Archive for the ‘P. G. Wodehouse’ Category

Halloween Party my copyThis was one of the first Agatha Christie mysteries I read, and, back then, I found it a bit slow. This time around, however, I really enjoyed the book. I believe that’s in part because I am so much more invested in Hercule Poirot as a character.

For newcomers to Poirot, I suggest starting with the novel that introduced him, The Mysterious Affair at Styles—one of Christie’s best. Hallowe’en Party is one of her later novels, written in 1969, and it’s a bit more nuanced. When I picked it up for the second time, I did so in eagerness to read more about Poirot and his occasional cohort, the quirky Mrs. Ariadne Oliver—a sort of literary avatar of Christie herself. I was likewise pleased to encounter Superintendent Spence on the scene. That is one of the great pleasures of reading Christie for me—the recurring cameos of previous characters. Also, this time I got all the apple jokes.

That is not to discount the plot of Hallowe’en Party. It’s another of Christie’s intricately woven puzzles, and I enjoyed the different threads as they delved into mysterious deaths and sidetracked into red herrings. The story begins with preparations for the title event, and I found the British take on Halloween fascinating. No trick or treat, but several spooky games and also, significantly, bobbing for apples. Christie makes use of autumn imagery such as late Michaelmas daisies and the slanting sun, to give the novel the gauzy feel of a late November afternoon.

This is one of Christie’s “village mysteries”, and although Woodleigh Common is a newer community, Poirot uncovers a myriad of past secrets. He also discovers a strange and menacing garden:

“There was an atmosphere here. He tried to pin it down. It had qualities of magic, of enchantment, certainly of beauty, bashful beauty, yet wild. Here, if you were staging a scene in the theatre, you would have your nymphs, your fauns, you would have Greek beauty, you would have fear too. Yes, he thought, in this sunk garden is fear.”

The theatrical Christie seems to be alluding to is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with a precocious 12-year-old “Miranda” who is like a woodland sprite flitting about the tree branches and the rocky, overgrown paths.

Much like the garden, the book is at times enchanting and theatrical—especially the party scenes—but there is a dark, disquieting undertone. Bad things happen to some of the children and there is even a town witch. This is a perfect Halloween read with a couple of nice twists in the resolution.

Finally, it warmed my heart that Hallowe’en Party is dedicated to P.G. Wodehouse (a great lover of detective fiction himself), “whose books and stories have brightened [Christie’s] life for many years.”

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Top Ten LogoGoodness, this Top Ten really made me think! Turns out, most of my favorite books are the ones that are peopled with distinctive, believable secondary characters whom I feel that I know. (Perhaps that also explains my addiction to the ensemble masterpiece LOST.)

Anyway, I could have easily rattled off 10 favorites from Jane Austen’s works, or from The Lord of the Rings. But, I didn’t even try to pick just one of G.R.R. Martin’s cast of characters from A Song of Fire and Ice, seriously?

1.) Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen—Austen’s books are rife with hilarious and memorable supporting characters, caricatures really. But, the haughty, domineering (and hilarious) Lady Catherine takes the cake. An authority on everything and everyone, Lady Catherine commands the spotlight. “I must have my share in the conversation!” She reminds Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

2.) Rusty Everett, Under the Dome by Stephen King—My great sorrow is that Rusty does not even feature in the Under the Dome TV show. But he is one of the most human and memorable characters from the book. Rusty is the everyman, the guy we all root for. Of course, there is Barbie the badass, ex-army superhero. But Rusty is someone whom you know you’ve met … thrust into unusual circumstances, who rises to the occasion.

3.) Peregrin (aka Pippin) Took, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien—It’s hard to pick a favorite hobbit, and I wouldn’t dare. But as literary characters go, Pippin is endearing, mischievous, and stellar. He elbows his way into the Fellowship, peers into the Palintir, and charms both Treebeard and the raving mad Denethor. “Fool of a Took!” cries Gandalf, after one of Pippin’s signature gaffs in the Mines of Moria.

4.) Just about everyone in the Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling—Really these books are a cornucopia of delightful, palpable secondary characters. That is why they were able to get so many British greats to take cameos in the films. There are the scene-stealing twins, Fred and George Weasley; the feared and revered Professor McGonagall; the ditzy and dreamy Loony Lovegood; everyone’s favorite fugitive, wizard godfather Sirius Black, Tonks the ass-kicking, punk auror, oh and also Dobby, the house elf, and then Winky, the drunk elf. Really, I must stop, but it’s not easy…

5.) Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë—I actually do not like Nelly very much at all. She is the original unreliable narrator, presenting her story as if she were not taking sides while in reality she drives along the friction between characters. Knowing Heathcliff is in earshot, Nelly prods Cathy to say it would “degrade her” to marry him.” Decorum prevents me from using the apt word describe Nelly, but it rhymes with witch.

