Sometimes a book is just a bookRead More
The feuding duo behind one of America’s greatest (fictional) detectives
When I was in -- 9th grade? -- I loved watching Levinson & Link's TV series Ellery Queen, which starred Jim Hutton as the detective author and David Wayne as his police inspector father. I think what most captured me was Queen's direct address to the camera just before he revealed the murderer's identity: "If you've been watching -- closely -- you have all the information you need." I never guessed correctly, of course, but I enjoyed the period detail and that was a golden age for spotting character actors.
I moved on to actually reading the damn books through junior high and high school. I have no idea why, as they don't have a lot of charm, the writing is workmanlike, and there are no thrills or action to speak of. (I was probably also reading Doc Savage reissues at that time, so, you know, forgive.) They didn't have the sort of antique charm of the TV series or even of an Agatha Christie cozy. I do remember one of the "twist" endings: "He wasn't John's twin -- he was John's triplet."
The most memorable thing about the Ellery Queen novel reissues in the '70s were their covers -- a series of absolutely lurid and ghastly "shadowbox" photos of semi-nude women. In my local DJ's Books and News stores, the Queens were competing against Matt Helm, Shell Scott, Mickey Spillane, and others of that ilk, so maybe that drove the decision. The distasteful, sexist, and just plain ugly covers did not hint at the musty, tame, and unsexy murder mysteries hiding inside. Ellery Queen was part of that necessary landscape against which real genius or originality is compared.
The Smart Set article is a delightful little delve into the Ellery Queen brand, with its own share of colorful and eye-grabbing pulp covers.
UK time management coach and author Mark Forster has set himself the challenge to read only one book at a time. Although he is great at starting books, his challenge has been finishing them. He's used a variant of his Autofocus task management system in the past as a way to read War and Peace. I wonder if his high distraction rate means he got what he wanted out of those unfinished books, after all; a quick skim may be all that's needed for a sense of completion.
For myself, my book selection and (non-)completion methods have varied over the years. Here's what I do now:
- John Sutherland, I think, recommends reading page 69 (any random page really) and then deciding based on that whether to read the book at all. I use this method when searching for bedtime books to read to Liz.
- I give a book 50 pages or so and then decide whether to continue. Oftentimes, particularly for light non-fiction books, I practice Maugham's "art of skimming."
- On my physical bookshelf, the top shelf is reserved for books of current interest. When I return a book, I place it to the far right. If a new book usurps its place, the new book is placed to the far right. This is just the Noguchi technique applied to books; uninteresting books migrate to the left of the shelf and can probably be safely discarded.
- I keep a collection on my Kindle titled "Now Reading." I can only read books in that collection. I keep three books only in that collection: a short-story collection, a novel, and a non-fiction book. Yes, I'd get through one book faster if I focused on it rather than dividing my time and attention among three books. But I am eternally fond of Randall Jarrell's famous line: "Read at whim! read at whim!"
The new Kindle Unlimited campaign is smoking out new opinions on Amazon's strategy . I liked this comparison of the Kindle to the iPod's early days, and the evolution from buying single songs to streaming music services (Songza is my favorite). The lack of privacy is of concern to the writer, though buying a Kindle or even having an Amazon account means you have opted for convenience over privacy. The local public library (funded by your tax dollars) may offer a little more in the way of privacy and choice (thanks to librarians, not the government) -- some observers are not all that excited by the books on offer via the Kindle lending library or Kindle Unlimited. Of course, paying with cash at your local new or used bookstore may circumvent privacy and choice concerns.
Austin Kleon (via his marvelous weekly mailing) pointed me to this critique of the Kindle by a new reader. Pierce makes some sharp observations about the Kindle, especially how the designers chose to glorify the device over the book you're reading. He also has reservations about the shared-passages feature of Kindle e-books; it's as if someone is reading over your shoulder and turns what has traditionally been a private experience into an unasked-for shared one.
And I also have the sense he describes of the Kindle separating me from the traditional reading experience. Many books on my shelves double as physical objects I formed a relationship with -- they're signed by the authors, I read this one during that long week in Anaheim, I read this one when I was unemployed and it led me to read these other books, etc. The reading experience is different on a Kindle; my memories of a book will now be associated to a device rather than a book. Instead of forming a relationship to the book I'm devising a relationship to the device.
