Books I read this week: February week 1

I went on a bit of an Agatha Christie binge this week, and that set me on a roll for the rest of the week.

Cards on the Table: Hercule Poirot Investigates  begins with a dinner party that consists of the host, four people he believes have gotten away with murder at some time in their past, and four detectives. By the end of the party the host is dead, and the detectives are left to figure out who committed the crime. As Dame Agatha herself explains in the introduction, it’s all about psychology, and it’s a good one.

Endless Night  is not a typical Agatha Christie. It’s set up as far more of a thriller than a mystery- you know that something horrible is going to happen and are just waiting for it to explode. That being said, because of a stylistic choice, I figured out who ultimately did it based on reading the very first page. I didn’t think I was right, but ended up being highly amused, because in Cards on the Table, Poirot points out to one of the characters who is a mystery writer (and a thinly veiled caricature of Christie herself) that two of her books have the same plot, and she is delighted that he noticed, because “no one does”. Well, this one shares a major stylistic element with another Christie, and the plot of yet another.  However, it’s still quite excellent; atmospheric and anxiety making.

The Man in the Brown Suit is another non-typical Christie. A young woman stumbles into a mystery and becomes determined to solve it. As she is conveniently unencumbered by family (her father has just died), she takes the last of her money and follows a lead onto a ship headed for South Africa. There are spies and diamonds and drama, and it’s  lovely.

I put off reading Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente because my brother read it and hated it. But I love Valente, so it was only a matter of time. I can completely see why he disliked it so much, but I think it’s a lovely part of her canon. The base of the story is that there is a world separate from ours that can only be reached by having sex with someone who has already been there. Once that happens, you visit the city of Palimpsest in your dream. When you wake up, you come back to the real world with a tattoo of a map of part of the city somewhere on your body. To return, you have to have sex with someone else who has been there, and when you dream you will arrive in the part of the city that appears in their tattoo. The city is magical and addicting, which leads to those who want to return making sometimes morally questionable choices in order to get back. The book follows four visitors in particular, who all arrived in Palimpsest at the same time, and are therefore connected. Each has their reasons for wanting to return, and Palimpsest itself has its reasons for wanting them to return.

The sex in the book will definitely be a deterrent for some, which I totally understand. However, having read more of Valente’s work, I think I see what she was doing. She wasn’t just writing a smutty story. (The sex in it isn’t actually very smutty at all, most of it’s just pretty matter of fact.) This is an adult fairy story, and as she establishes in her other books, getting to fairy land takes a sacrifice and costs something. The visitors to Palimpsest are changed, not just because of what they experience there, but because of what they have to do to get there. Some visitors choose to never go back. Some are mortified by what they have to do for their addiction. Some embrace it. And I think that’s also what Valente is doing- looking at addiction and what it does to people.  As one of the residents of Palimpsest states, life in Palimpsest is just life for the people who live there, yet visitors there come to hold it as more precious as their real lives.  Their waking lives are less colorful, harder to live having visited Palimpsest, and they neglect responsibilities and people in their real life for their experience in a dreaming world. I think it could be argued that there is a metaphor here for literature- for the books that we dive into to live a life not our own, but I need to think about that some more.

I would recommend this book on a case by case basis- those looking for another The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland will not find it here, though that particular book does make a thrilling appearance in this one. It does, however, fit beautifully into Valente’s library; her foundation in myth and fairy stories is as solid as ever, and the language is as gorgeous as I have come to expect. She truly is one of my very favorite authors.

‘My mother told me once,’ said Sei softly, to Yumiko’s back, ‘when I was little, she told me that dreams are small tigers that live behind your ears, and they wait until you’re sleeping to leap out and tear at your soul, to eat it up at very civilized suppers to which no other cats are invited.’  Yumiko quirked an eyebrow. ‘Was your mother, if it’s not impolite, totally crazy? I mean, that’s not really a working theory of the subconscious.’

If one has the power, he thought, to make ghosts bleed, one must be careful with it, so careful.

Do you know what a thirteen-year-old girl can do when she is alone and frightened and believes she is right?


All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is devastating. I’ll just state that straight out. I read the synopsis, that it’s about a young woman and her brilliant sister who is suicidal, and thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but no, I didn’t. Not at all. I think I thought it would be a smart, witty story where they take some kind of road trip or something and the sister comes around to the joy of living. Yeah, no. This is the based firmly in reality story of a woman whose beloved sister is acutely depressed and set on ending her life. There are suicide attempts, psych wards, medications, questions. There are family members whose lives are uprooted and hearts that are broken. There are nurses who care and doctors who seem not to. There is history and genetics that have contributed to the present, and a future that no one wants to imagine with a big gaping hole in it.

This book is so so so good, and so so so sad. It raises a lot of really important questions, and it’s made even sadder by the knowledge that Toews wrote this book based on her own experience with her own sister. I think most people have opinions about suicide, and I think this book will make anyone rethink those opinions.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, but go in knowing that it’s going to tear your guts out.

It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

When my sister was born my father planted a Russian olive shrub in the backyard. When I was born he planted a mountain ash. When we were kids Elf explained to me that the Russian olive was a tough shrub with four-inch thorns that managed to thrive in places where everything else died. She told me that the mountain ash was called a rowan in Europe and that it was used to ward off witches. So, she said. We’re protected from everything. Well, I said, you mean witches. We’re only protected from witches.

Did Elf have a terminal illness? Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die? Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion?

The accordion is the best instrument for mournful occasions because it is melancholy and beautiful and cumbersome and ridiculous at the same time.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill was on every single Best of 2014 book list I saw. I was so set to be blown away by this book. I really think I just had my expectations set too high, because while it was good, it wasn’t amazing. Maybe it suffered from coming right after All My Puny Sorrows.

It’s the story of a marriage and a family- an unnamed husband and wife and child, who live in New York. It’s told in snippets that skip forward through time, which is an approach that works well a lot of the time and other times left me feeling like I’d somehow missed a page.  (I spent literally five minutes going back and forth through about 10 pages, trying to make something make sense.) Their lives move forward until there’s a breaking point, and life continues past it. It’s a straight forward story, and all of the raving reviews I read pointed to the deep insights provided by casting a light on the minutiae of daily life, which I just didn’t experience the same way.  There also was a lot of attention paid to the first quote I put below, about being an art monster, but I didn’t feel like that idea was explored enough.

My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

‘You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’ someone says after the boy who is pure in heart leaves.

Currently I’m in the middle of Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life, which is FASCINATING. A biography of Virginia Woolf’s servants set firmly in the context of the time period, with analysis of her perception of them and how they influenced her life and ability to write (since she then didn’t have to worry about things like cooking, etc.). It’s SO good. I will write in more detail once I’ve finished it, and then I will send myself off on a trip down a rabbit hole about Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, who, fitting with my previous reading, had to figure out how to live with a sister who wanted to die.

What are you reading?

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