Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome or The Real Self-Help Book

Some books are particularly suited to certain situations. Some are perfect when you are in a Christmassy mood for ten minutes during a heat wave, some work even better than usual during a power outage. Three Men in a Boat is an excellent fit for travelling in the summer. Although it’s rather its mood and tone than the plot that make it so.

Yes, the story featuring three friends and a dog going on a boating trip on the Thames is in fact about travelling in the summer, but that’s not what makes it such a good holiday companion. The plot could be something else entirely. It wouldn’t even have to contain any kind of travelling at all, and it would still work. Because it is at its core good, lazy fun. It’s meandering here and there without urgent purpose or destination. Nothing big happens but a lot of small things. It’s about enjoying a moment of leisure.

A funny thing about Three Men in a Boat is that it was initially supposed to be a serious travel guide, making it something of an accidental comedy (so much so that the few attempts to be more serious don’t enrich the novel as a whole, but stick out as disturbances).

However, in my opinion, it’s not only that, but also an unwitting self-help book. I’m not a friend of the genre itself, but even I have to bow to such obvious expertise. Because Three Men in a Boat offers insightful and practical life advice for a variety of situations, such as:

  • how to hang a picture on the wall (Chapter 3): all you need is at least eight people (preferably related), assorted tools, picture, wall, a piano and several hours of time, and you’re all set
  • how to travel with cheese (Chapter 4)
  • how to better understand canine nature

Montmorency was in it all, of course.  Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at.  If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable. (Chapter 4)

  • how to beat a hedge maze (Chapter 6)
  • how to deal with the German language (Chapter 8)

I don’t understand German myself.  I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since. (Chapter 8)

  • how to solve the old conundrum of money vs. morals

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who “have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.”  Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year!  It is not worth it. (Chapter 14)

  • how to be a hard worker

It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do.  It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me.  I can sit and look at it for hours.  I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.

You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more.  I shall have to throw out a wing soon.

And I am careful of my work, too.  Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it.  I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it.  No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do. (Chapter 15)

  • how to pose for a photograph while boating (Chapter 18)
  • and not to forget the important warning concerning safety issues because of the demoralizing effect of river air

I don’t know why it should be, but everybody is always so exceptionally irritable on the river.  Little mishaps, that you would hardly notice on dry land, drive you nearly frantic with rage, when they occur on the water.  When Harris or George makes an ass of himself on dry land, I smile indulgently; when they behave in a chuckle-head way on the river, I use the most blood-curdling language to them.  When another boat gets in my way, I feel I want to take an oar and kill all the people in it.

The mildest tempered people, when on land, become violent and blood-thirsty when in a boat. (Chapter 18)

It’s probably enjoyable everywhere, but I think it has a special charm somewhere nice and sun-dappled, with one leg dangling in the body of water of your choice.

You can download Three Men in a Boat from the good Samaritans at gutenberg.org.

There’s also a sequel: Three Men on the Bummel (in which they bicycle through the Black Forest).

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Listening to The Hollow by Agatha Christie or Mourning in Caramel Custard

The Hollow never seems to show up on Christie themed best-of or favourites lists, which is unfortunate, because it’s one of her best books.

The Ensemble is Key

The Hollow is different from Christie’s usual fare. It’s often the crime itself and its investigation that play the leading parts in her books. The characters – some of them certainly well-rounded and memorable – are there, of course, but tend to be rather a part of  the scenery or support structure of the story than individual entities whose actions shape the plot.

Surprisingly, Christie gives this a wide berth in The Hollow. The first half especially reads (or sounds, in my case) more like a highly entertaining collection of character studies than a murder mystery intro. The murder doesn’t occur until two and a half hours in (out of 7 hours and 15 minutes in total). Spending so much time on setting the stage should be boring in a crime novel, but it’s the opposite of that. It’s due in large part to this extended setup that makes the book so superbly observed, elegantly composed, and just really well put together.

Christie delves deeply into the psychology of her characters, creating an intricate tableau of relationships that are just plain fun to engage with. The tightly woven net of emotional, financial and social dependencies between the characters and their changing constellations to each other do an excellent job of distracting from what would typically be the point of the whole story.

There is hardly a chance to miss Poirot, who is mostly absent in the first part, because The Hollow‘s ensemble is fascinating, especially Henrietta, Gerda, John, Lucy and Midge. Even John and Gerda’s children, although making only short appearances, leave distinct impressions. I enjoyed observing and spending time with them so much, that the investigation of the crime and Poirot himself became almost an afterthought. Poirot is his usual delightful if somewhat ruthless, fussy self, but the other characters are the ones that shine.

