Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Even though I was intrigued by the title of this book, I didn’t read it when it was published in 2009. As soon as I learned the book featured an eleven-year-old protagonist, I decided I’d better skip it, much as the title did intrigue me. I’m generally not a fan of child protagonists. They usually irritate me more than anything else. I don’t know what caused me to become interested in the book again, but I’m certainly glad I picked it up. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a real treat, and just what I was looking for at the time.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is set in the fictional village of Bishop’s Lacey, England, in 1950. The protagonist is the very precocious eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in her family’s crumbling mansion, “Buckshaw” with her eccentric, stamp collecting father, and her two older sisters, seventeen-year-old Ophelia and thirteen-year-old Daphne. Sadly, the girls’ mother, Harriet, died during a mountain climbing expedition when Flavia was just a baby. Joining the family is Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper and cook (even though she does keep baking the family unwanted “pus-like custard pies”), and there’s Dogger, a former soldier who served with Colonel de Luce. Dogger’s position at Buckshaw is less defined than Mrs. Mullet’s. “Father’s factotum,” as Flavia refers to Dogger, is suffering from shell shock, and takes whatever job suits him at the moment. When The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie opens, Dogger is the family gardener. He’s also Flavia’s confidante and the person who teaches her the skills most eleven-year-olds would be better off not knowing.

Flavia enjoys reading mystery novels, and she often refers to them when she speaks. Her real passion, however, is chemistry, and she spends much of her time in the upstairs lab created by a mentally unstable ancestor, Tarquin de Luce. “My particular passion was poison,” Flavia says, and she means it. She often concocts poisonous ointments, etc. in order to exact revenge on Ophelia and Daphne, who spend much of their time terrorizing poor Flavia.

When a dying man is found in Buckshaw’s cucumber patch, a man who utters his final word – “Vale” – to Flavia, herself, and who was surrounded by “a whiff of a peculiar odor – an odor whose name was,” says Flavia, “on the very tip of my tongue,” Flavia knows, without a doubt, that she’s encountered the biggest adventure of her young life.

Flavia is positive that a dead jack snipe, with a rare Black Penny stamp impaled on its bill, and found a short time prior to the discovery of the dead man, somehow ties in with his murder. If it was murder. And she worries that her own father, a stamp collector who “loved stamps more dearly than he loved his offspring” might somehow be involved.

Determined to solve the murder before Inspector Hewitt does – if he does – and with very little to go on, Flavia is off on her mother’s old bicycle, renamed “Gladys” by our heroine, to interview suspects, conduct necessary research, and even nose around in the rubbish because “You never know what you’re getting into when you stick your nose in other people’s rubbish.”

It’s safe to say that Flavia’s “nosing around” gets her into more trouble that she’s ever encountered in her eleven years. Before you read very far into this charming book, you’ll know that Flavia’s going to need all of her cunning and all of her knowledge, about chemistry and about everything else, in order to clear someone she loves and bring a real murderer to justice.

I loved this fresh, original, and often funny, mystery. Though one might expect a terribly precocious eleven-year-old, who dabbles in poisonous concoctions and gets the best of most, if not all, of the adults around her to be insufferable, Flavia comes across as a breath of fresh air. For all her precociousness, all her intelligence, and all her terribly strong will, there’s a sweetness and a vulnerability about Flavia de Luce that make her downright lovable, and the reader can’t help but respond. And even though Flavia describes herself as an “eleven-year-old murderess in pigtails and jumper,” she’s not nearly as bad as she – and some reviewers – make her out to be. No, she’s no pushover, and she’s certainly nobody’s fool, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Flavia’s brave, witty, and imaginative. She’s a little girl with whom most readers really enjoy spending time. And make no mistake, Flavia de Luce is no younger version of Nancy Drew or Maisie Dobbs or even Miss Marple. Flavia, just like the amateur sleuths mentioned above, is truly an original, but any comparison ends there.

The supporting cast of characters is wonderfully drawn as well. Besides the members of Flavia’s family, Mrs. Mullet, and Dogger, there’s a rather mysterious photographer, and Miss Mountjoy, the retired librarian, whose “Reign of Terror” has become legend, and who’s the niece of “old Cuppa Twining,” an academic whose death many years ago is linked to Colonel de Luce and to the book’s present day murder. There’s Maximilian Brock, a retired musician, who may be earning a living writing stories for American romance magazines under feminine pen names. There’s Tully, owner of “The Thirteen Drakes,” his daughter, Mary, and host of village eccentrics, all of who seem utterly believable.

