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CBR9 #14: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The book group that I’m in at work picks books that either have already been made into a movie or soon will be made into a movie.  It’s made for an interesting mix.  And like most book clubs, it also means there are titles you’d never pick up on your own.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of these.  Mysteries and thrillers are not my genre.  I’m not interested in looking for clues or remembering what someone said that one time that contradicts what they said now.  Or, even worse, not having the prior knowledge to know that a thing isn’t true because someone in Job X would not know about Thing Y.  As a kid, I’d skip through Encyclopedia Brown to find the answer and was always irritated at how random it was.  How the hell does anyone pick up on these things?  I can’t solve The Mystery of Where the Fuck Are My Keys and I’m supposed to believe that some kid saw a thermos and knew there was a cold ping pong ball?  Perhaps I’m overreacting in an effort to hide the fact that MY KEYS WERE JUST THERE WHAT THE HELL?

Sherlock is the exception to the rule, because… well…

and

The ridiculousness is built in to the character and I’m willing to give in to the magic of it all.  Plus they’re pretty.

I had very little prior knowledge of Hercule Poirot.  I knew there was a show on PBS or the BBC and he was a detective, so he wasn’t for me.  I hadn’t read anything by Agatha Christie, although I did see the play for And then There Were None.  (Had no clue who did it.)  I had a vague understanding that she either invented the crime novel or at least made huge contributions and set the standard for everything that came after.  Still… not my thing.

Let’s get to the murder…

Through a series of unexpected events, Poirot finds himself on the Orient Express and a murder just happens to be committed that he can solve.  ‘Sup, Jessica Fletcher?Jessica Fletcher

A passenger has been stabbed to death and since the train is stuck in the snow, the murderer must still be on board.  His friend M. Bouc is the director of the train and is delighted to know his friend will take care of everything before the cops show up and his reputation is tainted.

I liked the stationary setting.  Most of the interviews took place in the dining car, so there was a sense of tension and confinement, and yet Poirot could take his time because no one could leave and no one new could show up to meddle.

He interviews the twelve passengers, the train conductor and other employees.  There is also, conveniently, a doctor on board who notes the strange pattern of the stabs.  The murderer appears to have used both the right and left hand.  Some strikes were deep and the cause of death.  Others appeared to be delivered with such weakness that the body was barely punctured.  Some might have happened after the man was dead.  It doesn’t make sense.  Except of course it does!  The doctor and M. Bouc are convinced there was more than one person.  Or that maybe there was one person but he switched hands to confuse the police.  Or she.  Maybe a woman.  That Italian guy looks sketchy.

The reveal at the end is SO GOOD.  I obviously don’t know if Christie or Poirot always have this type of ending, but it was satisfying and very clever.

One huge drawback to the book is that there is a lot of French throughout and as someone who does not speak French, it was both irritating and frustrating not knowing if something was a sentence, a clue, a throwaway or what.

It also has suuuuuuuuuuper racist and sexist parts, but I won’t hold 1930’s Christie responsible.

We watched the 1974 movie after our discussion, and it made me like the book more.  I’ll check out the new version once it’s out on DVD.

I can see why people like Christie’s writing and I absolutely understand her importance to the genre.  It’s still not for me, but if there were some weird book drought situation where the only thing I could find was her, I’d read on and totally be OK.

Some Things Never Change

I’ve got four reviews to write and am about to add a fifth book to that list.

CBR9 #13: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Hey, you know what’s a good idea?  Read a disturbing, scary piece of fiction right after reading a disturbing piece of realistic fiction.  Because why not make yourself feel creeped out in a different way?

I have no idea why I added Bird Box to my TBR list.  A few friends reviewed it over on Goodreads and they all said it was creepy and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to add it.  And having a new Kindle Paperwhite means instant downloads.  The title was available, and here we are.

***

Some four years and nine months ago, something arrived.  Appeared?  Was created?  It started out as a few freaky stories coming out of Russia.  And then more reports.  Things started happening in the States.  Monthly, then weekly, and then the news couldn’t keep up with it all.

No one knew what it was because no one survived to tell what they saw.  One look and you go mad.  Violently mad.  Sometimes a person would kill those around them in gruesome and violent ways.  People who saw always ended up killing themselves in equally horrific ways.  And people who lived?  What measures do you take to prevent seeing?  Do you destroy yourself in the hope of saving loved ones?

