Saturday, October 27, 2012

No bigger than an agate stone

While waiting for the next Daisy Dalrymple books to arrive from the library and paperbackswap, I managed to find another great mystery series! (Yay, Amazon suggestions.)

Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series features Sarah Brandt, a widowed midwife in late-19th century New York City.

What I like about the storyline is the development of Sarah's friendship with an enigmatic police detective. In the first book, the police sergeant is gruff and suspicious of Sarah, who left her privileged background when she married a doctor years before. By the end of the book, when they've reluctantly worked together to solve the murder of a girl in a boarding house, the reader learns that Sgt. Malloy has a "feeble-minded", disfigured toddler son. By the end of the second book, they've teamed up again to solve a series of murders of working-class girls who exchange their favors for baubles. But even more interestingly, we discover that the supposedly "feeble-minded" son is actually deaf and that his club foot is operable. In Book 3, Malloy takes Sarah's advice and seeks the advice of doctors and schools for the deaf to see what options are available for his son (oh, and they solve the murder of a quack doctor in the process).

I think I'm fixating on the deaf and disabled toddler son (who is definitely a minor, minor -- haha-- character in the books) because I've been Skyping my nieces and neffies a lot lately, what with a new nephew and starting kindergarten and preschool and all. But whatevs, every reader brings their own personal biases to a series. I happen to like this one... and not because mi dos hermanas both had midwives for their last deliveries, either. Or 'k, maybe that makes me more partial to Sarah as the main character. As the holidays near, I've been poring over Snapfish photos of all the wee ones and keep thinking that they grow up so damn fast!

Anyways, unlike the Daisy Dalrymple series, which is very much in the vein of Dame Christie (where the mysteries are solved in large rooms with relatively little cliffhanger drama at the end), the Gaslight series features the cases being solved in extremely dramatic ways. Perhaps this is the American tradition in the genre? At any rate, the series is thoroughly enjoyable; and it serves its purpose as a method of escapism during this rainy GOTV season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Through a glass darkly

I read Wicked years ago during a cold, gray New England winter. And as part of a fundraiser for Approve R 74, I finally saw the Broadway musical... on a cold, gray, unusually torrential Seattle autumn evening.

The book intrigued me with its nuanced stories of power and oppression in Oz. It was a dark tale, but it was spun with great skill and creativity.

A musical, however, must have a happy ending -- that's what all the song-and-dance cheesiness is about. And it did, in fact, so drastically deviate from the book that it's better to think of them as different stories altogether.

Unlike the book, the heart of the play is the friendship between Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch). The vocal talents of the two main characters are amazing. (I had "Defying Gravity," which I've only ever heard on Glee, stuck in my head the entire day before seeing the show.) Most of the story takes place during their time at boarding school. And the musical only touches tangentially on issues like the Wizard's oppression of the Animals and the slavery of the Munchkins. The main theme of the play is seeing the alternate views in everything -- in official histories, in standards of beauty.

I've always loved musicals, and this was no exception.

Sacre Bleu had a similar "alternate history" take, though in no other way can it be compared to Wicked. Like he did with Fool, Christopher Moore tells a story from a different perspective in Sacre Bleu. 

From Vincent Van Gogh's death to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's debauchery, Moore spins a weird but slightly interesting story about Art, artists, love, and inspiration. In increasingly kooky plot twists, Moore's story revolves around the color blue,  the idea from the Renaissance that the "sacred blue" was reserved only for depicting the Virgin Mary's cloak, and the old-fashioned sexist saying that "All women are the same."

Like Fool, I liked the first half, when everything was still a mystery. I enjoyed the mystique of art and the blue and the source of an artist's genius. By the middle of the book, when it became apparent that an immortal pimp and his companion Muse, though a bizarre regeneration ritual, are supposed to be the source of all artistic brilliance,  I ceased caring about the characters themselves and just wanted the damn book to finish.  Like Fool, there was too much casual bonking for me to take it seriously. I know seriousness is definitely never the point of any of Moore's books (and I've liked some of his campier books in the past), but I was disappointed with the last half of this one too.

