Thursday, December 29, 2011

What passing-bells for these?

After reading the light-hearted, Riviera-vacationing Lady Georgiana series again, it was back to the legacy of the Great War with Maisie Dobbs.

In Among the Mad, our psychologist-detective heroine works with Special Branch forces in a race to find a terrorist (though I'm not sure they had that term in 1931). With still-shell-shocked veterans being released onto the streets at the beginning of the Depression, someone intends to set off a gas bomb on New Year's Eve at St. Paul's. But, like the anthrax attacks 70 years later, the particular gas used as a warning is military-grade. It's a decent thriller, and sets up the reader for Maisie's involvement with Special Branch or other intelligence-gathering efforts later.

The Mapping of Love and Death actually had more significant character development and drama: Maisie's mentor dies, she strikes up a relationship with her old employer's son, her briefcase (a gift from her fellow servants when she went off to Cambridge, symbolizing her working-class, pre-war past) is stolen. The case at the center of the book is fascinating as well: the role of cartographers in World War I. The remains of a cartography unit listed as missing in 1916 are recently discovered, and an autopsy suggests an American mapmaker in the unit was murdered. One of the characters from the first book in the series also makes an appearance, making the plot ends come full circle. It's as if Jacqueline Winspear is collecting bits of the past in order to set readers up for an entirely new Maisie. I certainly hope so!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Counter rucking

We had to memorize "Invictus" back in seventh grade, and it's a fairly easy poem to keep in one's memory. So when the movie about South Africa's victory over New Zealand in the 2005 Rugby World Cup came out about a year ago, my curiosity was piqued. (My rugby-playing Kiwi bro-in-law also rushed out to see it.)

Since New Zealand won it this year - and I had some free time over Christmas break - I finally watched it. I do tend to like movies about sports teams: in the end, they're about working out differences and cooperating, which is why they also make such great parallel stories about nation-shaping and identity-forging.

But I'll admit, I was a little disappointed with Invictus. I wanted to love it, because the set-up was so great: a Nobel Peace Prize-wining man who spent 27 years in prison becomes president of a country struggling with racial strife and poverty and all the other legacies of apartheid, and an almost-all-white rugby team comes from behind to unite their divided country and win the World Cup. It's a great story. But for some reason, I found the characters to be pretty one-dimensional: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela was always the wise Madiba and only seemed like an ordinary human in a few scenes, when his estrangement from his family is mentioned. Similarly, Matt Damon as the national rugby captain seems to just shuffle along - there's never any insight into his words or actions.

To me, the most compelling characters weren't the rugby team or the history-making President; the motley crew that made up Mandela's security detail were actually the most fascinating. Rugby was irrelevant to their transition from old guard to integrated unit, from pre-apartheid suspicions of each other to trusting each other as a cohort protecting the President. That was the story I was looking for in this movie, with rugby as the metaphor. Turns out, it didn't really need rugby to tell it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

No. 5

Having finished both of the Rhys Bowen mystery series I loved, I can now only wait for new books to come out. So I was ecstatic when, instead of reminding me I had overdue fines, the library notified me that Naughty in Nice was the fifth and newest book in the Lady Georgiana series.

Nice, as in the city in France. (I do love a good pun.)

Coco Chanel, a stolen royal necklace, and fabulous parties and yachts are all part of the plot. All of society are vacationing in Nice, where the Queen sends Georgie to discreetly steal back her favorite snuffbox from a rich kleptomaniac.

It was a good, fun, light read (as much as murder mysteries can be), especially after the heavy slavery double-whammy of March and Kindred.

It's also a bit fascinating to read the Lady Georgiana series at the same time as I'm reading the Maisie Dobbs series: both take place in the early 1930s, both heroines have one Cockney relative and one partying best friend, and both settings emphasize the Depression. But Georgie's world is all glamour and glitz and trying to hold on to the Roaring Twenties; Maisie's world is still emerging from the gray, silent horrors of the Great War. It's a sobering difference indeed.

