Monday, December 27, 2010

Nothing to Envy

The irony of the title of Barbara Demick's moving book, Nothing to Envy (Random House, 2010) is of course that North Korea--where children were taught a nationalist song "We Have Nothing to Envy in This World"--itself possesses nothing at all to envy, nothing to support the heady propaganda of the Socialist state in acute decline. What was once a jewel in the Socialist crown has steadily and rapidly fallen into a hellish manifestation of a ruling dynasty's eccentric, deadly desires--a regime ill equipped to deal with the fall of the Soviet Union and its attenuating ramifications for former patron states.

But Demick's book steers clear of political rhetoric in favor of realist individualistic depictions of "real lives in North Korea." Her precise descriptions and renderings of North Korean families over a long period of time create a narrative momentum that grips the reader in an emotional and gut-wrenching pull. The recurring theme of North Korean lives from the early 1990s onward is the quest for basic food. Kim Jong Il's denial of the famine cost the lives and suffering of untold millions. A simple dish of white rice--once the basis of Kim Il Sung's Communist rule--by the 1990s under Kim Jong Il becomes an unfathomable luxury.

The dire conditions of ordinary North Koreans is one of the world's greatest tragedies, and I cannot imagine a more powerful book to bring the realities of this complex issue into the light. In 2009, Demick told The New Yorker: "Any glimpse of the outside world is corrosive to the regime’s hold over the population. When North Koreans watch soap operas, especially South Korean soap operas, and see ordinary people in kitchens with microwaves and gas stoves, refrigerators filled with food, they realize everything they’ve been told is untrue. They do have something to envy."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Holly Blues

It’s nice to be back in Pecan Springs, Texas after the previous China Bayles mystery, Wormwood, had China on adventure in Kentucky Shaker country. Susan Wittig Albert’s latest installment, Holly Blues (Berkley, 2010) begins with the mysterious arrival to Pecan Springs of Sally, Mike McQuaid’s ex-wife and Brian’s mother. Sally is not exactly China’s nemesis but she is a perpetual nuisance to China, McQuaid and her own sister. In the past she has proven to be a liar, a cheat, a squanderer and all around bad news.

No one’s quite sure why Sally has come to Pecan Springs just a few days before Christmas. Neither China or McQuaid, happily married for many volumes now, warm to her presence, though their realization that no matter what, Sally is still Brian’s mother, she should be treated with some respect despite how crazy her stories sound and the various sorts of trouble they expect her to bring. Indeed it’s not long before China learns Sally has lied to her about why she came to Pecan Springs from her home in Kansas City. And soon, they both learn Sally has a stalker who has followed her to Texas.

McQuaid, away on business in Omaha, leaves China to deal with Sally and all of the increased holiday traffic at the shop herb shop she owns with Ruby, her venerable sidekick whose back story in Holly Blues isn’t quite as deep as in other installments, but nonetheless flawlessly realized and imagined.

Sally inexplicable disappears just as she and China were worried about the stalker. Meanwhile, someone near and dear to all of them is found dead in a north Texas town. There are a few murders, all off scene, and another subplot involving the decades-old murder of Sally’s parents in Kansas, which McQuaid is persuaded by Sally to investigate since he is in nearby Nebraska. Albert uses a narrative technique she first employed in Nightshade (one of the best entries in the whole series) that gives events from McQuaid’s perspective, a break from the first-person China narrative. I thought the technique was used to even greater effect in Holly Blues because McQuaid was far removed from the happenings in Pecan Springs and so we could get his point of view on things while he was away, things that China could not have told us from her real-time first-person perspective.

Holly Blues is a solid, welcome installment in the unique and expertly crafted China Bayles series. Few are better than Albert at bringing the complex strands of a new mystery puzzle together with the comfort of the setting and characters we have grown to love.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stirring Up Strife

Jennifer Stanley's Stirring Up Strife (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2010) is a well-plotted and well-written mystery that is as fun to read for the subplots as it is for the central "whodunit" puzzle. The premise is this: Cooper Lee, an unlikely female office machine repair technician, has a chance encounter with a client whose jammed copy machine Cooper is called in to repair. That client, Brooke Hughes, has an instant connection with Cooper and invites her to attend Bible study sessions at Hope Street Church. Cooper, feeling down and out after recently breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Drew and moving back in with her parents, could use a little light in her life, so she decides to visit Hope Street.

