The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

AssassinationIt annoys me when I don’t like something but don’t know why. In the case of this short story collection by Hillary Mantel, I can’t come up with much of anything to complain about, but I also don’t have much to praise. I suppose that’s what people mean when they say a book was a meh read.

But meh doesn’t seem quite right. I liked some of the stories quite a bit. In fact, I liked some of them enough that I wanted more. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the short story from wasn’t enough for these stories, so they felt incomplete, like there was more story to tell.

That wasn’t the case with the opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” which involves an English woman in Saudi Arabia entertaining an unwanted guest again and again. It plays with expectations of gender and culture and how those expectations make it difficult to say what we really want to say.

The antepenultimate story “The Heart Fails Without Warning” is another nearly complete gem. In it, a girl watches her older sister starving herself to death as her family tries to decide what to do. In the story, anorexia is about disappearing, wasting away, and becoming less than human, dying. Another image that turns up shows women on leashes. The sisters are unsettled by this image, yet it seems related to what the older sister is doing to herself. Is she trying to waste away to avoid being used? Or does she feel a kinship with the leashed woman, both of them reigning in their bodies? There’s enough in the story to dig into, and the elision of plot near the end left me wondering if she got what she wanted.

The title story has gotten a lot of attention for its sensationalistic premise, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t find much meat there. A woman is tricked into letting an assassin into her flat, which is perfectly positioned to get a clear view of Margaret Thatcher as she leaves the hospital after an eye surgery. The woman converses with the assassin and finds herself sympathizing with him and even helping him. There’s not much more to it than that. There’s no massive drama, just the internal murmurings of the narrator trying to figure herself out as she deals with the situation. Maybe that’s the point; that the big choices don’t always involve a big noise. I don’t know. The story just felt like not much to me.

Many of the stories featured people learning something or seeing something they shouldn’t (or don’t want to). A daughter knows about her father’s affair, a wife happens upon her husband kissing another woman, a man learns something he didn’t anticipate about his coworkers, a couple witness a crime. One of them has vampires, but I’m apparently not clever enough to have figured that out, so maybe I’m the problem when it comes to this book. Mantel’s writing at the word and sentence level is excellent, as I’d expect, but I’m given no particular reason to care about these people or their situations. A couple of the stories end in twists that sent pleasant chills down my spine, but until those twists, I found them kind of dull.

I received a copy of this book for review consideration through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 11 Comments

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Pioneer GirlThe well-known and much-beloved Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder began their life as a single-volume autobiography. In the process of seeking a publisher for the autobiography, Wilder’s daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, realized that parts of it might be suitable as a children’s story, and so the books so many of us know and love were born. The autobiography was set aside, used only as raw material for Wilder’s celebrated novels, as well as some novels by Lane.

This year, the original autobiography, as hand-written by Wilder herself, was published for the first time. The interest in the manuscript has overwhelmed the book’s publisher, the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Readers and libraries have had to wait patiently (or not) for second and third printings. And library waiting lists are long. It took a while, but we both ended up getting copies from our libraries at about the same time, so we decided to review it together.

Teresa: The first thing worth noting about this book is that it’s huge. I knew right away I couldn’t carry it around in my purse. It’s about 400 pages, and the dimensions are that of a coffee table book. The introduction and notes by Pamela Smith Hill took up almost as much (perhaps more) space as the autobiography itself. The annotations are presented along with the text, and they are extensive. Often, one page will be accompanied by two pages of notes. It makes for awkward reading, and it took me a while to find a rhythm in which I could take in both the text and the annotations. Eventually, I settled on reading a page, maybe two, and then reading the notes (or most of the notes, anyway).

What did you think of the book’s format?

Jenny: I’m glad you brought that up right away. It’s an uncomfortable book to read, partly because of its size and shape (it’s almost square) and partly because of its weight. It’s not even an easy book to read in bed, let alone to carry around. And while I was glad that the notes were presented alongside the text, so that I didn’t have to flip to the back of the book to read such extensive commentary, I felt it was easy to lose the thread; occasionally I’d find myself reading ahead in the notes, as if they were their own separate work. What would David Foster Wallace have to say?

The annotations fall into a few categories. Smith writes about the history of the towns the Ingalls family lived in or moved to; she writes about the entire life history (if available) of friends, family, classmates, acquaintances, and townspeople of the Ingalls family; she writes about social and cultural realities of the era; she writes about flora and fauna of the regions; she writes (less) about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing process, including her relationship with her daughter. I have read the Little House books many, many times. I thought it was interesting to compare the autobiography to the novels. It was also very interesting to read some of those notes, and less interesting to read others. What about you — what did you find most compelling?