I also thought Bradley did a wonderful job of bringing a 1950s English village to life. I could really “see” the shops, the old hotel, the library, the fields, and the woods. And Buckshaw. Buckshaw is, I think, a wonderful place. Amazingly, Bradley has not spent much time at all in the English countryside. Still, he did a marvelous job of evoking England just after the war, and showing the reader that the war, though officially ended, is still very much a part of day-to-day life in Bishop’s Lacey.

The mystery itself is wonderfully set up. It’s complex enough to keep one reading and guessing, but not so complex as to detract from Flavia’s charming narration. And thankfully, it is believable.

I found the pacing in this book to be “just right.” It never bogs down, yet it’s slow enough to reflect sleepy village life. This is more of a cozy, after all, not a fast paced thriller, though Bradley does include many twists and turns in his plot, enough, I think, to keep even the most demanding reader interested and guessing. It’s fun to follow Flavia as she investigates one clue after another, and tricks or cajoles one adult after another into sharing his or her confidences and memories. And, just so we don’t forget that Flavia is only eleven-years-old, no matter how clever and intelligent she is, there’s a beautiful exploration of the father-daughter relationship as Flavia comes to understand that her father isn’t invincible, and that he does have his faults, like anyone else.

The prose in this book is delightful, just perfect for the subject matter and the characters. Flavia’s voice is incredible. I was totally prepared to reject an eleven-year-old narrator, especially one so precocious, but I found myself not only accepting of Flavia, but adoring her as well. This wonderful, courageous little girl really does deserve a series all her own.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is written with a wicked sense of humor, Flavia’s sense of humor, of course, and one that suits the book perfectly. The excerpt below will show you what I mean. The de Luces are Catholics, but of necessity, they attend an Anglican church, something that Flavia doesn’t mind at all:

Even though we de Luces had been Roman Catholics since chariot races were all the rage, that did not keep us from attending St. Tancred’s Bishop’s Lacey’s only church and a fortress of the Church of England if there ever was one.

There were several reasons for our patronage. The first was its handy location, and another the fact that Father and the Vicar had both (although at different times) been to school at Greyminster. Besides, Father had once pointed out to us, consecration was permanent, like a tattoo. St. Tancred’s, he said, had been a Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation and, in his eyes, remained one.

Consequently, every Sunday morning without exception we straggled across the fields like ducks, Father slashing intermittently at the vegetation with his Malacca walking stick, Feely, Daffy, and me in that order, and Dogger, in his Sunday best, bringing up the rear.

No one at St. Tancred’s paid us the slightest attention. Some years before, there had been a minor outbreak of grumbling from the Anglicans, but all had been settled without blood or bruises by a well-timed contribution to the Organ Restoration fund.

“Tell them we may not be praying with them,” Father told the Vicar, “but we are at least not actively praying against them.”

Once, when Feely lost her head and bolted for the Communion rail, Father refused to speak to her until the following Sunday. Ever since that day, whenever she so much as shifted her feet in church, Father would mutter, “Steady on, old girl.” He did not need to catch her eye; his profile, which was that of the standard-bearer in some particularly ascetic Roman legion, was enough to keep us in our places. At least in public.

Now, glancing over at Feely as she knelt with her eyes closed, her fingertips touching and pointed to Heaven, and her lips shaping soft words of devotion, I had to pinch myself to keep in mind that I was sitting next to the Devil’s Hairball.

The congregation at St. Tancred’s had soon become accustomed to our ducking and bobbing, and we basked in Christian charity – except for the time that Daffy told the organist, Mr. Denning, that Harriet had instilled in all of us her firm belief that the story of the Flood in Genesis was derived from the racial memory of the cat family, with particular reference to the drowning of kittens.

That had caused a bit of a stir, but Father had put things right by making a handsome donation to the Roof Repair Fund, a sum he deducted from Daffy’s allowance.

If you like that kind of whimsical, tongue-in-cheek humor, you’re sure to love this book. Flavia is possessed of so much joie de vivre she manages to lighten the reader’s heart and put a smile on his or her face despite the fact that we’re reading about the solution to a murder.

With The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley has set the bar very high for his mystery series. I have no doubts that he manages, in subsequent books, to live up to, or exceed, the promise of the first book. This is a series I’m going to follow, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself more and more with each book.


