Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mysteries and Whodunits

Sometimes your head needs a little bit of a workout, but not the sort of exertion you'd need for, say, Kant or Sartre.  You've had a long day, you're tired, but you want a book to sink your teeth into and get the cerebral wheels turning.  That's when you really need a mystery to read.  There's so much variation out there that you'll find a lot of cross-genre mysteries to suit any taste, even chick lit! 
Start with the classics of mystery fiction --  one can't mention mystery without a bow to the master, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Author of some dubiously sci-fi books, his career really took off when he created Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, live eternally in Doyle's short-story series, as well as his novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, and The Sign of Four.  Doyle also provided subsequent generations of mystery writers with the pattern of genius detective and somewhat dopey friend to serve as a kind of straight man.
Of course there's Agatha Christie as well, who created the characters of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  I've always loved Miss Marple -- it's so easy to underestimate the scatty old lady knitting in the corner; however, she's nosey as anything and has a wealth of knowledge that no one would imagine her having at all.  Christie wrote prolifically, but the quality is a bit uneven.  (She was quite mysterious herself; she disappeared at some point during her adult life, reappearing later with no explanation).  I recommend as a start Murder on the Orient Express (with Poirot), At Bertram's Hotel (Miss Marple), and then you can take it from there.
I've mentioned Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey before, so I won't get too fulsome here.  I'll only mention that The Nine Tailors is considered by many to be the finest and least solvable mystery ever written.
Other classic mystery writers include Josephine Tey, who didn't write enough of them to make me happy -- I've reread her Brat Farrar until it fell apart, and The Daughter of Time, in which Richard III has his character rehabilitated by a police detective stuck in the hospital, is generally considered one of the best mystery/historical novels ever written.
Not to neglect the American classic mysteries, it's worth trying Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries.  A more unpleasant, more brilliant, and fatter detective you will not find, but these books take the reader straight to 1920's New York City.
Moving along to our times, P.D. James has, at this point, donned the crown of mystery queen in Christie's place.  Also British, her mysteries feature Adam Dalgliesh, who is a far more complex character than any ever created by Christie.  James, I think, is really a very sophisticated writer who has chosen to write mysteries.  Sometimes a bit horrifying, her stories are the kind that keep you guessing, but not wildly.
I also like Robert Parker's books, which are not too complicated (anyone can pretty much solve them by the end of the first chapter) but are a delight to read.  The dialogue is hilariously written, and by the end of the book the reader thinks Spenser is a real person.  Last time I went to Boston I looked for him every time I saw someone walking a large black dog (in the books she's called Pearl).  Sadly, he died recently, so you'll have to make do with what he's written already.  Another similar writer is Bill Pronzini, whose Nameless Detective novels are terrific.  Interestingly enough, he's married to Marcia Muller, another well-known mystery writer, but I can't say I like her books as much as I like his.
This weekend I read Martha Grimes's latest, Fadeaway Girl.  I really prefer her Richard Jury series, but she's such a hoot to read that I enjoyed it anyway.  Grimes creates terrific characters -- each one has bizzare idiosyncrasies.  One doesn't read Grimes for the mystery; I think her books are more about the process.  Fadeaway Girl is the sequel to Belle Ruin, and is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl who works in her mother's hotel.  Among other responsibilities, she mixes novel cocktails for her Great-Aunt Aurora, who lives on the top floor.  Oh, and there are two characters, brothers called Ubub and Ulub (after their license plates -- don't ask) with speech impediments.  If you like Grimes, you're lucky -- she's written a lot of books.
A new mystery series I've gone through recently features Flavia De Luce, a ten-year-old growing up in '50's Britain who makes her debut in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  No, it's not for children.  Flavia plays with chemicals as a hobby.  There are at least two more of these by Alan Bradley, and he seems to be on a roll.
I'll stop here, because otherwise I could go on all day, but if you have comments, questions, or special requests, please post in the comments section.  Also, try to think of any contributions you could make to my Guilty Pleasures post!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

What I Read This Weekend

This post is going to present a sort of smorgasbord of reading material; I had some themes in mind, but I got wrapped up in several books I read over the past two days.  Which reminds me -- before I launch into the meat and potatoes of this post, I would like to address a personal issue.  Since I began this blog, I've been frequently asked, "When do you find time to read?" and variations of that question, many asked in a borderline insulting way, have been getting to me.  I've said this before:  people make time for the pastimes they most want to do.  Some of you crochet, cook fiddly and complicated meals, carve watermelons (if you don't know what I'm talking about, don't ask, you'll never understand), exercise at the gym daily, paint, shop obsessively, surf the net -- you get my point.  If those are your favorite pastimes, you find time to do them, and more power to you.  I like to read.  I like reading better than any of the above.  So put a sock in it, please.

Back to business -- I started my weekend reading with Suffer the Children, by Marilyn Wedge.  A family therapist, Wedge proposes a whole new way of viewing the psychological maladies that are so often diagnosed in children today.  While I found her writing style to be a bit self-aggrandizing, her methods seem so sensible and down-to-earth when compared to the veritable frenzy of medicating that we seem to be doing lately.  In many cases where a child is displaying behavioral symptoms, Wedge finds that it is often a function of how the family is doing holistically.  For this reason, Wedge often meets with the parents alone after initially meeting the child, and she has, in many cases, treated a child successfully by addressing problems in the parents' marriage, for example.  Other situations included a child who was on the verge of being diagnosed as ADHD and on the autistic spectrum, whom she discovered was simply very nearsighted and no one had noticed.  It's a must-read for any educator, and if you're a parent, it will really make you think.  I know it gave me much food for thought.

