Tuesday, July 31, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Book 8 of 100 from the Great American Read list.

In my early teens I read as many novels by Agatha Christie as I could get my hands on. I had spent my childhood reading Enid Blyton books from the 1930s and 40s, so the old fashioned language and archaic social attitudes were comfortably familiar to me. The public library had a seemingly endless supply of Agatha Christie books and although I never managed to read all of them, I think I’ve certainly read more than 20. Every one of these polite murder mysteries surprised me with the big reveal. Each time I thought I knew whodunnit, but then my choice of villain would end up as the third corpse. Over the years I’ve always believed that thirteen-year-old me must have been the perfect Agatha Christie reader.

Fast forward to today and I just reread And Then There Were None. Once again I happily devoured the book and once again my best guess at the murderer was still the third victim. Yes, even though I'd read it before.

In the interest of not spoiling an exceptional story, I will tell you only this. Ten strangers arrive on a remote island and are picked off one by one in the manner described by a morbid nursery rhyme. There’s a Colonel, a governess, an undercover cop, a few servants, a retired judge, a surgeon, a colonial sort, a religiously fanatical older woman and a playboy. The murderer could be any one of them.

And Then There Were None is widely believed to be Agatha Christie’s best book and she was justifiably proud of it. This is from her autobiography which was reprinted in the edition I read:

“It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

I think it’s a wonderful book, maybe not a work of genius, but certainly a pleasure to read. The plotting is done on a knife edge where every second counts and every flourish of the murderer is exactly meaningful. The language is straightforward, which adds to the readability but underneath that simplicity are characters who are much more complex than the cliches they first appear to be. Meanwhile, the structure makes my head spin. Ten characters, each under equal suspicion must be satisfactorily introduced, suspected and killed. It’s quite an achievement.

Why is it on the list? Well it turns up on lots of lists of the best mystery books of all time and it usually ranks quite high. There’s this NPR poll from 2010, or you could trust the Mystery Writers of America. But the popularity of And Then There Were None is far from just an American phenomenon, the UK Crime Writers Association also rate it highly. According to Wikipedia it has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. And it’s been made into countless tv shows, movies and plays. This is a very popular book all over the world.

Have we found the perfect book to bridge the Atlantic? Well, there is a notable difference between the early UK and US editions, which bears some examination. When I first read this book as a teenager, it was called Ten Little Indians, the island was called Indian Island and the nursery rhyme was Ten Little Indians. But the earliest edition was even worse, in 1939 in the UK, the book was called Ten Little Niggers and the name of the island and the rhyme matched the title. The following comes from Wikipedia.

“Both of the original US publications changed the title from that originally used in the UK, due to the offensiveness of the word in American culture, where it was more widely perceived as a racially loaded ethnic slur or insult compared to contemporary UK culture, and because of the pejorative connotations of the original blackface rhyme.”

I often say that American racism is different to British racism and this is a perfect example. The term is simply more pejorative in America where it was widely used as an aggressive slur for so long that it's now a forbidden word. In the UK, it wasn't widely used that way until we learned about the usage from Americans. I'm not saying there isn't racism in the UK. For example blackface performances were popular on television until 1978.

And one last thing. Christie uses Americans as a shorthand for eccentric decadence. The previous owner of Soldier Island is an American millionaire whose parties are so extraordinary that the locals think nothing of cutting off shipments to the island as “an experiment in survival”. Americans are apparently wealthy, carefree and unpredictable. A national characterization which is still easily found in British literature to this day, even though it’s decades out of date and was never entirely true to begin with.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Book 7 of 100 from the Great American Read list.

"Oh, my God!"

This is the first of the books on the Great American Read list that I couldn't wait to get through. It was such a slog. Normally, when I read a book that I dislike this much, I stop reading and I don't review it. So this might get controversial.

A Confederacy of Dunces does not have a plot. Instead it meanders around New Orleans gathering descriptions of insanity, frustration and general uncomfortableness. Every sentence is as monstrous as the protagonist's stomach. The style is a deliberate choice, of course. If a sane reader is to have any empathy for Ignatius J Reilly we need to suffer through his torturous language and "world view" so that we can feel his impotence. But it’s hard going for me.

The awkward humor of watching a character go through a mental breakdown always makes me cringe. Unfortunately, the Brits are brilliant at this kind of humor. Alan Partridge, The Office and (worst of all) The Royle Family make me look away while everyone else is laughing. When Ignatius is attempting to get support for his "Campaign for Moorish Dignity" on the factory floor, he gets embarrassed and starts dancing. At least I know where David Brent came from now.

And yet, people apparently love this book. One of my colleagues told me that her boyfriend always has a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces with him. His copy is so well read that it's fallen in two halves. My American roommate from London who introduced me to my husband gave me her copy of this book when she left the UK. Thank god she has better taste in men than in books.