Teresa: I was most interested in the notes about the process. I’ve read articles suggesting that Rose Wilder Lane was in essence a ghost writer on the books, but it sounded much more collaborative than that. References to their correspondence make it clear that although Lane was heavily involved, Wilder was making the decisions. One area that really stood out to me involved the omission of several people who lived with and helped the Ingalls family. I’ve read that these omissions were probably Lane’s attempt to impose her Libertarian belief in the power of the individual on the text, but the notes indicate that Wilder had to convince Lane to omit them. All the notes explaining the differences between the autobiography and the novels interested me, especially when Hill could point to discussions about the change in Wilder or Lane’s journals and letters.

I also liked getting some expanded historical context and learning more about some of the people who appear in the book. At times, those notes about minor characters get tedious, especially when there’s little more than a census record that may or may not be about that person. After a while, I got pretty adept at figuring out which notes didn’t offer much that I wanted and just skimming those.

Jenny: Yes, it was the same for me. I admit that I also skimmed most of the Wikipedia-like notes that gave definitions of buffalo grass and the gray wolf.

Like you, I appreciated seeing some of the way the book was shaped, between Lane’s contributions and Wilder’s. The difference between the novels, with their clear narrative arc of a resilient, independent family always heading West no matter the obstacles, and the autobiography, with its much more meandering path, was one of the most engaging things for me. I was particularly interested, for instance, in the Ingalls family’s time in Burr Oak, Iowa — one of the moments when they’d had to go back east and depend on family for a while. But many individual moments in the autobiography are exactly as they are in the novel, including (Amateur Reader, take note!) the strange and memorable moment when Laura sees a papoose with its bright, shining black eyes and asks her father to “get it” for her. I enjoyed watching Wilder grow as a writer right in front of my eyes.

Teresa: A lot of the time, the autobiography felt like an outline for the much better work that was to come. Moments that are one or two sentences turn into full chapters. It’s almost like putting her life to paper in this brief form enabled her (and her daughter) to see what she had and build on it. I’d much rather read the novels, and I doubt that the autobiography would have stood the test of time had it been published as initially planned. It lacked that strong narrative that you mention and the small details of day-to-day life that make the Little House books such a joy to read. But as a long-time Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, I loved getting this look at the story behind the story.

Posted in History, Memoir, Nonfiction | 13 Comments

Suffragette: My Own Story

suffragette_newEmmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. The group had a single focus: Votes for Women. And they were willing to do whatever they had to to get that vote. They spoke up against those who professed to be political allies if they would not take action for women’s suffrage. They spoke out at political gatherings and sessions of Parliament. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes. When released to recover, they resisted re-arrest while continuing their public protests. They broke windows and set fires. They were a subject of controversy then, and some perhaps would question their methods even today.

Pankhurst wrote this autobiography in 1914, during a time when the women of the WSPU had put their work on pause to concentrate on the war effort. Although she was taking a break from pursuing suffrage, her passion for the cause remained strong. Her belief was that giving women the vote would improve conditions not just for voting women but for all the poor women, children, and elderly who were overlooked by the men in power.

The book functions as a defense of the WSPU’s methods, with Pankhurst explaining at each step why the group members felt they had no other choice but to become more militant and more disruptive. Often, she notes how men taking the same actions for different causes were subject to far less punishment than the women. Men were in charge of deciding what was just and adjudicating accordingly. The result was injustice for women who wanted only what was fair:

Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for men to fight for theirs.

They have decided that for men to remain silently quiescent while tyrannical rulers impose bonds of slavery upon them is cowardly and dishonourable, but that for women to do that same thing is not cowardly and dishonourable, but merely respectable. Well, the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals. If it is right for men to fight for their freedom, and God knows what the human race would be like today if men had not, then it is right for women to fight for their freedom and the freedom of the children they bear. On this declaration of faith the militant women of England rest their case.

When it comes to protest, I have in the past thought that violent protest is rarely productive and best avoided. Better to go through official channels, to protest in times and places set apart for it. To stay within bounds. But those bounds are often set by the very people who are targeted by protestors. At some point, doing things their way means settling for the status quo, letting the powerful stay comfortable. To be heard, the suffragettes had to make the powerful uncomfortable. In their case, peaceful protest wasn’t enough. It took violent action (toward property but not people) to startle people out of their complacency. How effective their actions were is unclear. They raised awareness, but women’s suffrage did not come to the UK until 1918, and even then it was a partial measure. Full suffrage for women was granted in 1928.