6.) Aunt Dahlia, The Jeeves and Wooster books, by P.G. Wodehouse—Again, I could have picked Aunt Agatha, aka ‘the nephew crusher,’ (or the simpering Madeline Bassett who calls stars “daisy chains,” or the completely daft Barmy Fortheringay Fipps, or Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker). But Dahlia is the one of my favorites partly for the many whacky schemes into which she ensnares Bertie, but also for her line, “curse all dancing chauffeurs,” uttered after she gets locked out of Brinkley Manor during the servants ball. No wonder, Wodehouse titled a book, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

7.) Everyone, Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky— Némirovsky planned this as a sort of paean to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a wonderful, shattering novel about the early days of World War II in France, as the Germans roll through Paris and the small villages. There are so many finely drawn and distinct characters: the parents of a son missing in battle; wealthy Parisians fleeing to resorts; and the kindly, well-mannered German officer who is also a musician. It is so heartbreaking that this novel was never finished.

8.) Aloysius, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh—Sebastian’s teddy bear, who accompanies him to Oxford and upon most of his forays, is sort of a forerunner to Hobbes, the best friend of Calvin. Unlike that stuffed plush, though, Aloysius never comes to life, but often Sebastian can express his feelings, or avoid them, by attributing them to his teddy. “How silly, Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all.”

9.) Nick Adams, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway—Ok, so technically Nick is the *main* character. But he is so often the observer, giving us honest, at times awful, insights into those around him, like the brutal, clinical manner of his father in “Indian Camp.” Every few years I reread these stories because I always find something new in Nick’s view of the world. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there is so much brewing under his subdued reactions to nature. “He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.”

10.) Mma Potokwani, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series, by Alexander McCall Smith—This bossy, but lovable mistress of the orphanage is like the bizarro Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mma Potokwani orders people about and makes humorous demands, but all for the good of the orphans for whom she will go to (and push others to) just about any lengths. And of course Mma Ramotswe would not be happily married to the quiet, reserved Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, if Mma Potokwani hadn’t ambushed them with a surprise wedding!

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Moonshine here does not mean Tennessee hooch, though this being Wodehouse, the characters tend to reach for potent liquid bracers at key plot points. Here, moonshine takes the British connotation of nonsense or silliness. Certainly, this novel has a carefree absurdity which reminded me a bit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Wodehouse was devoted to Shakespeare.) There is a cast of wacky characters all gathered at Walsingford Hall, which is repeatedly described as one of England’s ugliest country houses, “in all its revolting hideousness.” The summer retreat proves a hotspot for all sorts of mix-ups, including crossed identities, romantic entanglements, and chases down country lanes, as well as through the many closets of Walsingford Hall.

The story starts off on a languorous summer day. The guests idled over croquet and sunbathed by the river, while cows grazed in the distance. To this, enters Miss Prudence Whitaker, “who spoke in a cold crisp voice which sounded in the drowsy stillness like ice tinkling in a pitcher.” We soon learn that Prudence is somewhat of a hotel manager, and these are paying guests. Her boss, Sir Buckstone Abbot, is short on cash, and the setup is a bit like Downton Abbey meets the “Island of Misfit Toys.”

The brooding Sir Buckstone does not feel that he is getting paid enough to have these interlopers trampling about his house, drinking his port, and asking for waffles at breakfast. “A bee buzzed past his nose and he gave it a cold look.” Indeed, his financial predicament had engendered in him a great admiration for the money-squeezing character of Shylock.

Sir Buckstone’s daughter Jane has her own troubles. “It ruffles a girl of sensibility, who shortly after breakfast has heard the man she loves called a twerp and … a few hours later, at luncheon, described as a kickworthy heel.”

There are also two befuddled, and rather Bertie Wooster-esque, brothers named Vanringham. Joe, an aspiring playwright, spends his time doodling mustaches on the statues that decorate the grounds. “There is nothing like creative work in fine weather for releasing the artistic spririt.” His brother Tubby, also a daydreamer, “from the age of fourteen onward, had been unable to see a girl on the distant horizon without wanting to send her violets and secure her telephone number.”