What was out there?

People stayed inside, covering windows and doors with blankets, plywood, anything they could find.  Some recognized what was happening and stockpiled food.

After her sister accidentally sees, Malorie desperately drives to a rumored safe house without once looking up.  But are these things in the sky?

Six months pregnant, the members take her in and we wait for something to happen.  People test theories and it leads to more violent madness.  Food is counted.  Water drawn blind from a well near the river.

Outside means blindfolds, counted steps and sounds.

The book is claustrophobic with its darkness.  Everything is told via sounds and scents and terrified moments of reaching out to feel.

What is out there?  Animal?  Human?  Other?  Is it watching when you leave the house to count your steps to draw water?  Does it stand next to you when you slip apples to the birds?  What happens if the humans gathered together to survive grow suspicious of each other and panic at the unknown?

The structure of this book is solid.  Each chapter goes back and forth from when things first started to happen to Malorie’s present time.  We know she was just pregnant when people began to stay inside.  We know she now has two four year olds, trained from birth to keep their eyes closed and navigate by sound.  She is alone, but she wasn’t always alone.

And she has an escape, but she doesn’t know if it’s real.

Does she take the two children, count her steps to a boat that might not be in the river?  Blindfolds on, does she push off and row, trusting that saviors are real?  What will they hear?  Will someone find them?

Yet again, I managed to pick a book that resulted in physical tension.  I realized I was clenching my jaw.  You’re blind reading this book and forced to trust two four year old children who are better listeners than Malorie can be.

The movement down the river is constant, and yet there are things on the banks that could pull them in.

And what is being seen?  What are they?  This is the most horrific part for me… the not knowing.

Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will be on board with this one.  People with kids… not so much.

CBR9 #12: The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

This book is going to be difficult to review because I don’t want to give anything away but I really want people to read it.

Paul and Claire are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner. They do not want to go. Immediately I wanted to know the family history. Serge seems like he’s been steamrolling Paul all their lives and yet Paul knows he won’t skip out on the meeting. He fantasizes about all the things he can do to get the upper hand during the encounter while at the same time knowing exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to make him feel angry and small.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn and Paul tells us he snuck into his fifteen year old son’s room to snoop through his phone. He watches a video, his suspicions are confirmed and he doesn’t know what is going to happen.

And back to dinner.

I was completely on board with the brother plot and then was given the son plot for just a second and was all “Wait!  Go back to that!”  But Paul is telling this story and has little regard for the reader.  His narcissism would never make him pause to wonder if the reader wants different details.  Because we are on his side, we will of course let him tell the story his way – the correct way.

Throughout the dinner, the four circle around the topic of their sons. Paul doesn’t know how much information the other three have. He’s not even sure what his wife knows and if he’s protecting her or if she’s keeping things from him.

Paul eventually lets the reader know what Michael has been up to and how Serge’s sons Rick and Beau are involved.

The relationships here are fascinating. Family is everything, but Paul is faced with dueling realities.  Does his brother come first or his wife and son?

More information is slowly revealed to Paul while he also reveals his own knowledge to the reader.  Very early on in this book I knew that something terrible had happened and something even worse would happen next.

Having the couples avoid or ignore everything builds tension, especially because the reader does not know the full details of what happened and also does not know what the characters know.  Everyone is hiding details and  I had a physical reaction throughout.  It was the feeling of putting your arms out to try and stop something that you know you can’t stop.  Watching a car accident as it unfolds.  Waiting for a balloon to pop.  Cringing and looking away, but not quite all the way because you want to know what happens.

While Paul tells the story of dinner and lets us in on what he knows and what he is figuring out about Michael, Rick and Beau, he nonchalantly reveals details about himself and I liked these parts the best.  There are things that have happened that are incredibly disturbing but Paul presents them the same way he’d tell you his favorite color, the name of his third grade teacher or how old he was when he learned to ride a bike. It never occurs to him that anything would bother the reader because, again, we are on his side.

It was clear to me what was going to happen and Koch’s talent here is keeping the reader on board to see if there will be repercussions or a happy ending.  I wasn’t sure how things would resolve but I had a horrid feeling that characters were going to get away with abhorrent acts.  Even worse, maybe I would want them to get away with it.

