Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oh, lady be good

I might be too tired of the wise-cracking, chain-smoking, disillusioned female private eye on the brink of World War II. Either that, or Kansas City just isn't a sexy enough locale for me to love a mystery series set in it.

One O'Clock Jump was a little too vague with some of the characters' backgrounds, and I didn't find the plot all that engaging. The switchblade-carrying heroine certainly has an interesting past, including a stint in juvenile detention. Some of the gaps were filled in in the sequel, though. Sweet and Lowdown was the better of the two - it also had better historical tie-ins (including Wendell Willkie, the Negro Leagues, and Silver Legion).

Though I can't say I loved the books, I didn't entirely dislike them, either. They provided decent enough entertainment that made up for my cancelled-due-to-avalanche-danger snowshoeing plans.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Carpe vitam

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
     The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly - and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Whether or not Edward FitzGerald's translation is faithful to Omar Khayyam's original quatrain, this one has always been my favorite. I first read it in high school, and it's still the one that speaks to me the most whenever I re-read stanzas. Maybe it's just part of my obsession with Time and clocks and Prufrock and "Acquainted With the Night". But this verse has always conveyed going beyond a mere "Carpe diem!" to me.

As I'm starting new rounds of treatment, seizing one day at a time seems like the obvious solution to seemingly insurmountable challenges. But taking a step back, 2012 has been completely amazing so far because I've consciously staked out territory for my own. Week Seven was a horrible, time-warped glitch. But I can fight back and reclaim the rest of the year.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Two of Spades

February is perfect for reading noir. Or so it normally is, with the Northwest's perpetually gray and soggy weather. This February, however, has been gorgeous. So it's been hard to stay indoors and read gray detective tales.

City of Dragons takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1940, and the heroine is a cynical, hardened private investor, former escort, and nurse who lost the love of her life in the Spanish Civil War. She has friends in the press, but the police dislike (even try to frame) her. She doesn't get along with her father, and grew up without a mother. She gets beat up badly by gangsters in her attempt to solve several murders that involve drugs, human trafficking, and embezzlement.

This Dame for Hire is set in New York in 1943, and the heroine is a wise-cracking assistant to a private investigator who takes over his business when he goes off to war. She has friends on the police force, and her best friend is a psychic who sometimes helps with her cases. She doesn't get along with her father, and grew up without a mother. She gets beat up by a suspect in her attempt to solve several murders that involve actors, academia, and abortions.

Because I read them back-to-back, it's a little hard to see any major differences. I appreciated the gritty portrait of San Francisco in Dragons; I appreciated the consistency of slang in Dame ("ya" for "you" everywhere, "g" dropped from "ing", etc). I didn't really love either book, and neither was very riveting, but they did make for decent late-night reading on ridiculously warm February nights.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ka mate! Ka ora!

A few days ago I went to see the Seattle Art Museum's newest exhibit, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise. I haven't studied much of Gauguin, except for the fact that he's a Post-Impressionist, so I was looking forward to seeing his work. The connection to the South Pacific was also appealing.

The really interesting aspect was that Marquesan and Maori art was displayed alongside Gauguin's - partly to give greater background into what influenced his work, and to give context for the cultures he encountered and painted (and sketched and wood-carved).

The "noble savage" idea definitely pervaded much of his work from Tahiti: Gauguin went in search of a mythical paradise that had already been plundered by the time he arrived and was probably never as idyllic as he projected it to be.

The connection to New Zealand was also very timely: Mi Madre just flew there to visit the nieces and neffy. A colleague of hers, who helps with community tax workshops, stopped by before she left and mentioned that a lot of Islanders try to claim other people's children as dependents on their tax deductions because culturally everybody shares responsibility for raising kids. So seeing Gauguin's "Tehamana Has Two Mothers" had a bit more personal meaning for me.

The colors are so vivid and gorgeous in almost all of Gauguin's paintings. I could practically feel myself amid tropical flowers and sun and heat.

By being displayed right next to Marquesan war club (those things are HUGE!) and intricate Maori carvings, Gauguin's work gained perspective and far more cultural and historical context than most paintings I've ever seen in art museums. I really appreciated that added depth!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Bear in mind

Summer of the Bear addresses how one family copes with the death of a loved one. A diplomat in Bonn falls to his death from the top of a building; his widow, two teenage daughters, and developmentally challenged son spend their typical summer vacation at the family home in the Outer Hebrides, trying to come to terms with the mystery surrounding his demise. He helped smuggle someone out of East Germany, he was suspected of being a double agent, he helped fabricate reports. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered?

Bella Pollen switches points-of-view between each of the characters, and does a fantastic job of capturing the growing pains of the children and the individual grief of each family member. The unexpected twist at the end brings peace to the reader as well as the family.

Through it all, an escaped grizzly bear roams the Scottish island, watching over the family. Could he be their father, sort-of reincarnated? It's the height of the Cold War; does the bear represent the threat of Russia, as the Ministry of Defence makes known its intention to mar the pastoral Hebridean community by building a military installation? Each character, including the bear, is so captivating and believable. And the narrative flow well: each family member has a piece of the puzzle, each has flashbacks that provide insight as the story progresses.

The book also draws from real life: Hercules the Grizzly really did escape and spend a month in the wild in the Hebrides. Pollen does a masterful job of weaving together elements of everyday life amid changing societies into a captivating tale.

Also, I've added another place to visit to my bucket list: the Outer Hebrides.