Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

Our latest theme for the DAFFODILS book club was a book that had been waiting in one of our members "to read" pile, and the lucky winner was Joolie and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013).

Although we read this one for my more free-form bookclub, it would be a perfect choice for my other book club, the Debbie Downers, because man oh man, this is a downer of a book. And yet I really loved it! I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a person who is a voluntary member of a book club that only reads sad books would like things on the melancholy / tragic side of the scale.

The Lowland takes place in a small community on the outskirts of Calcutta and in University towns of the Northeast United States, mostly in Rhode Island, and spans from the 1950s through to the present day. The action centers on two very different brothers who are, nonetheless, very close to each other as children. Subhash is the older and more conventional of the two brothers. He is thoughtful, risk-averse, and often in the shadow of his more outrageous and political brother, Udayan. While they are very close as  children, Udayan's secretive involvement with the Naxalite movement (a violent Maoist group in India) pushes them further apart. Subhash focuses on his studies and ends up moving to Rhode Island to study and oceanography. While he is there he has sporadic correspondence with his brother and parents, but mostly lives in isolation from them (and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else). He has a brief friendship with an American roommate and later a passionate but controlled affair with a recently separated American woman. Then he gets a telegraph from his parents that Udayan is dead, killed by soldiers in front of his family, and he returns home to Calcutta immediately.

There he finds the empty shells of his parents and the sad, angry, and pregnant wife of his brother. Udayan married Gauri, an intellectual and politically active university student, without the permission of either of their parents, and while she has the right to live with her in-laws after her husband's death, she is not welcome. Subhash does one of the only unexpected and risky things of his life, and asks Gauri to marry him, come to the United States, and allow him to raise Udayan's child as his own. She can continue her studies in philosophy in the U. S.

And then things go on and on and on. Gauri has her daughter, who is the one bright spot in the neutral and isolated life of Subhash, but there are very few bright spots or connections for any of the characters in this book that continues to follow Subhash and his family through to their retirements and old age.

Sounds like a real fun read, right? Luckily, with Lahiri at the helm, it really kind of is. The amount of control she exerts over the narrative -- never letting the intense and tragic things become too forceful, or the neutral and isolated sections become too dull -- is impressive and engaging. The crossing back and forth between Bengali and American cultures gives movement to a narrative that is locked into the resignation of the characters and their inability to change, even when they want to. These characters are straightforward and open to the reader in a way that they aren't to each other or, really, to themselves, and that puts us in a unique perspective on these sad, long, isolated, but really not that unique, lives. This is a pretty literary book, but a very readable one as well. Definitely give this one a chance.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010)

I picked up this copy of Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010) on a family trip to San Antonio when we went to check out The Twig bookstore at the old Pearl Brewery (highly recommended!). It seemed like an appropriate souvenir for a fan of crime fiction and Texas.

This book follows the same format as the other "LOCATION Noir" books put out by Akashic Books. An editor from the city, state, or country in question brings together an anthology of contemporary crime fiction (defined pretty broadly) that all takes place in that location, and that is usually written by authors that live there.

I read another title from this series (Helsinki Noir) earlier this year, and maybe I'm just more Texan than Finnish, but I liked the Lone Star Noir anthology quite a bit more.

The Byrds bring together a diverse group of authors (including quite a few women) that set their stories throughout the state. This book gives the reader a combination of traditional hard-boiled crime fiction, unsettling dark stories, and a few pretty disturbing tales. Everything here is really well written and I appreciated the variety in backgrounds and formats.

I'm definitely interested in picking up more books from this series, partly because I just like crime fiction, but also because they give you such a neat look at a place through the lens of a specific genre. You don't have to be from Texas to like this writing -- it's just good writing! -- but living in Texas gives another layer to the collection that I really liked. Plus the title is extremely fun to say.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Lifetime of Secrets: A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren (2007)

My latest pick from the St. Denis bookshelf was A Lifetime of Secrets:  A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren (2007). This is the fourth published PostSecret book by Warren (there are now almost a dozen!), containing postcards with secrets (or "secrets") from contributors to his website / art project

The book is a nicely produced, full-color hardcover that gives the secrets a heft and purpose that is missing from the website. Like the site, the book includes a wide variety of sad, angry, funny, vague, and intriguing cards. Also like the site, it all gets a little old after awhile, but just when you are ready to close the book for good, a unique card will pop out at you. Like many people, I imagine, I used to follow the PostSecret blog pretty regularly. It's been awhile, though. In fact, I was a little surprised to see that it is apparently still going strong. Obviously this kind of anonymous and artistic postal sharing is filling a need for both the submitters and the readers.

