Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Lesson in Secrets” Keeps Many


When I discovered that Jacqueline Winspear had a new Maisie Dobbs novel out, I decided I would buy it immediately, and then read it immediately. I got it the same day it came out and finished it by the weekend. “A Lesson in Secrets” finds Maisie as a professor in Cambridge. However, it isn’t Cambridge University, rather a small start up school founded on private donations and dedicated to promoting peace rather than war. Maisie is asked by the police and Secret Service to go undercover at this school in order to find out more about the school’s founder. He is under suspicion for causing dissension among British soldiers, based on a children’s book that he wrote. As usual, Maisie is wholly dedicated to completing her assignment, along with helping Billy Beale, her assistant, and his family find a new home; rescue a bereaved and vengeful widow; and unsuccessfully trying to ignore her love life. And, also per usual, she succeeds at all her endeavors.

Perhaps it is the breadth of problems Miss Dobbs faces that makes the novel lose focus. Or perhaps it is my own bias towards academia that disappointed me when virtually no mention was made of Maisie as a professor of philosophy. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The writing and story seemed more rushed. Typically, Winspear’s novels have three parts to it: the job, the family/friends, the personal. This one blurred lines, and had tangents that were sent off into the dark. For example, the young widow who’s husband was mysteriously killed. Sure, she saw something of her own past in this woman, but hardly any attention was given to her and the woman’s difficulties were often a complication of the plot, rather than a fully formed subplot. I think it would have been better just to leave it out altogether. Also, the help she gave to Billy and his family was a kind gesture, but just another thing she had to worry about. I don’t mind subplots, I just like them a little more well-done.

When I read that Maisie was going to go undercover as a philosophy professor I was even more excited than I would be about a new Maisie book. I imagined re-learning philosophy from the perspective of this admiral character and author. I thought I would be re-introduced to a philosophy I hadn’t given much thought to prior to reading her perspective. I see now that I put my expectations WAY too high. The only mention of the class was when Maisie was walking out it, into it, thinking about it, late to it, or just simply missing it. Then I thought that however high my expectations, that I deserved a little bit of philosophy and therefore became disappointed rather that disillusioned (that feeling could be represented in the relationship between projectile vomiting and feeling vaguely nauseated).

I don’t wish to say that I actively disliked it, I only say that it wasn’t one of my favorites. This is her eighth book and you can’t have a winner every time. I would say that “An Incomplete Revenge” (#5) was not the best, nor was “Among the Mad” (#6). Though, I do think that “Birds of a Feather” (#2) was her most powerful, and “The Messenger of Truth” (#5) was solid. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death” (#7) was excellent for many reasons that I can’t share without giving things away.

If you are a fan of the series, go ahead and read it. Sometimes you have to stick with authors through the good and the bad.

A Very Long and Unplanned Hiatus

Well, I’m back. And I’m no longer at the bookstore, so expect to see more pictures (couldn’t do it at work, took up too much time, and I couldn’t save the photos to the computer), and perhaps something more than just book reviews. In time, I may change the name of the blog. But I’ll keep it for now.

Instead of trying to catch up on all the things I’ve been reading since I last posted, I’ll just start with something I’ve read recently.

The first is Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez. To be honest, I read this because I am anticipating her new book, Sempre Susan which will be coming out in April. It deals with her time working for Susan Sontag and living with/dating Sontag’s son David. But I had seen this one at work a few months ago and decided to give it a try. The main character, Cole, is recounting his very short life thus far. He’s only thirteen but both his parents have died, he’s lived in an orphanage, and has been taken in by a pastor and his wife, in Salvation City. Though Cole’s parents weren’t the only ones to die. A flu pandemic has swept through most of the United States, killing millions of people. Some, like Cole, survive but with only bits of their memory intact. Though, the ones we are to pity are the ones left behind, in constant anxiety about whether they will catch it, and the confusion of how to go on living without the loved ones they have lost.