The Bible study is all aflutter when Cooper, as it seems one of their beloved church members, Wesley Hughes, has been arrested for the murder of his wife, Brooke! Cooper and members of the Bible study, who know Wesley and cannot imagine his having committed the crime, set out to prove his innocence through old fashioned gumshoe detective work.

The strength of Stirring up Strife is in its strong plot, and while all of the characters have some relationship to it, we also feel they have their own lives. Stanley does an excellent job of balancing our introduction to these lives (such as Cooper's parents, various members of the Bible study group, etc.) and offering action and clues to solve the mystery. One of the best subplots is Cooper's second chance at love with a member of the Bible study group; we are cheering for her all the way. Stanley is also great at evoking the atmosphere of urban Richmond, Virginia, the setting for this series.

As many readers who are drawn to this book because of its church-ish theme could potentially be driven away by it. However, I can attest that Stanley does a really good job of balancing the faith/God/prayer themes without much syrupy sentimentality or even a drivel of preachy rhetoric. That is a much more difficult task to do than Stanley makes it seem. While the Bible quotations at the beginning of every chapter did seem to get a bit heavy at times (and the more orthodox among readers might object to their contextualization), I found myself always reading them and finding resonance in the chapter that followed. This is a rather bold move for commercial mass market fiction, but Stanley is up to the job.

My qualms with the book are minor but bear mentioning because I am seeing them as a trend in many cozies. I am of a personal mind that authors should stop writing "clucked" as a term of expressive action. I'm pretty sure people don't cluck, or even if they do it must be rarer than what we're reading in a lot of cozy mysteries these days (maybe the tsk tsk??). I'm also not a fan of characters who refer to their vehicles with made-up cutesy proper names based on the vehicles size and/or color (here there are two, "Cherry-O" and "Sweet Pea," and you can probably guess one is red and the other, yep, green). It kind of removed me from the story every time I came across those things, clucked and proper-named autos. I would also lose Quinton's hymn lyrics, which as printed in full within the text read like doggerel even though they would be extremely appropriate set to the right music in a church environment.

These small annoyances, which may well be just my own hangups anyway, do not detract from this excellent first entry into the Hope Street Church Mystery Series. The solid and believable finish is as satisfying as what came before it, one mark of a good mystery. I will look forward to the next book, Path of the Wicked with anticipation.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taking Chance

Taking Chance was a surprisingly moving film about what happens in the aftermath of war tragedy. Kevin Bacon portrays US Marine Lieutenant Corporal Michael Strobl, who has volunteered to accompany the remains of a young Marine killed in the Iraq war, Chance Phelps, back to Phelps's hometown in Wyoming.

What makes the emotions of this movie work is that it avoids the saccharine emotion-tugs prone to movies of its type; it is not of a piece, which is precisely what makes it work. Based on a true story, it is not a film that takes an evident "side" or makes moral judgments about the war itself, and so viewers' readings of it will certainly be wide and different. Bacon's steady performance is one of his best, perhaps since Murder in the First. And the film far outpaces its nearest recent comparison, the Woody Harrelson-helmed The Messenger, which somehow seemed more contrived than Taking Chance.

Taking Chance's concentration on the mechanical processes of the return of a war-dead soldier holds a magnifying glass to the heavy tolls that war, patriotism, responsibility, and duty exact on the individual who must bear them. Beyond the glare of star-spangled soldiery and military steel, there are the soft hearts of family and friends, and a nation that continues to ask itself, "Is it really worth it?"

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Together, Alone

This beautifully-written memoir by the multi-talented, Susan Wittig Albert is a wonderful meditation about what it means to live in the world. Her mature sensibility of "place" as more than just the location where you are takes the reader into various understandings of an individual's lived experience of history, contemplation, meditation, writing, silence, spirituality and choice.

She writes about the deliberate choices she made in mid-life, from college professor and administrator to full-time author and gardener. Her concern with the natural environment of where she lives in the Texas hill country--the plants, trees, waterways and fauna--seems to have deepened over time. She has a healthily fearful appreciation of the limits of what the earth can do, and give, and likewise has many insightful thoughts on the matter. The second half of the book was mostly about Albert's experiences of going to a "silence" retreat in a remote corner of southeast Texas (Kenedy County), which allows her to craft some beautiful set pieces on the natural history of the area. I had no idea there were nilgai running the plains of Kenedy County!

