Monday, January 28, 2013

Is It Just Me?

No, Miranda darling, it is not just you, of course we are all in this crazy life thing together.  Is It Just Me? is British comic actress Miranda Hart's entry into the engaging genre of I-was-such-a-dorkus-but-now-I-am-a-famous-comic-actress/comedienne made famous by such fabulous femmes as Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling.  Of course, people on this side of the pond have absolutely no idea who Miranda Hart is, and they probably wouldn't enjoy her goofy, pratfall-laced brand of humor much anyway.  But I do, and I do. 

Hart came to my notice playing Chummy on Call The Midwife, the book of which I wrote about last time.  It is eerie how well Hart fits the role of Chummy both physically and socially - just check out her wikipedia entry to see what I mean. 

Anyway, apparently Hart is wildly popular in the UK, where they like their humor broad no pun intended.  So she's written a guide to life, in the form of advice to her 18 year old self.  In order to be happy in life one should, in no particular order:
1.  gallop a lot,
2.  eat something called Arctic Roll regularly and in vast quantities, if possible while watching a some show on the telly called Strictly Come Dancing,
3.  lay off the electronic devices now and then,
4.  fearlessly use the word poo - in its most basic definition - in regular conversation,
5.  not sweat it if you are clueless about modern music, modern culture, current events, or don't have a hobby,
6.  generally love yourself for whom you are and what you like to do and sod the rest.  

I would not actually recommend this book to anyone who does not have an enormous affection for all things British, as Hart sometimes lays it all on a bit thick.  Some of the later chapters, on weddings and motherhood, are all-too predictably outraged at the excess generated by extreme pursuit of those two institutions.  But the chapter on Christmas, or Chrimbo, is positively hilaire.  Hart's description of the evolution of The Mother into Christmas Mode is absolutely brill, and who can't identify with the psychic pain of being forced into playing Chinese Whispers with deaf-as-a-post Great Auntie June? 

In all seriousness, I'm glad I read this because it was lovely to get to know the obviously smart, together, and positively lovely Miranda Hart.  She's kind of the opposite of Caitlin Moran, but in a good way.  SUCH FUN.

Now don't worry, we'll return Shortly to our regularly-scheduled crime programming.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Waiter, what is that nonfiction doing in my soup?

Crazy as it seems, I have just finished not one but two NONFICTION books.  They even have a historical bent.  People who don't know me from my history days and flight therefrom will wonder why this is a big deal, but let me tell you, the idea of nonfiction is usually enough to send me into a quiet fume.  Feels like a job I was happy to leave, and it doesn't feel like the relief that reading is supposed to be.  You have to read the acknowledgements first, and keep flipping to the end notes to check sources.  Takes the pleasure clean away.

But you now, this trip to World War Two and back again was absolutely worth it, and I'm here to tell everyone that you should read Unbroken (2010, Random House) by Laura Hillenbrand and Call the Midwife (also known as The Midwife) (2002, this edition 2012, Penguin) by Jennifer Worth.  I ended up reading these more or less concurrently, and as the first is set mostly during the War, and the other a decade after, not to mention in different theaters, the experience provided a fresh immersion in a formerly favorite topic.  I'd just forgotten how much I enjoyed reading about this war. 

To say that one enjoys reading about World War Two feels uncomfortable, especially when considering what Hillenbrand's hero went through.  Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, one-time bad boy from Torrance, CA, turned track star in the 1930s.  Louie performed heroically at the 1936 Olympics, and is looking forward to 1940 but of course the War intervenes and he ends up a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific theater.  While on a search-and-rescue mission for a downed plane, Louie's own plane crashes into the ocean.  Only he, Phil the Pilot, and Mac the Tailgunner survive the crash, out of the nine or ten men on board.  They manage to get themselves onto a life raft, and the odyssey begins.  Forty-six days later, they are rescued by the Japanese, and over the next two and a half years, endure horrific treatment in Japanese POW camps.  Louie lives to tell his tale to Hillenbrand, who knows a good story when she hears one (this is the gal who brought us Seabiscuit), and does her signature outstanding job of exhaustively researching the details and setting it all in historical context.  You'd have be a pretty bad writer to screw this up, but Hillenbrand's efforts bring out the epic in this tale.  She talked to other former POWs, Japanese guards, read countless gov docs, reports, journals, and had Louie himself who fortuitously kept a diary - a diary!  In the world of historical sources that is priceless!