As Cole has been taken in by a pastor and his wife, the issue of faith is discussed quite a lot. Pastor Wyatt, or PW as he affectionately likes to be called, and his wife are fundamentalist Christians who believe that the panflu is a sign of the End of Days. In their small town, ninety-five percent of the inhabitants believe the same. Many of them have had visions of Jesus Christ and have faith that they will be saved. Cole remembers his parents and realizes that they did not have faith. Not just in religion, they were atheist, but also in the government and each other.

Before the flu became a pandemic, Cole’s parents were separating. From the mind of a twelve year-old, nothing seems important enough to make your parents separate. And because we don’t know what is going on in their heads, we can only assume that they have no more faith in their marriage.

As the flu spread and people began dying more rapidly, Cole’s parents were not ready. It became increasingly hazardous for people to go outside and thus had no access to food, water, or medical supplies. And, when it came to that point, they were practically starving, and Cole’s father was infected. Soon after his father dies, Cole and his mother become sick. Cole survives, his mother does not. He is sent, along with thousands of other children who have lost their parents, into an orphanage that resemble those in Dickensian London.

This part of Cole’s life is told in retrospect as he tries to fit in to his new life in Salvation City. He is homeschooled by PW’s eager to please wife Tracy, and attends bible school with an ex-drug addict Mason, while trying to suppress his love for the coveted Starlyn. Mostly, he tries to make PW happy, seeing in him the devoted father he lost so early. But Cole’s young heart is broken when Mason and Starlyn run off together, and oddly no one criticizes them after they’ve left, except Cole of course.

Ultimately, Nunez gives a sharp critique of contemporary society, reflections on our postmodern apathy, and taking a closer look at the role of faith and those within whom it is unshakable.

——
As I said, I’m not working at the bookstore anymore, and so I’ve been trying to do some freelance writing, which is not working out. And I decided, late, late last night, that I’m trying to imitate the writing in the New York Times. Then I came to a subsequent realization: a lot of their writing relies on puns and re-using cliche’s with different words substituted for what you would expect. For example, “The real estate magnate and art collector Aby Rosen, one of the owners of Lever House, was in his element (and a pair of jeans),…” (via). Granted, I have been reading a lot of the styles section, and really that is more about who/what is being described rather than how. And so, as I was writing/reading/editing the post above, I thought that the next one I write will be far less explanatory and review-y, and much more writerly. We will see how it goes.

Various articles and opinions

I have never known why time travel has held such an interest for me. I must have watched the Back to the Future trilogy over a hundred times. There was a time when I boasted that I could recite the movie by heart, and could answer any trivia about said trilogy. So I ran across this today: Charles Yu’s picks for the best time travel books, via the lovely Guardian. They are definitely worth a look.

Also, found on The Rumpus, is this article at the Telegraph about how to download e-books absolutely free. I think I talked about this in an earlier post. Back then, I cared about this job and it’s longevity, because it was in my self-interest to do so. Now, well. Let’s just say I have a more balanced view of e-books.

While I would never trade my physical books for e-books, an e-reader has an attractive and consolidated quality. Whenever I think of moving all my books, yet again, I suddenly get a desire to take a nap. I would do both, probably, if I had enough money for an iPad, which I don’t.

The main point that my bosses use in arguments against e-books, because they fancy themselves liberal and Marxist, is that e-readers are an example of conspicuous consumption, and that they alienate poor people making reading inaccessible to them. Anyone can buy a fourteen dollar paperback to. It’s literacy! It’s imaginative escape! It’s making you a citizen of the world! You could go to college! Oh wait, if your choices are between college and books, and you’re picking up the latest James Patterson instead, then your priorities are way off, mate.

Anyway, so let’s say you have access to these books, paperback, fifteen bucks for a trade size. The cheapest e-reader (and they’re going to get cheaper) is $150. That’s equivalent to 10 trade size paperback books. Now, if books are as easy to get as Adrian Hon says, then you pay $150 once and get thousands and thousands of books for free. Now, which is option is going to make you more literate?

I do realize that this argument leaves out some major points: like how are authors are supposed to make a living if their books are being distributed free on the interwebs; like how not shopping at your local independent business is bad for your economy; and how transferring every printed word into a data file lends itself to an inevitable apocalypse of Skynet proportions.

