This installment: a spicy novel set in India (f); one of Grafton’s last mysteries (f); the agonies and pleasures of writing (nf); a lugubrious, haunting novel (f); a riveting mystery with pedophilia as a theme (f); and a frivolous, delightful bonbon book (f).
[Note: I read some of these on vacation when my Kindle crashed and MCFL’s Libby came to the rescue with instant downloads. Whew! And highly recommended.]
A State of Freedom by Neal Mukherjee
Like India itself (or so I’ve been told by friends who’ve been there). Overwhelming, so full of sensory overload and contradictions. Well that’s what this amazing book delivers. A shocking first chapter in which a man once from Calcutta with his 6 year old American son tries to cram two must-see site-seeing events in one day. Then to the man’s grown son, based in London, who visits his grandparents in Mumbai and encounters their two servants, Milly and Renu. In subsequent chapters we get their difficult stories; they live in the same slum but seem to be enemies. Also there’s a desperate villager who tries to make a living teaching a bear cub to dance. His brother has gone off to Mumbai from their impoverished region to work in construction, leaving wives and children in a bad way. Their sister has become a Maoist guerilla fighter in the forest. Intense, vivid, peppered with Indian words and phrases for color and spice, most of which I figured out through context. The book made my head swim. (That’s an endorsement.)
Y Is For Yesterday by Sue Grafton (RIP)
It’s been years since I read her but there I was, on vacation, and it was available, so why not? Pretty formulaic but oddly comforting. Kinsey, she of the crunchy peanut butter and pickle sandwiches (not a domestic bone in her body) who gets an unpleasant case: trying to discover who’s blackmailing a young man just out of CYA over a VHS tape he made with friends 10 years ago which could lead to a return to the slammer. Action toggles between the ‘70s and the ‘80s and many references seem kind of quaint, especially in terms of technology. Meanness and misery in adolescents: parents who didn’t really want them; closeted sexual orientation; or just wanting to be cool—to the extreme. Kinsey’s also still being stalked by her nemesis, Ned Lowe, and that provides additional suspense. Her eccentric landlord Henry takes in a hot mess of a homeless woman, her alcoholic boyfriend, and his dog Killer but despite the chaos they bring, they also add humor and come through at the end. Grafton’s descriptions of characters’ clothing and furnishings sometimes seem too detailed but I let my critic take the day off and just enjoyed the ride.
How to Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
So much good stuff in here but kind of exhausting. Writing is hard work which Chee tells us over and over from different angles. A kind of threnody on one hand and a cry to action on the other. He touches on the fall of the towers, the recent election, and the End of the World. How can the art of writing stand up to that? As Auden bleakly remarks, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But then Dillard, one of Chee’s beloved teachers, exhorts “write for your dead!” This series of essays circles around these subjects: how to write, why write, and how hard it is to unmask yourself and get to the truth of the story. In his case his childhood sexual abuse and years of shame and despair afterwards under the veneer of “fine.” True confessions: I didn’t have the patience to steep myself in all of Chee’s potent brew, so I picked and chose, honing in on specifics: various apartments, his rose garden, working as a caterer-waiter, working for the Buckleys (!), and gleaned many treasures.
Melmoth by Anne Perry
A fellow worker recommended this; otherwise I might not have persevered. But ultimately fell under its lugubrious spell. Melmoth is the name of the Witness, a wraithlike figure from the time of Christ who wanders, irrevocably lonely, and holds out her hands to sinners (aren’t we all?) to join her. You’d think they might be lured by the promise of surcease but none go for it. Helen in Prague, a miserable woman, is given the manuscript which contains various encounters with Melmoth, including a lad of German heritage who ratted out his neighbors to the Nazis, and brothers in Cairo, petty bureaucrats who slaughtered many Armenian children with the stroke of a pen, and more. Extraordinary characters, vivid scenes, especially with Helen’s flamboyant, aged landlady. All too much but so compelling.
The Widow by Fiona Barton
Jean’s her name. Her husband Glen has just died under a bus. Why is there such a flurry of interest from the press and the police? Because he was implicated in the disappearance of 2-year-old Bella four years ago but got off. However Bella’s body was never found and one dogged detective won’t let the case go. So in alternating chapters we hear from Jean, the detective, a reporter (Kate), and Bella’s mother, Dawn who’d been accused of being lax. Like layers of an onion—a great technique. What did Jean know? Why didn’t she leave him? Very suspenseful. Nuanced characters—so satisfying.
Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
Last of my vacation reads. Thoroughly ridiculous and totally enjoyable. Lotte expects a proposal from long term boyfriend Richard but his “big question” turns out to be about how to spend their air miles. Furious, she breaks up with him, comes across ex-boyfriend Ben; 15 years ago they had a torrid romance on a Greek island. Impulsively he says “let’s get married” and so they do. Lotte has already set her terms: wait for said wedding night; she thinks this will add spice. Her older sister, Fliss, in the midst of a bitter divorce, tries to keep this from happening. She knows Lotte wants to get pregnant forthwith; when the dust clears, the marriage could be annulled. As a travel magazine editor Fliss has clout and gets the honeymoon hotel manager to throw up all manner of obstacles: constant attendants, a massage with peanut oil (Lotte is fiercely allergic to it) , etc. It works for a while. Ben’s “buddy” Lorcan, a brooding type, also wants to head off the marriage. And Richard still pines. It’s a crazy dance with predictable steps and of course a HEA (happily ever after) ending for all parties.
Back next week.