The title, of course, refers to the fact that Louie is never broken by his experiences.  Although he comes perilously close - by the summer of 1945, he is in extremely bad shape physically, suffering from dysentery and fevers and possibly beriberi.  He is also tormented by a psychopathic guard the prisoners call the Bird, who makes it his mission to destroy Louie.  Louie is a bit of celebrity, track and field was a bigger sport in the 1930s than it is today so people actually paid attention to it outside of the Olympics.  His fame precedes him, and of course makes him a target. 

Still, he survives, returns a hero - and that's when he really falls apart.  Who could come back from that and just take up life where it left off?  Louie has a particularly bad turn with what we now know as PTSD, but all of his former captives are emotionally scarred.  Louie himself falls down a rabbit hole of anxiety, flashbacks, and drinking to hide, heal, forget, revenge.  Of course the alcohol does not work but what does - and I found this the most intense moment of the book - is a Billy Graham sermon in a tent in 1949.  Louie is saved, truly and finally, by religion.  This compelling scene is enough to make an atheist turn agnostic.  A born optimist, and apparently remarkably resilient physical specimen, Louie Zamperini is the most extraordinary protagonist I've come across in  while.  He is still alive, by the way, at 95, gawdluvim.

If I read correctly, Americans made up about a quarter of the prisoners held in Japan.  (Hillenbrand, 314-315)  The balance were British, Canadian, New Zealanders, Dutch, and Aussies - mostly British Commonwealth.  By the time Jennifer Worth takes up her work as a midwife in the poor but plucky Poplar district of East London, the setting of Call the Midwife, the war is ten or more years gone.  Yet it is almost always there in the background of this story.  Poplar is part of Docklands, a favorite target of German bombers during the Blitz.  Almost every family lost someone or something to the war, whether it was a whole person, or a house, or a mind.  So many uncleared ruins litter the landscape.  They are playgrounds for children, trash heaps, and the prostitutes' office.  The massive social and economic changes that roll through the post-war world will mean the end of this Cockney life, warts and all.  Worth is part of it during its last moments of - you can't say glory, but energy, life?  By the 1980s, the tenements will be torn down, the docklands no longer the transport and cargo hub of England, and the Cockney way of life almost obliterated.

But before that . . . Jennifer Worth (then Lee) is a newly-trained nurse-midwife who somehow misses the fact that the job she's applied for is nursing with (which also means living with) an order of nuns in Poplar, part of the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  Over the course of her lightly fictionalized (names are changed) tale, she comes to respect and love the nuns and their commitment to their calling, which is to provide midwifery services to the women of this terribly poor area.  In Call The Midwife, she details her experiences providing medical care, and learning about lives rather different from her own privileged upbringing.  For the Cockneys, life is all out there for the sharing and the nuns and nurses are right in it.  Jenny encounters a woman with 24 children and one on the way,  a mother with terrible rickets from her childhood in the slums, a woman who lost her children and her mind in the workhouse system, terrible maternal loss through eclampsia, an extraordinary range of reaction to infidelity as discovered at the birth of a child not exactly the same color as its pa, the desperation that turns a child to prostitution, and I'm probably forgetting more.  One that sticks and is likely representative of many is Lil, a slatternly mum with a passel of dirty snot-nosed kids already, all of whom (mum included) desperately need a bath.  Dad's not around much, hitting when he is.  Jenny meets Lil pretty early in her work at Nonnatus House, at a prenatal clinic, and has a very hard time dealing with someone who is happy living in such squalor, making no apparent effort to improve it. Not to mention who is so dirty it makes Jenny gag when doing physical exams (this is NOT a book for the squeamish). 