Koch reveals events slowly and his narrator is so unreliable that it’s like watching ballet. I can’t tell if Paul believes what he is saying or not. I never felt like he was trying to convince the reader of anything because he has no reason to ever doubt that we’d be on his side.  The narcissism is overwhelming but Koch writes Paul in such a way that there were times I didn’t feel disgust because Paul doesn’t.  I loved it.

Major appreciation to Garrett for the translation.


If you like Frank Underwood, you will enjoy this book.

CBR9 #11: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat did I just read and why did I like it?  And why is it called Universal Harvester?  I need this to be a book club book so someone can tell me what they thought was happening and we can hash out the whys.

Darnielle’s writing is breathtaking.  I mean this literally.  There is a sentence with a pronoun shift that made me gasp and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  One pronoun scared me.  A PRONOUN.  He has a powerful gift.  There are songs on The Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree that I cannot listen to because the combination of his words, voice and music almost immediately knocks me into tears and I cannot have that.  His songwriting skills blend beautifully into his fiction and the flow and beats and pauses are just as lyrical.  Wolf in White Van did it to me, too.  I had to pause from time to time to sit with the words.

Adding a confusing as hell plot to such carefully crafted words made this a satisfying read.  I wanted to race through it because what the fucking fuck was happening, but I also want to take my time and enjoy the language.

We’re in Iowa.  Video stores are still a thing and Jonah works at the local Video Hut. Stephanie returns a video and tells him that there’s “something” on it.   A second customer returns a different movie and also tells him that there’s “something” on it.  When Jonah finally watches it and the added scene appears, it scares the hell out of him and gave me a stomach ache.

A barn.  Someone breathing.  Movement under a sack.

What is he seeing?  Was someone hurt?  Is this an art project?  A cry for help?  A threat?  Why is it so terrifying and why isn’t there an explanation?  Should he go to the cops?

Jonah’s boss Sarah Jane watches and becomes obsessed.  She recognizes that barn.  Stephanie also wants to investigate but Jonah wants to be done with everything.  Something is wrong.  It’s unexplainable.  He can’t sleep and he wants to forget what he’s seen.

The book is split by perspectives and time.  The first section is Jonah’s and was by far my favorite.  The mystery is creepy as fuck and Jonah is a strong character.  I enjoyed going through everything with him, even if I didn’t enjoy the content.  (Again, a pronoun shift scared me.)

The second part of the book is a flashback to a new character and mystery and I waited to see how it would catch up to the tapes.  The strength here was not understanding Lisa’s mother’s actions.  It’s a strong choice because Lisa cannot understand what happened, so we shouldn’t be able to either.  And even better, why did this mother’s choice result in someone adding creepy ass footage to VHS rentals?  Where is the logic in a time-consuming, detailed job?

Part three brings us back to Jonah and a reveal that explained nothing to me, and this is where I need a book club because whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Everything was slow and sad and confusing and I felt like I was going crazy because characters were accepting things as if they were logical.  I couldn’t see the logic and I loved it.

Part four pops us into the future with a whole new cast of characters but the same old tapes.  More is revealed that made me flip back to part three because, again whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Our future family sees Jonah on one of the tapes and has the same reaction as Jonah did when he first saw a cutscene.  The Pratts don’t know if they should go to the police or shrug it off as an art project.  But it’s creepy as hell and they don’t like it.

It’s still creepy to me because I know who these people are but I still don’t know why they’re participating and what the point to all of this is.  The creator of the films tells us why and states it with calm logic, as if we are foolish to even have to ask.

I did understand why videos were the medium used.  There is permanence to film, both video and photographs.  Visuals were used to both search for answers and send messages, so even though I didn’t get it, I was on board with why it was happening.

This book legitimately stressed me out and Darnielle led me through it all.  I was concerned for the characters and even gave pause to ask if I wanted to know what was happening in that barn.  I was concerned that it was going to be a total brain fuck and maybe I didn’t want to have it in my mind.  (See: Requiem for a Dream)  However, because I am already solidly in love with what Darnielle does, there was no way I was going to put this down.

