Monday, December 29, 2008

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson

This book has been on a ton of Top 2008 Books lists, and has garnered a bunch of enthusiastic reviews. It was even one of the top recommendations from, so it looked like a book I was going to have to read. I ended up getting it on audio for my iPod.

I make the point that I listened to rather than read the book, because I firmly believe that the experience is different. For one obvious thing, the time I invest in the book is very different. With an audiobook, I can't skip ahead, so skim through parts, or look ahead or back to check things. I am bound to the pace of the reader, which is much slower than I can read.

The quality of the time is different too. With an audiobook, I can read while doing chores: walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, driving. With a book, I pretty much have to sit down and focus: the opposite of listening.

So, I can accept that my experience of this book is different than it would have been had I read it, and I'd welcome hearing from people what their experience is in the different formats. My experience, however, was mediocre. This is an interesting book, but surely there are better books than this published this year.

Quick plot summary: Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist forced to take a leave of absence from his job due to losing a libel case. He is hired by a retired industrialist to investigate the disappearance of his 16 year old grand-niece nearly forty years before. He works with the eponymous girl of the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth Salander, who has incredible research and hacking skills and they solve the mystery. They then prove the truth behind the libel case and take down a rouge financier. They don't end up happily ever after, but there are two more books in this series, in which they will likely do so.

So, let's start at the beginning. The title. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" puts the focus on Salander (everyone is addressed by surname, except when a very large family makes that confusing). With a title like that, I'd expect that the tattoo itself had some meaning, or was a clue, or something. (Work with me on this one.) For example, maybe all the girls who were drug runners, or prostitutes, or grifters identified themselves with this tattoo. Maybe the dragon was a clue to the specifice mastermind behind the plan: "I should have seen it--translated into Mandarin, 'dragon' is pronounced exactly like his name!" Imagine the book Raymond Chandler would have written with a title like this!

But no. Salander has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder, a loop on her bicep and ankle, a rose on her calf, a Chinese character on her hip, a ring in her lip and one in her eyebrow. The tattoos are remarked upon, mostly in passing. There is a little more discussion of the piercings--are they okay? Would I let my daughter get one? What does that mean about her professional abilities? But ultimately the tattoos etc. are no more important than that. The book could as easily have been called "The 90 Pound Investigator," or "The Girl on the Kowasaki Motorbike." The tattoo isn't particularly significant in any way.

The original Swedish title apparently translates to "Men Who Hate Women" which admittedly sounds like a self-help book, like "Women Who Love Too Much" or something. However, the original title actually focusses on the mystery and its effects, rather than one character. Sure, Salander is the most interesting character in the book, but she is really only one of two main characters, and Blomkvist gets entirely shorted by the US title.

Okay, so we move inside the book and address the plot itself. Large and wealthy family owned business. CEO is childless, and determines his (then 16 year old) grandniece Harriet is the best person to be the next head of the company. Everybody is on the family island for a meeting when a terrible truck crash cuts off the only bridge for 12 or 24 hours--a significant amount of time. Only the next day does anybody notice that Harriet is missing. So, when Blomkvist his briefed on the mystery, much evidence is given to prove that there was no way she could have left the island, making it the epitome of a "locked room" mystery. The island was searched, and her body never found.

Well, I don't know about you, but all this emphasis on how she couldn't have left the island left me looking for how she could have. So much strenuous misdirection makes me suspicious, and so while everybody is nodding and accepting how she must have still been on the island, I am busy thinking up ways she could have left it, willingly or not. Which, it turns out, is only the first of several plot solutions I guessed well before any of the characters.

This is one of the first books I have read that attempts to be fully realistic about the pervasive technology in our lives. Everyone has mobile phones; when Blomkvist moves to the island to start his investigation, he calls the phone company to get DSL. The main characters do their writing and note-taking and evidence storage on their MacBooks. Most of the investigations start with Google.

So, when a question arises of how Salander gets such good information, is it really any surprise to learn that she is a hacker? She gets details about her subjects that are substantially more private than any of her co-workers get--how do you think she came up with the information that a job applicant was a closet pederast? Of course she hacked into his computer--and everybPody else's she investigates. Score now stands: Me-2, Blomkvist-0.

It takes most of the book for Blomkvist and Salander to come around to beginning to suspect Harriet's older brother Martin. Excuse me! I am supposed to believe that an investigative journalist who specializes in reporting on financial crimes never once considered looking critically at the current CEO of the company? Isn't it about the first rule of investigation to "Follow the Money?" Who benefits from the crime? Everybody knew that Harriet was being groomed to be the next CEO; after she disappeared, her older brother got the job. There is Number One Suspect right there! But no, it takes some laborious nonsense about reading old newspaper negatives and blowing up blurry pictures using Photoshop before Our Heroes even think to look at him. This is just sloppy, isn't it?

The family is full of repulsive old folks; abusive drunks, anti-Semites, Nazi sympathizers. Everybody hates everybody else for the most part, and so when one foul old drunk lives in a cabin on the complete other side of the island, away from everybody else, and falls off a cliff and drowns while drunk, nobody even whispered that he might have been pushed? Of course he was pushed! You suspected that too, I know you did. Almost nobody just falls off a cliff and drowns by accident in a novel--not if they are broadly disliked and live isolated from potential witnesses! Me-3. Blomkvist-0.

If this were an Agatha Christie novel, I'd just be patting myself on the back for spotting the plot so successfully. However, this novel is much darker than Christie ever dreamed of being, and the sheer horror of what Larsson puts in his book made me deeply uncomfortable. This is where the original title would have warned people off--as Blomkvist and Salander investigate Harriet's disappearance, they find evidence that the family is connected to a number of grisly murders of women. Horrible murders; serious sexual assault, women bound and tortured to death. I don't even want to think about the horrible things that Larsson has chosen to put into his book, and I suspect anybody who writes so much about so many unthinkable things. Women's bodies are abused in so many ways in this book it's revolting.

Sure, most of the horrible things are from reports of old murders--they are not shown in the "real time" of the novel, and they are further distanced by their remoteness in time. Still, Larsson puts in enough detail to be truly troublesome, and I can't expiate that sin by granting that book claims that men who do that to women are maniacs. Sure they are, but what are the people who write about such acts in a novel?

Which brings me to another flaw in this plot of this book. The old murders are tied together as being perversions of the laws listed in Leviticus, and the mutilations of the victims' bodies are in some fashion related to ritual offerings, and the conclusion is that the murderer is a religious nut who hates women. We also see that the ritualistic behavior continues to the present day, with the mutilation of a cat having been done in the family crypt rather than in a basement/garage or out in the woods.

So why, when we finally meet Martin in his torturing mode, is there not a whiff of religious mania about him? He gets quite a melodramatic monologue about the god-like feeling of having a life in his hands--but not a thing about women being bad, or his need to extirpate his sin, or anything even remotely religious at all. Why did Martin--who possesses a well equipped soundproof torture chamber in his own basement--feel the need to dismember the cat in the family crypt? Finally, we are told that for Martin, the real thrill was in stalking and capturing a woman who wouldn't be missed--no relgious psychosis there.

So, as we skid into the final chapters of this book, we are faced with the solution to the mystery--16 year old is abused by her drunk father, she pushes him into the water in self-defense, only to find her brother intends to continue the same treatment. So, she runs away with some help so she isn't found and brought back to the intolerable situation. It's creepy that we had to get to that solution through the serial killings of dozens of women to figure out what is pretty obvious to start with. I felt dirty and corrupted for having been dragged through such muck.

Oh, and by the way, that libel case? Salander hacks into the victor's computer system, and gets all the incriminating information necessary to lead to an arrest, the guy flees, and is found dead not long after. Probably a mob execution, we figure, several paragraphs before we are told so. Was this necessary? Does it tell us anything more than we already know about plot, character, motivation? No. What we do get is Larsson's fantasy about what should happen when a journalist breaks a story about shady financial dealings--it becomes a huge media story, all the sloppy journalists get shamed for their failing to ask the tough questions, the government moves to create oversight and regulation to prevent such shenannigans, and Blomkvist is vindicated and lionized, plus he gets to publish a book that sells out its first run and has to be re-printed, and he rides off into the sunset to get laid. The End.

So, let's talk about Blomkvist. He's a weirdly passive guy for an investigative journalist, and seems to have been created to be Larsson's idea of what a Man Who Doesn't Hate Women would be like. Larsson has crafted a wonderfully spiky character in Salander, and then waters her down by having her fall in love with Blomkvist. Why does she love him? Well, the sex is good, and he doesn't ask her personal questions, and he doesn't get mad when she does outrageous things to him, and he doesn't push her to do things she doesn't want to do. So does a dog, except for the sex.

