Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Coming soon, I hope, to a small screen near me

Euro Crime reports that a bunch of interesting mystery-type dramas are being made for BBC.  Here's hoping they show up on our PBS, and/or BBC America.  The only thing more satisfying than a good Masterpiece Mystery! is perhaps Downton Abbey or Call The Midwife.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Damn you, nonfiction!

This is why I avoid nonfiction:  it makes me feel bad.  Even when it's good, and funny, or moving, or beautifully written, or evocative of far-away places where I really want to be, it just makes me feel, gosh this is embarrassing, JEALOUS.  Lord help me, I know it is deeply immature but I just can't get past it.  I also dislike it when it feels like academic work, but that was my topic last time.  

Two examples (both of I recommend despite the fact that they made me feel bad):

Mindy Kaling may claim that she looked like a dork as a kid - actually she doesn't have to claim it, see the snap on the back of the book, she did - but she looks terrific now as an adult.  And she's super smart, and has awesome friends, and a great job that she works really really hard at and that is obviously wildly fulfilling.  Goddammit, why can't we all have that?   Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) (Three Rivers Press, 2011) isn't the angst-fest that the title suggests.  Rather, it's basically How Mindy Made It with funny stuff about her views on men and fashion and other stuff and you can learn some cool stuff about comedy writing and that she has really funny friends and that you'd never ever hang out without her.  Plus which, she is apparently the World's Greatest Daughter, and talks to her parents every day.  Every day!  While I could do without how she totally killed it in college (at Dartmouth, no less), I found her chapter on "When You're Not Skinny, This is What People Want You to Wear" to be crie du coeur, a call to arms, a manifesto for the could-lose-20-lbs. set. For the record, I don't think Mindy needs to lose any weight.  Rock on gal.  And also for the record, I do have friends, and I'm not an idiot, and I have a good job.  And I have an awesome husband and kids so suck on that, Mindy.  Then please hire me.

Now, Mindy talks of her quirky Indian-American upbringing as a vaguely outsider experience, but Luisa Weiss is in fact way more of an outsider.  And a whole lot more serious too.  The insensitive reader might say jeez, lighten up!  Daughter of an Italian mother and American father living in Berlin, Weiss has to figure out where she fits in after they divorce and Dad moves back to the States, and My Berlin Kitchen (Viking, 2012) is her chronicle of her efforts to find herself and love in the process. It's billed as a "love story" (so that is a red flag right there) "with recipes" because in addition to being totally cosmopolitan, she is also a budding food writer, creator of the popular blog "The Wednesday Chef" (blog titles:  italicized like books?  Just in quotes?) and the story is also that of her evolution from editor to writer.  Our heroine bounces back and forth, here and there between New York and Paris and Berlin with a lot of Italy thrown in, and she works through a couple of serious relationships and jobs but never quite feeling like she's found her place until she realizes that The One (the practically perfect in every way Max) and The City (Berlin) and The Job (writer) have been there all along.  Get it - watcher, controlled observer, on the fringe, moving to the center, letting go, taking a change and finding herself and her voice thanks in part to falling in love?  

Now look, divorce is unsettling, I completely relate to that.  And the sense of where am I from ergo who am I, well hello central concern of my life.  But I found myself just a little bit consumed with jealousy for someone who got into publishing and rode the blog wave successfully and travelled and married this wonderful fellow, in Italy, for chrissakes.  And I am supposed to feel her pain in all of this soul-searching?  They had fritto misto at their wedding!  Me likie, as Tina Fey would say.  

Yet reluctantly, I do get it.  Weiss ends up living in the Berlin she started in, which she paints as not quite a paradise but certainly a place where you, or I at least, would really really like to live.  It is full of deep family resonance for her but also lively and interesting and and forward-facing while existing if not comfortably then at least engaged with its history.  It is a place where there are lots of apartment building parties and fruit-picking and warm family get-togethers and much kaffee und kuchen which I think we could all do with more of.  It seems to be a place - and I don't remember this from Germany but I was young and my parents had their own take and it was a totally different city in the west - that takes family and neighbors and human connectivity and nature seriously.  I suppose everyone's reality is different, but I'll have what she's having.  

Each chapter has a recipe associated with it, and some are classically German - Quark cheesecake, rote gr├╝tze, Pflaumenkuchen - while others reflect her fabulous Italian heritage and even her dad's cooking.  I'll probably make some of these recipes, and yes, I've even checked out The Wednesday Chef and yes, it is worth following.  A teeny quibble is that Weiss uses the descriptors silky and slicked a little too much, words I'm tired of reading in food descriptions, but you know sometimes they work and generally evoke a tasty sense of whatever recipe or food experience she's discussing.  

So the point of all my kvetching here is to say that nonfiction sometimes gets a little close, and that's why I generally stay away from it.  Don't get me started on great romances or The Human Condition as a subject.  But you know, these are the books that are sticking around in my head right now. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is what passes for crime fiction today over-rated?

