Master and Margarita Read After

So, you’ve heard of a readalong, yes?   Group gets together, virtually or IRL, and reads a book together.   Well, I meant to do that, but I got distracted first by RIP and second by The Labors of Hercules and I forgot to sign up and then I read slow and now I’m 12 days behind.  I hope they won’t mind having me tag after them like the last kid in the race.  Cuz that’s what I am.

I read this book in college, I believe, more years ago than I’m going to tell you, and honestly only remember 1) that it’s strange, 2) I liked it, 3) there’s Moscow and a cat.  Having read the first 8 chapters, that’s still all I can tell you.   Okay, not quite, I can sum up the whole thing, but can I explain it?  No.   But that’s probably all right.   The Devil went down to Moscow, or at least a gentleman, possibly foreign, though maybe not, appears at Patriarch’s Ponds (though on the map it sure looks like only one pond) and starts chatting with two men having a discussion about Jesus and his non-existence.   One is high up in MASSOLIT, the literary establishment of Soviet Russia, and the other is a poet and the editor is trying to get the poet to write an article about this.   The stranger barges in and through his conversation seems to indicate that he’s been hanging out and chatting with people for a couple of millennia at least.    He tells the story of Pontius Pilate in such a way that both men feel they are there, witnessing it.   The man says other things, too, indicating he knows how Berlioz, the editor will die, and is just generally pretty freaky.  What the man says then comes true and this sends the poet out of his mind.   He chases after the man who is joined by another strange man and a large cat.  The cat is capable of human like behavior and tries to pay his fare to get on a streetcar when they separate.   Ivan keeps chasing, but never gets any closer and winds up performing such a series of bizarre stunts that he winds up hospitalized, rambling about this consultant and Pontius Pilate.   There’s more.   But that’s enough to give you an idea.

I’m pretty sure that when I read this the first time I must have read the Mirra Ginsburg translation which was based apparently on a censored edition.   If I were a faster reader, I might track down a copy to see what’s missing.   This time I went with the Burgin-O’Connor based on a one-sentence comparison I found on the web.  There are a number to choose from, this has become quite a classic and a miracle it survived to publication.  And there are seemingly hundreds of great covers for this book.  I’m enjoying it as I did the first time, but feel no wiser as to what it means



1947 Club and RIP Book 2

The Labors of Hercules published in 1947 is a set of twelve stories in which Poirot decides to solve twelve final cases before retiring to grow vegetable marrows.  He was always talking about retiring to grow vegetable marrows which always seemed a singularly tedious retirement to me.  At any rate, Christie is clever with her modern takes on the twelve labors, but I rarely find short stories satisfying and this was no different.   One barely gets started before it’s over.

laborsofhercules I can also use this cover for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt because it has a painting.

Trying to think up something worth saying about this, but nothing is coming to mind.  They’re pretty good stories, the framing device works well enough, solid, but not spectacular.   I believe Kaggsy read and reviewed this and probably had something much better to say.

And then I had the idea to watch the David Suchet version.  Couldn’t imagine how they would do it, except perhaps to take 3 or 4 of them and film those, but they are cleverer than I.  What they did was to change some settings and a few other plot points and mush half of them into one trip to a grand old watering hole on a Swiss alp.  After an opening murder/jewel theft/painting theft to get Poirot emotionally invested, we adjourn to Switzerland where the spa guests are trapped by an avalanche – these include plots of The Stymphalean Birds, The Arcadian Deer, elements of The Girdle of Hippolyta, The Capture of Cerberus and The Erymanthian Boar.  It does seem a shame to have no Miss Carnaby and the Pekingese dog, but the pug does his best.   A pretty good adaptation if you aren’t too particular about fidelity to the book.  Here’s the Hotel Olympus looking far faker than it does when you’re watching:


Overall an enjoyable read and watch.

