25 January 2012

End it already!

I've read several of Charles Todd's mysteries featuring WWI nurse Beth Crawford. She's the one whose stories remind me of the Masie Dobbs stories, and they're as good as the lesser Masie Dobbs' stories.

I picked up another Charles Todd mystery at the library recently, and it made me wonder again about all this writing about the time between World War I and World War II. Todd has set "his" books in that time, as does Jacqueline Winspear. Laurie R. King sets some of her Mary Russell stories in that time frame as well. It doesn't seem -- Gatsby notwithstanding -- a very attractive period in Western history. Maybe it's attractive as a literary setting because it's far enough in the past so there are few people around with first hand experiences, but for which there is good and accessible documentation of the time. (I especially think of the descriptions of material culture in the Masie Dobbs stories.)

In any case, this book was not a Bess Crawford mystery, but an Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery. I read one of these before and liked it, with reservations. Looking back, I have some of the same reservations about Wings of Fire.

Inspector Ian Rutledge is a WWI veteran suffering what we'd now call a severe case of PTSD. It gets in his way, but -- stiff upper lip and all -- he tries to push through and do the investigations he has to do. Interestingly, but less so than the first time around, Rutledge carries a memory that is a constant voice in his head commenting on what's going on. It's sort of like a Greek chorus, but I thought it became tiresome.

I wrote about A Test of Wills (the Rutledge mystery that preceded this one), "Rutledge's investigation seems to reach the same conclusions as the local one did, but he can't tie up all the loose ends. The voice in his head taunts him. People tell him only what they think is relevant. He keeps probing to find out what they are keeping from him. Of course, he's relentless."

Well, I found slight differences in Wings of Fire, but hardly enough to note. It's just a variation on the earlier story.

There's a textbook I'm familiar with in which the first third of the book endeavors to explain theory and concepts before it tackles the subject matter those things apply to. I find it difficult to deal with because I best understand the methodology when it's applied. (I also know that other people want all the abstract stuff organized in their heads before they tackle real-world topics.)

Well, the last third of this book is an extended unwinding of the mystery that only Ian Rutledge (even in his damaged condition) has figured out. Well, one of the murdered people had figured it out, but her letter explaining things wasn't found until after Rutledge had unraveled the mystery. That last third of the book was not much fun for me. I'd figured out what Rutledge had long before he had the climactic meeting with the bad guy. When I read A Test of Wills, I wrote that I was dissatisfied with the resolution. Same here. If another Charles Todd novel falls into my hands, I'll probably begin reading it. I don't know if I'd slog through another resolution like this one.

So, have you read Wings of Fire or another of Charles Todd's novels? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

17 January 2012

Macro- and micro-novels

Many years ago I worked my way through a macro-novel called Centennial by James Michener. It was the kind of marcro-novel that Michener became famous for. It was one of a number of macro-novels I plowed through long ago. [The last one was probably Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. Or maybe Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (okay, it wasn't a novel, but it read like one).]

By macro-novel, I mean a novel (or history) that takes a wide view of "life, the universe, and everything." (See Douglas Adams' Life, the Universe and Everything. Michener begins his historical novel about Colorado with geology and lots of anthropology. Follett writes about the generations who built a cathedral. Tuchman writes about the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, religious politics, peasant uprisings, aristocratic politics, and the Little Ice Age. They are huge books that include enough ideas, characters, and stories to hold my interest for a long time.

I thought of Centennial twice recently. The first time was when I had a bad cold and cough. I went looking for tea and the local grocery store didn't carry lapsong souchong. I had fond memories of lapsong souchong from the time I read Centennial. Michener described how French fur traders in 18th century Colorado carried bricks of lapsong souchong. So I had to try it. I found it easily, but I was living in the big city then. Now, I'm shopping in a small town grocery store. Oh well, I found a soothing tea that worked to relieve my throat.

The second time I thought of Centennial was when I began reading Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party. The reason I thought of Michener's tome was that Vreeland's book is a micro-novel as opposed to Michener's macro-novel. Almost everything in the first half of the book took place in the head of Auguste Renoir. Vreeland paints some images of late 19th century Paris and illustrates some characteristics of Renoir, but there isn't much in the way of stories.

By the time I got to the middle of the book, I was tired of reading about Renoir's struggles to gather his models, get them to sit still, manage his love life, worry about the light... I would much rather have read a treatise about Renoir's painting or an analysis of Luncheon of the Boating Party. I would have much preferred to go to Washington, D.C. to see the painting and some of its contemporaries.

I quit reading the book and put it on the pile to be returned to the library.

