Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Really. You'll like this book. I promise.

My son resisted reading The Right Stuff.  Why?  Probably because I told him it was great and he would like it.  And then, the fatal mistake, his father said the same thing.

My son has read just about every Malcolm Gladwell he can get his hands on.  Walks around quoting passages from Garbology and The Omnivore's Dilemma.  The Right Stuff?  Not a chance.  "But it's about astronauts.  The first men in space.  Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier.  Tom Wolfe is such an exciting writer - you won't be able to put it down."

(If you have children, you know the look.  The rolled eyes.  The raised brow.)

The Right Stuff sat on his bookshelf gathering dust.  Why doesn't he trust us?  We have good taste.  It's not as if we're asking him to read Little Women.  Or Twilight. What is it about a parent suggesting a book to a child that makes them automatically reject it?  I never did that when I was growing up.  (Well, I do remember my father trying to get me to read Faulkner.  But Faulkner's different, right?)

And then - oh miracle of miracles, a few days ago I saw my son with the book.  Not wanting to curse my luck, I muttered under my breath, "What are you reading?" "This," he said, waving the The Right Stuff in the air.  I nodded.  Said nothing.

Yesterday my husband asked him, trying hard to sound casual, "So.  What do you think about it?"

A grunt from my son.  "Good."

Victory.  I will never say, "Told you so."  Except in a blog post.  But not to his face.

The next books we'll try to cram down his throat, Killer Angels and Son of the Morning Star.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Favorite mysteries?

This is only the beginning of a discussion of mysteries because - duh - there are so many good mystery writers out there.  Ruth Rendell and P. D. James and Ian Rankin and Denise Mina and I've mentioned Imogen Robertson before, who writes beautiful historical mysteries set in the late 1700s.  And what about American writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Donald Westlake and Michael Connelly and James Ellroy... sorry, got carried away.

I read a lot of Nordic mysteries (Nordic Noir, you might say).  I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just okay and there are Nordic writers I enjoy much better, like Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser.  But my favorite of favorites - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote police procedurals centering on Martin Beck, a detective in Stockholm.   From the book jacket of their last book:  "Together they planned a series, to consist of ten books, which they said would trace 'a man's [Martin Beck's] personality changing over the years, as the milieu and the atmosphere, the political climate, the economic climate, and the crime rate change...'"

The first book, Roseanna, was written in 1965.  The last book, The Terrorists, in 1975, the same year  Per Wahlöö passed away.

What makes these books so special?  The prose is sparse and clean.  And these aren't books about overly grisly serial killings or the intricacies of forensic science.  They follow a group of policemen, regular people doing their jobs.  Martin Beck feels like your grumpy neighbor - your grumpy neighbor you'd turn to instantly if you needed a great policeman.  He's middle-aged, slightly flawed, but human.  And all the characters in the books are human - they might have their quirks, but the quirks come from a real place.  Through the ten books you get to know the characters, see how they change, and in a way, fall in love with them.  

Excellent mysteries, excellent characters, and a fascinating look at life, culture, and crime-solving in Sweden.  Every few years I get out the books and read them again.  I start with Roseanna and read straight through to The Terrorists.  I would recommend reading them in order.  The photo below shows where they live.  On the highest place of honor in the mystery section of my bookshelf.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Weirder than you would think - Kings Row

You might have heard of the movie.  Made in 1942, Ronald Reagan gets injured and this wildly insane doctor amputates both his legs.  So when R.R. wakes up, he looks down and cries, "Where's the rest of me?"  (Later Reagan used that as the title of his autobiography.)

Henry Bellamann wrote Kings Row in 1940, set in a town not unlike Fulton, Missouri, where Bellamann grew up.  It is one wacky book.  I don't remember what made me read it - I'd never especially liked the film, but I think I'd read an article on Bellamann and how his hometown had been angry over their portrayal in the book and for a long time didn't allow a copy of Kings Row in the Fulton library.

Harsh, you might say.  Well.  Read the book.  It starts in 1890 with two friends, Parris Mitchell and Drake McHugh, growing up in small town Kings Row (aka Fulton).  For a small town, there's a lot going on.  A great deal of sex (heterosexual and homosexual).  Incest, sadism, nymphomania, mental illness, mercy killing.  Just for starters. (Needless to say, when the movie was made, most of these things didn't make it into the film.)

But it's an entertaining, melodramatic read in a Peyton Place/Douglas Sirk sort of way.  And amazing to think it was written in 1940.  It must have been the kind of book kids had to read under the covers so their parents wouldn't know.

If you're feeling brave, track down a copy.  (And there's a sequel, too - Parris Mitchell of Kings Row.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Children's books - your favorite?

When I was growing up, I checked out Half Magic at least a dozen times from the Staunton Public Library.  Eventually I ended up with a copy of my own - I think stolen (borrowed?) from my friend Julie.  (I still have it, Julie, if you want it back.)

What makes a children's book stand out?  A Wrinkle in Time was always in my top ten.  When my daughter had to read it for school, I told her how much she would adore it (kiss of death) and she pronounced it "okay."  Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy are up there, too, but there's a special place in my heart for Half Magic.

Half Magic was written by Edward Eager who wrote plays and children's fiction, including a series of books about children and magic.  He was inspired by E. Nesbit who wrote children's fiction at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century.  I will write more about her later because  if you've never read her, you're in for a treat.  Both Edward Eager and E. Nesbit wrote children who feel real, authentic.  Children who aren't perfect.  Sometimes they behave badly (very badly). Who wouldn't love books like that when they were young?

I don't want to give away too much of the plot.  In Half Magic four young siblings find a magic coin that grants wishes - with one problem.  It only it grants half a wish. For example, Martha wishes the family cat could talk.  But unfortunately, the cat half talks - "Foo!  Idgwit!  At urt!"  And how the children try to fix the problem of the talking cat - let's just say it doesn't go smoothly.

And that's probably what makes Half Magic so special.  Normal children leading a normal life and suddenly magic appears.  But they can't control it and they fight over the power and it isn't an easy journey for any of them, but the book is exiting and smart and very very funny.  There are seven books in Edward Eager's magic series and they're all good, but Half Magic is still the most magical one for me.