Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Help, by Katherine Stockett

Have you read this yet? Odds are that you have. So let's see a show of hands of who all HASN'T read it. Okay, put those hands down onto your purses, and go get this book. Come back after you have read it.

Even if you have read it, you might want to get the audio book, because the voices are wonderful.

Synopsis: Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-64, it is the story of the relationships between several young white women and the black "maids" who serve their families. "Maid" appears to be an all purpose word, since the maids in this book clean, cook, wash and iron and raise the children, as well as serve as secret keepers. Basically, the maids do all the work so the white women are free be idle.

The story is handled by three narrators. Aibeleen is maid for a couple with a two year old girl, and she's the Butterfly McQueen--loving, kind, gentle. Minny Jackson is sassy and mouthy, married to a drinker with five children at home. Skeeter Phelan is a white woman, a recent graduate of Ole Miss, and the only one of her set who isn't married yet.

Though the various narrations, we see the fundamental contradictions of domestic service in a segregated society. Aibeleen genuinely loves the children she raises, and they genuinely love her, yet they inevitably grow up to insist on continued segregation. Aibeleen is required to use a separate toilet (stuck in the garage) in order to keep her "colored germs" away from the family, yet she washes their dishes, cooks their food, polishes the silver, does the laundry. . .There is just no logic to the arbitrary limits, given all the ways their lives are entangled.

What passes for a plot occurs when Skeeter Phelan decides she wants to interview some maids for a book about how it feels to work for white families. It's a project fraught with danger, as it requires them to meet, something that is simply not imaginable in their strictly segregated world. Then, it requires the maids to tell dangerous secrets--both the failures of the white families, as well as their own complaints. But complaining about white families can easily mean getting fired, if not beaten or killed. This is the town where Medgar Evers was firebombed and killed, and a man was beaten nearly to death for accidentally using a "whites only" toilet.

Of course, the interviews happen, and the book gets written. Along the way Kennedy is assassinated, jobs are lost, babies born, cancer, engagement, Junior League power plays. But the strength of the book is the voices. I am in no position to comment on whether the black voices are authentic to the time or the place, but the characters (especially Aibeleen) feel three dimensional. Stockett acknowledges the major events of the times, although they mostly happen in the background, for example on television channels that get changed. The Vietnam War has less impact on these lives than the arrival of a window air conditioner.

Which is probably accurate, and feels true to the characters. Stockett packs a lot of events into this book, but for the most part they feel believeable and well grounded in the reality of the lives being depicted.

If there is a fault, it might be that the ending is a bit too tidy. Skeeter Phelan gets out of Mississippi entirely; Aibeleen loses her maid job, but is poised to become a writer; Minny leaves her alcoholic husband. But it's hard to fault that, when Stockett has given us so many well balanced stories. Definitely worth spending time in Jackson Mississippi.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I'm listening to this one on audio, and while the book begins well, it simply doesn't sustain for the long run. I know I am going to finish it, because, well, it's not like it's taking up time I could use for much else--it's hard to actually read a book while driving, but I can listen to one.

I will also take some breaks from it and listen to something funny once in a while. And I can't guarantee that I will come back to it promptly.

Plot summary: In 1996, Our Narrator is a 30-something Australian book conservationist, who is called in to stabilize a precious 14th century Haggadah that has been saved from the bombing of Sarajevo. The book is unusual in that it has been exquisitely illuminated, something highly unusual for Jewish books, which tended to take the injunction against the making of idols and images seriously. As she works on the book, she discovers small items that could give her clues as to the book's history: a fragment of a butterfly wing, a small white hair, a wine stain, salt crystals, grooves on the cheap 19th century rebinding that indicate that there should have been a clasp to keep the book closed.

The story of Hannah Heath as she analyzes these fragments is interleaved (ha!) with the stories of the people who left behind the clues she has found. Brooks doesn't try to show that Hannah learns these stories--no, only we, the readers, are privileged to learn the history of the book's previous owners and makers.

The stories work backwards in time, but are tied to the clue Hannah found. So the butterfly wing is identified as having belonged to an insect that had a range limited to a small area of mountains. We are then whisked back to 1945, and a young Jewish woman whose entire family is killed by Nazi. Brooks invests a great deal of detail into the story of the girl and her working class roots. Her father was ordered to report to a labor camp, which he did, thinking that because he was strong he would survive. Of course, it wasn't actually a labor camp. The rest of her family, all females, was rounded up and locked into a church. Our girl (whose name I have forgotten, as I have for most of the characters) breaks in to try to rescue them, and then is forced to break out as the Nazis arrive. There is a young girl who insists she can get them to the Resistance, so the two of them set out. They find the young men of their village who had previously attended Zionist propaganda meetings, and she earns her way into the group by washing their clothes free of lice. She stays on as laundress and mule wrangler until Tito orders the irregulars home.

Of course, there is no home, so she joins one of the older boys and the younger sister who got them there, and they attempt to walk out of country--like the Von Trapps at the end of The Sound of Music. But illness and frostbite cripple her companions, who commit suicide by walking out onto thin ice over a lake. She stumbles back into Sarajevo (I believe) and ends up being sheltered by a Muslim couple. The wife is her own age, the husband is older and works in the museum that housed the Haggadah. The Nazis are rounding up Jewish books for burning, so the Muslim husband conspires with the head of the museum to trick the commandant into believing that the book was already taken away. He smuggles the book out of the library, and the sends the Jewish girl and the book to a sanctuary in the mountains.

The missing clasps turn out to be a story of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the world of Sigmund Freud, growing anti-Semitism, and (apparently) rampant venereal disease. The book binder given the task of re-binding the Haggadah is in the later stages of tertiary syphilis, and there is a chance of a cure, which is, of course, expensive and only available from a Jewish doctor. The book binder is desperate for the cure, and so he steals the silver clasps that came with the Haggadah, and offers them as payment. The doctor is not inclined to accept them, but then he realizes that the clever angel-wings-around-roses clasp would make two lovely pairs of earrings: one pair as a sending off present for his mistress (of whom he is beginning to tire) and the other for his wife--who he has discovered is having an affair, which reignites his interest in her.

