Mrs. McGinty’s Dead — Agatha Christie
More Poirot, and more of Christie’s Mary-Sue character Ariadne Oliver. This one is rather good, with a gradual homing in on the solution rather than the usual sudden reveal.
Oliver is good for some comic relief, too. One of the better Christies, but perhaps not one for new readers to jump on with since you’ll need to be already familiar with Poirot to properly enjoy his discomfort in the dismal guest-house.
The Lost Continent — Bill Bryson
This was Bryson’s first travel book, and in some ways I think maybe his best. In this one, he took a long driving tour around the United States, in search of a picture-perfect small town — the kind you see in Jimmy Stewart films — but enjoying most of what he found along the way. There is a delicious blend in his writing between impatience with people and places that he finds inexplicable, and warmth towards those that work, whether or not in the way that he would personally enjoy.
What emerges is an engaging sense of the yawning cultural gulfs between different parts of the USA — something that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but perhaps will to the many of us whose impression of that vast and varied country comes almost entirely from films and TV shows, which are set almost entirely in New York and Los Angeles.
They Do It With Mirrors — Agatha Christie
Another of those that left me with only the vaguest of memories. The title is memorable, but not much of the rest of it is. I seem to remember that the resolution has nothing to do with mirrors, but don’t hold me to that.
Two Brothers — Ben Elton
Of all the books I’ve read in the last few years, this may be the one that surprised me the most. I’m unapologetically a fan of Elton’s novels, but on the whole I consider them lightweight fun. This one is very much not that. It’s set mostly in pre-war Berlin, and tracks the lives of two brothers — one biologically born to his parents, the other adopted on the same day. It turns out that the adopted one is Jewish, something that had been of no importance at all at the time of their birth. But the differing experiences of the two boys as they grow up in the increasingly Nazified environment are gripping. And truly horrifying.
In some ways, I feel it reflects badly on me that it takes a novel by a past-it 1980s stand-up comedian for me to really grasp on an emotional level what living in a truly antisemitic society is like. I felt much the same about Rosa, the civil-rights episode of Doctor Who series 11, but it’s the truth. However much you know about a subject, sometimes it takes art to make you feel the truths you know. You could argue that that’s what art is for. And art is where you find it, which may even sometimes be in Ben Elton novels. Memorable and compelling.
The Wisdom of Father Brown — G. K. Chesterton
More adventures of Chesterton’s priest/detective. In the end, following my re-read of The Innocence of Father Brown, I made my way through all five of the collected volumes (Innocence, Wisdom, Incredulity, Secret, Scandal), and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I don’t feel any need to write about each of them separately, though: they share all the same qualities and all the same flaws.
A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L’engle
This is a another of those books that I have no idea any more why I read. (I try to stay up to date with these What I’ve Been Reading posts, but sometimes I find myself back-filling, and have to write about something I read months ago.) It’s the only thing I’ve read by L’Engle, and I understand it’s the book on which her reputation mostly rests.
It’s written for older children and teens, perhaps about the level of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and while its atmosphere is diametrically different, it shares with Pullman’s books that very important quality of not feeling like the author is writing down to the young audience. The story concerns a group of siblings who are aided by a witch in their attempts to rescue their long-lost father from another dimension that may be magical or may have been found by his scientific work. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I do remember the tone of the book, which is inquisitive and very much motivated by love. Also that the prose feels lean without being terse. I enjoyed it enough that I vaguely intend to read the sequels at some point.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself — Bill Bryson
I have the British edition of this in paperback, under the title Notes from a Big Country, which clearly positions the present volume as a counterpart to Notes from a Small Island. It’s a compilation of columns that Bryson wrote for The Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, on the process of moving back to the United States and settling in. The columns vary wildly in tone, some of them quite sentimental, and some with a wacky Dave Barry-like exaggerated observational quality. As with Small Island, much of the appeal comes from Bryson’s cultural amphibiousness: he sees the USA both as his homeland and as a strange country that he is seeing, as if for the first time, after two decades in Britain.
For convenience, I did the re-read using the American edition, under the title given here, as I was able to get this on my Kindle. For some reason, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have done in the past. Perhaps this kind of very episodic writing is just better suited to a printed book? I suspect also that the order of the numerous small chapters is different between the editions, and I think the British version works better.
At Home — Bill Bryson
Among my very favourites of Bryson’s books. He’s best known for his travel journals, but for my money he’s even better when he digs into other subjects, bringing his idiosyncratic perspective to various aspects of history. I remember very much liking his books about language (one on English, and one on how American English diverged from the mother tongue) when I read them years ago, and I will probably re-read them soon.
But this one may be my favourite of them all. It’s a history of domesticity: the sequence of innovations by which we have made ourselves comfortable, going right back to the earliest buildings, and proceeding through various rooms of the house, plumbing, furniture, windows, carpets and much more. Not only is this endlessly fascinating, it also leaves me feeling profoundly grateful that I live in 2019, not (for example) 1819. We really have come an amazingly long way, and every one of us now lives better than kings did not so long ago. Bryson doesn’t hammer this observation home; he just leaves you to become increasingly aware of it as you discover more and more about conveniences that we take for granted. It’s really rather lovely.
The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok — Monty Python
This was the second book written by the Python team, following on from Monty Python’s Big Red Book, which I think I must have read many years ago but don’t really remember at all. The Brand New Monty Python Bok as it was called in its initial hardback release is, like the first one and like Dr. Fegg’s Encyclopeadia of All World Knowledge, is an anthology of whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. The quality accordingly varies wildly. Some sections are simply tedious; then you have things like this marvellous parody of the kind of reference-book adverts that were often found in magazines of the time:
I have to admit that I found it slightly heavy going by the end, and was not sad to finish. Probably better for dipping into than for actually reading.