One book I couldn't force myself to finish, however, was The Marriage Plot. I couldn't put down Jeffrey Eugenides' absolutely riveting, Pulitzer-winning Middlesex. And I liked The Virgin Suicides. But his latest book was kind of a disappointment.

Maybe because it's about two recent college grads trying to get over university crushes, spread their wings, and find themselves. But I just couldn't relate to it. It seemed like a book version of St. Elmo's Fire, which I also didn't love.  I got about halfway through before I realized I didn't care if the two main characters ended up together or not, or how much philosophizing they did on their journey to discover whether or not they should end up together.

When it comes down to it, I have little patience for stories about post-college angst. I think I'm just getting too old, and the kids need to get off my lawn!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A still and quiet conscience

I absolutely loved Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. So naturally I ran out and reserved most of her books from the library, never imagining they would all arrive at once.

Patron Saint of Liars was equally as gripping as Bel Canto; I couldn't put it down, and read it in one sitting on a windy autumn night. The story spans a century: a small Tennessee town with a "miracle" spring, a runaway wife from California who drives across the country to a Catholic home for unwed pregnant girls, a nun who can eerily predict the future.

As the title implies, the lies characters tell themselves, strangers, and their loved ones form the foundation of the community at the girls home. The lies about why they are pregnant, who the fathers are, whether or not they will keep their babies, whether or not they are Catholic, create a solid --if temporary-- universe. Even the lies of tangential characters shape the realities of the central ones.

It's a beautifully written story about hidden pasts and how people build a comfortable reality around partial truths. My only small quibble with the book is that the central character, Rose, is still a mystery by the end. We never get to delve more deeply into her psyche, and it's barely known why she always runs away. In the end, it doesn't matter; since the reader is left with the same feeling of abandonment and confusion that the characters have already normalized.

Because I hadn't quite gotten my Ann Patchett fix, I read What Now?, a commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater.

With few exceptions, I tend to forget commencement speeches and remember only a line or two at best. Graduation keynotes are written for an audience that will not be able to full appreciate the words for years, if not decades -- and by then, they will barely remember most of it. Commencement sermons (because that's what they are) resonate more with the parents, family, and alumni more than with the cap-and-gown- clad honorees themselves.

As speeches go, it was decent. But I definitely prefer Patchett's fiction.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The playground round

When I ran out and ordered every Sharon Creech book from the library, I thought her audience is usually the "young adult" crowd. However, three of the books that arrived are clearly intended for the elementary school crowd.  That's cool, though. I consider it research for possible gifts for the nieces and neffies.

Fishing in the Air reminded me of my nephew (who I repeatedly found "fishing" in my bathroom sink last summer when he visited). In the story, a little boy goes fishing with his father. I was a little bored (because there's really not much else), but there's some good, colorful imagery for kids. Maybe the neffy would like it for Christmas.

I couldn't stop thinking about all the immediate legal challenges to the scenario in A Fine, Fine School, so that might have clouded my possible enjoyment of the book. Basically, a principal decides that there will be school all year round, and on weekends and holidays. Nobody protests until they realize they are also learning while at home. Creech gets bonus points for mentioning Ramadan, but I don't think I'll be buying this one for my eldest niece, who just started kindergarten and loves it.