I was glad to get this first-person insiders’ perspective, as I’ve read very little about the suffrage movement, either in the U.S. or U.K. I was aware of the hunger strikes, forced feedings, and violence from some of the historical fiction I’ve read, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. There were a few times when I wished I understood the British system a little better so I could more fully comprehend why certain events were and were not to the suffragettes’ advantage. Most of the time, though, that wasn’t a problem. Pankhurst’s focus is on the logic behind the movement and decisions and actions taken. Her passion for the cause shines through, even when the details aren’t clear.

Hesperus Press is releasing a new edition of Pankhurst’s autobiography in connection with the upcoming film Suffragette, in which Meryl Streep is playing Pankhurst. I received a review copy via Netgalley.

Posted in History, Memoir, Nonfiction | 14 Comments

Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week: The Middle Window

goudgeI have been a lover of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels since I encountered them in England at about the age of twelve. I have written reviews of eleven of her novels on my blog, most of them works I’ve read again and again: Linnets and Valerians, the Damerosehay trilogy, Green Dolphin Street, The White Witch, and more. She is one of my most beloved authors, someone I turn to when I want comfort, or inspiration, or refreshment; someone I turn to when I’m tired, or sick, or happy. I’ve given her books to more friends than I can count, and defended her against accusations of writing purple prose or against writing unearned happy endings.

I value so many things about Goudge’s writing. She is a lover of nature, both domestic (her gardens are some of the loveliest things about her books) and wild (oceans, mountains, and fens are some of the untamed things you’ll find when you read.) Her descriptions are fresh and real. Indoors, she’s also a lover of families. She knows how families really work — the way you can love someone deeply and also not be able to stand them another minute — and she is one of the best authors I know about for including every generation, the very old as well as the very young, as real living participants in her stories. She doesn’t leave out the beloved animals of families, either: dogs (usually dogs) and cats and donkeys and birds all have parts to play. This is, of course, really the way it is in our lives, but tell me the last book you read that was like it.

Goudge is a Christian, which comes out in most of her stories, but there are strong pagan overtones in many of her books — The White Witch, for instance — and she has an appreciation for other religions. Her books have a freshness to them, because they are serious and yet loving: yes, the world can wear you down, but there are springs of joy to refresh you even in deep pain. She writes about such themes as discipline, healing, and growth through suffering. But don’t let me make them sound like downers! She is often, also, quietly amusing, quick-witted, and very knowing about the way real people operate. Her novels interweave legend and myth and reflect her spirituality and her deep love of family and England.

middle windowTo participate in this week’s post, I read a novel that is new to me, The Middle Window. It was the second novel she wrote, published in 1934. It’s the story of a young socialite, Judy Cameron, who has an emotional epiphany when she sees a painting of a Scottish glen: that is her place, and she must find it. Improbably, she does find it, and drags her unwilling parents and fiance with her to spend the summer there. The rest is a high-drama story involving, of all things, hints of reincarnation, and Judy’s growing relationship with a handsome laird who is spending his life trying to help the impoverished Highlanders.

This, unfortunately, is the first book by Elizabeth Goudge I have ever wished I hadn’t read. I disliked Judy Cameron heartily. What does she think she is doing, forcing her poor long-suffering parents and perfectly-nice fiance to go through her nervous breakdown with her, in an unheated Scottish house with no plumbing? What on earth does she mean by sobbing around the house and playing melancholy tunes like the wailing of the whaups? If you’re going to drag everyone to a glen in the back of beyond, at least cheer up and play bridge with them, girl! I liked the Scottish butler Angus (of course it had to be Angus) because he said what he thought, but he was a dreadful caricature. And the descriptions of nature — Skye in particular — were wonderful, but why bring in reincarnation? Ugh.

My very strong advice is to read Elizabeth Goudge for what she is: a mid-century author with a tremendous amount to offer: people so real that sometimes you’ll love them and sometimes you’ll want to shake them. I think she’s marvelous. But don’t start with The Middle Window. Try some of my favorites: The Bird in the Tree, or The Scent of Water, or Linnets and Valerians, and see what you’ve been missing.

This post was written so I could participate in Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week over at Emerald City Books! Do go over there and read some of the other posts!