Blomkvist has a brief affair with one of the women of The Family, and when she decides to break it off, he just shrugs and basically says "whatever." Which, come to think of it, was his response to her initiating the affair. Now, I totally value a decent guy over a "bad boy" as dating material, but this guy has as much personality as a piece of soggy toast. He's just not really there, in any meaningful way--his appeal is that he is so self-effacing that he doesn't create any obstacle to the women around him. If that were a character I could actually believe in, and find understandably attractive, then I might have had a better reaction to this book.

Finally, a word about the writing. I'm going to ease off a bit here and blame it on translation, but a great deal of the "description" in the novel is merely a list of nouns: we get a list of every item of furniture in Blomkvist's office, his apartment, the guest cottage where he stays for most of the novel. We get all the ingredients of the sandwiches he makes for himself. We get a list of how many pairs of socks and long underwear he puts on for the winter. We get the model numbers of the MacBooks the characters use. We even (I am not making this up) get the square footage of every living space anyone enters. I can hope that in the original Swedish this was more graceful or elegant; in English it reads like a lot of inventories.

So, ultimately, I'd give this book a B+ if I were grading it. It's uneven at best, and rather creepier than I think the author intended.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

Or: How I Read This Book And Learned To Love Post-Modernism.

How does one even start with this book. It is a book about the Vietnam War, it is a book about the impossibility of conveying what it was like to be in the Vietnam War. It is a book about a young man named "Tim O'Brien" who was drafted after college, contemplated running to Canada, but ended up going to war.

This is a book that plays with literary convention, but does so for solid and understandable reasons. It's not a McSweeney's type of lark, O'Brien doesn't play with the form just because he can, but because it is deeply rooted in what he is trying to say. Before the first page, on the same page with the Library of Congress information, there is a caveat:
This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.

On the facing page is the dedication:
This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa
These are the names of the main characters of the book. In other hands, this could very well be a bit of PoMo manipulation, an attempt to mess with the reader's head. For O'Brien, these imagined men are as real to him as the actual physical men during his surreal experience of Vietnam. The blending of fact and fiction laid out in these two small prefaces is part of the very meaning of the book.

The book itself is either a collection of short stories, or an episodic novel in which the stories themselves are arranged deliberately, although not chronologically. The book is hard to read, as O'Brien describes the catastrophic boredom of war--vast amounts of time of boring, gritty field routine, punctuated by brief, unannounced horror. The first story, "The Things They Carried" details the specific items--and their weight--carred by each of the men. There are the basic supplies each man must have for himself, plus the additional weight of equipment necessary to their jobs. But each man carries other things, that are far heavier and cannot be thrown off: fear, guilt, shame, which are heavier than the military issue.

We see the men failing to connect with each other--Cross spends his time dreaming of a girl who probably doesn't love him. Rat Kiley tells stories that he has to exaggerate in order to properly convey the emotional weight of what happened. Norman Bowker returns home after the war to find that there is no one he can talk to about the experience. One of the men writes a letter to the sister of a man who was killed, trying to tell her what a great man her brother was--and she never writes back. Each man is isolated, unable to communicate what is happening.

The inability of communication is both implicit and explicit in the novel. O'Brien writes of the impossibility of mere words being able to pass the experience on to another person. There is the (now expected) unreality of war in this country, where there is no clear enemy, where boys are expected to act as men, where there is nothing familiar about the experience. And yet, O'Brien refuses to accept that Vietnam is "unknowable." It's not that Vietnam was surreal, but that all experience is limited to those who experience it.

One example: In "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker imagines telling someone "I almost won the Silver Star." As the chapter progresses, Norman slowly reveals that while bivouaced in a swampy field, they were hit with mortar fire, and Kiowa got sucked under the mud. Bowker tried to grab Kiowa's leg, but gave up, overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of the situation. Bowker blames himself for Kiowa's death, but frames the story for the people back home as "almost winning the Silver Star." The chapter returns again and again to Bowker's attempts to talk about the experience, and to the infinite distance between him and the people in his hometown. O'Brien weaves a delicte story about a man wrestling with his own sense of guilt, the rut he is stuck in, and his inability to integrate back into town life. The writing is spare, yet laden with metaphor.

In the following chapter, "Notes," the author's persona admits that it was "Tim O'Brien" who was responsible for Kiowa's death. After this emotional wallop, we then read "In the Field," where we see the event from Jimmy Cross's perspective, and learn that he blames himself as well, although more vaguely than "O'Brien" did in the previous chapter.

This is not a fun or pleasant read; the suffering of war is hard to work through voluntarily. As hard as it was, I am glad I read it. It engaged both the emotions and the intellect, saying things about war, and the impossibility of saying anything about war. Definitely a great book

Monday, October 13, 2008

My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper is perhaps the most widely read of Jodi Picoult's books: ask anyone in a book club, and they will probably tell you they have read it. Most will also tell you it is a heart breaker.

In short, this is the story of Kate, diagnosed with leukemia at age 2, and her younger sister Anna who was conceived to be a genetic match so she could give Kate the cord blood to help combat the disease. Of course, that is not enough, and Anna is asked to donate more and more: platelets, granulocytes, bone marrow, and finally a kidney. It is at this point that Anna finds a lawyer and sues for medical emancipation from her parents.

The book follows the entire family, letting each major character present part of the story in first person: the mother, Sara; the father Brian; the oldest child Jesse; Anna; her attorney Campbell; and her guardian ad litem Julia. Only at the very end of the book does Kate speak.

Sara is a former attorney who invests herself heavily in Kate's medical care. Through her tough and relentless crusading, Kate has lived to be 16, kissed a boy, gone to her first prom; all things that were first thought to be impossible. Her initial diagnosis predicted she would not live past 7. Sara will not give up, and in her single minded search for the next therapy, she has become absent from the rest of the family.

Brian is a firefighter, who watches fires and sees the way they burn as a metaphor for the way his family has reacted to the overwhelming nature of Kate's illness. Jesse is 18, and a stereotypical juvenile delinquent--drinking, drugging, stealing, setting fire to buildings. He is way too obvious a cliche, really--the child who is ignored entirely because he has nothing to give Kate. There are some hints that Jesse does these things hoping to get caught, and to assuage his guilt at not being able to save Kate, although that isn't really persuasive.

Kate is a cipher, more a list of medical emergencies than a character. Anna is the one who should stand out--she is very brave to take this step to refuse her sister a kidney, and she has the most chapters in her own voice. However, Anna is carefully keeping secrets, and so her personality doesn't really ever come out. In addition, her "voice" is too literary, too adult, to pass convincingly for a 13 year old faced with the kind of pressure she is under.

Campbell and Julia have a shared past that ended badly, and neither has gotten over the other, despite the 15 years since they graduated and broke up. Campbell is a smart ass and abrasive, so he doesn't have to admit to his disability, although he does have a service dog. When asked "Why? You aren't blind?" he has a snarky answer. "I'm red-green color blind. The dog lets me know when the light changes." "I'm a lawyer. He chases ambulances for me."

The Campbell and Julia subplot is pretty superfluous. Even I figured out that the dog was there to sense the onset of epilepsy well before the time it was revealed. That also is the "reason" Campbell broke up with Julia and the "reason" he never contacted her. But she learns of his condition, and so now they are back together again. More interesting is that these two lawyers have interviews with the other characters, which gives them the chance to shed some light on things that wouldn't otherwise come out in first person narration by the characters themselves.

Julia is supposed to interview the family, doctors, etc., and give the judge a recommendation about how to dispose of Anna's petition for medical emancipation. Sara is acting as opposing counsel, which leads to some family tension as well. But none of it rings tremendously true--all the emotions of the family are tamped down, are very politely outlined but nobody ever acts without that kind of "calm cool consideration" that takes the heart out of the story.

Now, I have warned you that I will post spoilers, so if you want to keep the book fresh, do not read on. Because I have to discuss the ending. Which comes in several stages. First, during the hearing, Sara finally hears what the rest of her family have been saying for years: we love Kate too, but you have to pay attention to the rest of us. While cross-examining her husband, they engage in some pretty unbelievable nostalgia and Sara cracks and admits her mistakes. Which was really the only tension in the book--Sara was such a one-dimensional character. All she did was worry about Kate and yell at anyone who complained about anything, because they had it easier than Kate did, so they had no right to complain.

I expected to have great sympathy for Sara--I cannot imagine how hard it is to watch your child die over a decade, but her complete failure to do anything else makes her unsympathetic, and frankly a boring character. We know she is always going to side with Kate on anything, that she will always disappoint the other members of her family. The only character who really needs to grow in any appreciable way is Sara. Her redemption in the courtroom smacks of manipulation and was unbelievable to boot. This is climax #1.