Recommended: If you like the “cozy” genre of mysteries, I think you’ll love this book.

Note: I don’t know how many books have been planned for this series, but the ones already published include:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Book 1)
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Book 2)
A Red Herring with Mustard (Book 3)
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Book 4, to be released on November 1st)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review - Solace by Belinda McKeon

Solace, the debut novel from Irish poet and playwright Belinda McKeon, which has been getting a lot of attention lately, is a family drama, or more precisely, an exploration of the bonds and difficulties that exist between a father and a son. We initially encounter this particular father and son in a prologue that is really taken, not from the beginning of the book, but from its middle, a choice that’s partly good, and partly not-so-good.

The father is Tom Casey, a taciturn, hard-bitten, hard-working farmer in County Longford in southern Ireland. Tom is a man whose education and interests are quite limited. He knows all about honor, though, and loyalty and responsibility. There are those who would do well to take a leaf or two from Tom Casey’s book, even though he isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect. And while Tom loves his family fiercely, like the old fashioned man he is, he also expects them to obey. In Tom Casey’s house, Tom Casey’s word is law.

The person Tom understands least is his own son, Mark, who, as the book opens, is down from Dublin for the summer with his young daughter, Aiofe, to help his father with the baling of the hay. The two men eye each other with suspicion and mistrust. Tom sees Mark as sullen, while Mark resents Tom’s attentions to Aiofe. (That strange – to American ears – name seems to be pronounced ee-FA.) In the book’s opening pages, we get a sense of the strained relationship between Tom and Mark, and we also get the sense that something significant has happened that affects, not just these two men, but the entire Casey family. It isn’t what’s said; it’s what’s unsaid. It’s in the looks the local shopgirls give Tom and Aiofe as they make their purchases. And this isn’t the first time those looks have been given:

It was as familiar to him by now as the sight of his own eyes in the bathroom mirror, the look that he had caught on their faces: fear and thrill and greed and pure excitement; a glimpse right into the wreckage on the side of the road.

After presenting us with the prologue, McKeon moves the reader back in time to the events that set her story in motion, back to Mark’s days as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. Unlike his father, Mark never had any use for rural life, and he was relieved to leave the farm for Dublin and Trinity. But Mark doesn’t really fit in with “big city” life, either. He’s a PhD candidate, writing a thesis on the work of Maria Edgeworth, a writer who was from the same part of Ireland as Mark, and whose family's former ascendancy estate now houses the hospital where Mark's mother, Maura, used to work as a nurse. Like many grad students, Mark finds he’s late turning in the next chapter of his thesis; in fact, he’s pretty much lost interest in school and would rather drift along, drinking beer and frittering away his time.

Mark’s life changes when he meets pretty, green-eyed, trainee solicitor, Joanne Lynch, who just happens to have grown up very close to Mark’s family’s home. More outgoing that Tom, and more energetic, Joanne might seem, at first glance, to be just what Mark needs in order to turn his stalled life around. There’s a huge problem, however. Joanne’s late father was a real scoundrel, a swindler, and one of the persons he swindled was Tom Casey. And Tom Casey still bears a grudge against the Lynch family, a grudge that will come into play when Mark and Joanne embark upon an intense love affair, one that quickly produces the couple's daughter, the charming Aiofa.

This “ancient grudge” theme is a familiar one in Irish literature. It’s been done before, and I really can’t say it’s done best in Solace. It isn’t. Edna O’Brien did a far better job working with the “ancient grudge” theme in Wild Decembers, for example. And if one wants the best example of a “continuation of the parents’ feud” one need look no further than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The “ancient grudge” and the “continuation of the parents’ feud,” however, aren’t the main themes of this novel. The father-son relationship, and the divide between the rural/traditional and the city/progressive ways of life always take center stage. Joanne even has a small subplot that revolves around the parent-child relationship, around family inheritance and family responsibility, but this subplot isn’t as developed or as significant as it could have been.

To tell you that a tragic event takes place just past the midpoint of this book probably isn’t going to come as any surprise. It’s been foreshadowed in this review, and that’s only because McKeon foreshadows it so strongly in her book. Far too strongly, I think. I was surprised that the author gave so much away so soon, given how subtle she was in her writing regarding other things, e.g., a physical fight between Tom and Mark.

