Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book 99: A Beautiful Blue Death

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

In one word, I would describe this novel as serviceable. It didn't irritate me, it was easy enough to get through, but it didn't exactly leave me wanting for more. Set in England in the 1860s, it begins when Charles Lenox receives an invite from his neighbor and friend, Lady Jane, who asks him to begin an inquiry into a former maid's death. Charles Lenox is well-to-do and of aristocratic blood, and as a result of all his leisure time, has become a bit of amateur detective or P.I. He also has a strong interest in Roman history and travel. This is the first in series of murder mysteries centered around Lenox. While I didn't guess immediately who the killer was (possibly because I just didn't care enough), I wasn't impressed with his investigative technique - his interviews just seemed weird, and he immediately suspects one person on incredibly flimsy evidence. In fact, I didn't even think there was evidence pointing to that person, really.

Lenox becomes so focused on one aspect of the case that I felt like I had to be reminded that there was a murder investigation going on. There are a lot of other characters throughout that want to help in the investigation, and everyone remains very proper and polite during the whole novel. There was no real action . . . at no point did I start becoming worried about any of the characters. Then again, I guess it was kind of nice to have a murder mystery for once that didn't involve the detective almost getting himself killed because he is seen as a threat.

It almost seemed like they talked more about tea-drinking and sandwiches than anything else. Every time someone visited Lenox or vice versa, there'd be tea and comments on the cold weather. I guess if someone is interested in Victorian England, those touches might be cute but they didn't seem real - none of the characters seemed real, they all seemed like stereotypes someone might have of what proper Victorian English people should behave like. Also, I got a little irritated by how protective Lenox was of Lady Jane - "you talked to Barnard - how brave of you" - really? At what point did that man ever really seem to be a huge danger? A bore maybe. And yes, I realize, Victorian women are supposed to be sheltered but it was a little irritating how much credit she got for doing basically nothing.

I don't really see myself picking up the next in the series unless I run completely out of ideas for books to read - it wasn't fun enough to qualify for trashy or easy reads when I need something light, and I didn't become invested in any of the characters at all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book 98: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

As much as I like Margaret Atwood, I was a bit hesitant to read this. I feel like some of her more recent books have been disappointing. I knew it was a tie in to Oryx and Crake though they didn't necessarily have to be read in any particular order, and it could still work as a stand alone novel. I read Oryx and Crake a while back, so I couldn't remember much beyond some basic plot points, so it kind of irritated me that I didn't remember more as I was reading this one . . . when Jimmy and Glenn appeared, I wondered if they were characters from the other novel, but it took me a few more chapters to put two and two together. Still, I think if I hadn't read Oryx and Crake already, this actually wouldn't have been a problem . . . it was just the faint recollection that was worse than not knowing at all since I was trying to place it within a context I couldn't remember.

Mostly, I liked this though it took me a while to get into this, partially for the above reasons, and partially because the sermons and the poems from the Gardners seemed like distractions at first. However, as the novel progresses, and I became acquainted with the characters, this wasn't the case since the sermons would contain names of characters I knew and as a result, feel more like background. At first they had simply seemed like philosophy or religious thoughts, both things that tend to make me zone off. I still could have done without the poems that came with each sermon though.

The novel is told from the perspective of two characters, Toby and Ren, who knew each other in the past. As the novel begins, the virus/plague that ended Oryx and Crake has passed, and Toby and Ren are two survivors due to the fact that they had been in isolation as it hit. Toby is in a spa where she had stored goods for just such an occasion as a result of her years with the Gardeners, and their prophecies of the waterless flood (or the plague/virus tha occured). Ren is trapeze artist at a gentleman's club and had been in the isolation room after an incident with a customer to make sure she was virus-free. Ren's story is told from 1st person, and Toby's is told from 3rd person limited.

The novel switches back and forth between the two characters, and each chapter/part begins with the year 25 as seen by the Gardeners, or the year of the flood, and then goes back to give background on the characters. Ren and Toby knew each other before when they lived with the Gardeners, a religious sect; Ren came to live with them when she was around 10, in the year 10, while Toby had joined them earlier when she was already in her twenties. As a result, the reader gets to see the perspective of a child and an adult in this community, and different interpretations of the same events.