Into the Wild

Here’s a shining example of my distractibility.  I found myself reading a bunch of articles about Christopher McCandless, a young man who in 1992 went to Alaska to live off the land and died there.  There are many articles because Jon Krakauer wrote a book, then Sean Penn made a movie and all the while Alaskans are writing articles about what a dope McCandless was and you should not do this.   Do not go unprepared into the Alaskan wild, they say.   Can’t say they’re wrong.   If you’re all romantic about Nature and simple living, but don’t want to die, probably better to take a few safety precautions.  Like a good map and a radio.   McCandless wasn’t that far from civilization when he died, but there was a raging river between him and it.   So after reading a bunch of articles on how exactly he died (Krakauer has believed since the beginning there was more to it than pure starvation) and another bunch on what a damn-fool thing it was to do and people should stop comparing him to Thoreau and Muir, because people keep following him to the ‘magic bus’ and one drowned in the river.   They won’t build a bridge because that would just encourage people.   I find that thinking a lot like when they take the trash cans out from the park to make people carry out their own trash.   They don’t.   And they aren’t going to stop pilgrimaging to the magic bus, so build a bridge already.   Maybe that will take some of the excitement out of it.

So, after all this article reading castigating and defending Krakauer and McCandless, I finally said to myself, “Just read the book.”   That will probably scratch this itch better than finding another article and it did.   It’s a good book.   I think Krakauer paints quite a good picture of McCandless, both his wildly underprepared and overconfident side and the nature that drove him to this project to begin with.   It follows McCandless as much as possible for the two years after he graduated from Emory and essentially lived rough travelling around the American west.   McCandless was a decidedly odd duck from early on.  He went on long road trips before he even graduated and apparently loved it despite losing 30 pounds and almost dying in the desert.   I’m pretty sure that would have put me off for life, but as soon as his parents had gone home, he had his mail held and lit out for the territories.   By the time he got to Alaska almost two years later, he had survived quite a lot, which probably contributed to his overconfidence.   Krakauer seems to have done a great job tracking down the people McCandless became friends with on the road, where he went and how he lived.   He seems to have only gotten regular work a few times.   He’d work a month or two and then head out again.   He didn’t worry much about food or clothes or shelter.  He could live for a month off rice.   This is my idea of Hell, but for McCandless, this was just the overture for the main event — surviving in the Alaskan wilderness.


It’s no spoiler to tell you he didn’t.   It’s the first sentence of the book.   It’s even on the cover.   But you should read the most recent version to get Krakauer’s final take on what really went wrong.   Also there’s a – and this is a minor spoiler and a speculation, so stop reading if you don’t want to know – small mystery about some cabins in the area that were not just damaged by a vandal (or vandals), but destroyed.   Not just food stolen, but lamps smashed, carpets and mattresses dragged outside, windows broken, all three cabins rendered uninhabitable.   Some Alaskans think Chris did it.   It happened while he was there.  Krakauer thinks he would not have been able to resist bragging in his ‘journal’ about it, which is a fair point given what we know of McCandless’ character, but this journal is little more than a list.   A ship’s log is more detailed.   If you had an assignment to keep a diary that was 3 words or less a day, this is what this ‘journal’ was like.   I think he did it.  And I think he did it, not because he was anti-government (one of the cabins belonged to the Park Service), but because he didn’t want to cheat.   If those cabins were there, full of bedding and food and light and relatively warm, he might not have been able to resist holing up there when the going got tough.   So, he destroyed anything that made them appealing.   Now, this is just my theory, maybe someone else tramped through there and had their own reasons for destroying three cabins, but nope.  I don’t buy that.  He might have done it before settling in the Magic Bus.   Because the argument against my theory is that he sheltered in the man-made bus.   Didn’t destroy it.   I think he ended up having to shelter in the bus because otherwise he would’ve died of exposure.   He had a tent and a sleeping bag his mom sewed for him, but when he got up there in late April it was still below freezing at night.  He did not have equipment to deal with that from the sound of it.   At any rate, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.    If this story interests you at all, Krakauer’s book is a good, fast read, and really, the only game in town unless you want to Google all the articles you can find.