I can't say this was my favorite read ever, but it was relatively fun to flip through and brought me back to the early days of the blogosphere when this kind of thing seemed pretty special and subversive.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982)

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982) is my next selection from Harold Bloom's western canon list, one of the longest reading challenges I've ever undertaken. At the rate I'm going, I might get through about 10% of the titles.

The book is a series of seven interconnected stories, all focusing on a run down housing development called Brewster Place in an unnamed city. The buildings are old and press up against an unnatural wall that was put in after the city developed the major road next to the buildings. The wall isolates the complex, but also protects it. The development has housed lots of different groups of people over the years and is now a part of the African-American community.

The women in the stories are different ages and come from different circumstances, but they are all pretty poor, and are usually trying to get out of there to live somewhere else. Still, they form a community that loves and hates and obsesses and criticizes and cares for one another. I liked some stories better than others, but all of them have a strong voice and a movement to them that really makes them a part of the whole. And the ending. OMG the ending is one of the best endings I've ever read. I'm an endings person, and a good one can wash over all the small flaws in a book.

This was Naylor's first novel and she won the National Book Award for it. Some of you may recognize this title from the very popular Oprah Winfrey produced / starring mini-series from 1989. If I watched it when I was a kid, I don't remember, but I'd love to check it out after reading the book. From YouTube it looks like it might be on the corny side, but I'd still love to see what they do with some of these characters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966)

My next trip through the unread books on my extremely full bookshelves is the anthology Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966) that I bought at a library book sale. The volume contains four late nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century full-length plays, each of which lives up to the name of melodrama, although some are greater than others. The reader also gets a lovely introduction by Vincent Price (!!), where he briefly, but eruditely, talks about his experience playing the villain in Angel Street, and the differences for an actor when playing melodramatic roles (a type of role that Price obviously enjoyed). Here's a bit about each play:

Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, as adapted by Charles Fechter (1868)
Fetcher was a famous nineteenth century British actor (via France) who adapted Dumas’ tale of the ultimate revenge plot for the stage. This one was my least favorite of the four, having read The Count of Monte Cristo, and not particularly adoring Fechter’s pretty drastic changes. Still, if you were only tangentially familiar with the novel, you might get into this one. It was a semi-hit on the stage for Fechter, but saw greater acclaim after his death when James O’Neill (the father of Eugene) played the role for many years.

Secret Service by William Gillette (1895)
This Civil War melodrama was written by the actor / inventor / playwright and extremely fascinating guy, William Gillette. Gillette is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage after writing a Doyle-authorized play about Holmes and Watson to meet public demand for the enigmatic detective after the sad death of Holmes in The Final Problem (don’t worry, he came back to life later). Gillette is the one who gave Holmes his distinctive pipe and his original catch phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” He also invented several much used stage effects and equipment, and wrote several melodramas, including Secret Service.

This play was extremely successful and Gillette played the lead role in it over 1,500 times. It was made into a film version in 1931 and again as a filmed play in 1976 starring John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. The play turns on a romance between a Confederate officer and a lovely young woman in Richmond during the civil war. Unfortunately, the officer is suspected of being a Union spy – but is love stronger than loyalty to a cause? There is, as you might imagine, some pretty cringey racial attitudes in this play, which is unfortunate because the action is pretty amazing. The scene with the telegraph practically jumps off the page. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but if any scene about sending a telegraph has ever been dramatic and exciting, it’s this one. You can read some details of the plot at this very nicely researched movie review, or read the whole play here.

The Letter by William Somerset Maugham (1927)
Maugham based this play on one of his short stories, and it literally starts with a bang when a woman fires a gun, a man yells “Oh my God!” and the woman shoots him again and again and again. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, and the man is their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie claims Geoffrey tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense, and she is taken into custody as a matter of procedure. It looks like a clear-cut case until a letter comes into play that casts some doubts on Leslie’s story. The action takes place in a British colony on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and, much like Secret Service, there is racist dialogue and plot points in the play. Still, Leslie is a pretty intriguing character, and the audience isn’t always sure who they should believe (or root for). This was made into a 1940 film starring Bette Davis and it looks suitably melodramatic.

