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.