Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How Mattering More Than What

Okay, on for review of the first days' real reading material - Lisa Lutz's latest, a non-Spellman files joint effort at a comic mystery.  It's amazing that I've been writing this blog so long that I'm getting up to authors' second new books since I started... but in this case, that's only because I posted about the book a while after I read it, so I don't know if it's time to start waxing nostalgic :) Anyway, I think we were all ready for the Spellman Files to end even before the last one, so we were certainly happy that this latest is entirely independent of Izzie and her gang (though there's Spellman #5 out next year, which I shall certainly be reading, don't get me wrong :)) But other than being non-Spellman, I don't know that there was much to recommend this project.  It was an innovative idea, (or not hugely overdone anyway): Lisa Lutz and an ex-bf writer friend of hers would write alternate chapters, not discussing the plot beforehand.  Let the story unfold how it would, with the only guidance that it be a whodunit, with some resolution at the end.  I don't have any objections to the idea, but the descriptions made the book sound... well kind of horror-meets-kitsch, which just wasn't something that appealed to me all that much.  And it's not like I adore Lisa Lutz all that much... I mostly read her books for the romance, though the comedy is none too bad, of course.

But of course, it wasn't like I wasn't going to read it... because, of course, I don't exactly have to expend much to put it on reserve at the library.  And in this case, because my wonderful cousin Sarah Sp (see you really should read my blog ;)) is boycotting LL over her last book, the library was kind of my only avenue - which was just fine, because I put it on reserve months ago and got it immediately upon publication.  ANYWAY... I'm sure you want to hear about the book already.  The first thing I realized upon starting (just the intro, not even the book) was that the format was a big part, if not the whole point, of the book.  Every other chapter belongs to either Dave or Lisa and in between, we get notes discussing the previous chapter between the two authors.  So besides the unfolding mystery for Paul and Lacey, we get the story of how this book got written.  Or not exactly that, more like a running commentary on all that was lacking in the previous chapter.  And there are plenty of within-the-text jibes back and forth too.  So that the characters sometimes voice concerns about the narrative or make a slightly out of place comment, clearly the message of the current writer to his/her counterpart.  Whatever, the point is, it's funny.  And we never forget just what is really going on in the book.

The mystery itself... well don't take it too seriously, that's for sure.  First of all, my assumption is that most mystery writers have a pretty good idea of unfolding events from the beginning.  I would think it's fairly difficult to produce a well-crafted whodunit, one with a really satisfying ending, without knowing where every lead is headed.  But in this case, not only did the format make advance planning impossible, the authors didn't even try, forgoing narrative integrity for the chance to get the book at on Lisa/Dave's chosen track.  But it doesn't really matter, it's not like this book was meant as a serious mystery novel anyway.  And the back-and-forth, no-respect-for-reality bonanza of dead bodies and petty criminals makes that very clear.  It also makes the book funny, at least in its own way.  And I'll take funny over a good mystery any day.

I don't know why I'm giving this book such serious attention.  It's really very simple. The book itself is okay funny when it's read as a farce, which I think is definitely as intended (I don't even think it's in the mystery section of the library). The far more compelling narrative is that between the two authors, as played out somewhat in their notes, and more within the main chapters.  I'm pretty sure their petty jibes and textual battles are at least somewhat fictionalized, but I'm okay with that.  They're still funny.  Bottom line, I think Lisa Lutz sees herself more as a comic than as anything else, and I don't think anything in this book proves her wrong.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Post for Completeness' Sake

In the category of so junky I'm not really going to review it, we have Julia Quinn's latest, a combined effort with two other authors who don't normally make my reading list, but who share JQ's regency romance genre.  So yeah, it was regency romance.  Three novellas (if they can be dignified as such) within a story... JQ's was I think the best... they were all pretty much as expected, but not like I regret reading it or anything :) trash is trash, but whatever, it can have its moments :)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Journey Once More to Far Off and Fairytale Lands

Just in time for my one year anniversary, I've got yet another AMS to review.  I think I've done one from each of his series already (No. 1 Ladies, Corduroy Mansions, 44 Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie, and also one independent), and since it's been a year, he's back with another No. 1 Ladies.   This was comes with some additional excitement for me, since I just went with Aunt Sarah and the lovely Sp girls (all except Ah!) to see the author in person.  It was an NPR-sponsored event, so not free of, what was to me, intrusive liberalism, but the man himself was delightful, just delightful.  He was polite, well spoken, quite amusing... I must say, more likeable than some of his characters :)

Anyway, I wouldn't say more likely then Mma Ramotswe., though.  She's quite a lady, that one.  I think I mentioned that I thought she seemed a little full of herself in the last book (only at times, of course)  but I really didn't get that feeling at all this time.  I don't know if it was my positive association with the author, if it was genuinely better than the last one, or if I was just in the mood for some light fiction after the fairly heavy fare of this past month :).   I can ask the Sp.s was their take is, as they are coming for Pesach (I'm journeying home on the Megabus right now myself).  But whatever the reason, I found The Saturday Big Tent Wedding to be as thoroughly enjoyable as any of the series.  Mma Ramotswe was wise, very wise; her talents in negotiating all matters of the social and emotional labyrinths were in demand and well showcased I thought.  Sometimes, I agreed with hers decisions, others I sat back and admired her ingenuity.  Of course, it's fiction, but I can still recognize a good woman when I see one :)

