Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier

Is it fair to judge a book by its cover?  I know, it's a total cliche.  But really, I think the cover of this book pretermined how I was going to feel about it.

I rarely read mass-market paperbacks.  I know, part of it is snobbery -- I spend too much time searching through the library's romance paperbacks while I shelve as a volunteer, and a lot of them are just dreadful-looking bodice rippers, which is so not my thing.  (However, if it is your thing, you might enjoy this clever book blog.) Maybe trade paperbacks just remind me of Quality Literature.  Actually it's probably just that I like bigger print and larger margins. I could just get reading glasses! 

Quickly, here's the setup:  It's the early 1800s, and after the death of her mother, Mary Yellan, age 23, has nowhere to go but to live with her aunt Patience, whom she hasn't seen in years.  Aunt Patience is now married and living in Cornwall at the Jamaica Inn, with her husband, the proprietor.  On her way to her new home, Mary dismisses the warnings of the coachman, who tells her it's an evil place and she needs to run away as fast as she can.  Instead Mary moves into the creepy inn, which has no guests, just her scary uncle, her terrified aunt, and whispers of evil comings and goings.  She's surrounded by the moors with no one else for miles around.  Terror awaits! 

Anyhow, Jamaica Inn  is not a bodice-ripper, but the with combination of the purple cover with the pink title, plus the mass-market size, I was ready to be unimpressed. (And the Jamaica Inn is NOT on the edge of a cliff, as in the cover). I so wanted to be wrong, and that this would be as wonderful as Rebecca, which is one of my favorites.  Mysterious men!  A fabulous mansion!  The creepy housekeeper!  What is not to love about Rebecca -- which is actually a beautifully written novel? 

Sadly, this just isn't on the same level.  It's melodramatic and predictable, and there are waaaay too many descriptions of the creepy moors.  If you don't like a lot of descriptions of scenery, you might want to skip this one, though they are quite well written.  Here's a good example from the beginning of the book:

Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled.  Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again.  There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when men did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills.  And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

This is one of du Maurier's earlier novels, but it was written only two years before my beloved Rebecca -- is it fair to compare them?  Rebecca  is reminiscent of Jane Eyre, which I also love (some say it is a reworking) -- and now that I think about it, Jamaica Inn  does remind me a little bit of Wuthering Heights, which I really disliked. . . I suppose it's all the talk about the moors.  One character is a little like Heathcliff, but Mary Yellan is a whole lot spunkier than Cathy, whom I just wanted to smack.  Mary does some stupid things in this novel, and I knew who the villain was right away.  The ending was no surprise either.  

At any rate, I'm not giving up on du Maurier yet.  Besides Rebecca, du Maurier wrote some outstanding creepy short stories -- I highly recommend Don't Look Now, one of her short story collections.  It contains The Birds, which is apparently quite different from the movie, which was adapted into a movie starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie back in the 1970s.  It's set in Venice and it's really creepy.  Skip Jamaica Inn and read that one instead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

I will not mince words:  this book was a HUGE disappointment.  I was so excited when I finally got this from the library -- I'd been on the hold list forever.  And it was such a huge waste of time, I'm really annoyed.
But I should back up a bit -- is it just me, or are Scandinavian mysteries really hot right now?  I first started reading them a couple of years ago when a well-read library colleague recommended an Icelandic author, Arnaldur Indridason.  Icelandic -- who knew?  Well, turns out there are just a plethora of great mystery authors from Scandanavia, which sort of makes sense, as they have such long, dark, bleak winters.   Not much to do for several months except drink and contemplate horrific crimes, I suppose.   So, anyway, I read several from Indridason, which I loved, and I tried Stieg Larsson, who's very hot now because of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (though he is sadly dead and not writing any more); and then I found Henning Mankell, who was recently featured on a PBS Mystery! miniseries, Wallander starring the wonderful Kenneth Branagh. All very exciting.

But this book, not so much.  The title should have been a giveaway that this book would be different -- it does not feature Mankell's Detective Wallander.  No, this is a stand-alone novel, with a new sleuth who is actually an amatuer, a criminal court judge named Birgitta Roslin.  She finds herself involved in a horrific murder after nineteen bodies are discovered in a tiny remote village in the far north.  Though she's miles away in the big city, she realizes she's connected to the victims -- years ago, two of the victims were her mother's foster parents.  Intrigued and frightened, she begins to dig deeper and naturally finds out all kinds of stuff that the professional police miss, like the connection to the mysterious Man from Beijing, and possibly even his identity.