The wine stain propels us back to Venice, at a time when the Pope's inquisition is genially ignored by the more cosmopolitan Venetians. We meet a silver tongued orator of a Jewish rabbi, who is such a gifted preacher that the local Catholic priests attend synagogue in order to steal and recycle his sermons. The rabbi is good friends with a noble lady, who pretends to have converted, but secretly meets the rabbi to give him gold for the Jewish poor. She wishes to leave Venice for the Ottoman Empire, where Jews are more welcome--as she wishes to marry. She is the current owner of the Haggadah, and needs to have it passed by the censor so she can take it with her.

The rabbi has his own dark secret--he likes to mask at Carnivale and go gamble with the lady's money. In mask and cape, he is no longer identifiably Jewish. Brooks gives us a loooooong and detailed account of his giving into temptation, the machinations he takes to get to the gambling house, the many hands of cards he plays, his ultimate loss of all the gold, and his humiliation at being spotted as a Jew.

Once rattled, he is no longer the flawless orator, and he makes the mistake of presuming on his friendship with the Catholic censor on a morning when the priest has a hell of a hangover. They bicker and wrestle with theology while the priest continues to drink communion wine. He reaches the tipping point and becomes an angry drunk, and forces the rabbi into a wager. The stakes are the Haggadah--if the rabbi wins, he will get the signature, although several pages will be redacted. If he loses, the entire book will be burned. The priest is too drunk to run the wager properly, and the rabbi wins. Oh, but the priest has rigged the bet, and then he kicks the rabbi out of his chambers. Once again alone, but drunk, the priest has a nervous breakdown, spilling wine and cutting himself on the glass, as he experiences flashbacks that reveal that he himself was born a Jew!

The salt crystals are experimentally confirmed to be sea salt, taking us back to 1492--the time Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. A Jewish calligrapher buys the unbound illuminations from a Moorish refugee and writes them into a Haggadah as a wedding gift for his rich nephew. He has his own troubles, however, as his only son has converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Spanish girl. Father declares his son is dead, and has even sat shiva for him. But when the son is picked up by the Inquisition, the father goes to ask his rich brother to ransom the young man.

But all the Jewish gold in Spain has to be dedicated to a bribe to forestall the rulers from ordering all the Jews to be expelled, converted, or killed. So we are treated to the horror of the young man's torture, which I won't repeat here. His crime was possession of a leather tefillin with Hebrew scripture inside. He had it as a remembrance of his family; the Inquisition saw it as evidence of a "false conversion." His wife's family refused to make any effort to ransom him, out of fear that they themselves were now vulnerable to accusations.

The calligrapher's daughter, Ruti, was having an affair with the book binder, and was dallying with him on scraps of tanned leather when the Inquisition came to her father's house looking for her. Her brother had named her as the one who brought him the tefillin: had tempted him to renounce Jesus. The thugs looking for her beat her father to death. Her uncle comes back from the capital where the audience with Ferdinand and Isabella (with special guest appearance by Torquamada!) has not gone well. He has to persuade the village to leave Spain.

Ruti manages not to be caught by the Inquisition, running off with the Haggadah (which she was supposed to deliver home) to some caves she knew. How did she know about the caves? Because she used to sneak off to go study kabballah secretly--something only men over 40 were allowed to study. But who is already at the cave? Her brother's pregnant wife, who is about to deliver the baby: who looks to have been born dead, but comes back to life. So Ruti immerses him into the sea in order to turn him back into a Jew, and takes off with him.

The white hair is identified in contemporary England as belonging to a cat, with pigment caught in the cuticle, as if someone dyed the cat's hair. We end up in 14th century Turkey, with a Muslim slave embarassed to be a slave to a Jewish doctor. With a flashback within a flashback (within yet another flashback), the first person narrator is a small child in a polygamous household, with an elderly father who is a doctor. Owing to a number of coincidences, the narrator is found to have some talent with painting, and begins to illustrate the medical books, so that the herbal cures can be identified even if the plants are called different things in different areas.

The happy family starts off for a hajj, but is attacked by Berbers, and our narrator is sold as a slave to a book maker, and starts at the bottom of the business preparing parchment, but soon is noticed for the ability to paint likenesses. Which is not something much in demand, as radical iconoclasts have been vandalizing books on the basis that humans should not usurp God's creative prerogative. But conveniently, the Emir has fallen foolishly in love with a Christian captive, made her his Emira, and wants a likeness to take with him on his siege of Christian towns in Spain. Fortunately, it turns out the narrator won't have to be made a eunuch, because she's a girl!

So after perfunctorily being raped by the artist who owned her, she is sent off to the palace, where she paints the Emira and they spend the time the Emir is away in Hot Medieval Islamic Lesbian (implied) Sex. Because there was so much of that between white Spanish Christian captives and indigo dyed Muslims forced to spend weeks in the empty rooms of the harem. But times look rough for our heroines--the Emir's son by his first wife (who was sent packing when the Christian woman was brought home) plans to murder his father and rule! So the Moorish painter is given away to the Emira's ob/gyn (another Jewish doctor) along with the Emira's brother to keep them both safe. The Emira manages to escape herself to a convent, and her child turns out to be a girl, so there is no threat there.

While living with the Jewish Doctor, the Moorish painter begins to learn about Judaism, and begins to paint images for the doctor's deaf-mute son, so he can learn about his own heritage. Oh, and her brushes were made with cat hair.

And thus, we have worked backwards to encompass all the steps to creating the book that Hannah was asked to stabilize for display! All the clues left in the book have been accounted for! But don't think that Hannah merely served as CSI:Book Restoration--oh no! She has her own troubled relationship with a cold and distant mother who is a world famous neurosurgeon. Who, it turns out, fell in love early in her career with a Jewish artist from Australia! Who died after surgery to remove a brain tumor, which was causing him to go blind! And while he could have successfully lived if he'd opted for radiation therapy, that wouldn't have given him back his sight, so he went for the riskier surgery, because painting was more important to him than the love of the surgeon and the impending birth of his first child! But mom was cold and withholding, and wouldn't let the artist's extended family ever see the baby until Hannah was in her 30s and her (unknown) grandmother had died in an auto accident while driving Dr. Mom around Boston! So since Dr. Mom was in the hospital recovering from the accident, Hannah had to go sit shiva with the family she never knew she had.

There is also a fling with the librarian who rescued the Haggadah from the Sarajevo museum during the Bosnian wars. His wife was killed by a sniper, and a bullet fragment went into the skull of his baby son, so now he has a dead wife and a vegetative son! And he keeps a giant painting of the two of them in his bedroom, to which he brings Hannah, because there is nothing weird about that at all!

