Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill: A review



After reading the first book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series, The Coroner's Lunch, I decided that I had not had enough of the good doctor and so I immediately started this second book in the series, Thirty-Three Teeth. It is another charming study of Colin Cotterill's unique character, the 72-year-old Pathet Lao revolutionary, who, upon the success of the revolution in 1975, was drafted by the Party to become Laos' one and only coroner.

In this entry, it is 1976 and something is killing women in Vientiane. It seems to be an animal of some sort, one which leaves the marks of its huge bite on the bodies. At first Dr. Siri suspects a bear, partly because he has recently seen a bear in one of his visionary dreams. Then he learns that a bear that had been housed in inhumane conditions in the city has escaped its cage and he feels that his surmise must have been correct.

But his assistant, the redoubtable Dtui, begins to have her doubts and she learns from a Russian animal expert that the cast of the bites on the bodies does not match the mouth of a bear, but rather that of a cat, most likely a tiger. Could there actually be two large carnivores loose in the city even though neither has actually been seen by anyone?

Once again, in the middle of an investigation, Dr. Siri is sent away from the city on government business, this time to Luang Prabang, the former seat of royalty. One evening while walking in an orchard full of ripe fruit there, he happens upon an old gardener. An old gardener who turns out to be the deposed king.

Siri must autopsy two bodies in Luang Prabang. He discovers that they are the bodies of two helicopter pilots. They were trying to rescue the king and his family and fly them to safety. Siri learns that they were shot down and their bodies burned to a crisp in the resulting explosion. He believes that the plot to save the royals was betrayed by someone close to the king. But who? And who will answer for the deaths of the pilots?

On returning to Vientiane, Siri finds that Dtui has been busy in his absence and that her investigation has exonerated the bear from guilt in the women's deaths, but before the mystery can be resolved, Dtui goes missing. Is it possible that she, too, has fallen victim to the beast of the night?

Cotterill gives us characters that we can care about, characters who are doing their best to live with dignity and to perform their jobs under very trying conditions of poverty and want. Siri's morgue has only the most basic equipment, but still he and Dtui and Mr. Geung, his other assistant, manage to treat the bodies in their care with respect and to work to see that justice is done for them. They do so with a little help from their friends, a local policeman and a Party official who is sometimes able to pull strings to make life a little easier for them. It is an altogether believable cast of characters and it is a pleasure to spend time with them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: A review



Laos 1975. The long Pathet Lao Revolution has succeeded. The monarchy has abdicated and the new communist regime is in the process of being formed. 

Dr. Siri Paiboun had been a part of the long revolution. He has been a communist for 47 years, but he didn't really become one because of ideology. He became one out of love for a woman he met while studying in Paris. She was a committed communist and so, to please her, he joined the Party. The two were married and ultimately returned to Laos to join the struggle.

Now that struggle has succeeded and Dr. Siri is 72 and looking forward to retirement and a reprieve from the long privation of life in the jungle. His beloved wife is long dead, killed in an explosion. She had been so devoted to the revolution that she had refused to have children and so Siri has no children or grandchildren. He is alone, but looking forward to a life of solitude. It is not to be.

Siri is informed by a Party official that he has been designated to be the country's coroner. He is appalled. He has no experience as a pathologist and complains that he is too old. But in the Party, it seems, one is never too old to serve.

And so, Siri takes over the post of coroner, inheriting a staff of two, a laborer, Mr. Geung, who has mild Down Syndrome but a memory that never forgets anything and a nurse, Dtui, who loves comic books and has a gift for sarcasm and also a brilliant gift for innovation that keeps the ill-equipped morgue functioning under conditions of extreme privation.

Things bump along easily for a while and then the morgue receives the body of the wife of a major official and the staff must determine why she suddenly dropped dead at a luncheon. The husband wants them to believe that she died of parasites because of her practice of eating raw pork. Siri finds no evidence of parasitism and looks further. Then strange things begin to happen. Siri receives a visit form the dead wife in his dreams and sees that she blames the husband for her death.

Before he can complete his investigation, Siri suddenly has his hands full of dead bodies. Two Vietnamese bodies have surfaced from a lake. One is recognized as Vietnamese and goes to the Vietnamese embassy where their coroner takes charge. The other is not initially identified as Vietnamese and is given to Siri. Both Siri and the Vietnamese coroner, who becomes his friend and ally, recognize the signs of torture on the bodies. Then, a search of the lake turns up another body, weighted down with Chinese shell casings, and this body, too, appears to have been tortured. The coroners suspect a set-up. Someone is trying to create an incident to foment a war between Vietnam and Laos. Is this the work of the American CIA?

Suddenly, Siri is called away to the province where he was born to investigate the suspicious deaths of two soldiers. The army suspects the Hmong people of poisoning or witchcraft. The army takes Siri to a local Hmong village to investigate. The Hmong respond to Siri immediately, recognizing him, by his unusual green eyes, as the embodiment of their thousand-year-old shaman Yeh Ming. Surprisingly, Siri finds that he understands their language. He knows nothing about his family background. Could he be Hmong? He certainly feels at home among them.

Ultimately, Siri is able to bring some closure to the situation between the soldiers and the Hmong and returns to Vientiane, where someone is determined to stop his investigations. Permanently. Someone is trying to kill him! Will he survive long enough to find the solutions to his mysteries and can he bring justice for the dead who visit him in his dreams?

This book was great fun to read. The story is character-driven rather than description-driven. The focus is always on the character of Dr. Siri and his relationships with his staff, his neighbors, those whom he meets in the course of his investigations (both the ones who help and the ones who hinder), and the higher-up Party and government officials. And Siri is a wonderful character, full of humor and love of life, but at an age where death no longer holds fear for him.

Colin Cotterill has created a winner with this character and I look forward to reading more in the series.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The grass covers all





GRASS

by Carl Sandburg, 1918






PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work--



I am the grass; I cover all.

  

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:



What place is this?



Where are we now?

  



I am the grass.



Let me work.







HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND AND NEVER FORGET WHAT WE COMMEMORATE WITH THIS HOLIDAY. DON'T LET THE GRASS COVER OUR MEMORIES.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell (Translation by Stephen T. Murray): A review

The Fifth Woman is the sixth in Henning Mankell's series of books featuring the morose Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and in this one I felt that he finally hit his stride. It was well-written (also well-translated which was important since I was reading it in English) and kept the action moving, which kept me turning those pages. It was interestingly plotted and featured a goodly number of red herrings, some of which were never explained.