This book had some real potential, but after a few chapters it really went downhill.  After Birgitta discovers the connection (and shares it with the police, who naturally dismiss it as farfetched), there's a great flashback to the source of the Sweden/China connection, which goes back more than 100 years and is thousands of miles from either country.  But sadly, then for hundreds of pages the action jumps to characters in China (not a spoiler, folks, as it is The Man From Beijing) and there's a huge digression about what's going on with communism vs. capitalism in present-day China which goes on forever, and then the action shifts to Africa of all places, and there's a whole pan-global tirade about colonialism and capitalism and I think the book really lost focus.  It's as if Mankell had this great idea about a killer with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, and while explaining the back story, he had another great idea for a novel about China and Africa, but decided to smash them both into one book. 

The protagonist Birgitta, who figures out the connection because of several fantastic coincidences, then turns into an idiot.  This woman, who has been a criminal court judge for years, does some really stupid things like telling complete strangers in various countries information about criminals she's investigating, trusting said strangers, not telling the police she's in danger. . . it goes on. Seriously, criminal court judges work with criminals -- you might learn a little something about the criminal mind!  I knew that just from watching Law & Order!  Plus, the horrific crime itself is barely explained -- there's all these loose ends that are never tied up.  I kept reading and hoping for some kind of explanation but all this stuff is just left out, like Mankell ran out of time. 

And now I'm really annoyed that I wasted half a weekend on this book.  I could have been doing something useful.  Like watching Law & Order.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

Portrait of Emile Zola by Manet
 I love any kind of food writing.  Books about food, memoirs with recipes, restaurant reviews -- I love all of them.  I've been fascinated by food and cooking since I was a child and watched Julia Child on PBS with my mother.  I also went to cooking school (not a famous one), worked as a pastry cook, and had the good fortune to have a short-lived career as a food writer. Needless to say, when I saw this new edition of Zola at my chain bookstore last year, I snapped it up.  Food fiction for the classics lover!  And French food fiction!  Who could write about food better than the French?

Sadly, this poor book languished on my shelves (next to Therese Raquin, also unread) until the Zola Classics Circuit was announced.  Joy of joys!  The Belly of Paris was pushed to the top of the to-read list.  And I am so glad I read it, though I'm sorry I waited so long.  This book isn't very long, but I found myself wishing it was longer.  I didn't want it to end. 

A summary, without spoilers:  set about 1859, the story begins with Florent Quenu returning to Paris after a long absence.  He was a political prisoner in Guyana, serving time for a crime which he did not commit during the uprisings in 1851 (after the Napoleon III, nephew of the the first Napoleon, overthrew the government and declared himself Emperor.)  Florent has escaped the horrors of Devil's Island and has returned to Paris, penniless and practically starving.  Soon he's is reunited with his half-brother who is married and running a successful charcuterie, a butcher shop that also makes sausages, pates, etc.  An old friend, Gavard, gets him a job as a fish inspector in the markets.   Poor Florent just wants a peaceful, quiet life but he is thrust into the world of Les Halles, with its backbiting and gossiping shop owners and food vendors, all of whom have their own agendas.  All this is set against a background of whispered unrest;  many people are still unhappy about the way Bonaparte took over the government. Also, Florent is uncomfortable living among the petty bourgeoisie (which include most of the food vendors) versus the poor -- what he calls the Fat and the Thin.

This isn't what you'd call a fast-paced book.  To be perfectly honest, there really isn't a lot of plot -- no twists and turns and suprises here, and only some of the characters are very well-developed.  Even Florent is a bit of a wet blanket for a hero.  However, it's a suprisingly easy read, and the writing and the descriptions elevated this book for me.  I felt like I was right there in the markets, smelling the fish, touching the fruit, and tasting the delicious pates in the Quenu's shop.  If you're not into food writing, this might not be the book for you. There are a lot of descriptions, which are frequently metaphors for the people in Les Halles.  In Chapter 5, Zola writes more than two straight pages of description of a fruit stand.  Here's an excerpt:

Behind [the saleswoman] were shelves of melons: cantaloupes, with warty little bumps, mariachers, with their skin like gray lace, and culs de singe, with their smooth bare humps.  The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundess of their cheeks, half hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by the leaves.  The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls' and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provencal women.  The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.  