And in the end, this book is just exhausting. There is so much plot, so much melodrama packed into it by using the device of skipping through history. There is no story that is not about a traumatic event, no moment in history that is not a major turning point in the life of the Jews. The book never seems to belong to anyone who actually uses it, or treasures it as a religious item. It's always something in contention, something being passed around from person to person. The stakes are always life-or-death--expulsion, torture, lesbian cross-cultural sex. People are impaled on stakes, forced to watch their wives raped and children kidnapped; corpses left to desert vultures; un-attended child-birth; racial humiliation; genocide.

At the same time, this book is terribly cold. Family members shun each other, religious calling is nothing more than a sanctuary from murder or the shame of being born Jewish. The Jewish families that possess the Haggadah never use it for seder; they are too busy being murdered apparently. It's a fairly cynical novel--the Haggadah is never loved, never treasured as a family relic, never shown except as the byproduct of melodrama. It's as though Brooks has only a theoretical understanding of what a Haggadah means, and she has a blood-thirsty imagination that can't be set to the quieter themes.

A word about the audio book. One of the problems with an audio book is that it's hard to keep track of how close you are to the end. I think I'm almost finished, but I could be horribly wrong and have hours and hours left. Whereas if I had the actual codex in my hand, I could immediately begin skimming once I knew there were only so many pages left.

The narrator, Edwina Wren, is also great at the start, but begins to wear as the hours (almost 14 of them!) pass. Her contemporary narration as Hannah Heath is sharp and clear. As the narrative skips through time, however, she develops these vague accents that all begin to sound alike. The Italian noblewoman invariably ends-a her words-a with the stereotypical Italian accent from-a vaudeville. The Spanish Jewish doctor and the Yugoslav Muslim sound exactly the same. The medieval African Tuareg sounds exactly like the Jewish Sarajevan from WWII. And they are all vaudeville-caliber accents.

So, while the book is basically solidly crafted, it's hard to recommend it. The "history" covered in the book is mostly sensationalistic, the religion is cliched, the pace is exhausting, and the characterization is thin. It's hard to see any of the hundreds of people who flit through the plot as three dimensional, with the possible exception of Hannah's mother--who is herself a cliche.

Some of the best information of the book is hopelessly short changed. The most interesting part of the book is the beginning, when Hannah Heath describes how old books were made: how pigments were created, how gold leaf is hammered. There is a color she describes that no longer exists: it was made by feeding cows on a diet of only mangoes, then the color was distilled from their urine. The British forbid this practice while ruling India, as too hard on the cows.

Yet after the wealth of fascinating information like this, once Hannah sits down to the book, the actual task of stabilizing and restoring it are pushed off stage, in favor of how many days she slept with the librarian who saved it.

So, if you are stuck at an airport with nothing to read, it's fine and won't cause you to throw the book down the aisle in frustration. However, with so many other books out there, it's not really worth the time.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Cure for Reader's Block

So I've recently found quite a few books I'm interested in reading, so I'm in the happy situation of NOT having Reader's Block--like Writer's Block, only pathetic, since I'm the kind of reader who will read cereal boxes and junk mail in order to have SOMETHING to read.

Still, I for the last several months I have had a hard time finding something I want to read, or enjoying whatever I am reading. Now that I have several books backed up like planes over O'Hare, waiting for a slot to open, I found this blog: Find Your Next Book Here.

Even more useful is this particular entry: My Take Another Chance Challenge. Here are multiple ways to just pick a damn book to read already! So I am copying them here, so I can turn to these challenges for the next time when Reader's Block interferes with my reading enjoyment.

Challenge 1: Read Your Doppelganger (worth 1 entry)
Find an author who has either the same initials, the same first name, the same last name, or the exact same name as you. Read a book by this author and write a post about it. (If you try to keep your identity anonymous on your blog, you don't have to reveal what part of the author's name is the same as your name.)
Example: If your name is Susan Kasischke, you might read a book by Stephen King (same initials), Susan Donovan (same first name), Laura Kasischke (same last name) or Susan Kasischke (same exact name).
Challenge 2: Blogroll Roulette (worth 1 entry)
Find a blogroll at either your book blog or a book blog you like that has at least 15 book blogs on it. Go to and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1 for the min. and 15 for the max. and then hit generate. Then find the blog that is that number on the blogroll you selected. (For example, if you get 10 at, then count down the list of blogs until you get to the tenth one). Go to that blog and pick a book to read from the books that they have reviewed on their blog. Read it and write a post about it. Be sure to link to the blog post you picked the book from!

Challenge 3: 100 Best Book (worth 1 entry)
Choose one of the lists below and go to the link provided. Choose a book to read from the list that you haven't read before. Read the book and write about it.
Challenge 4: Prize Winner Book (worth 1 entry)
Pick one of the major literary awards from the list below. Click on the link for the award you picked. You will find a brief description of the award and links to past winners. Pick one of the past winners, read the book and write about it.
Challenge 5: Title Word Count (worth 1 entry)
Go to and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the numbers 1 for the min. and 5 for the max. and then hit generate. Find a book to read that has that number of words in the title. Read the book and write about it.
Example: If you get 1 for your number, read a book that has a one word title. If you get 2, read a book that has a two word title and so on and so forth.
Challenge 6: Genre Switch-Up (worth 1 entry)
Go to this list of book genres and pick a genre that you have NEVER read before. Find a book from that genre, read it, and write about it. Note: If you seriously cannot find a genre that you have never read, then pick the genre that is as far away from what you normally read.

