Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nostalgia Review: The Long Secret

Everyone who's worth knowing has read "Harriet the Spy". But if you are even more devoted, as I was as a child and budding spy, you followed Harriet's adventures into the summertime on Montauk, Long Island with "The Long Secret". Harriet remains her own curious, judgmental, uninhibited self. The real revelation in this book is the story of Beth Ellen, who lives with her imperious but loving grandmother. The mystery at the premise of "The Long Secret" is a series of Bible quotations delivered to Montauk residents aimed at their secrets. Of course there are some eccentric Montauk residents, including Bunny, a resort piano player; the Bible-thumping Jessie Mae Jenkins, her brother Norman, and crackpot entrenpreneur Mama Jenkins; and, in a surprise twist, Beth Ellen's socialite mother Zeeney, recently returned from Europe.
Fithugh's gift, and why her books remain classics, is something she has in common with other great authors of children's books--a realistic and uncompromising view of adults. Adults in Harriet and Beth Ellen's world are well-meaning, often loving, but distant and concerned with their own priorities. "The Long Secret" is a little dated only in the degree of freedom that Harriet and Beth Ellen have to explore on their own. Their stories of growth and learning are realistic, humorous, and a great read even today.
While not moralistic, Fitzhugh delivers some good messages. Beth Ellen asks Zeeney, "Mother, what profession should I be?" and Zeeney erupts in laughter. Then she gets serious, and says, "You will, of course, finish your schooling, take a year in Europe, return to New York, make your debut, and marry...You shall attend a suitable school, for two years at the most." (This was 1965, after all). In the end, Zeeney is sent away, and Beth Ellen triumphs and decides to become an artist. Beth Ellen's grandmother tells her, "She is just as silly as ever; a silly woman who contributes nothing whatsoever to life. She might as well not be alive except that she consumes". These are hard words in a book for ten-year-olds, but they are real and valuable.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay

Fans of classic noir fiction will recognize the humorous allusion to Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" with P.I. Phillip Marlowe. This is literal as well, because South Boston P.I. Mark Genevich suffers from chronic narcolepsy stemming from head trauma years before. Uncontrollable narcolepsy means he could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, in addition to suffering from waking-dream hallucinations indistinguishable from real life. As if this wasn't scary enough, Genevich's most recent investigation draws the attention--and disapproval--of the highly connected local D.A., who just happens to have grown up with his now-deceased father. Connected friends soon turn into connected enemies, and Genevich's investigation becomes increasingly confusing and dangerous. In the course of learning about his father's friends, he ends up learning some things about his father that had been buried for a reason.
Tremblay's book is a good, fast, fun read. But for some reason the story wasn't as compelling as other mysteries I have read recently. "The Little Sleep" is in the top ten percent of mysteries out there today--just not the top five.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The Millennium

by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger
What caught my eye about this book was the unusual cover--this hardbound book is covered in tally marks, signifying the primitive manner of counting. The contents of this book are just as inventive at describing life in the year 1000 A.D. The authors use the Julius Work Calendar, a hand-copied manuscript from England's Canterbury Cathedral circa approximately 1020. The layout, they describe, is similar to the calendars we use today--twelve pages of vellum, one for each month. Each month's page contains, in addition to holidays and saints' days, an illustration of the work taking place in that month. These illustrations, along with a cataloguing system based on the Roman emperors, give the calendar its name.
This book is an accessible read that somehow still informs the reader about aspects of life in the year 1000. This was actually the first time that I had understood clearly the successive waves of invasion--Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norse--that took place even before the famous Norman invasion of 1066. You'll come away from this book with lots of interesting historical, archaeological, and linguistic tidbits, as well as a clearer idea of Britain's historical timeline. For instance, the authors note that most sizable British towns have retained their names from the year 1000, and that allows us to learn about the towns' historical inhabitants. Place-names ending in -ham are of Anglo-Saxon origin; those ending in -by indicate Viking (Norse) origin.
If you finally want to understand the relevance of those Beowulf passages you skimmed for tenth-grade English, this is the book for you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Author Profile: Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson came to my attention when I picked one of her books, "One Good Turn", out of a pile my friend was about to give away. It looked like a substantial mystery, and I have a weakness for anything set in Scotland (Atkinson herself lives in Edinburgh). "One Good Turn" was as exciting as a mystery, with all the substance and craft of a great novel. I was so impressed I immediately went to library to check out two others: "Human Croquet", and her first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum".
"Behind the Scenes at the Museum" was the winner of the prestigious Whitbread Award, and its enthusiastic tone follows Ruby Lennox from the moment of her conception throughout her life, delving back into the history of her family through "footnote" chapters. The title came to Atkinson in a dream, where the objects in a museum came to life and told their stories, and she uses these chapters to do the same thing. The reader gets to see the family's origins in a small Yorkshire town, the misery of a wife whose husband turns out to be a drunk, the effects of the Great War, life in the changing city of York (the place of Atkinson's own birth) and all the ways that family history shapes us and our children. In an interview with The Guardian, Atkinson says "The novel is a hymn to my relationship with the city, constructed out of history, memory and nostalgia."
"Human Croquet" is slightly darker, but still involved in the realm of family, history, secrets, and set in a small town. Despite all the terrible things that happen, the reader is encouraged by the human power of survival and the love of mothers and friends.
"One Good Turn" opens with a mysterious and shocking scene in the middle of Edinburgh during the teeming Fringe Festival. An accidental rear-end collision results in a confrontation between the drivers and a life-threatening assault in front of a crowded theater. Each character's story arcs out from there, each involved with the crime and its aftermath, each character's inner life both complicated and realistic. "One Good Turn" is Atkinson's best showcase of her skillful rendering of human nature--she manages to be both compassionate and objective, showing all the quirks and flaws of a character while not judging or condescending, nor presenting a bleak picture of life.
Atkinson has several other books, including short fiction collections. Her work is the best combination of substantial and readable, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Kitchen Wars

My Kitchen Wars, by Betty Fussell

I think I’d like Betty. I think we should be friends. She writes a memoir through the lens of a lifetime’s cooking--and eating. “Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat”.

