Elementary

Mystery novels are a tricky thing – there are so many, and so few seem to be true classics. Some lucky authors will have their whole canon bronzed and put up on a pedestal…and others will be sold in their hardback form in airports.

I’ve been on an audiobook kick again recently, and this time it’s been a cruddy mystery, S is for Silence, written by Sue Grafton and the incomparable Agatha Christie with Hickory Dickory Dock.

Grafton must have been tired by the time she got to the letter S (she was working through the alphabet), because the book is full of tedious details that are obviously not germane to the machinations of the plot – we hear quite a lot about the bad diet of the female P.I., who has a thing for sandwiches with processed meat. To be fair, there are some helpful flashbacks that we can use to contrast the statements of the suspects with what actually happened. To be unfair, I don’t care about anyone’s lunch choices, and frankly, the plot blows.

See, the guy who did it is obvious. We know it from the moment that we figure out that if the victim’s car disappeared, it had to be in some way disposed of. And we know that this guy has a cash-flow problem and a company that rents out heavy equipment for roadwork and overall construction. It’s so obvious, which is perhaps the worst insult of all in reference to a crime novel. There’s no freakin’ mystery! And we still have to hear about how great fried eggs are on sandwiches. That the P.I. doesn’t have a heart attack (and that she outruns a bulldozer) is astounding. And just a little unwelcome.

Not only that, but the book is abridged, meaning that I still haven’t figured out any concrete reason why the guy who bought the victim her annoying yappy dog must have been her killer. I can only assume he was trying to butter up the doomed woman, but there is no real connection there that would make him guilty and her dead.

(Not to mention that the flashbacks refer to a pair of high school sweethearts who are supposed to be in love, even though he really only wants to get in her pants and that he forgets to use protection, even though that same line of action caused another girl in another state to kill herself trying to abort the baby. And they still love each other after 30 years? And when she herself had to go to Colorado to have the baby, give it up for adoption, and go back home as if nothing had happened? If it were me, he would be speaking in a beautiful, sonorous falsetto. Ehrm. Anyway…)

Agatha Christie is much safer ground. She really develops the characters of her sleuths, the sorts of people you could really talk to or perhaps be gently manipulated by. Characters with intellect, curiosity, and a keen appreciation for the truth. Hickory Dickory Dock is an Hercule Poirot mystery – and for those not in the know, Poirot is a strange late middle age Belgian who uses his rather odd, curt demeanor to suss out what people truly think – and he’s not afraid to use people’s xenophobia against them.

While I am completely willing to spoil a grotty book, this one – well. I’m going to have to ruin this one, too, but a little more reluctantly. It’s so cleverly done; I always picture Christie smirking a little over her typewriter as she clacks away at her book. So I will beg her forgiveness and instead show why she has such supremacy in the mystery genre.

Like in the first book I’ve reviewed in this post, the villain shows his hand very early on. BUT – Christie gives us a series of double bluffs. The suspect is discarded. Who would be so silly as to incriminate himself? And why would anyone so outwardly callous be the murderer, so early in the story? We like a merry chase, and so we think about our other options – that is where we see the smirk float above the keys. We get distracted. Certainly the murderer must be a woman. Certainly it must have been the medical student. Perhaps the law student in the adjoining room. But no: Christie leads us in a wide circle before slamming the gate shut with a look of triumph, she played us, and we loved it.

That’s the difference: if the murderer is obvious, it’s better to throw up some quality smoke and mirrors, rather than some sad lunchmeat.

I Didn’t Speak Out

If you saw a murder, would you report it?

Well, yes.

If you saw all the signs that a murder had happened, but not the murder itself, would you report it?

I’m hoping you would.

If you and your community knew that someone had been murdered – and no one else talked about it, would you, even at great personal cost?

Would you speak out if you had small children? If you yourself were a child? If you had nothing to gain and everything to lose?

 

These are by no means easy questions, and I suspect that no one could answer them except through experience. However, I think it is a necessary exercise. It’s a big part of why I read Remembering…Years of Hiding Behind Silence, a series of essays written by someone I go to church with, Christa Meiners-DeTroy. Christa – or Christine, as I know her – who grew up in Worpswede, a small artist’s town in northern Germany during the Nazi period.

