Saturday, August 24, 2013

Psuper Pseudonym Psurprise

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith / J.K. Rowling
(Mulholland Books, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this. Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is the acclaimed first crime novel by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith."

Look, I don't want to tell you how to read books or anything. (Well. I "don't". Primarily I just want to tell you what books to read.) But in addition to telling you to read The Cuckoo's Calling (seriously, do), I have to point out these two quotes that underscore Rowling's themes (not too spoilery):

From page 57 - Strike's secretary Robin is reading one of the articles about the famous death he's investigating. Strike is far from impressed with the writer's conclusions.
From page 378 (of 455) - Strike contemplates the burdens of nonconformity and how readily society places its own value judgements on the lives of everyone outside the norm.

I think this notion of tragedy and how it is applied to the 'ordinary' person "tethered... to life with mortgages and voluntary work" versus those who haven't "taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance" is both interesting and very pervasive in this book. The paparazzi are everywhere - the book opens with them surrounding the scene of the death and the cameras never really go away throughout. If a character is famous, he or she is surrounded, hounded, picked over and analyzed and subscribed feelings and motivations and thoughts that don't necessarily have anything to do with that person's reality. It made Strike's task in investigating Lula Landry's death that much trickier, and the details of her life - the tests she used to give her friends to see which of them were selling stories about her, the places she sought connections to a world that was saner and kinder - that much more poignant.

And given the amount of speculation that was everywhere - I mean everywhere, if you were at all tuned into the book world - when the news broke that Galbraith was Rowling's pseudonym, it made for a very pointed commentary about fame, as well. (Not in an 'oh, poor JKR, so sad for her and her millions of fans and millions of bank notes' way, but definitely in a 'yeah, we actually are very quick to judge and to judge harshly, and to gobble up the judgments of others, now that I look at it' way.)

Besides all that, this is a smartly crafted and engaging detective story. There are red herrings; I had to do that thing where I flip back to the beginning or a mid-point to check what the brother or the friend or the policeman said and how that plays into what Strike is then finding out. There were reveals we got to see and guess at alongside Strike, but only he was precise and skilled enough to put it all together in the right way. I wanted to be Robin, his new temporary-agency secretary, watching him work and getting exposed to it all as it unfolded. (Which - great device for expositional purposes, and deftly handled.) I wanted to know Strike, but only if I could swoop in and fix his emotional pain for him, because he is Mr. Wounded Gruff Man, which is a trope I fall for every time.

The only false-ish note for me was the army stuff - I can't say if I'd have questioned it if I didn't know about the pseudonym, but Strike's childhood experiences were so clearly woven through his character and shaped his actions and reactions, and I just didn't get that same feeling from his army days.

But hey, maybe this particular mystery that Strike had to solve just brought up a lot of his early past, and future cases will touch on the war and its aftermath. If there's a writer out there to whom I'm more than ready to extend the benefit of the doubt, its Rowling.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Honeymoon in Paris by Jojo Moyes (ebook-only prequel to:)
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
(Viking, 2013)
Format: ebooks via Net Galley

From Goodreads: "At the heart of The Girl You Left Behind are two haunting love stories - that of Sophie and Edouard Lefevre in France during the First World War, and, nearly a century later, Liv Halston and her husband David.

Honeymoon in Paris takes place when both couples have just married. Sophie, a provincial girl, is swept up in the glamour of Belle Epoque Paris but discovers that loving a feted artist like Edouard brings undreamt of complications. Following in Sophie's footsteps a hundred years later, Liv, after a whirlwind romance, finds her Parisian honeymoon is not quite the romantic getaway she had been hoping for...."

From Goodreads: "In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything - her family, reputation and life - in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.

Nearly a century later and Sophie's portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting's dark and passion-torn history is revealed, Liv discovers that the first spark of love she has felt since she lost him is threatened...."

I loved Moyes's easy, accessible prose and tender regard for her characters in Me Before You, and this trip to France during WWI was equally as deft, and maybe even more compelling. Sophie in particular is a charmer of a girl, well worth the adulation of everyone who sees the portrait her husband painted of her before the war. But she's more than the direct beauty of her painting - she's brave, she's foolhardy, she's passionate, she's willing to risk herself for her community and, most importantly, for her husband. And risk herself she does. Over and over and over again, pushing the bar further each time - not for the the adrenaline rush or her own ego, but because the stakes keep going up and Sophie has to keep anteing up. It's terribly engrossing and tense.

