It’s been one of the rainiest summers on record here, and last week we had a spell of sticky heat. The towels never dry properly, and it’s hard to keep mildew at bay. As July dripped on, the combination of wet weather, a plumbing issue that blossomed into a partial bathroom remodel (that is still in progress), and preparations for sending the Teenager halfway around the world alone led me to that mainstay of reading for fretful times: mysteries.
A couple of customers at Gibson’s asked about Alexander McCall Smith titles this month, which made me realize I’d fallen behind in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I caught up with Miracle At Speedy Motors and Teatime for the Traditionally Built. Like the Miss Read books, I find this series totally absorbing and transporting. When I’m reading them, I’m in Botswana, in the world of these characters. It’s a world that works according to a code of decency and goodness — with a few bad apples to provide the famous lady detective with cases. I would like to sit down to some bush tea with Mma Ramotswe.
I’d heard good things about another female detective, Flavia de Luce, the protagonist of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. This British mystery set in 1950 combines history, social criticism, chemistry, and stamp collecting to create a complex but fascinating story. Flavia is a very clever girl, and an amatuer chemist, and her personality is spunky and yet endearing. I could picture the rest of the characters clearly as well as the setting — a crumbling old “great house” in 1950’s Britain, the nearby village, and a traditional boys’ boarding school.
I like a book whose setting plays nearly as important a role in the story as the characters, and I think not enough writers do both well. Author Alan Bradley won the Debut Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and he has several further adventures planned for Flavia. There were more bodies in this book than I usually like (I prefer my mysteries to be long on puzzle solving and short on murder), but I enjoyed it very much.
I also read Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane last month. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel — a woman doing research for her PhD reconnects with a long line of female ancestors as she tries to locate a lost book that she thinks will reveal the truth about witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but there were a few distractions: a love interest that didn’t really advance the plot except in a fairly contrived way, and a villain who is more annoying than evil, and whose dastardly deed seems very far fetched.
Also Connie, the main character, is fairly dim for a woman who is supposed to be a brilliant talent in the Harvard history department, and is kind of a whiner. I was rooting to like the book, both because I was trying to get the author to come to the store and because I read that Howe wrote the book for NaNoWriMo, which I love. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t fantastic.
A book I read in July that was fantastic was Man Gone Down, which I read about in the New York Times after author Michael Thomas won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. What made this a great book? I’ll never be black or male, but Thomas dragged me into the emotional turmoil of his protagonist, who is both, and made it possible for me to identify with him even though we have almost no life experiences in common.
I woke up at night wondering about things that happen in the book. I fell asleep thinking about what might happen next. The writing was emotionally raw but also incredibly compelling. I could see every scene vividly. And in a way, this novel was a psychological mystery, because until the final scene, I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. Wow. Please write more, Mr. Thomas.
The Teenager read more about David Beckham, finishing most of The Beckham Experiment, which his sister gave him for his “fake birthday” (an early celebration we had before he departed for Germany, where next week, he will turn sixteen). He said it was a very intriguing book, which verified what he’d come to suspect — Beckham not only hasn’t transformed American soccer, he acted more like a typical spoiled superstar than a team player who’d come to lift all boats. He took along another soccer book to read on the plane, The Magnificent 7’s, which is about the men who’ve worn number 7 for Manchester United.
The preteen and I read The Serial Garden, which I was reading aloud, until she once again insisted she doesn’t care to be read to. I absolutely adored this book, which reminded me of all the reasons I love Joan Aiken, as well as Edward Eager and Roald Dahl — writers whose child protagonists are smart, capable, and independent and who have all kinds of adventures in large part because they believe then can. It was a fine choice of reading just before sending one’s first born halfway around the world alone, because the kids in The Serial Garden manage every challenge quite well.
The Preteen is now on the fourth of the Books of Ember, and says so far the first one, City of Ember, and the third, People of Sparks, are her favorites of the series. She also read Life As We Knew It, which she pronounced “ok.” She’s been noodling around the Harry Potter books, after attending the midnight opening of the latest movie (she stayed awake, and only had to poke me once).
The Computer Scientist is reading Harry Potter for the first time. He’s on the third book and seems to be enjoying them. He was tired of never fully understanding conversations with the Preteen, who lives and breathes all things Potter. We finished reading Farenheit 451 in our literary criticism circle before the Teenager left. We all really enjoyed it and had some good conversations. The Teenager requested we read “something ancient” in the fall.
I mulled this request and started looking into Greek literature, wondering where to begin. Then, plans for his other fall studies began to coalesce, and he signed up for an Oxford University online course on Vikings. He suggested we read Norse literature as a perfect complement to his historical interests. I’m now digging into ideas for where to begin there. Any Norse lit. experts who wish to make suggestions, please do! Naturally I’m thrilled to watch him carry out my bookconscious theory of interconnectedness — one interesting book leads to another, and our interests in life lead us to more reading.
In fact, one book literally led me another this month on the public library’s sale shelf: The Human Story by James C. Davis. It looked like a readable world history survey, but I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it. I thought about it for a couple of days, asked the kids, both of whom expressed mild interest, and looked for it again the next time I went to the library. When I went back I pulled the book from the sale shelf and discovered it was right next to The Moon Is Always Female, by Marge Piercy. So I got that, too, glad the shelf had granted me a gift for not impulsively buying The Human Story the first time.
I’ve been a Marge Piercy fan for awhile. Her poetry is amazing — readable but with a depth that offers more upon each re-reading. The novels I’ve read are similar — good stories well told, which are intricate, deep, and mind-expanding as well. The poems in The Moon Is Always Female didn’t disappoint. Piercy explains the sections of the book here.
I enjoyed both sections. One poem that exemplifies how Piercy takes an ordinary thing and makes magic with it is “The Damn Cast.” A poem about wearing a cast? Not only is it descriptive, capturing the feeling of dragging around in a cast, but also by the end of the poem, Piercy has touched on disability and the human capacity for a range of pain and pleasure. And Piercy is funny — another poem, called “Attack of the squash people,” describes an overabundance of zucchini in a way that will amaze you as both familiar and brilliantly original.
Next up at the bookconscious household? I’m currently reading The Frozen Thames and enjoying it, and checked out three books by Andre Dubus — two collections of essays and one of stories. I find that as my mind travels over the sea to my elder child, it’s easier to bring it back home by coaxing it to read a finite thing — one story, one essay, one article. I also have a big thick novel on hand — The Gone Away World. In fact, if it wasn’t for the damn chores (bathroom project, errands, laundry, etc.), I’d plan to spend all weekend in the hammock, wallowing in missing my child and reading good books.
To be clear, the trouble with the Teenager being gone isn’t so much his physical absence — after all, I’m really thrilled for him and delighted he can have this experience. It’s just really hit the Computer Scientist and I hard to have our firstborn venture off to train with a German soccer club and have a European adventure, handling airport security and customs alone, managing a credit card, and generally letting us know he’s practically grown up.
I did bring home a couple of books about German history from the Ohrstrom Library before he left, and I’ve dipped in to those here and there. And I’m keeping up with the New York Times and the usual pile of magazines and journals besides all these books. But nothing I read has been able to distract me from the looming facts: our elder child is going to be leaving for longer, at least semi-permanent periods of time in the not so far away future. The Preteen will only be a few years behind.
I’m off to read myself to sleep.