One professional reviewer characterized the tragedy that befalls the Casey family as one “which even Hardy might have found it difficult to deal.” I can’t agree with that. My goodness, has the reviewer not read Jude the Obscure? Thomas Hardy wasn’t afraid to tackle any tragedy, and while the bereavement in Solace is truly terrible and truly tragic, it’s not something that’s unique to the Casey family. That doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I did. At least I tried to. It does, however, mean that the book isn’t as fresh and original as it could have been. In some ways, I thought McKeon was taking the easy way out. There were so many other ways, ways that hadn’t been done to death, to throw Tom and Mark, and even Aiofe, together and test their relationships and their boundaries.

Three very different characters – Mark, Tom, and Joanne – function as point-of-view characters in this novel. While I thought Tom was particularly well drawn, I can’t say the same for Mark and Joanne. Joanne’s a likable girl, filled with energy and spirit. We know too little about Joanne, though, her deeper feelings about Mark and Aiofe and her own parents.

I have to admit, I didn’t like Mark at all. He seemed downright childish and hateful when he observes, with much disdain, that Tom doesn’t even know the meaning of “ignorant” and when noting another farmer’s talk about “global warning.” I don’t need to like every character I encounter in a novel. In fact, sometimes the ones I don’t like are the most interesting. And there’s the rub. Not only is Mark unlikable, he’s extremely dull and uninteresting as well. Nothing, not even Joanne or Aiofe seems to awaken a spark of passion in this fumbling, callow, and self-centered young man. While reading, I was always anxious to leave Joanne’s and Mark’s words behind and get back to Tom’s.

The very best thing about Solace is the character of Tom Casey. Now, Tom is definitely not dull and callow. In many ways, Tom is very ordinary and unremarkable. He’s a hard-working man who adores his young granddaughter and finds it difficult to get along with his grown son, a son who has very different ideas about life and how it should be lived. Tom, though, possesses a vitality, and yes, even a charm, that all of the other characters in Solace lack. I felt the uniqueness of Tom, the genuineness. One of the novel’s best and most genuine scenes revolves around Tom as he’s first taken aback by one of Aiofe’s tantrums, then finds the whole thing laughable, then dissolves into tears, the tears he had been, until that point, unable to shed. It’s the character of Tom Casey who brings this book to life. He’s just a magnificent creation.

As unlikable as I found Mark, I did like the way McKeon refused to judge her characters. All of them are, in their own way, greatly flawed human beings, and fallible, never wholly “right” and never wholly “wrong.” This refusal to judge reminded me of Kent Haruf’s beautiful novels Plainsong and Eventide, both of which I loved, and of course, of William Trevor, though McKeon definitely isn’t on par with either of those great authors. I’m not saying she couldn’t be in the future, just that she isn’t there yet despite the praise Solace has received.

The prose in this novel is adequate, but except for snatches here and there, not great. I did like McKeon’s understatement, and I thought it fit well into the Irish tradition of John McGahern, Brian Moore, and William Trevor, for instance. But unlike those giants of Irish literature, McKeon seems so afraid of falling into sentimentality that she almost completely avoids any expression of emotion, leaving her book rather flat and monotone, and failing, most of the time, to engage at least one reader. The stark tension and pinpoint focus of the prologue, which really is wonderfully written, is sadly lost in stale jokes and too many details for the balance for the book.

And there’s altogether too much “telling” in this novel as opposed to “showing.” A prime example is a physical altercation between Tom and Mark. This should have been a raw, visceral scene, but McKeon fails to give us any of that raw emotion:

Then he (Tom) went deep, went fast, moved as though on ice through convolutions of his own invention, through spirals that could not be anticipated and could not be stopped; he was fluent, exhilarated, alight.

It’s pretty, though chilly, writing, but it leaves one uninvolved, and one of the fiction writer’s highest goals should be to involve the reader as much as possible. Except for Tom, and then not all the time, McKeon’s understatement left me unable to connect with this novel, unable to work up much caring one way or the other about things even though I really wanted to care. Sometimes raw emotion – even sentimentality – is a good thing. One just needs to use it sparingly.

McKeon does have a wonderful gift for description. Her snapshots of rural Irish life in County Longford are both charming and intoxicating:

It had been a beautiful summer’s evening. It had been hard to want to be anywhere else, looking out at the meadows stretching golden against the sunset, and at the small lake beyond them, and at the bruised blue and grey of the hills on the horizon.