So why is it on the list? Well, rants are fun to read and even though I don’t think it’s funny, I know other people who would find it hilarious. But there are other more complex factors at play.

Ignatius has many ideas and most of them seem insane. His political ideologies are all over the road. I think if I had to pin down his “world view” I’d liken it to Kanye West in “Free Thinker” mode or Steve Bannon's "burn it down" philosophy. The fact that I can find parallels with Ignatius J Reilly in America today may seem remarkable, but I think it’s part of the appeal of the book. We all know an Ignatius J Reilly, I think one might currently be president.

Having said that, I don’t think any of us is totally free of extreme ideas. I think we can all find something in Ignatius’ ramblings, which we might be persuaded to believe, given the right encouragement.

I have noticed that belief is often confused with truth, as I saw in a Facebook comment a few weeks ago “don’t argue with a liberal, they just ask you to prove it”. And Americans love to believe, especially in themselves. But not everyone’s beliefs can be true. Just as not all of Ignatius’ legion of beliefs can be true. So like any good satirist the author turns up the volume on our ideas and shows us how absurd they are.

I’d like to finish up with a few thoughts about the women in this book. There are no sympathetic female character here. There are some male characters that we warm to, Burma Jones was a favorite of mine and the long-suffering but fair-minded Gus Levy seemed to be the most sensible character in the book. But the women are just charicatures.

Almost all the disasters that befall Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces could easily be attributed to the women in his life. His mother spoils him, his girlfriend provokes him, the woman he believes will be the love of his life is not what he expects and even the women of the choir at the factory undermine his authority. Ignatius believes that he has no agency, he is tossed from one misadventure to another by the capricious turns of Fortuna’s wheel. But all these women, including Fortuna, are not responsible for Ignatius’ mistakes. He is. I walked away with the uncomfortable feeling that Ignatius might now be described as an incel.

But uncomfortableness is the point of satire and it’s definitely the point of A Confederacy of Dunces. Maybe I should have written a one word review.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Book 6 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

I read The Color Purple at University in the UK for a feminist literature class. And I am ashamed to report that I didn’t remember much about it. Rather like Squeak I did smoke a lot of reefer at the time, so maybe that’s why. It’s more likely that I just lacked the context to be able to read it deeply.

After ten years in America, I have a slightly better idea of the context for The Color Purple. I've read more black authors, learned more black history, listened to black activists and I’m trying to see a big picture. The picture is huge. As big as the world. I doubt I’ll ever see all of it because I'm not black and I’m not American. So bearing in mind that my understanding of the context is still imperfect, here’s what I thought this time I read The Color Purple.

Never in the history of anything has a book that begins with the sexual abuse of a child contained so much joy and life.

The Color Purple is told through the prayers and letters of Celie and her sister Nettie. The two girls grow up together in the South in the 1930s, Celie stays in Georgia, while Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Mostly, the plot rests with Celie, we only hear from Nettie when Celie gets access to her letters. And Celie's life is hard. Raped by her supposed father, her children are taken from her and then she's worked relentlessly by an abusive husband who's name she doesn't even know. It's a disturbing story. But then her husband brings home an old flame, the jazz singer Shug Avery and Celie's relationship with this dazzling woman restores her humanity and her faith in god. Eventually, Celie turns on the abusive husband, becomes a successful business woman and is reunited with her sister and children. And when she does, it is incredibly cathartic.

Why is it on the list? Because reading it is an affirmation of being alive. Because there should always be stories about black lesbian feminists on school reading lists. And because it’s an incredible work of historical fiction.

Alice Walker crams a lot of African American history into The Color Purple. It's sometimes hard to remember that it was written as late as the 1980s. In the West African letters Nettie is amazed to discover the history of the African Kingdoms. She also sees white colonization with her own eyes when the rubber road arrives to destroy the Olinka village. Meanwhile in Celie's letters, her friend Sofia experiences something similar to being a house slave, even though the book is set post-slavery. There’s also the history of the influence of black culture on America in the juke joint, Shug Avery’s rise to fame and fortune and black female entrepreneurship. Religion, hair, sexuality, lynching, language, toxic masculinity, colorism, incarceration, mental health and communal child rearing are also here, along with probably much more that I’m missing because I’m still learning.

The Color Purple feeds and enriches American culture. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and was made into a movie in 1985. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars (although it didn't win any of them). The film launched the career of Whoopi Goldberg and truly established Oprah Winfrey as a force to be reckoned with. I see references to The Color Purple in Beyonce's Lemonade. On the flip side The Color Purple ranks high on the ALA list of 100 most banned or challenged books.

I can’t think of a better book to help me understand America.

(A small note, I thought long and hard about capitalizing Black here, but after some research I landed on the side of those who wish to acknowledge the diversity of blackness and not reduce it to a monolithic culture. Although, the arguments here also make sense to me.)