Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I have a t-shirt that says "Authors are my rock stars".  It features a jaunty picture of Edgar Allen Poe wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses.  And aside from the clever mash-up of depressive, alcoholic 19th century author and free-loving  20th century musician, the message on the shirt is true for me, and I bet is true for many of you.  Sure, it would be cool to meet some of my favorite rock stars (John Bon Jovi comes to mind!), but if you really want to get me excited, tell me I am going to meet one of my favorite authors.

So imagine my delight, excitement, and butterfly-in-the-stomach inducing invitation to the wedding of a friend of mine at the home of none other than Neil Gaiman!  I won't bother to go into the ways in which my friend and Mr. Gaiman are connected...suffice it to say that he and his wife Amanda Palmer had graciously offered their lovely home in Cambridge, MA for the ceremony and reception.  (They have since moved, thereby negating any lingering stalkerish impulses knowing their address may have had.) Obviously I was thrilled for my friend and her fiance, and would have flown cross-country to see them wed regardless of the setting.  But Neil Gaiman!?!  He's near the top of my "prominent people dinner party" list-you know, that list of people that you would invite to a dinner party just to listen to the amazing wonderfulness that falls from their lips in between bites of exquisitely prepared gourmet food.

When I learned I would be meeting him, I quickly realized that it would be in my best interest to read his latest two books prior to the wedding.  Because clearly we would become fast friends and spend the entire evening talking about his amazing work.  (Spoiler alert:  this did not, in fact, come to pass.  I met him, congratulated him on his recent book awards, and then spent the rest of the evening too nervous and awkward to actually try to have a conversation with the man.  And you'll have to take my word for it that any of this actually happened-I was also too nervous and awkward to ask for a photo.)  Mr. Gaiman had two books come out recently.  One, a children's book called Fortunately, the Milk, is still in my to-be-read stack. But the other, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I picked up immediately after getting the wedding invitation.

First, let me say that given the pretty short length and the age of the main character of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I assumed it was another children's book.  Good thing I actually read it before I handed it out to any of the children at my school.  It may be short, and be mostly about children, but it is very definitely not for the under 12 crowd.  The story is told in flashback.  The narrator is a man returning to his childhood home for a funeral.  While there, he revisits places he knew as a child.  He find himself drawn to the farm at the end of the road, and to the pond that stands behind the neat farmhouse.  All those years ago, he met a girl named Lettie Hempstock and her remarkable family there, and as he gazes at the pond (which Lettie called an ocean), memories of the most terrifying time of his life come flooding back.  When a man committed suicide in his family's car, it created a soft spot in our world that allowed something horrible to come through, something that almost destroyed his family, and could have destroyed the world as we know it.  It is up to Lettie and her family to put things right again.

The suicide was the first thing that clued me into the fact that perhaps I had misjudged the intended audience for the book.  The fact that the evil thing that comes through the hole in the world seduced his father in the guise of an attractive nanny made it official.  But despite some very adult events, the book does read childlike.  Gaiman was able to capture what happened in a way that we understand it as a child might understand it, and it reminded me of my own childhood fears-fears about monsters and losing my parents. Those seem to be fairly universal childhood fears, and Gaiman uses them expertly to create a sense of menace, even though much of the book is not, in fact, violent.  And like the boy in the story, we are left wondering about the nature of Lettie and her family as much as we are about this monster and where it came from.  There is basically no back story for those characters in the book, at least not directly stated.  You can infer a few things from the abilities of the characters and the way they describe "crossing the ocean", but there is no grand explanation.  In the end it didn't matter.  The story has an emotional impact and a creepiness factor that are independent of the mythology of the supernatural characters involved.

I enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane differently than I enjoyed some of his other books.  It's doesn't have the intricate plotlines of American Gods or Anansi's Boys, and I guess it comes the closest to Coraline in terms of its overall mood.  But it is truly a story like I have never read before, which I think speaks volumes about Gaiman's talent as a storyteller.  Maybe our paths will cross again someday, and I will overcome my awkwardness enough to have that conversation about his art.  But until then, I'll make do with his always entertaining and thought-provoking books.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Hangman's Daughter

A witch trial, torture, murdered children, the devil, and buried treasure...doesn't exactly sound like a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, does it?  But when these elements come together in Oliver Potzch's novel The
Hangman's Daughter, that's exactly what you get.  The main character is Jakob Kuisl, the executioner for a small town in Germany in the 1600s.  As executioner, it is also his job to torture suspects to gain confessions that could be used by the powers that be to justify the executions they ordered.  In this story, the accused is a midwife who is charged with witchcraft.  A young boy has been murdered, and he appears to have a symbol of witchcraft tattooed on his shoulder.  The woman is captured by a mob, and taken to the hangman to be questioned.  He does not believe in her guilt, however, and does whatever he can to put off the torture and eventual burning at the stake that inevitably follows such an accusation.  He works with the son of the town doctor, Simon, and grudgingly with his oldest daughter, Magdalena, to find the real killer and save the woman from a gruesome fate.

The main character's profession is only one thing that makes this book different from other historical mysteries I've read.  It is set in Germany during the middle ages, and there is sufficient detail about the daily life of the average person of that time that I can only assume the context is well-researched.  It highlights much of the backward thinking of the day, from the existence of witchcraft itself, to the severe class distinctions, to the political structure of small towns of the era, to the completely unscientific practice of "medicine" during that period in history.  This in itself makes for interesting reading.