Into this, pushes in the brash, uninvited, “blighter” of an American relative, Mr. Sam Bullpitt, who is actually a process server chasing down one of the aforementioned Vanringhams.

The other guests serve as obstacles and comic relief in this roundabout game of chase. Upon discovering that Tubby (last seen attempting to read a dullish mystery called “Murder at Bilbury Manor”) has disappeared, Joe interrupts the golf practice of an aged Mr. Waugh-Bonner.

“‘My name is Vanringham. My brother was sitting under the cedar.’

‘Hey? Oh, you mean that young fellow? You his brother?’

‘Yes, Have you seen him?’

‘Of course I have seen him.’


‘Sitting under the cedar,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, with the manner of a man answering an easy one, and turned to address his ball.

It seemed for a moment as if there might be murder at Walsingford Hall as well as at Bilbury Manor, but, with a powerful effort, Joe restrained himself from snatching the putter from this obtuse septuagenarian and beating out his brains, if you could call them that. He even waited until the other had completed his stoke—another miss.

‘He’s not sitting there now.’

‘Of course, he’s not. How could he be when he’s gone for a walk?’

‘Walk? Where?’

‘Where what?’

‘Which way was he heading and when did he leave?’

‘Started out along the Walsingford road twenty minutes ago,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, and snorted irritably as his companion left him like a bullet from a gun. He disliked all young men, but he hated jumpy ones.”

There are several other eccentric characters—the ‘kickworthy’ fortune hunter Adrian Peake, the faux Czech Princess Dwornitzcheck, a shuffling butler named Pollen, and the waffle-requesting Mr Chinnery, to whom Sir Buckstone owes a large sum of money—and several of them seem to be chasing each other about.

Slight spoiler alert: there is a dust-up in which Joe Vanringham is set upon by a group of large, menacing, factory workers. Turns out, it’s a biscuit factory (that’s what the Brits call cookies), and suddenly the cookie makers seem much more comedy than tragedy. They all end up slinging pints, not fists, at the local pub. It is Wodehouse after all.

I don’t want to downplay this masterpiece as complete gush. Wodehouse was markedly cerebral, and he was alone, unequaled, in his ability to write smart, and most hilarious, novels. Nary a page goes by without a reference to classical Greek or Roman mythology, Classical Opera, Shakespeare, or British history. Joe Vanringham, before he secures a room at Walsingford Hall, feels himself “a peri at the gate of Paradise.”  But that is for another blog post. Always, Wodehouse does it so seamlessly, that a reader could completely miss these citations and just enjoy the comedic flow.

The plot is delightfully fluffy and bubbles along in a series of inane incidents that highlight the joys of summertime in the English countryside. Yes, I laughed and smiled on every page—a perfect sunny, summer read.

P.G. Wodehouse via Wikipedia

The Paris Review Interview of P.G. Wodehouse

The P.G. Wodehouse Society

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I do have an e-reader, but still mostly like to lug around the real deal.

Now that everyone has Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, it’s much easier to bring books on a trip. But the question remains … exactly what to read? I find that my book tastes change dramatically when I am on the road—trending towards escapist and the potboiler. Last weekend, I brought 1Q84 (well, volume 1) to my college reunion. Let’s just say that Murakami is extra trippy after a late night out. I quickly had to put that aside in favor of (gasp) Brad Meltzer’s faux history thriller The Inner Circle. (Full disclosure, I only lasted about 50 rather dreary pages in this before I quickly flipped to Phillipa Gregory’s engrossing The Lady of The Rivers.) It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying 1Q84—so absorbing and intense—but I find it harder to read (and to appreciate) literary fiction in snatches. I get that feeling that I’m missing something. I also tried to read The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje during my travels, but I couldn’t really get into it until I was home for a few days. Loved it, by the way! Ondaatje’s writing (like that of Murakami or, say, that of Gabriel García Marquez) is so dense, so beautiful—these are words you want to sink into with a chunk of time.

Plus there’s something about travel that makes me crave book candy: chic lit, suspense, or cozy fiction. Basically, I pack books with short, episodic chapters, and (mostly implausible) page-turner plots. Or, I turn to humor. I breezed through the most hilarious e-book spoof, A New Financial You in 28 Days (A 37-Day Plan) on my iPhone. Also, anything by Sophie Kinsella or P.G. Wodehouse makes excellent road-trip fare—especially on those long-haul flights. I was once stuck on the tarmac at DFW for nearly an hour AFTER landing, but barely noticed because I was deep into Right Ho, Jeeves.