Fifty Candles

Taking a short break from the 19th century, I decided last week to read a short mystery.  I opted for Earl Derr Biggers’ Fifty Candles – a short precursor to his Charlie Chan mysteries.   More a novella than a novel, it features a young couple (at least, he wants them to be a couple) arriving in San Francisco.  The man has just been cheated out of a fair share in a mine by his boss.    Yet he goes to the man’s birthday party to see the woman he loves.   Then the boss is murdered and guess who’s suspect #1?

This was a very short, slight mystery with a nice little romance in it.   Not as good as the Charlie Chan I read.  You need more than three suspects for a good story, I think.  And all of the covers are so bad they;re not worth posting.

I’ll only count this for R.I.P. if I don’t finish enough.


Peril of the Short Story


Thought I ought to post even though no entire books have been read.  This is due to the fact I have once again chosen two large 19th century books to read.   No, I never learn.  But I realized that because one of the books I’ve started is Edgar Allan Poe, and he wrote short stories mostly, I’ve done this peril.   I’ve read maybe 6 of the complete tales and so far, meh.   The collection I chose is in chronological order, so I’ve only read his earliest stuff and there is, of course, a leaning to the fantastic and infernal and rather more French than I possess.  Some of it critical to the story.   Thank goodness for the Google.

The story I found exceptional was called A Loss of Breath and it is bizarre.  Surrealism about 75? years before Surrealism started.   It is about a man called Lackobreath who loses his breath while hollering at his new wife.   For a moment you think this is a story of someone abusive getting his comeuppance, but that doesn’t seem to be the idea.

Altering my countenance, therefore, in a moment, from its bepuffed and distorted appearance, to an expression of arch and coquettish benignity, I gave my lady a pat on the one cheek, and a kiss on the other, and without saying one syllable, (Furies! I could not), left her astonished at my drollery, as I pirouetted out of the room in a Pas de Zéphyr.

Lackobreath is not dead because he can no longer breathe.  In fact he starts an intense search for his breath just as though it were his handkerchief or a watch that had gone missing.

Long and earnestly did I continue the investigation: but the contemptible reward of my industry and perseverance proved to be only a set of false teeth, two pair of hips, an eye, and a bundle of billets-doux from Mr. Windenough to my wife.

He can’t speak except a very deep rumble and so he studies a play with a character in it who always speaks in a deep rumble and uses lines from that play to cover up the fact he cannot otherwise talk.  Once he’s done this he essentially runs away, but is sat upon in the carriage by a huge man and cannot move when the carriage stops.   As he has no breath, they determine he is dead.    It just gets odder from there.   Or perhaps I should say maintains its pitch of oddity until the end.   I am astonished it got published back then and I wonder what people made of it.



In other news, I have started The Woman in White and am enjoying it very much.  I am glad to finally be reading it, but I think it is longer than my Kindle indicates.  Kindle says 449 pages and the paperbacks I look at say 640-720 pages.   I realize a page varies considerably based on typesize, it’s not a proper length at all, but for someone who reads slowly putting more words on each ‘page’ is just plain mean.  In other words, it’s slow-going.   But Collins was a lively writer and so far it’s very entertaining.  Enjoying friends’ visits, but glad to be alone again.   She has fights with her husband occasionally, but doesn’t report what about.  I enjoy reading diaries, but I think there is such a dichotomy between Woolf’s inner person and outer that I don’t know her at all from reading it.