As harsh as truth

Because I rifled through Mi Cunado's book collection while in Michigan, I ordered March from the library when I got home. Told from the point of view of the father in Little Women during his time away during the Civil War, it was an intriguing tale of idealism clashing with reality.

The protagonist was an incredibly naive abolitionist minister; for much of the book, he worked in Union-held territory teaching slaves how to read. His life story flashes back to his strong abolitionist past, his friendships with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Brown. And as the eager Northern do-gooder encounters the real-world scenarios of his ideals, the reader too has to witness the horrors of both slavery and war.

I appreciated how Geraldine Brooks added more flair to snippets from Little Women. In this alternate telling, the March family were secretly all involved in the Underground Railroad. Marmee's temper - mentioned briefly in Alcott's classic because she tells Jo she learned to master it - takes center stage in many of the chapters (actually, it was a little scary how Marmee's temper in March reminded me of mine).

When I finished the book, I knew there was more to the story of the March family - and more to the story of the war, which would drag on for four more years. In Little Women, the characters on the home front are so removed and sheltered from the war that the story could be feasibly occur out of that historical context; for readers raised on Louisa May Alcott, March finally makes a tangible connection to it.

Back when I was read all of Connie Willis' books because she was a female sci-fi writer, I intended to also read Octavia Butler. I finally got around to reading Kindred, and by a total coincidence it had much the same subject matter as March.

An African-American woman in 1976 is repeatedly "called" back to the antebellum South by one of her ancestors, a slave owner. Without knowing when she'll go back and forth between time periods, she becomes more paranoid in the modern world as her encounters in the 19th century become increasingly violent. What starts as meeting her ancestor when he was a small child slowly turns into watching him learn cruelty and how to be the master of a plantation. Kindred is incredibly well-written; I had to read it in one sitting, into the wee hours of the morning, because I couldn't put it down.

The book ends so disturbingly and violently. With no neat resolution, the reader is left to wonder about the symbolism: is the America celebrating its bicentennial trying to reconcile with its past? Is the woman called back specifically because she's in an interracial marriage in the 1970s? The whole story is a jumble of emotions, but in ways that are more thought-provoking than merely shock-inducing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A pulse in the eternal mind

I love the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Now that I'm halfway through it, I'm starting to get sad that it will end soon.

Messenger of Truth takes our psychologist/detective heroine into the world of art, where she is commissioned to determine whether an artist's tragic death was accidental or connected to any of the controversial scenes he painted.

Parts of An Incomplete Revenge reminded me of "The Lottery" - the book takes Maisie to Kent to uncover the thoroughly dark tale of what one small, xenophobic town does during the War in the aftermath of a Zeppelin raid, as well as in the subsequent ten years during annual hop-picking season when Gypsies and Londoners camp in fields to help with the harvest. (It also reminded me that I've been meaning to read a comprehensive history of the Roma for a long time now.)

In these two books, the main character starts to shed her wartime burdens - a rift with her mentor forces her to be more independent; her wartime love, brain-dead for a decade, finally passes away, so she can no longer carry a torch for him; she starts to have hobbies that bring brightness and color into her life. And readers get to see Britain change with Maisie: slowly, book by book, telephones and electricity reach more homes; cars replace horses and carriages; rigid class distinctions fade.

Of course, the tragedy is that readers know that another war is looming 8 years on the horizon.


Between all the reading I've been able to do lately, I also ran two 5K races within 10 days of each other, with a soccer playoff game sandwiched in between.

Aside from the Run for Your Rights, the Ann Arbor Turkey Trot is the only race I've run more than once - and I don't even live in Michigan! I like this new tradition, though I have no idea if Mi Hermana and the kiddos will even be in A2 next year for me to continue it; if Mi Cuñado finishes his dissertation and gets a teaching job elsewhere, they might move.

