Some brief thoughts on a few books I read last month:
The City and the City by China Mieville
This science fiction mystery takes place in two cities which are separate as far as their inhabitants are concerned even though they occupy and same space and time. Those who live in one city have trained themselves to "unsee" the people and buildings of the other city. It was startling to encounter what was, to me, a totally original concept and I love books where the setting is a main character, original or not. A spectacular tour de force.
The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr
My favorite mysteries are those of the locked room variety. I don't make much effort to solve them but I enjoy being mystified and then having the author explain the trick. This is certainly a classic of the subgenre, to put it mildly. The victim is murdered in a second floor locked room. There are no footsteps in the snow outside the window. A visitor was seen to enter the room, but never emerged, etc etc etc. What's more, the pasts of the victim and possible murderer, as they emerge, turn out to be bizarre. Yet, in the end, the solution is not too mind numbingly baroque to be grasped.
The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
Although I read lots of Heinlein when I was growing up I came to detest many of his views so I wondered how palatable I would find this 1951 sf classic upon rereading. As it turns out I found it to be compelling, as long as I was able to put myself into my "enjoying Mickey Spillane" mind set. Sensibilities in the nineteen fifties, at least in popular literature, were much different than today. To me, books from that era need to be approached like historicals. Still, there's a kind of unpleasant smarminess in the way Heinlein is constantly having people strip in public, even though it logically follows from the premise of alien slugs that control humans by attaching themselves to their backs. I'll have to revisit some of these old Heinleins.
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
It is probably not a good idea to think too much about what really is out there, what we call reality, matter, objects. Part novel and part philosophical treatise, this book might well put you off trees. Or put you off considering too closely any of the other familiar yet inexplicable, things which have us surrounded. (An aside...philosophy generally considers consciousness as somehow peculiar or special as compared to the rest of reality. But is it stranger than matter? At least we have first hand experience of consciousness. That's what we are, in effect, whereas objects are...well...not us.)
Nine Horses by Billy Collins
I pretty much can't read poetry books but I enjoy what Billy Collins calls poetry. To me his short pieces seem more like perfect little essays, astute, playful observations about everyday events, often humorous, sometimes imbued with an aching sense of loss. Quite often he surprises with a twist at the end which stands the whole poem on its head. Whether there are any metrical qualities to the work, I couldn't say. He manages to make beautifully and concisely the same kind of observations I only aim for.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The 1963 movie made from this book is one of my favorites and beats out The Exorcist for scariest. I never read Shirley Jackson's novel until now and it is brilliant. The psychological aspects are reminiscent of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, while the malevolent house reminded me of The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. It's almost a compendium of all the best ghost story cliches. The basic premise of a psychic investigator inviting an assortment of characters to stay in a haunted house is hardly novel (and was actually done in Victorian times. Their accounts were Jackson's inspiration) I suppose this demonstrates that writers can succeed by presenting old ideas in their own way.