Again and again

A Red Herring Without Mustard
Alan Bradley

I have a real problem with mysteries. I don’t like them. Add to that the fact that I’m an Anglophile and my problem gets curiouser and curiouser–for who does mysteries better than the British? Miss Marple? No thank you. Poirot? I’ll pass. Sherlock Holmes? Not so much. And I admit I’ve never even cracked a P.D. James. My husband just shakes his head. I think it may be the fear factor (I don’t do scary anything–books, movies, amusement park rides, Halloween horror houses) or it may be I get weary trying to keep every character straight. As for the clues–when they’re revealed at the book’s end, I find that I missed them entirely.

But for some reason, little Flavia DeLuce has just wormed her way into my heart and I’ll go anywhere for her–even into the heart of a mystery. I must say that the first novel was slow going what with all the chemistry references (so what the heck is magnesium silicate hydroxide anyway? And why should I care?!) But the house–glorious Buckshaw, all back stairways, damp wallpaper, musty Victorian (literally!) furniture–made the going easier. And Father–absent-minded, stamp-loving, grieving widower–drew me in. But of course it was 11-year-old Flavia–tormented little sister, precocious, desperately missing her mother–who has brought me back again and again.

Flavia befriends a gypsy after burning down (accidentally, of course!) her tent at a church fete. Offering  shelter on Buckshaw’s meadow lands, the Palings, Flavia visits the old woman the next day only to find her nearly bludgeoned to death. Enter the gypsy’s granddaughter Porcelain, add another body (Brookie Harwood, town swindler), a secret religious sect, the Hobblers, and you’ve got a Bradley-style mystery. And while in  Flavia encounters real danger in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, this time she escapes with only a sprained ankle.

In Red Herring we also get more from Flavia than ever before about her mother Harriet when she discovers a portrait, never claimed because of Harriet’s death and long stored at the artist’s cottage. Flavia describes her first look at the painting:“Harriet. My mother. She is sitting on the window box of the drawing room at Buckshaw. At her right hand, my sister Ophelia, aged about seven, plays with a cat’s cradle of red wool, its strands entangling her fingers like slender scarlet snakes. To Harriet’s left, my other sister, Daphne, although she is too young to read, uses a forefinger to mark her place in a large book: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Harriet gazes tenderly down, a slight smile on her lips, like a Madonna, at the white bundle which she holds supported in the crook of her left arm: a child–a baby dressed in a white, trailing garment of elaborate and frothy lace–could it be a baptismal gown? I want to look at the mother but my eyes are drawn repeatedly back to the child. It is, of course, me.” 

I love the moments when Harriet reaches out to Flavia somehow–first her abandoned car; now the portrait. It is the mystery of Harriet that intrigues me more than lost heirlooms or murder. Something is left out of the story of Harriet’s death. But what? Take this from Flavia after she studies the portrait that first time: “Something about the portrait nagged at my mind: some half-forgotten thing that tried to surface as I stood staring at the easel … But what was it?” I’m guessing that we’ll find out what that “something” is, and perhaps even (some book soon?) find out more about the circumstances surrounding Harriet’s death disappearance. (See? Perhaps I’m getting into this mystery thing after all.)

And if writer Alan Bradley can get this mysteryphobe to return again and again–and soon another again!–then maybe I’m not so averse to mysteries after all. I just needed to find the right one.

Remembering Nora

I remember reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in the mid-eighties … and I remember my (mental, anyway!) gasp when I read that the delightful novel was Ephron’s revenge after her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein failed. Here she sums up the deliciousness that is reading. I should probably frame it.

May you find endless stacks in your life beyond, Nora. Happy reading forever. 

Lighten-ing

The Illumination
Kevin Brockmeier

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. ~ Leonard Cohen 

Kevin Brockmeier creates a very believable world where every hurt–from hangnail to heart attack–shines with some sort of light, either shimmering, pulsing, flickering, blinding.  At the very outset of the Illumination, as it was almost immediately called, Carol Ann Page watches a young accident victim die in the hospital bed next to hers–but not before the woman bequeaths her journal. The book contains love “post-its” (rather than love letters) left by her husband and recorded in the diary. Assuming the woman’s husband died as well, Carol Ann takes the book after her death and relishes the intimacy on the pages: “I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric.” 