Posted in Fiction | 11 Comments

A Comics Round-Up

With two of my favorite comics series (Fables and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye) coming to an end this year, it seems like a good time to try out some other series. So I’ve been grabbing a few trade paperbacks from the library so see what I think. It’s been a mixed success so far.

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

ratqueens

Hannah, Violet, Dee, Betty

rat-queens-vol-01-releasesThe Rat Queens are a team of four mercenaries who battle trolls and other assorted monsters in between parties and barroom brawls. These four ladies have the potential to be great characters, but in this first volume, they weren’t quite there yet for me. I was impressed at how well they’re drawn. Each on has a distinct body type, and they’re all allowed to be sexy without their attractiveness being their main function.

That said, the story wasn’t exactly my thing. It’s a very action-focused comic so far, and the central mystery was solved by accident (as Betty, the Rat Queen who solves it, admits outright). And I sometimes felt like the story was working too hard at making them brash and bawdy without giving them much of anything else to do. That, however, might a result of this being an exposition-centric volume. With each character, but especially Dee and Violet, we’re given hints of a history that could lead to more depth later on. So far, I’m particularly interested in Dee, the non-believing mystic. Maybe I just appreciated that during the volume’s final party, she retreated to a corner with a book:

This is my party. This book. The book is good. It asks no questions. The book lets me engage it on my own terms.

I hear you, Dee.

Verdict? I’m not subscribing to this yet, but I’ll probably get the second volume from the library when it comes out this May to see if the story goes deeper as it goes on.

Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto

Black WidowUnlike the ladies of Rat Queens, Natasha Romanoff already has an established back-story, so this volume of new Black Widow comics just has to establish the world she’s in and her current motivations. Natasha’s mercenary work is less about earning money for beer and more about making amends. She lives simply—what she earns goes toward supporting her web of safe houses. Her lawyer and manager, Isaiah, is constantly haranguing her about money, but she’s determined to only take on jobs that meet her ethical standards. If she discovers midstream that a job isn’t what she expected, she’ll take down her client and lose the money.

This volume has Natasha going on a series of missions for various clients, as well as taking on a S.H.I.E.L.D. that gets more complicated than expected. As with Hawkeye, my lack of Marvel comics knowledge wasn’t much of a problem with this book, although toward the end, a man who is apparently a villain appears who I think was supposed to be familiar to readers. I had never heard of him, and it looks like he’s a fairly minor villain.

black-widow-1-page-19Although the complications in the final issue are satisfying and have me curious to read the next volume, Natasha’s journey to redemption is more important than the details of her missions. A lot of her inner monologue about being alone and uncertain hits predictable notes, but, as with the Rat Queens, I think there’s potential for more. (And I liked this book a little better overall than I did Rat Queens.)

Also, as with Rat Queens, I have to give a shout out to the art. Phil Noto’s Natasha has a natural and realistic sort of beauty, unlike so many depictions of superwomen in comic-book art. I loved the way she was drawn. She’s so ordinary, not the type of woman who would stand out in a crowd, which is a good quality in a spy. The contrast was especially striking when I looked at the variant covers included at the end of this volume. Most of those emphasized her sex appeal, showing her bursting out of her cat suit or staring wide-eyed with lips parted. (Note to male comic artists: The kind of work Natasha does in her cat suit requires a bra.) I only found one of the variants (by Frank Cho and Justin Posner) even mildly tolerable.

There’s also a pretty good Hawkeye joke toward the end of this book.

Verdict? I want to read more, but I’m not sure I want to spend money on it. It’s not quite that good. A second volume is out, and I’ve requested that the library get it, so we’ll see.

Pretty Deadly Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos

Pretty_Deadly-01This horror western looked terrific, but I was disappointed by it. The story centers on death-faced Ginny, the daughter of Death himself, as she rides through the countryside on a mission of vengeance. I was so hoping for something like Stephen King’s The Gunslinger but with ladies. The art is beautiful, despite being extremely grisly and sometimes lurid.

The story, however, was nearly incomprehensible. It’s rare for me to give up on a trade paperback of a comic—they’re such a small investment of time—but I got tired after a couple of issues of going back and trying to work out the story and having no luck. It’s possible that I’m still too much of a comics newbie to grasp something with such an unconventional style. It’s also possible that the story doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Verdict? Nope.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

AvengersUnlike the other comics mentioned here, this wasn’t part of my search for new comics to subscribe to. I’ve never actually read the original stories before seeing any of the big comic book movies, and I thought that it might be fun to read the Ultron story arc before the new Avengers movie comes out. After reading this, I suspect (hope?) that Joss Whedon and his team mostly just borrowed the title from this story arc. Only a couple of Whedon’s Avengers (Clint and Natasha) have much to do in this book, and a couple are killed off almost from the beginning, so major adjustments would be required to make this story work.

