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.