Friday, April 1, 2016

A Potpourri Topped with an Excellent Mystery

I often exhort myself to stop reading mysteries--so many of them just aren't very good. But somehow I can't make myself give them entirely (though I don't read as many as I used to)--and when I come across a good one, I'm reminded why I started reading mysteries in the first place.

What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
What Was Mine, by Helen Klein Ross
The Quality of Silence, by Rosamund Lupton

What She Knew is  told in retrospect by two narrators--the mother of an eight-year-old boy who goes missing when they are walking in the woods and the police officer  in charge of the investigation (he's writing the story out for his therapist). Their stories are interspersed with the therapist's notes and media stories, which add even greater complexity to the narrative. The "mystery" itself is not unique but Macmillan tells it so well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure, that What She Knew holds your attention from first page to last.

What Was Mine illustrates that the story of child abduction is not unique, as it too is the story of a child abducted, this time an infant taken from an Ikea store. It too has multiple narrators, but the story belongs primarily to Lucy, the abductor, who also happens to be a very successful ad executive who hires a nanny to do much of the actual care of "her" child. Because the child's birth mother is not always portrayed positively, I began to feel like Helen Klein Ross was trying to make us empathize with a child abductor. I wasn't able to do that and it made reading What Was Mine somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that's an authorial achievement, but it made me wish I hadn't read the book.

Several years ago, I picked Rosamund Lupton's Sister as my favorite mystery of the year, so I approached The Quality of Silence with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it is so completely unbelievable that I couldn't even enjoy the parts that are done well (descriptions of the Arctic tundra in Alaska, the depiction of a hearing-impaired child's thinking and frustrations). To illustrate the utter implausibility of the story: a British woman who brings her daughter to Alaska to visit their photographer husband/father ends up driving an 18-wheeler across the ice-surfaced Dalton Highway in mid-winter (no, she's never driven a truck before). Please.

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End is the source of the epigrammatic "Only connect," which represents the philosophy of protagonist Margaret Schlegel. She and her sister Helen are upper-class English women who spend their time attending concerts, traveling, and attending discussion groups. At one concert, they happen to meet a working man, Leonard Bast, with whom their lives will be forever entangled. On a trip to Europe, they meet the Wilcox family, with whom they will also be entangled. The Wilcox family owns the country home Howard's End, which the surviving members of the Wilcox family do not appreciate. The entanglement of the Schlegels with Bast and the Wilcox family allows Forster to explore several themes, including country vs. city living and how urbanization was affecting British life, class differences and the responsibility of the wealthy for the poor, and the meaning of home. Of course, Howard's End is a classic, but it did not move me personally (despite an excellent reading by Emma Thompson), at least in part because the characters seemed more like they were written to represent ideas than actual people.

The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Wiener

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman, a happily married money manager, hosts a bachelor party for his younger and wilder brother; the brother's friend hires two prostitutes who turn out to be sex slaves--and things go downhill, way downhill from there. Richard's life gets out of control so quickly that it's mind-boggling, but also a cautionary tale on the precariousness of life. Not optimistic in any way.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend has gotten a lot of ink, but I don't quite understand why, as it's an essentially silly story. A young out-of-work Swedish woman named Sara travels to Broken Wheel, Iowa, only to discover that the pen pal Amy she is going to meet has died and the town is pretty close to expiring as well. Of course, she decides to start a business (without a proper visa) selling Amy's books, manages to revitalize the town and the collection of off-beat characters who live there, and falls in love. Bivald's book only seems tolerable in comparison to Jennifer Wiener's sappy Who Do You Love, about which I cannot bring myself to say more.

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Grandma Gatewood's Walk, by Ben Montgomery
Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, by Adam Makos

My Beloved World is the story of Justice Sotomayor's life before she became a member of the Supreme Court, with emphasis on her childhood and her years in college. Her childhood was far from easy--her father was an alcoholic who died young, her mother was hard-working but emotionally distant, she herself was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a very serious illness at the time. She worked hard in school and was able to gain admittance to Princeton, followed by Yale Law School. Her time in college was not without challenges, however, as she realized that high school had not prepared her for the kind of thinking that was expected in elite colleges. At the same time, she had to work to feel at home in these privileged environments and to build friendships; she became an activist for causes related to Latino students, faculty, and staff. She touches upon her early career in the DA's office and in private practice, but tells us little about her work as a judge and nothing about the Supreme Court. This is disappointing for SCOTUS followers but hardly surprising, given that institution's penchant for secrecy. Overall, My Beloved World is an enjoyable read.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what causes rapid change, whether in fashion or more significant areas such as reduction in crime rates or increase in smoking among teens. Gladwell essentially identifies three factors: the context, the "stickiness" of the idea, and whether the people involved are "connectors, mavens, or salespeople." The examples are interesting, but the book does not seem as ground-breaking as it was considered when it was published; of course, that might be because it was published in 2002.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk is the story of a woman who decided to walk the Appalachian Trail when she was 67 (the author repeatedly refers to her as elderly or old--annoying!). Completely unprepared for the rigors of the hike (in part due to false advertising), Gatewood nonetheless managed to walk the entire length of the trail in the summer of 1955, persevering (she survived an abusive husband and raising 11 children so her strength was undeniable) and relying on the kindness of strangers. As her trek continued, she drew national press attention, which helped to increase interest and investment in the trail. An engaging yarn.

The Korean War is often called the "Forgotten War," so it was interesting to read Devotion, a book about the Korean War. The book focuses on two Navy pilots, Tom Hudner, a white pilot from a privileged background, and Jesse Brown, the Navy's first African American pilot, who was from a hardworking but not well-off Southern family. The book tells their back stories as it progresses toward an extended description of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir. Author Adam Makos does provide a lot of historic information about the war and Tom and Jesse's story is touching, but their relationship feels less like a friendship, as claimed in the book's subtitle, than mutual respect and admiration among teammates. In addition, the book in telling this one story presents a very rosy view of the racial integration of the military, a process that was actually lengthy and much more difficult than presented here.  Okay for those who like to read about the history of wars, but not for the average reader (a group in which I'd include myself).  

Pick of the Litter: What She Knew

Favorite Passage

. . . I watched the grainy night contours of my garden morph slowly into a strangely lit morning where the rising sun tinted the pendulous clouds so that they were not entirely black, but colored instead with bruised fleshy tones, burnished in places. It was the kind of light that nobody would mistake for hope.

From What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan

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