The novel then follows five other people as they come into possession of the journal. Its impact on their lives ranges from profound to superficial. There is the author of the love notes, photojournalist Jason Williford, not dead after all, who at this very outset of the Illumination seeks relief from his grief by cutting, watching the light bars pulse and fade as he self-mutilates. Then there is young Chuck Carter, only ten, but already an old soul. Possibly autistic, Chuck suffers bullying at school and abuse at home. Chuck sleeps with the book under his pillow where it “shone like a wounded animal. The light was sad and bright and comforting to him.” Ryan Shiffrin is next, a door-to-door Christian missionary pounding the world’s pavement for the sister who died of lung cancer; then, Nina the author and Morse, the homeless man. Each character’s story flickers with its own suffering and the diary, somehow, lightens their world for however short a time.

And the Illumination itself, even as a literary device, seems to portends so much. Yet though people notice the light, they seem unfazed. Some believed that “the light that had come to their injuries would herald a new age of reconciliation and earthly brotherhood” and that “making [pain] so starkly visible … would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, or at least ripples of pity, and for a while maybe it had” but “still they grew into their destructiveness, and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world.”

Brockmeier is masterful at making the magical seem perfectly believable and his prose is a gorgeous wash of sensory imagery. Take this passage as eighty-one-year old Ryan Shiffin’s slides into dementia: “He couldn’t wait to start high school next fall, and his hip was achiing with a soft lucidity, and his hands were stained with liver spots … but that did not keep him from catching the Frisbee his scoutmaster was throwing through the crisp November air, nor from knocking on a hundred doors each afternoon with his satchel and his leaflets, though he confessed he found it hard these days to tie his shoelaces and operate his telephone, and he had been away from home now for such a long time.” I find the cadence and imagery of such passages breathtaking.

As might be expected, I couldn’t reconcile the novel’s end and will, no doubt, return to it again and again. If the chick lit and page-turners of summer reading don’t satisfy after a while, this other-worldly story with gorgeous prose just might.

Next up: Elizabeth I, which was a previous “Next up” until I lost the book in the back seat of my car sometime in the last two weeks of school. Go figure. I’d read almost a quarter of the book and am enjoying her company.

That’s what little girls are made of …

Misfortune
by Wesley Stace

Is Rose Loveall “Miss Fortune”? Did her fortune pass her by miss her? Did she long for miss fortune? Or, is her cross-dressing life itself a misfortune? I loved Wesley Stace’s By George and wasn’t displeased with Misfortune, either. It is, however, a riot of a novel filled with more characters and subplots and back stories than the novels of Charles Dickens himself. What I like about Stace, though, is that his stories are original (no run-of-the-mill Chick Lit here) and fresh: an orphaned baby boy is thrown out on a London garbage heap, picked up by a dog, rescued by Lord Loveall, a Johnny Depp-like misfit, and raised as the girl Rose. See what I mean?

Not that Rose’s young life wasn’t idyllic. Understanding that he needed a wife to have produced this infant (apparently one can’t just pick a baby off the rubbish pile and take it home), Lord Loveall quickly proposes to the librarian of Love Hall who sequesters herself until the baby is “born”. (Mother Anonyma, long infatuated with dead poet Mary Day finds original manuscripts in the library over which she spends hours of study, so that ruse is not hard to pull off.) There are playmates and picnics and music and books–the entire manor revolves around young Rose and her every need. But misfortune comes to Miss Fortune when Lord Loveall falls ill, slipping away from reality, and slowly, carriage by carriage, relatives descend on Love Hall to sniff out opportunity–young Rose, of course, will need a husband to produce the future heir.

