Category Archives: Books

Agatha Christie — Writer, Traveler, Playwright, Wife, Mother, Surfer

AgathaChristie1925                                       Agatha_ChristiePhoto

This weekend (specifically Saturday, September 15, 2018) was the birthday of the British writer, Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890 in Torquay, Devon in southwestern England, Ms. Christie is best known for her detective mystery novels and short stories.  The youngest of three children in an upper middle class family (her father was American and her mother British), Ms. Christie was educated at home by her mother and later studied, also, in Paris.

It is believed Ms. Christie began writing detective stories during World War I when she worked as a nurse volunteer.  Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920.  In this story readers are introduced to one of Ms. Christie’s best known fictional characters, the eccentric Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.  Along with Poirot, the other well known, albeit, “amateur,” detective fictional character that eventually also became familiar to readers is the elderly spinster woman, Miss Jane Marple, who began appearing in Ms. Christie’s novels and stories in 1927.

While Ms. Christie’s crime stories brought her much professional success, her private life was not without heartbreak.  Her father died when she was 11 years old and her mother in 1927.  In the late 1920s, her 1914 marriage to Archibald Christie, with whom they share a daughter, ended badly.

In 1930 Ms. Christie fell in love and married the archaeologist, Max Mallowan.  This pairing proved to be happy, and Ms. Christie often accompanied her second husband on his archaeology digs in the Middle East as well as spent time traveling with him in Europe and Asia.  Ms. Christie began to feature the places they visited and spent time in as locations in her some of her novels including Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

agatha_and_max                   Agatha&MaxinSyria

A prolific writer, Ms. Christie is now recognized as one of the most widely read authors in the world.  In 1971, several years before she died at the age of 85 in 1976, Ms. Christie had been given the title “dame” by the British Empire.  Along with being credited with writing 66 crime novels, 16 plays and numerous short stories, Ms. Christie also wrote 6 psychological romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott — this is something the public did not know until it was revealed in 1949 that Ms. Westmacott was actually Agatha Christie.

There have been many films made of Agatha Christie novels and short stories (just recently, for example. a 2017 movie adaptation of the novel “Murder on the Orient Express” was released).  One of the most memorable movie adaptations of an Agatha Christie story, made while Ms. Christie was still alive, is the 1957 movie “Witness for the Prosecution” starring actors Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster and directed by filmmaker, Billy Wilder – this film still captivates movie goers today!

MurderOntheOrientExpress                            WitnessFortheProsecution


A building built for books

I ran across some photos recently from the 1930s and 40s of a library branch that was part of the Trenton (NJ) Public Library system for 80 years. A fairly small city system, prior to 2010 the Trenton Public Library had a Main downtown branch and four neighborhood branches. Now only the Main downtown branch remains open.

The Skelton Branch, actually initially established in 1917 at the old Franklin School in south Trenton, was built on the corner of South Broad and Malone Streets in 1929. Named after Dr. Charles Skelton (1806-1879), a generous benefactor who was a proponent of free public school education and libraries in Trenton, the Skelton Branch featured high arched windows, a staircase that led to the Children’s department on the second floor and locally crafted tilework that surrounded the children’s room fireplace.




My favorite photo is an undated one from the late 1930s/early 1940s that depicts the Skelton Branch’s 2nd floor busy Children’s Department. The book one of the boys standing on the right in the photo is holding is the Boy’s Book of Pirates by Howard Pyle originally published in 1908 (click on this photo as well as the others for a clearer view).



Short Stories

Recently, having made a decision to read some books of short stories rather than novels, I stumbled upon, at a local public library, a book listed as “new” entitled Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club. From this book’s blurb I saw that the setting for the stories is the border between the U.S. and Mexico at the cities of El Paso and Juarez. The Kentucky Club is a bar just over the border in Juarez, Mexico. The author is someone named Benjamin Alire Saenz, a name that I didn’t recognize.

I just finished the book and its stories. While at some points I did cry, the stories aren’t overly sad. Each story’s main character is male and many of them gay. This is not to say the women in these stories are ignored; some of the women portrayed are perhaps more memorable than the men. Family relationships are strongly depicted as are love relationships. While homosexual relationships are an overarching theme, the stories are in no way sensational or lurid. Instead it is the love that the characters are seeking or running from or unable to acknowledge that predominates.

While looking for other books by this author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, it turns out that he won a major literary honor (the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction) this year for this book of stories. For some reason I thought the person writing these stories was a young new writer, and it turns out Mr. Saenz is middle-aged and heads up a creative writing department at the University of Texas at El Paso. Kudos to him for this award and for this moving book of short stories!