A couple of fun books I got through this afternoon included The Peach Keeper,  by Sarah Addison Allen, and Friendship Bread, by Darien Gee.  Friendship Bread is a fluffy confection of a feel-good book; it features estranged sisters, more than one character with a tragic loss, a flood, and lots of talk about cake.  I can't resist books that talk about cake; it's almost as good as eating it.  Of course there's a lovely happy ending, but it's a worthwhile read just for the occasional funny parts -- Gee does a great job of spreading out the laugh-out-loud bits while keeping the tone fairly serious.  You don't want to miss the part where two characters are having a pregnancy-test marathon, one thrilled and the other disbelieving.
The Peach Keeper, on the surface, seems to be much the same, but a few pages in it becomes evident that this book has a touch of something different.  In a way it reminded me of Chocolat, which had an undercurrent of magical menace; The Peach Keeper has this supernatural vein running just below the surface; blink and you might miss it.  It's the story of a southern town, ladies' society and all, where an old mansion is being regentrified into a posh bed-and-breakfast, and old classmates return and reunite in unexpected ways.  Sounds familiar, no?  Throw in a corpse under a peach tree, and some weird poltergeist-like events, and that's the book.  I enjoyed it, even though I didn't expect to like it much.

I just put down another new book I wasn't wild about, but I'll mention it here because I have a feeling it will be talked about -- these types of books that feature historical figures, weird characters, and lots of subtext usually are.  Mr. Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt, features the about-to-retire Winston Churchill.  If you're into that period of history, you may know that Churchill was prone to periods of depression; he called it his "black dog."  Well, Mr. Chartwell is the physical manifestation of that Black Dog.  He's on the cover as well.  At the opening of the story, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in the house of a widow, Esther Hammerhans, whose own loss is not immediately revealed.  Over the course of the story, Esther and Churchill are drawn together, albeit briefly.  It's not a comfortable story to read.  Some parts are downright disgusting (he is a large black dog, living in a house); but for the most part, it's not really a book to inspire and exalt the spirit.  Like the Black Dog, it depresses one.  However, because this shows every sign of being an Important Book, you may as well read it and seem to be up on things in the literary world.

I'm planning a post on Guilty Pleasures in reading -- I'd appreciate any comments and suggestions you'd send my way.  Think of the books that you feel a little sheepish reading, that you wouldn't necessarily flaunt but are just the thing for a bubble bath or with cake and tea late at night.  Thank you!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Given the amount of media attention this memoir has garnered, I've decided to give Amy Chua's memoir of raising her two daughters its own post.  If anything, the hullabaloo over this book has shown me how ridiculously unreliable book reviews and commentary can be when confused with a journalist's personal agenda.

From what I can see, most of the reviews of this book are shocked, shocked to hear a mother crowing over her coercion and borderline abusive behavior.  Ms. Chua forces her daughters to practice their respective instruments for hours each day, (gasp!) refuses to accept a grade lower than A (unless it's in gym), rejects her daughters' pathetic birthday cards, and mocks the tendency of Western parents to allow their children to follow their passions (whether it be soccer or Facebook for fourteen hours a day).  All this is done in the spirit of being a Chinese parent, because this is how Chinese parents do it, and it's far better than how you sloppy Americans parent.  So there! says Chua.  Goodness, how dreadful, I thought.  And then my local library came through with the book, and I finally read it for myself.

Now let's rewind a little -- this book is not meant to be taken quite as literally as most of the media has apparently taken it.  Part parody, part confessional, part memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the story of a very driven and extremely controlling woman who happens to be Chinese.  (Incidentally, her husband is Jewish).  It seems to me that this book is more about how this woman, whose tough parenting methods worked beautifully with her talented and self-motivated elder daughter, hits a brick wall with her younger daughter.  Sophia, the firstborn, takes to her instrument (piano) like a fish to water and thrives on the pressure as it intensifies. However, the younger daughter, Lulu, is a lot more like her mother.  Perhaps even more gifted than her sister, Lulu is given violin lessons and shows great talent.  However, Lulu doesn't allow herself to be pushed around, and the book features episode after episode in which parent and child lock horns.  Lulu is a driven as her mother, and as set on being successful and high-achieving, but she wants to drive the bus.  I don't want to give away too much, as this book is a really fun read (as are the photos, which generally feature Chua, arms folded, hovering threateningly over daughter and instrument), but I don't really understand why readers come away with a feeling of loathing for her.  After reading her book, I felt a bit sorry for her, but I also was satisfied with the way she accepts her limitations as a parent and learns to adjust herself a bit.

Really, this book is not about how Chinese parenting is better than Western parenting, and Chua admits as much (though she states that it was supposed to be about that).  It's about an individual family, and their parenting, and the successes and shortcomings of their parenting. However, there is quite a bit of constructive takehome lesson here.
  • "For Chinese people, when it comes to parents, nothing is negotiable.  Your parents are your parents, you owe everything to them (even if you don't), and you have to do everything for them (even if it destroys your life)."  Extreme statement, perhaps, but the essence of this is something I could get behind.  Chua doesn't simply pay lip service to this -- when her mother-in-law is too ill to live alone, Chua insists that she move in with them, even though the two do not really get along well.
  • "The Chinese model turns on achieving success.  That's how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated." 
  • It helps a lot if your children know exactly what you expect from them -- if you're providing them with the tools to achieve it.
This book is a quick, fun read -- but please, don't take it too seriously.