Jeanette Hohman is a 92-year old acquanintance and reader of this blog (when I send her print outs). She asked not long ago why I read so few things besides mysteries. I replied that I was lazy and that mysteries are usually easy (Kate Atkinson, perhaps an exception). I should have added that I read a lot of serious stuff about government and politics -- including lots of news from six selected countries (you're probably fortunate that I write about that on a separate blog). And, I should have added that experiences like trying to read micro-novels like Vreeland's, Connie Willis' science fiction, Per Petterson's micro-novel, and even James Gleick's The Information, send me back to mysteries.

That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to pick up the Charles Todd mystery I got at the library. But, thinking about the macro-novels that I still have fond memories of, maybe I should devote a couple months to reading to something like Follett's World Without End (I've heard it's good). I've also heard good things about Edward Rutherford's London (a sequel to Sarum, another macro-novel which was based on an exhibit I saw at the City of London Museum).

14 January 2012

Fast books, slow books

Bird Loomis writes from a Democratic enclave (Lawrence) in a Republican utopia-to-be (Kansas). Luckily, the Kansans still allow the importation of books from the outside -- even those from outside the USA. And they allow e-mail out of Kansas as well. Thank you, Bird.

Over the past few months I’ve read five books by two authors, neither of whom I’d read before. Jo Nesbo is the better known, with his series of Norwegian novels (deftly translated) about detective Harry Hole. The other is Rebecca Pawel, a native New Yorker, who writes a fascinating series of mysteries about a Guardia lieutenant in Franco-era Spain of the 1940s.

I’ve come to enjoy both authors immensely, but my approach to the books has been quite different. Nesbo writes long, fast-paced, intricately plotted mysteries. I thought that I’d just about had it with alcoholic detectives, but Harry H. has won me over, in part because his drinking is not a constant, and it’s integral to his character and his up-and-down personal life. I haven’t read his work in any particular order, which is a little, but not too, problematic. I find that I read the long Nesbo books at a whirlwind pace. I start, and even if I’m not on vacation I find it hard to put the book down. (Not quite the 6-day Girl with the Dragon Tattoo marathon for all three books, but close.)

Pawel, on the other hand, is a “few pages a night before nodding off” kind of author for me. Like KC Constantine’s Western Pennsylvania novels about Rocksburg and its fictional police chief, Mario Balzic, Pawel’s books are less mysteries and more character studies. And what a set of characters – most notably Lieutenant Tejada, from an aristocratic, Fascist family, and his wife, who comes from a communist background and constantly makes life challenging for the family (as does Tejada). Still, they love each other and their son, and the series develops these relationships slowly and unpredictably. They genius of Pawel’s work is to make a sympathetic character (Tejada) out of someone whom most readers would ordinarily detest. But like Harry Hole, Wallander, John Rebus, and others, he is a good cop and, ultimately, a fair-minded individual.

I think I read the Pawel books slowly because I need time to keep following the various characters, placed back in history, but mostly because I want to ponder the relationships of Tejada with his wife, child, family, and social class. To be sure, there is a mystery to be solved, but the books’ resolutions are more about how personal ties evolve than the solving of a crime. In many ways, there is more to savor here than in the latest Connelly or Child or Nesbo.

In the end, I have no desire to read just “fast” books or only “slow” ones – but good ones. Nesbo hooked me almost immediately; Pawel took more time, but ultimately both made me go looking for more volumes, ever eager to read more.

12 January 2012

The last of Louise Penny's books

I was happy I got to read the first of Louise Penny's books, Still Life. It was charming and interesting.

So I picked up a second one, A Fatal Grace, when I was at the library. I evern renewed it because there were so many interruptions over the holidays (if grand daughters can be safely called interruptions.)

It took too long to read. It wasn't as charming or as interesting. The plot was far fetched. Most of the interesting characters from Still Life were in this book, but they weren't as interesting the second time around.

I did finish the book, so it wasn't awful. It just wasn't as wonderful as the first one of Penny's that I read.

Tiny, improbable village in southern Quebec where a second murder in as many years takes place. What are the odds? About the same as the odds of there being a second-hand book store there that supports its owner, as Penny contends. Now, I've read Carol Bly and Kathleen Norris and I'm willing to concede that there's probably more diversity in rural towns than I saw growing up in one. But the diversity in Three Pines stretches my sense of the possible. And like Cabot Cove, Maine, the violent crime rate is pretty high. I wouldn't want to live there and I doubt I'll visit again through Louise Penny's novels. (It's not the last of Louise Penny's books, but it's probably the last one I'll read.)

Have you read A Fatal Grace (published in Canada as Dead Cold and Sous la glace)? What did you think of it? Read other of Louise Penny's mysteries? What did you think of them? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.