 

 

CBR9 #10: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Jules miraculously lands at a creative arts summer camp her junior year of high school.  Even more miraculous, she is somehow taken in by the most popular crowd there.  The six of them decide they are the Interestings and Jules redefines her life based on what they see.

For reasons that Jules never understands, the beautiful and perfect Ash becomes her best friend.  Jules doesn’t see why she, or any of the Interstings want her around and she knows at any minute they will realize they’ve made a mistake.

Teenage Jules through late forties/early fifties Jules tells us this over and over and over and over again.  She is not worthy.  The rest of them are.

Ash’s brother Goodman is beautiful and Jules of course is enthralled by him.

Jonah has some sort of secret, but does he even know what it is?

Cathy is a dancer cursed with a woman’s body and too much passion.

And Fig is brilliant and talented and extremely unattractive.  So unattractive.  There are many reminders of this.

Early on we know that Something happens.  While the six are inseparable at camp, we know only four get together as adults.  We know Goodman disappears at some point.  And through all of this, Jules remains unsure of why Ash wants her around.

In order for this book to work you have to either be completely in love with Ash and understand why Jules defines herself by Ash’s existence OR you have to completely understand why Ash and Fig want Jules in their lives.  Or both.

The problem I had was that so much of Jules’ personality is believing to her core that she doesn’t measure up to Ash and Fig in any way.  Ash comes from money and knows at sixteen what she wants to do.  Fig’s talent is clearly going to lead him to success which will bring money.  Jules… what is her point?  She’s not going to be a comedic actress.  She’s not going to create art.  So what should she do?

The more Jules drowns herself in her self-bestowed mediocrity and acceptance that she’ll never be as good as anyone, the more I wondered why Ash and Fig wanted her around.  If her inner monologue was ever voiced, they would be so sick of her shit.  She never feels equal.  She never feels part of them, even as she explains over and over again that Ash is family.  But Ash and Fig constantly tell her that they would not get through life without her.

I didn’t see it.  I wasn’t in love with Jules, and while I could understand why she was in love with Ash, I wasn’t in love with Ash, so the book only worked for me in pieces.

When the Something happens, I was not surprised.  The aftermath is what was interesting (heh).  What happens to a family when a life-altering event happens?  How much do the adults define the reactions of the children, and when those children grow up, can they redefine themselves and logically review the facts of What Happened?  If your behavior was dictated by authority, do you ever question what happened and search for your own opinion, or do you take the simple answer and decide the adults knew what they were doing, so it’s best to go along?

Because of the Something, it was obvious that Something Else was going to happen and this kept me interested (heh).  At some point in the book, knowledge was going to be shared and I wanted to know what the fallout would be.  I wanted to know if that knowledge would be shared willingly or if there would be an accidental reveal.

While I waited, I was hoping Jules would either see her own worth or articulate why Ash was deserving of her adoration… or if she was deserving.  It seemed like there were too many moments where Jules doesn’t decide anything for herself.  Instead she acts the way she thinks Ash’s best friend should act.  At times I couldn’t understand why Jules’ husband fell in love with her if she was so caught up in what she was not.

But Ash and Fig are constantly telling us how important she is, and that’s another problem I had.  Wolitzer is a good writer and I want to try some of her other books, but there were moments where she told instead of showed and there was no reason.  At one point Fig makes a joke and knows immediately he’s gone too far when he sees Jules’ face.  But we don’t get to see her face, so I don’t know if she looked angry or shocked or was about to cry or turned red or turned away or what.  Fig tells us he went too far.  He tells us that Jules is important.  He tells us that he would never have had success if it wasn’t for her.  She can do no wrong, even when she does.  At camp, we are told that Jules’ is funny, but we never see it.  Too much telling in this book.

Ash is also defined by everyone around her, but because she is so sure of herself, I found her a more sympathetic character than Jules.  Ash was born into money so there are immediate expectations and behaviors.  She is defined by the Something that happens.  Growing up, Goodman’s behavior dictates her own.  If he’s going to be the troubled son, she has to be the perfect daughter.  I didn’t feel like she had many choices in her life, but what she did have was activity and action in the space she occupied.  Jules had to wait for someone to tell her what to do, or decide for herself what she thought they’d tell her to do.  It doesn’t seem to occur to Ash that she can’t do things because she hasn’t had many obstacles in her life.  And money gets things done.