But there is more than just a well-researched setting.  The mystery itself is sufficiently developed that I was kept guessing until pretty much the end of the story.  Potzch finds a good balance between exposition and action, and while the description of the torture inflicted on this poor woman is detailed enough to make you squirm, it is not gratuitous, and definitely does not glamorize it at all.  In fact, one of the things that I loved about the character of Jakob Kuisl is how conflicted he is about his profession.  It was never something he wanted to do, but the rigidly enforced class structure meant that he had very few options-his father and his father's father were executioners, therefore he must be as well.  But being a principled man, he wants to ensure that his torture does not lead to the death of anyone who is not well and truly guilty.  He is also in intellectual, which is what draws the physician's son, Simon, into his orbit.  It is socially unacceptable to be friends with the hangman, but Jakob has books that a scholar like Simon can only dream of, and together their combination of intellect and experience make them a very effective, if very unorthodox,  detective team.  This book is the first in a series, and I look forward to spending more time in 17th century Germany uncovering the truth about murder and mayhem.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Bitter Truth, by Charles Todd

Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team of Caroline Todd and Charles Todd, first introduced nurse and accidental detective Bess Crawford in A Duty to the Dead.  Ms. Crawford's world is World War I England. The daughter of a British colonel who grew up in India, Bess felt compelled to do her duty to her country by becoming a nursing sister in France.  During her leaves, she often comes home to England, where she shares a flat in London with some other nursing sisters.  When not in London, she visits her parents in the English countryside.  Given the diverse places she find herself (battlefield, gritty London street, or bucolic English field), she has plenty of opportunity to get drawn into drama and mystery.

In this particular story, Bess is home on leave during the winter of 1917.  Struggling from the train station to her flat in London through a frigid rain, she discovers a bruised young woman shivering on her doorstep. Being incapable of ignoring the suffering of any poor soul, she invites the woman into her flat to warm up and dry off.  She learns that the woman is the wife of a wealthy landowner from Sussex, who has run away from her husband after he struck her during an argument.  She wants to return home, but it afraid of what her husband will do.  She asks Bess to accompany her to Vixen Hill, the family's country estate.  Bess, who desperately wants to see her own family, cannot refuse the terrified woman's request.

Vixen Hill proves to be a brooding manor house, surrounded by harsh, windswept countryside.  Bess is grudgingly welcomed by the family, who are mourning the loss of the oldest son in the war.  When a guest at the memorial service is found murdered, Bess and everyone in the house become suspects, and family secrets begin to come out.  Bess' quest to identify the murderer and help the family takes her from England to the devastated villages of France.

I enjoy the Bess Crawford novels for a variety of reasons, from the setting to the strong-willed main character to the rather intricate plots.  Of course, I like all things British, and the fact that the setting of this series closely resembles Downton Abbey doesn't hurt.  I have to say that for the most part I didn't really like any of the characters in this book, other than Bess and the other recurring characters in the series.  But that strangely didn't make it any less enjoyable to read.  Despite their rather selfish behavior, and downright snobbery, I couldn't help but be drawn in emotionally, and found myself empathizing with the grief and sadness that was just below the surface of their family life.  I did feel as though the middle section dragged a bit, but the ending was dramatic enough to make up for it.  If you are a fan of period mysteries a la Agatha Christie, then I think that you would enjoy Bess Crawford's investigatory capers!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Ten White Geese

Right about this time of year, after the holidays and months before spring break, when the weather is dreary and the days still short, I start to long to run away to a little cabin in the woods.  Ideally, it would be me, a stack of books, and no cell phone or internet.  I desire the solitude, the lack of responsibility for anyone but myself, and permission to hunker down and wait for warmer weather.  Of course, since I like my job and my house and my wife (and would like to keep all of them), I have never actually run away to the forest, but I do think of it from time to time.

So when I began reading Ten White Geese, I was at first envious of the main character-a woman whose
name we don't learn until the very end of the book.  She is a professor of literature, specifically a scholar of Emily Dickinson.  Something has happened, though at first we don't know what, that has caused her to leave her husband and her job, and to rent a small house deep in the forest in Wales.  When she moves into the house, there are ten geese living on the property.  One by one, they start to disappear.  In addition, there is a badger that only she can see, a surly neighbor who acts as though he has dominion over her house and her person, a nearby town full of small people with small concerns, and eventually a boy and his dog.  The woman, who calls herself Emilie, slowly comes apart before the eyes of the reader, despite the best efforts of the boy and his dog to care for her.

Not being all that familiar with Emily Dickinson myself, I can't really speak to how much the plot of the book may or may not have paralleled her life, but the other women in my book club assure me that there were definitely some elements that spoke to her work.  Both the main character and Dickinson withdrew from society, both undoubtedly were suffering from depression, and both longed for human connection, but only on their own terms.  Dickinson had her poetry, and Emilie had a garden-a garden that she was trying to plant, despite the wrongess of the season, so that at least something would be left behind when she was gone.  In the end, the futility of her endeavors only added to her belief that while she may revere Dickinson and her work, she can't possibly live up to her example.

This novel is odd and spare and fairly bleak.  It's set in November and December in the Welsh countryside, a time between-between fall and full winter-and Emilie herself seems to be in some in-between place in her life.  Slowly over the course of the novel her layers are peeled away, until what is left is merely the shell of a woman who is trying desperately to have some control over a life that has gotten away from her.  By then end of the novel, I was certainly not envious of her running away to the woods anymore.  Instead, I felt the loneliness and despair that drove her away from everyone and everything she knew, and I was relieved for her when it all finally came to the end-an end that was as tragic as it was inevitable.