Wednesday, December 21, 2011

G.M. Malliet's Death and the Lit Chick & Death at the Alma Mater

G.M. Malliet,
     Death and the Lit Chick, 2009
     Death at the Alma Mater, 2010

I haven't blogged promptly about these two: in fact, I renewed them so they could stare at me and make me blog about them, but they're now overdue. Not a habit to get into! They both continue on from Death of a Cozy Writer, with the further investigations of Detective Chief Inspector St. Just, a worthy and capable protagonist for the genre.

In Death and the Lit Chick, St. Just finds himself at a castle in Scotland, offering a workshop at a crime-writers' conference about evidentiary procedure and the like. He finds himself with a crush on one of the writers, only to have her (and the rest of the weird lot) become suspects when one of the authors is murdered while the castle's drawbridge is up — the locked-room mystery writ Gothic. Malliet does a terrific job at describing St. Just's fascination with Portia De'Ath: it's a very well written capturing of a first blush of feelings. The mystery itself is decent, but not overly remarkable: odd relationships and details typical of castles and of CSI help an okay plot along to a forgettable conclusion, complete with all the suspects gathered in the Great Room for the great detective's explication of the crime. (The addition of DCI Ian Moor, the detective in charge of the investigation, is a nice touch to St. Just — we actually get someone who is St. Just's equal, and pleasantly funny to boot.

Death at the Alma Mater is more tightly plotted but less plausible. Summoned to a Cambridge college, St. Just finds himself investigating an odd gaggle of alumni from whom the college is trying to raise a pretty penny. The murder of one of their number prompts an investigation that leads St. Just off at weird angles before finally seeing through an overly-complicated scheme and nabbing the murderer.

I'm going to keep reading Malliet's mysteries, as her writing is certainly entertaining. It has a piece I need missing, though. I enjoy the way she plays with the unities of place and time (a manor house, a castle, a college, a village; a weekend, a conference, a weekend, a fair), but there's a failure in the effort to break through the conventions that I have trouble getting past. In the St. Just series, we watch as she gathers her overly weird suspects to traditional venues for a murder. She bumps off one or more of the cast, and we move through the investigation. Each time, I've waited for the turn, the new take on the convention--and on the times it has come, it has been too slight an innovation or too weak a new look. There's such potential that never quite offers something new. I also struggle with the characters: while some, like St. Just, De'Ath, and Sgt. Fear, are well developed, too many of the others are given a quick sketch and that's all we're given to understand them: Malliet doesn't write Russian novels, but I still needed her character list because I simply wasn't motivated by the writing to tell a couple of characters apart in each of the stories. The newer Wicked Autumn shows improvement on that score, but with too trite and poorly developed a conclusion to be called a great murder-mystery.

I will gladly read her next book, as I do enjoy her work. I wish I could enjoy it just a bit more.

Tony Hendra's _Father Joe_

Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, 2004.

Three-quarters memoir, two-tenths paean, one twentieth context, Hendra's book needs to be approached as a reflection on how his own life has been changed by another. It's not a biography, nor an introduction to what life is like in a Benedictine monastery: it's about Hendra's life, and how it's better because of Father Joe's role in it.

The eponymous Father Joe was a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey. After an indiscretion as a lad with a married woman, her husband took Hendra to the Abbey. The book is really about how Fr. Joe helped Hendra to grow up: recovering from the relationship, and then in nearly every aspect of his life. Hendra discovers a deep admiration both for Fr. Joe himself and for the Benedictine way of life (though with, I'd argue, an overly fixed view of the latter: later in the book Hendra describes his inability to cope at all well with the liturgy changing from Latin to English). He decides he wants to become a monk, and lives with Quarr as a second home and Fr. Joe as a second father. Thwarted in his desires to enter Quarr by winning a scholarship to Cambridge, Hendra's life turns to the career as a satirist — and all of the accompanying messes that emerge as a life is lived.

The book is an engaging read, and it's easy to identify with many of the stages Hendra identifies in his own life: his awakening to vocation, and his subsequent loss of faith; his discovery of comedy as art, and his flailing attempts to live with another. I found it both moving and endearing to read his portrayal of his father and his own marital challenges.