Then Anna testifies. She was willing to donate the kidney, she hardly needed to think about it, because she loves her sister and can't imagine life without her. The big secret she has been keeping is that it was Kate who asked her to do this. Was this because Kate was tired of living this way and wanted to die? Did Kate feel guilty for taking so much away from Anna, and did this to set Anna free? So Anna could live her life without having to be physically close to Kate in case a donation need arose? Not clear. But now we all find Anna isn't selfish or a bad sister, but an Incredibly Superhumanly Wonderful Sister (TM). This is climax #2.

Then the judge rules--there is a lot of talk from the characters about the difference between "moral" and "legal" and "right." Nobody can say what is the right thing to do in this case. Even Julia starts crying and says she doesn't know what to recommend. The judge ends up granting the petition, appointing Campbell to assist Anna in making her own medical decisions. This is climax #3.

We then skip forward 6 months. Anna is signing some papers and Campbell is driving her to the hospital. Brian, Sara and Kate are waiting, Kate is nearly dead. Is this the kidney donation we were allegedly fighting over during the course of the book? It kind of looks like it, but it's not clear. Then, oh noes! Brian gets a call and has to go to an emergency! It's a car accident! It's Anna in the car with Campbell, and she's got a massive head injury!! She is declared brain dead!! Oh, the irony! We never thought we'd lose Anna while we were busy taking care of Kate!!! But now, Kate can have the kidney!! This is climax #4.

We then skip ahead another year. Kate is still alive, and Anna's kidney has not only saved her from fatal renal failure, but has also cured the leukemia. Jesse got caught by Dad as arsonist, turned his life around and now is graduating from police academy. Everybody loves each other, and Anna is their personal angel. The End. (Climax #5, for those still counting.)

And ya know what? Ann Landers wrote this ending about a thousand years ago. Happens all the time: new wife never gets to spend holidays with her family, because husband's mother is so ill and "this may be her last Christmas/Easter/Thanksgiving/Secretary's Day." Then, of course, wife's mom dies unexpectedly, while frail MIL lives to be 206.

So, of course, Kate isn't going to be the one who dies first. Given the circumstances, they all expect her to die first, so they have to be shocked into the realization that you can't ignore the rest of your family, because they aren't safe either. Good thing Sara had her epiphany before Anna kicked the bucket, huh?

Look--it's a competent read, with distinct (if not fully living) characters, an intriguing premise with a human face. It's a decent basis for discussion: what would you do? How do you decide what is in the best interest of your children when their interests are opposed? Do you understand Sara's actions? Do you approve of them? Do sick kids have to eat their vegetables like their healthy siblings?

At the same time, it fails to really breathe life into the characters, and as a result, the process feels manipulated. In the very tone of the writing, you don't fear that Kate is really going to die, or that Anna will really refuse to donate a kidney. Jesse isn't really going to do major harm to himself, his future, or anybody else. Julia and Campbell aren't really going to stay mad at each other, although their "love" is pretty unbelievable too. It's not clear how Picoult is going to land each of her balls, but you really don't feel like there is much at stake in this juggling act.

I wish Picoult had really been able to bring Anna to life: the kind of 13 year old who could begin to do what she did is truly exceptional, but we never see the spark of it in her. I would have mourned her death more if it hadn't been used as such a "shocking plot twist." Kate doesn't get much personality either--she's like a medically accurate Beth March, whose personality is limited to being the kind of person who dies in a novel.

The parents never really came to any kind of explosion between themselves either. I would think this would be the kind of situation that would drive a huge wedge between Sara and Brian, especially once Brian starts to see Anna's point. But they remain civil, and as loving as anybody else in the book, never once showing any cracks in their relationship.

So--a well crafted read, but not an emotionally engaging book. (I insert this caveat: if you have/had a terminally ill person you were close to, you experience will probably be entirely the opposite of mine. I can only say that as fiction, it doesn't show me what I couldn't already imagine about being in that situation--it doesn't reach out and grab me and thrust my face into the cold water of these people's lives. I don't dare make any claims about it for readers with this kind of history of their own.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dust, by Martha Grimes

Does this always happen? That when you find a writer you like, and read all their backlist, when you start reading the books they publish as they appear, they are disappointing? Or is it just me?

I remember reading Martha Grimes back when I was pregnant. Her first book, "The Man With a Load of Mischief" introduced her murder series, each book named after an actual pub somewhere in England. Richard Jury was the man from Scotland Yard, and Melrose Plant the idle English gentry. The two met over this investigation, and their friendship has continued throughout the series.

There was even a larger arc to these stories--Jury had some ultimately unhappy romantic plots, Plant turned out to have been an earl, but had renounced his title and gave us some hints about the story behind that decision. There was something that kept these books interesting and not just episodic.

However, the last two have been quite disappointing. I have reviewed the "Old Wine Shades" on this blog, and if I had remembered that one, I probably wouldn't have picked up "Dust." Though not as ham-handed as Old Wine Shades, Dust isn't nearly as good as I have come to expect from Grimes. To start with: "Dust?" Dust? After such memorable titles as "And the Horse You Came In On?" "The Blue Last?" "The Grave Maurice?" This is not an interesting title.

The murder happens before the first page. A young mentee of Jury's works in a hotel restaurant, and is asked to take up coffee for two to one of the hotel rooms. No one answers the knock, but the door is open, so Benny enters. The occupant is dead on the terrace. Benny calls Jury first, then the Islington police. This allows Jury to show up and fall into immediate lust with the Islington DI. She returns the feeling, and whenever they are alone, they end up smashing furniture--behavior I find very un-Jury-like.

Meanwhile, we find a string of strange coincidences among the suspects. The man who was killed was Billy Maples, whose grandfather was on the Enigma project during WWII. Billy as been giving lavishly to support artists, and has an assistant named Kurt Brunner. Billy's father Roderick was adopted by Sir Oswald Maples after being evacuated from Germany during WWII on the "Kindertransport." Roderick's real father was an out-of-control SS officer who pulled a Jewish child off the train at the last moment, returned the child to his parents, and then shot the child in the head. The younger brother who witnessed the shooting was Kurt Brunner. There is much theorizing that Kurt Brunner may have killed Billy as a way to revenge himself on Roderick's father--since killing the child would be a more painful revenge.

Billy's cook was also a casualty of WWII--she was evacuated from England, and put on a ship to Canada. Mrs. Jessup's two sisters died when the ship was torpedoed.

Roderick has found out about his true parentage, and retrieved some art his SS father had looted and gave to some relatives for safe-keeping. One of the pieces is an original Klimt, the other a Soutine. Roderick displays both pieces in his home, but claims they are reproductions. Billy has apparently found out the truth, and so he gives away money to artists in some sort of expiation of his family's past.


In the end, we find out that the waiter at the hotel killed poor Billy Maples, then set the scene to be discovered by Benny and leading police to search for the mythical second person who was to have the "coffee for two." Billy's housekeeper is the waiter's sister. She blames somebody--I think it's Roderick, but we are not told for certain--for pushing her two sisters out of the lifeboat during the evacuation to Canada. Killing Billy is still the most painful form of revenge.

But once again, this solution is terribly stretched. Jury theorizes that Jessup's sisters died from being pushed out of the lifeboat, but there is no actual testimony to that fact. In fact, Jury deduces this must be what happened based on the fact that Jessup gets hysterical and calls out her sisters' name when a table is overturned and all the food spilled off it. Not really what I would call "direct evidence."

Nor is there any actual dialogue or evidence that Roderick was even evacuated to Canada, much less was on that same ship with the young Jessup and her sisters, or in the same lifeboat. Nor is it clear why Jessup and her brother would know that Roderick was that same boy who pushed out the girls.

Much was made of the confusing fact that Billy shouldn't have even been in that hotel, since he had a flat not far away--so why take a room? Grimes does not give us the answer to that either.

We do get a fair amount of the tried and true--apparently Grimes is not allowed to write a Jury mystery without a scene of Melrose Plant and his catty friends being mean and clever while drinking at the local pub. And Plant also has to come do some secret digging, entering one of the important locales under false pretenses to give Jury the inside story. At least he doesn't have to pretend to be Nils Bohr this time.

We get glimpses of the other tenants of Jury's building, as well as an infuriating interview with Jury's boss and the station cat creeps around as well. If you have read these books, you recognize these scenes as ones that have happened before. If you haven't read these books, so that this is new, then there are other aspects that make no sense. Harry Johnson is still hanging out at the Old Wine Shades--and Jury keeps threatening him, and there is really no way to know why unless you have read that book. Jury is also still in some kind of trouble for entering a house without a warrant--wasn't that why he was on leave in the last book?

I haven't mentioned the Henry James motif yet. Billy and Kurt live in Lamb House, a National Trust property where Henry James once lived. They are tenants who keep the house tidy and open it for visitors two days a week. We get a number of references to James works, most of which I haven't read, so I didn't get the connection. If this book had been better, I might have made a point to go read those books to tease out the connections. As it is. . .