Challenge 7: Break A Prejudice (worth 1 entry)
We all have reading prejudices--authors we don't like, genres we don't like, or even publishers we don't like. For this challenge, think of a reading prejudice you have and then find a book that is an example of this type of book. Read the book and then write about the reading prejudice you had BEFORE you read the book and how reading the book either changed your prejudice or reinforced it.
Examples: I always say I can't stand James Patterson; therefore, I might read a James Patterson book for this challenge. Or, if you sneer at "chick lit" books, you might read a "chick lit" book. Or, if you think books published by Harlequin are pure drivel, you might read a book published by Harlequin. If you turn up your nose at the Twilight books, then you might read one of the Twilight books.
Challenge 8: Real and Inspired (worth 2 entries)
Many authors or books inspire others to pay homage to them by writing another book inspired by the original work. For this challenge, read both an original work and a book inspired by that original work. Write about both books in one post. Note: This might require some research on your part and requires reading two books so it worth 2 entries.
Examples: Christopher Moore's Fool is based on Shakespeare's play King Lear so I plan on reading both King Lear and Fool. Another example is Jane Austen, who inspired the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For this challenge, you might read both Pride and Prejudice and the zombie version. (There are tons of other Austen-inspired books out there too.) Another idea would be a graphic novel version of a "standard" novel. The only real requirement is that the "inspired by" book must clearly state what original work inspired it.
Challenge 9: Same Word, Different Book (worth 2 entries)
Find two books that have the same word in the title. Read both books and write about them. (Worth 2 entries because you have to read two books).
Example: If you pick the word "Love," you could read any two books that both have Love in the title. To help you find books that have the same word, you could go to, type a word into the Search box and see what books come up with that word.
Challenge 10: Become A Character (worth 2 entries)
For this challenge, you can read any book you want. However, you have to write about the book as one of the characters from the book. The character can comment on his/her treatment by the author, other characters, the "untold story," what happened next, and so forth. You could even have two characters interviewing each other! Your imagination is the only limit. Because of the difficulty level of this challenge, it is worth two entries.

Challenge 11: All in the Family (worth 2 entries)
The writing gene often runs in the family. For this challenge, you need to find two authors from the same family (either by blood or by marriage) and read a book by each of the authors and then write about both books. Because of the research involved and having to read two books, this challenge is worth two entries.
Examples: The Bronte sisters; Stephen King and his wife Tabitha OR his son Joe Hill; Jonathan Kellerman (husband) and Faye Kellerman (wife); Michael Chabon (husband) and Ayelet Waldman (wife); Joan Didion (wife) and John Gregory Dunne (husband); Mary Higgins Clark (mother) and Carol Higgins Clark (daughter)
Challenge 12: Author Anthology Pick (worth 2 entries)
Find an anthology of your choice. Read at least 5 entries in the anthology. Of the 5 entries you've read, pick your favorite one and then find a book by that writer and read it. (If your first choice doesn't have a book, then pick your next favorite until you find a writer that has a book.) Write about the anthology, your favorite pick from the anthology, and the book you read by your favorite pick. Because of having to obtain and read two books, this challenge is worth t
wo entries.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

This is an amazing work: equal parts Turn of the Screw and Brideshead Revisited, with a dash of Daphne DuMarier's "Rebecca" for spice. Narrated in the first person by Dr. Faraday, who like the second Mrs. de Winter has no first name, the book concerns the fall of the Ayres family and their estate, Hundreds Hall. Sometimes this book is marketed as a ghost story, which it is, and most reviewers are aware of its depiction of class resentment. I think the book is primarily about the change of class structure after WWII, and the ghost story is itself a metaphor for the changing social landscape--which makes the book, in my opinion, even more worth close reading.

The opening set piece sums up the entire plot: Dr. Faraday's first memory of Hundreds is from a 1919 public event for "Empire Day." At that time, the hall is inhabited by Colonel Ayres, his lovely young wife, and their seven year old daughter Susan. He, along with a number of other boys, receives a medal from Mrs. Ayres. Because Faraday's mother was once a nursery maid at Hundreds, she takes him inside the mansion while she visits with her former co-workers. Young Faraday is allowed a brief peak at the family's part of the house (as opposed to the servants' areas) and is overcome with the desire to possess a piece of the grand home. He prises out a plaster acorn from a decorative frieze, but is disappointed that it doesn't come cleanly, but trailing strings. His theft is discovered by his mother at home, and the acorn is taken from him and put on the fire, where it smokes and melts, ruined but not utterly destroyed.

You have just been given the condensed version of the rest of the book. Waters is very good.

The story picks up again some thirty years later. Faraday is now a doctor, both his parents dead, WWII just over. The colonel has also died in the intervening years, as had the Ayres' daughter Susan, of diphteria when she was eight. Hundreds was requisitioned by the army during the war, and the family has now fallen on hard times. Only Mrs. Ayres and two grown children live at Hundreds, with a single teen aged maid and a daily cook to support them. They have been forced over the years to sell off most of the land, and are struggling to survive on their small remaining farm. Faraday is not the Ayres' usual doctor, but since Graham is busy on an emergency case, Faraday comes to see to the ailing maid, Betty.

The maid, it turns out, isn't actually ill, but she doesn't like being alone in the house and claims there is "something bad here." Faraday is rather kind and understanding: Betty is lonely and frightened in her new position, having been there no more than a month. Faraday orders a day of bed rest, and speaks to the family about getting her a wireless to keep her company, and letting her avoid the servants' staircase that frightens her.

The family is presented like refugees from a disaster; they only use a few rooms of the house, and huddle together in the small parlor around an inadequate fire, unable to heat even one room adequately. Mrs. Ayres is elegant but visibly impoverished, her children more devolved. The son, Roderick, was an RAF pilot who survived a plane crash that left burn scars across his skin and damaged one leg. Caroline was in the Wrens during the war, but was called home to nurse Roddy. She dresses shabbily, with bare and unshaven legs. She lounges in her chair, stretching her bare toes to run them through the fur of her old dog Gyp.

Waters' book is heavy with metaphor and symbolism: the family is living like Gypsies in their own home, wearing salvaged and tattered clothing, clinging to their elevated status even in the face of visible privation. Yet they continue to be gracious and charming to the doctor, even while denigrating the rise of the working class. Rod is rather bitter about the fact that the family does without calling in a doctor, but apparently they can't expect the servants to do without. He also claims that the "pirate class" is just waiting for the word from Attlee to rise up and loot Hundreds and all the other "county families."

Having gotten his foot into the door, Faraday manages to insinuate himself into the Ayres' lives, initially by using an experimental electrical treatment on Roddy's leg--not that the Ayres can afford the treatment, but Faraday offers to do it as research for a paper on the technique. This allows him entrance to the family on a weekly basis, but he's soon there more often. Fatefully, he is invited to attend a "drinks party" Mrs. Ayres has decided to give in honor of their new neighbors.

