Thanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful MuThanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful Muriel Spark paperbacks. With eight hours of flight time from the US back to Iceland ahead of me, I decided to start with this "curiously disturbing" novella, and basically read it through in one sitting.
As with all of Spark's novels that I've read thus far, Not to Disturb drops you into the story once it's already started—there's no preamble, no back story, no real explanation of what is going on. the dialog is round-about and confusing at first; you don't know who any of the people talking are. And yet, rather than deterring you from continuing (or deterring me, as it happens), it just sucks you further in. You sink into the story and just figure out what is going on as you go. It's disconcerting, yes, but it's also clever and addictive and seriously hard to pull off.
The 'what's going on' of the story is (again, unsurprisingly) absurd and strange and really quite weird. As are many of the characters and relationships, for that matter. And while there are all these characters and obviously unspoken story lines (I wonder, actually, if this started as a different book, or if this is a paired down version of a much more extensive novel), there's a lot that is simply not gone into here. There's so much story that exists completely off the page. I find this rather amazing, particularly as someone who, as a writer, is always compelled to fill in all of the back story, to make sure that the reader has all the 'irrelevant' information before the real story gets underway.
And perhaps this isn't always the best way to go. Because Spark demonstrates here, sometimes the most compelling way to tell a story is to only hint at the whole of it. ...more
My first John Dickson Carr novel—a Christmas gift bought for the express purpose of being fitting reading for a few days in a country cabin, which itMy first John Dickson Carr novel—a Christmas gift bought for the express purpose of being fitting reading for a few days in a country cabin, which it very much was. Loads of melodrama (gasping, running toward one's lover just to touch hands before turning and running back in the other direction, be-veiled ghosts, passionate embraces, needlessly complicated back story...), and lots of exposition and character explanation delivered through feverish dialog. Take for example, the introduction that the the hefty, enigmatic Dr. Gideon Fell receives, upon his arrival half way through the book:
'For the ordinary case,' interrupted Nick Barclay with an air of dazzling inspiration, 'he'd be no earthly good at all. It's the hundredth instance where he scores. I never met him until tonight, but I've heard all about him. He's the cross-eyed marksman who hits the game without aiming at it; he's the scatterbrained diver you send into murky waters. His special talent is useful only in a case so crazy that nobody else can understand it.'
And even better is the abundance of amazing exclamations from the good doctor, my favorite being, "O Lord! O Bacchus! O my ancient hat!"...more
Picked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introductionPicked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction to Zadie Smith, whose fiction I have always heard all manner of raves about. But I was looking for something in a non-fiction narrative vein--seems to be the mood I am in right now--and a number of the essays in this collection seemed intriguing. I may not read the whole collection, but given the variety of subject matter that she covers, I think I'll make notes on some of the essays as I read them.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”
This essay opens the collection and I really just flipped to it because I wanted to get a quick feel for Smith's writing style. I tend to actively avoid essays about books I haven't read (and I have not read Hurston as of yet)--I find that authors' examinations almost never bring you into the text (or relate the text outward) in a rewarding way if you aren't already familiar with the storyline of the book they are discussing. But there's so much here for the unfamiliar reader: for one, it definitely convinced me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God in the near future. This isn't just a discussion of a wonderful, important book that Smith loves (and its fascinating author), however: it is one which examines the nature of readership (the common aspiration of many readers to be 'objectively neutral' in their assessment of a book, and why allowing ourselves to personally relate to a literary work and understand why particularly touches us is actually important), the idea that a book or an author can only be (or should only be) the province of a particular group (here, Black women readers), and of course, the titular idea of "soulfulness" (although I think the other topics are actually the focal points of the article). It's a wonderful piece and one which I think would even merit a second read.
“That Crafty Feeling”
This essay is a version of a lecture that Smith gave for writing students at Columbia, and is--like much of her writing, I'm finding--a wonderful mix of personal reflection and intelligent criticism. And she's also very, very funny. When done right, a writerly essay about writerly things is almost always enjoyable for me, and Smith's piece is no exception.