By now, we are used to the fact that Wallander is a severely depressive personality who also suffers from hypochondria. He's always imagining he's coming down with something, a common cold, a heart attack, or whatever is the flavor of illness at the moment. But at the beginning of this book, we see a different Wallander. He has made a trip to Rome with his aged father who suffers from the beginnings of Alzheimer's. It is a trip that his father had long wanted to make and that had been long postponed. Both of them understand that it will most likely be their last trip together, but it is a happy time. They grow closer together and Kurt comes home with a Roman tan and a brighter outlook on life. 

He decides that he needs to make some changes. Perhaps he will buy a house, get a dog, and finally try to persuade the woman he thinks he loves, Baiba, to move from Riga and live with him. But before he is able to act on that, a man is reported missing and a few days later is found dead, impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes in a ditch behind his farmhouse. The chase is on once again and, with it, all of Kurt's doubts and insecurities return.

Then another man is reported missing. He was thought to be in Africa for two weeks, searching for orchids, but when he doesn't return on time, police discover that he never actually caught his flight out. A few days later, his emaciated and strangled body is found tied to a tree in the forest. It's beginning to look like Wallander's team may have another serial killer on its hands.

Kurt's work is suddenly complicated when his father unexpectedly dies and he is overcome with grief and regrets, but after some time off, he returns to the investigation. No real progress has been made in his absence. 

When a third man is found dead in a weighted sack in a lake, the investigative team begins to realize that they are up against a very determined killer who seems able to leave no clues. Moreover, there seems to be nothing linking the murder victims. The highly intuitive Wallander doesn't buy that, though. He knows there must be a link and the key to finding the killer is in discovering that link.

Granted, the actual manner of the killings and the plot which allows the killer to accomplish them is a bit far-fetched. Still, Mankell has obviously planned it as meticulously as his obsessive killer has planned the "executions" that are carried out. For these are executions in the killer's mind and the impetus for them relates back to the prologue of the book which finds a Swedish woman in Africa who was seemingly randomly killed in the political violence there and her murder then covered up by the police.

This is a complicated tale, but, at its heart, it is one in which we see that Kurt Wallander may finally be able to shake off his constant depression and move ahead with his life. It'll be interesting to see whether that is borne out in the several books which follow this one in the Swedish police procedural series.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A good interview piques my interest

One of the great joys of my life as a reader is discovering a wonderful writer that I had not read before. That's happened to me several times within the last year, and one of my favorite discoveries was Richard Ford. It's not that I was unaware of Mr. Ford, who has been a superstar in the American firmament of writers for many years now. But I had just never gotten around to reading him.

Finally, last year, I read his Frank Bascombe trilogy: The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. From the first pages of The Sportswriter, it was clearly evident to me what all the shouting was about. The man can write! He has a love of language and of finding just the right word for expressing what he wants to say that shines through in every sentence. It was also clear to see why the second book in the series, Independence Day, had won all those prizes. It is still the only book ever to have won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner awards.

For a couple of weeks now, I've been reading about Ford's new book, Canada. It has gotten very positive reviews and it looks like it will be another success for him. I had been thinking that I need to put it on my "To be read" list. I was delighted, then, to learn that the writer would be interviewed about his new book this morning on the Diane Rehm Show and I settled down to listen. (You, too, can listen to the interview here.)

The first thing that I noticed about Ford was the Mississippi in his voice. He has a very slight accent that sounded like home to me. Moreover, he is a wonderful storyteller, orally as well as in writing, and Rehm is a skilled interviewer. It made for a very entertaining hour.

Ford talked a little about his childhood in Jackson. He grew up on the same street where Eudora Welty lived and he went to the same elementary school that she had attended. In fact, in spite of the fact that there was 35 years difference in their ages, they had had one of the same teachers! With influences like that, how could he not grow up to be a writer?

His new book follows the story of a 15-year-old boy whose family is ruptured by a crazy and criminal act by his parents. The boy winds up in Canada - thus the name of the book - where he finally manages to make a good and decent life for himself. The book follows him through that life. Ford read a couple of passages from the book during the interview. The language was luminous.

Listening to Rehm and Ford talk for this hour, I realized that my first instinct had been correct. Canada goes on my TBR list today!


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear: A review



Maisie Dobbs has been on her own as a private investigator/psychologist for about a year in this second entry in Jacqueline Winspear's well-written series. She has gained a new office, new living quarters, and an assistant, Billy Beale, and she has gained some measure of respect from the police, especially Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard.

She is contacted by a self-made, brash, and impatient businessman named Joseph Waite (An impatient businessman named Waite. Get it? Sorry, couldn't resist!) It seems that Waite's daughter, 32-year-old Charlotte, has run away from the family home and Waite wants her found and brought back immediately if not sooner.

Meantime, the police are investigating the murder of a young woman about Charlotte's age, but before the crime can be solved, another young woman is murdered in similar fashion. As Maisie proceeds in her search for the missing woman, she discovers that there may be a link between her and the murdered women. Then she learns that another woman with a connection to all three has recently committed suicide. At least, it was thought to be suicide. Maisie has her doubts.

She and Billy proceed with their investigation, but Maisie comes to realize that something is seriously wrong with Billy. His leg wound from the Great War is bothering him and he may have turned to illicit drugs to try to ease his pain. And then her beloved father is injured while caring for a horse on the estate where he lives. With all of these concerns on her plate, will Maisie be able to retain her focus on the missing person case?

Winspear manages to weave many interesting historical facts into her historical fiction. Here, we learn about the Order of the White Feather, a group of women who, during World War I, went around England handing white feathers to young men who were not in uniform. The feather was supposed to represent cowardice and it was a form of group pressure to try to get the men to enlist.

Interestingly, we also learn a bit about the inventor of Pilates exercises, which, at the beginning, were meant to help those injured in the war strengthen their bodies and learn to cope with disabilities.