Lastly, Pleasing the Ghost was a cute but bittersweet story about a boy who is visited by ghosts. He really wants the ghost of his father to visit, but he gets his deceased uncle instead. Said uncle had had a stroke while still living, and so his stroke-affected speech make for endearing yet quasi-disturbing conversations with the boy. This would be a good book for a child who has recently lost an adult in their life... except for the possible awkward theological issues that might arise (like why spirits in the next life still have to live with the strokes they had during their time on earth).  This book is a good example, though, of why I love Creech as a children's author: she normalizes intergenerational interaction and doesn't shy away from themes like illness, death, and loss.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Some sweet oblivious antidote

The Leftovers started out as fascinating, then grew quickly (if paradoxically) boring and horrifying. The premise reminded me a bit of The Road: one day, millions of people around the world simply vanish.  Religion is thrown into question. (Was it Rapture? Why did non-Christians vanish, then?) A cult of the Disappeared emerges, as well as the myriad ways "survivors" cope with their guilt for not disappearing and their grief for loved ones who did.

Like The Road (possibly the most depressing book ever), the unexplained occurrence remains unexplained at the end of the book. The focus is more on how one town (and one family in particular) tries to get on with its life while incorporating the disappearances and the changes they have brought into its very identity.

As a snapshot of what individuals might do in the face of traumatic change and ideological upheaval, the book is rather distressing. (The mother joins  one cult, the son another, and the daughter is led astray by the stereotypical "bad crowd"of teenagers. The father --or should it be the Father?-- is the mayor of the town and tries to maintain some semblance of normality.) Curiosity slowly turns to insanity and faith evolves into fanaticism as characters join cults that have replaced traditional religion. (It's ironic, then, that the book ends with the promise of a baby who will save the world.... or maybe just the town and the sanity of a few people in it.) When you take a step back from the book, it's kind of a hilarious alternate universe; but up close, it's a creepy, uneasy scenario.

Treasure Island!!! also ran the gamut from hilarious to uncomfortable in the way it also dealt with living on the edge of sanity and reality. The reader watches as the main character, a young twentysomething, reads Treasure Island and is so inspired by the tale that she draws her own life's map based on what she interprets to be its core values: Boldness! Resolution! Independence! and Horn-Blowing!

She convinces her boyfriend to let her move in, she steals from her employer to buy a parrot, she refuses to see her therapist, she becomes obsessed with reacquainting herself with a childhood friend, she breaks up with her boyfriend and moves back in with her parents, she starts to spy on her sister... It's an awful, awkward downward spiral to watch. And all the while, she tries to use Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure story as a Bible of sorts to guide her through life... until her ex, her family, and her friends hold an intervention because the her obsession with the book is more than a little unnatural.

It's hard to love the protagonist, since it's hard to see past her selfish and self-destructive veneer. But the farce of her specific situation is still at times hilarious, just like The Leftovers had a note of delirium beneath the melancholy and uncertainty.

The patients are indeed ministering to themselves.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Ab ovo usque ad mala

I'm still fascinated by the huge range of children's author Sharon Creech. Half of her books are brilliant, timeless snapshots of the complicated family and social dynamics that children learn to navigate. And the other half are disappointments.

Heartbeat was in the vein of two of her other brilliant poetry books (Love That Dog and Hate That Cat), and it's also told in verse. A tween girl who loves running has a school assignment to draw the same apple every day. The metaphor is beautiful: as her best friend becomes moody and obsessed with winning races and her mother gives birth to a new sibling and her grandfather, the girl   The world changes but remains the same and regenerates and regrows and is reborn. Loved this short book.

Ruby Holler, however, was similar to The Castle Corona and The Unfinished Angel in that it projected a pseudo-fairy tale quality in an over-stylized setting. Two orphans ("trouble twins") are adopted for a summer by an older couple who want to take separate trips but not alone.  Like most of Creech's books, it too had an intergenerational aspect to it, but  it was over-simplified for me to find compelling and interesting. It could have been deeper: the parallel aspects of the twins' inseparable nature and the old couple's shared life could have been a richer part of the story. But instead, the antics of a bumbling, corrupt orphanage director were developed  at the cost of the better story - that of the adolescents and retirees finding common ground and building trust.

Of course, I'm still going to read all of Sharon Creech's books! The four that I've absolutely loved and think are beautiful pieces of poetry far outweigh the impact of the ones that seem half-assed in their portraits of human interactions.