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

My dear sister-in-law lent me "Good In Bed," Weiner's first novel and the antecedent to this book. That book starts out with Cannie Shapiro finding out that her recently ex boyfriend Bruce has written a column for a women's magazine. The column is called "Good in Bed" and his first column is "Loving a Larger Woman." That woman is Cannie.
She goes ballistic, and I gave up the book. After all, his column was basically about how he loved her more than she loved herself. And it's not like anybody who knew Cannie was "C." didn't know that Cannie was a "larger woman." I failed to see the betrayal, and thought it was a lot of fuss over not much so I gave the book back.

Then my on-line book club chose "Certain Girls." I went back and read "Good In Bed," which was better than I thought it would be. "Certain Girls" takes place 10 years later: Cannie's (and Bruce's) daughter Joy is now 13, and just coming into her own adulthood, signified by her upcoming bat mitzvah. Cannie has married Peter, the "diet doctor" she met in the first book. Peter and Cannie are deciding whether to have their child. Joy is going through the teen emotional roller coaster, and becomes convinced she was never wanted, so she runs away. In the end, Peter dies, Cannie is pregnant, Joy turns into a fabulous big sister, blah blah blah.

The book is told in first person, alternating between Cannie and Joy. Cannie is boring. She is happy where she is and doesn't want anything to change. Ever. Joy is stretching for something and not certain what it is she is looking for. Guess who is more interesting?

Joy's life becomes a quest for the truth about her family and her past. She finds the book her mother wrote, also called "Good in Bed" which is not exactly the same as the book that Jennifer Weiner wrote with that title. Cannie's book has a lot more sex in it, for commercial purposes. Joy starts trying to discover what is true and what is fiction, and what is her place in the world.

I'm not certain I can say anything better than what I posted on the online book club:

Plus, you know what? Cannie is BORING.

Peter wants a baby. Cannie is afraid it will change things.

Her publisher wants a new edition of "Big Girls" and a sequel. Cannie doesn't want to relive that part of her life, or change what she has now.

Joy is growing up. Cannie wants to still be the parent who can make things better so Joy won't change.

Joy wants to include her father, Bruce, in her bat mitzvah. Cannie is furious because she doesn't want to change how much Bruce is in their lives.

Joy wants a bat mitzvah like all the other kids are having. Cannie wants one exactly like the one she had and won't compromise.

So, all the growth and movement of this novel so far is by Joy. All Cannie does is try to stop everything. No wonder I like Joy better.
There might be some mileage in comparing this book to the earlier one: both Cannie and Joy flee their own lives and go to LA, both come "home." Both have parent issues and both books end with the birth of a baby, which changes everybody's perspectives.

That said, this is about half the book it should have been. Cannie really doesn't change, and you would think that she might have learned a couple of things about her own parents by becoming a parent herself--like no matter what you thought at the time, adults don't usually leave families because the kids weren't "good enough." There are (who knew) plenty of issues they have themselves.

Cannie also beats herself up about not being a "good enough" mother because she can't keep Joy "safe." But that's ridiculous--no one can keep anyone else perfectly safe. Just not possible.

So, while Joy grows and matures throughout the book, Cannie never does, and she should have. So there is half the book crippled right there. Add to that the rushed ending, and it seems the book should have been at least 100 pages longer. Again, only half the book it could have been.

There is no denying that Weiner has grown as a writer over the 10 years between these two books: Certain Girls is a much better book than Good In Bed, but neither will live on the the pantheon of literature. Final summation? Get these books from the library, or wait until the paperbacks are on sale--these are not keepers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Breaking Dawn, by Stephanie Meyer

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I didn't give this Twilight series a terribly good review. So, why did I read the last one? Even worse, why did I BUY the last one? So sue me, I was curious. Go Team Jacob!

At least I didn't stay up to midnight to get it the first minute it was available. I waited almost a whole week, and only bought it after I picked up a copy and read the first 5 pages. There was SOME discrimination involved here!

For the very few of you who have zero contact with teenage girls or popular culture, Breaking Dawn is the fourth and final book in the saga of Bella Swan, disaffected high school student who finds herself in love with the most gorgeous boy in the school--who turns out to be a 90 year old vampire. After three volumes of danger and yearning, Bella finds herself between two supernatural beings, both of whom love her: Edward, the vampire and Jacob the werewolf. Which will she choose? What will happen?

Like I said, I was curious.

Well, early on, Bella marries Edward, which breaks Jacob's heart. They go off on a honeymoon, where Bella gets pregnant. Yeah, I know--hasn't he been dead for 90 years? I guess he's been a most proper dead guy--he's been completely abstinent for that entire time, and given his cold body temperature, his sperm has been frozen for that entire time. Because she gets pregnant the first time they have sex.

We know this because he refuses to touch her again after the first time, appalled by the bruises he left on her, as well as the damage he did to the furniture in the room. Anyway, the baby is a hybrid, and grows to term in about a month. There is a lot of drama about how the baby is killing Bella, up until they figure out that the baby needs blood. So Bella starts drinking Red Cross collected blood that the Cullens keep in the freezer, and she likes it! So there goes that problem.

Baby gets born, turns out to be a reverse mind reader--puts pictures in peoples heads when she touches them to communicate. Everybody falls for her, and Jacob (poor dear sweet boy, aching with love for Bella, who will never love him back) imprints on the baby. So hey! He'll be her son-in-law some day!

We get a tense climax--the Biggest, Baddest Vampires show up, planning on killing the baby (because there is a law against making vampires out of infants--and they have never seen a hybrid before). There is a face-down, where it is clear that the Volturi fear the Cullens are going to attempt to seize power, so the baby is just an excuse to destroy this threat to the Volturi. Bella discovers her unique vampire talent is to be a shield, and war is averted through clever diplomacy, coupled with Bella's shield incapacitating the usual Volturi weapons.

Happily ever after, with a vague threat that the Volturi may someday return. Vampires and werewolves are now in an alliance, Bella is able to keep her father in her life, Jacob can once again be her best friend, and she has her perfect Edward again.

Based on reading Amazon reviews, this book is not as well beloved as the first three. I can see why--there is no longer that fatally addictive yearning, the unconsummated love between Bella and Edward that was the primary feature of the first books. Happy families are famously not interesting. Once Bella marries Edward and becomes a vampire herself, she's no longer a tragic heroine.

Plus, Breaking Dawn takes the characters out of high school and into a world where they function as adults, with adult concerns. Pregnancy, childbirth, parenting--not as interesting to 13 year old girls I think. The final confrontation with the Volturi was not primarily physical either--there was no battle so much as there was a showdown and the Volturi retreated with as much grace as was possible. So, with the romance and violence of the first books removed, with the adult themes added, it's no wonder that a lot of people were disappointed.

Since I am not a teenage girl, (surprise!) I was actually charmed by Meyer's approach to this book. She took some big risks, and did a very good job with them. Nearly a third of the book is narrated by Jacob, as he suffers through Bella's pregnancy and the birth of the baby. Meyer does a lovely job with the changed perspective, adding dimension to the story by getting us inside the head of the werewolves. This gives an interesting insight into why they are such enemies of the vampires, and why the treaty with the Cullens is so fragile.

Her understated approach to sex is also well done. Given the story she is telling, Meyer does have to confront it, but she does so without descending into soft-core porn. Instead, she focusses on the emotional aftermath, the joy Bella feels in her new experiences, both as a human and as a vampire. Delightfully, once Bella is a vampire, with all her newly enhanced senses and powers, she realizes something. With no human need to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom, there is no reason to ever stop!

In fact, if on eis a homebody, there seems to be no reason NOT to be a vampire. Bella has true love--forever--all the money she would ever need, a loving and extended family, a beautiful daughter, her best friend, her father--so maybe she can't go out in public in the sun--she hasn't seemed to have lost anything.

I was surprised by the length of this book--over 750 pages--as well as the confidence with which Meyer handled it. The change to Jacob's narration, Bella's adjustment to her new life, the introduction of motherhood. . .these changed the nature of the book in a way that is true to what mature, married love is. Bella moves through this book as a different person than she was as a teen--a choice by Meyer that was not universally accepted.

So, a satisfying read, and less disturbing than the first three--no longer does Edward seem like a creepy stalker, who is literally cold and hard to the touch. Once Bella becomes a vampire, their body temperatures match, and he is no longer marble like. The two of them are now well matched--Bella is even slightly stronger, as a "newborn"--and they work together to raise their child and to deal with threats to their lives. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the least popular, as it goes far beyond the understanding and interest of the younger readers--but as an adult, I thought it did a good job of wrapping up the series.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott

This is one for the mother-daughter book club for Bunny's 7th grade friends. This particular title was selected by one of the daughters, rather than one of the mothers, and it shows. Unlike some other magic books (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*), this one simply does not hold up to adult reading.