Book Titles — Whose are the Best?!

This is something that’s been mulling around in my head for the past few weeks.  I recently read a book by the author, Gail Godwin entitled Queen of the Underworld.  I was attracted to the book because it took place in Miami, FL in 1959 at the time when I, myself, lived as a child in Miami.  From what I read in the book’s blurb the story sounded also potentially appealing.

The book is about Emma Gant, a young journalist fresh out of UNC Chapel Hill and her experiences in her first reporter job at the city’s main newspaper, the Miami Star.  Emma, the central character, is NOT the “queen of the underworld” – it is another character who Emma develops an interest in, and who the reader anticipates is going play a significant role in Emma’s life and in the novel.   This never occurs.   The woman who’s deemed the “queen of the underworld” looms about in the corners of the story yet does not appear until the final pages.  What happened?  The book’s title just doesn’t match the story line.

I’d read a book by author, Gail Godwin, some years back entitled Mr. Bedford and the Muses.  I don’t remember questioning the title of that book.  Actually I rarely question the title of a book.

I began to think about book titles that stand out in my mind as true and memorable.  Who I thought of first and most emphatically is the author, Tom Robbins.  His book title gives you a glimpse into his novel, and depending on your slant of mind, you’re either attracted or repelled about reading the particular book.  Now this is possibly the case with a lot of writers.  It’s just that with Tom Robbins his book titles often capture his style and storyline well.

I actually haven’t read all of Tom Robbins’ novels – at some point I had a hard time finishing one of them and after that didn’t seek out his books anymore.  I still pay some attention to what’s he’s writing for the most part and I still love his book titles!

Books by Tom Robbins (written in order of publication year for the most part):

Another Roadside Attraction

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Still Life with Woodpecker

Jitterbug Perfume

Skinny Legs and All

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

Villa Incognito

Wild Ducks Flying Backward

B is for Beer (this one it turns out is “a children’s book for grown-ups, and a grown-up book for children”)



“On the Road,” the 2012 film & the “On the Road” poet

I finally recently saw the film version of the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road. Considered an autobiographical novel, since its publication in 1957 it has become almost a treatise documenting the freewheeling lifestyle of people who lived outside the perimeter of mainstream middle America in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The story is narrated by the character, Sal Paradise (in real life Jack Kerouac,) an aspiring writer who develops a friendship with a hard drivin’, hard lovin’, hard drinkin’ man, Dean Moriarty (in real life Neal Cassady) and the sensitive homosexual poet, Carlo Marx (in real life Allen Ginsberg). As these people, during the course of the story, join up at various points, their escapades include driving feverishly across America or hanging out together in Denver, New York or San Francisco. For the most part these adventures comprise much of the narrative. Joining with them are other characters who also impact their lives and the novel as well.

The movie “On the Road,” it turns out in my opinion, is not as good as it could have been, and yet it could’ve been worse than what it is. Some of the adventures/travels, given considerable description in the novel, are not portrayed in detail in film, and I found that amiss. Other situations or characters, however, when seen on the big screen, actually made more sense to me than what I got while reading the book. The movie does seem to have a lot of sex, drugs and jazz (as one IMDB reviewer succinctly states) in it, and while the depiction of such is no longer shocking to today’s audience, there is a sense that the intensity of such a life cannot go on indefinitely.

Much has been written about the Beat movement including the poet Allen Ginsberg whose famous 1956 poem, “Howl” was the subject of the 2010 film starring James Franco as Ginsberg himself. Not to give too much away, there is scene in the “On the Road” film when Sal smiles as he receives a copy of the freshly published “Howl” written by his friend, Carlo Marx.

Howl (the beginning lines of this poem…)
by Allen Ginsberg (aka Carlo Marx in the novel and film On the Road)

For Carl Solomon


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear,
burning their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through
Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in
Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their
torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares,
alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and
lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson,
illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery
dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops,
storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon
blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree
vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn,
ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless
ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine
until the noise of wheels and children brought
them down shuddering mouth-wracked and
battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance
in the drear light of Zoo,…

See: for entire poem “Howl”


Coming of Age — The Young Adult Experience

I always have liked the coming of age story – the character is a young person who moves through innocence into a more   mature view of the world either by experiencing a life changing relationship or event, assuming responsibility or learning a   lesson.  Two books I read recently and one movie I saw all fall into this realm.

I’ve decided that, while all three of these stories (the film is based on a book) are coming of age pieces, they differ in each seems to tackle specific aspects of life.

