16 October 2011

Losses and Recoveries

After struggling through Laurie R. King's latest book, I grabbed a book from a small stack left at our house by Mary, the family book pusher. I wanted to read something entertaining and, if possible, interesting. The book I picked up was J. A. Jance's Betrayal of Trust. It was entertaining and some of the characters were interesting.

There's a story in this book; actually several stories. It's what I was missing in Pirate King. Of course, maybe it was just me and "where" I was when I read it. There are events in Betrayal of Trust. One after another. Some of them seem to causally related (even when they are not). There are a couple of tragedies, some betrayals (as I would expect from the title), there's a revelation, and the beginning of a story of hope warm the hearts of Horatio Alger fans everywhere.

It's a "J. P. Beaumont novel" according to the cover. That means the main actors are Beaumont and his wife and detective partner Mel Soames. They work for the state's attorney general on special investigations. Going back at least as far as Nick and Nora Charles, they are independently wealthy and doing cop jobs because they want to.

The story begins with a snuff film found on the cell phone of the governor's step-grandson. The story expands from there to a suicide, two murders, at least three betrayals, an arson, and another murder. Luckily J.P. and Mel aren't expected to do all the investigating themselves. The AG keeps pulling more people into the case to follow up on clues.

In the midst of this complicated investigation, Beaumont gets an e-mail from an aunt he didn't know he had. He'd grown up with his mother who had been rejected by her family and the family of her lover who died before Beaumont was born. J. P.'s mother never told him who is father was and named him Beaumont after his father's home town. Suddenly there was the prospect of filling in the second half of his family tree. But first there were bullying, murder, and sex abuse cases to resolve.

I enjoyed reading this one. The story swept me along and kept pulling me back to the book as I tried to do other things. Luckily, it was cold and windy at the little cabin on the lake and I didn't really have to work at cleaning and closing during the first 24 hours we were there. I finished in time to write this before I had to tackle spider webs, dirty floors, and cupboards and a refrigerator that needed emptying.

Have you read Betrayal of Trust? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

King's Pirate

Back in September, Nancy and I had the pleasure of meeting Laurie R. King. She is the author of the Mary Russell mysteries featuring Ms Russell and her mentor Sherlock Holmes. King was in town to sign and read from her latest (11th) Russell mystery, Pirate King.

Besides being novelties, Nancy and I thought that the first few Russell mysteries were terrific. We also discovered King's Kate Martinelli series, written about a San Francisco detective. To us, they are equal to the best of the Russell mysteries.

The gems of King's books, in my mind, are the dark, yet hopeful novels about the lengths to which good people will go to do good things. I still wish those books are somewhat based on reality.

But back to Pirate King. The book required lots of research and travel to distant lands. We enjoyed hearing from King about her experience of writing the book. It was a bit weird to have her lead her audience at the reading in an amateurish and off-key new version of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic. (The new words were relevant to the new book.)

It was a treat to hear King read the first chapter. I often imagine an author's voice when I read, and now I'm pretty sure I had King's voice right in my head.

We gladly bought a copy, had King sign it it, and went home looking forward to reading the book that had been so much fun for the author to write. I got to read it first because Nancy was busy finishing a couple big projects.

It took a long time for me to read this book. Things began slowly in this mystery. In fact, the first real "event" didn't take place until half way through the book when one of the main characters pushes the other overboard during a crossing of the Mediterranean. And things didn't pick up much fro that point on.

I came away from the book feeling like I'd read an essay on movie making in the 1920s. (Remember all that research King enjoyed?) Following that was a little travelogue about Portugal, a briefing on heteronyms, a short history of the pirates of Morocco, and a description of an old Moroccan palace where the women of the movie company were held prisoner. (Remember the exotic travel King enjoyed?)

In my mind, stories are made up of events — one following another, often causally related. Essays and travelogues sometimes include themes and even events, but they are not mystery novels. This novel includes a flimsy plot, a bit of intrigue, and a dash of adventure, but it's more essay and travelogue than mystery novel. Enough said (for me).

I know the Russell books sell and they're what the publisher wants, but I want another Kate Martinelli mystery or another Darker Place.

Have you read Pirate King? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

08 October 2011

Old gem

I'm working my way through Laurie R. King's latest book very slowly. So, I'm posting a 2002 entry from the old ReadingOnTheWeb site. It's about a book full of important ideas that's still one of my favorites.

To keep my sanity and to keep my brain cells functioning I must read something besides mysteries and depressing things like Michael Moore's commentary.

Chinua Achebe, like Stephen Jay Gould, is one of my heroes. A wise and perceptive man, he's written several beautiful novels about Nigeria. They may have been works of fiction, but they were true stories.

I picked up his most recent publication, Home and Exile at the Carleton bookstore. It's based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard a few years ago.

Achebe gave me hope and made me doubt that hope in the span of these few pages (105 to be exact).

He makes the case for the power of story telling. His thesis reminds me of George Orwell's.
In the end I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative.

Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like. Just as in corrupt, totalitarian regimes, those who exercise power over others can do anything..."
He then cites an epiphanal experience he had in a university classroom as the central metaphor for a discussion of how the "civilized" world captured the African narrative for over 400 years. At first it was done out of wonder, then to justify slavery. Later, the civilized world wrote to rationalize colonialism and then to defend its reputation.

He and his generation of African students, scholars, and writers began recognizing their loss and began inventing their own narratives.

Even today, as "the empire writes back," Westerners fight a rear guard action to maintain possession of the Third World's narrative.

V.S. Naipaul wins plaudits and is discussed in suburban book groups for describing the depravity and deprivaton of the Third World and deploring the childish resistance of Third Worlders to assimilation into Western civilization. And conservative scholars react to multiculturalism as if recognizing validity in something other than Judeo-Christian civilization threatens the importance (not to mention the superiority) of Greek, Roman, and Anglo Saxon values.

Achebe offers hope that more peoples will reclaim their own narratives, but one bit of pessimism startled me. It's possible, he says, that the damage done by "civilization's" control of the description of Africa and Africans for so many centuries and the propaganda sown by those narratives has made it impossible for us and them to see each other as equally human.

My idealism was challenged directly in a humanistic way. The shock was a danger to my naivete. At my age I shouldn't be vulnerable to such shocks. It does mean I'm still learning, but has my idealism been that superficial? Perhaps so. When confronted by Achebe's words, I knew I shared his fear.

Dehumanization of Africans by Europeans began before slavery. It grew more powerful and even scientific later. In the USA, slavery and the accompanying racism has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Can we, the purveyors of the toxic myth, overcome it? I sure don't know. We've made some progress in our civic behavior during my lifetime, but internalizing common humanity may be beyond us. Furthermore, can the victims of such description overcome the lies, the insults and the dehumanizing treatment? I can only accept Achebe's doubts.

This is an important book. If we're going to survive as a world, as a civilization, as a culture, and as a nation, we need to learn the lesson taught by this wise man. Read the book. If your library doesn't have it, ask them to find it. If you can afford the $10 it costs, buy it. It's Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe, published by Anchor Books A Division of Random House, Inc. The ISBN is 0-385-72133-1.