Betty Fussell’s story is that of women in the twentieth century. The wars in the kitchen are the wars of the sexes, wars of the self. The youthful freedom of college finds Betty sampling the forbidden caffeine of coffee and Coca-Cola, and enjoying a wartime campus largely free of men. “We girls had been running the campus, occupying the posts of leadership, staging the shows, editing the newspaper, practically managing the football team”. But come the end of the war, “Overnight we were busted, not from officer to private, but to comfort woman.” When Fussell and other professors’ wives discover Julia Child, their dishes reach ever more complicated competitive heights. The exploration also had another sensory dimension—sexual antics by a group of people in their thirties now “desperate to play”. For the reader, it’s such fun to hear about the promiscuous habits of Kingsley Amis, but Fussell never lets us forget the desperation behind the abandon.

In the end, the story of cookery is a story of growth, and of Fussell’s final achievement of professional worth and status. Even when she returns to graduate school full-time “I knew that my full-time job was taking care of Paul, and anything else was moonlighting.” The Cuisinart decades of the seventies and eighties finally let Betty feel the resentment as her husband “reaped the merit badges for his prize-winning book, and I faded like an old Polaroid”. Her professional life eventually takes a different direction than his when she begins writing articles about food—and along the way, forges a new life for herself, much to the confusion of her husband. “He couldn’t understand that if I didn’t break the routine, the routine would break me”.

As a reader, food is a satisfying and visceral lens through which to absorb the stories—and lessons—of Fussell’s life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear
The First World War is in the distant past for most Americans, myself included. Despite its traumatic impact, Americans don't relate to it as a strong part of our history. More likely, we know plenty of facts about World War II, from our grandparents' experience, history projects, John Wayne movies, and "Medal of Honor".
But the effects of World War I were keenly felt in both Europe and America--as the immediate toll and as cultural ripples spreading out over the following decades. A friend even told me that, to this day, her English family wouldn't let her have red-and-white wedding flowers because of a World War I legacy that they represented the ominous image of "blood and bandages".
For Jacqueline Winspear's heroine, Maisie Dobbs, the First World War is only ten years behind her. In 1929, Maisie Dobbs is setting up her own private detective practice in London. Maisie is the daughter of a working-class widower, and in her teens had entered "into service" in the home of Lady Rowan. Thanks to her love of learning and Lady Rowan's progressives ideas, Maisie earns a place at Cambridge. But soon the war intrudes on everyday life, calling Maisie as a nurse to the front lines in France. Ten years later, Lady Rowan's son announces that he wishes to enter a private community for veterans with emotional trauma and disfiguring injuries. Something is suspicious about the secretive nature of the community, and Lady Rowan engages Maisie to inquire. This inquiry takes Maisie back into her wartime memories and brings her face to face with what she has lost.
This post-War period is a fascinating setting for Maisie Dobbs' adventures, the first in a series. During this time, British society, and American for that matter, saw sweeping changes. Women's fashions dared to show their arms and legs, women cut their hair, the automobile became commonplace, and moving pictures transmitted images to eager audiences. The economic landscape endured the Great Depression worldwide, changing the nature of occupations. One observation that is passed over quickly in the book is the slowing tradition of "going into service". This term indicated boys and girls, some in their early teens or younger, training as servants in homes of the wealthy and well-off middle-class. This livelihood faded in the interwar years, with the decline of large estates and the advent of labor-saving devices in the homes of those who could afford them.
These delightful mysteries are an interesting reminder of the fact of war on that (or our own) time and place--despite the fact that everyone wants to move on, Maisie's inquiries keep bringing her back to the heroism, trauma, and regret of the war years, and its hidden effects a decade later.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Living Yoga, by Christy Turlington

I’ll admit it: I didn’t expect this book to be very good. I picked it up off the shelf at the library on a whim, intending to read it in the sauna at the gym. But this book far, far surpassed my expectations. Perhaps because Christy Turlington is a famous supermodel who walked the catwalk in the 90’s, I didn’t expect her grasp of yoga to be very deep. I was pleasantly surprised when the whole first section of the book was about the history of yoga going back thousands of years, the importance of the Sanskrit language, and how the various yoga traditions and styles came to be today. Turlington also speaks very poetically about yogic topics, driving home points I never thought of before.

"The breath is more intimate than anything else could ever be because it reaches the innermost spaces inside our bodies. With the breath we are never alone."

On the topic of Sanskrit, she points out its ancient pedigree and the importance of the sacred sounds of the words themselves.

By far the best point of this book is Turlington’s own story of how she came to have a strong yoga practice. Far from the self-congratulatory tone that many experienced practitioners can take, Turlington successfully weaves her own story of personal growth and vulnerability, as well as her opinions about the way that her yoga practice interacts with her life as a practicing Catholic. For instance, in the chapter on breath, she uses the experience of her father’s dying process to explore the universality and intimacy of breathing.

The one detail I was disappointed with was the lack of instruction on actual asanas—the book features beautiful pictures throughout of Turlington in poses of varying difficulty, but little explanation of them. Turlington’s informative tone makes me want her to turn that attention towards the poses.

Overall, this book was a beautiful, informative, and relaxing read, and I’ve actually read it several times since checking it out. If you are already a yogi and are looking to deepen your practice, this book gets a strong recommendation.