Fifteen year old twins Josh and Sophie are spending a summer in San Francisco while there parents are on an archaeological dig. Hoping to save up enough money to buy a car, the twins have landed summer jobs across the street from each other. Josh works at a bookstore run by Nick and Perry Fleming; Sophie works at the coffee shop.

One day (specifically May 31), a small gray man enters the bookshop followed by two VERY large overcoated body guards. The gray man is Dr. John Dee, and he is searching for the book that holds all the secrets of all magic, and he knows it is in the bookshop.

Soon, mad magic breaks out: the Flemings are revealed to be Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel, who have been guarding the Book of Abraham the Mage for over 500 years, using the knowledge inside to brew an immortality potion, and to create gold and diamonds for their financial needs. Dee wants the book for nefarious purposes involving something called "the Dark Elders." In only a few pages, Dee has grabbed the book, Josh has managed to retain the final two (and most important) pages of it, Perenelle is captured by Dee, and Nicholas, Josh and Sophie are on the run.

The rest of the book is more or less what I call a "run and gun." Dee poses a threat, the kids run, they find a temporary refuge, Dee finds them again, the kids run, ad infinitum. At least, it felt infinitum--it's a remarkably turgid book that runs on for 369 pages, and yet fails to generate any suspense or character development. You could summarize the book like this:

Part One: "Oh no! Golems! Run! " Magical battle ensues, and book store is destroyed.

Part Two: "Oh no! Rats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, dojo is destroyed.

Part Three: "Oh no! Crows! Run!" Crows attack our heroes on the Golden Gate bridge, SUV is destroyed.

Part Four: "Oh no! Crows AND cats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, gigantic Tree of the World is destroyed.

Part Five: "Oh no! Animated skeletons! Run!" Magical battle ensues, quaint antique store is destroyed.

The book ends with the twins and Flamel escaping to France through use of ley lines and a mirror. There is no resolution at all, merely a set up to the next of what is promised to be a six book series.

While on the run, the kids and Flamel run into mythic beings from all over the world: Golems, Hekate (Greece), Scathach (Ireland), the Morrigan (Scotland); the Witch of Endor (Bible), Bastet (Egypt), Yggdrisil (Norse legend), and probably some more I have forgotten. Few of these are explained or given any real context--Scott seems to be operating on the principle that YA readers will already recognize all these characters. If I had already been familiar with these, I think the story might have had more depth or resonance. As it is, why are Hekate, Scathach and the Witch of Endor "good" guys, while Bastet and the Morrigan are "bad?" How do they end up on the sides they end up on? Scott doesn't tell us, nor is there much help in myth either.

There is one moment of some suspense near the end of the book. Sophia has had her magical powers Awakened, but a magical battle erupted before Josh could do the same. Dee spots this as a vulnerability, and he approaches Josh and tells a plausible story that casts himself as the good guy and Flamel as the criminal. Josh doesn't know quite what to believe, but then Sophie shows up and grabs him by the hand and the decision is made. Way to spoil any sense of ambiguity and foreboding!

There are inconsistencies in the storytelling as well. The Flamels have to drink the immortality potion each month, or they begin aging--one year for every day they don't have the potion. Presumably, they would have taken the potion on June 1, but can't because Dee intruded. So how come by the end of that day, both the Flamels are visibly gaining wrinkles, losing hair, and becoming more frail? One year doesn't do that!

Flamel variously claims that he has spent 500 years studying the magic book, and also claims that he hasn't studied anything but the potion and gold-making parts. Despite having been on the run from Dee for most of those 500, Flamel hasn't tried to learn any magic or defensive spells, while Dee has apparently spent most of those same 500 years doing just that. Why would Nicholas Flamel be so unconcerned with the threat Dee poses, and yet spend 500 years hiding from him?

Finally--because I have to stop some time--despite being called "The Alchemyst," there is no alchemy in the book. There is a great deal of using the power of one's aura to do magic, and some brief discussion of "elemental magic," but no science of alchemy. In fact, Nicholas Flamel is so generic that he could be any Hollywood blockbuster hero, rather than the learned and scholarly man one would suppose him to be. I keep seeing him as Nicholas Cage--perhaps from the National Treasure movies--smart, yes. Capable of great physical effort? Yes. Demonstrating one iota of intellectual curiosity? Not so much. Really, there is no way you could believe that he had spent hundreds of years reading and studying--he's really no smarter than the dopey twins he's running around with.

Some reviews and press tout this series as a fit successor to the Harry Potter books. I disagree. And the proof of that? Despite the complete lack of any resolution what so ever at the end of this book, I have absolutely NO desire to pick up the second one.

Monday, June 23, 2008

After the Funeral, by Agatha Christie

Gah! Sometimes I wonder why I even keep this blog--I started it to keep track of what I had read, so that when I came up with some little fact, like "what was that book I read where the car started speaking in haiku?" I had a place to look for the answer.

By the way, the car/haiku book was Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

But why bother, when there are even Wikipedia entries about specific books. I found the entry for After the Funeral when I went looking for a list of characters. See, I listened to this book, and was curious about how one character's name was spelled, as the reader pronounced it with a decided French accent, and I kept getting two characters confused as a result.

Wikipedia not only gave me the characters' names, but also the entire plot of the story, including the trivial little point on which the whole thing turns. I tried not to read anything but the list of characters, but somehow my uncooperative peripheral vision spotted it, and so I knew who dun it.

It's a silly little point too--"how could he have known they served pinot noir with the beefsteak on Tuesday, when he said he hadn't arrived at the club until the cheese course?" sort of detail. In fact, the actual point is that someone mentioned wax flowers, which had been put away before she arrived, so she must have been there before!

At any rate, not one of Christie's best. After the funeral of Richard Abernathy, a wealthy ailing man, Cora Lansquenet (one of the beneficiaries) says "He was murdered, wasn't he?" The next day, she is found dead in her home, victim of an axe murder. All the numerous relatives are questioned, and they are as featureless a group of characters as a collection of chess pawns. While they all have reasons to have killed the old man, and are conveniently alibi-less at the time of the second death, it is hard to care about any of them.

In the end, it turns out that it was Cora's companion Miss Gilchrist, who was the murderer. She arrived at the funeral disguised as Cora solely for the purpose of planting the idea of murder. She then went home, and killed Cora, thus "disguising" the axe murder by creating the presumption of a link between the two deaths.

Why did she do it? Poor Cora had stumbled on a Vermeer that she bought at a jumble sale, and psycho Miss Gilchrist recognized it and wanted it. She was going to sell it and open a tea shop. Okay, say what you will, but that is about the stupidest murder plot I have come across in about 30 years of reading mysteries.

I mean, ignore the storytelling, and reconstruct what happened chronologically. Cora goes jumble sale-ing, and buys this picture. (This is a hobby of hers, and she is always hoping to find something valuable.) Miss Gilchrist recognizes it, but has to keep Cora from having it identified. So the first thing she does is. . .go to the funeral of a relative, disguised as Cora? Oh, not that, because she has to practice acting enough like Cora to fool all her relatives. Then she goes to the funeral solely to plant the suggestion that Richard Abernathy was murdered.

At this point, Cora is still alive. Miss Gilchrist hasn't murdered her yet. So she goes about this elaborate disguise and pathetic attempt to camouflage a murder that hasn't even happened yet! She rushes home, patiently waits until 2:30 to go return Cora's library books (this is her alibi), doubles back, murders her housemate wtih an axe (!), quickly paints over the Vermeer so nobody will recognize it, then re-enters the house two hours later and "finds" the body a half hour after that.


It's just ridiculous. There is no reason that such a goofy plan should ever have worked. It has far too many parts, and requires both significant advance preparation (impersonating Cora) and improvisation (Richard Abernathy died suddenly and unexpectedly). I mean, really! "Oh, Cora found a Vermeer and she has no idea what it is. I do recognize it, and I want it. So I'm going to practice acting like Cora, just in case one of her relatives dies unexpectedly, so I can go to the funeral and make people think he was murdered. Then I'll go home and murder Cora too, and paint over the Vermeer so that when the appraiser arrives, he doesn't see the real painting. But what if no relative dies conveniently--before the appraiser shows up?"

Why not just paint a copy of the Vermeer and substitute it. Cora has no artistic sense--she won't notice. The appraiser won't see a Vermeer--he'll see an amateurish copy of one. Slip away and sell the real one, tell Cora that you received an unexpected inheritance, and go open the damn tea shop!