Like Marvel’s Civil War, this series brings together heroes from across the Marvel universe. This time, they’re dealing with the aftermath of the return of the super-robot Ultron, created years earlier by Hank Pym. Several of the remaining Avengers and X-Men converge on Nick Fury’s secret base in Antarctica where they find a time machine that they can use to defeat Ultron in the future. After most of the group has left for the future, Wolverine and Sue Storm head to the past to talk to Hank. Time-travel complications ensue.

I found a lot of the action in this book confusing. Part of this was my lack of familiarity with so many of the characters. I knew enough about enough of them to get by, but I was missing a lot. But with so many characters, not many get more than passing attention. Overall, I found a lot more depth, with just as many characters, in the Civil War arc.

My ignorance about the characters was only one source of confusion, however. The way the panels are positioned makes it difficult at times to know where you’re supposed to read across spreads and when to read a page at a time. I’ve never had that problem with other comics, so I don’t think it’s just me. Also, there was one time jump too many toward the end. I was watching Star Trek: Voyager over the weekend and got to an episode that ends with a time paradox. Captain Janeway tells Ensign Kim that the best way she’s found to deal with time paradox is just not to think about it. Good advice, Captain. Still, I’d like enough coherence that I can at least follow the plot. Oh well.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Can You Forgive Her?

can you forgive herTeresa and I have decided to read all the Palliser novels together — our own little Trollope book club. (That is even more fun than it sounds.) I’ve read all the Barsetshire novels, and Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Pallisers, is less ecclesiastical and more political than those. That’s what I expected. I also expected it to be wise about human nature, and it was. What I didn’t expect — though why didn’t I, now that I’ve read ten of Trollope’s novels? — is that it would be so funny.

Can You Forgive Her? entwines three storylines about the courtship, marriage, and decisions of three strong women: Alice Vavasor, Glencora Palliser, and Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow. Alice begins the novel by jilting her kind, gentle, and completely unexceptionable fiance, John Grey. Lady Glencora, who does not love her stiff-necked but equally perfect husband Plantagenet Palliser, considers leaving him for the utterly disreputable (but beautiful) Burgo Fitzgerald. And Mrs. Greenow, a recent widow, keeps two gentlemen — Mr. Cheesacre (Right but Repulsive), and Captain Bellfield (Wrong but Wromantic) — hilariously in suspense. Can you forgive them? Whom are we to forgive, and for what?

Teresa: I came to this having read The Duke’s Children—the final Palliser novel—way back in college. (I had a stuffed penguin that I dubbed Plantagenet the semester I read it.) So I had a sense of what the relationships among the characters would be like and some idea of the outcomes of at least a few of their dilemmas, but with Trollope a lot of the pleasure is in the little moments along the way. I found Mrs. Greenow and her suitors particularly funny, but I was impressed and a little surprised at how even in that comic story the question of who to marry ends up being treated seriously. Mrs. Greenow, with all her silliness, turns out to be pretty smart about her choices.

One of the things I found interesting is the way Trollope handles the idea of choice. Glencora is in a marriage she didn’t choose, and she’s unhappy. Alice gets the freedom to choose her husband, and she finds it impossible. Did you find any of the storylines particularly compelling—or frustrating?

Jenny: I thought Alice’s story and Lady Glencora’s were equally interesting, partly because Alice sees Glencora as a sort of cautionary tale. What will happen to her, she wonders, if she marries a man she loves and esteems, but who bores her? Will her love die a slow, strangulated death? Trollope is very good at showing Alice’s frustration with John Grey because of his lack of political ambition and the absence of romance in his life, though he may be perfect in other respects. (Though he has more heart than he shows her.)

Glencora’s story becomes what Alice fears for herself. If her love dies, will she become reckless, will she regret her marriage, will she forget what she owes to her husband, herself, and society? Glencora is not a bad woman, but she’s become weak because she is terribly unhappy. And she, too, sees her life bound up with Alice’s in some way. What did you think? Did you have to forgive one of these women?

Teresa: I didn’t feel a need to forgive either woman because I could understand both of their dilemmas. I was especially drawn into Alice’s situation. I found myself frustrated at her inability to decide, but I couldn’t be mad at her about it. It was more that I was frustrated at how difficult it was for her to choose and how so few people seemed to understand her fears, preferring to label her a jilt than to consider how high the stakes were.