Patrick over At The Scene of the Crime sure thinks so.  He thinks that everything nominated for an Agatha Award this year is at worst crap, or at best, not worthy of an award of any kind.  I haven't read any of them, but I'm familiar with and generally like a couple of the authors, esp. Charles Todd.  I think I get his point about Louise Penny, while I've enjoyed what I've read of hers so far, I wouldn't give any of it a medal or anything.  Patrick's point isn't that ALL crime fiction today is crap, just that what gets nominated is largely overrated. This conjures up memories of of a famous moment in graduate school, when Slava the hyper serious Russian G-1 told Bernard Bailyn the most famous historian in America "pfft, vot does it mean to vin an award for a book?  Anything can vin an award!"  Well, not anything can win just anything, and BB was gracious in reminding ol' Slava that ha Pulitzer or two (like he had) wasn't something to sneeze at.  I think BB liked Slava's style.  

Patrick also doesn't think much of academics who dabble in crime fiction analysis. Ex:  they misfire in their unanimous adoration of The Big Sleep.  Again, haven't read it, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt since I always literary analysis just a bit de trop.  And I probably have more sympathy for it than the average crime fiction reader, being a lapsed academic meself. But I'm always a bit defensive when people rail against academics like they are lawyers or something.  Yeah I know it seems like they are either a) stating the obvious or b) making it up.  But that's the coin of their realm, and every once in a while it makes sense outside the ivory tower.  But I still get defensive like it is OK to tell jokes about your own tribe, but not about someone else's.  Not that I really count myself in the academic tribe, obviously I'm an outlier like that Hasidim who left and became a NYC cop on Blue Bloods last night.  Of course, I'm not shunned by my former tribe like he is.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Blackhouse

More like the BLEAK house, apologies to Chas. Dickens.  At least, that was my first reaction and it took me three - three! - tries to get into this book.  Now that I've finished, I'm glad I stuck with it and you will be too.  Not quite Dickensian in scope or language or character development, or really anything, but a reluctantly gripping story nonetheless. 

Peter May is highly lauded on the mystery and crime blogs, so when I read that The Blackhouse (Quercus, 2011), was available Stateside, I thought I should give it a try.  The blogs tell me that this is the first in a strong series based on Scotland's remote Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides.  I don't know what I expected, but the opening scene, in which two teenagers trying to get it on discover a gruesomely dismembered body, was so depressing that I just put the book down.  It wasn't the murder, it was the lack of hope and opportunity and the desperate attempts at teenage coupling in a sad quay-side warehouse that just made me want to run away. 

A few weeks later I tried again. The body's been discovered, I reasoned, presumably we move on to the adults.  Yes . . . we do meet Our Hero, Fin Macleod, but we quickly discover that he and his wife are in a pretty bad state, mourning the recent death of their eight-year-old son in a hit-and-run car accident.  Kid-trauma, yeah, book closed a second time. 

Curiously - and unusually - NOT gripped by Philip Kerr's latest, Field Grey, I figured I'd give ol' Fin and his troubles one more try.  This time I was hooked, fought it a bit, but finally reeled in. 

Fin Macleod, Lewis native but current resident of Edinburgh, is sent back to the island to investigate the murder of a former acquaintance because the M.O. is suspiciously similar to a murder he's been investigating in Edinburgh.  It turns out that while Fin has only been back to Lewis once in the past 18 years, his roots there are deep and complicated.  He's moved on while most of his erstwhile acquaintances have cleaved closer to the austere, god-fearing, traditional life of the island.  The church dominates all, and while the traditional livelihoods of fishing, weaving, and crofting survive, they aren't as lucrative as they once were and many men work in the offshore oil or other small, barely surviving industries.  They're generally depressed, but it's what they know, and they make the best of it.  Fin got out, as it were, but it's clear that he isn't happy and therein lies our tale.

The unraveling of the murder takes place in installments, alternating with episodes from Fin's past, each one progressively more dramatic and revealing yet another aspect of life on Lewis, as well as key bits in the lives of the victim and others connected to him and to Fin.  These start in Fin's childhood, and while I found them a bit tedious at the start - clearly bad things were going to happen, but did I have the stamina to get through all 475 pages to find out? - well, they grew on me.  The best one concerns the annual guga hunt, a real event that actually takes place on Lewis.  Every year, a group of men from the island spent two weeks harvesting gannet chicks from an uninhabitable rock miles out in the ocean, called An Sgeir.  The chicks are taken from nests, beheaded, processed, then preserved in salt, and are considered a local delicacy.  The hunt commemorates a famine a few centuries earlier when the men from the island saved themselves by going to the rock, as it is known, for the fowl.  It's brutally hard work, dangerous, and steeped in tradition.  The description of Fin's one and only hunt is magnificent, and makes a spectacular centerpiece to the story. 

What's a blackhouse?  An older, stone dwelling, used by the local population for housing themselves and their beasts, before they started building the whitewashed houses that we see as more characteristic today of the area.  The dramatic climax of the story takes place in one on An Sgeir. 

The writing here is fine - nothing special, but not at all distracting either, and given the complexity of the plot, that is a real accomplishment.  That you don't ever feel confused or need to look back to figure out what is going on is a real testament to May's dexterous handling of the many past and present plot threads.  I'd place The Blackhouse squarely in the bleak-northern-UK category of Anne Cleeves, but better.  Less angst on the part of Our Hero (at least, for most of the story) and the love interest is treated pretty lightly which I like.  Like Cleeves, the setting is a star - the dramatic landscape, foul weather alternating with sun, and the omnipresent sea.  It's clear that deep research, carefully deployed, is a hallmark of May's work.  A prolific writer, May has a series set in China, and apparently is the only westerner to be made an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writer's Association.  I look forward to delving deeper into his oeuvre.