Looking for Alaska by John Green.  I’d heard about this book when it was first published in 2005.  I heard it compared to the novel Catcher in the Rye, and if it had some of the same sardonic tone, I was curious. Miles, the central character, is sent to attend Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama, the alma mater of his father.  Miles had been something of a loner during his first year at his local high school and when his parents suggested he go away and live at this private school he actually thought it would be a good thing.  At Culver Creek he develops close friends, learns how to maneuver both the academic and social maze of the private school environment, and finds that life does goes on after loss.  One of this novel’s strong points is that it’s told in first person.  In my opinion, also, it’s a book that is most definitely worth a person’s time, whether he or she is 14, 40 or 80.  Yes, that good.  It’s coming of age emphasis is friendship and academics/school.

Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins.  Never before can I recall a book being read by such a diverse group of people (teenagers, librarians, and parents to name a few) and all of them being enthused by it.  Again a strong point is it is told in first person.  Central character, Katniss Everdeen from lowly District 12, is a very smart young person whose mental acuity and physical agility is brought to an extreme test.  A science fiction story that blends a character’s awakening with the dynamics of a totalitarian future and the ever constant striving for individual and familial survival, the book is exciting and consistently fascinating.  Its coming of age aspect is competition/survival and familial concern.

White Oleander – the film (based on the book by author, Janet Finch)  This film was an eye opener, to say the least.  A young girl’s relationship with a beautiful artistic unstable mother is tested when the mother is sent to jail for murdering the mother’s boyfriend.  The young girl never knew her father and has no siblings or other relatives.  She is placed in foster homes as well as a home for abandoned children who cannot be placed in foster care.  As she begins to have experiences away from her mother’s ever watchful eye, the young girl begins to realize that her mother is a dangerous person whose strength is often used to destroy others.  A painful exploration of relationship difficulties along with probing deeper truths, this story has significant impact.  Its coming of age theme is relationships, trust and love.


Another “On the Road” blog post….

      A contemporary French writer/philosopher named Henri-Bernard Levy wrote a piece “Kerouac at the Cinema” that can be found on the Huffington Post.  Here is the link to this:

Monsieur Levy is a learned person and offers some insight in his post about the writer, Jack Kerouac and Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.”  Levy hasn’t seen the Walter Salles film of this novel yet, and his “we shall see” speaks to both apprehension and wonderment concerning the film’s ability to capture the spirit and essence of the book.

P.S.  In the “Comments” section of my recent blog post about “On the Road” being made into a film, I also provided this same information (with the same link to Levy’s piece).

Road Movies and a Book (that is, a beloved road book is now a movie)

I’ve always liked road movies.  Hollywood has created some good ones starting way back with well-worn worn classics such as “It Happened One Night” (for me, a surprisingly very funny film) and “Sullivan’s Travels.”  From the 1950s, “The Long Long Trailer,” starring comedienne Lucille Ball, is another memorably humorous road movie.  Jump to the 1960s and 70s there is “Easy Rider;” “Harry and Tonto;” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” among others.  In the 1980s and 90s it was “Rain Man,” “Wild at Heart,” “Thelma & Louise,” and “True Romance.”   During the past 10 years we’ve had “Sideways,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Borat.”   Also in the past ten years, for people who like road stories based on a real person’s experiences, there was “The Motorcycle Diaries” adapted from the youthful travel journals of South American doctor and activist, Che Guevara.

If reading is a favorite pastime, there are any number of novels that can fit the criteria of a road book.  One of the most well-known is On the Road written and published in the late 1950s by beloved Beat generation writer, Jack Kerouac.   This book depicts, for the most part, the maniacal travels across the U.S. and into Mexico of Sal Paradise and his friend, Dean Moriarty.  Featured are a contingency of several other friends/cohorts who either accompany them or are visited along the way.   The book is believed to be loosely autobiographical and based on the author, Kerouac, himself and his friends.

Now finally someone has taken on the task of turning On the Road into a movie.  What is interesting is that the director who is tackling this is Walter Salles, the director of the 2004 road film “The Motorcycle Diaries” (based, as I mentioned earlier in this blog, on the journey chronicled by Argentinian activist/doctor Che Guevara when he and his buddy travelled up the continent of South America from Argentina to Venezuela in the late 1950s).  “The Motorcycle Diaries” received some critical acclaim and perhaps gave filmmaker Walter Salles the courage to make a film of the Kerouac classic.  I both admire Salles as well as feeling afraid for him. It is my hope that this film “On the Road” proves to be a worthy depiction of a book that captured the hearts and minds of late 20th century American readers and vagabonds.

