Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery

Flavia de Luce, the heroine of this mystery, is an 11 year old chemistry genius who lives at Buckshaw in the village of Bishop's Lacey.  She stumbles upon a dying man in her family garden and races about the village on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, searching for the answers to the various riddles posed by the death soon deemed a murder.  Most importantly, did her father do it?  What did the dead bird on the doorstep mean?  What about all those postage stamps?

I don't generally enjoy mysteries.  They are too formulaic to hold my attention.  The reader knows that every interaction, every character, every chance meeting is somehow crucial to the plot and in many cases the reader figures it out before the sleuth does.  Not to mention that a mystery, by its very nature, is totally plot driven and the plot often feels contrived.  I think I got my cynicism about mysteries from reading every Nancy Drew book ever published when I was about Flavia's age.

So as far as mysteries go this one wasn't bad and a satisfying end to Fiction February.  Flavia is a memorable and vividly drawn detective: a smart, resourceful, strong girl.  Bishop's Lacey and its denizens are the perfect English town for a mystery and the whole de Luce family is both compelling and sweet.  All set me up for a really enjoyable story--even if it was a conventional mystery.  I found myself really drawn into the plot...especially the history of Flavia's father and his passion for stamp collecting.  Who knew stamps could be so interesting?

This novel is Alan Bradley's first book and hey, guess what? He is 71 years old!  I guess there is still hope that I will get my novel done after all.  We haven't heard the last of Flavia de Luce either.  There are a couple more mysteries in the work with her as the star.

So how about you, dear reader,  can you recommend a mystery?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What exactly is a novella?

I must confess to being averse to the literary form called the novella.  What is it?  Apparently it is longer than a novelette (never heard of that till just now when I looked it up on wikipedia) and shorter than a novel.  I've never been quite sure why we need this distinction.  Different people give different lengths for a novella. Some say as few as 10,000 words, some say 70,000 words is the upper limit which is quite a long book in my opinion.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea...all of these are considered by some to be novellas

Some would say a novella does not try to accomplish as much: one plot, one major character.  They tend to be bundled in books with short stories.  A friend recently recommended and loaned me a book by Jim Harrison called Farmer's Daughter.  I was anxious to get to it and had a space saved for it for fiction February.  Guess what? That's right:  three novellas!  The first was titled Farmer's Daughter and it was short and dealt with one story line and one subject and reflected Jim Harrison's characteristic love of Montana and Arizona and the rural life.

The Farmer's Daughter was about Sarah the daughter of a transplanted Montana Farmer. She has a  horse and befriends an old ranch hand who is dying after her mother abandons her and her father.  She learns to shoot.  She is raped by a traveling musician and plots to shoot him in the head. She hunts, and she falls in love with a man three times her age.  She leaves Montana for Arizona.  While I enjoyed the story and will probably read the other two novellas...I have to put my finger on something that bothers me about Harrison and other male writers about the way they portray women.

They always seem mystified by how women behave.  They paint them as these foreign beings being stymied by their lives.  It almost seemed as though Mr. Harrison put himself into the body of Sarah and kept questioning what she would do.  It was as if he couldn't understand her.  It might be that the reader is to figue out that Sarah was going through difficult times and she was confused, but it only felt like Jim Harrison was confused.  As a reader, it was hard to separate the male writer from the young woman.  Quick, I would love to know of a male writer who has a knack for portraying women? Not as mysterious beings who can't make decisions, but as whole characters who may not make the right decisions but seem to know what they are doing.  Ideas please?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus: Coming in April 2011

This truly unique collection of poems is arranged to form an interesting, bittersweet and really fun novel.  I had not read anything quite like this before (okay Canterbury tales and the ancient Greeks).  When I first opened it, I was surprised: the description never mentioned poetry.  It was an early reviewer book that I bid on and sad to say I probably would not have bid on it if I knew it was all poetry.

Hunchback read very quickly.  In about 400 pages there were about 200 prose poems with a smattering of meter and rhyme--and even a picture poem or two. They were generally sad, funny and thoughtful looks at a 50 year old woman's mid-life crisis which included a daughter leaving home, a mother in the hospital and a marriage that was alternately on the rocks and the best marriage in the world.  There were some real points of tension and sadness that built up even through the prolonged use of poetry.  I could hardly believe poems could produce this heightened state of interest in the characters.

The author, Sonya Sones, is better known for her young adult novels.  In fact, it appears as though they might be constructing a marketing campaign for young adults with this book so perhaps they hope the book to have a crossover audience.  I think this is a fun little book and you will enjoy it especially if you are interested in seeing what poetry can do for a narrative.  This was a clever way to play with words.

I found myself reading each poem and asking myself if it could stand alone as a poem.  If you saw it reprinted in the New Yorker by itself would you enjoy it as a poem or would you miss everything since it is really part of a longer narrative?  I decided that most of them could.  I leave you with one of my favorites:


Worn out by this business
of always having to see things
with "fresh new eyes."

Just once I'd like to sit by the fire
without trying to figure out how to describe it
in a way that no one else ever has before.

I'm tired of meter, tired of form,
tired of rhyme, tired of off-rhyme,
tired of repetition, tired of metaphors--

Those wild...somethings
that never fail to fly south for the winter j
ust when I need them the most.

I am rife with,
no...overrun with,
no...bursting with

the boredom,
the monotony,
the tedium

of constantly
having to look up words
in my thesaurus.

I'm fed up with allusion,
alienated by allegory,
allergic to alliteration.

But I am especially tired of similes--
those sneaky figures of speech
that ceaselessly elude me,

just as
they're eluding me
right now

on this cloudy morning
that's like...
a cloudy morning.