"One Week in Liberia"
This essay is heart-wrenching, and I'd like to know where Smith originally published it, and why. She paints an unflinching portrait of Liberia and its present situation (I say this, of course, as someone who is very unfamiliar with Liberia, its history, and its people) and her portrait of Evelyn, one of the young women she met, was heartbreaking. The essay ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although not without a certain knowing despair. This was a tough one.
"Speaking in Tongues"
This essay was delivered as a lecture shortly after Obama's election in 2008. It deals, elegantly, with the idea of having two 'voices,' two identities, which coexist harmoniously. Smith saw Obama as being a particularly hopeful figure because he was able to so fluently and effortlessly slip between worlds and voices. "He doesn't just speak for his people. He can speak them...The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral, it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural." It's a hopeful piece, albeit a cautiously hopeful one: "A lot rests on how this president turns out—but that's a debate for the future." So now, in the midst of Obama's second term, or perhaps even after it, it would be very interesting to read Smith's response to herself in this piece, looking back.
"At the Multiplex, 2006"
Smith wrote film reviews of mainstream films for The Sunday Telegraph for the 2006 season, and the resulting reviews were edited into this piece. Reading these, I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly. This isn't necessarily film criticism with a capital "C," but Smith is an intelligent person reacting to art (or sub-art, as the case may be), and the result was very enjoyable to read, even when I didn't agree with her assessments. Some highlights:
-"Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is to ghetto movies what Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it...I Love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialog...I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated."
-"I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure."
-Regarding The Weather Man: "As I see it, this film's central concept is the aversion most right thinking people have to the actor Nicholas Cage. And he accepts this mantle so honorably and humbly in this film that I think now maybe I quite like him."
"Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend"
Another essay I'd like to know the publication origin of. This was an enjoyable read, and certainly not the expected Oscar-fare—Smith pointedly avoided name-dropping ("What if you got assigned to write about the Oscars and you didn't mention a single actor? You know, as a demystifying strategy?"), although she does, in fact, name drop Bret Easton Ellis. I enjoyed this essay, enjoyed the portrait that she paints of a jaded, exhausted, overly-polite, and rather paranoid Hollywood. It wasn't life-changing, but then again, neither are the Oscars.
"Smith Family Christmas" / Dead Man Laughing
I'm discovering that Smith handles personal reflection really elegantly: she gives you a frank window into her life, but keeps the subject matter tight and well-curated. Her reflections are relatable, but don't sprawl endlessly outwards in that Everything-Is-Connected, Let's-Appreciate-the-Grand-Moral sort of way that I, at least, find extremely irritating. Her essay on her deceased father and their shared love of humor (as well as her brother's foray into the world of comedy) was touching, and sincere, reflective, and quite funny.
This is my second of Reichl's books, found in the teenage bedroom that I'm borrowing for a few weeks while traveling. And while I don't think it touchThis is my second of Reichl's books, found in the teenage bedroom that I'm borrowing for a few weeks while traveling. And while I don't think it touched me as much as Tender at the Bone, I loved it. Reichl is marvelously talented at combining personal memoir with food writing, and doesn't shy away from difficult self-criticisms, but rather reveals things about her character with grace. She manages to be forthright about her life without ever feeling too soul-baring, too, which is also a plus for me.
Garlic and Sapphires reads like a memoir, a travel narrative (and food tour of New York), and a piece of critical writing. It's a lovely piece of writing and, like her other work, an instructive one for those who are interested in non-fiction narrative writing themselves. ...more
(Update, 11.3.12) Although I did seek out some critical articles on Mansfield Park they didn't end up clarifying my thoughts on the book as much as ra(Update, 11.3.12) Although I did seek out some critical articles on Mansfield Park they didn't end up clarifying my thoughts on the book as much as raise additional questions. However, since I just recently found myself in a bar going on at length about this book to someone who hadn't even read it, I think I can at least summarize some of my main impressions about it:
Mansfield Park is an incredibly complex text and could easily, I think, be interpreted in a variety of ways. It has raised the hackles of many a dedicated Austen reader, and mainly, it seems, because in all honesty, Fanny Price is not the Jane Austen heroine that most of us have come to love. She's smart and she's an independent thinker, to be sure, but she's not terribly witty or clever, she's extremely sensitive (see this web page, "Fanny's Tears," for a list of all the times that Fanny cries in the novel: http://www.austen.com/mans/notes/tear...), she's shy, she doesn't stick up for herself, and she frequently believes the terrible things that people say to/about her, particularly her awful, and awfully hypocritical aunt. You (I) spend a great deal of the book hoping that Fanny will just grow a bit of a backbone already and stop cow-towing to everyone around her.