Winspear also does a good job of recreating the cultural atmosphere of the times. This story takes place in 1930 when England, and much of the world, was in a depression, and hunger and want were everyday companions for so many people. Winspear's descriptions of those people seem poignant and real and lend much authenticity to this very interesting series.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Maybe I could move to Canada

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR this morning and her panel of guests - a bunch of political pundits - were going on and on about how the presidential election would be decided by 15 "battleground" states because all the other 35 are already in the bag for one of the two major parties. All of a sudden I just wanted to scream or pull my hair out or maybe both - just do something dramatic! I thought, "Oh. My. God! I cannot stand this for another six months!!!"

Wherever one turns these days, it is all presidential politics all the time and most of what we hear is just dreck. And it's only May! The conventions haven't convened yet. The real campaign hasn't even really started, but already I am totally disgusted with the process. The cynicism, the lying, the posturing - it's all just too much for me. Time to tune out. Thank God for baseball.

At least I will have the distraction of the most perfect game ever invented through September and even into October if I can manage to get interested in the playoffs and the World Series.

It's not really the championship series that interest me though. It's the regular season, the day-to-dayness of it; knowing that, if my team loses today, there's always another game tomorrow.

Actually, my team, the Astros, has played above expectations so far. They've been "in" almost every game, playing hard all the way. The players are mostly so young that they don't realize they are supposed to lose. And so, much of the time, they don't. I think the honesty and passion of their play will be able to keep my mind off the falsity of politics for most of the summer.

And then, well, maybe I could move to Canada. I guess they have politics there, too, but maybe is isn't as incendiary and as phony as it is here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: A review



My daughter, the classicist, is always recommending to me books that are based on ancient texts. She is also a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad then combines two of her main interests and she eagerly passed this short book along to me. It could be read at one sitting, although I read it over a couple of days. It was a pleasurable read, for Atwood is an excellent writer.

The story of Odysseus is well-known from Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. The story of Penelope, the faithful and long-suffering wife to the unfaithful Odysseus, is less well-known. Her story is tangential to the adventures of the trickster and hero Odysseus as related by Homer. Here, Atwood undertakes to tell of the events of Homer's epics as seen through the eyes and experiences of women - namely, the faithful Penelope and twelve of her maids.

The story is told by Atwood in modern times. We find Penelope, nearly three thousand years after the facts of her story, in Hades, along with all the other actors in the epic. She encounters them from time to time as she wanders through the realm. The first line of Penelope's telling of her story is "Now that I'm dead I know everything." In the 196 pages that follow, she proceeds to tell us.

We learn her perspective of the contest which decided who would marry her. She was fifteen years old when Odysseus won her hand and her dowry in marriage and took her away to Ithaca from her home in Sparta. He treated her gently and won her love. 

Her mother, a Naiad, had given her some advice prior to her wedding:
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
As it turned out, it was advice that would serve her well in her long and lonely years in Ithaca.

Penelope's son, Telemachus, was born and while he was still a baby, her beautiful cousin Helen decided to run away to Troy with Paris, forcing Odysseus to fulfill an oath he had made to Helen's husband, Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon waged war against Troy and dragged all of Greece, including Odysseus and Ithaca, with them. Penelope and Telemachus were left behind.

For ten long years the war raged but then Troy was overcome and the Greeks headed home. But where was Odysseus? There was no word from him. He might be dead and, as a rich widow, Penelope drew greedy suitors like vultures.

The greater part of this tale deals with the ten years after Troy fell when Penelope was left alone to rule Ithaca and fend off the advances of those who would marry her. In protecting herself, she had few allies but she recruited her twelve maids and theirs is the second voice in this story. We hear them as a Greek chorus. Through them, we see the lot of slaves, the truly powerless who must submit to the whims and lusts of the suitors besieging the palace. They carry tales back to Penelope. They are, in effect, her spies, but when Odysseus does finally return, they pay a heavy price for their aid to their mistress.

This story is so familiar to us. It long ago became part of Western consciousness, but we've never heard it before from a woman's perspective. I found this telling fascinating. At times poignant and at times funny, it kept my interest throughout, even though I knew how it would end.

Some of the funnier parts of the story were Penelope's reactions to the inventions that make modern life easier. For example, one of her favorite inventions is the light bulb! For one whose life was lived in dim castles lit by candles, the attraction is understandable.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian: A review


H.M.S. Surprise is the third in Patrick O'Brian's twenty book historical fiction series concerning the English Navy in the Napoleonic War and early 19th century period. The entire series has been acclaimed by professional reviewers and ordinary readers alike. The books are extremely well-written with tenacious attention to detail and that continues to be true in this third entry.

Fans of naval history love the series for its wealth of detail regarding the most arcane aspects of life on a navy ship in the early 19th century. O'Brian obliges them with long passages describing, in the terminology of the period, how the ships are set up and how they are run, and the passages concerning the naval battles, I am sure, have those who are turned on by such things drooling. That really isn't me and I confess my eyes glaze over a bit at those times and I tend to skim hurriedly through them.

But these books aren't just about the hardships of life on board ship and about naval battles or else I wouldn't be reading them. At their heart, they are about the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/spy Stephen Maturin and that is what I find compelling in them.

I also find particularly interesting the fact that, even though the books were written in the late 20th century, they are very much in the style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The language that is used, the particular style of phrasing could easily have come from a Jane Austen book, if Jane had written naval histories. This increases their feeling of authenticity and makes it easier for the reader to lose him/herself in the story.

The story here takes Jack and Stephen and the Surprise on a long voyage across the Atlantic, down along the coast of Brazil, then through the perilous southern ocean and back up to the Indian Ocean. They spend time on the teeming Indian subcontinent itself. Their travels in all these places are full of enough adventure to keep even the most easily bored reader turning those pages to see what happens next.

The adventures start even before the advent of the Surprise when Stephen is betrayed and is captured by the French in Spain and there undergoes terrible tortures. He manages to get word out and it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that he is rescued by Jack and a hardy band since he does continue to appear in later books. Unfortunately, after rescuing Stephen, Jack, who has been just half a step ahead of the bailiffs for some time now, is finally run to ground and clapped in a debtors' prison. He is extracted from there by the Admiralty in order to take command of the Surprise and sail the Indian Ocean in search of Napoleon's fleet.

Affairs of the heart take their place in this book, as well, as we find Jack now engaged to his beloved Sophia, much against the better judgment of her mother, Mrs. Williams. Meanwhile, Stephen continues to be obsessed with the beautiful Diane Villiers, who has now decamped to India with her lover, Canning. When we learn that Stephen's voyage will also take him to India, we can guess that they will meet there, which they do with utterly unforeseen consequences.