But on a follow-up visit to Lil's own house, in a condemned building in Stepney where the only running water and the lav are at the end of the balcony onto which the flats opened, Jenny comes to see it differently.  Lil made an effort, getting some water for tea for the nurse, offering a towel albeit a grimy one.  "Lil seemed different in her own surroundings," Worth writes.  "Maybe the clinic had intimidated her in some way, so that she had felt the need to assert herself by showing off.  She did not seem so loud and brash in her own home.  The irritating giggle, I realized, was no more than constant and irrepressible good humour.  She pushed the children around, but not unkindly."  (71)  Jenny administers the medicine (Lil has syphilis, and it will kill the baby if not treated) and departs.  She reflects later, "In her own surroundings, Lil was not a disgusting old bag, she was a heroine.  She kept the family together, in appalling conditions, and the children looked happy.  She was cheerful and uncomplaining.  How she had come to pick up syphilis was none of my business.  I was there to treat the condition, not to judge."  (72)   The next day, when Jenny returns to offer dose tow, she is greeted by Lil's own mum, announcing that "Lil's had a mis and gorn' to 'ospital.  Good riddance, I sez.  She's got enough with ten o' them, and him in an' out all the time."  (72)  Good riddance indeed, yet a short tug on a heartstring all the same. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this book was the inspiration for the wildly popular British series of the same name, which then had a big run in the States on PBS.  That's how I found it, and like just about everyone else, I was absolutely hooked by the sharply-written characters of nuns, nurses, and Cockneys; the warm stories of family life in hard times; the authenticity of place, and, yes, the whole babies-being-birthed theme.  CTM-the-TV-show is also not for the squeamish - it has some of the more graphic depictions of childbirth that I've ever seen (and are nothing next to the clinically detailed descriptions in the original book).  But gosh, there are these babies, and there are their mums and dads and siblings and grandparents and aunties and uncles (families in Poplar were very big, and all lived near each other), and even when born into such desperate surroundings, there's always a little more love to share. 

The one slightly off note in the book is Worth's portrayal of my fave character on the telly show, Chummy, also known as Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne.  As written, Chummy is a complete caricature, and there is some discussion on the airwaves as to whether she was entirely fictional or not.  I suspect not, but Worth has her things like "I say, gels, did you know that Binkie Bingham-Binghouse is getting spliced at last?  Jolly good show, what?"  (273).  Oh come on, no one is named Binkie Bingham-Binghouse, not even in Chummy's top-drawer world.  Now on the telly, Chummy is played by the British comic actress Miranda Hart, who physically personifies Chummy shockingly well.  But she and the writers have also softened and deepened the character, making her still amusing in her rah-rah way, but sweet and devoted to all as well.  Good show, Hart, well done.  Worth herself was closely involved in the writing of the scripts, dying shortly before the show aired.

But back to that love bit.  For the theme of both of these books is indeed, love.  Jennifer Worth is upfront about it towards the end of her tale.  One of the nuns, Sister Monica Joan, an aristocratic old gel who's been doing this for decades, and is now in her 90s, is a difficult sort.  Brilliant, irascible, selfish, perhaps senile - she tries the patience of her fellow travelers even while her life's work serves as inspiration to them all.  Toward the end she has a bit of a mind-flip, and wanders around the neighborhood on a cold day clad only in her nightie.  Jenny and Chummy get her back to the lodging, pneumonia sets in, and a long recovery ensues.  Jenny had been finding Sister Monica Joan particularly trying before this, but the experience changes her own way of thinking.
  "I attended my morning visits as though in a dream.  Now and then in life, love catches you unawares, illuminating the dark corners of your mind, and filling them with a radiance.  Once in a while you are faced with a beauty and joy that takes your soul, all unprepared, by assault.  As I cycled around that morning, I knew that I loved not only Sister Monica Joan, but all that she represented:  her religion, her vocation, her monastic profession, the bells, the constant prayers within the convent, the quietness, and the selfless work in the service of God.  Was it perhaps - and I nearly fell off my bike with shock - could it be the love of God?"  (313)

Louie Zamperini would get this.  I myself tend to keep such ideas at arms-length, yet Louie and Jenny and Chummy and Lil and the rest offer much to think about, and I find myself pondering them and their stories and, yes, their message, still. 