Fanny is also the moral compass of the story, one which in just mentioning off-handedly the family's plantation and slaves, is coming from a much more historically grounded, political place than most other Austen novels where you may know that there is a militia in town, but never hear from the characters what war or battle they may be resting up from, or heading off to. Fanny, of course, doesn't comment on these external circumstances, but being not a little stodgy herself, does seem to position herself in opposition to a changing world, one that is more public, more political, and less bound by tradition. One in which outspoken, clever, sexual, and opinionated women, such as Mary Crawford, are more and more the norm.
I found myself liking Mary Crawford far more than Fanny for much of the novel, even as I felt bad that she outshined the heroine so very often, and even as I recognized that she was a deeply cynical and deeply selfish character. But Austen has written many selfish characters--Emma, certainly; Marianne Dashwood, to a certain extent--and we're still meant to like these people. It seemed like a bit of a cheat--and narratively, a stretch--to me that Mary and Henry Crawford have such sudden transformations into truly indefensible characters at the end of the novel. For most of it, Mary and Henry might have opinions and behaviors (particularly Henry, who yes, is a total cad) which the reader, Fanny, and definitely Jane Austen disapprove of. But they are still understood within the context of their society to be interesting, likeable, and defensible people. It seems to me that Jane Austen didn't want to maintain any sort of moral ambiguity, though. She wanted Right and Wrong with capital letters, and so she decided to introduce a sweeping plot turn which would show the Crawfords for their lousy selves, prove Fanny right, bring Edward to his senses, and neatly bring Fanny and Edward together at last. I thought that it was more interesting when it was messier.
There's a lot to be said otherwise about this novel--for one, Fanny's position as an observer is worth exploring, namely the way in which always being a spectator and outside the main action around her might actually give her some agency. But I'll leave that to someone else. Suffice to say that Mansfield Park is fascinating for its frustrations, for the rather conservative tendencies it reveals in its author, and in the various ways that it can read (consider the film adaptation in this respect). I'm not sure I totally liked it, but I'm very glad to have read it.
(9.15.12) I enjoyed Mansfield Park, although I will admit to finding it immensely strange in some ways, and also think it lends itself to some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with other of Austen's novels. This is the first of her books that I feel compelled to read some scholarly work on, and I want to percolate a bit on my thoughts before I try and review the book, but I will say this for now: I am going to come down on the side of Fanny Price, although I agree with the generally antipathy about her constant shrinking and weeping and general not-Elizabeth-Bennet-ness. What surprised me, rather, was how much I ended up disliking her romantic interest, the supposedly morally infallible Edward Bertram. Perhaps there is some Austenian irony throughout in his presentation, but I'm not sure that it carries through far enough. Because he's rather a schmo for almost all of the book.
Anyway, more anon, when I can formulate with more useful descriptions than 'schmo.'...more
**spoiler alert** The most recent of the RRAD LUST book club selections, and maybe the last one we'll read together (in person) before my imminent dep**spoiler alert** The most recent of the RRAD LUST book club selections, and maybe the last one we'll read together (in person) before my imminent departure. This one was actually my pick (based on a variety of website recommendations)--we were on a Scottish kick and already had selected another Highland-themed historical--but while it actually starts pretty strong with the intrigue and the complicated love affair and the incredibly dramatic passion between two lost souls who struggle to overcome the burdens of their respective pasts (!), it fell a bit flat about 3/4 of the way through. It wouldn't have been hard to structure the book in such a way as to keep the momentum going, but Ashley resolves most of the major road blocks (marriage, for one) and then just sort of floats along in territory that either should have been woven into the plot earlier or left out entirely. (There's a reason so many of these books end when the lovers finally get together.) Some additional thoughts:
*The cover: this man is far too hairless. These Scottish romances seem to all include pages upon pages of descriptions about their hairy beast-like highlanders, and yet, this guy looks like he shaves his arms. This is silly.