I've had it up to here
with trying to invent another original way
to say "I'm really sad."

I'm not as melancholy as the song
of the mateless mockingbird,
 I'm just plain miserable--

and sick and tired
of being a poet.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Spied an end of the year review of this on NPR, waited for it at the library, got tired of waiting and picked it up at B & N, read it in two days.  This totally absorbing tale of an internationnal newspaper based out of Rome is a love letter to newspapers and the people that work at them.  It is a sad tale of one person's love and how he manifested his love in a business...the newspaper business.  The owner's love unfolds as you learn more about the history of the paper and we   understand the complete story gradually by looking at it from the point of view of a dozen different employees that are related to the paper in some way.  We hear the tales of the copy editors, the news editors, the stringers and the publisher.  Each man or woman is flawed and made whole by their work at the newspaper or in the journalism business.   Each character adds to the tale of the newspaper.

Each of the stories stands alone and the reader sees the threads of the paper and the other characters appear and disappear in each chapter.  No character gets more than one chapter: you won't get terribly attached to one story even though they all feel compelling and meaningful.  Almost all the characters are well drawn and sympathetic: the copy editor who loves his life and job, the Egypt stringer who has no idea how to be a journalist,  the reader who keeps up with the news as best she can, the owner who doesn't really care about the paper and so on. All these points of view draw you into the real story about the rise and fall of a small  newspaper: who started it and what's to become of it in the era of all things on-line and all the struggles in between.  

This is the kind of book that turns a traditional narrative on its head, but works oh so very well.  I have been thinking a lot lately about different ways of presenting a narrative: how to organize story by thoughts or by point of view or by alternate chronology.  This novel was so interesting and so thrilling because it was told in a completely different and very interesting manner.  The telling of these tales collectively left some mysteries that the reader solves but the characters never do.  The whole thing felt sweet and sad and achingly true. 

The Imperfectionists is a stunning and accessible story, and I hope everyone takes an evening or two to read it.  You will be enchanted.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Happy Year of the Rabbit!!!

In the Chinese lunar calendar the year of the rabbit began on February 3rd.  Celebrating Chinese New Year will be a new tradition in our family, and we will celebrate this weekend with other families of adopted Chinese children.

I have read another Chinese American novelist in honor of Chinese New Year (and fiction February),  I am sorry to say it took me so long to read her work, as many people have recommended this author to me.  Lisa See has written an amazing book about Chinese women from the Hunan province who developed a secret language to communicate with each other.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan swept me into another world for four days.  I could hardly sleep last night thinking of these two women laotong, or old sames. Sworn sisters, who lived their lives in particular cultural ways that are completely unknown to me.  They had bound feet, were married off to strange families, endured war and famine and sought out that which many women seek, true and unyielding friendships to last throughout their lives.  These sworn friendships were love relationships which often meant more to them than husbands or children.

The narrator and main character Lily and her laotong Snow Flower communicated using a now almost dead written language called nu shu, the woman's language. It lasted for hundreds of years and men knew nothing of it. It was almost killed during the cultural revolution and has recently been resurrected in the manner of folk dances or art.

Ms. See did an amazing job of creating the world of 19th century China.  Even though I thought I knew a lot about ancient Chinese customs and traditions, I was amazed at how much I learned about this other place and time.  The writing is rich and detailed and the story is riviting.  I felt I understood well why a mother would choose the painful exercise of binding a daughter's feet.  (Maybe a 19c. equivalent of being a Tiger Mother?)  Lisa See's novel helped me make sense of a very foreign set of cultural practices.  If you pick up this paperback version don't miss her post script about doing the research for the book and her own family life as part Chinese and part American.  As always, I am in awe of the creative process that can produce such magnificent tales.  Are there other Lisa See recommendations out there?

I have put this in the mail to my friend Catherine who should enjoy this tale of women and friendship and 19th century China.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Girl in Translation: by Jean Kwok (Hey It's Fiction February again!)

Welcome readers to my second annual tribute to fiction offered for the month of February.  As last year, if you comment about a recent  favorite novel or work of fiction on this blog, I will enter you into a drawing to win a free book!!!  That's right, from my very own library.

This book was recommended to me by a fellow reader who knows I am very interested in Chinese American literature.  I put it on my library list and renewed it a few times but am pleased to have read it. 

Kimberly Chang and her mother arrive in the US from China owing a huge debt to their benefactors (Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob) who keep them in an unheated rodent infested apartment in Brooklyn and force mother to work in their sweatshop to pay them back.  Kimberly goes to school but must rush to the factory after school to help her mother finish the shipment of clothing.  It is a grim life which is slowly redeemed for Kimberly by her prowess in school.  In spite of her many hardships and the inevitable language barriers, she begins to distinguish herself in school, specifically math and science and is able to earn a scholarship to a prestigious prep school.

The novel follows Kim and her mother through school until she graduates when Kimberly faces a very grim and unhappy choice which we don't really get to see her make except in an epilogue of sorts which takes place 12 years after the end of school.

A reader will immediately be drawn into this book.  Kimberly's voice is plain and true and very compelling. The author has a great way of helping the reader try to understand how hard it is for Kimberly to understand what is happening to her by translating some of the English dialogue into the chopped up strange speech that Kimberly might hear.

The descriptions of her hard life in the sweatshop, struggles in school and in the horrible apartment are well done.  I am glad to have read this for that reason alone.  If you read this and then understand from the book flap that Jean Kwok was also an immigrant from Hong Kong and worked in the sweatshops and went to Harvard then you will also want to visit her website and read her own story which is equally compelling.

My one gripe with the story was the ending I which felt very trite and unfitting.  If you read this let me know what you think.