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.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

I am a huge fan of the HBO television series "Rome", a dramatized look at the Roman Republic during the turbulent First Triumvirate (the sharing of power between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Marc Antony) and its aftermath. At the end of the series, we see Caesar's nephew Octavian assume the mantle of princeps ("head citizen") of Rome and take the title of Augustus ("revered").
Anthony Everett's Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor is the perfect complement to "Rome". It covers some of the same ground as the show in Augustus's boyhood, and then continues to the rest of his rule. Through the historical sources available, Everett examines how Augustus gained power--and how he managed to keep it, a task which had eluded his uncle.
The life of Augustus is a fascinating one because he presided over a period of great change in Rome--historically, his rule is recognized as the beginning of Rome as an empire. The revered Republic of the past was unwieldy for the task at hand and the Senate controlled by an oligarchic patrician class. Though a republic seems more democratic than a dictatorship, in practice the political class was small and wealthy. Julius Caesar gained his power, and passed it on to Augustus, through the populist channels of military victories, soldiers' loyalties, and reforms. During his rule, Augustus extended formal citizenship and voting rights to many Romans and Italians, such as provincials who had been thus far denied--siding with what he saw as the superior virtues of country residents compared to corrupt urban Romans.
While reading this book, it is impossible not to compare the historical events and figures to modern-day counterparts. The U.S. and Britain have been compared to Rome in terms of their imperial subjugation of client states, but by taking a closer look at the people involved, we get a more detailed picture. One instance of this detail is Everett's evidence of Augustus's obsession with sexual and family morality. He enacted draconian laws to ensure his nation's virtue, stipulating remarriage for divorcees and widows, and disallowing single people from inheritances. He put his own daughter under exile and house arrest for the rest of her life in a remote city when he heard rumor of her adultery. In his tyrannic laws and rhetoric, he appealed to the "good old days" of the early republic, when life was simpler--doesn't that sound exactly like something we would hear today?
Most strikingly, in one a concluding chapter, Everett states that Augustus was keenly aware that "in the long run, power was unsustainable without consent, and that consent could best be won by associating radical constitutional change with a traditional and moralizing ideology". This sounds exactly like the neoconservative agenda to me--except Augustus's dictatorship might actually have been more benevolent.
Everett's history is lifelike and fast-paced, full of the small details that allow us to feel a part of the action. I read almost all of this 300-something-page book in one sitting on a Friday night--I call that a recommendation.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Little Book

The Little Book, by Selden Edwards

I picked up Selden Edwards’ novel “The Little Book” as a respite from the bleak worlds I had entered in my last several reads. Wheeler Burden, our story’s center, is a rock star, an author, last in the line of a wealthy Boston family. Mysterious events transport him from San Francisco in 1988 to Vienna in the year 1897, where he finds himself in the midst of a cultural revolution every bit as big as the Woodstock generation he was a celebrated part of.

Once Wheeler arrives in Vienna, we learn more about his past, from his English-born mother who raises him on a California farm, to his upper-crust grandparents, his war-hero father, and the Austrian tutor who mentored him. And not only do we learn more about Wheeler’s past, we learn about these characters’ pasts—their stories center around Vienna in 1897, and intermingle with his own in complicated and emotional ways.

Learning the backstories of each character lends both suspense and depth to this novel. The interest of the plot and the characters is deepened by the detailed history of Europe at the turn of the century. The heady mix of cultural forces in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna is even weightier because of Wheeler’s knowledge of the coming events of the twentieth century. In 1897, Freud is starting his career and is only in process of formulating his seminal theories; Hitler is a child in a small German town; the seeds of World War I are being sown by Kasier Wilhelm; and the anti-Semitism that came to a head in World War II is starting to solidify.

I am big fan of books like these because they combine the best of two worlds—a compelling and enjoyable story set in a detailed historical setting. It lets me learn about things like European history without having to slog through an actual history book—I am doing this in my free time, after all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Iona Moon

Iona Moon, by Melanie Rae Thon

The world of Iona Moon, the main character of the book, is a flat and desolate place where your past never leaves you—or rather, you can never leave it, no matter how hard you try.  Iona is a girl from the poor side of town who doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to boys.  Melanie Rae Thon doesn’t make it clear what year this is, but the sexual attitudes make it feel like it could be anytime in the last one hundred years.  Jay, a golden-boy high-school diver, and Willy, the upright son of the sheriff, grow up with Iona and similarly come close to drowning under the weight of their pasts and the emptiness of their futures.    

The draw of this book isn’t the plot—the characters start out in White Falls, Idaho, and they end up there, not far from where they started.  Everything that happens is a journey of the spirit, told in painful detail along the way.  Even before the events are tragic, the bleakness of the setting weighs on the reader like a ton of ice.  Thon uses imagery that blends the past and the present, the dream world and the material, in language reminiscent of Louise Erdrich, or what the book jacket calls "Faulknerian lyricism".  She explores the things that we cannot escape, and the inner worlds we carry with us no matter where we go.

This book was in interesting juxtaposition to other books I’ve been reading recently, books that made me appreciate my roots.  In “Iona Moon”, the roots are more like twining vines that hold you down and strangle you.  All the bad things that happen to you, past and present, combine into a single suffocating organism.  Iona’s best friend, Jeweldeen marries Iona’s brother, and when Iona says "I didn't think you even liked him," Jeweldeen says "He'll do"-- White Falls is just that kind of place.

Like “Out”, the characters in “Iona Moon” can’t find release by destroying their lives, but by accepting them--by returning to each other.  Even when Iona leaves, she must return and reconcile herself to what she was trying to leave behind.  And although this should be the more acceptable option, somehow it feels unsatisfying.  Unlike "Out", these characters don't give you anything to root for or anything to feel except their own hopelessness.  Maybe it’s shallow of me, but without motion of the plot to draw me forward, I got mired in the bleakness of this world.  I appreciate the beauty of the language and the reality it reflects, but like the characters, I couldn’t wait to  get out of it. 