The two most effective parts of the book were for me the twin morals: be where you are, and love. The first is explored best around Hendra's second marriage: Fr. Joe's advice to Hendra is to do a better job of being a husband (and father), to find his sense of roots in the marriage. It's a translation of the Benedictine vow of stability, the sense that life isn't better anywhere else, but is best lived where one is. The second portion is best expressed when Fr. Joe and Hendra talk about what humour is, and we see the ease with which humour — and satire in particular — can hurt: Fr. Joe's impulse to ask deeper questions about the intent and design of the humour is subtle for the reader, but wise indeed.

One weakness of the book is the dialogue, and I wish I had a better sense of what bothers me about it. Hendra presents conversations he had with Fr. Joe, and there are times when the dialogue is plausible, and times when it's quite difficult to read. I think this is just a stylistic issue, a failure of the author to capture the authentic rhythms of speech because the idea is more important than the style, but I'm not quite sure. I plan to spend some more time thinking about that question.

Ultimately, it's an enjoyable read and rewarding for more than just those interested in living a religious life: Hendra succeeds in capturing something of the struggles of life, and his view of his path manages to offer insights for the reader without ever slipping and becoming prescriptive.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"Richard Castle", Heat Rises

Richard Castle”, Heat Rises, 2011.

Yes, this book was an odd reading choice after my disappointment in the second volume of “Castle’s” series. [For those not in the loop, Richard Castle is a character on the TV show Castle, played by the delightfully insouciant Nathan Fillion; Castle is a crime-fiction writer, and this series of books is loosely based on his character’s experiences as the partner of Detective Kate Becket.]

The novel is in the same vein as the first two: quippy, funny, and similar to the show in many ways. I didn’t have the same suspension of disbelief issues as I had with the last outing, but I did find this newest volume overly predictable (You’re going to figure this one out, if you’ve read a mystery of two before). The twist with Heat Rises is that it’s an interesting fictionalisation/projected-wish-fulfilment commentary on the events of the previous season of Castle. It doesn’t add anything viewers would miss, but is interesting to read the book in light of the episodes. What I find fascinating is that the intertextuality is now in this direction rather than the other: we’ve moved from watching Castle and catching Kate reading a copy in the washroom to readers noticing links to the tv show. Fundamentally, this shift seems to be about advertising and attracting the same audience (or a subset) across different platforms. I hope not to see this worrisome trend continue, but won’t count my chickens.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bill Bryson's At Home

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010.

I bought A Short History of Nearly Everything in the airport bookstore in Glasgow just before my flight home a few years ago, and greatly enjoyed Bryson's clear and engaging exploration of what makes our world tick. I enjoy learning from him, and when I already know some of the things he's discussing, I delight in his deftly humorous touch.

I was quite pleased to discover his new book, At Home, which uses his house to explore how we have come to live in the comfort we generally think of when we hear the word home. Bryson moves from room to room, explaining both how they came to exist in their modern forms, and historical and sociological developments associated with them. The chapter on the bedroom contains information both on mites and other wee beasties that share our rooms, fashion and the history of bedding, and both sex and childbirth (and quite the discursive exploration of the development of modern surgical technique) before discussing death and burial and mourning customs. That on the bathroom discusses not just plumbing, but the entirety of the development of the sewage system. The stairs chapter alone has convinced me to hold on to the handrail with every future ascent and descent of my life, after hearing rather sobering statistics on falls!

Though long, the book is eminently readable and fascinating. I discovered both interesting trivia and the histories of discoveries and engineering feats that left me going to bed too late for a couple of nights. Bryson has a fascination with the more interesting of the personalities one can encounter in history, and we re treated to the eccentricities and marvels of both Washington and Jefferson, of Joseph Paxton and Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, and many more. What's remarkable is how the asides all come back to his topic, and how Bryson is able to use his own home as a lens to explore modern life in all of its variety. Curiosity is rewarded; wondering is a worthy thing to do, and we can come to realize that the shape of our lives has been determined by our connection to the work of many varied people and groups (having read this book, you'll not take either bricks or glass for granted again, without marveling at their complexity).

