Pearl's Picks for July
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - by C. Alan Bradley
With the notable exception of Harriet Welsch, the eponymous heroine of Harriet the Spy, the classic novel for young teens by Louise Fitzhugh, I don't believe I've ever encountered a more delightful young sleuth than 11-year-old bicycle-riding chemistry whiz Flavia de Luce, the intrepid narrator of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a first novel by Alan Bradley. Early one summer morning in 1950, in the garden of Buckshaw, her family's estate in the British countryside, Flavia discovers a man on the verge of death, lying among the cucumbers. His last word is "Vale," which Flavia knows means "farewell" in Latin. When her reclusive father is arrested by the local constable for the man's murder (for a death by natural causes it is not), she takes it upon herself to discover the real perpetrator of the crime. Flavia's detecting skills would be the envy of Sherlock Holmes (or at least Watson), and her bravery is amply demonstrated during a frightening encounter with a dastardly villain who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Truly a heroine to admire! The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie makes perfect summer reading--it's gore-free, very funny in places, nicely written, not too sweet (despite the title) and narrated by a real charmer. Here's how Flavia describes how she knows that her adversary is lying to her:
It was a lie and I detected it at once. As an accomplished fibber myself, I spotted the telltale signs of an untruth before they were halfway out of his mouth: the excessive detail, the offhand delivery, and the wrapping-up of it all in casual chitchat.
And here she's trying to figure out how to get out of the dangerous situation she finds herself in:
I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me: "If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!" Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located. I'd have to think of something else.
I can't wait for the sequel.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel - by Jamie Ford
In 1986, at age 56, Chinese-American Henry Lee watches as modernization comes to the derelict and long abandoned Panama Hotel, long the gateway to Japantown in Seattle. As a new owner prepares to remodel the building, she discovers in the basement the belongings of 37 Japanese-American families, left behind when they were sent to spend the World War II years in the now infamous internment camps. This discovery evokes in Henry memories of his own experiences of the war years, and especially of his first love, Japanese-American Keiko Okabe, a fellow student at the private school he attended, whom he never saw again after she and her family were sent to the camps. What Ford does so nicely in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his first novel, is give us a picture of the war years from the point of view of a Chinese-American boy, a young man whose non-English-speaking father tries to deal with the strong and frightening anti-Japanese sentiment by making his son wear a button that says "I am Chinese," in the mostly futile hope that Henry can thereby escape the prevalent racism. Although I've read many novels that touched upon the discrimination against Japanese Americans during WWII, Ford's book presents a point of view that I'd never encountered before. Ford does a fine job transitioning the reader between present and past; those sections set in the present day explore Henry's relationship with his own son, as well as his attempts to finally locate Keiko and put the past to rest. Ultimately, this is a book about memory and regret. It reminds us that the great events of history take place not only on the world stage, but also reverberate throughout the lives of individuals, even the young and innocent. Fans of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars will definitely want to check this out. Ford based part of his book on real events: the Panama Hotel was remodeled, and the belongings of Japanese Americans were found: a nice bonus for readers of this book who visit Seattle is that the Panama Hotel offers tours of the building, as well as great tea and coffee.
The Family Man - by Elinor Lipman
I've been a huge fan of Elinor Lipman for years. There are lots of reasons why I love her books: the delectably screwballish nature of the plots for one, and the realistic yet-infinitely- wittier-than-anything-I-ever-encounter-in-real-life dialogue, for two. For me, though, what most sets Elinor Lipman apart is the way she just adores her characters. She has such abounding affection for the people she's invented; she seems to regard even the most unpleasant ones with sympathy. It's only natural for readers to adopt an author's attitude toward her characters and, in Lipman's case, take the same delight in reading about them that she obviously took in creating them. Her new novel, The Family Man, is a madcap romp with a heart of gold. Retired lawyer Henry Archer's biggest regret in life is that when his wife left him 25 years before, he allowed her new husband to adopt Thalia, Denise's four-year-old-daughter, whom Henry had adopted when he and Denise married. So when he's reunited with his ex-stepdaughter, now an actress (whom he never knew works at the salon where he gets his hair cut), he couldn't be happier. Complications of the wackiest sort, of course, ensue. The recently widowed Denise insists that Henry help her fight a lawsuit when her step-children try to overturn their father's will, and, more importantly for Henry, Denise introduces him to a man she's recently met while shopping. Todd, a tabletop specialist at the Gracious Home store, still lives with his mother and has never actually told her he was gay. Thalia gets a job pretending to be the girlfriend of a Hollywood actor of dubious character, and so on. You can see, I'm sure, how deliciously complicated the plot all is--it would be easy to lose track of it all. But under Lipman's skilled touch these disparate plot elements come together in a totally satisfying way. If you enjoy The Family Man, don't miss my other favorite novels: The Way Men Act, The Inn at Lake Devine, and My Latest Grievance.