This book spends many pages on developing the character of Maturin. He is something of an earlier day Charles Darwin as he studies and collects specimens of flora and fauna at their every stop along the way. He is also a student of human culture as he observes it in every port of call, seeking to learn languages and customs. He accepts people as they are and seems to fit in wherever he goes. His interactions with an untouchable child in India are particularly poignant.

O'Brian's writing is also suffused with humor, often provoking smiles or chuckles and, less often, belly laughs, and it is one of Maturin's collecting expeditions, in Brazil, that is the impetus of my favorite line in this book, the one that I found laugh-out-loud funny.

When Maturin returned to the ship with his specimens, he brought with him a sloth, which quickly became a favorite with the crew but which, for some reason, cast a baleful eye on Jack. At one point, attempting to make friends with the creature, Jack feeds it some grog. When Stephen comes upon the two of them later, he views the sloth, sniffs its breath
and realizes it is drunk, at which point he turns to Jack and cries:
Jack, you have debauched my sloth!
Name me one other book where you would be likely to read such a line! 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Finally, Texas is #1!

Yes, finally our state is rated number one in something, but we shouldn't break out the champagne or the Dos Equis just yet. It seems that the thing which we are rated tops in is the number of workplace discrimination complaints filed in 2011.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that during the 2011 fiscal year, nearly 10,000 of the record 99,947 federal charges of workplace discrimination received by the EEOC were filed in TexasThe most common complaints within the state were "retaliatory charges," or those alleging that the employer fired, demoted or otherwise retaliated against an employee because he or she fought against discrimination in some way, such as going to the EEOC. 

The second most common complaint was a claim of race bias and third was gender bias. These  were followed in rank by national origin bias claims and religious discrimination claims.

According to EEOC officials, one reason that Texas ranks number one is because it is very populous, with about 25 million people. But California is more populous and has many fewer complaints. The reason for that seems to be that the state agency for protecting workers in California is very robust and takes the job seriously, while the Texas state agency is, frankly, in the pockets of big business and the right-wing politicians who run the state and it provides very little protection for workers.

Texas politicians like to swagger and brag about how the state is so "business-friendly," by which they mean that they do everything possible to ensure that a business will never be inconvenienced by having to pay its workers fairly or treat them equitably. And should the workers complain about that and try to organize and demand fair treatment, well, there's always somebody else out there looking for a job, and the businesses can be pretty darn sure that the state of Texas has their back if they choose to fire the old workers and hire new ones.

On the other hand, Texas is providing job security for one group of employees. Those who work at the EEOC.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

This is another wacky romp through San Francisco with one of the most screwed up private investigators you are ever likely to meet - on the pages of a book or anywhere else. Namely, Isabel (Izzy) Spellman, she of the Spellman PI dynasty.

At the beginning of this book, Izzy is no longer associated with the family firm. She is working as a bartender in her friend Milo's bar, The Philosopher's Club, and barely getting by. She has finally found an apartment she can afford in the Tenderloin but she finds that she's unable to tolerate the wildlife that share the apartment with her and she contrives a characteristically Izzy-like solution to her problem.

Her brother, David, with the 2500 square foot house with three bedrooms now lives alone since his divorce, but Izzy can't bring herself to ask for his help or to move in with him. However, when she learns that his house has a secret basement apartment, the solution seems perfectly clear to her. She decides to squat there without her brother's knowledge. The only problem (well, one of the problems) is that once she's moved in, she is so much on edge, constantly expecting to be discovered, that she finds she can't sleep.

Meantime, Milo has introduced her to a friend named Ernie who suspects his wife may be having an affair and wants Izzy to investigate. She takes on the job, but perennially sleep-deprived, she's having trouble focusing or making much progress on it. Concurrently, her parents want her to decide whether or not she wants to return to the family business and eventually take it over. It's time for them to make plans for the firm's future. But Izzy, filled with self-doubt, is not sure that she's any good at investigating and doesn't know if she wants to continue with it. Of course, there doesn't seem to be anything else that she's very good at either.

On the other hand, her teenaged sister, Rae, seems to have a natural flair for investigations. She certainly has a natural flair for mischief-making and for getting right up the noses of Izzy and of her (possibly former) "best friend" Inspector Henry Stone.

Oh, and Henry has a brief romance with an attorney that he meets when he helps her break into her car where she has locked her keys. This puts Rae and the elder Spellmans on alert and they begin investigating the poor woman with a view to breaking things up, because everybody knows that Henry is really meant for Izzy! Unfortunately, they can't find anything wrong with Henry's new friend and they wind up liking her. Even Izzy likes her.

David continues to exhibit weird symptoms of some kind of major life-changing event, but nobody is sure what it is. Grounds for another investigation!

Through all of this, Izzy is having to attend court-ordered therapy sessions with a psychologist and she's doing everything she can to avoid revealing anything.

Yes, Isabel is one messed-up individual from one messed-up family, but she's really a hoot to read about. Nothing serious here, just light fare guaranteed to entertain for a quick read.

I only have one complaint and one request for Lisa Lutz: Could you please just write a straightforward narrative and drop all the footnotes and appendices? They are just extremely annoying, especially when you are reading the book on a Kindle. All that switching back and forth gets old really, really fast, and so I stopped doing it. As far as I can tell, I didn't lose anything by skipping them which tells me that they are just a way of padding the book and they are really not necessary.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What could Texas learn from Massachusetts?

Red states and tea partiers really, really love to beat up on Massachusetts. To hear them tell it, you would think that the Bay State is hell on Earth. Well, let's look at some facts and see how that assessment holds up.

Massachusetts is well-known for having some of the top colleges and universities in the country, or in the world for that matter, but what about children's education? Testing of fourth and eighth graders reveals that Massachusetts kids are tops in the nation in reading and math. Furthermore, rating the state as if it were a country, it would rank fifth in the world in reading and ninth in the world in math. That's a heckuva lot higher than the country as a whole rates.