Christie takes the time to examine all the main character’s perspectives, motivations and backgrounds without losing pace or entertainment value to the point that the ultimate violent culmination feels organic, rather than like one more mental exercise for Poirot.

The situation Christie creates is complex, and so are the reader’s reactions. Although murder is, of course, never the nice thing to do, I couldn’t help feeling a considerable amount of schadenfreude (because John is such a self-absorbed dickwad, albeit an intriguing one) when it happened. But there is loss, too. John, who wants to go home so badly without knowing where home is even supposed to be, gets killed shortly after we actually get to see some minuscule cracks in his general douchiness.

One minor thing that irks me about The Hollow is that the usually pale and quiet, at times almost ghostlike character Edward has this ill-fitting, unnecessary and from a narrative viewpoint downright stupid melodramatic moment that sticks out like a sore thumb out of the otherwise so finely composed novel. Even worse is that the only discernible purpose of this plot point seems to be that it serves as a setup for another one of Lucy’s bon mots. I’m not saying that I didn’t grin about it. I did. But if you have to put your characters through unlikely acrobatics to keep a joke, that joke has no place in your story.

And no, I don’t count the relationship conversation between the two characters involved as an adequate purpose, because that conversation could have been held in a dozen better and more suitable ways.

The first half of the novel is definitely stronger than the second, which is understandably more concerned with catching the culprit than the characters and their relationships, but never so far that the story as a whole falls apart. That is to say, the second half is not weak per se, it’s simply not as strong as the first.

Poirot’s last scene in particular is quiet and haunting, and his “Your  place  is  with  the  living.  I  will  stay  here  with  the dead…” is a neat line of dialogue.

Another noteworthy thing, she really had fun with class conflict in this one. Moments of having to stop the recording due to laughter happened more than once.

Putting the Audio in Audiobook

The audiobook is read by Hugh Fraser, a fact that prompted a little head scratching for me, because the name seemed kind of familiar. Putting it on only intensified that impression, because I thought I had heard that voice somewhere before. It took a few minutes, but then it hit me. Hugh Fraser plays Captain Hastings in the Poirot TV series.

To be fair, I tend to be picky, when it comes to audiobooks, specifically about reading styles. And it took some time to get into his interpretation. I usually prefer a more subdued ‘performance’, letting the text speak for itself, but Fraser does a good job overall and finds a tone that fits Christie at least. I doubt I would like other books read by him though.

Speaking of the TV series, some of the ITV adaptations are much stronger than their source material (Five Little Pigs comes to mind), but I have to say that the adaptation of The Hollow, though beautifully shot, is only a bloodless and woefully undercomplex imitation of the richness of the novel. It gets the plot mostly right, but misses the point of what makes the book stand out.

Loving Lucy

I want to go back to one character in particular. Lucy is a strange creature (not only because she knows which culinary actions to take, if you’re plagued with a murder in the house). Elusive, privileged, scatterbrained and the closest thing to a comic relief character in the whole novel – at least on the surface. Yet there is more to her than that. Just like Gerda for example, she is more insightful and has a deeper and darker side to her than people give her credit for. You only have to pay attention to what she says and does to expand that first impression. It’s no wonder that Henrietta describes her early on as gracious but certainly not kind. The strange thing about her though is that, at least for me, she seems to be like an embodiment of Christie’s writing itself.

Her books may appear nice from the outside, but when you take the time to actually look, it becomes clear that they are not really nice at all. They have an appealing, cosy, pretty, even a slighty dotty front, but the good ones are more than that. The good ones have a kind of hushed complexity. There’s something a little deeper and darker lurking behind the obvious, something that surprises me again and again. Even though maybe it shouldn’t. Would I keep reading her books, if there was nothing more to them than the hunt for the murderer? I honestly can’t tell. I’m really fond of light entertainment after all.

In Pursuit of Better Death

Unlike the procedure of many of Christie’s other novels this extra time spend on the characters means something crucial, namely that the death has more than a passing impact on the reader. Normally, the bodies pile up and it doesn’t matter all that much who they were as persons before becoming the dead thing that moves the plot along. I don’t blame Christie for doing something that’s pretty much a defining trait of her genre, but it’s a welcome change of pace all the same. I usually don’t read Christie, because I care much about her characters or because I find them particularly interesting. Rather, because I have a soft spot for her detectives, because she is an excellent observer of certain social situations, and the simple pleasure of trying to guess the murderer before Poirot et al. do so (which I’m sadly really bad at). But if a crime story actually takes the time to get to know the dead thing before it exists, the before and after become a lot more meaningful. The stakes are higher. Death becomes a waste.