Trollope’s characterization of Alice’s two suitors contributed a lot to my sympathy for her. It was easy to see that Grey is the better man but that doesn’t make him a better partner. At first, George seems more passionate and exciting, and his irresponsibility could be chalked up to youth. The revelations about his true character took my breath away. It was entirely predictable and all too common, even today, but this kind of thing is still unexpected when it happens.

Jenny: Yes — right — and to have so many people who are loyal to George, even at the end, because he was so private about his wickedness! Burgo Fitzgerald doesn’t get that ease, because he was still just honorable enough to be open about his disgrace, I suppose.

Still, Alice labels herself a jilt, as much as her relations do. Almost the whole problem, towards the end, is that Alice has been forgiven by everyone but herself. I think it’s an open question at the end of the novel whether she can ever be open-heartedly happy after what she’s been through. Glencora has decided to throw in her lot with her husband, and Plantangenet has made a sacrifice for her; who can say what their future happiness will be? I sympathized with all three women, and (as a 21st century middle-aged feminist) had nothing to forgive them. But Trollope is pointing out, among other things, the serious cost of going against societal expectations. The only one of the three who counts the cost and will certainly be able to pay it all is Mrs. Greenow, with her very slightly naughty second husband.

Teresa: And the whole issue of societal expectations goes right back to the question of choice, which so fascinated me. Mrs. Greenow has both a fortune and a lack of concern about what other people think. That gives her choices. Alice has a fortune and independence, but because she quite understandably cares about others’ opinions, she can’t choose her own course without being plagued by doubt.

I thought Trollope did a fine job at examining these women’s dilemmas with compassion and dashes of good humor. Although I have some vague recollections of where the story ends up from reading The Duke’s Children, I’m eager to take the journey to that ending.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 11 Comments

Edie on the Warpath

edie on the warpathIt’s taken me four years to savor the four books in E.C. Spykman’s series about the Cares family (A Lemon and a Star, The Wild Angel, Terrible, Horrible Edie, and Edie on the Warpath.) They are so good — outrageously good — that I almost had my feelings hurt that no one had ever given them to me as a child. They are as good as Elizabeth Enright’s books, as Edward Eager’s. I would have read them to pieces, and by now I could have had them mostly memorized. But we make do with what we have. And now I have these: books that get children exactly right, good intentions and intentional trouble and huge, fierce emotions and all.

It’s Edie against the world in this volume, as it was in Terrible, Horrible Edie. She is insanely frustrated by her lack of rights and privileges compared to her older brothers Ted and Hubert, especially since they deem her below consideration. When she hears that the suffragette movement could one day give her some say over her own decisions and even let her become president, she takes to it instantly (though she concedes that no president would likely be allowed to put all men into traps.) She rebels, and sometimes takes revenge large and small: she punches a cop at the suffragettes’ parade, which is one thing, but she also concocts an elaborate setup to ruin her condescending brother’s party that had me literally in tears of laughter.

Her best friend, Susan, a minister’s daughter, tries to teach Edie to rely on God to help her. Edie, however, is convinced that God is in on the game, and mostly helps boys and not girls. “That old God,” she says. “He can’t do a thing.” Edie’s brave, strong, quick-thinking life, her love for her surroundings, her adventurous spirit, and her reliance on herself — after all, God might have enough to do, and need smart girls to do some of the work — are the heart and soul of this terrific book.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 8 Comments

The Bloodstone Papers

bloodstone papersSome regular readers of this blog may remember the over-the-top reviews I wrote of Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy: The Last Werewolf, Tallula Rising, and By Blood We Live. I enjoyed those books so thoroughly that I thought I would give Duncan a try in another context: The Bloodstone Papers, an ordinary literary-fiction novel. This book, as it turns out, also talks about sex and death — but there’s nothing supernatural about it.

The Bloodstone Papers gives us Owen Monroe, a morose, middle-aged Anglo-Indian teacher in London in 2004. He pieces out a living teaching English, tending bar at a place called Neon Hallelujah, and writing pornography under the pseudonym Millicent Nash. You’d think this would keep him busy, but in fact he spends most of his time mourning his vanished ex-girlfriend Scarlet, and obsessing over his own mortality.