Monday, January 26, 2009


Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit, by Loren D. Estleman

I just last night finished a great mystery—it’s called “Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit”.  Really, it should be called “A Novel of the Detroit Area”, because I grew up in the area and when reading it I yelped with delight every time that the author mentioned somewhere I recognized.

“Jitterbug” is set in Detroit during World War II—specifically in 1943, which will factor into the plot later on.  It is told from the point of view of the three characters around whom the events of the year unfold.  Dwight Littlejohn, an African-American man who relocated to Michigan from Alabama, works in a bomber plant in Ypsilanti.  Max Zagreb, a police lieutenant, runs a four-man squad known as the “Horsemen” who handle racketeering and black-market crimes.  The third protagonist is the killer, a man rejected from the Army but obsessed with serving his country by punishing “hoarders”—people who unpatriotically store up their ration coupons!  Our story follows Zagreb, Littlejohn, and the killer by turns as Zagreb tries to catch the killer and the racial tensions heat up in the newly integrating city. 

Dwight Littlejohn’s brother lives the newly opened Sojourner Truth housing projects in Detroit, whose white neighbors were so indignant that police escorts were needed to let the residents move in.  Like the Littlejohns, many African-Americans migrated from other parts of the country for the opportunity to work in Detroit’s factories, pushing the existing culture of the city to keep up.  Events come to a head as the killer loses control and the police struggle to contain rumors and outrage surrounding a supposed rape and murder on Belle Else, a park on the Detroit River.     

The historical events of 1943 surround and pervade the straightforward whodunit story that Estleman is telling.  For some characters, such as Dwight Littlejohn, the circumstances leading up to the race riots of ’43 are central to his life.  For others, such as the killer, the war provides a rationalization for his homicidal habits.  This story is a great example of the ways that social and political circumstances are meshed together in this web of history and culture.

This book was a really fun read mainly because of all the historical facts embedded in the story.  I picked it up off the shelf at the library because of the title, and was surprised to see that most of the author’s other books (at least at my library branch) were Westerns.  After looking on Amazon, I'm happy to see he write more books in this type of historical vein.  

One reason I love the history in the novel is because of my own history—I grew up in “the wilds of Oakland County” as one character calls it; I work in Ypsilanti just couple of streets over from Dwight Littlejohn’s fictional boardinghouse; both of my father’s parents grew up in Detroit; and in the riots of 1943 my great-grandfather was a City of Detroit cop.  My family recently found a picture of him that had run in the Detroit News that week of the riots.  He’s in uniform with his police-issue rifle standing in the street next to an overturned car.  To me, this kind of history is fascinating to find.  Understanding the history of the Detroit area is of course crucial to understanding what it is today, but more than that, I’ve recently begun to feel a lot of pride and depth in being a fourth-generation Michigander whose family has lived in three counties for the last sixty years.  I think this is what they call “roots”.  The Detroit riot of 1943 is also mostly forgotten, especially in light of the events of 1967.  So if any of you are interested in learning more while enjoying a straightforward police procedural, pick up “Jitterbug”.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


 Out, by Natsuo Kirini


Grim.  That’s the one word that comes to mind when reading Natsuo Kirini’s book “Out”.  The second word is one used by my colleague to describe the writer: relentless.  So why, then, would you recommend this grim, relentless crime novel?  For me, it was the sheer fascination of being drawn into the world Kirini creates.  Her story is set in Japan, but to this American reader the environment seems more akin to a gloomy Soviet town.  Masako, a main character, works night shifts in a sterile and backbreaking boxed-lunch factory, and goes home to a husband and adolescent son who have walled themselves in with silence.  Masako’s situation is common amongst the book’s characters—her fellow female night-shift workers who find themselves cut off from their families and society by more than their schedules, a Brazilian of Japanese descent who works at the factory and longs for home, and a small-time crime boss whose internal life remains fixated a horrific crime he committed years ago. 

The greatest achievement of Kirini’s writing is getting us to sympathize with and even root for the most sinister characters in the book.  There is no hero. The police investigating the crimes in the book are peripheral and have little depth.  Throughout the book, I found myself caring most about the two people who have committed the most calculating and heinous crimes, and who showed the least compassion for everyone else embroiled in this situation.

For Masako and the three other women who work at the boxed-lunch factory, their lives are hemmed in by hopelessness and a lack of connection with others.  Even when they join together to cover up a crime, their solidarity devolves into suspicion and contempt, complicated by their differing reactions to the unfolding events and the web of money that links their actions.  Each woman has arrived at this juncture because of the circumstances in her life—marrying a man who seems charming but grows cold and contemptuous and gambles away their money; striving for a career that tests the limits of expectations of Japanese working women; caring for a bedridden, critical and whiny mother-in-law; taking out loan after loan until her life breaks under the weight of the interest; having the bad luck to be born without a pretty face and the opportunities it provides in Japanese society.  I don’t believe Kirini’s sole intent was to criticize the roles of women in Japan, but it is an integral part of this story

The feeling that I emerged with—and believe me, finishing the book feels like climbing out of a deathly silent, algae-filled well—was relief.  Relief that my life is ok, that I have more options than the women in the book.  When the women commit and cover up crimes, my first thought as a reader is not of disgust, but rather “Finally!  That one really deserved it!”  It’s a strange and unsettling feeling to have, especially since that reaction comes not only from justifiable crimes, but also from cold-blooded murders.  The only way that the characters—male and female—in “Out” can reach the freedom they crave is by destroying the lives that they currently have.  Reading “Out” makes me relieved that I have other options.