Throughout the book, Bryson is engaged in a subtle project that only culminates at its very end; a project that was made clear in A Short History of Nearly Everything though the and sweep of science here is revealed through the small details of quotidian living. He writes:

Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day--and don't expect it to be a distant day--many of those six billion or so less well-off people are bound to demand what we have, and to get it as effortlessly as we got it, and that will require more resources than this plant can easily, or even conceivably, yield. The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither. But that of course would be another book. (451-52)

Bryson's sobering thoughts are well worth heeding, and make me turn again to Mike Nickerson's thesis in Life, Money, and Illusion: Living on Earth as If We Want to Stay that all uses of resources need to account not just for monetary costs but for their true impact upon the planet. I hope we'll heed both messages; after enjoying such a lovely book as Bryson's, it's a good thing to be brought up short.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

G.M. Malliet's Death of a Cozy Writer

G.M. Malliet, Death of a Cozy Writer, 2008.

Having finished the most recent of Malliet's murder mysteries after a friend's recommendation, I started reading her earlier work. I have the other two in this series out from the library, and am looking forward to reading them.

I quite enjoyed the novel--more so, in fact, than Wicked Autumn. Set almost entirely in the family manse of Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk (the much loved crime writer), the story revolves around his nastiness and the wackiness of his family members. As he is overly fond of rewriting his will, it's hard to tell just who benefits from his death — and just why has someone killed off his eldest son, first? Old personal histories and eccentric characters are mixed with together, and only DCI St. Just can unravel the myriad questions that are left unanswered. As in Wicked Autumn, the story unfolds gradually, with different pieces being added to the puzzle as St. Just interviews and explores, and here, too, the solution is both far from obvious and yet entirely sensible given the pieces we readers have acquired as we follow St. Just.

I'm looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

G.M. Malliet's Wicked Autumn

G.M. Malliet, Wicked Autumn, 2011.

An entertaining murder-mystery set in a small English town, Wicked Autumn has much to recommend it. The story revolves around Max, a former MI-5 agent turned Church of England vicar, who comes across the dead body of one of his parishioner’s not in hospital but in the village hall—and in circumstances that don’t quite make sense. After striking up a quick friendship with DCI Cotton, Max begins to investigate himself.

Malliet’s structure meanders through the small town and its characters, bouncing from one to the next as Max makes visits and discoveries. I found myself, professionally, being a bit concerned about his focus on investigation rather than on pastoral care, but the novel is a murder mystery, after all! We learn the quirks of the town’s denizens, and generally find ourselves amazed at just how self-centred the victim truly was.

The solution to the mystery comes as a bit of a surprise, despite the clues that make sense retrospectively—always nice to end a British mystery with the detective laying out the whole story for the reader, I suppose.

The novel was strong enough for me to place a hold at the library on the first book in her earlier mystery series, and I look forward to relaxing with it soon.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Graham Speake's Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise

Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 2003.

Graham Speake’s book is a lovely introduction to the monasteries and sketes of Athos, from their origins to today (or rather, to 2002, but what’s 9 years when we’re talking about over a millennium of history?). Part history and part spiritual exploration, Speake’s focus never wavers from trying to offer the reader a sense of why Athos’ existence matters to God, the Orthodox, and the world.

For the unaware, Athos seems like a throwback to a former time and way of being. A peninsula of Greece (that was once an island, thanks to the ambitious canal digging of the emperor Xerxes I in his erstwhile conquests), it is home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and a plethora of smaller communities (sketes) and hermits who live lives paradoxically dedicated to the renunciation of the world and to praying for it. It is consecrated to Mary, and for over a millennium, no woman has been allowed on the isthmus (punishable even today, by Greek law, by a period of 2-12 months) so as to leave it as her exclusive preserve. The story goes that she was travelling to visit Lazarus, and was forced to take shelter on Athos: so moved by its beauty, she asked her son for it for herself. This legend offers a significant example of a challenge Speake deals with in the book: the monks understanding of Athos revolves not even primarily around what can be historically proven, but around the stories and legends of their collective experience on the Mountain. Speake holds this balance well for the reader.

The oldest monastery on Athos, the Megistis Lavra (Great Lavra) was founded in 963, and the others have followed over time. While most are of Greek origin, some were founded by monks from all over the Orthodox world (such as Iviron's Georgian origins, Chillandariou’s Serbian roots, and St. Panteleimonos’ and Russia). They have survived Ottoman rule, the Axis powers, the birth of modern Greece, and even its entry into the European Union. An often turbulent history makes for intriguing reading, both about foreign relations and Athos’ own internal arguments and challenges.