This goes on for a couple more pages.  I must also point out that not all the descriptions are as delicious -- there are a few sections that describe some butchering and slaughtering which are pretty unappetizing.  Since Florent's brother is a butcher, there's also a lot of vivid descriptions about meat and sausage making, so vegetarians might want to skip over those parts.  But please don't skip the book entirely, as it's really worth reading. 

This is the third book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.  I did read some of  reader reviews for The Belly of Paris on Goodreads, and the general consensus was that this isn't his best work; Germinal, Nana, and Therese Raquin seem to be the favorites. But if this isn't his best, the other stuff must be great. After the rave reviews on the Classics Circuit of Therese Raquin and Germinal, Zola is moving way up on my to-read list.  I may have to read the entire 20-book cycle -- 19 more books to add to my to-read list!  I also need to go back and study the history of France.  Le sigh.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

This is our library's annual selection for The Big Read -- an NEA-sponsored event in which an entire community reads the same book.  There are some great books on the list, and someday, I hope to read all of them.  (For a list, or more information about The Big Read, click here.)  I was really interested in reading this since I've read so little Latino fiction, plus I'm taking a Spanish class which has made me even more interested in Latino culture.  Unfortunately, though, this book somehow just didn't connect with me.

Here's the basic setup: Set in the 1940s, just before the end of WWII, a little boy named Antonio Marez lives in a rural community in New Mexico.  His parents are complete opposites:  his deeply religious mother is from a family of farmers who are very tied to the land; his father is a hard-drinking vaquero, a former cowboy and hates being tied down.  It's Antonio's three older brothers are off fighting the war in the Pacific, Antonio's mother and father are constantly arguing about which side of the family little Antonio takes after, and what he's going to do with his life. 

At the beginning of the story, Ultima, an elderly lady who is a curandera -- a sort of wise woman/herbalist/traditional healer -- is coming to live with their family.   Some people think Ultima is a kind of a witch, a bruja (see? those Spanish classes are helping!)  Antonio's mother is deeply religious, but somehow Ultima's presence in the home isn't at odds with her Catholicism.  Ultima has some sort of connection to Antonio, since she was the midwife who delivered him.   Having Ultima in the house is botth good and bad -- Antonio starts learning a lot Ultima's crafts and talents as a healer but at the same time she introduces a lot of traditional beliefs that make him begin to question his Catholic upbringing.  He's also starting the English-speaking school, so his whole world is changing.

There's a lot of conflict in this book -- Antonio is struggling to reconcile his Catholic beliefs with Ultima's traditions, and other traditional beliefs and superstitions.  One of Antonio's school friends also has a lot of Native American beliefs (though there aren't actually any Native American characters in the story).  There's all this conflict between the parents and their families, and then Antonio's brothers all come home from the war.  Having Ultima in the house also creates problems for him and his family because a lot of people think she's a witch. 

This book was an easy read, and mostly well written -- I particularly enjoyed all the vivid descriptions of rural New Mexico.  This book really has what book reviewers call "a sense of place."  But there were some things that I just didn't get, or didn't seem realistic.  First of all, this is constantly called a "coming-of-age story."  Huh?  This boy is six years old, and the story finishes when he's not even eight!!  I'm sure children grew up faster back then, but still, this story would have been a lot more believable to me if he had been twelve or even ten.  I was also really bothered because of all the pressure his mother was putting on him to become a priest -- he's a little boy!!  Maybe this is just a cultural thing that I can't relate to.  Also, I was surprised that so many of the characters in the book were devoutly Catholic, yet they still believed in witchcraft and traditional medicine.  I think this is common in some cultures, which sort of blend traditional beliefs with Christianity.

Anyway, there are some other mystical elements in the story that are never really explained.  I'm not sure if this book could be considered Magical Realism, like some books by Allende or Garcia Marquez, two authors whose books I have liked.   I know it's considered a groundbreaking book for Chicano literature -- Rudolfo Anaya was one of the first Latino writers widely published in America, and this book is routinely studied in high school and university classes.  This was an interesting book, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not quite sure if I liked it.  If nothing else, it was good for a book group discussion.