Currently this new film “On the Road” is among the movies being shown, I believe,  at the annual Cannes Film Festival in southern France this month (May 16 – May 27).  I haven’t heard anything yet, good or bad, about how the movie has turned out.  I’m going to try and see at a local multiplex as soon as it is released in the U.S.

More about Books….author Marilynne Robinson

I have a favorite book.  Before I read this book nearly twenty years ago now, I didn’t have one.  It is the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.  There is something ethereal and haunting about the story and it is written, according to someone who described it at some point, as if “it was one long poem.“  Until I read that description of Housekeeping I didn’t know what about it captivated me so much.  Perhaps the way it was written is a big part of it.

It is one of the only books I’ve read that when I finished it I gave it to a friend and said it such a good book he ought to read it.  Funny that years later this friend does not recall my giving him the book, and he didn’t read it evidently.  I don’t begrudge him as he has a lot of books and this book was just one more in his apartment.  I can only surmise that I must not have dwelled upon my fondness of Housekeeping at the time I gave it to him otherwise he would’ve possibly remembered it.

During the past really 20 years since I read Housekeeping I did wonder about the author, Marilynne Robinson.  It turns out she published another novel Gilead in 2004 and followed that with the novel Home in 2008.   I did hear about Gilead around the time it was initially published, and I put it in my mind to read this novel.  Home I didn’t actually know about until recently.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson             

Just this week I finished reading the novel Gilead.  It took several weeks and it wasn’t until mid-way through this novel that the pieces of it began to fit together for me.  It is the story of an older man, a preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead who is slowly failing in health.  Approximately 10 years earlier this man married a younger woman and together they have now a 7 year old son.  Gilead is comprised of this older preacher writing to his young son about his life, their heritage (the older preacher’s father and grandfather were also preachers) and trying to give his son some guidance that later the son can possibly benefit from.

Very different from the novel Housekeeping that I so was enamored with.  Still there are passages within Gilead that seemed to me almost astounding and at that point I usually had a hard time comprehending what I was reading.  Recently I read that when entertainer and reader Oprah Winfrey told author,Toni Morrison that she often has to reread parts of Morrison’s novels to understand them, the author replied, “That, my dear, is reading.”

I am including here two separate sections from the novel Gilead by author, Marilynne Robinson, that stopped me in my tracks (there are actually more of these segments that similarly affected me).  Sometimes I would read the sections aloud as I was re-reading them.

        “Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes.  And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.  But that cannot be true.  I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether.  That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking.  Sorrow seems to me to be a great substance of human life.”

And another…

        “As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house—even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all reproach.  I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained.  And that’s all right.  There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality.  It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.  So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence? 

        It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.  Another reason you must take care of your health.”

This novel Gilead won several awards, I believe.   I have learned this week that Robinson’s subsequent novel after Gilead entitled Home is a companion to  Gilead and an elaboration of the Broughton family who are featured in the former novel.  Some people have said that reading Home helps to create a better understanding of Gilead.  I’m not ready to try reading Home just yet as I’m really still absorbing Gilead.

Further Confessions of a Guilty Book Reader

      Books I started to read and didn’t finish….Part II

A few weeks ago I posted a blog confession regarding books I started to read and for some reason wasn’t able to complete.  Last week I stumbled upon an article published online in late January this year.  The article appears on both the online Atlantic Monthly Magazine and on and its about a 2007 book entitled The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

As I looked at the two book lists that were compiled from the voting of choices made by 125 famous authors, I wondered how these greatest books compared with the books that I started to read and stopped.  Here are the two top 10 book lists (organized by the past two centuries) with my guilty or not guilty (meaning yes, I read the entire book) notations included:

Top Ten Books of the 20th century

1.  Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald   (YES, completed)

3.  In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

4.  Ulysses* by James Joyce

5.  Dubliners* by James Joyce  (Oops, this one isn’t on my original list–I forgot I started it and stopped — GUILTY)

6.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez   (GUILTY)

7.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

8.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf   (GUILTY twice)

9.  The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor

10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

**I must include here that I did read at least (and finish) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Top Ten Books of the 19th Century

1.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

2.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

3.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

4.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain  (GUILTY)

5.  The stories of Anton Chekhov

6.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

7.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

8.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens   (YES, completed)

9.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

10. Emma by Jane Austen

The articles also include two additional lists related to authors whose books were most frequently included in the voting process.  If you are interested in reading further here is a link to the online piece written by Maria Popova on her website


Here also is a link to the work The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books on


I don’t know if I’ll use these lists to fill in the gaps in my reading.  I guess I’m wondering about Nabokov as he’s on the 20th century list twice (for Lolita and Pale Fire) and I’ve never read him.   It will probably be Pale Fire if I decide to.