Mi Hermana the former cross-country runner bluntly informed me that what I've been counting as my watch time was actually my gun time, so I haven't been as slow as I thought. To keep it straight, I made a spreadsheet of all the races I've run in, with both times listed (thanks to Google caching, most records were still online). Fun spreadsheet-making! It was the closest to work that I got over the holidays.

When I returned home after a lovely Thanksgiving holiday meeting my newborn niece, my soccer team's had a playoff game, where I blocked a cannonball kick at point-blank range.
The bruise on my inner left thigh was a big as a soccer ball and shaped like one, too. (I thought it was really bad ass, and took a ton of pictures to show off my war wounds to La Madre, who told me they made me look like I'd been abused. Since the bruise hasn't gone away yet -- 9 days later -- I'm now paranoid about stares in the locker room at the gym.)

Then, with the fresh huge bruise, I ran the Girls on the Run 5K. Another fun race! I've realized I enjoy the family-friendly races where competition isn't the focus on the event.

When I entered my gun time and watch time on my newly-created spreadsheet, I realized I also seem to gravitate toward races that focus on women and girls or on women's rights issues (NARAL, BARCC, Iron Girl, Girls on the Run).


Friday, December 02, 2011

O' both your houses

Because I couldn't stop talking about how wonderful Middlesex was, my bro-in-law said, "I have a few other Pulitzer Prize-winning books too, if you want to read those."

So I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the title of which naturally reminded me of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" ... in fact, it was strangely similar enough to the Hemingway short story, and yet different enough that I liked it.

The book moves back and forth between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, between three generations enduring their own hardships, and from the Trujillo dictatorship to teen angst. From the opening lines, the reader knows it's not an entirely happy tale: the idea of a family curse is introduced and reiterated throughout. References to "the final days" and "the end" are repeatedly mentioned, so it's pretty obvious that the characters are ill-fated. Themes of family, sex, and education each alternate as both nurturing and oppressive.

Most of the book drops Spanish phrases or Dominican slang, with no translation. There are footnotes for historical references. The narrator is hilariously snide and irreverent, relating the stories with a mix of multinational street slang. Each portrait of the cursed family is depicted with and bittersweet emotion. The cultural references are brilliantly and intricately mixed: everything from Dominican slang to comic book geekdom to 80s films to sci-fi lore. Through it all, the reader really did become part of the binational, bicultural, class-straddling, racially-polarized world of the main characters.

Then, on the plane ride back home, I realized I had one more library book to read. I no longer remember who recommended it to me, but 2030 was utter crap. The characters lacked depth, the plot read like a B-rated Hollywood movie, and the science, politics, and economics described (hell, the entire book) could have been written by a 12-year-old.

In a nutshell: the cure for cancer leads to prolonged lifespans in the U.S. Young people start to hate old people to the point that there are suicide bombs at AARP headquarters. When a mega-earthquake wipes out the city of Los Angeles, the government can't afford to rebuild because it's been bankrupted by Medicare. So the Chinese offer to rebuild the city for half of the net revenue produced forever after.

I'm not kidding. It was that bad. It was painful to read on two main levels: as a history major and as a politico-wonk. I had to suspend all knowledge of the political process, election campaigns, community organizing, infrastructure, and geology, among many other things.

But I was bored on a plane for 5 hours with nothing else to do. If I hadn't been trapped in the air sans sudoku or crossword, I would never have read the whole thing. Because in the back of my mind the entire time, I kept thinking that the book was written a few years too late to be relevant: #OccupyWallStreet has shown that young people can protest unfair policies in smart and nonviolent ways, we've been post-HCR for a while now, and the separate ideas of a living will and death with dignity were flashes in the news cycle pan during the Bush Administration. 2030 tried too hard to be a social commentary; in the end, it's too shallow to spark any kind of meaningful conversation.

Not a book to read after finishing a well-written, intelligent novel that won a Pulitzer.

But at least I have more books from the library to help me erase the memories of this one...