But this is Agatha Christie, and you have to have dead bodies. Foolish. Silly. I'm glad I got this one from the library and paid no money for it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bitter Is The New Black, by Jen Lancaster

I picked this one up on recommendation of a member of the MomSquad. (Hi Britt!) I can tell you it wasn't easy to find--Barnes & Noble had it in Biography. Sure, snarky and entitled Jen Lancaster next to thoughtful and in depth historical treatises by David McCollugh and Doris Lessing. No wonder I couldn't find it.

Jen Lancaster is about one economic cycle behind my life, and she was lucky beyond belief at the start of her professional career. After taking eleven years to graduate from college (or so she says), she entered the workforce during the dot com bubble when venture capital was flowing freely and it took tow people and a Power Point presentation to start a new company. Remember when people used to say insane things like "Profit doesn't matter--this is the New Economy"? That was Jen Lancaster's life, and she lived it to the limit. She was apparently a really good salesperson, made a lot in commissions, and spent it all. She had a very expensive rental apartment, dozens of designer clothes, bags, shoes, the absolute top shelf in liquor, perfume, cosmetics. She used her money to play and pamper herself and apparently believed that she deserved it all.

And the the bubble burst.

To be fair, it must be heady to be young and contextless, living in a big city with what feels like unending financial success. I am risk averse, and so I would never have made the kind of money she made (what if I didn't make any sales? Then I wouldn't get paid? No thank you sir!), but I also can't imagine living from paycheck to paycheck at that level either. Reading the first part of the book is like peeking into a world that I thought only existed on television. Who buys these $400 handbags? Who wears these $500 shoes? How can you actually justify those kind of expenditures--don't you have anything better to do with your time and money than just shop and spa?

Well, there is eating out and drinking too, I guess.

So the first third of the book lovingly details Jen at the top of her world, drinking wildly, treating people like crap, acting exactly like an obnoxious and entitled 20-something. She is hard to like. Sure, she has a smart mouth and is occasionally very funny, but man did I pity the people around her.

So, when the dot com bubble burst, she lost her position. While it's slightly less damaging on the ego to lose a job in an economic meltdown like that, it makes future job prospects that much more dim--she found herself competing with hundreds and hundreds of equally qualified people. And guess what? You know that saying "Be nice to other people on the way up, because you will meet them again on the way down"? Jen wasn't very nice.

But she's not worried, because she is as fabulous as she thinks she is, right? It's just a matter of hours before somebody else hires her! So she makes some great decisions, like canceling her COBRA coverage to buy new boots, because they were so cute she just had to have them. And she figured she could get coverage on her live-in boyfriend's insurance as a domestic partner, right? Wrong. "Domestic partner" benefits are for same sex couples who CAN'T get married. Heterosexual couples have to be married to qualify.

Well, she can't reinstate the coverage once she canceled it, so she keeps the boots. Until her dog eats them.

Things continue to get worse and worse, as she cannot find work anywhere. After about a year, her boyfriend gets laid off too. Two unemployed people, an EXPENSIVE rental apartment, expensive tastes and an unrealistic relationship to money. And still Jen continues to refuse to live in reality. Things get bad enough that they have to leave their apartment because they can no longer afford it. They find a real estate broker and Jen finds something wrong with Every. Single. Place. She vetoed one place because the kitchen had an electric stove, and she doesn't even cook. Really, at some point I wasn't sure which I wanted to do more: slap her silly, or shake her boyfriend until his teeth rattled for being such an enabler.

Jen doesn't step into the real world until she finds her now-husband unable to get out of bed. They didn't have enough money to buy both food and his anti-depressants, so he stopped taking his medication. And Jen realizes that he has sacrificed his mental health to keep her from realizing how bad things were. And we finally see her start to grow up.

She looks in her closet and recognizes that a designer purse represents the monetary equivalent of two months of their utilities--and she only used the purse twice. Her collection of shoes for summer would have paid for a summer's worth of groceries. All the things they can't afford now could have been paid for if she had saved that money instead of spending it so profligately.

It is when they are about to be evicted from their cheaper apartment and have to go live with her parents that things start to get better. Fletch gets a job. Jen's blog rants have captured an editor's attention and she gets a book contract. At the end, she feels like she can do better, now that she has a second chance, and the book ends with a ring of maturity.

Since that time, Jen Lancaster has written two more books and is working on her fourth. I have picked up her most recent one, Such a Pretty Fat, which I am willing to read to see if the Sadder But Wiser Jen can be funny without being so damned irritating.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lord John and the Private Matter, by Diana Gabaldon

Okay, I admit it. Once I find an author I like, I read a lot of his/her work. Right now, I am immersed in the 18th century of Gabaldon's books. This is the first of a few books--maybe three?--featuring Lord John Grey, who is a minor and recurrent character in the Outlander series.

Unlike that series, however, these books are quite short--Private Matter taking only about 300 pages. It is also more straightforwardly a mystery--a death, a dilemma, an investigation, and a resolution.

Lord John is an aristocrat, the second son of naable, and thus left with a courtesy title, family connections, and the obligation of finding his own way through life. He is a soldier, and we first met him in Dragonfly in Amber just prior to the Battle of Culloden which climaxes that book. His Outlander history informs this book as well, but it is not strictly necessary to have read all those mighty works to enjoy this one.

The time is 1750-something, and Lord John is living in London. He remains discretely homosexual, and conflicted about it. While using the privy facilities at his London club, he notices a lesion on the private part of Lord Trevelyan, a rich and powerful man who is engaged to marry Grey's cousin. It appears to be the pox--syphilis.

Naturally, Grey cannot allow the marriage to take place and doom his cousin, but there is not much he can do to end the engagement without sacrificing his cousin's reputation.

Soon after, a dead body turns up, Grey is assigned to investigate, as the victim was a soldier. Clue leads to clue, implicating Lord Trevelyan in a number of potential scandals. THe mystery is solved, after encounters with all levels of society. Most interesting is Gabaldon's venture into the homosexual community of 18th century London. "Molly walks" is the phrase that describes the parks and streets where men would meet, dressed extravagantly, often masked, even posing as women. Curiously enough, Gabaldon's reseach turned up the tidbit that the phrase "Miss Thing" dates back at least 200 years.

This was an absorbing read, and I would definitely pick up the next in the series.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon (continued)

I have now listened to the first three books in this series: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager. These novels don't get any shorter--Gabaldon (pronounced "gabbled-on," ironically enough) packs a lot of pages between her covers. Sadly, they also don't get better.

Outlander was itself an oddity--several hundred pages before we get to anything resembling an actual plot. Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former combat nurse on her second honeymoon in Scotland, stumbles through some standing stones, and finds herself back in 1742. The book wanders through a number of incidents, a cultural tour of 18th century Scottish highlands--clan allegiances, feudal government, hunting, dietary habits, medical knowledge, what Scotsmen wear under their kilts. In the best romance novel tradition, there is a forced marriage for ostensibly "practical" reasons, a villain who threatens the heroine, and some historical events. There is a fair share of unbelievable events--Claire bluffs her way into a heavily fortified prison, finds her imprisoned husband, kills a wolf with her bare hands, storms the prison with a herd of kine and frees her husband and several dozen other prisoners.

Okay, it's not believable, but there is some point where you must say "I can suspend disbelief, but not that much." The second book finds our heroes in France, trying to prevent Bonnie Prince Charlie from attempting to reclaim a Stuart crown and thus avert the devastating Battle of Culloden and the subsequent brutal destruction of the people and crops of the Highlands. Okay, but can I really believe that a Scottish farmer, son of an illegitimate son, an outlaw wanted for murder--can really just land in Paris and personally befriend all the luminaries of that age? Why would Bonnie Prince Charlie make such a man a close personal friend?

And how is it that everybody is forever dying of a single gunshot wound, or a single sword fight, while Our Hero suffers unimaginable injury and is rarely even slowed down? In Outlander, Jamie Fraser is subjected to unimaginable savagery while in prison, and it takes him months to recover, both physically and mentally. As the series goes on, however, he loses this vulnerability and devolves into a less interesting, more "typical" romantic hero. He has many long and involved adventures, at the cost of losing his vulnerability.

I think it is that vulnerability that makes the first book so much more interesting. Jamie is a powerful man, but he is also rather young and unworldly. Claire is older than he, and has the dubious advantage of knowing how history comes out, but she is also completely unfamiliar with how to live as an 18th century highlander. The two of them complement each other, and their weaknesses give one just enough doubt about how well things will turn out. Of course, we know Jamie doesn’t die at the end of Outlander, as there would not be any more books. However the cost to him of what has happened is real and painful.

By Voyager, however, he has become more or less invulnerable, and possessed of a bizarre knowledge of the customs and geography of the Caribbean. I’m not sure what in his Scottish military training taught him all about navigation in the Western Hemisphere, but he is never at a loss about what to do or how get what he wants. Which results in a much less interesting character, and the odd authorial problem of having to separate the two, because as soon as Claire finds Jamie, he solves whatever jam she is in.