*I don't like the euphemism "to love" as a stand in for "to have sex." It is just a little fuzzy-wuzzy for me. "He loved her all over again"? Please. Also, stop alluding to all of the scandalous sexy dialog that these characters have whilst "loving" each other if you're not just going to write it. It makes it seem like you are embarrassed about it, which is ridiculous, since you are writing a romance novel with many, many "love" scenes. If you don't want to write out what they are saying, don't. But stop being all coy and hinting at it.
*Both of the main characters are supposed to be Scottish, but other than the men wearing kilts and everyone slipping into a vague brogue when they get all flustered (suddenly sprinkling words and phrases like "laddie," "lass," "ye," and "dinna ken" liberally about), I'm not sure that the whole highland milieu actually came through that well.
*An (untested) observation: male characters in Highland-themed novels seem to get tortured a lot. Is this a thing?
I was looking for a fast, fun read for a vacation that I took recently took and when The Expats (which, incidentally, was just listed as one of Bill OI was looking for a fast, fun read for a vacation that I took recently took and when The Expats (which, incidentally, was just listed as one of Bill Ott's 'Best Crime Novels: 2012' in Booklist) caught my eye, I thought it would easily fit the bill. But this book was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish. The set-up is promising, but the whole novel is sloppily structured and written and the conclusion is not only silly, it's also pretty lazy on the resolving details. (For instance, "I framed someone," is generally a fact that requires some explanation. Who did you frame? How did you frame him? You can't just leave it at "I set up a guy," and move on, particularly when the framing involves war criminals and international thievery.)
All in all, it felt like I was reading a treatment for a bad thriller film, and not one that made me care about any of the individuals involved--particularly the main character, who we're told is this super badass former spy, but constantly behaves like an amateur girl detective. ...more
My first exposure to Laura Lippman was with her most recent installment in the Tess Monaghan series, The Girl in the Green Raincoat, which was writtenMy first exposure to Laura Lippman was with her most recent installment in the Tess Monaghan series, The Girl in the Green Raincoat, which was written as a serial for The New York Times Magazine. Having effectively started at the end of the series and really enjoyed it, I decided to go back to the beginning. Baltimore Blues is not as polished as Lippman's later work, but that isn't really saying anything--it's her first book. It's actually nice to know that her writing got tighter and her prose more crisp as she kept writing.
The plot here is a bit complicated--but not overly so--and Lippman integrates lots of interesting details about Baltimore politics, race/class relations, and socio-economic conditions. She doesn't sugarcoat any of it, but obviously loves her city, which adds to the reader's investment in the characters and place. Lippman also has a great talent for immersing the reader in not only in the city of Baltimore, but also sub-cultures of the city, specifically the world of investigative reporting and also--somewhat more uniquely--sculling. She manages to get a lot in about this sport while still keeping it relevant to the plot and character development. Another nice point is that she also doesn't go easy on Tess and is very blunt about her character's flaws and ways in which she needs to grow as a person--which, by the end of the book, she's already made a good start on.
An admirable start to a series--I'll definitely keep reading. ...more
This is my second Baantjer book, especially selected not only for its splendidly abstruse title (although not nearly as excellent as another one, whicThis is my second Baantjer book, especially selected not only for its splendidly abstruse title (although not nearly as excellent as another one, which I was unable to locate: DeKok and the Geese of Death), and also for the fact that I was about to hop on a plane to Amsterdam. Having read two short novellas by Baantjer previously, I was looking forward to a little local color, a grim, but not overly vicious crime, and the off-balance detective team of the weathered, bemused, and surprisingly wise DeKok (a sort of Colombo figure), and his excitable, whipper-snapper of a partner. I wasn't disappointed.