Jules never felt like part of the story to me because she kept telling me over and over and over again that she shouldn’t be there.  It didn’t make sense that Ash and Fig insisted on her because I couldn’t see their version of her.

I was really disappointed in the ending of the book.  I don’t know if Wolitzer fell into the trap of not knowing how to end things so she chose a cliche, but something happens that forces people to get together and I wasn’t impressed.

I didn’t hate this but I also never fully bought into it.  Even when a fifty year old Jules makes a major decision, it didn’t make sense until her husband explained it to the reader by saying it to her.  Why didn’t I see this part of Jules’ thought process?  Was it an intentional writing choice to keep her apart from the reader the way she felt she was apart from the Interestings?

If you’re a fan of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, you’ll like this one.  If you hated that book because you hated everyone in it, give this one a pass.  Different books, but similar feelings of alienation and the rich, cool kids.

CBR9 #9: I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

tigWe all have bad days.  Difficult months. Challenging years.  But every once in awhile, it seems like the stars of “fuck you.” align to create something so cruel that it should be fiction and then hands it to someone and walks away.

That’s what happened to Tig in less than one year.  People want to make sense of things, so they say it’s random, or God only gives you what He thinks you can handle, or they wonder what you did in a previous life.  But that’s now how things work.  Things just happen.

In 2012 Tig got sick and misdiagnosed.  She was finally admitted to the hospital with C.diff which could have taken her out.  The pain was intense, she was weak from being unable to eat for so long and if this was the only thing happening in her life, it would have still felt unmanageable at times.

Then her mother died.

A random, bullshit death.  She fell and hit her head.  Her husband checked her out and she said she felt fine, so they went back to watching TV until he went to bed.  He found her the next morning, sitting in her chair, unresponsive.

Tig, still in agony and dealing with C.diff, got on a plane to head to the hospital so she could sit by her mother, counting breaths after taking her off life support, waiting for the last one.

Then she got breast cancer.

Then she went back to work.  She’s a comic.  Work is what she does.

“Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.”

There was also a breakup, a new relationship that wasn’t awesome, family dynamics, and regular life.

But mostly this book is about Tig’s mother.  And it’s wonderful and confusing and sad and funny.

There will never be a lack of Mother/Daughter topics.  Articles, fiction, nonfiction, television, movies, songs…  All relationships are complicated, and Mothers and Daughters have their own things.  Any adult daughter who pauses to think about her relationship with her mother and forces herself to think of it from her adult perspective and not the perspective of the age she was at the time is probably going to have moments of “Oh.  Fuck.”

Tig had to do it all in the past tense.  She had to remember her mother as a mother, but also think about who she was as a person.

She wasn’t the best mother.  She rarely knew where Tig and her brother were.  She wasn’t interested in getting to things on time or being home or giving up her social life.  She loved her kids, but being a mom wasn’t on her list of things to do.  It infuriated Tig that there were no rules or structure and that she’d have to go wander the neighborhood to find which pool her mom was stretched out next to so she could drag her home.

But she loved her kids and she taught by example that Tig had value.  When a teacher would imply that Tig needed to be controlled or made to fit in, Tig’s mom would lose it and tell Tig’s teachers to go to hell.  Tig was fine.  She was independent.  She knew what was important.  Tig’s mom might not know where she was, but that wasn’t the point.

Years after her mother’s death and her recovery from cancer (but always looking at the percentage of it coming back) Tig tells her life’s story through the events of less than a year.  People kept telling her how brave she was and she wondered if they’d feel the same way knowing she had spent the last two days on the couch, sobbing for her mother and waiting for the cancer to kill her.  She thinks of the difficult relationship she had with her stepfather and watches in amazement as it becomes something new after her mom dies.  Another moment of unfairness that her mom had to die for it to happen.

Through it all, Tig continues to work on her own life.  Like everyone, she analyzes her relationships, thinks about work, decides what’s important and live her life.  But she does it knowing she almost died, she still could die, and she’ll never see her mom again.

I try to get memoirs on audio because I want to hear the words the way the author meant them to be said.  Tig knows where to put the pauses and what beats to hit.  As a comedian, the rhythm is important and I wanted her to tell me the story.  Tig did not disappoint.