But Owen also has a project that takes him out of himself: a biography of his parents, Ross and Kate Monroe, Anglo-Indians who grew up in pre-partition India. Owen is interested in finding out as much as possible about his parents, and thus finding out what sort of man he may yet become; Ross is obsessed by a con-man figure named Skinner, who may or may not have duped him repeatedly during the 1940s and ’50s. The chapters alternate between modern London and partition-era India.

Skinner is a fascinating character, running in and out of the story with his guileless English face, close-shaven chin, and blue eyes. The secret to his scams, perpetrated on educated Anglo-Indians, is his pretense at race-blindness: they are thrilled at being treated like an equal by an Englishman, as if “the haze of color and class had evaporated.” When Skinner says “Trust me,” they do, even when they know better. Owen, listening to these stories, torments himself with the question of whether Skinner, or any white person, has ever regarded any Anglo-Indian (“or Eurasian or East Indian or half-caste or mongrel or pariah or cheechee or Chutney Mary, depending on your angle”) as an equal.

It’s clear that Owen is writing his own story as much as his parents’.

They were born before the Camps, the Bomb, the Moon, the Ozone, the Internet, the End of History. For them the big things don’t change: God, Fate, Love, Time, Beginnings, Endings. Good and Evil.

Ross agrees with Owen that the changing times, in robbing him of belief, have played a dirty trick on him (not unlike the conman Skinner):

Things were simpler then. You got married, it was for good. You believed in God, it was for good. The big things meant something to us, you know? We didn’t know any different, but we weren’t miserable like you buggers today.

And it is true that Owen may be wiser than his parents, but he’s a lot less happy, too. The chapters move back and forth between Owen’s lethargic, self-pitying life and the active, imaginative life of Ross and Kate. To be honest, my heart beat a little faster every time I saw an Indian city and a midcentury date at the top of the chapter, setting me free from modern London. It’s not just about blame, either: Owen’s constant harping on his ex-girlfriend gave me the pip. He’s able to give his own mother agency even in her past (something an awful lot of children can’t do for their parents), but his imagination about his ex-girlfriend is primarily sexual. When he’s confronted with the evidence that she is someone different than his imaginary construct, won’t listen. The howl of mortality in his ears is too loud.

I was very interested in a lot of what The Bloodstone Papers had to say, especially about race, caste, and class. Duncan is very acute when he talks about the temptation to sell your soul to be treated, not just as equal, but alike. It’s got humor in it, too, and approaches its halfway subjects from a number of different angles. I especially liked Owen’s mother, who escapes from a nightmarish household and is the strength of her family from then on. But it’s far from a perfect book. I think we’re supposed to find Owen interesting, caught in his agnostic existence, but he’s a bit too much of a damp rag to be a really interesting character. He continues to resist the lessons of the universe — the lessons of the book — all the scams Skinner is selling: take a chance, live a little. Trust me.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Opposite of Spoiled

opposite of spoiledThere are a lot of decisions to make when you’re raising a kid. Everyone knows about the ones that have been magnified into giant issues (cloth diapering! babywearing!) but it’s the day-to-day decisions that can wear you down: no, you can’t have another piece of candy, you had one at lunch. Yes, you can watch an hour of television. No, a half-hour. No, you can’t have video games but you can play Minecraft because… well, because it seems creative, I guess? No, you can’t have a phone, you’re ten, that’s ridiculous. I know your friends have them, I don’t care. What in the world is a Beyblade? Yes, you can have ice cream, but tomorrow you can’t, we don’t have dessert every night. Go play outside.  Fresh air is good for you. Because I said so, that’s why.

When it comes to money, I constantly feel like I’m making these decisions wrong. Should they have an allowance? How much? Should I tie it to chores? How should I talk to them about giving without making them feel guilty? Should I let them buy what they want with their money? What about the tooth fairy? Should they be saving for college at their age? At what age should they have a phone? A car? How much should they pay for those things? What about a job when they’re teenagers — shouldn’t they be doing something more interesting, so they’ll get admitted to college in the first place?

Ron Lieber’s book The Opposite of Spoiled addresses all these questions — and more — in a calm, sensible way that lets me think about them in terms of our family’s values. He points out that kids are curious about everything — that’s their job — and when they’re curious about our jobs, about our money, about whether we are rich or poor or can afford something, we should answer them, and involve them (at their level) in decision-making. He points out that the common approach that keeps kids away from money until they are 18 and then expects them to handle money well (credit cards, student loans, health care plans) is throwing them in a very serious deep end, and it’s not to their benefit.