I do think that some authors may WAY too much money to begin with and could do with a little less. I also think that you can shop locally and online, you just don’t need to confess it to you local bookseller every time you log on to Amazon in an apologetic email. However, I do think we should watch the Terminator movies more carefully and learn something. James Cameron may be the prophet we didn’t know we had.

Booker Prize Winner 2010

I was really looking for a reason to read Tom McCarthy’s C, I know I shouldn’t need a reason, but I thought it would give me a really good reason to. Unfortunately, the Booker judges did not heed my letters, phone calls, and emails, and chose Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. This was really the only one I didn’t want to read. I can’t say that it’s undeserving, because I haven’t read it.

In other news, look for an upcoming writing experiment on comparing Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna to President Obama, socialism, and Tea Party rhetoric. It’s time to get serious here.

Also, in case you haven’t got to it yet, a new issue of Bookslut is up. I always try to take a late night to scoop it all in.

Also, halfway through Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I know I’m a little late to the train on that one. But it’s a long train and makes frequent stops. The paperback isn’t coming out until January of 2011, so I figured I’d try it. It definitely has an interesting subject: black maids in 1950′s Mississippi get together with a white woman to tell stories about how they are mistreated. The big political issue of the book  ist that a young white woman wants to install all white homes with “negro” bathrooms. The voices are varied, maybe a little stereotypical, but not unlikable.  The writing is mediocre, but the story is powerful enough that one overlooks it. Full review is forthcoming.

Also in the middle of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (she just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, how wonderful) and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, published by the beautiful people at Melville House. Check out their blog MobyLives, if you haven’t yet. They always have thoughtful and in-depth opinions about the publishing industry, the business of selling books, and the ever-constant, ever-annoying debate on e-books.

A couple of quick and odd stories

A customer calls, and I know who it was because of caller ID, and describes a card that he purchased here, in detail, and then asks me the most insane yet normal question. He says, “Inside the card is a little vellum sheet, should I write on that or on the cardstock?” At first, I want to say, “Is this the kind of thing you really can’t decide for yourself? It’s your card, write on it however you want! Crazy person!” Instead, I say, “Well sir, is the vellum sheet attached to the card?”. He responds that it is. So I tell him he should probably write on that. He says he’s glad he now knows how to “do it properly”. We hung up and I shook my head.

Another customer calls (on a different day) and asks me if we carry a monthly magazine that is all about small, die-cast collectible cars. First of all, weird. Second of all, how likely is it that a small bookstore would have something so specialized? Not very, not very. When I tell him that we don’t carry it, he asks me if I know anyone who does. I tell him no. Then, he asks me if I knew anyone who would know. I tell him that the larger bookstores might have some info. He doesn’t like that answer. So he asks me if there are any magazine stands around, referencing one about 30 miles away that has closed. I said I didn’t know of any others. He then tells me that’s disappointing, but it’s not clear if he means my lack of knowledge or that there aren’t any magazine/newsstands around. And what the hell kind of magazine stand propreitor would call a die-cast car magazine news??!!

I understand, to an extent, that bookstore employees may  have more general knowledge than someone say, in a clothing shop. But these requests are just odd. The first customer, wow. Just figure that one out on your own, buddy. The second, there’s this little invention, may or may not of heard of it, it’s the internet??? Yeah, probably find at least a phone number or something.

Other than that, here’s a quote from John Mortimer that I liked. It made me think about the advent of e-books and the difference between the written word and a data file.

‘Words are seen as unexploded mines, lying on deserted beaches,’ he wrote in a foreword to
Books in the Dock by C.H. Rolph, ‘which may be gingerly approached in the course of morning walks, cautiously examined, perhaps prodded with a stick; but ever likely to blow up in the faces of passers-by, destroying private property and changing the face of the landscape for generations to come.’

Though, I would like to see a Kindle blown up. What a great commercial for Apple. They could even use that lame sing-songy music in the background, and the stop-motion animation with a fuse being lit as the camera follows it up to the Kindle, blowing it up, and then it cuts to the Apple logo. Genius. Don’t steal it.