And as if the the plot wasn’t extravagant enough already, the relatives’ arrival and Rose’s awakening sexuality collide with devastating consequences for both Rose and Anonyma when Lord Loveall dies. For my taste, I enjoy the romp of a Dickens-like tale–but after a while the back stories that connect characters, the poetry and song lyrics that slow Rose’s story, weigh down the novel like one too many sweaters on a spring day.

The beauty of the novel, however, was the unabashed look the reader has of cross-dressing, sexual identity, and gender identification. For Rose, though physically male (and sexually attracted to at least one woman), never gives up her gowns, stockings, and long locks. Her struggle with identifying (and dressing) as a man almost leads to destruction. Her family, too, wrestles with Rose’s identity–but in almost losing her they find that what they really want is Rose, with all of her grace and tenderness. While I still might not understand, intellectually, those gender identity issues, Stace led me to accept and understand Rose with my heart. And isn’t that what matters in the end?

Next up: Oh, my. Dare I even try to write about 50 Shades of Gray? I’d better, because I’m blowing through book two already, but whatever shall I say …

Saints and sinners

The Leftovers
Tom Perrotta

As I mentioned last post in my ‘Next Up’ blurb, I loaded The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta on my Kindle after leaving behind (pun!) Misfortune at my daughter’s. When the Left Behind series was all the rage several years ago I had no desire to even pick up the books. In no way does pre-millenialism figure into my beliefs–and, in fact, the idea is so abhorrent to me that the very word makes me shudder. (And now that I’ve alienated a certain percentage of my readers, I’ll continue.) But the idea of a secular author writing about an idea usually associated with conservative Christians definitely aroused my curiosity–and while I can nitpick about certain plot devices or characters, I must say I was strangely okay with the novel.

This rapture differs from the version I’ve heard about most often where the righteous are taken up to Heaven in a blink of an eye to be spared from the great Tribulation that will serve to purify some of the dross so that those souls, too, can enter Heaven–and the rest … well, we know where they go. (Okay, so you might have guessed I have been exposed to this teaching a little more than I’d like to let on!) No, the rapture in The Leftovers is indiscriminate, taking sinners as well as saints. That, it seems, is why these departures are so disturbing–there is no explanation why some are taken and others not. And it’s that dissonance that leads to the leftovers’ anxiety.

So we watch the Garvey family fall apart: wife Laurie joining up with the Guilty Remnant, fanatics who keep a vow of silence and follow folks to intimidate them into moral living; son Tom, to the Healing Hug movement, started by fanatic Holy Wayne; and husband Kevin, the small town mayor who tries to hold it all together for  daughter Jill. We follow Christine, Holy Wayne’s pregnant sixteen-year-old spiritual wife, his Holy Vessel, as she travels incognito to safe shelter with a supporter, and Nora Durst, known as the Woman Who Lost Everything–her husband, son, and daughter. Each deals with the “Why me?” that accompanies any disaster and seeks to fill the void any way they can: some with alcohol, others with fanaticism, and still others with isolation.

One of the devices I loved in the novel was Perotta’s effortless use of what I’ll call public euphemism–kind of like what we have after 9-11: Ground Zero, Patriot’s Day. In this world they celebrate Departed Heroes Day of Remembrance and Reflection, for instance, and Hero’s Day and whispered around those who were Eyewitnesses, those who actually saw the departures. I have to believe if something like this happened, the United States would also shut down schools and honor the departed. I think I’ve finally identified a plot trend that really, really causes me to dislike contemporary fiction, though–like The Cookbook Collector this novel almost read like a screen play for a movie or TV show. The description of events, people, and places isn’t even writer-ly–but I could sure see it on the small screen. That gripe aside, The Leftovers kept me turning swiping the page. And any book that ends with a baby and this note “This little girl has no name. Please take good care of her.” has my vote. I think they should name the baby Hope.

Next up: … is really last up–my Misfortune has returned and I am well on my way to finishing it. Odd. Puzzling. Gender-bending. Very worthwhile read if you can take the odd, the puzzling, and the gender-bending.