Speake’s long association with the Friends of Mount Athos, as well as multiple pilgrimages to Athos have resulted in close associations with quite a number of monks on Athos, and his writing shows a deep understanding not just of Athos’ history and geography, but of its ideals. His own understandable biases against nationalism within Athos’ administration and toward hospitality even of non-Orthodox pilgrims become clear as one reads: even without as full an appreciation of Orthodoxy as I might like to have, Speake’s writing is an accessible and inviting introduction. The marvellous collection of photographs that accompany the text are a stunning resource to help the reader comprehend Athos’ remoteness and beauty, and to grasp something of what monastic life is like there.

Some years ago, on retreat at St. Gregory’s, Three Rivers, I heard read at meals Christopher Merrill’s Things of the Hidden God. It was my first introduction to Athos, and Speake’s less-personal book has made me intrigued about the prospect of making a pilgrimage to the holy mountain someday—to experience worship at Vatopedi and some of the sketes seems like a very exciting notion.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Josh Ritter, Bright’s Passage, 2011.

This blog is meant to be a journal: it’s a place for me to reflect on the book I read. At times that means entries are akin to reviews, with jottings to help me remember the book if I struggle to recall it; other times, I’m trying to work through ideas. With this novel, though, both tasks are made more complicated because of my fan-boy-ish adulation of Josh Ritter as a musican, song-writer, and story-teller. I’ve loved Ritter’s music since I first heard “Come and Find Me” as the end credits rolled on an episode of “Six Feet Under” many years ago: I rushed out and bought Golden Age of Radio the next morning.

There’s a rush of language in Ritter’s lyrics that delights and entrances. Sometimes the lyrics are almost cryptic (‘I keep you in a flower vase / with your fatalism and your crooked face / with the daisies and the violet brocades’); at other times, the narrative is funny and engaging (‘At this, Sir Galahad got angry, / “Angel,” he said, “don’t you tempt me. / I wish to go to heaven and not to hell. / So when stable boys look lonesome, / when the women call me handsome, I’ll hold me virtue very firmly by myself.”’). There’s an interesting tension between agnosticism and ire at God that’s frequently expressed as in “Thin Blue Flame” (‘If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room / the heavenly host are just the cold dark moons / He bent down and made the world in seven days / and ever since he’s been a’walking away’) and the ever-stunning “Girl in the War” ('... the keys to the Kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom / and the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them / I got a girl in the war Paul I know that they can hear me yell / if they can’t find a way to help her they can go to Hell'). And yet, the cadence and rhythm of scripture express themselves in deeply positive ways, too, as in the brilliant (and Paul Simon-influenced) “Lark”: ‘I am assured, yes I am assured yes / I am assured peace will come to me / A peace that can yes surpass the speed yes / Of my understanding and my need’.

Why go through those examples? Well, it’s impossible for me to read Bright’s Passage except through the lens of Ritter’s music that I have listened too so often and so carefully for a number of years now. Playful language, careful story-telling, and a deeply ambiguous sense of the numinous are as present in his first novel as they are in his songs.

Bright’s Passage follows Henry Bright. Just back to his home in West Virginia after serving in the First World War, Bright is coping with the death of his wife, Rachel, and his son’s birth as the story begins. That coping is complicated by an angel inhabiting the body of a horse who keeps giving Bright directions, and then made worse by the pursuit of both a nasty fire and the malicious father and sons of Bright’s dead bride. Interwoven with this story in the present is the story of Bright’s experiences fighting in France.

The writing is vivid and evocative in both time periods, and well-crafted. It’s spare, and uses details that make sense to Bright. The first sentence opens with the true freight of the book: “The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit.” (3) This novel is about life and death and possibility, simultaneously attached and disconnected to the world that never does run away. The opening of the second chapter—a switch from West Virginia to France—functions similarly:
Mud and water and the stumps of trees. In every direction that was all there was. Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up. Nightly they were crucified upon themselves by the zip and whine of machine guns, their leaves corroded by gas, their branches and trunks hacked for kindling, some roots cut by entrenching tools, others drowned by the ceaseless, steady dripping of blood and rain. (13)

There’s an obvious contrast between the crucified trees—and the entire passion that is the war—and the new birth of his son into an uncertain future that is the central tension of the novel: how can Bright enter a new future, leaving behind the cruelty and pain of the past? It’s a question intensified by the dubious quality of his memory, when we read of him seeing Rachel’s brothers cruelly kill fellow soldiers despite our certainty from our perspective as readers that they’d not have been in France. Bright is like a blind man, running unseeing from a terror that’s hunting him to a future that he’s unable to see. All is made worse by this peculiar angel with his own agenda—and angels are never easy or felicitous creatures in Ritter’s work! (I really do love the brilliance and humour of “Galahad” that offers another great example of why angels are to be feared, if they’re Ritter’s creations.)