Will I continue the series? Well, even in the absence of a story or character arc, the stories are rather beguiling. And frankly, I must admit to being a wee bit addicted to the Scottish brogue being whispered into my ear. So, as a unbeatable audio bargain, measures as words per dollar, I will probably download some others of this series.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Great Idea for Book Clubs

This is clever--The St. Paul library now has "Book Club in a Bag." There are 25 titles to choose from, and you literally check out a bag for the book club. There are 10 copies of a single title, a six week long check out period, even discussion questions and background materials.

At the very least, it gives you a list of books to consider for your next meeting!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

Apparently, this book kick started a genre called "time-traveling romance novels." Gabaldon decided she wanted to write a novel, and somewhat arbitrarily chose 18th century Scotland as her location. One of her characters, however, didn't behave like an 18th century lady. Instead she stomped around refusing to be left behind when anything interesting happened, swearing like the 20th century emancipated female she was. With a character this vivid, Gabaldon had to explain her presence, and thus a new genre was born.

In brief, Claire Randall has finally rejoined her husband Frank at the end of World War II. Claire has been serving as a military nurse, and Frank had also been in service. After six years of separation, they are finally coming together, and have a second honeymoon in Scotland. While exploring an ancient stone circle, she slips into a crack in the stone and finds herself back 200 years.

The first person she meets is Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of her husbands and a vicious English officer battling uppity Scots. She is soon discovered by a small party of MacKenzies, and taken to their castle stronghold. For plot related reasons, she finds herself forced to marry one of the clansman, a tall redhead named Jamie Fraser, and the book chronicles her life trying to adjust to 18th century life while trying to get back to her own time.

Life in the Scottish Highlands is depicted as incredibly physical. Clans raid each others' territories, stealing cattle and provoking fights. The men are portrayed as intensely loyal to their clan, and deeply concerned with their honor, which means they end up fighting each others' enemies and sleeping on the run quite a bit.

Jamie Fraser has been labeled an outlaw, and so cannot return to his home or be picked up by the English. Unfortunately, he is betrayed, and turned over to Black Jack Randall for a scene of rather gruesome torture and a rather fantastical rescue mission that frees Jamie from prison.
Claire and Jamie end up in France as he heals, and the story ends as they ponder where they should go.

At heart, this is a classic romance novel--Gabaldon dispenses with some of the standard cliches, but retains the basic plot arc: two people forced together by circumstances come to love each other and in the end chose to stay. Layered over this is interesting Scottish history and landscape writing, but the plot is meandering to say the least. It works well if you are content with diverting storytelling with no appreciable narrative drive, and have the free time to enjoy the wandering.

I have been listening to this as an audiobook, which has the advantage of letting me bypass the written Scottish accents and just listen to the rolling vowels. The performer, Davina Porter, trips across the Gaelic words, which makes the whole book easier to slip into because I was not constantly tripping over words that had no vowels and a lot of extra consonants.

It is a monster of a book--nearly 34 hours of narration, which is certainly value for the money, but perhaps a bit disruptive to normal daily life--it was hard to me to discard my earbuds to actually talk to my family while listening, and I find the sounds of Porter's Scottish accents echo in my ears.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd probably rate this book about a 6, but that doesn't explain quite why I've already downloaded the next two volumes onto my iPod, and why I brought the companion book home from the library.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

I listened to this book on my iPod, which I love to do. When I am being read to, I can listen while I drive and wait in the pick-up line to get the kidlets after school. I can listen while I am grocery shopping, or walking the dog, or folding laundry, or anything that is too hopelessly boring to do without a book--without having to carry around a book!

I do think the fact that this was read to me does alter my experience, however--characters are voiced by the reader in ways that I might not have imagined if I just read their words on the page. On the other hand, having this novel of "underground" London read with an English accent might have improved the experience. It is hard to tell.

This is an odd book--it was originally written as a television series, which Neil Gaiman wrote with some other people, and afterward he went back and novelized it. As such, there are a lot of ideas just bumping around, but not fully integrated into the story. This may also be because it is an early Gaiman work, and so suffers in comparison to more recent works, like and The Anansi Boys and American Gods which are both more fully realized.

The story is told largely from the viewpoint of an "ordinary" Londoner named Richard Mayhew, who finds an injured girl lying on the pavement, and feels a moral obligation to assist her. As a result, he finds he has been "erased" from his own life--as he stands in his flat, an estate agent shows it to an older couple who agree to lease it, for example. His fiancee doesn't remember him, his co-workers can't recall him. In the end, he finds himself in "London Below," a quasi-magical place of fiefdoms, animal totems, and an entire society based on barter of goods and favors. Haunting London Below are two thugs of "The Old Firm," named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who are unfunny versions of Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin from Terry Pratchett's The Truth.

One of the strengths of this book is the inventive inversion Gaiman gives to London Below, often based on the names of London tube stops. Knightsbridge is transformed into the Night Bridge, where the inky blackness of night can actually snatch up pedestrians, and they are never seen again. Earl's Court is actually the court of an earl, whose palace is contained inside a darkened train car. Ordinary people see only that the car is dark and closed: it takes the special powers of London Below to actually enter it and find it contains multiple rooms and grand hallways, much larger than the volume visible from outside it.

There is an angel called Islington, who is responsible for watching over London Below--apparently a demotion, after he failed to protect Atlantis, and may even have caused it to sink into the ocean. Richard Mayhew finds the girl he assisted in the London Above--a member of a aristocratic family named Door. Her family has the ability to "open" things that are closed; even to move between dimensions it appears. She is the last of her family; the rest were recently murdered, and Door is determined to avoid the same fate and to find out why they were killed.

The character of Richard Mayhew serves the obvious purpose of failing to understand all the aspects of this new world, so that the other characters have a reason to explain how things work. After a bit, he gets more than a little annoying, as he absolutely fails to learn anything about how to survive in this dangerous world. He repeatedly asserts things like "there is no bridge at Knightsbridge" and "there is no earl's court at E arl's Court." After about the fifth time he does this--and is proved wrong ONCE AGAIN--I found myself wanting to slap him.

To be honest, I listened to this book a month ago or so, and I have already forgotten a lot of it. It is interesting, but far from Gaiman's better work. Read it if you want to read his entire oeuvre; otherwise, spend your time more profitably with Anansi Boys and American Gods.

The Rossetti Letter, by Chrsti Phillips

I picked this up on from a "Buy one, get one half price" table while on vacation in Palm Springs, and only got around to it now. It's a great book for a vacation: interesting, not too taxing, paperback and inexpensive so you could leave it behind to save room in your bag.

The plot unfolds in parallel: in 1618, a Venetian courtesan becomes aware of a plot to overthrow the Republic and make Venice part of Spain. This is an actual historical event--of some controversy--known as the "Spanish Conspiracy." The second plot takes place in modern times, as a graduate student works on her dissertation about he Spanish Conspiracy. The core of her work is the letter, allegedly written by the 17th century courtesan, Alessandra Rossetti, warning the government of the conspiracy and naming the traitors.

The graduate student, Claire Donovan, manages to make her way to Venice to find out about a book that is soon to be published by an Oxford historian on the same topic. The publication of this book could render her entire dissertation moot, and it is important that she find out what the author intends to disclose.

Of course, it turns out that the author is an unpleasant man that Claire met and disliked before she knew who he was. As she finds out at the conference she is attending, the thesis of his book is that the "Spanish Conspiracy" was invented by a Venetian senator to advance his political career, and the "Rossetti Letter" was written by a woman who was a mere pawn in a larger game. Of course, Claire's thesis is the exact opposite, and she wants to prove her point.

So there is a lot of wrangling between these academic, although no actual romance blooms between them. In the end, they manage to work together to translate Rossetti's letters, which they discover are actually coded messages. The key to breaking the code is discovered rather conveniently, mere minutes after they have decided there must be a code--which feels a bit too pat, but since the puzzle is clearly presented and worked out for the reader, it's a small quibble. As a result of their combined research, Claire and Andrew conclude that they were both right--there was a Spanish conspiracy, but in the absence of enough evidence to prove it, the Venetian senator forced Rossetti to write the letter "revealing" it. Andrew turns his last lecture at the conference to Claire (which is a bizarre thing to do, but since this is fiction, just let it go) and Claire outlines their theories as to what happened back in 1618.

At this point (since their research certainly doesn't bear this out at all), the book shifts us back in time to see Alessandra Rossetti attempting to escape Venice with her compromised lover, her capture and her deal with the senator--she will write the letter as he dictates it to her, and he will let her lover go free. Claire wraps up her lecture, she and Andrew part on amicable terms, and the book sets up the sequel, where Claire will take a one year post at Oxford, and she and Andrew will solve another mystery.