Running through the book is silence, silence disguised by carefully nonpolitical conversation, suspicion and fear behind a sheen of conformity. It was a defensive kind of muteness, one taken up by many Germans, but there was a cost to this desire to live, a cost in pride, integrity, and in innocent lives. The true price was extracted after the war, in the honesty of the aftermath.

Of course, it was hard for everyone during the war: some people were never fully trusted (like the family’s cherished housekeeper); people were sometimes forced to take part in political rituals they had no interest in (Christa was once ordered to wear a Hitler Youth uniform and to march to a theater to watch propaganda films); food became hard to come by (to this day, Christa prefers the heel of a loaf of bread, which is thicker). Yet my impression is that, however grueling the Nazi regime had been, the prevailing questions and disquiet have lingered more than the hungry afternoons might have done.

Was the housekeeper an informant? Was taking part in such a ritual – wearing the uniform, marching in step – was that an act of complicity with the government? How many people would it have taken to speak up before the deportations and murders stopped? Words can’t always tell the story, and questions are more important than answers.

So we are left with the onus of remembering. Most of us were not alive at the time, and most of us live in other parts of the world. At first we might exclaim that we are not responsible for the atrocities, but to say such a thing is purely self-defensive. Instead, it’s more useful to think that it could happen, and to be as active and compassionate as possible. To be as strong. As honest.

It’s not easy, but who said that the worthwhile things in life are easy?

As Christa says,

How can we keep the unequivocal message of “Never Again” alive in the minds of the young people without passing on the shame and guilt of their elders? Are the older generations willing and able to help their descendants understand the difference between acknowledgement and evasion, between responsibility and guilt, without blurring the lines with defensive explanations and excuses and plain denial? (163)

Rosa Abraham.

Christa grapples with these distinctions particularly in her thoughts about a neighbor of hers, Frau Rosa Abraham, who as a Jew – even as the respected older lady that she was – was murdered at Treblinka after a stay in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. No one said a word in the days and hours before she was taken away; if they had, they too could have found themselves in a train bound for the Czech Republic or Poland. In the last decade or so, Christa found Frau Abraham’s grandson in New York, visited the concentration camp in which she was held, and finally helped to dedicate a park in Worpswede to her. Frau Abraham has been brought back to the world, has become more than a number in a gruesome registry; she has been remembered without shame.

 

You can find copies of Christa’s book on Amazon.

It’s Got to be the Russians

My Own by Joan Hohl is a very strange book. Not only does Hohl use word ‘mauve’ to describe 80% of the colors in the book, the blurb on the back of the book covers the events of the story up to page 297 of 314. So you could say that Nora Robert’s endorsement on the front (“a compelling storyteller”) is a total fallacy. (Not to mention that she’s probably too busy writing these books to actually read many.)

For reference, this one’s a 16, 20, and a 23 (twice! with different women, no less!).

Other strange parts of the plot include:

  1. The heroine smokes! She smokes! (Not much, admittedly, and she feels wretchedly guilty, but still. She hoards cigarettes and then smokes them – stale – in times of great stress.)
  2. The heroine, a teacher, lands the perfect teaching situation: a local school, the very same one that her stepsisters go to. When she’s just out of college. Feel free to snort derisively. I did. Someone pass me a tissue?
  3. Homophobia! A male friend is speculated to be gay (he turns out not to be); the reaction to this is mildly ambiguous, but clear enough for me not to read more from this author.
  4. Miss Family Woman doesn’t invite this same male friend inside after a date, because she makes the assumption that he will want sex, and that she will have to fight him off; she also thinks that her nonvirginal status makes her “tarnished.” (Seriously??)
  5. Miss Stale Butt references her biological clock in a state of worry. She’s 26. I’m 26! (AAAAAAAAAAAH!)
  6. The happy couple decide to move into her roomy house, into the bedroom of her dead parents, one of whom had died extremely recently. This isn’t so bad, except. Well. Here’s how Miss Kindergarten Teacher describes it: “’It holds very good memories. David and my mother were very happy in that room’” – at which point you’d think she’d stop. Nope – “’Mandy and Connie were conceived there’” (282).WHAT. WHAT.

    WHAT???

  7. A reference to the time 4 a.m., on page 313. I mention this only because it’s one of my favorite things, like, ever. You can get to it here – but know there’s also a second part that makes the first part somehow even better.

If you couldn’t tell already, this book is aggressively deplorable. It’s not just the plot or the characters or the horrifying ways in which people are characterized, it’s also the editing.