For example, if I'm going on a trip and I only have room to carry two books in my bag, then I'm making a commitment to give these books a chance. There are physical consequences of weight and comfort to consider, but I'm also promising myself that I will put in the time to read them. With the Kindle, though, I have maybe 50 or so books and collections I've downloaded. Which do I read first, which do I commit to? Does it really matter, since I can choose to flip in a moment from this essay collection to that novel to that e-book written by a friend? No one book will have my full committed attention unless I delete all the others from the device, because it's the device I've committed to, rather than the e-book.
Or such is my current improvised line of thinking on this sunny and beautiful Sunday afternoon, where I am skimming web pages and writing blog posts rather than sitting down to read a book.
 I do not plan to sign up for the service at this time. I already have more books than I can eat on my Kindle. And I have more movies in my Netflix queue than I could see if I had a week off. ^
Before we left on our England trip, I loaded up the Kindle with a few hundredweight of e-books thinking, "Oho, eight hours on the flight over, eight hours on the flight back, three weeks of travel -- I'll certainly rip through more than a dozen books!" When I write up my lessons learned from the trip, we'll talk more about the grand foolishness of that master plan (and the foolishness of master plans in general).
But I did in fact read a couple of e-books, one of which gave me mild but very real pleasure -- namely, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories, which Amazon helpfully priced at about $2 or $3 just before the trip. I remembered the old BBC series fondly and thought I'd give the old girl a whirl.
They were quite wonderful to read late at night, after Liz had gone to bed but well before I felt sleepy. And reading the stories where we stayed, at bed-and-breakfasts in Bowness-on-Windemere and Chipping Campden -- villages both -- felt just right for these cozy, delicately spun cameos.
I am not up to date or even well read in the classic country-house English mystery genre. Christie's books, and the Marple stories and novels in particular, are referred to, I believe, as "cozies" -- an established set of characters who form the suspects and allies, a rather hermetic and contrived environment, and, my golly, lots of exposition and talking heads. No chasing bad guys through the bog or fisticuffs on a pitched roof. No, the primary action in a Miss Marple short story is of the women knitting or the men drinking and smoking cigars.
Nowadays, I expect an author would create a backstory for Miss Jane Marple that would explain all: was she always solving mysteries? Had she ever been in love? What did she do during the wars? Does she navigate the thorny politics of planning church fêtes as easily as she does a murder investigation?
Part of a detective story's fun is that the detective is himself the central mystery: what is the alchemical mix that makes them who we see in the story? I found myself reading the Marple stories for clues to her character, since I found her easily the most fascinating and unsolved mystery in the entire book.
As I read the stories, I kept hearing Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple in the 1980s-era BBC series that dramatized the novels. I watched them all on Netflix over the last month. As with the stories, the most interesting bits are where Miss Marple talks about the past and her memories, yet without giving away any personal details. There are tender moments in some of the episodes where she commiserates with other old ladies; the gravity and weight of their age, and their invisibility in this strange modern world, are brought to gnawing life by the elderly character actresses.
The antiqueness of the Marple plots and the settings was in cases matched by the slow pace and staid staging of the episodes. The series was praised in its time for hewing closely to the novels and not substantially changing them (a claim recent series based on the Marple mysteries cannot make, so I hear), and I believe the novels mostly consist of people being questioned. Still, I couldn't quite believe how amateurishly filmed and staged was "A Murder is Announced," even though it has some of my favorite Marple dialogues and observations.
The acting is also variable, though one can catch a few young actors on their way up, such as Tom Wilkinson, who even in his younger days looked like an old member of the Establishment. Throughout though, is Hickson's busybodyish, soft-spoken, observant, and shrewd Miss Marple. There is a stillness to Hickson's Marple that arrests me; she is an old lady sitting in a chair by the fire, listening to the radio, her mind wandering who knows where, who will suddenly rouse herself to ask a pointed question that no one had thought to ask before. It's a dear and charming performance.
I thought the strongest stories of the series were "A Pocketful of Rye," "Sleeping Murder," and "Nemesis." And a wonderful little bonus for me: in "Nemesis," Chipping Campden serves as the setting for the village Miss Marple visits to investigate a case, with several scenes set in and around St. James Church, where we had been only a few weeks before.