The other theme of the book is about understanding one's individuality; for example, her own place in a marriage, in doing work of her own. Albert's perspective on this seems to be influenced by certain Eastern philosophies and religions, but this is a neutral observation as she is not at all preachy or condescending, nor does she posit her own views as somehow superior to others.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for an enjoyable, informative read by an author whose sensibilities I appreciate more and more with every book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Writing Class

The Writing Class (Picador 2009) is an enjoyable entertainment from the unpredictable but very talented Jincy Willett. Although the mystery puzzle seems a bit cliche as a plot device, it really doesn't matter as there are frequent moments of brilliant writing in this sometimes sad, often funny novel. Willett is a perceptive writer, and probably a wholly dedicated teacher.

Willett laces the depths of human feeling and emotion through her characters in the most unexpected ways, especially in the strong lead character, extension professor of creative writing, Amy Gallup. One cannot help but draw similarities between Gallup and Willett, which is perhaps what gives Gallup her human heart and sense of professionalism in its most soldiering sense, replete with duty, honor, anxiety, joy.

Gallup is a one-hit-wonder semi-famous author who is in a decades-long dry spell and teaches writing courses at the local university extension to make ends meet. She is an identifiable character especially because of the private moments of her fear, resilience, love and care we are privileged to witness. She represents a large segment of successful, single American women who lead independent but somewhat lonely lives not always by choice and not always without fear; we don't often see these vulnerable sides portrayed in such original, funny and ultimately winning scenes.

The writing class itself is populated by seemingly misfit types that one might expect at a university extension writing class. When an anonymous interloper starts leaving bizarre notes and signs to the class, Amy is on edge: The Killer, as they call him, could be any one her students! But she soldiers on, and it is in balancing the large cast of supporting characters (the many members of the writing class) where Willett stumbles a bit.

The Writing Class is a wholly original work, but for me the puzzle (and people's subsequent actions/reactions to events unfolding around it) was difficult to buy. I recommend it nonetheless for Willett's incredibly satisfying creation of Amy Gallup. And because it is a valuable book and de facto book of advice about how to become a good writer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Welcome to Stay More, Arkansas and the magical world of Latha Bourne, one of the most singularly interesting characters in all of American fiction. Donald Harington's Enduring (Toby Press, 2009) is a beautiful, expansive novel and perhaps one of the most engrossing and fascinating works I have ever read. It follows the life of Latha Bourne, her entire life so far, from cradle to the age of something past 100.

Like all of Harington's books, there is no need to read them in any kind of order or sequence as Mr. Harington writes as a storyteller first, and he does it so artfully that every novel exists as its own creation--I myself have read his novels in different orders and have been rewarded in my own experience. There is no earthly way a reader will get lost in this book, other than in its enchantment and delicious plot. In fact this book itself may be a good place to start if it's your first Harington novel. If you read it you'll see why.

Latha Bourne is one of the most beautiful heroines in all of literature, and she is also one of the most independent and enduring. I loved learning about her family, her troubles, her "exile" and sojourn, and triumphant return to Stay More. Along the way, we meet and admire, perhaps fall in love with, a large cast of major and minor players (Every Dill, Doc Swain, the Duckworths, the Whitters, Dawny, Dan, Sharon, Larry, the Ingledews and Chisms and a few other surprises), all of whom--almost by magic--leave an indelible mark on the mind of the reader, the only place where in fact they exist. The settings vary from Stay More, Jasper, Little Rock, and Tennessee. I can't give away much more because I risk spoiling so many beautiful surprises that are best encountered in your reading.

The book is told as a wonderful story, as if around a campfire or an old fashioned gathering, and I couldn't help myself but want to visit this place sometime, to see if I could sit with Latha on her front porch, or near the dogtrot, and have a glass of lemonade and learn about the history of her mythical, inviting, beckoning hamlet.

Mr. Harington is well-known for his playful wordplay and musical language, and his impeccable comedic timing--all of which are present here. But he is not usually given his due as the master of suspense and plot he is... ENDURING is a testament to those talents. I turned the final page with a great deal of satisfaction and also without a clue where the hours went, the hours I spent happily traveling through Latha Bourne's remarkable life.