As ever, the plot here hinges on locating motivations and rationales, uncovering secret spite and festering jealousies rather than any really dynamic police work. (If you can call the active investigating in most procedurals "dynamic," which I admit, I don't usually.) Anyhow, figuring out everyone's secrets is the main aim of our intrepid detectives, not really sussing out facts and reviewing hard evidence. I'm sure that Baantjer could have provided such plodding details should he have wanted to--he was a former policeman in Amsterdam--but it really isn't necessary in this sort of novel.
I had a few qualms, some of which were more pressing than others. As with the last Baantjer book I read in this series, I had the niggling feeling all the way through that the translation was not so sharp. The wording in places is strangely clunky and things like prepositions and conjunctions get mixed up in such a way that suggests a very little Babelfish-style translation. For the most part, this doesn't get in the way--it's my perception thus far that Baantjer was not perhaps much of a prose stylist. But it does get annoying and I wonder if the newer English editions (with much less fun pulpy covers than these lovely yellow ones, unfortunately) have improved upon the translation at all.
On the other hand, I think we can hold Baantjer responsible for his incorrigible repetitions. When he stumbles on to a characterization he likes, boy howdy, does he love to repeat it. He must mention DeKok's eyebrows (which move independently from the rest of his face in a comic fashion) and his winning smile (which is "his best characteristic") about a hundred times throughout the book. They are lovely observations to be sure--and ones which Baantjer could get away with mentioning in each different book--but certainly we don't need to be reminded of these qualities once every chapter or two.
As a tangential side note, however, i will say I got a huge kick when I read a passage explaining that a character was incredibly suspicious because he kept all the windows in his apartment closed--something which any self-respecting Amsterdammer, being 'excessively fond of interiors,' would never do. Walking around the streets of Amsterdam, we had noticed that hardly anyone ever closed their windows. In a flagrant invitation to Peeping Toms, ground floor apartments would have windows wide open, so that passersby could stop and watch the inhabitants watch TV, eat toast, sit at the computer, etc. It had seemed so strange to us, being edgy New Yorkers, that reading about this habit in the book really gave me a kick.
I ran across Vivian Vande Velde's (great) name in a list of popular teen vampire novelists and picked up Companions of the Night on a whim. I read itI ran across Vivian Vande Velde's (great) name in a list of popular teen vampire novelists and picked up Companions of the Night on a whim. I read it in about a day and really enjoyed it. The plot moves along at a quick clip, and while the characters do have a strong rapport, the romance element is not given much attention until the very last chapters. (Side note: I wasn't overwhelmed by these characters—they are certainly serviceable, but I didn't completely connect with them. Some of this is just because we learn a limited amount about them in the confines of the story. Kerry is given a nice backstory, but in attempting to maintain Ethan's mysteriousness, we learn very little about him, which ultimately, was unfortunate. It leaves room for lots of speculation, but honestly, one of the things I enjoy most about vampire novels is finding out about well, the vampires...)
Overall, however, what I enjoyed most about this novel is the fact that the vampires--particularly anti-hero/romantic interest Ethan--actually remain vampiric. They kill people without remorse and even admit to enjoying it. Even more interesting is the almost off-hand way in which Vande Velde embraces the sexual undertones of the vampire story—casually integrating a short conversation between Ethan and Kerry:
Ethan was speaking hesitantly, having a hard time putting this into words. “It's not just the nourishment from the blood itself...There's a physical and mental bond, a sharing of the spirit for lack of a better word...”
Kerry took in a deep breath. “I think I've heard this line from the boy who took me to the Harvest Dance.”
Ethan laughed with what sounded like genuine amusement, which was disconcerting because she hadn't meant to be funny. “There is a similarity.” He looked at her appraisingly, as though trying to gauge how experienced she was.
She folded her arms in front of her chest, determined to keep him wondering, before she realized that her gesture had probably told all.