Atwood describes the world she had already introduced in Oryx and Crake, although this time it is from the perspective of the poor rather than the two boys that grew up in a more middle class and sheltered environment. Private corporations are in control of everything, species are dying out by the day, and excess exists all around for those that can afford it.

Given what little I had heard about this novel before reading it, I was actually pleasantly suprised. As I said, I had a few issues getting into it, but once the story really started going, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I believe there is supposed to be a third novel, and I would definitely like to see where Atwood goes with it - whether she will introduce new characters and perspectives or if she will continue more with the remainders of humanity trying to forge a life in this new world.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book 97: The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I enjoy Barbara Kingsolver and as a result was very curious to read this, especially when seeing that it would deal with Frida Kahlo among other things. It was a weird book for me to get into . . . I liked it but it definitely almost felt like two separate novels, and I'll explain why as I go.

The novel is set up as a diary entries and letters with a few pages of explanations inserted throughout by the person (V.B.) who decided to compile Harrion Shepherd's personal papers into a book. V.B. explains that Shepherd has always had a tendency to see himself on the outskirts and as more of an observer rather than as part of the action. In fact, even though the first half to two thirds of the novel are comprised entirely of his journal entries, the word "I" rarely appears except when in quoted dialogue. Despite the fact that I was forewarned, I think this may one of the reasons I had a hard time getting into this part of the novel while it might have been easier if it had simply been told from the third person. Even when he addresses his emotions or speaks of himself, he tends to do it in the third person so the novel seems oddly removed at times. The first half of the novel is mostly set in Mexico where Shepherd grows up with his slightly erratic mother after she leaves his American dad. When young, he makes friends with his mother's boyfriend's cook, thus acquiring a skill that will lead him to first be a plaster mixer and then a cook for Diego Rivera, and by extension, Frida Kahlo, "the Aztec princess." Surrounded by these colorful characters, and eventually Lev Trotsky, Shepherd documents their lives and passions rather than his own. Despite the fact that the diary seems somewhat emotionally removed, it is still obvious to see how Shepherd, or Soli as Frida calls him, feels about people based on his descriptions, so that his crush on one of Trotsky's secretary's is obvious due to his Adonis-like descriptions.

After Trotsky's assassination by Stalinist, Shepherd seizes to write a journal, and moves to the States. In the States, he becomes a famous novelist, and most of this section of the novel is comprised of letters written to friends, especially Frida, random thoughts he wrote down without being a regular diary, and newspaper clippings. As much as I loved reading about Frida and his descriptions of her volatile nature, and how everyone fell under her thrall, I preferred this part of the novel, or at least the voice . . . I liked hearing Shepherd actually talk about himself a little bit in letters rather than alluding to himself as "the secretary," etc. It wasn't even necessarily that he was talking about himself more but since it was letters, his tone was more conversational. The writing throughout the whole novel is beautiful and there are quite a few different sentences and paragraphs of great descriptions (then again, there were also a few that went on too long, especially in the diaries which may have been why that part felt slow to me on occasion).

Barbara Kingsolver explains in one of interviews in the back that she wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics, and especially within America - she used Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a contrast to America. As she says, in Mexico and elsewhere in the world, political artists are celebrated and politics and art seems a natural mix (Toni Morrison would agree). In the States, however, she believes that the public wants their artists to be apolitical and not be part of a movement or a cause. As a result, I definitely understand why she chose to set up the novel the way she did, and Shepherd's background as a cook and typist for communists in Mexico made the fact that he would be investigated during the era of McCarthyism all the more believable but in ways it also felt like Kingsolver was interested in Kahlo and Rivera, and McCarthyism and came up with Shepherd as a way to connect the two and I'm not sure if it quite worked for me. I think it might be the tonal shift more than the topic that makes it seem like she took two almost unrelated stories and wove them together, though.

Some other themes that I thought were of interest, and probably also meant to reflect on current times, was the portrayal of the media. I know I have seen complaints and lamentations online about the current state of the media and investigative journalism, and the fact that journalist seem to simply report what people say rather than research it and show the viewer/reader how statements certain political figures are making are false or misguided . . . since they simply get repeated, these statements are accepted as fact by the public. However, while I share this sentiment, I'm not sure when the glory days of investigative reporting were because all the newspapers and media sources in this novel do the same thing in the '30s and '40s and invent a few facts as well. The other theme that I believe was paralleled today was the way Kingsolver described both the McCarthy investigations and the hysteria and fear caused by the idea of Communism even though no one actually really knew what communism was, just that they were against.

