Peter Pan and Wendy — J. M. Barrie
I highly recommend this to anyone. Written in 1911, it’s now comfortably in the public domain, and you can pick up a free copy at Project Gutenberg. Like Mary Poppins, its a profound and touching book, best known from a Disney adaptation that systematically boiled all the charm and distinctiveness out of it. (I watched the movie after finishing the book, and found it enjoyable in its bland way, but completely unexceptional.)
What makes Peter Pan so memorable, what makes it cut like a knife, is the absolute callousness of the eponymous lead. Peter is a picture of early childhood — his age isn’t given, but there are extratextual reasons to think Barrie intended him to be maybe six years old. But he’s not a sentimentalised portrait. Yes, he embodies everything that’s wonderful about children — the wild imagination, the uncritical ability to enjoy almost anything, the readiness to make immediate friends. But along with that comes all the infuriating and even heartbreaking things about children — the utter selfishness, the complete disregard for the desires of others, the short attention span. Most notably, near the end of the book, Wendy meets Peter again after several years have passed, and he has completely forgotten Tinker Bell, previously his best friend. We’re left to assume that she’s died in the intervening years (fairies have short lifespans) but that the event left so little impression on Peter that she might as well never have existed.
This hard-headedness about children saves Peter Pan from the snare of sentimentality. The Darling children (Wendy, John and Michael) are scarcely more thoughtful than Peter, flying off with him to Neverland on a whim and leaving their parents to grieve for months before eventually returning home when it suits them. In the Disney movie, the parents are buffoons; in the novel, they are people, if somewhat eccentric. They are distraught at losing their children, and their father, blaming himself, descends into mental illness. It’s all written with a light touch, and can be read as comedy, but the subtext is painful and very sharp.
Peril at End House — Agatha Christie
As a sort of low-priority background process, I am making my way through all Agatha Christie’s detective books in chronological order. It’ll take a while, as she wrote about 66 detective novels and 21 short-story collections (depending on exactly what you count) for a total on the order of 87. I’m up to 1934, so 15 novels and 7 short-story collections. 22 books is only a quarter of the total, so don’t hold your breath waiting for me to finish.
I’ve been surprised at the wild variation in quality. Some of them, including her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles [free copy at Project Gutenberg], are really good, well worthy of their reputation and interesting not only in historical context. Others, such as the cobbled-together Hercule Poirot vehicle The Big Four, are slapdash and arbitrary, placing the characters in situations that make no sense and extricating them by means that make less.
Anyway, Peril at End House is definitely at the top end of the scale, with a resolution that I didn’t see coming at all but which feels believable and credible, and which once revealed makes perfect sense out of everything that has gone before. I hesitate to say more for fear of giving anything away, but I’d call this a good starting point for anyone wanting to make a first foray into Christie’s work.
Lord Edgware Dies — Agatha Christie
… whereas this one feels relatively mundane. Workmanlike and enjoyable enough, it didn’t leave much of an impression for me — in fact, a month or so on from having read it, I can’t remember who the murderer was.
The Chrysalids — John Wyndham
I read this many years ago as an SF-hungry teen, and read it again recently on the recommendation of Sam Kington in a comment on the post where I discussed Wyndham’s earlier The Kraken Wakes. This one is very different from that and The Day of the Triffids, both of which are about end-of-the-world scenarios. Instead, The Chrysalids takes place after the end of the world, in a post-apocalyptic society with a primitive agrarian lifestyle dominated by a harsh fundamentalist religion. It’s extremely well constructed, starting out as a fairly small-scale coming-of-age fable and only slowly revealing its hand as touching on broader themes.
Written in 1955, it’s easy to imagine that the witch-hunt themes of the book — the lead characters have hard-to-see mutations that they have to hide from their families and peers — were deliberately written to reflect the communist witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950s America. I don’t know enough about Wyndham to know whether he had any communist sympathies — or perhaps just humane sympathies with people being quizzed on matters that are their own business. But the themes of alienation within a society are resonant in pretty much every time and place.
Unfortunately, Wyndham again falls prey to his besetting sin — the inability, or lack of inclination, to write a proper ending. Chrysalids is better in this regard than either of its predecessors: at least the book doesn’t merely grind to a halt when he loses interest. But the ending is a pretty blatant deus ex machina, and doesn’t really satisfy.
(I have no idea what a chrysalid is, by the way. The word is never used in the book.)
The Hound of Death — Agatha Christie
Possibly the worst of the Agatha Christie books I’ve read so far. It’s a collection of short stories mostly with supernatural themes, almost none of which hold the attention. The Call of Wings is particularly risible. The exception to this general low level is the story The Witness for the Prosecution, which is genuinely clever and engaging. Not coincidentally, it’s one of the few in the book that is a crime mystery — a genre that really is Christie’s forté.
Batman: Year One — Frank Miller
Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, a four-comic mini-series that is by far the best thing I’ve ever seen on Batman, and probably my all-time second-favourite graphic novel. (After Watchmen, naturally.) So I thought it would be interesting to see his other most influential Batman work, Year One.
Although it’s very nearly two thirds as long as Dark Night (144 pages vs. 224), Year One seems very insubstantial by comparison. It might just be that it’s less wordy, so takes less time to read. But I think it’s more than that. It doesn’t feel to me that it has the re-readability of Dark Knight (which I’ve read at least three times, maybe four) — the plot feels slight. In fact I can hardly remember anything that happened … which paradoxically may mean that I do re-read it soon, if only to remind myself.
At any rate, for someone raised on the 1960s Batman TV series and who wonders how that character can possibly be taken seriously, I think that Dark Knight very much remains the place to start.
[Read on to part 4]