Feet of Clay: A Novel of Discworld - by Terry Pratchett
Whenever I feel the need for something light and humorous yet still complex and thoughtful enough to keep me reading, I turn and return to Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. By my count, there are 32, not including his books for kids and teens. And of all the characters who inhabit Pratchett's imaginary universe--the witches, a walking suitcase, Death, Death's grand-daughter Susan, the librarian at the Unseen University who's an orangutan, and various wizards--my favorites are the members of the Night Watch, the police force, led by Sam Vimes. In Feet of Clay, Sam and his cohorts, who include a werewolf, a zombie, a dwarf, and several lovable if minimally intelligent humans, have to try to stop a killer who leaves shards of what appears to be clay behind him. What I love about all of Pratchett's novels (and it's so evident in Feet of Clay) is his brilliant imagination, and how detailed and complex and real he's made Discworld. Who else could have thought of a Dwarf-Bread Museum, in which some of the items on exhibit are drop scones--a perfect weapon to throw at your enemy? For some reason, that just makes me chuckle. Pratchett is always writing about something serious under the surface of, or by means of, the humor he employs. So in Feet of Clay, there are echoes of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, a history of golems, ideas about race relations (a topic that runs through many of the Discworld novels), personal responsibility, man's relationship to God, and so on. These days, what makes reading Pratchett's novels such a bittersweet experience is that his dazzling mind is being lost to early-onset Alzheimer's. When I learned that, I thought of how Iris Murdoch, another extremely intelligent writer, was felled by that dreadful disease.
A Far Cry from Kensington - by Muriel Spark
One of my favorite characters in all of fiction is Mrs. Hawkins, the greatly overweight, greatly capable, and greatly opinionated narrator of Muriel Spark's light-hearted novel, A Far Cry from Kensington. I've always felt that were I to meet the now elderly Mrs. Hawkins today, she would have morphed into the sort of woman that Maggie Smith played in the film Gosford Park--tart, loyal to her friends, easy to confide in, and impossibly self-assured, yet, for all that, incredibly easy to love. Here's how Mrs. Hawkins describes herself:
I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.
And here are just a few of her opinions that we're treated to in the course of the book: On losing weight (only eat and drink half of whatever you're given); will-power ("you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained"); on being capable (don't demonstrate it too much; you'll incur resentment from those who think they're your betters). There are many more, and we would all no doubt be better people for taking her advice.
The heart of the novel, recounted in a long flashback, takes place in 1954, in the world of literary London. Mrs. Hawkins lives in a rooming house in Kensington, then a down-at-heels part of the city, and works as an editor for a small publishing company. One of her great dislikes (among many) is bad and pretentious writing, and Mrs. Hawkins believes that the very worst of the hacks whose writing she would so characterize is Hector Bartlett. One day, when she happens upon Bartlett in the park on her way to work, Mrs. Hawkins accuses him of being a "pisseur de copie," someone who "vomits literary matter." Not unnaturally, he takes great umbrage at being referred to thusly, and becomes Mrs. Hawkins' great enemy, not only getting her fired from two publishing jobs but also, quite possibly, doing even more serious harm to one of Mrs. Hawkins' fellow boarders. Or did he? With Spark, it's hard to know.
Spark is a spare and meticulous writer; she brings her creations to life in a simple sentence or two. One female character in A Far Cry from Kensington is described as being so forgettable that "she seemed to live in parentheses." But it's the character of Mrs. Hawkins who demonstrates Spark's talents at their finest. I first read this novel more than 20 years ago and loved it then. Rereading it for Pearl's Picks, spiffed up in a new cover from New Directions, I found it as buoyant and satisfying as I did back then.