It’s an impressive first novel, perhaps precisely because of Ritter’s care and practise of story-telling in so many other genres. It has some infelicities—it’s heavy-handed at times, and the ending is a little over-easy—but they’re easy to overlook whether you’re as fond of him as I or not. I’m looking forward to hearing what others make of it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Terry Fallis,
    The Best Laid Plans,2007.
    The High Road, 2010.

Fallis’s two comic novels follow Daniel Addison and erstwhile professor of English who can’t quite escape his life as a former political aide. At the beginning of The Best Laid Plans, we meet Addison: tired of the cynicism of professional politics (and escaping the ruins of a tarnished relationship), Addison leaves the Liberal party’s Leader’s office to work at the University of Ottawa. Determined to make a clean break, his final act for the party will be to find a candidate and run the campaign for the constituency of Cumberland-Prescott: a riding that’s never varied from its deep-blue Conservative tendencies. As Addison finds an apartment to rent in the yard of the hovercraft-building, chess-loving, English-grammar-excessively-pedantic Engineering professor named Angus McLintock, he also makes a deal: Addison will teach English to Engineers, and McLintock will run for the Liberals (with no lawn signs, campaigning, etc.) against the widely loved Conservative finance minister. Hilarity ensues, both within and without the corridors of power, and the second book continues the adventures of Addison and McLintock.

They’re both funny books. High-minded and idealistic about the capacity of politicians to work for the betterment of the nation, there are clunky moments and widely unbelievable plot points (the set piece with the hovercraft and the drunken First Lady of the United States!). I’m certain that Angus would find much more meaningful censure at the hand of the leader of his party than he experiences, in both books, despite his supposed popularity. There’s an overuse of fart jokes. And yet, for all of my quibbles, the quips and set pieces are funny. One can easily see why The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008. The idealism is reminiscent of The West Wing, and the lasting and exciting myth of politicians who are themselves idealistic is captivating and hopeful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, 2011. I came into a loan of this book quite fortuitously. I'd heard Ronson interviewed on The Sound of Young America and on This American Life within a week or so of one another, and was intrigued. A friend happened to have it on her desk when I was visiting, and since she won't have time to read it for a space, she loaned it to me. It's almost as though I was meant to read it.

Ronson is an entertaining and engaging writer, though a tad sporadic: there are times when his stories about his own neuroses are a meaningful help to his argument, and times when I found them off-putting. That statement may be an expression of taste: I didn't mark examples to share. The story begins when he's contacted by a neurologist about a mysterious manuscript that's been sent to a number of different scientists, all of whom are unable to decipher it. Ronson's skills as an investigative journalist help him to find the author, and lead him into musings about sanity and a variety of challenges in mental health. Those musings lead him to an interest in psychopathy, the focal point of the book. He tries to make sense of psychopathy's definition, how it is diagnosed, how it is treated, and how psychopaths live in the world. His exploration includes a look at the history of psychology, and more general issues as well. Much of the book revolves around Bob Hare and his work--the development of the test for psychopathy, and the workshops on how to use it. I was deeply amused as Ronson uses the test with a CEO best-known for firing many, many people, to assess the prevalence of psychopathy in the corporate world. These explorations aren't just funny set pieces, mere side-notes to the argument, but are a marvellous way of exploring Ronson's increasing discomfort with the assessment of psychopathy and the label in general.

It's as he engages Scientologists and their attacks on psychiatry that Ronson's book reveals something just as fascinating as his subject matter: his own struggle as a journalist to maintain objectivity while entering into relationships that will help him engage in his research. The encounters with Tony--an incarcerated diagnosed psychopath--and Brian, a scientologist campaigning against psychiatry, are compelling and very well-written. We see it again in Ronson's depiction of his relationship with Bob Hare: though never studied as self-reflectively as that with Tony, it's even more intriguing, and we're left wondering about a certain level of monomania.

All in all, it's an unsettling book. I enjoyed it, but was left even more concerned than when I began it about how mental health labels are used, particularly in relationship to criminal justice issues. The only resolution I came away with was to decide to add The Men Who Stare at Goats to my to-read list.