Ethan said, “Sometimes, not always—but with the right partner—vampires mix the two acts: sex and the drinking of blood. Either of itself is...very pleasurable, but the combination...”
Parked on the side of a dark road, Kerry didn't like the direction this was taking, even though Ethan was showing no inclination to demonstrate. She said, “I'm sure praying mantises and black widow spiders feel the same.”
With 'de-fanged,' conscience-laden, human-obsessed vampire lovers becoming more of the rule than the exception, I was actually delighted to read a novel that didn't try to bridge the mortal-vampire gap. She doesn't want to be a vampire, and he doesn't want to repent of his evil ways.
Also, enjoyable is the fact that Vande Velde is an affirmed one-off novel writer. No sequels (see: http://www.vivianvandevelde.com/seque...). So while the ending of Companions leaves the story open for continuation, it's unlikely that we'll see an overwrought second and third novel of undead romance. And it's nice to see a story stand on its own once in awhile. ...more
John Green's name has come up a number of times when I've been searching for popular/recommended YA literature and I'm glad that I've finally 'read' oJohn Green's name has come up a number of times when I've been searching for popular/recommended YA literature and I'm glad that I've finally 'read' one of his books. I listened to the audio version of Looking for Alaska, which I would highly recommend (Jeff Woodman, the narrator, has a knack for accents, voice differentiations, and a not-too-squeaky approach to female characters).
Looking for Alaska has what I'm coming to understand to be my YA lit 'must-haves': quirky, but not overly or unbelivably popular/cool/worldly teens; a frank, responsible, and un-moralized approach to sexuality and general mischief-making (yes, teens sometimes imbue substances of various stripes); and some assemblance of growing or changing over the course of the novel(I'm a bit of a sucker for that whole bildungsroman thing). The story centers on Miles (a.k.a 'Pudge') Halter, a skinny, socially-challenged Floridian who moves to Alabama to go to boarding school for his Junior year of high school. Upon his arrival, Pudge meets The Colonel, his roommate who is attending the school on full scholarship (brilliant, but poor), and Alaska, the brash, secretive, hyper-sexual burst of energy who he immediately falls in love with.
The drama in the novel varies from the serious (domestic unhappiness, familial death) to strictly adolescent (making out with someone else's girlfriend, pranking the rich kids). And the aforementioned quirks give the world of the school and the characters themselves a richness without ever seeming gimmicky. Pudge is obsessed with last words, and sprinkles these throughout conversations in the book; the cafeteria regularly serves 'Bufritos'--deep fried burritos; a rabid swan guards the woods so that kids won't sneak off to smoke in them; the characters spend their night getting drunk on pink wine, or rather, "try to summit Strawberry Hill" (which, some of you might note, is much like 'draping [oneself:] in Black Velvet'). And best of all, the characters are really (proudly) intelligent. Their pranks are designed to 'Subvert the Patriarchal Paradigm.' They have conversations about their World Religions class and Buddhist principals. It's refreshing without feeling forced.
There were several times listening to this story--one moment featuring a confused, yet earnest 'erotic' episode--that I actually laughed out loud. But as the plot begins to spiral a little more out of control (and the book's running countdown finally reaches its climactic event) it does become a rather sad, serious story. But it deals with tragedy and guilt and regret in a way which respects its audience.
Had it not been for some unfortunate connotations that I had with Hillerman (he was the author of choice for a particularly Wicked Stepmother), I woulHad it not been for some unfortunate connotations that I had with Hillerman (he was the author of choice for a particularly Wicked Stepmother), I would have most likely read his whole oeuvre by now. When he died earlier this year, I decided to make like a good Southwesterner and rectify this omission in my reading list. The problem was I didn't really know where to start. (I was told by an enthusiastic library volunteer in Oro Valley, AZ that I should just start at the beginning and work my way through, but that seemed a little more time consuming than I was ultimately prepared for.) In the end, a discount book rack in Portland, Maine made my decision for me. I started with Listening Woman because I was able to buy it for a dollar.