Angel Street (aka Gas Light) by Patrick Hamilton (1938)
All the action in this play takes place in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The wife seems nervous and overly concerned with how the husband is feeling. The husband is confident and brash. Gradually the audience notices a pattern where the husband promises a reward (theater tickets, a nice dinner) and then takes it away due to the wife saying a wrong word or reacting in the wrong way. A big scene is made over a painting that has been taken off the wall, even though the wife denies having moved it. When the husband finds it behind the cupboard, he insists that she must be losing her mind, just like her mother. After he leaves for the evening, a strange man shows up – he’s a detective, and he has some very interesting information for Mrs. Manningham about her husband’s past life and his late night activities. This one was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Berman, and is probably even more famous nowadays as the inspiration for the term “gaslighting” to describe the same kind of mental abuse Mrs. Manningham experiences in the play.

I would have loved to see Vincent Price in this one

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005)

My next J. St. D. read is Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005) ["Mystery Man of the Twentieth Century!"]. I had never heard of Arthur Cravan before, and he may just be one of the most unusual, vague, and frustrating historical figures I've read about. Rick Geary's proven way with odd historical figures (particularly his series on historical assassins / serial killers) is a perfect match for this crazy life story.

In fact, give yourself a second and check out Arthur Cravan's wikipedia page. And just try to stop yourself from falling into an internet research hole with the whole Cravan mythology. It's irresistible! Cravan described himself as "a poet, professor, boxer, dandy, flâneur, forger, critic, sailor, prospector, card sharper, lumberjack, bricoleur, thief, editor [and] chauffeur" (cited here), and at least half of those things are actually true! He made a name for himself in the Dada art scene, he rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, he had sooooo many adventures, and then he mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Mexico when he was 31, leaving his pregnant bohemian wife behind. Or did he actually die after all? Much of the fun of the Cravan mythology centers around that controversy, and Geary and Richardson do a good job of explaining the many what if's (which also include a nice John Huston cameo!).

While the graphic novel doesn't slavishly follow every known detail of Cravan's life exactly, it definitely gives you a taste of the man and his world. And it's a damn fun read.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998)

My dear Dr. Mystery bought this copy of Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998) from the author herself when we were on one of her ghost tours of San Antonio as part of an archives conference I was attending. The tour was a little silly, but in a nice way, and Ms. Williams was a wonderful and enthusiastic host.

Although that was nearly ten years ago, I've finally gotten around to doing more than just skimming through the book. Now, I'm not going to say this is a great book or even that anyone interested in ghosts or Texas should read it, but if you are a combination of interested in ghost stories, interested in Texas history, good-natured about Texas ladies of a certain generation, and patient enough to handle a little repetition, this is a pretty fun read.

Williams interviewed people from all over the state who witnessed ghosts or unexplained phenomena at their properties. She combines these first-hand accounts with extensive research in local newspapers and, in some cases, in-person visits to the properties themselves. The book is organized by region and covers the entire state, although the majority of the stories come from the Dallas and San Antonio areas. As an archivist, the background research she did on small Texas towns and their historic properties is probably the most interesting part of the book, and Williams includes photographs that help illustrate the locations. While the stories themselves generally fall into a few preset categories (strange noises! cold spots! smell of perfume! seeing a woman wearing old fashioned clothes! things disappearing and reappearing!) some of them stand out from the crowd a bit and there is always enough variety to keep things a little interesting.

My one big criticism is Williams descriptions of people held under slavery (characterized more as "servants" with much of the cruelty glossed over or ignored) and Native American tribes (seen only as terrorizing bad guys who threatened the safety of the white settlers). This doesn't come up in every story but it made me cringe a little every time it did. This isn't unusual or even bad-intentioned, but it does date the author and take away from the impact of some of the tales.

To end things on a positive note, I'm going to share one of Williams' ghost poems, which are sprinkled throughout the book. She read several of these on our ghost tour and they were so sweet that Dr. M and I still quote one of them all the time ("At the Inn they call the Menger..."):

"Ghosts" by Docia Williams

Ghosts fly high... and ghosts fly low...
Where they come from we don't know...
Ghosts take off in roaring flight,
Most often in the dead of night.
They're often felt in spots of cold,
You feel their presence, we've been told. 
Some are large, and some are small,
Some, merely shadows on the wall.
Some are friendly, some are bad...
Some are playful, others sad.
They're often heard, on creaking floors,
Opening windows, slamming doors!
Wails and moans they sometimes make,
Making us poor mortals quake!
They like all kinds of dreary places,
Houses, churches, and open spaces....
Sometimes they swell in mist and fold, 
They're heard, we're told, in howls of dogs....
Some, balls of fire seen in the night,
All in black, or dressed in white; 
Some show a glimpse of shadowy faces,
Then, they're gone. They leave no traces
To ever let us mortals know
Where they come from... or where they go....