The preparations for the party are harrowing: Caroline and Betty on their knees scrubbing the marble entryway; Caroline pinning up the yellow wallpaper in the saloon. The cook complains of all the work, all for just a "drinks party." The party itself is, of course, a disaster. None of the Ayres have really appropriate evening wear--it's all out of date, the wrong size, threadbare and patched. The new neighbors are horrible: they arrive in "lounge suits," not proper evening dress; they have brought along a ill-mannered and badly raised eight year old daughter; they have also dragged along a visiting brother. It turns out that Mrs. Ayres, at least, expected the brother, as she is obviously trying to make a match for Caroline.

Things start to go badly when Rodrick fails to show up. At first Betty is dispatched to find him, then later Mrs. Ayres goes and returns with the news that Rod isn't feeling well and won't be joining them at all. Caroline gets insulted, and then the nasty little girl ends up behind a curtain with Gyp, and gets bitten. Dr. Faraday stitches her face in the kitchen, then rides down to the neighbors' home to get the girl settled. The next morning, he goes to check on his patient, only to find that they have called in their own doctor, and Faraday feels himself humiliated--replaced because they felt he wasn't good enough to continue to treat the girl.

Up at Hundreds, the family is sad and confused. Gyp was never the sort of dog who bit anyone. Of course they felt badly for the girl, and simply cannot understand why Gyp would have behaved that way. There is even the intimation that the old county families would have seen it as an unfortunate accident. The Baker-Halls, however, are threatening to involve the police and want the old dog destroyed. After some objections by the family, eventually they see there is no choice, and Dr. Faraday is asked to "destroy the dog."

Poor Gyp--not only is he an old dog, Caroline's sole companion, but he is also a stand in for the very class the Ayres belong to: pedigreed, well-bred, well-trained, amiable and unthreatening. Betty blames the dog's unusual behavior on the "dark thing" in the house that had frightened her before, and Roddy ends up confirming this opinion. What is carefully never articulated is what I assumed: that the foul child had teased and provoked the poor dog until it lost it's temper and snapped. She was a thoroughly provoking child, after all, spending nearly the entire time begging for wine and brandy, "which she always drank at home" and insisting that she had a right to smoke if she wanted to and no one could stop her. While the local families were all appalled at her behavior and her parents' permissiveness, the Baker-Halls simply gave in to her demands. Waters has deftly illustrated the coming social changes, in which the privileges of adulthood were demanded and granted without any of the attendant obligations. And as Waters demonstrates with Gyp, when this licentious behavior creates an unfortunate effect, there is no consequence to the provoker.

You can see how the values of the Ayres generation is overrun by the demands of the new people. No one at Hundreds believes Gyp is to blame, but they have neither the resources or appetite for an confrontation, and acquiesce in the demand for Gyp's death. It simply isn't the done thing to litigate, or accuse the child of causing her own injury, and the Ayres take the blame for something that wasn't their fault.

Waters writes compassionately about the old dog's death, but it is hard not to see the death of the old way of life, and the Ayres family, encompassed in the situation. The dog follows Dr. Faraday, who gives him a shot and waits until the heart stops beating. It's a gentle death, but it changes the life of the house--as the death of the gentry class changes the life of England. The people still think they hear him walking around the house, and the cook found herself even putting out his dinner. The emotional tenor of the house has changed, although it takes some time for the inhabitants to actually realize he won't return.

It is at this point that the ghost story kicks in. Rod becomes more and more erratic, barely leaving his room. He eventually reveals to Faraday that there is a presence, "an infection" that will leave the rest of the family alone if he stays alert to prevent it. Rod believes that this ghost left his room and caused Gyp to bite the Baker-Hall girl. There are "accidents" and a dangerous fire that started in five or six locations in his room while Rod slept. Eventually, Dr. Faraday becomes concerned, and Rod is bundled off to a mental hospital--one that the family finances can barely afford. Perhaps it is a recurrance of his earlier breakdown--the one that happened after his plane crash, or maybe it was caused by the strain of trying to keep up the estate with no staff, no land, no support.

Of course, I was wondering--why not just sell off everything and move? Surely there are better ways to live than locked up in a freezing house, huddled around an inadequate fire? Rod says repeatedly that he is trying to keep the hall "for the family," but there isn't really any family left. There is just the three of them, and no real prospects for Rod or Caroline to marry. The Ayres are fighting off the inevitable--there is no real way to go back to the glory days of the house, and no real future for it either.

Once Rod is gone, the work of running the estate falls to Caroline, who seems to be better suited to it than Rod ever was, although there is no way to really make things better. It is at this time that Faraday starts to see Caroline's charms, and he begins to court her. He has also published his paper on the electrical treatment of Rod's injuries, which lead to some interest in him by a London hospital. It is apparent to the reader that Caroline sees Faraday as her escape route--there is no one else for her to marry, and if he relocates to London, she is safely away from Hundreds. Unfortunately, it starts to become obvious that Faraday sees Caroline as a way to gain Hundreds Hall for himself. He's gotten to be a regular visitor, often letting himself into the house without waiting for the door to be answered. He imagines marrying Caroline, living at Hundreds and restoring the house, without ever really calculating how impossible that would be on his limited doctor's income.

The ghost is back as well--making noises in the speaking tube between the kitchen and the old nursery, knocking on walls, leaving scribbled letters on the walls behind large pieces of furniture. Mrs. Ayres becomes convinced that it is her lost child, Susan, dead these forty years, trying to get her mother to join her. The noises have thoroughly unnerved Betty and the cook, and Mrs. Ayres is beginning to show welts and cuts that she blames on Susan. There is even a frightening scene where Mrs. Ayres was locked in the old nursery, a sequence that pays brilliant homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Faraday convinces Caroline that her mother also needs mental care, but the morning she is to be sent away, Mrs. Ayres is found hanged in her bedroom, the door locked from the inside and the key thrown out the window. It is at this point that Faraday starts to become quite obnoxious to the reader, although he sees himself as perfectly rational. He begins to badger Caroline to set a date for the wedding, and when she doesn't make any plans, Faraday makes them for her. Matters come to a head when he shows up at the house with a wedding dress, flowers, and a ring. Caroline cancels the engagement, making clear that she will sell the house and even emigrate to get away from Hundreds.