What I Read on my Summer Vaca-

I mean, for the 20 Books of Summer which ended Monday the 5th.   How did I do?  Not well.   For a start, and I knew this, never put Our Mutual Friend on a list of books you want to get through fast.   I also had 2 biographies.   One was Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf which I was supposed to read anyway for #Woolfalong, but then I was keen, at the time, to read about Gertrude Bell after seeing the movie about her, Queen of the Desert.   That impulse faded and I never touched that one at all.   But let’s talk about what I did, rather than what I didn’t.   I read eight books, some of which were even on the list I made, and started 4 others.  I finished:

On list –

At Bertram’s Hotel

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

The Magicians

Murder Must Advertise

Off list –

Third Girl

Hanged for a Sheep

Destination Unknown

The Devereaux Legacy

Started –


Lee’s Virginia Woolf

Our Mutual Friend

Dead Wake

I’m still working on Dead Wake which is about the sinking of the Lusitania.   It’s very good so far and since it’s during World War I, that’s good because I wanted to read more about WWI and so far haven’t succeeded.   Can’t seem to get anywhere in The Zimmerman Telegram.   Keep reading the same three pages over and over again.   Woolf bio is also good, just tremendously long and in print, so huge I can’t lug it around so that’s still in play.   I was enjoying Kim and Our Mutual Friend, too, but not enough to avoid distraction.   The finished ones have all been talked about elsewhere in the blog.

Oh, and I believe I just passed my third blogiversary a week ago.  Despite my poor showing on the 10 books of summer, this blog and my fellow bloggers have been very good for my reading.   I’ve read more classics and more generally than I had in a long while before that so thanks, fellow bloggers for being out there and writing reviews and proposing challenges which even if I flunk ’em, I think do me good.

So, now, there’s R.I.P. going on (join us!)  and Woolfalong continues with essays or diaries.  I’m going with diary.   I read the first volumes in college many centuries ago, but not knowing where I left off, I will read Volume 1 again, 1915-1919.   And it is interesting already.   In the first page of the introduction, Quentin Bell quotes Clive Bell warning future readers of Woolf’s ‘airy imagination’ when reading her letters and diaries.   I could see telling stories in letters to friends you wish to entertain, but I fail to understand making stuff up for your own diary.   The passage quoted cites an evening of Leonard Woolf reading passages from the diary to a group of friends and stopping, saying “I shall skip the next few pages because there’s not a word of truth in them.”   At this distance, how am I, the reader, supposed to have any idea when she’s making stuff up?    Perhaps this is a factor in why I have difficulty with Woolf.   I tend to think telling the truth is pretty important.  Life’s difficult enough to navigate without adding blatant fabrications to it and if you want to tell stories, write fiction.   Which she did.   But apparently, she needed to tell stories to us, her future readers.   Maybe re-reading it will make it more clear what and where she was making up and why she would need to do that.





Murder Must Advertise

Back on my summer list, (which means I got maybe half of them done?) and the book I read off it was Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Peter Wimsey has forgotten Harriet Vane for the moment and taken a job in disguise at an advertising firm.   Sayers herself worked in advertising for a bit, so I’m fairly sure the office goings-on are authentic, except for the mob ties.  Wimsey is brought in under the unassuming name of Death Bredon investigating the sudden demise of one Victor Dean who apparently died falling down an iron staircase.   Or did he?   Wimsey’s good at everything so, naturally, he takes quite easily to writing advertisements in his spare time.   Someone at Pym’s ties in with a dope ring and both Chief Inspector Parker and Wimsey would like to get their hands on those who run it.   Whether it’s because I saw it on TV many years ago or because Sayers makes it completely obvious fairly early, I knew whodunnit early, but had trouble believing it could be the obvious one.   But then, there didn’t seem to be anyone else.   Wimsey finds out most of what he wants to know in the first couple hundred pages and then there’s another nearly 200 pages to get through where it seems not much happens.   There’s a cricket match.   And some deaths.   I found the ending rather unsatisfactory.   I think Sayers was so taken with her nefarious mechanism that she couldn’t be bothered to make a good mystery around it.   It is clever and her drug smuggling plot is a lot more realistic than Christie ever is where drugs are involved, but I think I’m just not all that keen on drug smuggling investigation and I don’t really see how they got the big fish in the end.   It seemed like mostly they got the small fry they didn’t want to waste time on.   How Milligan and his parties fit in with the rest of the distribution network is still unclear to me.



Phinnea's Book Blog List

Idle thoughts on books and movies. Some new, but mostly old.