The following weeks were busy one for Kate, so full that she was only occasionally tempted to indulge in her secret vice, like when Mandy innocently related some trivial bit of information Mrs. Winston mentioned about Ethan, and the night she woke aching and yearning from an erotic dream about him. (84)

It can’t be saved. Pull the tube. Please.

Kate Lay awake long into the nights, agonizing over how to break off with him in the gentlest possible way. (255)

That’s the second miscapitalized L in the book. How was that not caught by the word processor? Mine is going off like a slot machine in the hands of a capable octogenarian.

I rest, nearly defeated, at the end of this book. It’s like the first draft went straight to print. However, my skin crawls at the merest whiff of the possibility, so I reject it. There must be another explanation. And then it comes to me:

The champagne flowed like wine. (289)

Does that sound like code to you?

It does, doesn’t it.

You don’t have to say anything.

We’re all thinking it.

The Russians are communicating via romance novels.

If I am never heard from again, someone please explain this to my cat. She’ll be incensed.

“Huh.”

Ancient Rome as it Was is an odd duck in the genre of travel guides: it was written in 2008 for travelers in the year 300 A.D. For the past month, my copy has been hanging out in my bathroom, as is the sort of book you can pick up and put down at any point. As far as I can tell, its function is to make you go, “Huh.”

I’ve marked down the various ‘huh’ moments of the book; they cry out for a list. What follows is a Roman hodge podge of random facts and ephemera.

  1. “If you cannot find a product in Rome, chances are it doesn’t exist.” (34)
  2. Emperor Vespasian’s last words: “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god.” (50)
  3. Many of the sections on places to see begin with: “Ask your litter bearer to drop you off…”
  4. “The priests of Cybele can arrange a rite of purification and rebirth, in which you stand in a pit with a grating over it. A bull is led to stand on the grating directly above your head. It is then slaughtered, drenching you in its blood.” (53, and no thanks)
  5. At the Baths of Caracalla: “If you ask for either Cucumius or Victoria and pay enough, they will arrange for you to see the worker’s view of the structure.” (65, and some impressive research)
  6. Papyrus used in Rome actually came from the Etruscans, who lived in another part of Italy; the papyrus was shipped down the Tiber directly to Rome – rather than being shipped in from Egypt, as I assumed. (83)
  7. They mention a place I have been to, Pozzuoli, under the name Puteoli. I have seen the temples they describe in the book – though I imagine they were in better shape than in 300 A.D. (90)
  8. There was a place called Narnia in Roman Italy. (92)
  9. “When Pompey dedicated his theater, he had a performance of Clytemnestra by the playwright Accius put on. In order to do justice to its grand surroundings, so great was the production that 600 mules were employed to carry the booty brought back from Troy by Agamemnon.” (111) How much treasure must that have been? And how big was the stage?

So that’s about it. Nothing to blow you out of the water, but an interesting view of history. “Huh.”

(I’ve written another blog about ancient Roman tourism that you can find here.)

Candles on the Western Front

Men lived in muddy, rat-infested trenches. They smoked moldy cigarettes, sang bawdy songs, and tried to stave off the cold. They hoped there would be a good freeze, if only to solidify the ground and keep their feet dry. It was impossible to keep their feet dry.

They knew, only five months in, that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas as promised. No one was moving, but plenty of men – many children, still – were dying. And those who lived sometimes wished for death, or perhaps were reckless enough not to consider it. Shelling and the bursts of machine gun fire were constant; it was hard to sleep, even if you could find a place to lie down. If it was quiet, there were still the snipers. Some accustomed themselves to war and to killing, while the rest went quietly insane.

This is why veterans don’t tell war stories.

This is why I don’t ask.

This is why I watch documentaries and read books like Silent Night, in order to try to comprehend the insane. Silent Night is about the short truce that the soldiers on both sides cobbled together for a few days in 1914, at the beginning of World War I, and from what I can tell, shows the war in harsh perspective.

The Germans had Christmas trees shipped into the trenches for a semblance of cheer; they were decorated and fitted out with candles. When they began placing them in their parapets and above their trenches, the English, Scots, French, and Belgians were shocked. Some suspected a ploy, some master maneuver. But others saw the trees and read signs that said things like, “You no shoot, we no shoot,” and were comforted. They sang to and with each other; many units met in the middle of the cratered No Man’s Land and exchanged souvenirs and cigarettes.