And lest the reader forget that this is Ireland in crisis, in the midst of a financial meltdown:

Inside those houses on those hills were people, and people made everything difficult; tripped over one another and tripped one another up.

While the romance between Mark and Joanne felt inauthentic, and therefore failed to move me, I was moved by McKeon’s images of life in rural Ireland. For example, a frosted tractor window that looks like it’s not “one pane of glass but a thousand tiny chips, held together for one last moment within the square of the frame,” could also be a metaphor for the fragile depiction of human relationships and human life found in this book. It was a beautiful image and one I won’t forget. I was also moved by Maura Casey as she regards the sexual adventures of the young “with a mixture of envy and exhaustion.” Now that’s real humor. Gentle humor. Grown up humor as opposed to Mark’s cruder expressions, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

McKeon balances character and plot well, but in the end, I just didn’t think there was enough plot in this book – no more than what’s on the flyleaf, really – to sustain a whole novel, and I’m a person who greatly prefers character driven novels. I think Solace might have worked better as a longer short story, about the length of Claire Keegan’s beautiful and moving Foster. I’ll definitely take a look at anything else McKeon writes, however, but though I tried, this book really didn’t quite do it for me.

3/5 (The three stars are mostly for the character of Tom Casey.)

Recommended: If you like Marilynne Robinson, you will probably like this book as well.

Note: Belinda McKeon was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on a farm in Co. Longford. She studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin (BA) and University College, Dublin (MLitt). She's married and lives in Brooklyn, New York and in Ireland.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review - Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Jennifer White may or may not have killed her best friend, Amanda O’Toole. If she didn’t, someone in Chicago wants to make it look like Jennifer did. Jennifer, you see is a sixty-four-year-old, newly retired orthopedic surgeon, and one hand of Amanda’s body was found with four of her fingers surgically removed by someone who definitely knew what he or she was doing.

So begins the plot of Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind. I thought it was an excellent way to draw the reader into the book because Jennifer White suffers from dementia. She can’t remember if she killed Amanda O’Toole or not. She can’t remember if she knows anything about Amanda’s murder. Most of the time, Jennifer can’t even remember that Amanda is dead. And even though Jennifer’s memory is crumbling, something nags at its edges, trying to force its way in, “something that resides in a sterile, brightly lit place where there is no room for shadows. The place for blood and bone. Yet shadows exist. And secrets.”

When the police learn that the two friends were heard arguing the very night Amanda was killed, they move Jennifer from a “person of interest” to the primary suspect. As fate – or literature – would have it, one of the police detectives investigating Amanda’s murder had a partner who suffered from Alzheimer’s. This makes the detective – a woman – very knowledgeable when eliciting information from Jennifer, and it makes eliciting that information necessary when it’s learned that Amanda and Jennifer had, not a warm and loving friendship, but one sometimes filled with betrayal and complications, instead. And, when Jennifer’s caregiver, Magdalena, points out that Jennifer no longer has access to any sharp objects, Jennifer, almost gleefully, opens a piano bench stuffed with junk and pulls out a rapier-shape scalpel to show the detective, a scalpel that’s perfect for removing someone’s fingers. When the police detective asks Jennifer why she thinks anyone, even a murderer, would do such a thing, Jennifer replies, “I’m not a psychiatrist," then goes on as if she is: “A hand without fingers can't easily grasp, can't easily hold on to things. It could be a message for someone perceived as greedy, mercenary. Or someone who won't let go emotionally.” Okay. Maybe.

Jennifer’s husband has passed away, but she has two interesting adult children living close to her own home in Chicago. Mark describes himself as a “tall, dark, handsome twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, with a bit of a substance abuse problem, looking for love and money in what are apparently all the wrong places.” He reminds Jennifer of her late husband.

Fiona, twenty-four, is a tenure-track professor, who describes herself as a “total freak with mother issues.” From the beginning, I greatly preferred Mark, substance abuse problems and all, but Jennifer seems to prefer Fiona. “Her I trust,” says Jennifer. “My Fiona. She places paper after paper in front of me, and I sign without reading.” (Never a good idea. Even if the person offering you the papers is your own daughter.)

