Reading Circle

I’ve been on a reading binge lately.  I think making my way through Anna Karenina made me want to tackle some lighter books.  So I read a pile of murder mysteries.  What can I say, I’m a happy person.

First, though, a few words on Anna Karenina.  I highly recommend the translation I read by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  If for no other reason than it has a big detailed list of characters and an explanation of the Russian use of patronymics.  I read a Boris Akunin novel a few years ago and finished it without ever knowing who the characters were because everyone has four names and the author uses them in various combinations at different times.  This translation also has good notes on the text.  As someone not up on 19th century Russian plow types these were useful.  I enjoyed the book, and found it much easier to read than I’d expected.  I did a liberal arts honors program in college, so I’ve read plenty of challenging works, but a 700 page classic of Russian literature is still a little daunting.  But Tolstoy’s writing is lovely and clear, very conversational.  He does like to go off on tangents, though.  Lots of discussion on the care and management of peasants for a book ostensibly about adultery.  I still can’t decide if I like Anna or not, but I don’t think Tolstoy could either.  I do know that I won’t be dressing up in a fur hat and boots like Blair Waldorf to role play Anna and Vronsky with my lover.  Being tortured by your feelings and desires and outcast from society aren’t really turn-ons for me.

I remember when I was a freshman in college buying books for class for the first time there were juniors in my program talking about a class on the Weimar Republic.  I thought they sounded so sophisticated and exotic, but the class wasn’t offered when I was a junior and I took ones on the Brontes and Victorian novels as historical documents instead.  Maybe I’m still trying to become as intellectual as those juniors in the book store because I’ve been looking out for books about Germany between the wars lately.  A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell is an interesting enough mystery set in Berlin in 1931.  It follows Hannah Vogel, a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt, as she tries to solve the murder of her brother Ernst, a cross dressing singer in a caberet.  She and Ernst have given their papers to a Jewish friend and her son to allow them to emigrate to New York, so Hannah can’t go to the authorities about Ernst’s death until she is sure her friends are safely across the Atlantic.  Soon after she discovers her brother’s death, a five year old boy turns up on Hannah’s doorstep claiming to be his son.  Anton even has a birth certificate naming Ernst as his father- and Hannah as his mother.  It’s a twisty story full of secrets and intrigue.  It’s not at the level of Alan Furst’s spy novels or even of J. Robert Jane’s fascinating series of books set in occupied Paris.  But it’s well written and fast moving, and the horrors of the rising Nazi party just nip at the edges of the story, drawing closer as it ends.

I’ve picked up novels by Denise Mina many times at the store but never actually bought one until Field of Blood. It’s set in 1981 Glasgow, with copy boy Paddy Meehan trying to work her way up to reporter at the Scottish Daily News.  She gets a sideways break when a three year old boy is murdered and one of the suspects is a young cousin of her fiance.  The city is horrified by the murder of Baby Brian at the hands of two young boys, and Paddy investigates the case, trying to find a story that will get her promoted to be a real journalist.  When another reporter uses family details Paddy told her in confidence to write her own story, Paddy’s family and fiance cut her dead, refusing to speak to her for a week.  The details of the Baby Brian case are well plotted, and the book is the kind you can’t put down.  But for me the interesting part of the book were the parts about Paddy, about being a young Catholic woman from a lower middle class background who wants something more than to be just a wife and mother, things her family can’t understand.

When you discover a new author and fall in love, you want to read all her books at once and save them to make them last longer all at once.  A wicked cold had me sleeping 18 hours a day for a week, and Cornelia Read’s A Field of Darkness did nothing to help me get back to falling asleep at a reasonable time.  I read half of it in one night, the rest the next, and that pattern held for her other two books.  Field introduces us to Madeline “Bunny” Dare, a reformed debutante from Oyster Bay, Long Island married to a rail worker and living in Syracuse, NY in 1988.  Dare works as a reporter for the local weekly, covering things like drink recipes and weekend getaways.  Her family’s money pretty much ran out with her parents, so Dare has grown up around the wealthy, going to boarding school and college with them, but on scholarship and in thrift store clothes.  When Maddy and her husband Dean go to his parents’ house for dinner, she hears the story of decades old murder of two girls, found in a field her father in law rents.  Years after the bodies were found, her father in law found a set of dog tags in the field but never turned them over to the police.  Maddy recognizes the name on the tags as that of her favorite cousin, and starts investigating to try and find out if he was involved before she goes to the police.  The story twists and turns all over the place, and sometimes loses its way, but what grabbed me and held me was Read’s writing, and Maddy’s voice.  I was marking passages, rereading sections just to savor the words.  Describing her father in law, Maddy says:

He kept it right on that sneaky edge where it was kind of funny if it was happening to anybody else, especially if they got huffy.  Then it was your turn to remember his knack for arming a joke with that rock-in-the-snowball touch of hurt.

It’s that kind of turn of phrase, that way of summing up a character in few words, that make Read’s books spark.  Read clearly based Madeline on herself, giving her the same history and backstory, down to making her debut at the Junior Assemblies in New York in her mother’s old dress.  I practically memorized The Debutante’s Guide to Life when I was 14 (I was an odd teen) and fell in love with Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when it came out, so I reveled in the details of Maddy’s UHB life.  But even normal people who don’t know the significance of inheriting your grandmother’s collection of Belgian shoes can love these books.  Maddy is fully aware of what her family privilege has allowed her, and is penitent for the sins of her fathers.  She’s also snappy, snarky, sharp, and shameless if the need arises.  She’s the partner in crime we all wish to have- she’ll have your back and a witty comeback.  I got Read’s second book, The Crazy School, from the library, but ended up ordering it from Amazon anyway so I’ll have it to read again at will.  It has Maddy teaching at a private boarding school in the Berkshires for mentally ill or difficult teens that no other school will take.  It’s based on the DeSisto School where Read taught, and if even half of what she writes about went on it’s no wonder the state closed the place down.  Maddy’s fellow teachers and administrators are much nuttier than the students, and everyone has to attend weekly therapy sessions.  Anyone who’s had a bad therapist will enjoy Maddy’s diagnosing her as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse just because Maddy has perfect posture.  As someone who is bad at therapy, I was comforted to know that it really is due to my WASP upbringing and not a personal flaw.

Read’s most recent book, Invisible Boy, is different.  Maddy doesn’t investigate the case, she doesn’t find clues or break the mystery.  It’s more like an episode of Law & Order where we follow the person in the opening who finds the body through her involvement with the investigation and trial.  Maddy and Dean have moved to New York city, and Maddy meets a distant cousin at a party.  Her cousin has found an old family cemetery in Queens and asks Maddy to join her in clearing it of weeds and debris.  Maddy does, and finds the skeleton of a child hidden in the brush, his ribcage crushed.  Maddy works with the police, but it is they and the DA’s office who solve the case.  It’s a different approach to a mystery, and it works in this case.  The crime Maddy has uncovered is horrible, but all too common.  There are still witty quips and sharp writing, but this one leaves you feeling that there isn’t enough justice to go around, that bad things will always happen and the good guys don’t even know about all of them.

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April 26, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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