On the 25th, many units arranged to bury their dead, some of whom had been out in the open for a month or more. If a soccer ball could be found or cobbled together, they played. Some Englishmen recognized German waiters or barbers they had known in London or Birmingham; some German soldiers asked English or Scots soldiers to send their letters back to their families in England.

Obviously, the top brass on either side were not pleased by these developments. Some arranged for snap inspections, which were cannily undermined so that the units could run back to their trenches and pretend nothing was happening. Those in the ditches didn’t give a damn about what they were supposed to be doing: they weren’t going to do it. If told to shoot, they aimed high.

All of this raises some truly painful questions, especially considering how long the war went on for. How could you be friends one day and kill each other the next? The book says it better than I can.

One German was purported to say:

“’Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country; I fight for mine. Good luck.’” (133)

Less delicately, an English soldier jotted down a poem:

I do not wish to hurt you
But (Bang!) I feel I must.
It is a Christian virtue
To lay you in the dust.
You – (Zip! That bullet got you)
You’re really better dead.
I’m sorry that I shot you –
Pray, let me hold your head. (134)

I cannot say I understand, but I also don’t really want to. The most heartbreaking part of the truce was the knowledge that if it had continued, the war could have dissolved from the bottom up. Of course this didn’t happen; troops were moved around, shots inadvertently fired led to real firefights. And so a whole future was changed: the Russian revolution was unavoidable, the decolonization of Africa occurred, America became a global power, and the 20th century saw some of its greatest writers and artists.

Five months into the war, although a million were already dead, the trenches remained graves for the living. On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year. And there would be nearly four more years of attrition – not to determine who was right, but who was left. (155)

So this Memorial Day – though I come in a bit late – let’s remember the sacrifices made by innumerable men and women over the centuries, people who never had the chance to die of old age. Love the soldiers, hate the war.

To our servicemen, past and present: for protecting a peace I may never fully appreciate, thank you.

Reunions

When The Taming of the Shrew metamorphosed into 10 Things I Hate About You, you could find several distinct departures from Shakespeare’s version. The biggest thing I noticed was that the shrew wasn’t tamed, she was humanized: it didn’t take spousal abuse to get to her heart, it took someone who actually understood a little of what she was going through. That, and the boys the girls end up with in the later version aren’t men: they are age appropriate. (Hallelujah!)

I find it fascinating how we change Shakespeare to fit our reality, like having Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet orate “To be or not to be” in a movie store (while wearing a blazer and a dumb hat), or to have rival gangs menacingly snapping their fingers at each other down a New York street. (Note to self: finally watch West Side Story.)

It seems to me that a massive number of adaptations have been done of Romeo and Juliet, my least favorite play – after all, the shining climax of the piece ends in teen suicide (or pre-teen, in the case of Juliet) and a pious chorus of people repenting for their sins. The bittersweet ending is great, sure, but do people have to die?

This is the crux of the book Julie and Romeo, of the two owners of competing flower shops whose families have been feuding for decades. They find themselves at a seminar for failing businesses and, finding the event demoralizing and boring, go for a meal and a long walk. They discover that neither of them are wholly covered in scales or boils oozing chartreuse-colored pus, and they dig it.

Romeo and Julie are both in their sixties and know that the feud must have been started by their parents – and if you’ve already seen the signs, you’ll be thinking that a parent on each side was having an affair, you’d be right, because that’s what they do in these stories. And, of course, because there are three generations involved, each of them has a kid now in their 30s who had a thing for each other when they were teenagers. These books love trifectas.

What ends up happening is that Julie’s ex-husband and Romeo get in this huge fight (to mirror the play), people get riled up, roses get salted (literally – it’s a vicious thing to do), and then everyone ends up in the same house and the truth comes out. Blam-o. Problem solved – and nicely orchestrated by the women of the two families.

No deaths.

This seems odd to me, as death seems to define the characters of the original play: love-struck idiots who kill themselves. I think it’s partially that we now have a hard time killing off characters in such a way: we hate to see the good guys struck down, to see love vanquished. There’s a reason why the couple in The Notebook die at the end of their lives, not in the middle, as could very easily have happened. (Think of how much sadder that story would be with this alternate ending. People would go mental.) But it’s also that Julie and Romeo were older, wiser, and not about to put up with a bunch of crap. Period.