Moreover, when it comes to health care and social well-being, the state again is tops in the country. For example:

  • The state has the lowest rate of uninsured, 5 percent. (Texas has 25 percent.)  
  • They have the highest level of first trimester pregnancy care.
  • They are second highest in child access to medical and dental care.
  • They have the lowest child mortality rate and the lowest teen death rate.
  • They have the second lowest teen birth rate.
  • The state ranks fourth lowest in suicide rate.
  • It has the lowest traffic fatality rate.
  • It is sixth lowest in obesity in the nation.
  • In this state (where same-sex marriage is legal), there is the lowest divorce rate in the country
All in all, it sounds like a life-affirming, one might even say pro-life, state, doesn't it?  

As for financial issues, Massachusetts has the second highest per capita income in the country, and it has replaced California as the greenest, i.e., most energy-efficient state.

In a reality-based universe, a state like Texas, which ranks far down the list on all of these issues, would be camping on Massachusetts' doorstep trying to learn from their success and seeking ways to emulate it. But no, sir! We are Texas tough! We live in our own little fantasy world where all things Texas are always best.  We'll do things the Texas way and if that means our children have to suffer and grow up ignorant, well, so be it! Suffering and ignorance can make you Texas tough. We don't need any Massachusetts miracles in our rough, tough, independent (except for all that tax money we get from Massachusetts and the other blue states) state. No, we don't need no stinking miracles! 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I remember Mama

Reba Cromeans Aldridge
1921 - 2004

If you are lucky enough to still have your mother with you this Mother's Day, be sure to tell her how much you love her and how much you appreciate everything that she has done for you. Make the time to spend with her whenever you can, because too soon it will be too late.

Happy Mother's Day 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

I've been reading some dark books lately. It was time for something light and frothy. Lisa Lutz's second entry in her saga of the dysfunctional, but highly functioning, Spellman family, Curse of the Spellmans, filled the bill nicely.

How to even begin to sum up this story?

The Spellmans are a family of San Francisco private detectives. The head of the family, the father, is a former cop. The mother is a hot size 2 dynamo who attempts to keep a tight rein on her family's shenanigans. The oldest child, David, is the perfect son, and is now (in his thirties) only tangentially involved in the family business. He is a successful lawyer, now married to his sister's best friend, Petra. The middle child, Isabel (Izzy) is the narrator of these stories and the focus of the action. The youngest child, teenaged Rae, may actually be the best detective in the family and she has adopted Inspector Henry Stone of the San Francisco Police Department as her best friend, much to his chagrin.

Izzy has finally, at age 30, moved out of the family home and is subletting an apartment, but she returns to the family home every day because that is also the family business office. She notices a new next door neighbor moving in and, learning that his name is John Brown (obviously made up!) and because she is naturally suspicious of everybody, she is convinced that he is up to no good. She starts an obsessive surveillance of him.

Meantime, in the course of a driving lesson, Rae manages to run over her "best friend" Henry Stone and put him in the hospital. Izzy is assigned the case of the copycat vandals, miscreants who are vandalizing the holiday displays of a neighbor, Mrs. Chandler, in the same manner that Izzy and her friend Petra did many years earlier. And David and Petra seem to be separated, although David doesn't want to talk about it and Petra has disappeared. Last but not least, both of the senior Spellmans are behaving in a highly suspicious manner, prompting their middle child to initiate an investigation of them, also.

Throw into this mix an octogenarian lawyer named Morty who comes to Izzy's aid when she is arrested on four different occasions in a matter of weeks and a morose bartender at Izzy's favorite drinking hole, The Philosopher's Club, and you've got all the basic ingredients for this madcap adventure of misdirection and misunderstanding.

This was a fast and fun read. Lutz writes with a light and humorous touch and she has created characters in the Spellmans that may be slightly crazy, but in a good way, and are very sympathetic. One wants them to win. And although they may appear to be completely dysfunctional, they do manage to get the job done. Often with a little help from Henry Stone. I look forward to reading more about the Spellmans' in further entries in this popular series. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Ban that book!"

It was just a matter of time I guess. As the mommy porn book Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels gained notoriety through word of mouth from its satisfied customers and then whipped past the competition to the top of the best seller list, it was bound to come to the attention of some of the more prudish among us and their reaction was thoroughly predictable. "Ban that book!"


It was reported this week that libraries in at least three states have either refused to purchase the book or have removed it from circulation. Their excuse is that it is semi-pornographic and too poorly written. I guess they don't have any other books that are crappily written with steamy masturbation-inducing scenes in them on their shelves.


Anyway, several libraries in Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida have either declined to order the book or pulled it from their shelves. No doubt libraries in other states will follow. Who knows? It might even finally displace And Tango Makes Three as the most challenged book of the year. Although in this case, the book seems not to have been challenged by patrons of the libraries who are, in fact, clamoring for it. The decisions to pull it appear to have been made independently by the library officials without pressure from the public.


Meanwhile, Fifty Shades rolls on, gaining more and more readers. It even made at least one list of books that would make good gifts for mom on Mothers' Day! The compiler of the list wrote: "Is your Inner Goddess telling you to get this book for mom as a joke? It might be poorly written, but it’s so entertainingly poorly written that she’d burst out laughing, ' Holy Cow!'” 


Reading it for laughs might, in fact, be the best reason of all for reading it, based on the excerpts I have seen.  Still, although it might not be my cup of tea, I wouldn't try to deny the pleasures that a taste of it might give to other hot and thirsty women.


Saturday Night Live probably summed it up best in their sketch last week. And when a bit of "culture" has been portrayed in an SNL sketch, you know it has truly made it to the mainstream.




Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell: A review

A problem that I have with almost all the Swedish novels that I read (and there seem to be quite a lot of them) is that often the language is incredibly stilted. Since I'm reading the books in English and I'm not familiar with the Swedish language, I can only assume that it is a problem with the translation, that it must be especially hard to render Swedish into English and make it flow easily over the page. Nowhere do I notice this problem more than with the books of Henning Mankell. I often feel like I'm reading a Saturday Night Live parody of a Swedish scene. That was especially true with The Man Who Smiled.

We're now more than a year after the time when Kurt Wallander, the famously depressive, dour, angst-ridden Swedish detective, was forced to kill a criminal in the course of duty. It was self-defense, but still he is riven with guilt and has had to take sick leave from his job because of his emotional distress. He has tried unsuccessfully to find solace in booze and promiscuous sex, but in the end, he is more depressed and sick at heart than ever. He has decided, at length, that he will resign from the police and perhaps seek a job in security.

