Grave Surprise, Charlaine Harris

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What with the success of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and the TV show True Blood based on them, it might be easy to forget that Harris actually has four book series that she is responsible for.  Granted, none of them are as prolific as her southern vampires, but fans of her work are sure to be familiar with Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, and Harper Connelly. 

Of her non-undead stories, my favorites are the Harper Connelly books.  Harper was struck by lightning as a teenager, and ever since she has had headaches, weakness in her right leg-and the ability to sense the dead and how they died.  She and her step-brother Tolliver travel around the country as detectives of a sort, helping loved ones locate their missing dead or determining their cause of death.  In Grave Surprise, the second in the Connelly series, Harper and Tolliver are asked to come and demonstrate their unique skills as part of an anthropology class at Bingham College in Memphis.  The professor, while pretending to have an open mind on the subject of the paranormal, actually hopes to expose them as frauds, something that he has done with every special guest he has asked to speak to his class.  Unfortunately for him, Harper is able to identify every body and the cause of death in a very old cemetery-including the body of a missing girl who was not supposed to be there.  Turns out that the girl was someone that Harper had been asked to find months earlier in Nashville.  Was it coincidence that they stumbled upon her in Memphis?  Or was someone manipulating them?

While I don't profess to believe in any kind of paranormal talents or life after death, I do enjoy reading about both of these topics-at least in the fictional sense.  Like all of Harris's books, this novel is a good popcorn read, perfect for this particular fall, when I barely have the cognitive energy at the end of the day to decide what to make for dinner, much less for deep philosophical literature.  I actually read this series out of order, so I already know the outcome of the burgeoning feelings between Harper and Tolliver, and I am almost over being squeamish about it.  I hope that when the current spate of national vampire obsession is over, she will be able to leave Bon Temps for a while and give us more about Harper (and Aurora, and Lily). 

Map of Ireland, Stephanie Grant

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I think that white northerners, people in America living north of the Mason-Dixon line, like to convince ourselves that historically there was no real racism here, at least not like in the south.  Sure, there were a few hot spots like Detroit where race riots happened, but some of our best friends were black.  We supported abolition.  We didn't have Jim Crow laws (at least, not the kind written down).  We're the racial good guys.

The fact is, racism, while less overt, was and is just as insidious in the northern part of the US as it was in the south.  While it's true that more northerners than southerners expressed a positive opinion of desegregation and equal rights, when I came right down to it the same fear and prejudice reared it's ugly head during the 1960s and 1970s in places like Chicago and Boston.  Especially at issue was school desegregation, which resulted in the forced busing of both white and black students out of their neighborhoods and into other areas of the city to achieve racial integration.

It is Boston's struggle over school desegregation that is the focus of Stephanie Grant's novel, Map of Ireland.  The main character, Ann Ahern, is a troubled Irish girl from Southie, the neighborhood in South Boston where the Irish settled during the 1800s and early 1900s.  It is now the 1970s-the 60s are over, leaving behind some aging hippies and a country struggling to catch up with the furious pace of cultural change that it just experienced.  The year that the busing started in Boston's public schools is the same year that Mademoiselle Eugenie, a Senegalese exchange teacher, comes to teach French at Ann's school.  Ann quickly develops a crush on Mademoiselle Eugenie, but it's not her gender that concerns Ann-it's the color of her skin.  While Ann has known for a while that she is attracted only to women, her desire for Mademoiselle Eugenie brings her into contact with more Blacks than she has ever known, and forces her to confront her own prejudice, as well as the oppression and violence that poor Blacks in Boston experienced at the hands of their white neighbors during that difficult year.

Grant does with this novel what I hope other authors will do as time goes on-she has a gay main character, but the book is not about gay issues, at least not mostly.  There are many societal issues raised in the book-sexuality, class, ethnic heritage, race-but the racial issue takes centers stage, and is the driving force behind the other parts of the story.  While no one is defined by a single part of their identity, often books with gay protagonists are specifically about being gay-struggling for self-acceptance, coming out, finding love, fighting for equality.  In this novel Ann has already mostly come to terms with her sexuality, but her feelings for Mademoiselle Eugenie throw her into crisis.  While Grant never uses this term, much of what Ann struggles with is feeling like a race traitor, feeling as though she is trapped by her own ethnicity and geography, unable to see any way forward that does not mean cutting herself off from the only community she has ever known.

The other thing that Grant does quite well with this book is the authenticity of the characters.  Despite her obvious support of racial equity and understanding, her black characters are not sentimentalized.  They are portrayed neither as noble heroes or victims, but as complicated, flawed people.  While some of the whites in the book are obvious villains, for the most part they are written as people struggling to maintain control over their own lives in the face of fear of the unknown.  While it is clear where Grant's sympathies lie, the story does not ever devolve into preachiness or stereotypes, and while you might not agree with the position of any one character, you begin to see how nuanced the situation really was.  Black and white issues rarely exists in the real world, and they don't exist in this book either.  Like most of us, this book resides squarely in a shade of gray.

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs is the story of Tassie Keltjin,the daughter of a potato farmer in rural Wisconsin.  In the days before 9-11, she is a college student At the University of Wisconsin in Troy, Wisconsin.  Like most college students she is cash poor, and so she begins looking for a job to keep herself in clothes and food and heat.  She applies to be the nanny for Sarah and Edward Thornwood-Brink, a couple in the process of adopting a biracial baby.  From very early on Tassie can sense that something is not quite right with Sarah and Edward.  Their manner is just-off from normal, their interactions are intimate and cold at the same time.  Tassie never imagines, however, the secret that will come to affect her life and the life of the little girl, Mary-Emma.  This novel is a strange, uncomfortable coming of age story, one that left me feeling unsettled, and unsure I really got what Moore was trying to convey.

