Thursday, May 17, 2012

Summer Reading: 2012 Edition

If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you know that it has become a tradition for me to give myself a summer reading "challenge" each year.  Over the past few years, I have dedicated the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day to reading The Lord of the Rings, Southern literature, German literature, and worldwide literature.  This year, I've decided to embrace my love of mystery by reading classics of "detective fiction".  I'm not allowing myself to do any re-reading, so you won't find any Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes, or Father Brown stories here.  Instead, I'll be focusing on unread classics that take us from the birth of detective fiction in the Victorian era, through its golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, on up to some of the more modern additions.  Here is what I have in store:

-The Dupin Tales by Edgar Allan Poe: most literary historians believe C. Auguste Dupin to be literature's first real detective.  Though you could argue that other writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had used this plot device before, it was Poe who really gripped the reading world's imagination with his brilliant amateur detective.  Dupin appeared in 3 of Poe's stories, all of which I will be reading and reviewing: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter.

-The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: if anyone deserves the name "Queen of Crime" it is Agatha Christie.  Perhaps no mystery writer is as famous nor as well loved as this lady from Devon.  She is the best-selling novelist of all time with roughly 4 billion copies sold.  One of her most famous creations was the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and it is one of his cases that I have chosen to read.  It is also Christie's most controversial work as well as one considered by many to be her masterpiece.

-Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers: Lord Peter Wimsey was another product of the golden age of detective fiction.  He is the quintessential gentleman detective who solves crimes for his own amusement.  This particular crime is set in the world of advertising.

-The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett: Set in Prohibition-era New York, this is the story of former private detective Nick Charles and his clever (and wealthy) wife, Nora.  After marrying, Nick decide to give up detecting and live the high life, but he is now being drawn (along with Nora) back into the world of crime and murder.  This book launched the famous 1930s film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.

-Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout: Another popular detective series in 1930s America was the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout.  Born in Montenegro, Wolfe now lives in New York on West 35th St.  His eccentricities and hobbies range from reading, to food, to orchids. In this story, Wolfe sets out to prove that a goring of rural man is not an accident, but murder.

-The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: The first in Chandler's acclaimed "Philip Marlowe" series, this book was listed in TIME Magazine's 2005 list "100 Best Novels".  It is also the movie upon which the famous 1946 version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was based.

-Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell: In case you haven't noticed, Scandinavian crime novels are all the rage.  One of the most popular is the Wallender series by Swedish novelist Henning Mankell.  Unlike many of history's famous detectives, Mankell is not exactly a hero.  He struggles with alcohol and is often at loose ends socially.  But that does not hinder him from solving some of the horrible crimes that happen in this cold country.

 I have to admit that I am really looking forward to these books.  If you have read any of them, please feel free to share your thoughts.  And also feel free to join if you like.  We're going under cover this summer and investigating some great literature in the process.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Look Homeward, Angel

The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.

There are those who rank Thomas Wolfe up there with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner as one of the great American writers of the 1930s.  He is also credited with influencing such writers as Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, and Pat Conroy.  So if his works are so great and influential, why have most people never heard of him?  I decided to tackle his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, and find out.

The Plot:

 Based upon Wolfe's own childhood in Asheville, NC, Look Homeward, Angel tells the story of young Eugene Gant and his colorful, dysfunctional family.  From his lazy alcoholic father to his grasping, self reliant mother, to his wild and varied older siblings, Eugene finds himself surrounded by people whom he just can't really seem to respond to.  This painting of his hometown is stark, unsentimental, and at times almost vengeful.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This one got away from me.  Seriously.  It was the first time in a long time that I actually dropped a book out of sheer boredom.  I made it halfway through before I finally gave up on it.  

The thing that really got me was the writing style.  First off, there is very little actual plot to this story.  It is mainly a recounting of Wolfe's childhood years, told in a stream of consciousness way.  That is all well and good until you add in the fact that Wolfe also has a high romantic tone in his writing.  Now I can take stream of consciousness, and I can take romantic writing, but I can't take them both together.  Wolfe waxing poetic in a random flow of words in scenes that did nothing to move the story forward was just more than I could take.

I can see how this could be an influential novel if read at the right time and under the right conditions.  Maybe someday I'll be able to pick it back up and finish this clunker...just not anytime soon.             

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Masterpiece Theatre: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

There is nothing to tantalize a reader like an unfinished novel.  We are left only with what might have been, imagining our own endings and wondering how a beloved author might have tied up all of the loose ends.  Charles Dickens died in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving us without a resolution to the supposed murder of a young man.  Though we'll never really know how Dickens himself intended for the story to end, BBC and Masterpiece Classic have teamed up to bring us an adaptation of this story and their idea of how it might have all turned out.

John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) is a choirmaster in a country cathedral whose monotonous life is broken up only by his routine trips to an opium den.  He is also consumed with passion for one of his music students, Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant).  Unfortunately, she has long been engaged to marry Jasper's foppish nephew, Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox).  Fueled by jealousy and opium, Jasper's hatred for Edwin grows until in it culminates in one stormy, feverish scene.  The morning after, Jasper can't tell if his evil deed was real, or the workings of a drug induced dream.  His nephew is missing, that is sure, but there is no body.  Was he killed? Did he leave town? Was there an accident?  Is Rosa Bud free to be pursued?  The answers will surprise everyone, including Jasper himself.

The main thing that this adaptation has going for it is that not only is it an unfinished work, it is probably Dickens' least read as well.  This gives screenwriters and producers much more freedom to and license to play around with the story and not have an army of rabid fans call for their heads.  Though it didn't feel a lot like a Dickens story to me, it was certainly a fairly riveting one.  Matthew Rhys gave an intense and emotional performance as Jasper and was really the main force behind the series.  His desire for Rosa and his jealousy of Edwin are almost palpable.  The other actors all hold their own as well and rounded out the characters perfectly.  All of the other production qualities hold up to BBC standards as well an make for an enjoyable evening.

Though this is not as in-depth as other Dickens' stories, it is still one that will leave you guessing to the very end.  I enjoyed it, and would watch it again.