While he is pondering all of this on a beach in Denmark, a lawyer friend visits him and asks for his help in investigating his father's recent death. He had apparently died in an automobile crash and it was put down as an accident, but the son doesn't believe it. Kurt is too self-absorbed to really listen to what the man is saying and he refuses to help. A few days later, he learns that his friend has been murdered. At last something piques his interest! He decides to go back to work and to find out what happened to his friend as well as the friend's father - both lawyers. Not far into the investigation, someone plants a land mine in the backyard of the two lawyers' secretary. Then, while Kurt and a colleague are out on the road, pursuing their investigation, someone plants a bomb in his car and only his instinct that something is wrong saves them from being incinerated.

This is a complicated story involving a powerful Swedish billionaire with business interests around the world. Kurt comes to suspect that he is at the center of the evil that seems to be consuming Sweden, even though he is highly respected with an unassailable reputation. How will a simple police inspector, with limited resources and constant self-doubt and second-guessing every decision he makes, ever be able to crack the protective shell surrounding the billionaire and find proof of what he suspects?

These stories are interesting in their exploration of how the Swedish system of justice works and how police investigative units work. Apparently, it is a very collaborative effort with meetings every day to share information and brainstorm. Indeed, they spend so much time in meetings that - as one who spent much of her professional career in meetings - it is a wonder to me that any crime ever gets solved!

The personality of Wallander continues to be the prime point of interest to the stories. He is such a sad sack that often the reader (this reader anyway) just wants to shake him and say, "Get over it and get on with it!" So much agonizing over everything. It's hard to see how he ever finds the energy to get out of bed in the morning and go get his man. And yet, somehow, he always does.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Game-changer

I've mentioned here before that I am a Game of Thrones fan, both of George R.R. Martin's books A Song of Ice and Fire series and of the HBO series. When a book, especially long and extremely complicated books like Martin's, get adapted for the screen, there are bound to be changes. Plot lines are compressed and combined. Disparate characters are combined, their names sometimes changed. Some things get left out. Some things get added.

Although the first season of Game of Thrones on television adhered pretty closely to the storyline presented in the first book, this second season has been another matter. While the action on the screen has stayed fairly true to the spirit of book two, A Clash of Kings, important changes have been made that will only be evident to readers of the book. Some of them are disconcerting at least to some readers. Me, for example.

The scriptwriters have changed the stories of Arya, Jon, Robb, and Daenerys (not to mention Bran and Theon) in subtle and not so subtle ways. Arya, in particular, has been made cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, and this week they had Lord Baelish turning up to meet with Tywin and seeing Arya at his table. It's unclear whether he recognized her, but this never happened in the book and I'm wondering just how the writers will resolve this relationship and what effect the change might have on the future action of the story that involved characters who seem to have disappeared in the screen version.

Likewise, Jon's assignment with rangers north of the Wall, especially his meeting with Ygritte, was tweaked rather significantly in episode six that aired this week, but these changes will have to be accounted for by further changes in future episodes, as will Robb's meeting with the lady "nurse" in his camp.

But most distressing, in fact downright irritating, to me is the fact that the scriptwriters have Daenerys losing her dragons in Qarth! Again, it never happened in the book and it just seems so wrong. What are they thinking and how do they plan for her to get them back? Because we know that she has to get them back.

So many changes. Yes, the dark spirit of the tale survives intact, but with continual changes, it threatens to become another story altogether and that would not be a good thing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Ranger by Ace Atkins: A review

Ace Atkins (Surely that isn't his real name!) is a writer that I had never heard of until recently when I read about this book in Bookmarks magazine, even though he's been on the scene for several years now, long enough to publish nine books. I was intrigued by the description of the book which described its setting as the "corrupt hill country" of Mississippi. Having grown up in that hill country in the northeastern corner of the state, I knew I had to read that book. Then, on a trip to Murder by the Book, my favorite indie bookstore, last week, I found the book on the table at the entry, so I paid the price and took it home with me. I'm not disappointed that I did.

This book was the beginning of a new series by Atkins featuring an Army Ranger named Quinn Colson. We meet Colson as he's on his way to his home county of Tibbehah, a fictional county not unlike Yoknapatawpha, from Fort Benning, Georgia. He's headed back for the funeral of his uncle. He's been a Ranger, the only thing he ever wanted to do with his life, for ten years, spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and very little time in Mississippi. His family is broken. His father left when he was a child. His sister has disappeared into a drug-addled world as a lap dancer in Memphis, leaving a toddler son in the care of his grandmother, Quinn's mother.

It's only after Quinn arrives in Tibbehah County that he learns that his uncle, who was the county sheriff,  apparently committed suicide, but a young deputy on his staff doesn't accept that verdict and passes her suspicions on to Quinn, who sets out to learn the truth. But in order to do that, he has to confront various family problems, as well as dealing with a pregnant teenage girl to whom he's given a lift on his drive into town, and finally uncovering an entire snakepit of some of the most ignorant, violent, mean-spirited, and downright deranged characters you would ever want to meet on the pages of a book. You sure wouldn't want to meet them outside the pages of a book.

It turns out that Tibbehah County is the center of a big methamphetamine operation that is being run by an Aryan Brotherhood psychopath named Gowrie and he's surrounded by a whole posse of like-minded individuals. But Gowrie and his gang are merely the bottom-feeders in a food chain that includes corrupt local officials and reaches all the way to the mob in Memphis. Will the Ranger ever be able to sort it all out? Will these bad guys prove tougher than the ones he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan?

This genre, or more correctly subgenre, of Southern literature might be called redneck noir. It is a violent tale of dangerously disturbed individuals, but Atkins has an ear for the language of the place and an eye for customs and mannerisms that make all of this ring true. And he is, after all, following in some pretty big footsteps,  those of writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, and even Erskine Caldwell. While the tale is a bloody one, it is also at times laugh-out-loud funny and even at the darkest moments, Atkins has a gift for expressing the absurd.

Atkins is a good writer. I don't know why I had never met him before, but I'm glad I finally did. The next book in his Quinn Colson series will be coming out this month. I expect I'll be picking it up the first chance I get.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Rain Fall by Barry Eisler: A review

John Rain is a political assassin in Japan. He is half Japanese (his father) and half American (his mother). He sees himself as a perpetual soldier, a samurai, a warrior loyal to his overlord and carrying out his commands, fighting his battles. Personally, I think John Rain is full of s... er, self-delusion. But then maybe we all are to some degree.