I think it’s the stress and discomfort of travel—overcrowded planes, arduous delays, and the fatigue of packing and unpacking—that make me want something indulgent. It’s sort of a bookish equivalent to chocolate, a glass of wine, or a bubble bath.

‘Airport Lit,’ is what Dominique Browning dubs it in a humorous essay for the New York Times. She goes on to describe the sisyphean agony of trying to get through Ulysses while her plane was repeatedly deiced at the gate. Things got much better once she picked up G.R.R. Martin. The hassles were still there, but she no longer cared.

On the other hand, great writing (and thus great literature) tends to stir one up, making you more viscerally aware. That’s not necessarily ideal on a bumpy flight when the people next to you are arguing over the armrest.

I just finished a string of trips that had me on and off the road off for almost two months. Here are the books that kept me entertained en route:

A New Financial You in 28 Days (A 37-Day Plan) by Brian Foley
Hahaha. Loved this e-book—silly, funny, clever. Perfect kindle or smartphone read for when you are stuck in the airport.

A Clash of Kings by GRR Martin
Addictive—biblio crack. This is epic storytelling with such memorable characters. Note: beware of GRR Martin books when changing time zones … they will keep you up all night!

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
So fun and hilarious! Not only did I laugh out loud, I dropped the book. It’s right up there with her original Shopaholic books—most genius chic lit.

The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer
Alas, this is supposed to be a thriller about secrets passed down by US Presidents. As much as I balk at dissing books, I must say this was a giant snoozer of a disappointment. Nothing remotely exciting happened for the first 50 pages except the narrator whining (seriously whining) about how he was a geek in high school. Who cares?! The geeks rule the world now. Anyway, finally around page 52 someone dies, and the main character’s reaction was so histrionic (comic) that I could not take it, or the book, seriously. Chilling pot-boiler, this is not.

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
More frothy fun and a bit of bodice-ripping as Gregory, known for her Tudor Court Novels (‘historical’ fiction) now turns to the Wars of the Roses. I highly suggest reading this prequel first of the four books in the Cousins’s War Series, as it really explains and lays a groundwork of understanding for what became an infamous period in English history.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith
I just LOVE all the No. 1 Detective Agency novels. The latest is simply delightful, like a cheering cup of bush tea—charming, heart-warming, and everything always turns all right in the end.

“Learning to Love Airport Lit” via The New York Times

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Last week, the editors of the New York Times Magazine conducted a poll via Twitter:  “What are your top 5 fiction books?”  My feed lit up with a stream of titles: The Great Gatsby, Infinite Jest, Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre.  It was like a reader’s stock ticker with books instead of companies. Every morning, I logged on to see what would come next: Ulysses, The Awakening, The Godfather, Moby-Dick.  I was enthralled—so much so that I could not respond myself.

How could I pick? I was the keyboard equivalent of struck speechless, which seemed ironic as I am not known for being short on words.  Should I simply list all five Jane Austen novels? Ok, there are six but Mansfield Park, really?  Or, I could go with the first five Harry Potter novels, but that leaves “HeWho-MustNot-Be-Named” still alive.  I would need to include Anna Karenina, but what about Vanity Fair? I didn’t want to keep to the classics, having just read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.  And, what about my less cerebral favorites?  I could not put down Michael Crichton’s Timeline, and who did not love Confessions of a Shopaholic?  I’ve read Aunts Aren’t Gentleman three times, but alas NYT Magazine specified one could not include “all Wodehouse” as an entry. Luckily, they also limited it to fiction, or I would not have been able to leave out Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai or David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.

Finally, I closed my eyes and just typed: Cold Mountain, Suite Française, The English Patient, Wuthering Heights, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban. Instant remorse set in. I was like Sir Galahad on Monty Python’s Bridge of Death. “Blue, no green … aaahhhhh!”

That’s why I’m so hooked on books.  On any given day, my list of favorites changes.  I have just read Tim Winton’s radiant story collection, The Turning, and I’m now deep into George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings … so please no Dance with Dragons spoilers.

Can you pick 5 fiction favorites?  What are they?

NYT Magazine Editors Top Fiction Five

Twitter Picks Top Fiction Five

NYT Magazine Editors Top Five Non-fiction books

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