Outcasts United: A Refugee Soccer Team, an American Town - by Warren St. John
On the face of it, Warren St. John's Outcasts United is the story of a boys soccer team and its female coach, but since the coach is Jordanian and the boys are refugees from a veritable United Nations of countries, it is also a story of immigration. I found St. John's book to be both inspirational and sobering: When I finished reading it I certainly had a better understanding of the complex issues surrounding the assimilation of refugees into the U.S., but I was also heartened by the fact that one person can, seemingly, make a real difference in the lives of others. In Outcasts United that person is Luma Mufleh, a young Jordanian woman who, after graduating from Smith College, settled in Clarkston, Georgia, a quiet suburb of Atlanta. She works with the local YMCA to fund a soccer program, and begins coaching a group of boys whose families have arrived (often traumatized by war or years in refugee camps) from countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, and Kosovo, most speaking only the most limited English, at best. As she attempts to mold the "Fugees" into a successful soccer team, Mufleh comes up against the mayor of Clarkston and some of its residents, who aren't exactly thrilled that the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement has, in its infinite wisdom, chosen their sleepy town to be the new home to hundreds of immigrants, but she also finds many supporters of the program. This is a fast-paced, well-told, and moving story; it's a good nonfiction choice for book groups. You can read it now (I hope you will) or wait for the movie now in the works.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream - by Tanya Lee Stone
I would bet that very few Americans today--of any age--will recognize the names of Jerrie Cobb or Jane Hart. They were, in fact, two of the 13 trailblazing women who, in 1959, began the same grueling battery of psychological and physical tests that the men trying to become members of the first cadre of astronauts did, hoping to prove that a woman or two should be among that first group. (In fact, in some cases the tests the women were given were more difficult than those the men took; the women were placed in sensory deprivation tanks, an ordeal the men never had to go through.) Now, in Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, Tanya Lee Stone attempts to give these women their due. Although the book is aimed at young readers (10 to 14), I found it fascinating and suspect many adults will as well. Stone covers all the important aspects of the women's fight to be taken seriously as possible astronauts, including describing their superior backgrounds as test pilots, their superior test scores, the discussion among their (few) supporters within NASA and outside the space agency and those who were leagued against them, including then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, President Kennedy's liaison to NASA). It's sobering to read Stone's account of the Congressional hearing in which Hart and Cobb made their case for equal treatment for the women. This is a stirring--and ultimately sad--story of hopes dashed and talent wasted. But in the end, I suppose, it's more helpful to view the actions taken by Cobb, Hart, and the others as setting the stage for the all the women who came after them, including Sally Ride, who, in 1983, became the first American woman in space.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town- by Paul Theroux
Although Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar is one of my all-time favorite books, I stopped reading him when he fell into what seemed to me to be an interminable bad mood--somewhat ironically, along about Happy Isles of Oceania, I think, in 1993, so it's been quite a while since I picked up a Theroux travel narrative. But a friend recommended his Dark Star Safari, and, ever trusting (and, as always, looking for a good book to read), I tried it, and was immediately hooked. It begins, "All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again." I'm a sucker for an opening line like that. There are sentences on every page of this engrossing book that you just want to write down and share with others. Theroux seems to have recovered his emotional equilibrium and shed most of his grumpiness and petulance; all of his talent for discovering the unusual in the ordinary people he meets and places he visits is in evidenced on every page of this tale of his trip overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Here's another wonderful line, also from the first chapter: "I.was heading south, in my usual traveling mood: hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable, it is a banal subject for travel. Therefore, Africa seemed perfect for a long journey." Along the way, he celebrates his 60th birthday, revisits Uganda, where he once taught at Makerere University, and offers his opinion (not high) on the efficacy of foreign aid. He travels by nearly every sort of conveyance you can imagine: a variety of trucks, a ferry, train, bus, and dugout canoe (a particularly fascinating section) and talks to a diverse group of people from all walks of life, both Africans and others, such as missionaries, tourists and aid workers from Western countries, which gives him (and us) a well-rounded portrait of a continent struggling to find itself. Incidentally, there's a very funny joke on page 123 of the paperback edition.
Love Stories in This Town - by Amanda Eyre Ward
The settings of the stories in Amanda Eyre Ward's stellar collection, Love Stories in This Town range all over the map of the United States--Austin, Georgia, Montana, San Francisco--but the main characters, all women, share one salient characteristic: they're looking for something. For some it's a sense of belonging somewhere, anywhere. For others it's enduring love, or motherhood, or security, or professional success. Each of Ward's protagonists feels that there's something basic missing in her life--a hole in her world. Whether it's Kimmy, moving to Texas with her husband two days after a miscarriage ("The Stars are Bright in Texas"); Mimi ("Shakespeare.com") working for a startup company aimed at bringing Shakespeare to the masses; or the six linked stories about ten years in the life of Lola Wilkerson, all these stories are moving and insightful; the dialogue is pitch perfect. I finished reading each of these stories wishing that Ward would expand every one into a novel, so I could spend more time with the characters.
The Right Stuff - by Tom Wolfe
I suspect that anyone over a certain age can probably recite the names of at least a few of the members of Astronaut Group 1, otherwise known as the Mercury Seven--I thought of three off the top of my head --John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (the others were Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.) These were the men chosen in 1959 to lead the nation into space, and the subject of Tom Wolfe's 1979 book, The Right Stuff. The book itself is a leading example of the "New Journalism." According to Wikipedia, Wolfe codified the label "New Journalism" in a 1973 collection entitled The New Journalism, which included articles by himself, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and others. This type of writing is characterized by the use of techniques borrowed from literary fiction (while clearly intended to be read as non-fiction). Among its tenets are describing the action through the point of view of various characters as well as a reliance on showing events as they occurred, rather than recounting them in retrospect. Nowhere is this style of writing better displayed than in The Right Stuff, Wolfe's now classic (even iconic) account that depicts the Mercury Seven astronauts in all their swagger, guts, and glory. It begins with their early years as pilots, describes the battery of tests they had to take before being accepted into the space program (and their reactions to those tests), as well as offering exciting descriptions of their first flights into space. Readers looking for evocative writing and a peep into the world of the best and the brightest of the space program will find it all here.