Steve Donoghue at Stevereads writes about BookTube, a YouTube community devoted to booklovers. It's a fun survey of what he loves, dislikes, and questions about the community (why do so many of the vloggers tout Young Adult novels?). But his joy in the community is in their joy at sharing what they love, particularly the contents of their bookshelves and their bookhauls. Steve shares his own pile o' books from a single day's trawling and it's truly breathtaking. I adore his aside that he doesn't keep a TBR ("to be read") pile, because they will all get read.
His haul reminds me of my 20s and 30s when my friend Scott and I would do a book-crawl through all the used bookstores in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. I would often trudge home with bags o' books, less than half of which I ever read, probably. For me, it was always the thrill of the hunt and the serendipitous discovery -- the actual sitting down and reading always seemed a little more dutiful and less fun. Which for a booklover and reader like myself is an odd thing to say, but kind of true. I had more time to read then, I think, but used it less.
In my defense, when my obsession for a particular author or subject took me over -- like Chekhov or Hazlitt or Kotzwinkle or Montaigne or Delacroix -- I would scarf down whatever I could till only crumbs were left.
The Durham Country Library -- which is a great organization I support with patronage and donations of both books and money -- does not notify me when books are either coming due or are overdue. This can be inconvenient when life gets hectic or I forget that the checkout period for DVDs is different from that for books. If you don't have a system set up to remind you about such things, then it's all to easy to forget when they're due.
Enter Elf (from its About page):
Elf is a web-based and email tool for library users to keep track of their library borrowings. Elf is like a personal assistant, whose task is to help with keeping track of what one has on loan from the library.
Designed with the busy or avid library user in mind, Elf is ideal for families with multiple library cards or for individuals (writers, researchers, students, readers, etc.) who have cards from different libraries.
Elf makes it easier to keep track of what's due, overdue or ready for pickup from one or more library accounts. Users have the option to consolidate their library accounts into one account if they wish. This account is checked everyday and email notices are sent when items are coming due, overdue or when holds are ready for pickup. As well, get up-to-date realtime information by browser.
How many people knew about Elf before I did? Probably everybody, I bet. And not a word from any of you! I only discovered it by happenstance, through the weekly Back to Work newsletter.
Durham happened to be in its list of libraries, and I eagerly signed up. I set the level of advance notice I want to receive (3 days) and provided my cell number so I could be texted also. Elf also offers RSS and iCal feeds if you prefer to be notified that-a-way.
It's a terrific service, it's free, and it's simple to figure out. If you use your library card a lot, you should check out (heh) Elf.
The Relationship Handbook -- George Pransky. The focus is primarily spousal relationships, though there are a few chapters dealing with parents and children. The core message is that our insecure thinking lowers our moods, which causes us to act defensively against our partner and they against us. The chief remedies include simply calming down until our thoughts look less real and choosing to talk about sensitive issues only when both partners are in their best state, when each partner's statements are understood and not simply reacted to. More important than "solving problems" is enjoying your partner's company and basking in a warm relationship. Simple language, readable, and applicable to fostering a better relationship with oneself as well. Pransky is of the first generation of Three Principles practitioners who worked with Sydney Banks. As with other popularizations of the Principles, it focuses more on revved-up thinking than with the other principles.
In These Times the Home is a Tired Place -- Jessica Hollander. Before I started my grad school adventure in 2006, I was in a writing group that counted as its members two people who would go on to publish their fiction. One was David Halperin, who published Journal of a UFO Investigator in 2011. The other is Jessica, who went on to an MFA at the University of Alabama and last year published this book of short stories, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (publisher description). They're odd, off-kilter, ethereal stories (or maybe prose poems) that take place in the characters' mundane world of cheap duplexes, loud neighbors, families under pressure, and someone who keeps moving the Welcome mat to other apartments in the building. You know the saying that every line of a poem creates a universe? Every sentence in a Jessica Hollander story does the same thing. The stories all have a voice that is uniquely Jessica's -- a quality her stories had even back in the day. I would kill to write dialogue that oblique and funny, with such a light touch.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer -- Sarah Bakewell. Bakewell attacks the life of Montaigne and the life of his Essays by taking the writer's chief question -- How should one live? -- and then drawing from the essays 20 different, sometimes contradictory, answers. Along the way, she paints pictures of the historical, intellectual, and cultural currents of his time (I did not know the horrific conditions in France caused by the Catholic-Protestant conflicts) and how Montaigne's message of Stoicism, skepticism, and delighted self-discovery has been viewed by other thinkers, writers, and readers through the centuries.