Meanwhile, in the modern story, Liv starts out in a fairly dismal place: widowed, underemployed, struggling to hang on to the home her architect husband built, alone. For Liv, each brief spark that might bring her into a brighter life is quickly extinguished, but at least the process of finding those sparks begins to bring her back to life.

I was less enamoured of the prequel story. The Sophie-Edouard honeymoon was charming and appealing and only increased my love of her story. But Liv-David (and I read this after I'd read the novel) left me a little flat. Mainly David. Just not that in love with the poor guy, alas. Still, it was great fun to once again see the relationship across time between Liv and Sophie.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2013: The Summer Mel Reads Short Fiction

Like, seriously, all the time. I might even have to create a category in my reading spreadsheet for all the story collections I'm reading this year. But I can't help it - they're so damn good.

I've just finished Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Random House Audio, 2008) and I was awed by the range of characters, by the ways they see themselves and each other, by Lahiri's facile plumbing of their secrets and self-deceptions. (Narrator Sarita Choudhury was right there reveling in it all with me, though her co-narrator Ajay Naidu managed to stay a bit remote.) The title story and "A Choice of Accommodations" (which was Naidu's strongest reading) in particular struck several chords with me.

There was also George Saunders's Tenth of December (Random House Audio, 2013), which: man. That guy can string some words together, I tell you. What a delicious collection. Smart and fast and quirkily twisted and visceral by turns. "The Semplical Girl Diaries," "Puppy," and "Victory Lap" will live in my head forever - true greatness. (But guys - avoid the audiobook. He self-narrated, and it just didn't work.) 

And I reviewed new release Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezedah (The Dial Press, 2013) for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, so I don't want to repeat myself here. But I'm not steering you wrong when I tell you that this captures a very universal modern America via some every-men whose stories are told with captivating and forthright prose. I didn't cry, but I did laugh, and it did become a part of me. And I love this Edward Hopper-looking cover image (is that a Hopper?) - the outside looking in thing, quite perfect for this collection.

Have you guys been reading much short fiction lately? What else should I look out for, now that I'm becoming extraordinarily partial to the form?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Laughing Through My Commute with Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
(Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Audio, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by David Sedaris)

From Goodreads: "From the unique perspective of David Sedaris comes a new book of essays taking his readers on a bizarre and stimulating world tour. From the perils of French dentistry to the eating habits of the Australian kookaburra, from the squat-style toilets of Beijing to the particular wilderness of a North Carolina Costco, we learn about the absurdity and delight of a curious traveler's experiences. Whether railing against the habits of litterers in the English countryside or marveling over a disembodied human arm in a taxidermist's shop, Sedaris takes us on side-splitting adventures that are not to be forgotten."

If you're not familiar with David Sedaris - well, fix that. Also, probably you're wrong, because you'll have heard him on This American Life or somewhere. (You do have a podcast directory full of NPR and books-chat podcasts like me, don't you?) (Oh! Check out Book Riot's fairly new-to-the-scene podcast - it's a great deal of fun.)

When my awesome niece stayed with me for a few weeks this summer and joined me on my commute to work, I took the opportunity to correct some of the vast oversights of her cultural education. (I'm nice that way.) (Also opinionated.) (BUT good at my job - after all, I also introduced her to the deep and abiding joy of the BBC / Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice last time she stayed with me. Also Project Runway. I think we can all agree those are valuable additions to anyone's cultural landscape.) Anyhoo, this time I sent her home having seen Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and having listened to David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. (The poor girl. Even I was nauseated by some of the food stuff happening in both Python and Sedaris, and she's a vegetarian.) 

My point here is that Sedaris is hilarious. He mines the fallow field of his relationship with his dad for material, as well as the joys of travel, home-owning, and talk radio. It's quite a lot of mining, all told, and he tells it brilliantly. There's a good deal of absurdity and middle-aged angst and ranting about people who rant about Obama, and it's basically Mel Crack, is what it is. With an overlay of nausea, because part of the humor is the going just too far when describing, for example, how he feels about Chinese food, or what kinds of refuse he finds along the roads near his rural English home. This collection didn't have anything as dangerous to my successful operation of heavy machinery as The Youth in Asia or Six to Eight Black Men, but still, we laughed and laughed.

It's great to read Sedaris, but orders of magnitude better for him to read to me. He's superb with his material. Perfect timing, and inflections that just make everything more pointed and intensely comic.