There are a few annoying scenes that place this book solidly into genre fiction. Alessandra Rossetti--of course!--has to be a courtesan, who is the "most beautiful woman in Venice" and we are dragged through a couple of sex scenes that are both gratuitous and not very well written either Similarly, the bad, evil, nasty Venetian senator is not only ambitious, but ugly, misshapen, and enjoys torturing people for information. Characters are generally painted with the broadest of strokes, and tend to be rather unbelievable.

On the other hand, Phillips does take on a number of subplots, which are more ambitious than effective, but do expand the scope of the novel. For example, Andrew is involved with a beautiful, cultured and famous woman, and any possible romance between him and Claire is stifled as a result. There is a long subplot about Claire's relationship with the 14 year old girl she is chaperoning in Venice, which gives another dimension to her character. There is a romantic possibility with a "drop dead gorgeous" Italian, who turns out to be an architect from a wealthy family--and she also manages to not have a romance with him either. Alessandra Rossetti doesn't get the happiest of ending herself--although on the whole, everyone in the book gets what they wanted, so it's not entirely free from convention.

This is a book which wades in the same waters as The Da Vinci Code, although better written and with fewer puzzles in it. The prose is deft, and Phillips obviously loves Venice for all its faults. Phillips has written a book that avoids the pitfalls that so crippled The Birth of Venus, which also took place in Renaissance Italy, but managed to clumsily cram in every famous Italian who could possibly be force into the story.

This is by no means a "must read" book, but it is a pleasant and diverting story, about a historical event I had never even heard of before reading it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Ten Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer

I read The Wife by Meg Wolitzer a few years ago, and was impressed by her careful observation and precise language. I spotted the "twist" ending well before it happened, even without knowing that there was a twist. So, when The Ten Year Nap came out, it seemed like a Must Read.

The title refers to the fact that women spend an average of 11 years out of the workforce while raising their children--the women of this book are facing their children's 10th year, and are confronting where they have been and where they are going after having been out of the world of work for so long. There is Amy, a former trusts and estates lawyer who never went back after her son was born; Jill, who had her graduate dissertation rejected and never really recovered; Karen, a brilliant statistical analyst who used numbers like other people use words; and Roberta, an artist and puppeteer who gave up art for craft while raising her kids.

Things happen, though this is not a book to read for the plot. Jill moves out of New York City to a suburb, and while there finds her adopted daughter has significant learning deficits. Jill fears she is an inadequate mother and struggles to find the easy love she thinks she should have for her daughter. Amy meets and befriends a new woman, Penny, who is the curator of a small museum. At first, Amy idolizes Penny as a woman who did not make compromises when her children were born, but kept her pre-child identity in a way Amy did not. Inevitably, Penny reveals herself as flawed, and the friendship does not survive.

Roberta was a talented artist, but never got out of the ghetto of "women artists." She moved into puppetry, where she met her husband. When the children arrived, he took a regular job as a news cameraman, and continued to perform with his puppets on weekends. Toward the end of the book, he is launching a network children's television show, and Roberta has to struggle with her resentment of his success and her failure to continue to paint over the decade she was raising the children.

Karen Woo is the most amorphous of the four main characters: while she lives and thinks in numbers, she does not seem to regret being at home. Her husband is happy with his job, he makes enough money to keep them happy, she continues to go on job interviews but refuses them. There is some attempt to contrast her current life with her mother's life in a restaurant in Chinatown, but it never really comes into focus.

What movement there is in these women's lives comes in the last quarter of the book, if not later. Amy felt herself increasingly distant from her husband, feeling that her life was of no interest to him. Eventually, she discovers her husband passing off personal purchases as business receipts, which forces her to confront the scope of their debt. She finds a job in a small law firm, not because she loves the work, but because they need the income. However, her marriage seems the most honest of the four womens'--at the end, her husband confesses his fears and failures, and the two of them seem to re-commit to each other.

Jill was an academic over-achiever until the failure of her thesis, and she never quite finds something she loves to do. However, she finds herself very busy managing the appointments and therapies for her daughter, and settles into that life--recognizing that it is only for a limited number of years.

Roberta and her family move out of their tiny apartment and buy a house in Harlem, where she can have a studio, but she finds it hard to paint--the studio remains, though largely unused.

We are also treated to vignettes of the generation before theirs--their fathers and mothers, and their dreams and disappointments, as well as cameos of the lives of other women who are peripheral to these four.

On the whole? I'm not certain that it says much at all about where women and work shake out in this new millennium. These women are very privileged, in that they have the option to work or not. We see women who love their jobs, who retain those jobs even while raising children; we see women who have no choice but to work; we see women who did not want to work while their children were small, reaching a point in their lives where the question of work becomes inevitable. Amy is the only one who does return to work, largely because she doesn't have a choice any more. The other women just keep on as they had before.

Furthermore, I kept expecting that the book had reached its natural end, but then it went on for another eight chapters. The writing is cool and distant, and I felt as if Wolitzer was reporting on these women, rather than developing them as characters. There is a lot of self-inflicted angst, as these women seem to take it as given that failing to achieve great success in your 20s means you have failed at life. The book ends up giving everybody a little bit of success by the end--so the reader is left with the distinct sense that things can be really really hard for a long time, but then they get easier, so lighten up.

Perhaps it is the title of this book that raises such expectations that it will illuminate the state of American society and address head on the realities that women face while raising small children. Frankly, the book does not show anyone who manages parenthood without any regrets, whether they stay at work or stay at home. It's really a fairly bleak book, and while interesting, is not a book I would actually recommend that anyone read.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris

This first novel has been astoundingly successful, and it addresses an issue not often found in contemporary literature--corporate work life. The story takes place in an advertising agency in Chicago, which began during the tech boom of the 1990s, but began to run out of steam at the end of 2000.

Written in the unusual first person plural, the book is narrated by the aggregate "we" of the agency. "We" drink our first cup of coffee, or "we" stopped by someone's office to get the latest gossip. There are plenty of individual characters, but those characters are sometimes subsumed into the amorphous "we."

By the time the novel gets underway, the agency is under serious financial pressure, and layoffs have begun. No one actually likes their job, it seems, but none of them want to be let go either. Each layoff is met with a "why'd they let him/her go" and a "thank God it wasn't me." The awkward leave taking, the sad scavenging of office furniture--all the mundane and nasty gossip of a workplace is represented, made toxic by the slow squeeze of financial failure.

For most of the book, there is only one project in the entire office, and it's pro bono at that. A possibly fictitious client, The Alliance Against Breast Cancer, wants the firm to develop a fundraising campaign. Two days later, the project changes--develop something that would make a breast cancer patient laugh. Everyone is absolutely stumped: what the hell is funny about breast cancer? And if I can't find something funny about breast cancer, will I be the next person laid off?

Meanwhile, the rumor circulates that the partner in charge of their team has breast cancer herself. She has never told anyone, yet everybody knows. Until the day comes when her surgery was scheduled, and she spends the entire day in the office. "We" can't tolerate this: does she have cancer or not? Who told us she had cancer if she didn't? Who is to blame? How can we not know? We need to know.

The center part of the book is the heart and soul of the story. Lynn Mason does in fact have breast cancer, and she is having a hell of a time dealing with it. Written in third person, it follows Lynn as she leaves the office the night before her surgery and struggles to find the right place to be, the one right thing to do this last night before the operation. In the end, it is her paralyzing fear that leads her back to her office at one in the morning, and she simply refuses to leave. There are two new business proposals, and if the agency can land these accounts, the firm will be saved. She simply doesn't have time for an operation--it is the work that is important.

"We" reappear after this interlude, and "we" resort to the most ridiculous strategems to find out if Lynn really has cancer. Two of the employees confront her in her office, and she tells them that no, she does not have breast cancer and she has no idea why they think she does.

Meanwhile, we see the odd behaviors of the people who have been laid off. One man returns to dismantle an office chair, smuggles it out of the building, and then throws each piece as far as he can into Lake Michigan. Another man returns, dressed as a clown, carrying a gun. He starts shooting those people with whom he had disagreements, working his way through the building reciting quotations from Emerson and causing panic and fear. "We" are forced to confront our horror of dying while at work, but when the gun is revealed to be a paint gun, only one person actually resigns and changes his career to something that makes him happier.

This review in no way captures the power of this book. Ferris has caught the all consuming bitterness of competition in a supposedly collegial workplace, made worse by the inexorable squeezing of failure: one can almost feel the walls closing in and the ceiling lowering as time passes and the business continues to fail. Ferris also captures the odd scurrying panic such a time engenders--"we" are afraid to stop and enjoy a cup of coffee, because being seen enjoying a cup of coffee would indicate that "we" weren't working and thus were expendable. Even though the only "work" there was to do was pro bono, and so wasn't remunerative anyway.

This is definitely a book worth reading.