Books I read this week: December week 1 and 2

Here’s what I read over the last couple weeks.

M Train by Patti Smith is a worthy followup to her first memoir, Just Kids. I LOVED that book. While it was a pretty straightforward recounting of her early years, this is a more meandering look at her later life. Each chapter is book-ended by a visit to her favorite coffee shop, and as she sits, she looks back, remembering friendships, travel, love. Her writing is beautiful; there’s a poetry to it that is really enjoyable.

I thought I had already read Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, (it’s an easy assumption, I’ve read a lot of her books) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I hadn’t. It’s a solid and tangly mystery- a young girl is murdered at a Halloween party after boasting that she once witnessed a murder. Hercule Poirot is the detective on this one, with Ariadne Oliver, the mystery writer, backing him up. She’s a fun character, and the rest of the cast is great as well.

All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists by Terry Gross was interesting. It’s a collection of interviews that she has conducted on her radio show, Fresh Air. I say interesting because I think I would have preferred to listen to them (though she does say that there are some of her favorites that she left out because they didn’t “read” as well), but the content was still good. I actually found her comments about how they put the interviews together the most compelling part; a LOT of work goes into putting that radio show together.

I bought The Cuckoo’s Calling  by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) 2 years ago, and had put off reading it because I wasn’t sure how good it was going to be. It’s a contemporary detective novel, and I just wasn’t positive that it was going to be an enjoyable read. I needn’t have worried. It’s a super solid mystery, no holes, no raised eyebrows, no cheats. The clues are all there. And the characters- my goodness, the characters.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment- one of the main plot points of the book Speak Easy by Catherynne Valente is that Zelda and Frankie (F. Scott Fitzgerald) play cards with a fairy. He’s a dangerous fairy, and the stakes are high- a name that goes on forever, a life in Paris, a marriage, a healthy baby girl, fourteen novels, death by fire locked in a room with nobody coming for you, and most importantly, a “heart beaten into a lovely tale where a girl comes out on top and the beats come so hot and sweet they’ll knock you dead and you’ll beg for a sequel”. Some of those are Zelda’s stakes, some are Frankie’s, some belong to the house, and in the end, Frankie wins it all. Zelda goes with him to try to get hers back, but he keeps her heart, her story, and gives her back her death by fire. “He thinks he’s being kind. Generous.” But all she wants back is her story, the story that as the reader you know is The Great Gatsby. And it’s heartbreaking and gorgeous and true, this story about Frankie and Zelda.

The reason I tell that story is because it’s inched into my brain and now I wonder about what the wagers of other writers would look like. I think Ms. Rowling’s winnings would all be about her characters. An orphaned wizard, a smart, goodie two shoes witch, a red haired best friend, a villain without a name, a lovesick bully, a long bearded kind old professor. All of these would be in that winning pot, characters that will live on in hearts and minds for decades. And you’d think that would be a big enough pot.

But apparently Rowling won a jackpot, because her characters in this book are just as living and breathing as anything in Harry Potter. I’ve found myself thinking about them days later, and not just the main characters, who are excellent, but the side characters as well. Each one is a fully realized individual, to the point that I feel like I could say, “that sounds like something they would do”. When the conclusion comes, it all makes sense, like I said, there’s no cheating. It’s a rock solid set up, it all plays. That’s hard enough to do, but inhabiting that with living, breathing people, not just characters; that’s a gift that makes me want to wager with a fairy.

The mystery at the core of the book is an apparent suicide; a young model throws herself from her apartment window. But her brother thinks it’s murder, and he hires Cormoran Strike, private detective, ex-military man, illegitmate son of a rock star, to look into it. Add in his temporary secretary Robin, who harbors dreams of being a detective herself, and you’ve got magic. There are two more books in the series so far, and they’re all I want to read, but I’m holding out so that I can stretch out the experience. Dang J.K. Rowling!

There is a decent amount of swearing in the book, but not egregious.

Because I really just want to read those books, I’m bouncing between a couple that look really good but I’m not sure that I’m in the right mood for. We’ll see where I end up.


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