Shortcake, an eccentric peer who prioritizes his 13,874 goldfish above people. One of my favorite bits follows:

On the morning after my old master had lost £73,000 in IOU’s to a guest, we sold the entire Boulton Wynfevers collection of goldfish to a lonely old lady who had just cut her niece out of her will. From that day the Baron changed. He would wander listlessly from room to room, calling the absent fish by name and starting guiltily if he thought he saw a movement in the empty bowls.
He would sit late as his dinner, and would often call for me to repeat some story of the fish, saying, “Travers, tell them about that time when two Burmese Rovers got down the back of Lady Felspar’s dress,” or “Travers, do you recall how that little devil Silver Slipper drank a glass of my Meursault on the night of the fire?” or, “Travers, I do not think Sir Anthony knows the story of how Tiny and his gang got into the Bishop’s hot water bottle and tickled his feet.” And he would sigh and say, “Those were the days.”

If that doesn’t make you laugh, Beachcomber is not for you. On the other hand, if the image of “Tiny and his gang” pranking the Bishop cracks you up, welcome to the small circle of Beachcomber fans! There are many more gems just in the Boulton Wynfevers chapter (e.g., “We had one fish that snored, and we always put it in Lord Thwacker’s room, and told him it was the ghost of the ninth baron.”) as well as the book. There are other collections of later columns, one of which I’ve not yet finished, but I venture that this is one of the best.

4.   The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag – Alan Bradley

This is the second book featuring Flavia de Luce (from “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”) but I didn’t enjoy the main mystery plot nearly as much as the first. That being said, I did enjoy some of the new secondary characters such as Flavia’s Aunt Felicity and a German POW who was shot down during the war and still working a local farm in the countryside. While it’s not as magical as the first, it’s still recommended as a light, quirky read.

5. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

I don’t normally stray further into non-fiction than biographies, but this was a bookclub read. It was a fast read, so I didn’t mind being distracted from my personal reading list for this. The premise of the book is looking at the opportunities and numerous hours of practice/learning that go into making people exceptional at a particular skill, or ‘outliers.’ Some of the examples given are the computer programmers who basically started the whole computer revolution in the 80’s, star hockey players, certain lawyers, etc. It’s an interesting set of statistics, but the underlying message seems to be that unless you’re in the right place at the right time to seize a unique opportunity, there’s probably not much chance that you’ll become truly exceptional in an area. I would have been more interested if Malcolm Gladwell took the next step and provided suggestions for how we can create similar opportunities in our schools to ensure that more individuals of the next generation have a better chance of being exceptional.

6. The Inn at the Edge of the World – Alice Thomas Ellis

What an odd book. A failing innkeeper, with a nasty tart of a wife, hits upon the idea of advertising his out-of-the-way inn as the perfect anti-Christmas escape. Five awful people take him up on the offer and make the difficult journey to the small Scottish island. Instead of leaving their miseries behind, things are strangely amplified by the eerie atmosphere of the island. There are ghosts, myths of seal-women luring people to their deaths, and a crazy stalker. The overall tone of the book is gloom and the “supernatural” ending is not explained well enough to my liking. Based on others’ reviews, I expected to like this book more than I did. I can’t really recommend it.

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