Sunday, January 27, 2008

One Rodent Book and Several Novels of Place

Rodent Book: I finished December with The Red Chipmunk Mystery by Ellery Queen, Jr. (and, according to Wikipedia, written by Samuel Duff McCoy). In the style of a classic 1946 juvenile mystery, smart-thinking kid Djuna (of no last name and indeterminate age and parentage) uses keen observation and knowledge of things like the behavior of chipmunks to save the day from villainous thieves. Chipmunks are only mentioned for their cleverness of having a back entrance to their hide-outs.

Novels of Place: In November I finally finished Peruvian writer Mario Vargos Llosa's Captain Pantoja and The Special Service. I had started it over the summer of 2006 and then lost the book in the move. The lapsed time was good for my appreciation of the novel. The oppressive and sexually-stimulating atmosphere of the Amazon jungle is a major component of the book and I appreciated the thickness of the air much more for having been in the jungle (albeit for a day) in May. Vargos Llosa moves action forward quickly by intermixing unattributed snippets of conversation from several key conversations simultaneously. He's a good enough writer that the plot is still comprehensible to the reader and a properly frantic mood is set. He uses the same basic device in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but in Aunt Julia it fits the plot much better, and while I would recommend both books, the latter receives higher marks from me.

Immediately after finishing with the Peruvian Amazon, I moved to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I'd heard about the series and had planned to read them someday. I knew the books were sweet, character-driven mysteries set in Africa, but, like many other readers* I was surprised to find how engrossed I became in the town, the simple mysteries and the thornbush landscape. Like many other readers, I was then surprised to be reminded that the author (pictured) is a white expert on bioethics living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Highly recommended for Happy Cricket, Prairie Quilter, Sunflower Spinner, and Tuscon Trekker, among others.

I followed up the first of one mystery series with the first of another. My mother gave me Denise Swanson's Murder of a Small-Town Honey. My aunt had earlier given my mother several volumes of the series because it takes place in the small Illinois town my family is from**. While completely innocuous, Murder of a Small-Town Honey is not all that good. I enjoyed it much more than someone else would have because I kept noting all the details that make Wilmington, IL, Wilmington, IL. I'm not sure why Swanson decided not to name the town: her fictional town lies between two named towns just where Wilmington does, fictitious "Maryland Street" runs where real "Baltimore Street" does, the octagonal house is there, the empty train depot. . . She doesn't attempt to disguise the town.

At some point the unflattering portrait of Wilmington began to bother me. The main character is distraught to be back in town. When graduating high school at the top of her class she had vowed that once she had an education she would never come back. The town seems clannish, backward and utterly devoid of retail opportunities. I'm mostly curious as to why this bothers me. Against all familial advice, my father went to college so he could escape the town. While he has longed for the great soil, he has never seriously considered returning. My mother's family moved there in 1961 and 40 years later still felt they had never been fully accepted. My aunt, a life-long resident of the region, finds Swanson's stories hilarious. Why, then, would Swanson's dead-on description of the depressing nature of the supermarket at night rankle me?

*One of the reason's I picked up No. 1 Ladies was a post about it on Athyrium Filix-Femina, a blog by an unknown (but clearly very cool) American cook, reader and gardener living in Scotland. Athyrium is also one of the excuses there haven't been many book reviews on this blog recently. I recommended that Athyrium read The Crow Road by Iain Banks (a great, if somewhat dated in the last ten years, modern Scottish novel). Athyrium read the book and her entry about The Crow Road, like her other book reviews, provides a fabulous sense of what it feels like to be reading the book. My reviews do not do that. I want to do that, but really, I feel successful if I have just announced a book to someone who might like to read it. In the meantime, one of my siblings-in-law started a literary criticism blog. Wuthering Expectations succeeds in discussing the actual writing in great (and not so great) literature. I can't compete with that either. When I read well-written reviews and real criticism I question what place there is for my weak, short reviews. However, one friend recently reminded me that I need to blog more and that I need to share more books. She's right. I enjoy doing both. If I confined myself to doing only what I do better than anybody else, I would spend all of my days throwing groundhog parties in Kansas and talking about a leguminous prairie root, which would get old fast. Of course, while Athyrium and Wuthering are both much more well-read than I, one other reason their writing about books is much better than mine is that they do much more of it. Few endeavors exist where I can expect to improve by doing less. Writing is not one of them. In any case, as a result of these excellent book blogs, I re-read The Crow Road and Pride and Prejudice. I left wanting to visit Argyll and Darbyshire so they count for the list of books about place. I assume readers know P+P (discussed on both abovementioned blogs) is one of my all-time favorite book, but I should add a recommendation for those who somehow didn't know that.

**The idea of being from someplace still interests me. In many ways, I consider myself historically from Wilmington, IL. My parents met in high school there and it's the only place I ever visited any grandparents. However, my father's family was not from town and considered town folks quite different and my mother's family moved there when she was in high school. She visited all of her grandparents in southern Illinois and therefore considered herself from southern Illinois. So if none of my parents or grandparents considered themselves from there and I've never lived there, what claim do I have?


Anonymous said...

Your comments on your parents' home town---but not really--as both were from farms is so very true. Folks in town are different--not better or worse-just different. I truly believe there is no way to duplicate living--growing up--on in rural areas. In general, urban, even small town, folks project a superior attitude when they deal with rural people. I'm not certain why---but if one has experienced it, one can clearly feel being looked down upon by their "superior" city brethren. That may help explain why rural people are often so successful when they go to school, off to work, whatever. They are constantly trying to prove that they are at least equal--and maybe even superior. Who knows?
Mister's father

Amateur Reader said...

You're right - I started Wuthering Expectations to get myself writing. Practice & discipline.

janet said...

personally, i don't like long involved reviews because i'm paranoid about "spoilers." so i prefer it when someone says, this book is about africa, you should read it. or something vague like that.
i do have aunt julia and the scriptwriter with me here and should be reading it soon. i'm excited! but don't tell me anymore about it! ;)
and i liked your comments on doing things anyway despite not being the best at it.
i'm glad to see you are posting again. apparently, you've been back at it a while and i just haven't checked over here! oops!

Sally's sister said...

Cool - I'm reading tears of the giraffe, the 2nd in the Ladies series. And I'm catching up onyour blog. With a parrot on my shoulder. HOw do you know when people post to old messages?

Marieke said...

SS--Clearly I've gotten behind on reading your blog. I'm getting caught up now!

Thank you for the long praise for my book reviews. I made myself a couple guidelines when writing them: 1) write up something ASAP after finishing the book; 2) write whatever I feel like writing, no pressure, no expectations.

Both rules help me focus on my emotional or intellectual response to the book. If I wait more than a few days, it's much harder to do. Sometimes I remind myself: I'm writing this for me.

So, keep up your reviews and allow yourself to write whatever you want to write about a book. No one's judging! And we all love good recommendations.