Unbroken is one of those books that sticks with you after you have finished reading it.  You may find yourself thinking well dammit, if Louie can get through two and a half years of Japanese POW camp, I can get my butt to hot yoga this morning.  You may even find yourself contemplating a WWLZD? t-shirt.  Call the Midwife has had a similar effect.  Of course, for CtM, the t-shirt is, WHWCD, don't you know.  Prize to whomever figures that out. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jade Lady Burning

I mentioned last time that I'd be getting to this review very soon because I was enjoying the book so much.  Well I did enjoy it, but best laid plans and all that. 

Anyway, here we are starting off 2013 on a high note.  I'm always game for a Soho Crime series, the more geographically distant from Cambridge MA, the better.  Martin Límon's series set in 1970s era Seoul totally delivers. The plot of Jade Lady Burning (Soho Press, 1991, this ed. 2011) first in the series, starts with an inexplicably gruesome murder, and carries us forward (in a military issue Jeep of course) through both the literal alleys of Seoul's red light district, Itaewon, and the figurative alleys of US military justice.  Toss in some obvious but entertaining military-related politics, and the murky expat lifestyle that exists on the fringes of the huge American defense complex in Korea, and you've got a satisfying stew of a story.

Our heroes are George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two CID detectives with the 8th Army in Seoul who are not afraid to push a case beyond their orders, or to drink themselves silly on any given night.  We hear this story from Sueño's perspective mostly, and he's the sensitive one in the pair - tricky independent upbringing, curious about Korean culture, taking the time to actually speak to Korean people in Korean, highly aware of local custom.  Bascom is less deeply drawn, but still feels like a UXB.  Perhaps the next book in the series will give us more on his back story.

The plot trajectory here is pretty straightforward:  prostitute is found murdered most fouly and probably by a Yank, Sueño and Bascom are dispatched to figure it out.  The boyfriend is taken into custody, but Our Heroes are pretty sure he didn't do it so they keep poking around and uncover some very nasty relationships.  They are aided in this by an "old" prostitute named Kimiko (she's probably all of 28 or something) who commands both ridicule and respect from the other denizens of Itaewon. There's also a thread where Sueño and Bascom are taken off the murder, and told to follow around some folks who are potentially fiddling the procurement system.  Can't say much more without giving critical bits away, but there are not any outrageously unbelievable turns here - just a solid and disciplined dispersal of creeps and losers and generally bad guys. 

One highlight of Jade Lady Burning is Itaewon itself.  Límon's command of his location is completely compelling, from the opening scene on the Blue Line night train to Seoul, to a drive up into the hills toward the DMZ. Itaewon, the red light district with the Japanese name, is a place where you can get a beer at 10 in the morning, and some good gossip from the (more than likely) female barkeep.  Of course the quail is the reason that most GIs go there.  But it's not a desperate or bleak place.  Límon's Itaewon has a brightness to it, a kind of forward movement that speaks of business getting done with a a pat on the ass and a cheerful leer.
"GIs bounced up the main road of Itaewon, hands in their pockets, breath and laughter billowing from their mouths, ignoring the slippery ice as they headed for the neon.
  The village was a huge web of brightness, shrouded now in snow.  Nightclubs lined the main road and alleys branched off, up steep stone steps, to smaller, cozier clubs.  Old women lurked in the darkness ready to lead any willing GI to a brothel if he didn't have the time or the temperament for the dancing and the booze and the laughter."  (35)
One might say it's got seoul.

Another strong area includes the terrific characters peopling this Itaewon.  Límon creates a vast cast of small parts, all deftly characterized in a paragraph or two.  In Itaewon there is the fading but tough Kimiko, the cheerful Ginger who owns the American Club, Milt Gorman whose Roundup club features country and western music (of course), The Nurse, and who can forget the stately Miss Lim from Hawaii?  Sure, they're more or less in the business of selling booze and flesh, but you know, everyone knows it, and the are fair in their dealings with everyone.  On base, the characters are not as charming, although the many levels of Army bureaucracy are  magnificently rendered, something that could only be done by a military insider (cover notes indicate a ten-year tour in Korea within a 20 year Army career).  A couple of notable exceptions are Chief Winkle, who runs a motor pool and is the biggest bookie on base, and the fabulously mysterious Miss Kim, who clerks in the Admin Section of the CID and only really responds to Ernie Bascom's silent treatment and gifts of gum.  The rest are either drunks or just a little creepy.  Watch out in particular for the chaplain's office.

