Monday, November 28, 2011

London to Grosse Point

The great thing about being on vacation is that, once the nieces and nephew zonk out around 8 or 8:30, I have plenty of time to read.

In the third Maisie Dobbs book, our heroine finally returns to France twelve years after her war injury. Two tough cases (both involving MIA soldiers from the Great War), coupled with her suppressed psychological trauma from the War itself, lead to a near-mental breakdown. (But, of course, she muddles through. As one does.) Two interesting developments for the series that I'll be curious to see in the next few books: that a breach of trust occurs between Maisie and her mentor, so she must start to learn to solve her most intellectually rigorous cases alone; and that since she finally returned to the now-graveyard scene of her greatest anguish, even after a decade she can hopefully start healing and moving on.

Books 4 and 5 are waiting for me at the library when I get back home.

But for now, one great thing about being on vacation in Michigan with a brother-in-law who teaches history is that there are tons of spare books in the basement. So I grabbed Middlesex, erroneously conflating it with both Atonement and March (also on the bookshelf).

Turns out, the books are very, very different. I haven't (yet) read the two I mentally confused with this one, but Middlesex is sheer, utter brilliance. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about a hermaphrodite growing up in a changing Detroit is extremely well-written. The narrative voice pulls you in from the first couple of lines, hinting at intertwined family scandals and historical flashes and self-discovery spanning 70 years, all with teasing details that aren't fully revealed for several more chapters.

The book's genius is that it also draws on so much literary and historical richness: it starts on the slopes of Mount Olympus in 1922 and moves across violence and Depression to the streets of the Motor City. (Yes, I did feel like re-re-re-watching the Chrysler SuperBowl ad.) The protagonist's grandparents' flight from Smyrna also had me recalling the first vignette from Hemingway's In Our Time; and a chapter that involved the fledgling Nation of Islam had me running out to google-verify that it did, indeed, begin in Detroit. Storyline transitions in Middlesex flow from Old World to New, superstition to science, immigrant to assimilated, rags to (middle class) riches, rural to urban to suburban, east to west, parent to child, girl to boy... and the reader (at least this one) is left with an awe-inspiring, incredible, complex tapestry of overlapping identities, sexualities, and families.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fear factor

I'd never seen Monsters, Inc. - but a post-turkey Thanksgiving stupor was as good a reason as any to watch it.

I thought it was clever, though I suspect much of it was too sophisticated for smaller children. (Monsters are deployed through doors in the monster world to scare kids in the human world. An energy company, Monsters, Inc., harvests children's screams as energy. One day a little toddler accidentally crosses the threshold to the monster world.)

Boo, the little girl, was adorable. And the ending was wonderfully environmentally positive: instead of relying on energy based on fear and the collection of children's screams, the monsters make a complete U-turn and change to energy consumption based on laughter and fun. I approve.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dulce et decorum est...

On to the next mystery series featuring a smart female detective! The latest one I've found takes place in the aftermath of the Great War, so naturally it's right up my alley.

Maisie Dobbs makes her debut as a detective in the first book, which details the title character's story: a working-class girl with a keen intellect is given a chance to study and go to university; then World War I breaks out and she becomes a nurse on the frontlines. The reader learns of her story ten years later, when the immediate legacy of the Great War sets the backdrop for our new sleuth's first case. The book is a poignant tribute to the Lost Generation as well as a testament to survivors and strength to rebuild both personal lives and a more egalitarian postwar society.

In Birds of a Feather, Maisie is hired to find a missing heiress whose three friends have just been murdered (and white feathers left hidden at each crime scene). I must admit, the feathers were an immediate clue early on, and I guessed both the motive and the guilty party long before the final chapters revealed them. However, while that usually discourages me from continuing a series for very long, it seemed rather trivial in this one. I love the psychologist-as-detective aspect of the two Maisie Dobbs books I've read so far, I love the fact that the heroine is my age, and I love that the series takes place in my particular pet period of history.

But the real reason I'm drawn to this series is because the main character lives on the edges of identity: a working-class family and childhood erased from her future by a Cambridge education; a woman in a traditionally male profession; a nation desperately trying to forget the War to End All Wars while being constantly reminded of the incredible loss it suffered from it.

I've ordered the rest of the books from the library!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

If I can make it there

It's always sad when a good series comes to an end. I've enjoyed Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mystery books, and finally finished the last two.

In The Last Illusion, Molly goes undercover as Harry Houdini's assistant after several gruesome accidents during his shows. I was unaware that Houdini may have been a spy, but the book runs with that premise - Molly not only helps NYPD solve a few cases, but the Secret Service as well. What I did find particularly interesting were the descriptions of a few illusionists' secrets.

Bless the Bride
ends the series with Molly's wedding to her NYPD captain (a dance which started with Book 1) . Before the nuptials, however, she gets in one last case: finding a runaway Chinese bride in Chinatown, in an era when the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese women from entering the U.S. I've always appreciated how each book in this series makes Molly interact with so many of the different communities that made up New York City circa 1902, and this one was no different. From settlement houses to "paper sons", I re-learned and re-lived a lot of lessons from my women's history and Asian American history classes!

And by complete coincidence, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Chinese Exclusion Act last month.

There aren't any more books in the Molly Murphy series, but I hope there will be more! Of course, I have half a dozen mystery series where I hope there will eventually be more books... Ah, well. On to the next!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

La ville, la vie, la veille

I lovelovelove this video. The song is so beautiful too, no matter how slightly objectionable (and probably bad for me right now) the lyrics are.

But it's Paris, the eternal city for love, in a highly temporal world. I'm drawn to the bittersweet melody and the single-camera viewpoint that simultaneously moves forward but flashes back.

In unexpectedly related news, the #OccupyOakland protestors have managed to shut down the Port of Oakland. (How can a proud Seattleite not hear that and think of the 1919 General Strike?) Meanwhile, I have friends at #OccupySeattle, where earlier today SPD pepper sprayed some demonstrators.

It feels like the eve of something big, the proverbial crossroad where you choose to be a part of history or not. But then, maybe it's just the effect of the rain tonight.