Faraday loses it, clumsily arguing with Caroline, trying to guilt her into staying, roping his friends into making his case to her. It is increasingly clear that Faraday is more afraid of losing Hundreds than he is of losing Caroline. He puts padlocks on the gates to the park; he has some reason, which I have forgotten, but the feeling is that he is trying to keep his hold on the house. Caroline, on the other hand, seems stronger and more purposeful then ever, as she boxes up possessions, sells what she can, and readies the house for sale.

One fateful night--I have forgotten whether it was the date Faraday had set for the wedding, or the day Caroline was going to leave Hundreds--Faraday is out late and falls asleep in his car out at Hundreds. He dreams of going into the house, passing like smoke through the locked gates. The next morning, Caroline is found dead at the foot of the stairs. Betty says that saw Caroline on the landing, and just before she fell, she said "You!" (I may be the only one who draws this connection, but I was struck by the similarity of Caroline's death with that of Amy Dudley, the inconvenient wife of Robert Dudley--the man widely believed to be Elizabeth I's lover. She was found dead at the foot of the stairs at the Dudley country home, and her death might have freed Robert to marry Elizabeth, but the mysterious manner of her death created a scandal that tainted her husband and left Elizabeth free to stay single.)

The book ends with Dr. Faraday more or less haunting the house, keeping hold of his keys, sweeping out rat dung, catching sight of himself in the reflections of the old glass.

Waters leaves the ghost story unresolved. Faraday missed most of the overtly supernatural events, and never believed they were real. As our first person narrator, our insight into those events is severely restricted by Faraday's rational insistence that they never happened. The specters or phantasms experienced by the Ayreses are very different: Rod's ghost moved small objects and left burn marks on the walls and furniture; Mrs. Ayre's ghost made noises and cut her. There is reason to believe that Caroline was killed by Faraday's jealous anger, projected out of his body and into Hundreds and causing her death. Her exclamation of "You!" could have been caused by recognizing Faraday, who may or may not have actually been present in the house.

Which has lead to a great deal of discussion on the internet about what "really" happened, and in at least one interview, Waters has admitted that she didn't really wrap up the ghost story. Which can be frustrating, but is less so if (as I do) one reads the ghost story as a metaphor for the class conflict that pervades the novel.

Faraday himself is an outcast--raised by education and training out of his own working class roots, he fails to fit into any other class. He resents that the gentry don't make him their doctor, and he feels invisible. He is ashamed of his lack of progress in his field, jealous of his partner's success, ambivalent in his feelings about the sacrifices his parents made for his education. The childhood desire to possess a piece of Hundreds lives on in the man--although never articulated, one can see that Faraday believes that he can gain social acceptance through his position at Hundreds. And that he naively believes that by marrying Caroline, he will magically restore Hundreds to the place it occupied back in 1919. But there is no longer an English Empire, so no more Empire Day celebrations. The best future for Faraday lies in accepting the invitation to practice in London--there he can escape the class limitations he experiences in the country. Caroline sees her future in the (relatively) classless societies of America and Canada, but Faraday doesn't want the future--he wants to go back to the past, but occupy a privileged position there.

Mrs. Ayres' death can be seen as the pull of the past on the present. She, like Faraday, preferred the past, embodied as her greater love for the dead Susan than she had for her living children. There is no future for those who prefer the past--Mrs. Ayres dies, and Faraday ends up trapped by it. I'm not certain I can explain Caroline's role in the extended metaphor, but as I think about this novel, I am reminded of Bertolucci's movie The Last Emperor. Born into unbelievable opulence and treated as a god, Pu Yi ends his life in modern China as a gardener, riding a bike and wearing plain cotton Mao jackets. Caroline might not have thrived in a classless society.

Some final thoughts: the family name is a pun on class consciousness: Ayres is pronounced as "airs" or even "heirs." By the end of the book, there are no Ayres left, no heirs to the old properties. I think the book would have been better named "A Little Stranger," as the book and Dr. Faraday each grow a little stranger with each passing episode.

Waters writes beautifully, and the ominous mood is masterfully set forth and sustained. I listened to this on audiobook, and Simon Vance does an outstanding job with the narration. The book might be a little slow for some, but the accumulation of details is what makes the mood so gripping. A worthwhile read, a credit-worthy listen, and an author I will come back to.

When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson

I bought this book almost a year ago now, while on vacation in Palm Springs. It was on a baragain table for $5, and since I had been wanting to read it, it was too good to pass up. It is not, however, a book for reading while on vacation in Palm Springs. I read the first few pages, and put it into my suitcase for later.

Atkinson is a vivid writer, and within a very few pages, I was deeply into her world--a world that is fundamentally at odds with sunny desert vacation, I might add. A family--mother, two young girls, a baby in a stroller, are struggling home through hedgerowed lanes from a shopping trip. It is summer in rural Scotland, and grocery shopping requires a two mile walk from the house to the bus stop, a long bus ride to the village, which includes wrestling the baby and the stroller onto the bus, the several block hike to the grocery, and then the whole thing again in reverse.

Driving is not possible, because the father, Howard Mason, has driven off with the car to go back to London to be with his mistress. He had moved the family out to the country so that he could write his novels, but after six months of hobby farming (all disastrous--even the bees froze in their hives over the winter) and being cooped up with his young family, he had had enough and ran away from home. Which left his artist wife stuck in the country, where she had never wanted to be, struggling with raising three small children alone.

So that's where I stopped while on vacation, and thus I stopped before they met a man walking the other way who pulled out a knife and killed them all, except the middle child, a six year old named Joanna. Joanna who escaped into the abutting wheat field and was the sole survivor. Like I said: not vacation reading. I suppose I should have figured that out by the title.

The book then skips ahead thirty years, and in typical Atkinson fashion, we are thrown in medias res into the lives of new and different characters. A man, who has disguised himself as a "typical tourist" is lying in wait for recess at a Yorkshire school. In particular, he wants to see a very young boy who is only about three years old. Is this man a kidnapper? Pedophile? What does he want? The ominous mood builds up, and when the particular boy shows up, the unnamed man lures him close by offering a ball. We are told the man ponders whether he could grab the boy and escape in his rented car before anyone could stop him. What is going on? The boy gets close enough to receive the ball, and the man ruffles the boys hair. The boy leaps away and the man backs off--politely.