So Mma Ramotswe shines as always.  Mma Makutsi was her usual self as well, not as admirable, but not unlikeable all the same.  All was well with these two characters, though there were some pretty serious matters brought up in the course of the book, one in particular, I felt quite serious (involving Charlie).  But they were resolved without pain, and fairly quickly, by Mma Ramotswe (so funny how i never knew how to pronounce that before now :)) - quickly because the book was fairly short, not something I often complain about :) (especially when there's little plot to compel drawing out the narrative, as is the case here as with all the No. 1 books).  And other than the small matters, what was there... I felt less philosophy than usual.  Much made of the differences between men and women, as usual, but I think I noticed it more because AMS pointed it out as an important theme in his books (he does write a lot from women's POV, and does a fair job of it I think - maybe because he himself appears to be a quite a refined  person).  A lot about Botswana, especially old Botswana.  I don't necessarily agree with all the gender discussion (I mean, I'm not a feminist, but I think I have more equality in my relationships with men than they do), but that's definitely colored by my position as a working woman in the US (and of course frum, where our women, contrary to some's belief, really do wear the pants - metaphorically, of course ;)) rather than one in the more "traditional" nation of Botswana.  AMS pokes fun at those of us who view Africa as a huge backward continent, but his books, show that, while they may have cars, and phones, and internet, in many ways they are, if not backward, quite different and closer to the old rural societies of a century ago.

At least that's what his books say, in their praise of traditional Botswana.  It is an admirable country, whether real or romanticized (it is of course, admittedly, at least somewhat romanticized).  But AMS does such good job, not only of potraying Mma Ramotswe's love for the ways of her country, but drawing us into its bucolic charms through every aspect of the novel - plot, characters, and especially the spartan yet smooth and gentle language.  It really is a cup of red bush tea :) (That is a consummate treat, simple to procure, wholesome, and delicious to the senses - at least if you ask Mma Ramotswe :))

Verdict: 4/5

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Man, Myth... Mr. Mark Twaaaain!!!

AAAAAAT LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAST mmm mm mmm mm mm mmm mmm…. (that's the Etta James's song, if you didn't catch the reference)… I'm sure you've all been wondering what's been going on.  I haven't posted since March, and in the process, have missed my one-year anniversary! (April 11).  I know the questions that were running through all of your heads… is Rochel abandoning us? Has she left the labor of love that is book review blogging behind as she heads off to brighter ventures? Was she - gasp - *kidnapped*?! Never fear, loyal followers.  I have merely been reading *the same book* for the past month.  It was a long book, in my defense, over 700 pages.  I only read around 250 of them, towards my condemnation though :)  My hunk of reading material these past weeks has been non other than the newly-published Volume I of… Mark Twain's autobiography.  He dictated that it not be published until 100 years after his death, which came by this past year.  I had to wait through around 300 people on the hold list before me, so when I got it, you better believe I was going to read it.

And I did.  I carried it back and forth for a month, reading it every day on the train.  (My Shabbosim happened to be busy for the past few weeks).  The funniest thing was what a conversation piece a 700 page tome by a famous author can be.  I must have talked to five different strangers about how much I was enjoying it (or not).  I gave them all the same answer - it's great.  Because it was pretty great.  The man is a master, we all know that.  He's one of the greatest humorists ever, and he pretty much invented the American personality.  Maybe a little brash, not as cultured as his European part, but we love him all the same, he's intelligent, he's moral, he's altogether superior.  Mark Twain's characters are like this, and the funny thing (or maybe it's not funny?) is that he is too.  I find myself agreeing with him much, though certainly not all, the time.  His political opinions, his values, he's just seems like he's on the right track.  But it's not like i'm evaluating him for a shidduch, I don't even know why I'm talking about this.

The point is, was the book good? So, first of all,  it wasn't unbelievably good or anything.  I mean, it was an autobiography, i.e. non-fiction (or ostensibly so :)) and therefore, mostly lacking in any driving plot.  And this one was even more lacking than most, since Twain's much trumpeted format is to talk about whatever he feels like at the moment (the book was dictated).  He makes much of this celebrated method, mentioning it at numerous times as the only way to write an autobiography.  And he's right, it keeps the book fresh and light.  And if I can't write a book report on "The Life of Mark Twain" now, I think I have a good idea of the man himself.  Maybe that's why I went off on the above tangent.  The book is really an illustration of his personality, not his biography at all.   

So we're taken on a tour of Mark Twain's philosophies, his memories, and his views on the matters of the day.  The philosophies are sometimes interesting, sometime not so much.  The matters of the day are at times laughingly archaic, at times eerily relevant.  And the memories… well the memories are sometimes tinged with sadness, something achingly poignant, sometimes light and amusing, but always evocative and always exquisitely related.  It's amazing how much we can care about people who died over a hundred years ago, when Mark Twain cares too.   He's definitely right about this format of autobiographing being compelling.  It doesn't move that fast, but it's rarely boring (other than the 10 or so page description of his houses in Florence, which I could have done without).  I definitely feel like I would have liked some more background.  Despite explicitly writing for the audience of 100 years in the future, Twain seems to assume we know as much about him as any of his most devoted contemporary readers.  I don't know about you, but that's certainly not true about me.  So it got a little annoying at times, but only a little.   There was repetition occasionally too, natural in a book that was dictated only by what was on his mind, but, again, only a little annoying. 

Overall, what can I say about this book? Well I'm definitely going to be reading the next few volumes, whenever they're released.  And I'm going to be re-reading his other books too.  Not like I wasn't a Twain fan before, but now, it's personal.

Verdict: 4/5