I have a few problems with this book. First of these is, what is the time frame? If we were ever explicitly told, it must have been in a part that I rapidly skimmed over. (There were several such parts.) It is written, though, as if it were a contemporary story and since the book was published in 2002, that would mean 21st century. Now, John Rain is described as a veteran of the Vietnam War trained by the U.S. Special Forces. He was in Vietnam, we are told, for three years. He had lied about his age to join the military when he was 17, but any way you add it up, by 2002, John Rain would be getting a bit long in the tooth for some of the activities described here. 

Secondly, Rain is a killer who has spent twenty-five years killing people on assignment for his employer who he thinks is the ruling political party in Japan. He's presented as almost preternaturally intuitive and smart, but he never suspects who is actually behind his orders? Plus, his specialty is killing people in a manner that will make the deaths appear like "natural causes." Judging by the death toll in this one book, over twenty-five years, he must have killed hundreds if not thousands of people, usually with his bare hands, and he never left a trace or a clue? A major suspension of disbelief is required here.

As we meet Rain, he is about to kill again. His target is a man on a crowded subway car. He accomplishes his assigned task, making it look like a heart attack, but soon things begin to get complicated for him. He inadvertently meets the beautiful jazz musician daughter of the man he killed and he finds himself drawn to her. Then he finds that his victim may have been trying to expose corruption in the Japanese government, that he may, in fact, have been one of the "good guys." To complicate things further, he discovers that someone is after the daughter, apparently believing that she may be in possession of the material that the now dead maybe good guy was going to use to prove corruption. Rain is drawn into the daughter's world and seeks to protect her from the bad guys - who are probably his employers! And then it looks like people are trying to kill him, too. Oh, it does get complicated.

Did I mention that the action takes place in Tokyo? There is rather mind-boggling detail of the streets and the mass transit systems in that city. As Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, "For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like." I'm sure there are people who thrive on intricate details about the subway system and that it adds a lot to the story for them. Those people will probably love this book.

I didn't love it. I didn't hate it either. It was just okay. It was the first in a series and Eisler has published several more in the series since then, but I doubt that I'll be picking them up.

An afternoon at the museum

Few things are calculated to make me feel my ignorance more keenly than a trip to the wonderful Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The place is a cultural treasure for our area and one that should be visited and enjoyed as often as possible. Even if it does make you feel stupid.

And so, to Houston we headed this morning, fighting heavy Friday traffic on our hour-long trek into the city.

The museum has expanded and renovated several times since my first trip there back in the 1980s. Today it is barely recognizable as its former self. Indeed, it has grown so that it is no longer possible to see it all in one visit - if it ever was. Looking at art takes time. You have to give each painting, each sculpture its due. You can't just rush through it. We hardly even made a dent in seeing what was available to us today and yet after a couple of hours I was completely overwhelmed.

The museum doesn't have any big A-list exhibitions right now. King Tut just closed and Rembrandt is coming next month, but just now things are a bit more low key.

They did have an exhibition called Modern and Contemporary Masterworks which we visited. It featured the works of avant-garde Latin American artists, some of whom I was somewhat familiar with - like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera - but many of whom were new to me. My overall impression of the exhibit was one of lush colors and movement, but I have to admit that many of the works were beyond my comprehension. A little too avant-garde perhaps.

I felt on much firmer ground with the antiquities, sculptures from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia. And I wonder what it says about me that I felt more at home in works that were 2000-3000 years old than in contemporary Latin American works? Probably just that I'm a hopeless old fogy.

We also visited the galleries featuring European art from the 13th to the 20th centuries. A disconcerting number (to me) of these paintings featured themes from the Bible. I found them disconcerting mainly because they were anachronistic. Like the picture of St. Paul writing at a desk with a bound volume open before him. A bound volume? Really? And, of course, there were all those pictures of Mary and baby Jesus, portrayed with blonde hair and blue eyes and beatific expressions. As Bob reminded me when I complained, these artists were trying to make a living. They had patrons and they painted what the patrons wanted, what they would pay for. The paintings are beautiful in their way and they exemplify the most exquisite technique, but art must touch something in the viewer to really be meaningful. These pictures just don't touch me. And what I said above about not rushing through art? I'm afraid I rushed just a bit among these galleries.

It was, however, in the European galleries that I saw my favorite picture of the visit.

Now, if I were titling this picture I would call it "Girl in a Red Hat" or maybe "Girl With Big, Sad Eyes in a Red Hat." The artist, though, called it "The Corn Poppy," apparently because the red hat, which is the dominant feature of the painting, was the color of the corn poppies with which he was familiar. The artist was Kees Van Dongen, a Dutch painter who lived from 1877 to 1968. He painted this picture in 1919. He was a Fauvist, a school of painting known for using rich colors, and his specialty was painting sensuous and sometimes garish portraits of women. He also painted with a sense of humor and I think you can see all of that in this picture. I remember my professor in a long ago art appreciation class telling us that all we should ask of a painting is that we find its color and lines appealing and that it has something to say to us.  This painting speaks to me.

The other exhibit that we visited today was American Art: 1800-1970. These featured a lot of beautiful landscapes and story-telling pictures like the one of the Confederate soldier who has just found the body of his brother, a Union soldier, on a Civil War battlefield. Hard not to be moved by that. There were also portraits and still-lifes, many of them lovely, although none exceptionally memorable.

That was what we saw today, but there was so much that we missed. African Art, Asian Art, Pre-Columbian Art, Native American Art, Oceanic Art... Really, the mind boggles. Guess we'll just have to go back again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

It's always such a pleasure to pick up a new No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Novel. Spending time in the company of Precious Ramotswe is like being with an especially kind and understanding and positive old friend who may know your faults and weaknesses but who loves you anyway. It is like a refreshing cup of tea at the end of a trying day.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the thirteenth in this series, and, in my opinion, it is one of the very best. The pages slipped by much too fast for me. I was very sorry to bid goodbye (for another year or so anyway until Mr. McCall Smith can crank out another one) to Mma Ramotswe at the end.

As always, the mysteries that beset Precious here are of a commonplace nature. A young man, the best of the apprentices at her husband's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors garage, is wrongly accused of dealing in stolen goods and is arrested. Mma Ramotswe's old friend, Mma Potokwane, who has devoted her life to caring for the orphans of Botswana, is suddenly and unjustly dismissed from her position. And it appears that her assistant - er, associate - detective Grace Makutsi and her new husband may be being cheated by the contractor who is building their new house. 