Only after we have watched the boy return to the safety of his school do we learn that the man is Jackson Brodie--the former cop who was the lynchpin of two previous Atkinson novels: Case Histories and One Good Turn. Brodie suspects that the boy is his son, although the boy's mother denies it. Brodie has pulled some hairs for the boy's head and plans to get a DNA analysis to confirm his paternity. This creepy subterfuge tells us a lot about Brodie--he has some good instincts, and he wants to be connected to the child he believes is his, but he goes about it in such a creepy way. Frankly, if I were is ex-girlfriend, I'd insist the child wasn't his too--there is just something so off-putting about Brodie's inability to live normally.

We then meet Reggie Chase and Dr. Hunter. It takes a while, in the good old Atkinson way, to piece together the picture of these people. Reggie is short for Regina, and is a sixteen year old girl--although it takes quite a few pages to even get her gender straight. She's rather a lost girl: no father in the picture, and her mother recently died while on holiday in Spain with a new boyfriend. Reggie has an older brother, who has gone bad in a thousand petty and not-so-petty ways. Reggie herself is smart and capable, and had won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. But she never fit in with the girls there, and she dropped out at the earliest opportunity. However, she values education, and has managed to arrange private tutoring with a former teacher from the school--Ms. McDonald, who no longer at the school because she is dying of a brain tumor.

The most normal part of Reggie's life is her job as "mother's helper" for Dr. Hunter. Dr. Hunter has a baby and Reggie comes in every day to take care of the baby until Dr. Hunter comes home from her medical practice. The three of them make a lovely family--the odd one out is Dr. Hunter's husband, Neil, who is an "entrepeneur," a word which here seems to mean "a shady operator."

Then we meet Louise, a detective in the Borders and Lothian police force--which finally makes it clear that we are in Edinburgh. Louise is married to a lovely man, a surgeon, and she is chafing at her newly affluent life. Louise is herself a cliche, but a well executed one--the cop who is already married to her job, unable to relax into civilian life, fierce and grimly determined to keep the world safe, and frustrated by the impossibility of it. Louise shows up at Dr. Hunter's house, and that is where the threads start to come together.

Dr. Hunter, it turns out, is Joanna Mason Hunter, the little girl survivor of the massacre thirty years ago, and Inspector Louise Monroe has come around to warn her that Andrew Decker--the man who murdered her family--has been released from prison and presumably loose in Edinbugh.

Jackson Brodie is also headed north--by mistake, as he meant to take the King's Cross train to London, not from London. His trip is stopped in dramatic fashion, as the train derails. The threads come together: the derailment happens mere yards from where Reggie is studying for her A levels at Ms. McDonald's house. Ms. McDonald herself is killed when the train hits her car that had stalled on the tracks. Reggie--having learned CPR and first aid from Dr. Hunter, in case she needed it for the baby--happens upon Jackson Brodie and saves his life. Brodie somehow ends up with Andrew Decker's driver's license and loses his own wallet, and Louise finds him in the hospital. Of course, the two of them had worked together in the past and should really be with each other, but have managed (in true cop fashion) to screw up their private lives as well.

Louise has two other cases on her plate--Alison Needler, whose ex-husband showed up at their daughter's seventh birthday party with a pistol and killed two women before being scared off. Alison has been moved to a safe house, but everyone expects David Needler to come back. She also has the little matter of Neal Hunter, Joanna Hunter's husband, who is under investigation for arson. She goes around to talk to him about it the morning after the train wreck, and he's particularly jumpy about his wife. She's not there, the baby's not there, Reggie isn't there. Dr. Hunter has gone missing.

Neal called Reggie early that morning, with a not--very-believable story that Dr. Hunter and the baby drove down to Yorkshire to care for a sick aunt and wouldn't need her for a few days. Reggie doesn't believe this--Dr. Hunter would have called herself! The whole thing is completely out of character. So she goes over to the Hunter home, offering to walk the dog, since Mr. Hunter is so busy. Mr. Hunter tells her to keep the dog for the duration--again, suspiciously jumpy. Reggie, bless her fiercely loyal heart, plays girl detective and finds a number of highly suspicious anomolies:
  • She left her cell phone behind--the one she calls "her lifeline."
  • She apparently left barefoot and without changing out of her work suit
  • She left without her purse, which contained her asthma inhaler, her driving glasses, and her Filofax
  • Her car is still in the garage
  • The dog found the baby's blanket crushed in the mud and apparently bloodied
  • She overheard a conversation between Neal and a thug threatening him that implied Dr. Hunter had been kidnapped.
Louise finds Reggie hard to believe, but Neal Hunter is the kind of guy who might murder his wife in order to get the insurance money to cover his "business interests," maybe. So she goes to check out the ailing aunt in Yorkshire, only to find the aunt has been dead for two weeks. Something is definitely going on.

This, as you can tell, is a lot of plot. There is a lot more as well, but what Atkinson does so marvellously well is tell this thriller story with a novelists touch. Reggie isn't really Nancy Drew--she's a girl with a troubled life, much of which we see vividly, trying to hold on to the parts that are sane. Atkinson reveals Reggie's life in a leisurely way, peeling back the layers and showing us her relationship with her brother, the tragedy of her mother's death, her relationship with her tutor, even substantial chunks of her studies--Latin translations, literature reading. Reggie is a great character--tough but not jaded, honest (mostly) and someone who has admirable inner strength and is also really kind and likable.

Jackson Brodie is also displayed as on his own life journey--we see his lonely life, his desperate longing for connection with his children, his sadness over the way his past relationships have failed. Even his being on the train that derails is a marvelously detailed set piece: the other passengers on the train, his slowly dawning realization that he's going north instead of south, the way his military training kicks in when the train carriage falls over. He's an ex-cop, at loose ends, oddly disconnected from his new marriage. Again, Atkinson has a light touch as she reveals his story, even making his near-death experience something that bears close reading.

Louise is a bit of a cliche, but Atkinson deftly limns her discomfort with a comfortable life. She feels not good enough for her new husband, and there is a lovely playful scene as she calls to switch homeowner's insurance. "Do you have any jewels, furs, or guns in the house?" And Louise finds herself momentarily daydreaming about a different life, one in which she wears jewels and furs while using guns to rob banks: a Bonnie and Clyde fantasy far removed from the staid domestic life she has married into. And, honestly, one closer to her real character than the life of French Toast and Mexican raspberries on Wedgewood china we see her living.