Overall, definitely an enjoyable novel, and it is obvious that Kingsolver is also using the past to make statements about the present. The first part had a variety of colorful characters but in ways I liked the more intimate last half better. Basically, there were things I liked in each part of the novel; I just felt like the Mexico section went on maybe a little too long.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book 96: Dogs of God

Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston, Jr.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book - the author says he considers this "the last of a quartet . . . all have focused on stories of ancient and medieval history which have great resonance for the present day, questions of science and faith, of millenial expectations and fears, of clashes between civilizations and faiths. All four books have peered into dark corners of Christian Church history" (339). Part of me really wants to read these other books because they sound like they are about interesting topics, Galileo, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (probably helps that I just read about his parents in Eleanor of Aquitaine), and Europe in 1000 (okay, that one I'm less interested in). However, I'm not sure if I'm interested in reading more by this author, even if his topics might sound interesting.

I admit, I thought it was just me - I kept drifting off in thought while reading this, and would then realize that I'd just read two or three pages without actually absorbing any information. Maybe I was just distracted while reading this - however, at some point, I think, it might also be the fault of the book that I kept letting myself get distracted.

In the book, Restin traces three events that all cumulated in the year 1492 - the reconquest of southern Spain (Granada and the such) from the Moors, the Spanish Inquisition leading to the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus's voyage to the Americas. The uniting theme between all of these is religion, and a certain view of empire. For the most part this book is very educational, and there was quite a bit going on in the fifty-some years that this books spans. However, at some point, it also just felt like there could have been a bit more analysis. It is rather odd - in some ways, I feel like he certainly judged certain people and their actions, and in other instances, it seemed like he was just giving us the opinion of the sources. He describes one of the Moorish leaders as a traitor and a coward (obviously, the guy's action speak for themselves but still I was surprised to hear him described/condemned in such terms, mostly the coward part). There were also a few other things where I could have used more of a "why does this matter?" - granted, I may have just missed some of the explanations when I started zoning out. He explains the Inquisition and its process very well, and I understood that much of it had to do with money - for everyone condemned, the crown would get some money, the judge doing the condemning would get money so I understand some of the motivation behind it. However, there was also an obvious religious motivation behind it since Church members pressured and convinced Isabella to do this: still, I don't think I ever quite got how having people that said they were Christians but were less than devout was actually hurting anyone . . . yes, I know, different times but I just wanted more on this. Or how people could possibly think the judge could dispense justice when he would benefit from condemning people. Also, I would have liked to know why Isabella kept turning to stricter and stricter churchmen at different times. Restin explains the appeal of one of them, but how did the rest gain their important positions, and why did she not want to listen to the more tolerant men?

Though Columbus was the first figure in the title, he actually takes a backseat to the other events. While Isabella and Ferdinand were obviously devout and saw themselves as Christian leaders, to the point where they felt certain prophecies applied to them, they were also very narrow-minded as a result, and used their religious ideology and vision to betray and break treaties and promises they had made regarding tolerance. Of all the people described in the book, most of them appear in a very unflattering light, with the exception of Isabella, Isaac Abranvel (a high ranking Jew affected by the expulsion) and Columbus. Columbus spends the last six years of the war against the Moors attempting to get money for his voyage, and it is only after the war is over, that the monarchs finally agree to finance him, all with the idea of spreading Christianity.

There was one statement towards the end of the book that kind of bugged me and it was about the crew men that had gotten syphilis from the women of Cuba and Hispaniola: "[they] had no resistance to the young women with beautiful bodies who welcomed them" (306). Yes, I'm sure all of these women attempted to seduce the white foreigners, and not a single one of them was coerced or raped on this first voyage of discovery. I'm sure there was some consensual sex before the people realized what was in store for them but I doubt that all of it was. And no, I don't know why that sentence struck me of all the other things in the book.

One other thing: since this book covers over fifty years, there are a ton of people that make appearances. Some of them barely seem important, but there definitely are a lot of names to keep track of as the favorites in the courts change. As I said, overall, it was educational, and probably a good introduction to this time in history. However, I would see this as more of an introduction to the topic, and possibly supplement it with other books for a more analytical view of history.