Sunday, February 23, 2014

Such dulcet and harmonious breath

If you love words, read Julia Stuart.

I forget how The Pigeon Pie Mystery came to my attention, but it was such a delightfully quirky character assembly, with such enchanting word melodies (for lack of a better phrase), that I had to read two more Julia Stuart novels.

It isn't a mystery in the tradition whodunit sense. The daughter of a disgraced Indian Maharajah is given "grace-and-favor" (i.e., free) residence by Queen Victoria to live in Hampton Court Palace. Her fellow residents are an eclectic assortment of down-and-out oddballs from formerly elevated positions in society, victims of Fortune's furious fickle wheel. There's the young doctor, who tries too hard to fix his hair into the latest American fashion and who fights his nemesis the naturopath for the health and patronage of his patients. There are the catty but sisterly ladies living at the Palace, who vie both for each other's rooms and the honor of being the most eccentric: dove-loving, ridiculous hat-wearing, or fern-obsessed. And lastly, there is the universally despised retired Major-General, who dies of arsenic poisoning from a pigeon pie our heroine's maid cooks.

The characters are so deftly and wittily crafted, it was hard to put down. And then Stuart did it again and again in the next two books I read.

The Matchmaker of Perigord is Stuart's debut novel and my favorite of her three Stuart books. In stark contrast to the other two books of hers I read, which are so... whimsical and British, Perigord is so... whimsical and French.

The lone barber in a small village decides to become the town matchmaker, after coming to terms with the fact that the town's population is aging and balding. But the story is not just about his matchmaking efforts: it's about the tiny community's survival in the face of modernity, rare mini-tornadoes, and the man from the Census bureau. And of course, it's about food and the tiny but pride-challenging preferences for food preparation: a decades-old feud over the proper way to make a cassoulet, an ongoing fishing trip picnic rivalry between childhood friends, how to eat quickly but with some dignity while on a blind date with someone you despise. All the villagers have unspoken family histories or unrequited loves or unresolved existential dilemmas -- including the matchmaker, whose childhood crush moves back to the village to buy its old, decrepit castle.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... as the third of Stuart's books that I read demonstrates.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is the tale of a middle-aged Beefeater and his wife, who live in the Tower of London and are still getting over the tragic death of their young son when the Beefeater is tasked with reinstating and overseeing the Tower menagerie.

For starters, the title uses the Oxford comma, so I was immediately a fan. But like the previous Stuart books, the characters are so magically crafted that I couldn't stop reading. The quirks are both heart-rending and hilarious: the Beefeater who tries to collect different kinds of rain, the vicar who secretly writes award-winning erotic fiction, the ladies of the Underground Lost and Found who never waiver in their detective work to find the owners of items left on the Tube.

The three books are witty and capricious, to be sure. But because they focus on the interplay of love and loss, tradition and transformation, they give a timeless and bittersweet quality to seemingly dreary daily routines.

I wouldn't say these books are among my favorites, but they were so thoroughly enjoyable and so beautifully written that I highly recommend them.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A swashing and a martial

Because more than a few people suggested it to me, I finally read Wild. It was funny. It was predictable, even though as one person's journey to find herself it was unique: nature retreat stories all have a similar undercurrent, and this one was no different.

What I did like about it was the fact that it was a memoir of a woman who took off on her own, for her own reasons, to prove something to herself and no one else. (I like it because I'm currently plotting my own hiking trips in Wales, but I plan to try and drag The Planning Committee if I can.)

What I can't believe is that she did it with basically no hiking experience or basic gear knowledge. It's both incredibly amazing and incredibly stupid, because people die every year on shorter, more basic hikes for doing the same thing. Maybe that's part of the life lesson, though: that luck plays a bigger role in our ups and downs than we like to admit.

The chapters where she first leaves her motel at the starting point had me rolling with laughter: going to extreme acrobatic lengths to turtle yourself into your super-heavy, really big hiking pack? Been there! I totally understood the small descriptions of trail life for beginners. Constantly being one of the only women on the trail (see also: sports team, online communications staff)? Been there! Totally understand both the fury at the belittling comments and the internal pride of trusting your own skills and sticking through it.

I didn't really get a full sense of Cheryl Strayed as a person, though: just as a reflection of events that happen to her, rather than her mental (and, one can infer, quasi-spiritual) journey. It's a little problematic, because if her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail is supposed to be a balm for her wounded life, it would have been better to have greater insight into her psyche at the start of it. She does a great job of painting her pre-PCT life as an overgriefed, oversexed, and overdrugged whirlwind - beginning with the sudden death of her mother from cancer, and continuing on to her string of affairs that eventually lead to her divorce. But what kept bugging me was the lack of insight into the very character and being she supposedly lost in this downward spiral.

In a way, Wild reminded me of The Wanderer, the Sharon Creech young adult story about a girl who sails with her male cousins and uncles across the Atlantic in a sailboat.

As with Strayed's memoir, it didn't quite capture the personality of the protagonist - and as a result, couldn't entire relate or even like her. Sophie, the girl, is braver and smarter than the boys in some respects, and the history of her adoption is told impassively. Sophie herself seems detached from events in her own life before the sailing trip. And though half the book is told in first person, the reader doesn't quite understand why she keeps lying to her family about stories their grandfather in England never told her.

In both cases, I closed the book jacket disappointed, wanting to be able to see the story through the figurative eyes of the female characters themselves. But I really just saw it from the vantage point of a third person. Though I really, really appreciate these stories about females finding identity in a male-dominated arena, in the end sometimes they end up masking the heroine's true voice even more. It can be annoying.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Mingle with the old time throng

I read the last of the Gaslight mysteries a few months ago, in the throes of pre-election madness.

Like the preceding dozen books in the series, the last three were quick and entertaining reads. Our Knickerbock-turned-midwife heroine sees the rift between her and her parents begin to heal, and her mother even starts to help her solve mysteries. The mysterious parentage of the "orphan" she adopted is finally resolved in Murder in Chelsea... as is the annoyingly slow-burning romance between her and the police detective (which, 19th-century social conventions be damned, drags on WAY too long). Unlike many of the past books, which take place in immigrant tenements or working class areas of Manhattan, these last three focus on the upper-middle class and ultra-wealthy sections of New York society, and crimes its denizens pay to cover up.

One thoroughly enjoyable thing about this mystery series is referencing a map of Manhattan for each title, to try and imagine the invisible socioeconomic borders over a century ago.

Now patiently waiting for the 16th book to come out this spring...