Tuesday, January 03, 2017

goodnight, sweet princess ...

I happened to be at the Disney Park that has franchised most of the Star Wars experience last week when I heard about Carrie Fisher's passing. Talk about bittersweet, as we saw posters of Princess Leia, from all of her franchise appearances, around the park. I first saw Star Wars on its first release in 1977, and loved her spunky take on the princess, although I have to admit my young teen eyes and heart were mostly focused on the dreamy Luke Skywalker. But I have enjoyed Carrie Fisher in many other things, so she has never been only Princess Leia to me. When Harry Met Sally, Hannah and Her Sisters, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery, Appointment with Death, come to mind. I also really enjoyed the HBO version of her stage show, Wishful Drinking. I'm not sure when I first realized she was also Debbie Reynolds (and Eddie Fisher)'s daughter, but I remember liking Postcards from the Edge and knowing it was a version of her life.

I decided this week that I wasn't yet ready to let her go and that I needed her voice in my head, and downloaded two of her books, Wishful Drinking, a text version of her one-woman show, and her latest and last book, an autobiography, The Princess Diarist.

Wishful Drinking is a little chaotic, as Fisher jumps back and forth in time, from her childhood to Star Wars stardom, to dependency on drugs and alcohol, to her long romance and brief marriage to Paul Simon, to the choice to use electro-shock therapy to try and tame her bipolar disorder. All through this roller coaster ride she is funny, witty and observant - of herself and the people around her. The reader can get a feel for what it might be like to hang out with Fisher when she is on a roll (which was probably most of the time).

The book does feel like a script for a play, however. A little bare bones. I was hoping it might be fleshed out a bit, with more anecdotes or insights that aren't part of the stage production. But it was a fun, fast read. There was a poignancy too, as it is hard not to wonder if so many of the "solutions" she has chosen over the years to help her cope with her manic depression may have played a role in her death - the aforementioned drugs, alcohol, and electroconvulsive therapy, as well as her recent rapid weight loss, at the behest of the producers of the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.

The Princess Diarist is a different type of autobiography. Fisher recently found some journals she kept during the making of Star Wars, in 1976. She leads the reader through a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the making of that film and her red-hot romance with one of its costars, Harrison Ford. That, her love affair, is really what the book is all about. But it isn't simply a kiss and tell. I doubt that anything associated with Fisher could ever be termed simple. She lays the groundwork for the newbie: her crazy Hollywood upbringing, her tentative start in show business, and how she was cast in the role as Princess Leia. It's all interesting stuff. And then she gets to England and the set of Star Wars and has a drink at a birthday party for George Lucas and gets to know Harrison ...

She is not mean or too revealing about the man in question, but it is very clear that she was young and in love and this is her first really big romance. With a married man. First she tells the story from her present perspective, of looking back at a long lost love, and then she includes diary entries of a young woman, very much smitten, but also upset with herself (and him, although she won't completely admit it) for their cheatin' hearts.

Her ambivalence about the affair may seem surprising to readers who think about the free-wheeling '70s and Hollywood mores, but one must remember that Carrie Fisher's family was fractured by one of the biggest cheating scandals of the day, when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother Debbie Reynolds for the recently widowed, best friend of the family, Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher never forgets that history for a minute, and it clouds her romance with her costar. Many of the diary entries are poems, and some could have even been turned into songs. The passion of youth is there, but also the love of wordplay. Fisher was a talented writer.

Both books could have, should have, been longer. She definitely leaves us wanting more.

Monday, November 28, 2016

mon cher poirot

After my recent Alex Cross-athon, I felt I needed a palate cleanser. And what better, than to re-read some old favorites, by the grande dame of mystery herself, Agatha Christie? I first discovered Christie when I was about 10 or 11, prowling through my mother's bookcases for something to read. I guess I had exhausted whatever I had taken home from the Bookmobile - probably Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins or a collection of folktales. The first Christie I read was The Moving Finger. I still have my mom's paperback, with its lurid purple cover illustration.