Moore's writing is rich.  Her language shows a depth of thought and a flair for metaphor greater than any other author I've read recently.  There are long passages where Tassie is thinking about her life and events in the story that would be worthy of a circus contortionist in the way they bend and twist, making seemingly random connections into something meaningful.  This was really interesting for the first three quarters of the novel, but over time I found myself wishing for a more straight-forward narrative.  But then, about three quarters of the way through the novel is where I started to feel like the story I thought I was reading was not actually the story Moore was telling.

While most of the story revolves around Tassie's relationship with Sarah and Mary-Emma, there are other, seemingly disparate, stories woven throughout.  Tassie has a secret relationship with a fellow student who turns out to belong to a fanatical Islamist organization.  When he disappears from her life suddenly, I expected there to be some fall-out for her, but he just fades from the story.  When she loses Mary-Emma, I expected there to be some resolution to that storyline, but we never hear what becomes of the little girl.  The loss of her brother is the only one in which we get a sense of how that loss affected not just Tassie but her parents as well-and that is the last quarter of the book.  The theme of loss is the only constant throughout the story, but it is only with that last loss that we see exactly how deeply Tassie feels her sorrow.

One thing that struck me about this book is all of the white liberal-guilt and angst portrayed by Moore through the interracial adoption group that Sarah and Edward become involved in.  The conversations that Tassie overhears while playing upstairs with the children during their meetings are circular, in turns angry and defensive, and probably very authentic, despite seeming stereotypical.  The themes never change, and most of the white parents seem to feel that their adoption of the black and biracial children is under-appreciated by people who question their ability to raise children of color.  Complaints about people's comments on the street, or the advice they get from well-meaning people that end up sounding like back-handed compliments, are all fodder for their insecurity and self-pity.  They bring up issues of race and class, even within liberal communities, that people believe have long been subdued by inclusiveness and acceptance.  Moore seems to be pointing out the naivete of people who believe we have entered a post-racial era, where issues of race have mostly been addressed. 

You Wicked Little Monkey!

Friday, October 08, 2010

It only took me three weeks, but I finally finished a book!  So I guess you could say I was the wicked little monkey!  I sure felt supremely slackerish in the reading department.  But the title of this post has more to do the the novel, Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, than with my own lack of reading achievement in the month of September.

Bad Monkeys is the story of Jane Charlotte.  Jane has been arrested for murder, and during her interrogation in the psych ward she reveals that she actually works for a super secret organization called Bad Monkeys, whose sole purpose is to track down and stop evildoers by any means necessary.  If all else fails, it is Bad Monkeys' job to assassinate the evildoer.  No one has heard of Bad Monkeys, who have the ability to track our every move.  You know all of those rock posters you had on your wall as a teen-the eyes on the posters were actually spying on you.  The books you read-the spines transit information to the organization.  Even the money you spend tell them where you are and what you are doing.  Trouble is, there is no way to verify Jane's story.  Of course, she says that's because the organization can change any record, erase any tape, falsify any video-basically they can control everything we see and hear.  So, is Jane really an agent of good in the form of a Bad Monkeys assassin, or is she delusional?

This book is quirky and well-paced and fun, despite the sometimes horrific content.  I mean, Jane kills people who are evil-many of the characters are not exactly likeable.  By the end I wanted Bad Monkeys to exist-though the Big Brother aspect of it was pretty frightening.  And I wanted Jane to be good.  Throughout the novel she struggles with her own evil, and in the end that seems to be the message Matt Ruff is trying to get across, at least in part.  All of us have the capacity for good or evil, and it is our choices that determine whether we are on the side of right, or whether we are a bad monkey.

I realized after I finished Bad Monkeys that Ruff had written another novel that I found really quirky and fascinating, Set This House in Order.  It ist he story of Andy Gage, the public face of a mind with multiple personalities.  He is integrated enough to work designing virtual reality environments.  At work he meets Penny, another multiple personality who needs Andy's help.  The novel is engaging right from the start, and while I don't necessarily believe in the multiple personality disorder as a real condition, I do think that MPD as a mechanism for showing the multiple sides of our psyche and the conflicts they can create within us was pretty genius!

Book Blogger Hop

Friday, October 01, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Welcome to another edition of the Book Blogger Hop.  Frankly I'm not sure why I'm participating this week, since I haven't even finished a book in about three weeks (and yes, I feel deficient!).  I guess the "waking up at 5:10am for no real reason" may have affected my decision.  I'm already up, may as well do something bloggy!

This week's question comes from Tina who blogs at Book Couture.

"How do you spread the word about your blog?
(e.g. Social Networking sites, Book Blog Directories, comments on other blogs...)"

Back when I started my blog,  I mostly did it as a replacement for my paper and pen book journal.  It was a creative way to complete a class assignment.  I didn't really expect anyone other than my professor, my classmates, and my wife to read it.  But then, I got followers.  The first few were friends, but then others-people I didn't even know.  I decided I liked having people read what I wrote, so I started joining other people's blogs.  Which is where most of the readers come from, as far as I can tell.
However, I do post my new reviews on Facebook, and I will often have my FB friends comment there about my reviews.  I also joined the book bloggers ning, Book Blogs.  Other than that I don't have much time for self-promotion.  I don't tweet, I'm not anyone's affiliate, I don't run memes-this year it's all I can do to get a blog post written once a week or so.  But once this crazy fall is over, look out!