In order to remain in her lovely, old Chicago house, a house that is only three doors down from the house in which Amanda lived, Jennifer has hired a caregiver, Magdalena. To aid her failing memory, Jennifer labels her photographs. She posts a sign on her kitchen wall that reads, “Live in the Moment.” And, she’s begun keeping a journal, a journal in which she and others – Magdalena, Mark, Fiona – all write. (Interestingly, there are conflicting notes from Mark and Fiona in Jennifer’s journal, and each child warns his/her mother not to trust the other.) The journal’s meant to serve as an anchor in Jennifer's life of confusion and uncertainty and fear, for Jennifer calls dementia “…a death sentence. The death of the mind. I've already given notice at the hospital, announced my retirement. I have started keeping a journal so I have some continuity in my life. But I won't be able to live on my own for very much longer.” Not even with Magdalena around.

Jennifer may have had to give up her illustrious career as a surgeon – one day in the OR, she even forgot what a surgical “clamp” was called and asked for “that shiny thing that pinches and holds” – and her volunteer work at a clinic for those without health insurance is over as well, but on good days, at least, she still has her memories. Memories of her late husband, of her children, of her travels to far-off places like St. Petersburg, Russia, and of course, memories of Amanda.

It’s through Jennifer’s journal reminiscences, on her good days, that we get to know Mark, Fiona, Amanda, the friends’ husbands, and what life was like for Jennifer prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s. We also get to know Jennifer, and if you’re like me, you won’t be surprised to learn that she was a woman who was highly intelligent, often brusque and dismissive, and at times, formidable. She had the strength to do what had to be done including keeping her marriage together after learning her husband was unfaithful.

Amanda, we come to learn, was a highly intelligent woman, too, and rather formidable, just like Jennifer. At times, Amanda was a good friend to Jennifer, but at other times, she competed for Fiona’s attention, and she proved – more than once – that she had a cruel streak. At one point in the book Jennifer calls Amanda “the inflictor and healer of my pain. Both.” Jennifer, according to Amanda, if we can rely on what Jennifer tells us, has narcissistic tendencies. She is, again according to Amanda, a woman who sees herself as “better” than others. “People,” Jennifer says, “who take this to an extreme are called sociopaths, Amanda tells me. You have certain tendencies. You should watch them.”

And Jennifer’s own illness is recorded, by her, in her journal, often in great detail:

This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.

As Jennifer’s condition deteriorates and she becomes more and more dependent and childlike, the atmosphere of the book becomes one of palpable fear, and the images grow more and more haunting and unsettling. At night, Jennifer can be found wandering between her own brownstone and Amanda’s, puzzling over the police tape that cordons off her late friend’s living room. The sweltering heat of a Chicago summer is also brought to life in the pages of this book. You can feel the humidity rising and hear the summer insects whirring and buzzing in the air.

The visits from the police, of course, continue, and they grow more and more insistent and brutal as Jennifer gives them less and less. Of course, with her mind crumbling as it is, Jennifer can’t stand trial for murder, but if she’s found to have murdered Amanda, she will be sent to a state institution. The stakes are higher than they might seem at first glance.

Just as Jennifer is trapped inside a mind that is, in her words, “rotting out,” the first person point-of-view traps the reader as well. Everything is filtered through Jennifer’s unreliable memory, so it’s necessarily fragmented and rather staccato in terms of flow. Some readers will like this while others will be bothered it. I’ll admit, I’m a huge fan of William Faulkner and his long, flowing sentences and paragraphs, so I didn’t really enjoy the fragmentary nature of this book, though I do understand its necessity. Everything, after all, can’t be “long and flowing,” and fragmentary and staccato work well in this novel.

Employing Jennifer as the POV character does add tension and a sense of anxiety and immediacy to this narrative. We know the police are closing in on Jennifer, and we also know complete mental oblivion is closing in as well. This “closing in” adds a very claustrophobic element to the novel that serves it wonderfully. The author does have a rather sophisticated, if somewhat affected (at least in this book) prose style, and to her enormous credit, she eschews all sentimentality and never lets Jennifer descend into self-pity.

I didn’t fall completely in love with the book, though. While the character of Jennifer is rich and wonderfully complex, I found the other characters less-than-fully-realized, Amanda in particular, and I was terribly disappointed by this lack. True, we “know” the other characters only through Jennifer’s memories and recollections, and Jennifer, of course, is suffering from dementia. She does, however, have her “good” days during which her memory is crystal clear. I felt LaPlante could have given us a fuller picture of the supporting characters on one of Jennifer’s lucid days. Fiona and Mark don’t fare any better than Amanda, and the picture of the women’s husbands is particularly flat.