There is a certain callousness towards violent (fictional) death in both readers and writers of crime fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I do wonder, if perhaps taking a step back and questioning that callousness and the accompanying practice of irrelevant throw-away characters might have a positive influence on the overall quality of such works. I don’t want less death in crime fiction, I want better death. Death that has a little more significance.

I certainly see something of that in The Hollow. Compared to the other close to 30 books of her that I’ve read so far, I think leaving her sometimes quite rigid formula does a world of good to her writing. And she is so clearly able to do some splendid work outside out of it.

The Hollow is not just good for a Christie novel. It’s just plain good.

The Vampire by Aleksey Tolstoy or Fire is Always a Good Conversation Starter

The short biographical note in my edition told me three interesting things about A.K. Tolstoy: 1.) he was a cousin of the more famous Leo Tolstoy, 2.) he wrote in Russian and French, and 3.) during a trip to Germany as a child, he was apparently really impressed with sitting on Goethe’s lap. Somehow this left me favourably inclined towards The Vampire right from the get-go.

The story starts with a blaze. The first scene – and in my opinion the strongest of the novella – is brilliant.  Runewski, the protagonist, is at a ball and sees a man who is so distracted by his surroundings that he doesn’t notice that his coat-tails are getting singed in the fireplace. Like the suave gentleman he is, Runewski judges this as a golden opportunity to engage the stranger in conversation. Of course, you can take the plain, well-trodden path and simply offer someone a light, but this has so much more fanfare.

Burning clothes are quickly forgotten, however, because the man, Rybarenko, is bemused by the fact that there are vampires at the ball. Strangely enough, Rybarenko – a simultaneously comic and tragic figure – seems to be more upset by the lack of manners of the vampires present than the whole undead, bloodsucking and murdering of innocents schtick. But really, the gall of some vampires: being at a ball among the very people who attended their funerals. That’s just tacky.

Rybarenko’s delicate sensibilities aside, he has some useful advice for Runewski, namely how to identify a vampire. According to Tolstoy’s story it’s not the lack of a mirror image (supremely useful in a ball room) or the inability to enjoy a sunbath, but rather a particular noise like the clicking of one’s tongue that the vampires use to greet one another. Or to be more precise, something resembling the sound of lips sucking an orange.

This peculiar but lovely beginning gives a taste of the absurd and sets the tone of the whole novella. Without going into further detail, Runewski has a busy night, after learning about the vampires: he falls in love with a girl after one dance; meets her aunt, cousin and allegedly vampiric grandmother;  gets invited to visit them all at their country house; and finds out that Rybarenko is supposedly insane. And that’s only the first part.

The Vampire jumps back and forth between the fantastical and the mundane, playing at gaslighting both characters and readers. Tolstoy presents the natural as well as the supernatural explanations for the occurring events as equally viable options, and lets the reader decide, whether to take up with vampires, satanic rituals, an old family curse, suspicious scars and odd behaviour, or stick to drug and fever induced hallucinations, dreams and mental illness.

The deliberate non-explicitness and ambivalence, while rather uncommon for gothic tales, is actually the charm of the story. Although Tolstoy takes the dream sequences a bit too far, which curbs the overall pacing, especially when the story delves into Rybarenko’s experiences, it’s still forgivable in a novella with less than 90 pages.

For something I picked up ages ago in a second-hand bookshop because of its campy cover, I was delighted to find a mischievous and fun take on vampire lore in at times surprisingly poetic language.

The Hare of Inaba or 80 out of 81 Princes Suck

Sometimes the reminder why I don’t want to read only contemporary fiction comes from unexpected places. And I decidedly don’t want to limit this notion to the so-called ‘classics’ – a term that can range between ambiguous and arbitrary – but also include all those stories which are perhaps not as widely known. Because the good ones have something to say to us, even centuries later.

The Hare of Inaba is a story about a sneaky hare, gullible crocodiles and cruel human princes that breaks the mould in the way it deals with transgressions. A lot of fairy tales, at least in their original forms, tend to be places where layers, nuance and complexity are rarely found. Heroes are universally good, villains are universally bad, and the unkindness the villain receives for his or her own previous unkindness is just punishment.