I almost chose that book to read, but decided that what I really needed, the perfect antidote to the oh-so-imperfect character of Alex Cross, was the detective par excellence, the little Belgian, Hercule Poirot. Although Christie reportedly grew to loathe her most famous creation, I loved Poirot at first read. From his sartorial elegance, his love of symmetry and order, and his amazing "little grey cells," Poirot had me enthralled. Christie's books, if you read between the lines, are full of sex and greed and, well, evil. Poirot, as much as he lives his life with precision and fine food and wine and aperitifs, is never blind to such base human emotions and desires. He travels in fancy circles, but he is always able to treat everyone, no matter what their station in life, equally - especially when it comes to considering them as a suspect in a murder.

Agatha Christie's novels are a time capsule. There are aspects that stand out as strange and inappropriate today - the discussions of class, the role of women in society, Christie's own personal prejudices - she really doesn't seem to like Italians. But she also gives us a glimpse into the mores and habits of a time gone by. And there is a lot to be enjoyed: a time when people dressed for dinner and travel, writing letters, having few but essential, possessions. One can learn some great forgotten or little-used words while reading Christie: baize, malachite, galoshes, jackanapes, valise. It's also fun to read such English phrases as "trunk call," "games mistress," and "dressing gown."

Poirot and his little grey cells were on fine display in these four books I have read recently:

Evil Under the Sun, 1941 - Poirot wants a relaxing holiday on England's Devon coast, but soon observes that some of his fellow hotel guests are involved in a love triangle that could prove dangerous for one of the participants - namely a flirtatious and callous beauty named Arlena Marshall.

Funerals are Fatal, 1953 - Richard Abernethie, a wealthy man, has died, and his family has gathered for his funeral. At the reading of his will his eccentric sister Cora blurts out, "But he was murdered, wasn't he?" When Cora turns up dead soon after, Hercule Poirot must investigate whether her murder was a cause and effect. Christie could be quite brutal in her books, as Cora is killed with the multiple strikes of an axe, a la the parents of Lizzie Borden. One of my favorite Poirots, the group of suspects, Richard and Cora's relatives, are some of the most entertaining and well-drawn in Christies' mysteries.

Murder in the Calais Coach (Murder on the Orient Express), 1934 - One of Christie's most famous and ingenious puzzles, this book finds Poirot on the famed and luxurious Orient Express. The train and its elegance is described beautifully, but the reader can't get lost in the details of the train, as almost as soon as it leaves the station a murder takes place in the middle of the night, in the compartment next-door to Poirot (!), while the train is trapped, caught in a blizzard. The ultimate "locked room mystery," the book is great to read for a first time, or re-read and see how Christie plants all the clues to her creative solution.

Cards on the Table, 1936 - In this clever book Christie pits four sleuths vs. four presumed murderers. The mysterious Mr Shaitana sets up a strange (and of course dangerous) dinner party. He invites Poirot, his friend Colonel Race, and mystery author (and Christie stand-in) Ariadne Oliver to join him on Team Sleuth. The other four guests are Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, explorer Major Despard, and a young woman named Anne Meredith. During dinner Shaitana talks about murder and its various methods. After the meal they divide into two groups to play bridge. At the end of the night Poirot and Race discover that Shaitana is dead - stabbed with his own ornamental knife. The book uses the game of bridge as a clue to each suspect's personality, and the detectives split up, along with Superintendent Battle, and each focus on one suspect to determine if they were, as Shaitana suspected, "successful murderers," in their past.