The other big disappointment I experienced when reading this book had to do with the mystery of “who killed Amanda?” Turn of Mind is not a suspenseful mystery by any means, nor is it a genuine “thriller.” The mystery part of this novel is really very amateurishly done. Most readers, I think, are going to figure things out pretty quickly. I know I did, and I’m not particularly good at figuring out “whodunit.” And because the book is being marketed as a “literary thriller,” I think many of its readers are going to be attracted to it because of its “thriller” qualities. Sadly, those readers are probably going to be disappointed.

Where this book really shines is in its presentation of Jennifer White and her struggle with dementia. Most of the time, I felt totally convinced that I was reading the “real” journal of a real life Alzheimer’s patient. Jennifer was that compelling and forceful. I especially liked the way LaPlante portrayed her protagonist’s vulnerability. That vulnerability kept Jennifer from lapsing into a caricature of a “tough talking dame.” It kept her credible.

Turn of Mind is a bleak, tragic book, and it certainly won’t lift your spirits, so please don’t expect it to. After all, Alzheimer’s is a bleak, tragic affliction. Despite the tragedy, there’s much beauty in the book as well. LaPlante has managed to capture the indomitability of the human spirit amid overwhelming pain and suffering. It’s this quality that lifts the book out of the sea of “every other book about Alzheimer’s sufferers” and elevates it into something more. And thankfully, this wonderful “something more” never fades, even as Jennifer’s mind continues to unravel at an ever-accelerating speed.

Sadly, as the book nears its end, some readers might feel Jennifer’s forgetfulness is something of a mercy after all.

4/5 (Only 1.5 stars for the mystery, though.)

Recommended: Yes, but read this book for the picture it paints of Jennifer White. It’s wonderful. Anyone looking for a good mystery won’t find it here. I do look forward to LaPlante’s next novel. As long as it isn’t a mystery, that is.

Note: Alice LaPlante teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University and Stanford University where she has a Wallace Stegner fellowship. She lives in Palo Alto, California.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The 2011 Man Booker Shortlist Announced

The Booker shortlist was announced today in London. I have to admit, my two favorites, Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side did not make it from the longlist to the shortlist. I thought both of those books were beautiful and masterful, and I was really hoping Barry would win since he didn't capture the prize for The Secret Scripture.

On the whole, I do like the shortlist, though. My favorites are Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch and Half Blood Blues by Edi Edugyan, but all the books have something special to offer.

The 2011 Booker Shortlist consists of:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - Barnes tackles the disappointments of ageing, the slipperiness of memory and the intensity of youthful experience, as narrator Tony remembers his brilliant schoolfriend Adrian and his difficult first girlfriend Veronica. The bequest of a diary puts all his comfortable certainties into question.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birth - Birch’s 11th novel, also longlisted for the Orange, is a brilliantly vivid recreation of the 19th-century London docks and a doomed expedition to the South Pacific to capture a ‘dragon’ for the charismatic naturalist Jamrach. Birch combines precise historical detail with epic themes of wanderlust and survival.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt - Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers on the American west coast in 1851, during the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Caught in a cycle of inflationary violence, Eli begins to wonder if there's not an easier way to make a life, in a Western that explores humanity in the face of huge economic and technological change.

Half Blood Blues by Edi Edugyan - Canadian author Edugyan's second novel begins soon after the fall of Paris in 1940, when jazz trumpeter Hieronymous Falk is arrested in a cafe. He is never heard from again. Just 20, he was both a German citizen, and black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman - The epidemic of teenage knife crime is the backdrop to this debut, in which an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy turns detective after witnessing the aftermath of a murder on a London estate. Voice is all in a novel that offsets adult realities with the innocent argot of small boys.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, a former Russian correspondent of "The Economist," tackles Putin-era corruption in this assured debut. The narrator, an English lawyer living in Moscow, finds his morals compromised when he becomes entangled in a shady property deal.

Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors, and good luck.

(Descriptions courtesy of "The Guardian" Website)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review - The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

I have to admit that though I work in publishing and though, up until 2010, I lived more years in Switzerland than I’d lived in the United States, I’d never heard of Marlen Haushofer until this year. True, Frau Haushofer was Austrian, and was born in Frauenstein, Austria in 1920. But Austria borders Switzerland (to the east) and both countries speak dialects derived from High German. No matter what we speak in everyday life, both Swiss and Austrians write in High German. And I attended school in Switzerland (and in France). I’ve no excuse; I really should have heard – and read – Marlen Haushofer at least ten years ago. But better late than never, right?