It's not that Límon is a spectacular writer.  His writing is good enough so that you don't notice it.  It's that he's got a great touch of combining atmosphere and character observation. 
  "The Lower Four Club was the hub for certain of the American expatriates; electronics technicians making extra pay for the 'hardship tour,' insurance salesmen thriving in a sea of uninsured young bachelors, and the occasional representative for a distributorship zeroing in on the PX market. 
  Many of them were veterans, military retirees living on their pension checks, former NCOs who'd finished their twenty years and now got a check every month for fifty percent of their former pay.  Most of them held part-time, horse-shit jobs on the compound.  Almost to a man, the retirees had a Korean wife or mistress who they lived with down in the village.  A lot of them had kids.  Often it was their second set; the first kids, by an American wife, were grown and on their own.
  They were a strange lot.  A few of them had lived through the Korean War and couldn't get away from it.  Most of them didn't really understand why they lived in Korea.  They only understood somehow that they would never go home."  (161-162)

Depressing and compelling at the same time, great, huh?  There are several more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A year of profitable reading

Hello, and welcome to the one year anniversary of Crime Pays.  I think I've done pretty well reporting out on my reading for 2012, and I look forward to adding on in 2013.  If you're new to Crime Pays, you can start at the bottom of the list to your right, last January, and read forward for all the gory details.  This time of year, all the other crime fiction blogs seem to report endless lists of a) the best crime/mystery/thriller fiction of 2012 (almost none of which I have read) and b) what's coming in 2013 (more to add to the list of books I will probably never get to). Not I!  And no New Year's Resolutions, either.  But I may see if I can figure out a way to post some of my travel journals here, since you may find them mildly interesting.  And by all means, if you have suggestions for good books, please do send them my way. 

At any rate, the turn of the year sees me enjoying the start of another promising series from Soho Crime, with Martin Límon's so-far-terrific Jade Lady Burning.  The tough pair of George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are CID detectives with the 8th Army in Seoul in the early 1970s, and while they've seen it all, Límon's strong sense of place keeps the story grounded and compelling.  I'll report out on this one as soon as I finish it, which will be soon because I am really inhaling it.  There have been series from Soho Crime that I've not cottoned to, but man when they hit it, they really hit it.  Maybe this will be the year I write and tell them that, and they will hire me  on the strength of that letter as a senior editor who works from her home in Cambridge just twenty hours a week, choosing the next great crime fiction series while being a devoted and loving wife and mother and getting to yoga regularly. 

I'm also taking a little break from the dark stuff with Miranda Hart's Britishly sweet and funny Is It Just Me? (she's a kind of nerdier English Tina Fey- can you imagine), Jennifer Worth's Call The Midwife (yes, Miranda Hart is game Chummy in telly version of same), and the so-far rather melancholy My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  Crime, England, humor, and food are an odd literary mashup, but it works for me, in fact now that I put it together it is rather the perfecta of my interests (minus musical theater of course, but that's for another day).

On deck are Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (xmas gift), Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody (ditto), Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (more in the immensely entertaining genre of look-what-a-dorkus-I-was-and-how-I-turned-that-into-being-a-super-smart-and-wildly-successful-comedienne), Benjamin Lorr's Hell-Bent:  Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga (that's me, competitive yogi), and Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale (because one should just keep up with Kerr)Possibly not in that order.  I'm also pretty excited that the latest Charles Todd and Andrea Camilleri books are coming out in January and February respectively.  Well, that may be another New Year's Resolution:  I will not buy any more books for the next week.

I note that in my introductory entry on this blog, I thought I might also note what was for dinner.  That seems to have fallen by the wayside, probably because if you really want to know what we're eating you can just friend me on Facebook, and there you'll find it pretty much every day that I cook.  For what it is worth, frascatelli with mustard greens tonight.