That’s the sort of love story I want to read. I don’t want the protagonists to be bubble-headed ninnies who listen to nothing but bad advice; I want them to be awake, cogent, and willing to make the most of their lives. While this book was nothing but what I expected and an easy one to coast through, I’ll likely read it again. Love – and reason! – conquer all.

I’ll finish with one of the best bits of the story, when Julie is thinking about the long walk she’s taken with Romeo, basking in the afterglow of a perfect experience:

I had walked all the way from Boston to Somerville. Tonight I felt like I could walk past my house and keep heading west. I could walk to Rochester, to Cleveland, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. I could walk all the way to Iowa and through Nebraska, over the Rockies until I got to Oregon, and even then I wouldn’t stop if I didn’t want to. I could go into the ocean, I could swim. I was that sure of myself tonight. I could go on forever (65).

First love: when you could go on forever.

 

I’d love to hear from you – as many or as few as you may be – about the best book you’ve read recently. Or feel free to speculate the number of feet in your ‘To Read’ stack of books. (Mine? 42.)

Queen Vic

Josie Litton wrote a pretty good trilogy a while back, under the names Dream of/Believe in/Come Backto Me, which was, all told, decent. There were Vikings, swords, witchcraft, all kinds of good things. You also got the sense that she did just the right amount of research to deliver the right amount of historical detail. This was why I bought, sight unseen, Fountain of Fire, on the suspicion that it would be pretty good. I was disillusioned on page 3:

That would not do. She was, after all, a princess and princesses do not go about losing their dinners because of encounters with men who are not there.

The sound of agony I made as I read this sentence was relatively loud and noticeable in the public setting in which I made it. There are no words to describe the cacophony of transgressions here. Princesses? Losing her dinner? Men who are not there? AGH.

So now with my hopes thoroughly dashed, I read on. There’s a weak plot about a national crisis that reaches its weak conclusion at the end of the book; there’s the main couple, who pull a When-Harry-Met-Sally, The Mystery, and a #23; and there’s not much else. The male hero makes an inadvertent pun on page 73, “’I haven’t hunted in years. It bores me.’” And that’s it.

 

The one interesting part of the book is Queen Victoria – though to be fair, she tends to be the most interesting part of any story she features in. The book takes place in the very early years of her reign, when she was petite, unmarried, and green to the business of governance. All of that is conveyed fairly well, but I disagree with the way she is presented when she talks about marriage.

In the book, Victoria starts out with her historically-based, substantiated opinion: that women need men to be in charge. And then Miss Princess messes it up by convincing her that a partnership in marriage is better.

If you’re scratching your head, that’s perfectly reasonable. In reality, Queen Victoria believed that while she should rule the country as was her hereditary right, men in all other situations were generally the leaders. In her opinion, men made the money and headed the family, while women took care of the home. She was her own exception. Prince Albert, her beloved husband, was in charge of their large family: in domestic matters, his word was law. There is also a fair amount of evidence to show that he did a large amount of governing, and that his influence was very important to Victoria. Indeed, Victoria placed her affections mainly with her husband and not her children (she described babies as “frog-like”); when Albert died, she was distraught and virtually incapacitated. She wasn’t seen by the people of her country for years and years, which spurred on a number of rumors that she had died.

This is not to say that Victoria did not herself rule England and her colonies – far from it – but the picture is not as pretty and neat as we would like to think it to be. While on the one hand, Queen Victoria was decisive and powerful, on the other hand, she deferred to her husband – and believed that all good women should do so. (For example, she was against women’s suffrage.) I have no degree in history – only documentaries on YouTube consumed en masse – but it seems to me that any close inspection of Victoria’s life will be difficult to understand, partially because her diary has been so censored, and partially because she was such a complicated woman.

…Which is all to say that including any of her opinions in something so vacuous as a bad romance novel is nothing if not problematic. However, since the whole book could be characterized as ‘faulty,’ it’s par for the course – though it’s a fantastic excuse to geek out all over you people.

I’m adding a couple of links to articles here at the end, so that you can see for yourselves what I have paraphrased. There is also an ample wealth of BBC documentaries on her life (the one on her kids is particularly enlightening/horrifying), so feel free to dive in there – I’m not adding links for these because they generally ‘expire.’

http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/queen-victoria-children-mother-family
http://ualbertalaw.typepad.com/faculty/2016/03/what-exactly-are-suffragettes-and-why-did-queen-victoria-hate-them.html