Marlen Haushofer studied German in Vienna and in Graz before settling in Steyr. In 1941, she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist, who she later divorced and then remarried, bearing him two sons. Haushofer’s first novel, A Handful of Life, was published in 1955. The Wall, one of her most successful books, was published in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970. I am not positive, but I believe only The Wall and The Loft have been published in English, The Wall by Quartet Books in 1991, and translated by Shaun Whiteside, The Loft, also published by Quartet, and translated by Amanda Prantera. Both may prove a little difficult to find in the United States but are well worth the hunt.

The Wall centers around a middle-aged widow who’s holidaying at her cousin’s alpine home. One evening the others leave for a night out in the nearly village. Expecting them home later that night, the widow is quite surprised when she awakens the next morning and finds herself alone. Deciding to investigate, the widow, who, through the course of the novel, remains nameless, takes her cousin’s dog, Luchs, and discovers an invisible wall that separates them from the “outside” world. On the other side of the wall is a man, frozen in mid-motion. Our narrator soon discovers that “her” world is now bounded by a measurable area that is partially forested, partially alpine meadow, and occupied by a variety of different animals.

I thought this was a wonderful beginning. It’s not entirely original, but it was certainly interesting, and it did make me want to know “what happened next.” I felt compelled to read on. I was also struck by the fact that The Wall was, for me, reminiscent of the work of Jose Saramago, i.e., a strange, new world in which the fantastic seems commonplace; an unnamed narrator in an unnamed place; a faithful dog.

The Wall is often touted as belonging to “feminist, dystopian” literature, and the heroine as being a “female Robinson Crusoe.” I generally don’t care for either feminist or dystopian literature, and I didn’t like the character of Robinson Crusoe very much, so I really didn’t expect to find much to enjoy in The Wall, but, save for one incident that almost made me regret I’d read the book, I was wrong.

The narrator of The Wall soon discovers that she is, in all probability, the last living person on earth, though she is not the last living being. There is Luchs, and a nameless cat as well, who later bears a litter of kittens; there’s Bella, a cow found in a nearby alpine meadow; and there are several deer living in the forest. Forced to learn to work with Nature, though never against it, our narrator learns how to milk Bella, how to use her hands in utilitarian ways, how to grow crops of potatoes, beans, and hay, and how to kill the deer and preserve the meat, thus keeping everyone – except the deer, of course – alive.

Readers who expect a fast moving plot won’t find it in this book. The Wall, with its minimalist plot is a supremely interior, introspective book as we learn the details of all the book’s heroine must accomplish in order to keep herself, and “her” animals, alive. We celebrate her victories, and we worry over her defeats.

As the narrator struggles with the hard, physical labor of “just remaining alive” she makes many discoveries about herself, discoveries surrounding her personality, her femininity, and her very humanity. I appreciated the author’s meticulous attention to detail in this book and thought it aided my understanding of the narrator and what she valued in life.

I might not be right, but for me, at least, The Wall was an exploration of what it means to be human and our connectedness with all of nature. The narrator must take care not to lose sight of her humanity as she struggles through two winters and one glorious summer with only a dog, a cat, and a cow for company. The things our narrator thought were so important turn out to be not important at all, such as appearance. Survival must come first and foremost. To that end, Bella plays the most important role in the narrator’s life. All of the animals are beautifully drawn, and all really come alive – as major characters – in the pages of this book. Haushofer’s characterization of Luchs is particularly powerful.

When a second unexpected catastrophe occurs, the narrator feels the need to write her story down, to explore more fully the solitary life she’s been leading. But who will read what the woman has written? Anyone? This question is never answered, just as the reason for the sudden extinguishing of all life some two years before is never given.

The Wall is, at times, a claustrophobic book, yet it’s powerful and provocative as well. The author has a fluid, lyrical writing style that serves her minimalist plot quite well. The Wall is as disturbing as Cormac McCarthy’s prize winning novel The Road, but The Wall, at least for me, was far more rewarding as well. This is, in the end, a beautiful book that I’ll remember for many years to come.


Recommended: Definitely. This is beautiful book, beautifully written, but the plot is minimalist and introspective.