Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Mystery Mystery

I don't read a lot of mysteries. I used to listen to audiobooks of the Kinsey Milhone alphabet series--A is for Alibi, C is for Corpse, etc. I like Sherlock Holmes. But at the library, there are only two reasons I'll go into the mystery section: Mma Ramotswe and Dr. Siri Paiboun.

What they have in common, besides the obvious quality of both taking place in other countries, is a sense of the lighthearted, and (not incidentally) of the actual mysteries being almost subplots. I couldn't even tell you what anyone is trying to solve in any of these books; the point is the characters, the cleverness, and the ambiance.

The two series are very different, though, and I was just thinking about those differences today. In the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, the country of Botswana is practically a character. The beauty of the land, the patient, the values and methodical mindset of most of the characters, and the dialogue are all intended to be distinctly Botswanan. I say "intended," because I have no context for saying whether it's accurate.

But simplicity is the main descriptor I would use for them. People say a lot of sentences like, "It is very bad when your car breaks down." Things are "bad" and "good." Simple observations are made, and a lot of conversation consists of agreeing with each other. I'm not sure if the simplicity is a little condescending, in presenting everyone as uncomplicated, maybe primative? I don't want to think so, and it's terribly charming, but sometimes I wonder.

Dr. Siri's communist Laos is very different. Of course, a communist nation in the '70s is inherently different from a modern African country, but there's more to it than that. Things are messier in Laos, and less pleasant, but the language is the big difference. Cotterill's characters use a lot of sarcasm, wit, cynicism, and complexity. There are still a lot of traditional cultural values represented--respect for elders, family taking care of each other by sending their money home, national pride. But the individual characters in the book come across as more complicated. I can't decide if my assessment that this is a good thing, that it's probably an accurate reflection of the internal life of people everywhere, that it's less condescending, is in itself a somewhat condescending Eurocentric way of looking at things.

So now I don't see anything for it but to learn Setswana and go to Africa to figure the whole thing out.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Kicker

I finished The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian, today. In the last 100 pages, you can feel everything building to a climax--there's a storm like the one that killed the girls at the beginning of the book, and everyone's trying to drive home and really nervous about it, and we jump back and forth among our main characters very quickly. So you know something big is coming.

And for a minute, I got myself all turned around and thought I was reading a Jodi Picoult book, and I expected HER kind of twist ending--instead of the characters having to resolve their difficult quandaries, someone pivotal would die suddenly and no one would have to decide anything. I was totally expecting it--trying to figure out whose death would solve the most emotional and logistical problems within the story.

And then I realized that it wasn't her, and the story had a much more reasonable (if slightly convenient) ending. I actually feel very, very slightly let down, though, because I feel like he set up a very complicated moral conundrum and then resolved it by just sort of ignoring part of it. At least Picoult brings in a deus ex machina to tidy up the loose ends, instead of just pretending that they aren't there.

I hate to be so vague, but it was really such a good book that I don't want to give anything away about the ending! So, go read it and we'll talk more.

As an aside: it's interesting that authors who have very geographically centered novels often have one place that is their "away," where people go to start life over or escape or dream of. For Pat Conroy, it's Italy. For Chris Bohjalian, it's the American southwest.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Passing the Bux

I was a little worried that my huge volume of books in my physical queue (i.e. books that I already have checked out of the library) was maybe the reason I've passed on two books I had planned to read and picked up this week. But I don't think so, I think both were wise and liberating choices.

Adam's Navel sounded like an interesting bit of pop nonfiction--a "physical and cultural anthropology of the human body." I was a little intimidated by the density of the type and the thinness of the pages--god I'm shallow--but when I started reading I realized that yes, the density of this book is a problem. It's basically a brainstormed soliloquy on the human body. Every literary quote and scientific factoid about various body parts creeps into this story. It didn't really impress me, and did I mention the density? A pass.

Born on a Blue Day was quite the opposite. Daniel Tammet's autobiography/memoir about growing up with Asperger's Syndrome and synesthesia. I really wanted it to be interesting--who doesn't want to know more about what it's like to smell numbers? And the idea of peeking inside Asperger's Syndrome, which makes people hard to be around, is very tempting. Sadly, the author writes like someone who has Asperger's Syndrome. The language and style are there, but there is very little feeling--his memoir is a litany of facts about his childhood (as far as I got; I assume it proceeds into facts about his adolesence and adulthood). And there is no feel for synesthesia--I can sympathize with this; how can you describe sight to the blind? That must be what it's like for him to try to describe this to us. But I felt a lack of empathy in his telling that made it hard to read on.

So, no regrets. And yeah, I suppose part of that feeling of liberation relates to the fact that I have more than a dozen library books out. What of it?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

This Is What We Mean When We Say You're Too Clever For Your Own Good

Lemony Snicket.

Specifically, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket. It's really a series of stylish funny lines (not really jokes), cryptically captioned photos that someone picked up in the archives of an historical society, and elaboration on the mysteries within the Series of Unfortunate Events. I've only read the first three books in the series, so I'm really curious, now, whether a lot of the mysteries in those three books are resolved later in the series--that is, if this autobiography is elaborating on questions that are answered, or merely raised, in the series of books. I might have to ask Wikipedia, to spare me reading all 13 books.

Next up: Born on a Blue Day, the memoir of an autistic savant; or maybe Bloody Jack, a swashbuckling tale of an orphaned girl gone into piracy. I don't know that I can read The Buffalo Soldier right now--Bohjalian is always so...I won't say maudlin, but not for someone who's in a mopey mood.

I'm reading toward my due dates, at this point. I have several books due in a week or so--Adam's Navel, which is about body parts (nonfiction, thank heaven), something by Patricia McKillip...oh, it just goes on and on. I'm going to bed.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Local Branches

Local library branches are a challenge for me. I have two books on my "Check This Out Soon" list, and the only place to get both of them is at the main branch of the BPL. Before Baby, that would have made them easy to get, but getting downtown is a bigger deal now than it used to be, so I'm trying to decide whether I should order them for delivery to my local branch.

These are the things that prey on me.

I just finished Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which was not quite as good as Graceling, but another big YA winner. In the distant future, people in the Capitol live lives of wealth, supported by the labor of the poor, hungry folk in the outlying Districts. And once a year, two young people are selected randomly from each district to participate in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death with only one winner. Overall, the book was quite compelling--even the premise seems less of an obvious setup the way it's explained--and my only complaint is that it ends with the words "End of Book I." The story is well wrapped up, but the personal relationships are not, and there's plenty of political turmoil to make another book, but I'm undecided as to whether or not I want to commit to this.

Now I'm reading an older post-apocalyptic distant future story, called The Chrysalids. I'm enjoying it so far, but I don't know what the driving force of the story will be yet, so I don't have a firm opinion.

I'm excited about this spring, though--Dooce's Heather Armstrong is coming out with It Sucked and I Cried, the story of her troubles with postpartum depression, which I'm very excited to read. She's an hilarious and sensitive writer, and I'm really interested in the topic. And Megan McCafferty is coming out with Perfect Fifths, the topper for her Sloppy Firsts series. I'm full of anticipation--I might even have to buy some of these!