It is this deftness with character that is so striking in this novel. Brodie spends about twenty four hours in hospital after the train crash, yet Atkinson memorably depicts two nurses and three different doctors in the briefest of exchanges. Howard Mason, the bastard who left his family without a car in rural Scotland thirty years ago is fleshed out and dispatched in a devastating summary of his career with the concluding snarky comment that "all his books were out of print." Atkinson makes Joanna Hunter and Reggie Chase so well rounded and so believable--as well as so likeable--that when the novel ends, I was deeply satisfied by the resolution of their stories.

If there is a weakness, it's that Atkinson has attempted too much plot. After I closed the book, I found myself niggling at the loose ends and the glossed over holes in the story. So with the warning that SPOILERS LIE AHEAD, I will attempt to wrap up this book.

Joanna Hunter has, indeed, been kidnapped. Her dodgy husband has come to the attention of a Glaswegian mobster who wants his money, or all of Neal Hunter's businesses signed over, and is holding Joanna and the baby hostage to get it. Reggie guilts Brodie into leaving hospital to go find Joanna, and first they head to Yorkshire to check out the alleged sick aunt. There is a "humorous" mix up, when Brodie is arrested for being Andrew Decker, sorted out only because Louise and Marcus (her assistant) turn up and pull rank, dragging Brodie and Reggie back to Edinburgh. Again, however, Atkinson brilliantly uses the in-car cross-talk to flesh out the characters.

Back in Edinburgh, Brodie and Reggie take Joanna's car and tail the bad guys, following them to a remote farmhouse. The bad guys go in and come running out, yapping on the cell phone and rapidly leaving the scene. Joanna has managed to kill both the thugs guarding her and freed herself. Brodie torches the crime scene, then returns Joanna, Reggie and the baby to the Hunter house. There Joanna cleans up, confuses the police trying to make the kitchen a crime scene, and stonewalls Louise's questions about what happened. Why? Because she wants normalcy for her baby, so he will never be grist for the tabloids.

Neal is shown to be a complete putz, as it is apparent to everybody that he should have signed over all his businesses and then sued to get them back, rather than risking his family's lives for four days as he tried to come up with the money. He's also arrested for the arson and will not likely be allowed back into Joanna's life.

Meanwhile, David Needler shows up again, as predicted, but after one too many panic button calls, so Marcus goes over to check on the house and gets shot in the chest. Which sucks, but is kind of a throw-away plot point. Needler kills himself as well. Louise is pissed, because she wanted him to die slowly and painfully at her hand. Louise also decides to wait until Hogmanay to leave her husband, because his first wife died on Christmas Eve, so at least he won't have lost two wives on the same holiday. Wait, what?

Brodie finally gets back to London. He is still in love with Louise, but now he's closed the door on any possible relationship with her because of his torching of the farmhouse. He can't ever tell her what happened or what he did. He gets back to Heathrow in time to meet his wife's plane from the States, but she's not on it. He checks other airlines, other flights, but not only is she not there, there is no record of her. In fact, there is no record of her at her workplace, no confirmation of her anywhere. She has, however, cleaned out his bank account. That's right: It Was All A Dream, I Mean Scam. The whirlwind romance and marriage was a four month investment in a plan to take the million pounds he had inherited a few years back. Fortunately, the money from the sale of a house in France was delayed, and showed up after she had taken everything else, so at least poor Brodie was not destitute.

But his bad luck didn't end there. No, when he finally got back to the flat in Covent Garden, there was a dead man lying in the living room who had blown his brains out with a Russian gun. He also had Brodie's wallet and ID on him. The omnipresent Andrew Decker, apparently. Turns out that Joanna Hunter had visited Decker in prison, about a month before his release, and supposedly whatever she had said lead him to kill himself. After being in a train crash where he switched identities with Brodie? Why? This part made no sense to me at all.

Reggie still has a terrible home life--during the course of the novel, her brother Billy has gotten himself in deep trouble with some very dangerous thugs, told them his name was "Reggie" and gave him the real Reggie's home address. So in addition to having her mother die, her tutor die, her tutor's dog die, identifying her tutor's body in the hospital and arranging for her funeral, walking over dead bodies at the train crash site, saving Jackson Brodie's life, finding and rescuing Dr. Hunter and the baby--she goes home to find the flat trashed and urine and feces spread around, she is attacked by the thugs who did it, she goes back another day to find they have set fire to the flat, and they attack her again, and she finds the heroin her brother stole and then stashed at Ms. McDonald's house. And after all of this, she has the presence of mind to place the kilo of heroin inside Ms. McDonald's casket for cremation, thus eliminating all traces of it. However, it looks like she might move in with Dr. Hunter as a permanent mother's helper.

Like I said, that is a lot of plot, and as superb a writer as she is, Atkinson can't really make all of it credible in a mere 400 pages. Why did Dr. Hunter go visit Decker in prison, and what did she say to him that made him kill himself? And why didn't he do it before he swapped identities with Brodie? And isn't it just a little too much of a coincidence that it was Brodie's wallet he stole--of all the possible people he might have met between his release and his death? What was the point of the identity theft? And why did we have to have the Needler subplot anyway? It was tangential at best, and a bit overly melodramatic at worst, the way it resulted in the death of Marcus. And what was the point of the "humorous" scenes of Brodie trying to rent a car with only Decker's driver's license, and then getting arrested in Yorkshire? Did the terminal brain cancer tutor really have to be the cause of the train accident that brought Reggie and Brodie together? And did her dog really have to die in his sleep that night? And did Reggie really have to have so many Major Plot Events in her story? Did Brodie really have to also be the victim of a marriage scam at the same time he was the victim of Decker's identity theft? How many crimes can happen to how many people simultaneously before it's not possible to suspend disbelief?

It's this large, baggy plot that undermines the book. To some degree, I am willing to accept outlandish coincidences, but at some point one has to draw the line. And I am afraid that Atkinson sailed past this line for me, although admittedly not until after I had finished the book--she is that good of a writer.

Oh, and remember that boy that Brodie was so creepily stalking at the beginning of the novel? By the end, he's apparently decided not to do that DNA analysis after all. But instead, we find out that a 19 year old Brodie is the volunteer who found the six year old Joanna Mason in the wheat field.

Oh yeah. Just a few too many coincidences. Even Charles Dickens would agree, and he never met an unlikely coincidence he didn't find a way to use. I still enjoyed this book; the writing and characterization is outstanding. Just too many plots.