What should we do, then? Lieber has lots of ideas, and they aren’t one-size-fits-all. Whether your family is middle class (which in the US means an income of $50,000) or well above that, or well below that, you can teach kids about money in a way that aligns with your own values. He tells a story about a wealthy family that sold their 6,000 square foot house, bought a 3,000 square foot house, and gave away the rest of the money. He also tells a story about a first-generation American family that made enough money collecting cans and bottles from the dump and taking them to the recycling center to pay for their daughter to attend community college.

Lieber encourages allowance; he encourages kids to give; he encourages them to save and spend and make mistakes they can learn from while the stakes are low. He wants kids to be inquisitive and generous. I didn’t agree with every approach of every family in this book — of course I didn’t — but I thought this was an extremely useful take on teaching children about money. It was readable, adaptable, and thoughtful about the needs of the world we live in.

Posted in Nonfiction | 10 Comments

120, rue de la Gare

120 rue de la gare120, rue de la Gare, by Léo Malet, is one of the very first French “romans noirs,” a phrase taken from a series of novels published under the rubric Série Noire. The French were very much influenced by American authors writing hard-boiled detective fiction during the 1920s and 1930s — authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. By the 1950s, the French market was flooded, not so much by French authors writing in this style, but by American imports. After the second World War, France was hungry for whatever the United States wanted to provide, including pulpy, titillating detective fiction.

However, in 1943, the situation hadn’t yet gotten to that point. Léo Malet was certainly under the influence of American hard-boiled fiction, but 120, rue de la Gare is strictly a French production. Malet wrote the novel, the first of a series with his private detective hero, Nestor Burma, under the German occupation of France. Malet had been loosely tied to the surrealist movement before the war, and in 1940 had been sent to prison and then to a German concentration camp because of his Trotskyite involvement. When he returned in 1941, he turned away from surrealism and started writing tough-guy detective stories about the world he saw in front of him.

This novel begins with a curious sequence in which Burma, like Malet himself, has been sent to a concentration camp as a prisoner of war. He is serving in the camp’s hospital and caring for an amnesiac who has come in with a high fever. The amnesiac’s dying words are, “Tell Helen… 120, rue de la Gare.” Neither the name nor the place is exactly uncommon, and Burma isn’t exactly sentimental. Nevertheless, he decides to do his best if he can.

Upon his return to France, Burma is pulling into the train station at Lyon when he sees two things: a woman who looks almost exactly like the film star Michele Hogan; and his partner, Bob Colomer, running up to meet him. Unfortunately, Bob only has a few seconds to tell Burma that he’s got some important information for him before he is shot, almost bringing Burma under the wheels of the train as well. Bob’s final words? “Boss… 120, rue de la Gare.”

The rest of the book consists in Burma’s wandering around the city of Lyon (and, later, Nazi-occupied Paris), trying to understand the mystery — if there even is a mystery. Burma has an excellent reputation, both on the streets and among the police, and even after his time in the camps, he finds he still has connections: his journalist buddy Marc, his “typist-secretary-collaborator-agent” Helen, his lawyer friend Bernard. Wartime has made everything harder, darker, grimmer, leaner. But a man like Burma can still get answers.

This novel is written in the first person, in the inimitable voice of Nestor Burma himself, proprietor of the Fiat Lux detective agency. It’s sarcastic, dry, casual, slangy, heavily influenced by the hard-boiled, terse. One tiny example. After asking — well, demanding — a huge and dangerous favor of his journalist friend, Burma continues:

“Give me an overcoat or a raincoat,” I said, wriggling in front of the mirror. “I don’t need a hat. My beret will do.”

“Really? Will that be all?” he asked. “I could always lend you my razor, shine your shoes, give you my ration cards and slip you my girlfriend’s address.”

“Some other time,” I said. “See you tonight.”

This book is so interesting on questions of what it means to work on the margins. Since once again (as in Arsene Lupin) it isn’t safe to work inside the law, Burma’s marginalized position is the only one that can reasonably achieve justice, but what is justice if it’s outside the law? This is interesting, too, for other marginalized groups: the lower classes, women, immigrants. My students and I had a lot of good discussions about this during my French Crime Fiction class, and it is just plain good reading, as well. I recommend this entire witty, tough, interesting series.

This book has been published in English by Pan books, translated by P. Hudson. The quotation in this blog entry was my own translation, though. For those of you who speak French, there’s a series of graphic novels made from these books, by the inimitable Jacques Tardi (of Adele Blanc-Sec fame), and they are absolutely wonderful.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 1 Comment