This ended up being a good introduction, I think, even if it was pretty arbitrary. A little further research and I now know that this is one of the few Hillerman mysteries featuring just Joe Leaphorn; his counterpart (and subordinate) Sgt. Jim Chee is introduced relatively early on in the series. It's also not one of the more high profile (read: multi-awarded, movie-versioned) novels. This combined leads me to believe that I had a rather organic introduction to the Leaphorn series.
Listening Woman had a number of things to recommend it--good characterization, evocative descriptions of the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Navajo Reservation where the book takes place, and snappy pacing. On the flip-side, the plot was, from the get-go, unnecessarily complicated--involving three separate cold-cases that come together to form one master crime scenario, the ending (though exciting) drug out far too long, and descriptions of action (dynamite exploding and killing people, notably) was rendered in such a way to make it unclear to the reader where people were and what exactly was going on.
In the end, though, two things about this novel stuck out to me. Firstly, there's the empathetic descriptions of Navajo culture and traditions (especially when contrasted/dramatized against the background of 'White' culture). About mid-way through the novel, Leaphorn visits a Navajo clan during a Kinaalda--a sacred coming of age ceremony for a Navajo woman. The description of the ceremony itself is rather moving, but it was Leaphorn's reaction to it that really struck me:
"Leaphorn found himself, as he had since childhood, caught up in the hypnotic repetition of pattern which blended meaning, rhythm, and sound in something more than the total of all of them...A girl becoming a woman, and her people celebrating this addition to the Dinee with joy and reverence. Leaphorn found himself singing, too. The anger he had brought--despite all the taboos--to this ceremonial had been overcome. Leaphorn felt restored in harmony.
He had a loud, clear voice and he used it...The big man glanced at hime, a friendly look. Across the hogan, Leaphorn noticed, two of the women were smiling at him. He was a stranger, a policeman who arrested one of them, a man from another clan, perhaps even a witch, but he was accepted with the natural hospitality of the Dinee. He felt a fierce pride in his people, and in this celebration of womanhood."
It's a short passage, but so much is conveyed in it--not only about Navajo customs that many would be unfamiliar with, but about Leaphorn as well.
The other thing that stuck with me about this book is that contrary to my usual preferences, the amazing amount of coincidence and eventual connectivity of various, seemingly unrelated plot elements didn't bother me at all. In part, this is due to Leaphorn's own ethos: "Leaphorn didn't believe in [coincidence:]. He believed that nothing happened without cause. Everything intermeshed, from the mood of a man, to the flight of a corn beetle, to the music of the wind. It was the Navajo philosophy, his concept of interwoven harmony, and it was bred into Joe Leaphorn's bones." This alone might not have satisfied me, however--it's all well and good for Leaphorn to believe in "interwoven harmony," but in fiction, such connectivity generally strikes me as heavy-handed and simplistic. But Hillerman makes a practical point early on that though obvious, perhaps, wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise: "If two white strangers appeared at about the same time in this out-of-the-way corner, one headed for the Tso hogan and the other aimed in that direction, logic insisted that more than coincidence was involved."
Definitely a promising start for me. I think I'll try Skinwalkers next, but if anyone has other recommendations, let me know. ...more
My oft-cited professor friend suggested this book to me, explaining that Larsen was half-Danish (and a librarian) and a frequently overlooked member oMy oft-cited professor friend suggested this book to me, explaining that Larsen was half-Danish (and a librarian) and a frequently overlooked member of the Harlem Renaissance. Even though my friend forewarned me that the prose of Passing was, perhaps, not its strength, however, I have to admit that the clunky phrasing and frequent over-explication of characters' thoughts and motivations ultimately distracted me enough that I didn't finish the book.
This semester, Passing is on two syllabi at the Master's program I work at--one for a class on race and sexuality, and one for a class on literary theory. As such, I'm guessing that viewed through the right theoretical lens, it's a rather illuminating text. However, the little I've read about Larsen suggests that in terms of execution and readability, this novel may not be the one to start with. So sometime in the future, I'll probably give Quicksand a try. ...more