I may be the last reader on earth to try one of Margaret Truman’s Washington “Murder at …” series. A colleague who moved on to another job left it in a crate of books for me to use at school, and I snagged it at the end of the summer while setting up my room. Murder at the Watergate was a surprise–light, breezy and entertaining. Truman shamelessly “place drops” (rather than name drops), so it’s a perfect fit for a news addict like me. I read it over Labor Day and it was a fun cap on my summer reading. I’ve long been a Grisham fan for light reading, but have been disappointed in some of his more recent law books. (Does anyone else think he’s lost his knack for an ending with a twist?) I think when I need fluff, I just might move through some of Truman’s other Murder at … titles.
So while the piles of papers hooked me, I’ve not read a book since Olive Kitteridge where the main characters are so very unlikeable. Elaine is a driven, hardened woman–really such a cliche–while her husband is a feckless ne’er do well who rides on her coattails (another cliche!). TV historian Glyn is really Elaine’s counterpoint, and all the while, Kath (we were to assume she was the shallow character) was the lost, misunderstood soul whose gorgeous exterior hid a bleak interior life. Because of the cliches (perhaps) I really didn’t feel compelled to read pell mell, which was sad, considering the summer is ending and reading time will become dear; rather, I soldiered on and finally finished.
But those piles of papers slipping and sliding out of the landing cupboard did keep me going. Glyn’s pursuit of the truth (one, mind you, that he didn’t care to find while his wife was living) was manic–and I thought of dad’s tortured retelling of his early years. He, too, was manic–and also skewed, I’m guessing, every nuance he found in the photos. Glyn did the same, perhaps hoping to find himself the sympathetic one after living years of self-absorption. Hmmmm. Sounds disturbingly similar to dad’s account–and perhaps for the same reason.
Sidenote: Isn’t “detritus” one of the best words in the world? I just love it!
This month’s Wired had an intriguing article about individuals who have decided to simply vanish–burdened by the mess they’ve made of their life, usually either relationships or illegal business dealings.(Check out “Gone” by Evan Ratliff; Sept. 09) Seems that none of the folks ever really vanished–that, now matter how airtight they thought their plan, they tripped themselves up somehow when they relaxed their guard. Ratliff is even trying to see if he can disappear for 30 days–$5000 if anyone finds him!
Of course Ratliff mentioned Huck Finn and Great Gatsby, both literary characters who sought to make their lives over. Curious also is the fact that the vanishing acts featured in Wired are all men. I wonder how many novels have been written about these kind of vanishing acts? I can think only of Ann Tyler’s Ladder of Years where Delia walks off the beach, down the road, and onto a new life. Any others?
The Photograph by Penelope Lively
I’m pretty certain that Lively is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I first met her in Moon Tiger when I worked at the bookstore–this is the book that I warned a customer included incest, but “good incest”! Sheesh, what was I thinking?! I think more than anything, it is Lively’s style that I appreciate so–and would emulate if I could. That, and the British-isms that are so delicious.
“He tugs at a file to improve his view of what lies beyond and, sure enough, there is a landslide. Exasperated, her gets down on hands and knees to shovel up this mess, and suddenly there is Kath.
A brown foolscap-size wallet file, with her loopy scrawl across the flap: Keep!
… What is she doing her, in the middle of all this stuff that has nothing to do with her?” (2)
Only a couple dozen pages in, I am already intrigued. Glyn, searching for papers he needs to write an academic paper, comes across an envelope that contains (big surprise) a photograph. The photograph–also labeled DON’T OPEN–DESTROY seems to indicate his deceased wife may have had an affair. With her brother-in-law, no less.
We’ll see how this all plays out. The piles of papers is what hooked me–
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barberry
I admit that I had a difficult time with this novel at first. In fact, I have been “reading” it for about three weeks–unheard of for me! (But one of those week, I just let it lie on the shelf because I didn’t know if I wanted to go on.) Translated from the French, Hedgehog convinced me that U.S. readers are wimps when it comes to reading novels for the mind. Within the first several pages there were references to Marx, Feuerbach, Mahler, Death in Venice, Proust, Freud, and Japanese art films–topics not addressed even in contemporary American midlist fiction, to say the least.
The novel follows the lives of two misfits–Rene Michel, a well-read, yet (formally) uneducated concierge for a wealthy Paris apartment building, and Paloma Josse, a wealthy, precocious and thoughtful 12-year-old. Both women decry the world they live in and their observations leave them bitter and bereft. Madam Michel hides her true self behind the stereotype of “concierge”; Paloma plans to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by setting the family apartment on fire and committing suicide.
The first half of the book is draining. Both characters are so quick-witted, yet so contemptuous and scornful of those around them, finding empathy for them is difficult. But enter Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, the man who moves both women to awaken to the soft heart of their True selves (yes, a capital T!) and the novel deepens. Paloma quickens to the relationship she develops with both Mm. Michel and Kakuro, and comes to see that her plans of self-destruction really make her no different from the violent youth gangs she sees on TV. And Mm. Michel opens to hope, realizing that perhaps what makes life worth living are those crystalline moments in an otherwise murky existence.
The end was, quite frankly, a shock. Barberry flipped what we were expecting on its end, and, the last incredibly bittersweet pages saw me putting the book aside so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with tears. It is Paloma who ends the book with, “I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world.”