A fairy tale I grew up with is somewhat similar. In Mother Hulda two sisters handle the same obstacles differently and are rewarded or punished accordingly. The always good, kind and diligent (and of course pretty) sister accidentally enter’s Hulda’s realm, where she completes the tasks she is given without question, and is later directly rewarded by Hulda. The always bad, unkind and lazy sister enters Hulda’s world on purpose after witnessing her sister’s success. She, on the other hand, performs her duties only half-heartedly or not all, which leads to Hulda punishing her with being covered in pitch for life. End of story.

Duality of the Hare

The Hare of Inaba takes a different road. The titular hare is both perpetrator and victim; he deceives the crocodiles to cross the sea and is later deceived himself, when he follows the malicious advice of those eighty bad princes. The interesting part is that his previous transgression doesn’t exclude him from being seen as a victim of unjust cruelty. He is neither perfectly innocent nor perfectly good. Thus his status as a previous transgressor doesn’t affect his ability to be recognised as a victim at a later point in time.

The usual fairy tale or fable would only contain the first part of the hare’s story. The hare tricks the crocodiles and is punished with losing his fur, because he gets carried away and mocks them while he is still within reach. But The Hare of Inaba goes on, because it’s really a story about the hero and his eighty brothers and how they deal with the hare’s situation.

The hare also portrays an intriguing approach to trust and learning from past experiences. He begins the story as an untrustworthy trickster. But despite his own nature and experiences, he doesn’t regard his subsequent encounters with suspicion. On the contrary, he follows the advice of the first eighty princes he meets without hesitation, and is, as a result, worse off than before. Yet even then, he is not only willing to forward his trust to the eighty-first brother, but furthermore reveals how his own actions got him in trouble in the first place.

The Hero and his Reward

This disclosure does something interesting to the hero. He judges the loss of fur as just punishment, but that doesn’t affect his compassion for the hare’s current state. His kindness has little to do with blind obedience. Rather, it’s an informed choice. Even though his past experiences with his brothers, who hated him and treated him like a servant, should have taught him to expect at least ingratitude for his efforts, he is fully aware of the hare’s previous transgression and still chooses to help. And so much that the hare was “quite cured and his fur grew thicker than ever”. This kind of trust, or conviction if you will, mirrors that of the hare.

Furthermore, the hero doesn’t prevail because of his bravery or battle prowess, but because of his empathy and kindness. He doesn’t ‘win’ the princess and lifelong happiness (according to the last sentence) through fighting, but by simply being a nice person. Which is another interesting point.

Unlike Mother Hulda, there is no magical fix in this tale. The hare has neither the (magical) power nor the authority to actually provide the reward. He can neither make the princess chose the eighty-first prince by whatever means, nor can he order her to do so. When he tells the one good brother that the princess will choose him and he will be king, it is mere reassurance. It is once more trust that, considering the actions of all the princes, the princess will realise that the last brother is the good one and therefore choose him. (There are different versions of the story. In one of them the hare is revealed to be a god after the cure, but that doesn’t happen in this translation.)

For such a teensy, tiny book that only has a few pages and tells a pretty simple story, it offers a surprising degree of complexity and raises some fascinating questions about trust and betrayal, justice, weakness and strength.

You can read and/or download a nicely illustrated copy of The Hare of Inaba at The Public Domain Review.

Listening to Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell or Sweet-talking Yourself

In general, I’m not fond of biographies, and I’m even less fond of memoirs (i.e. I went into this with a fair amount of bias). But I gave this one a chance, because I enjoy Agatha Christie, the ITV adaptations and Suchet’s Poirot a great deal. I didn’t expect much more than some nice background noise for a few otherwise tedious menial tasks. And this I certainly got.

However, while parts of it are entertaining and even charming, there are also parts that are quite the opposite, but my predominant impression of Poirot and Me was that it’s unintentionally funny. Not because Suchet should really sit down and think of a synonym for ‘idiosyncrasies’ – or consult a thesaurus. No, because this oeuvre is a 9-hour long textbook example of humblebrag. That Suchet narrates the audiobook himself doesn’t help in the slightest (although that’s, of course, a perfectly reasonable choice). If I had tried reading it, I wouldn’t have made it past the first few chapters. I shall stick to just watching him in the future.

Nevertheless, this is a great example of my continuing effort not to equate quality with enjoyment. Because, while I do think that Poirot and Me is not a good book, I obviously still enjoyed it enough to listen to all 9 hours of it and I don’t regret having done so.