In the midst of these upsetting events Mma Ramotswe has a dream of a tall man waiting for her under an acacia tree. Then one day, the tall man walks into her life! It is her great hero and role model Clovis Andersen, who wrote the book The Principles of Private Detection, the manual that has inspired and guided Precious' professional life. 

Mma Ramotswe can hardly believe her good fortune in having this paragon walk into her life just when she is overwhelmed by problems that need solving. Surely with Mr. Andersen's help she will make short work of the mysteries that confound her. But something is not right. Mr. Anderson seems very depressed and sad. Perhaps he will simply be another problem for Precious to solve.

This story rambles along, frequently in Precious' ancient tiny white van, as she searches for answers to the problems afflicting her friends. We know that, in the end, all will be well and that she will find a way to return order and justice to her world. There really is no mystery here, just the sheer joy of spending time with this good and decent woman.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jesus' true disciples

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is a paternalistic and misogynistic medieval institution that believes it is infallible and all-powerful. It exists in the alternate universe of the fabulously wealthy and self-deluded that has little to do with the real world that the rest of us live in. The hierarchy shows no understanding of or empathy for the lives and struggles of real people.

There is, however, a segment of the Catholic Church that stands with common people and that spends every day on the front line struggling right along with them. That would be Catholic nuns. These women, with their devotion to being living examples of the gospel of Jesus, have earned the admiration even of people like myself who view the Catholic Church as an anachronism.

It would stand to reason then that these same nuns would not be in the good graces of the hierarchy of a church which views women, in general, with a jaundiced eye, the instigators of sin in the world. In recent years, American nuns especially have been repeatedly investigated and rebuked for their insufficient espousal of the official church doctrine on contraception and abortion. Apparently, the poor nuns have been too busy actually working in the real world of women's health concerns to spend time on what are essentially phony and very politicized issues. So now they have been sternly rebuked by the Pope and he has instructed the bishops of the church to essentially take over and dismantle the organization to which 80% of American nuns belong.  Because, you see, the Pope and the bishops have such a wonderful track record of interpreting and living the principles propounded by Jesus. (See history of pederasty, pedophilia, abuse of power by priests, bishops, and, yes, popes.) 

The Church's total tone-deafness and obliviousness to the real work that the nuns do and the fact that they are just about the only Catholics who haven't been tainted by recent scandals have raised cries of outrage from many both inside and outside of Catholicworld. Over the weekend, both Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristof used their columns to defend nuns and to excoriate the Church hierarchy, and they are only two of many.

A church that refuses to acknowledge the equality of the sexes, that insists that its priests cannot marry and that those priests can never, ever be female, a church that will not accept the value that contraception can bring to an over-populated and underfed world, a church which continues to cover up its history of abuse of children and to protect the abusers, a church which accepts the protection of government but refuses to help pay the bills is not an institution that deserves our respect. It is, I believe, a dying institution, though no doubt its final demise will be long in coming. I do hope, though, that the best elements of this otherwise out-of-touch medieval anachronism will survive. I hope that we will always have nuns who embody the philosophy of Jesus and bring comfort to a hurting world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Isabel Dalhousie, meet Maisie Dobbs. That's what I was thinking as I delved into this first book of Jacqueline Winspear's popular series. The character of Maisie at first reminded me a great deal of Isabel. Both are philosophers and psychologists, and are deeply intuitive people who rely on those intuitions to understand and solve mysteries. As I got further into the book, though, I found significant differences. For one thing, I liked Maisie a lot, whereas I often find Isabel irritating and exasperating in the extreme with her constant agonizing over the moral issues of everything. ("Shall I wear the pink blouse or the white blouse today? Which is the moral choice? What would David Hume do?") Maisie is a more down-to-earth, practical sort of person who lives in the real world of England ten years after the Great War and has real problems.

I suppose one of the things which makes Maisie a more sympathetic character for me is the fact that she comes from the working class. Her father was a costermonger and when her mother died just as she was entering her teenage years, she went into domestic service. Isabel Dalhousie, on the other hand, is very, very rich and never had to struggle for a place in the world. But, enough! It's unfair of me to compare the two. I enjoy them both. It's just that I find it easier to identify with Maisie.

Maisie had a bit of luck with the family with whom she was placed as a servant. Lady Rowan Compton was a suffragette and a feminist who wanted to improve the world. She recognized when she caught Maisie reading philosophy books in the family library that this was a special girl, one that she might be able to help to achieve something in the world. She sponsored her, found a tutor for her and saw to her education. Then along came the First World War and everything was put on hold.

Winspear has structured her book in three parts. The first part begins in 1929 as Maisie is launching her career as a psychologist and confidential investigator. We follow her first case which turns out to be a domestic mystery - a man suspects his wife of cheating on him. As Maisie gets into the case, she finds it much more complicated than it would have seemed at first glance. Following one line of inquiry leads to another. And another. And another.

The second part of the book gives us Maisie's backstory. We return to a time before the war and just after the death of her mother and we go with her as she enters domestic service and begins to forge new relationships and learn new things. We follow this story up until the beginning of the war and the mobilizing of the country. A traumatic event in Maisie's life forces her to reevaluate her position and she decides to volunteer as a nurse. She receives her training and is sent to France and meets her first love.

The final part of the book returns to 1929. Maisie has followed her case down all its pathways and has solved the original mystery but that has led her to further conundrums. She discovers a farm that has been set up as a "retreat" for badly injured and damaged veterans of the recent war. It sounds like a noble enterprise, but Maisie's worrisome intuition tells her something is not quite right here and that she must probe further.

This book is ostensibly a mystery but it could just as easily be classified as a historical novel. Indeed, the book reminded me somewhat - and in a good way - of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey as it is set in much the same historical period and the relationships of the characters are somewhat similar. I read that the book was very well-received by critics when it came out in 2003. It was nominated for and received several awards including the 2003 Agatha Christie Award for Best First Novel. The New York Times named it as one of its "notable books of 2003." I can only add my voice in agreement to these assessments. This is a fine first novel, well-written with a wealth of historical detail, and with sympathetic characters whom one wants to get to know better. I'm glad there are several more books in the series and I look forward to reading them.