Christie always plays fair with her readers, which becomes quite clear on a re-read. I have quite enjoyed this mini Christie vacation and feel that I can go ahead and read some other books on my to-read list - or maybe squeeze in a few more Poirots before the holidays.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

cross, cross, cross

As I stated earlier, I have been reading a lot of James Patterson lately. I have so much happening on the home front these days that these mostly mindless mysteries have been somewhat soothing. But I think I'm done for a while. I thought that the books solo-authored by Patterson would be less factory-like, but alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. As much as I liked the first novel featuring his African-American psychologist/detective Alex Cross, in the series, Along Came A Spider, the rest of the books in this series seem cookie-cutter and sooooooo receptive. We get it - Alex is torn between his sugary-sweet family life and his career chasing seriously gruesome serial killers - which he seems to love, because he spends way more time chasing sickos than going to school concerts. I may have checked my mind at the door a bit too much recently. Admittedly, I have been bouncing around in the chronology, based on whatever is available at the library, but I think if I want a cozy bedtime mystery read I'll go back to Agatha Christie from now on.

Here are the books (listed in published order) that I have been tearing through the last month or so:

Cat and Mouse - A sequel to Along Came a Spider of sorts, Alex is once again matching wits with serial killer Gary Soneji, but that's not enough. A really creepy dude who calls himself Mr. Smith is causing mayhem in Europe and the U.S.

Pop Goes the Weasel - A killer dubbed The Weasel is running wild in Southeast D.C. As he is chasing The Weasel Alex also grows closer to his girlfriend Christine, but that puts her in danger ...

Roses are Red - The Mastermind is orchestrating some deadly bank robberies and Alex must work with the FBI to catch him ... except this story is a to-be-continued ... (and must have really pissed off Patterson junkies when it first came out and they read the whole thing, which was really just a set-up for ...

Violets Are Blue - This is a truly terrible book. The Mastermind is still round, but so is a vampire cult of killers. The murders are even grosser than usual, and as always there is no reason or motivation for the heinous crimes. If Alex was my shrink, or detective, or police analyst, I'd fire him. He doesn't find clues, he trips over them.

The Big Bad Wolf - Alex has joined the FBI now, but his problems and modus operandi seem the same. This time the killer is "The Wolf", but don't expect Alex to solve anything. Again, just another set-up for the next book ...

London Bridges - This time Patterson teams up The Wolf with The Weasel to do their worst. Does anyone Alex investigate ever stay in prison?

I don't think there are enough shelves for all of his published books

Mary, Mary - This one was better-than-average, which made me wonder if someone else may have ghost-written the book. While on vacation with his family, Alex is pulled into a serial killer case in Los Angeles that seems to be targeting celebrity moms. Can't his kids and ancient grandma Nana Mama ever catch a break?

Cross Country - Another truly awful one. Alex travels to Africa, against everyone and anyone with a brain's advice, to chase down a brutal killer called the Tiger. He doesn't ever seem to solve his cases. He survives them, making consistently bad decisions at almost every step along the way, while those around him drop like flies.

Cross Fire - The Mastermind is back, putting Alex and his family in danger. Again.

Cross Justice - Alex travels to North Carolina to help his cousin, who has been accused of murder. But in order to solve that case he must also delve into his family's past and unearth some deep dark family secrets.

So ... that's it. I think I have read enough about the "Muhammed Ali look-alike" super detective Alex Cross. I do like how Patterson is pro-reading and my daughter seems to like his Middle School and I Funny kids-book series. So there's that.

Monday, October 17, 2016

doctor sleep and the lure of the sequel

While I was reading Doctor Sleep I was bouncing back and forth between my memories of the novel, written by Stephen King in 1977, and the movie adaptation by director Stanley Kubrick, from 1980. I suspect King may have had both in his mind as well. Although it is well-documented that King didn't love the film version, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance was indelible, as were Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy and the Overlook Hotel itself. The sins of the father will play out in his gifted son.

The grown-up Dan Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, just like dear old dad, now uses his ability to "shine" to help the dying cross over peacefully. He is contrasted with a young girl named Abra, who may shine even more strongly than young Dan ever did. Complicating matters are a bunch of creepy supernatural folks who seem to thrive on the energy of young shiners. Uh oh.

All of the literary links and in-jokes  relating to The Shining aside, the central compelling story of Dan's link to Abra, and their desire to use and understand their abilities while staying human is what really works in Doctor Sleep. King has always got people, and how they talk and interact. The spooky stuff is actually the least interesting aspect of this novel.