It’s been awhile… I know.

Life gets in the way of blogging, which I suppose is a good thing. So as not to get worn out on the first post after my unannounced break, here are some links.

At bookslut.com, for their 1ooth issue, Michael Filgate interviews Lee Rourke about his new(ish) novel The Canal, along with his thoughts about the role of boredom in modern life, and Rourke reveals a quite impressive knowledge of Greek mythology. (Of course, you should read the rest of the September issue, it always has books I’ve never heard of and really want to read.)

Also, yesterday, the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced. I was very disappointed not to see A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell on the list. I finished it last month and was completely enveloped by his writing, his plotting, everything.  It also happens to be the only one I read on the longlist, so perhaps my bias is showing there. The list is:

C by Tom McCarthy

Room by Emma Donoghue

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Two of these, The Finkler Question and In a Strange Room are not yet available in the States. I already plan on reading C, having loved Remainder about 3 years ago.  I will probably read Room and The Long Song, but for some reason Parrot and Olivier does not appeal to me. I am sad that Skippy Dies did not make the list, I really wanted a good reason to read that one.

Also, ran across this short piece via my googlereader from the Telegraph, about Sir Tom Stoppard’s death wish, which would actually be quite painful, but very poetic.

Lastly, I am very intrigued over the ire sent toward Jonathan Franzen by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, because of the glowing reviews of his new book.  She said that it’s easy to get a rave review in the NYT if you are  a “white, male, literary darling”, and argues that commercial fiction (like what she and Weiner write) should get more critical attention. In the HuffPo, she was asked why, she said,

Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

This is interesting. The authors she cites are considered writers of the “classics”, they were commercial writers at the time, because they wrote to make money, commerce=money for goods, but their books have lasted because they have universal themes that are still applicable today. Now, I’m sure that there are thousands of writers that wrote at the same time as Dickens and Austen that we have no clue about (see any Literature Doctoral dissertation title), but I doubt there was a distinction, as there is now, between commercial and literary. The thing is, Weiner, Picoult, and Franzen are making money, and a lot of it. Since Austen and Dickens were clearly writing to make money, as these three are, so they are all working in the tradition of Austen and Dickens. They want their books to make money and last forever.

I don’t want to outright criticize Picoult and Weiner, because I haven’t read their books. But I will say this: New York and it’s book reviewers and publishers live in a tiny world where they think they decide what the country will read and not read. Whether or not the actually do is up for debate, but its the game that must be played. If you want critical reviews, you have to write something that is able to be reviewed critically. You can’t rely on a formula to make you a crap-ton of money and then wonder why no one discusses the individual merit of your book. In the glut of books published every year, books are singled out by reviewers because they stand out from the rest. If your books follow the same basic format, you are not only lost in the lard pool of other formula writers, but also your work in no way stands out from the other books you have written. Just saying.

I would say look for upcoming reviews on David Mitchell’s newest, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest in paperback, and Jonathan Franzen’s very much praised Freedom but that might be a lie. Might be.

Some upcoming releases

In lieu of a review, because I haven’t finished anything recently. I’ll give you a preview of some of the good stuff coming out on Tuesday, 6 July.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome in paperback. Compared to his other behemoth The Stand, Under the Dome explores what happens to a small town in (you guessed it) Maine, when an impenetrable dome descends on the town. All the town’s secrets come seeping out, with no where to go.

Also by King, a 1oth anniversary re-release of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in trade paperback, with a much classier cover and a classier size.

Also in paperback (I think it took two years), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This one I read, and it was amazing. It’s a young adult novel with adult reader appeal. It takes place in the near future, the United States has been divided up into 12 districts. Every year, two people, one boy and one girl, are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games and compete for money and prestige for their district. They compete in a televised and controlled arena, and it’s a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen is chosen and she competes better than expected, despite her district’s lack of resources and poverty. Her character is very engaging and strong willed. It moves quickly and keeps the action up until the end. This is the first in the Hunger Games trilogy.

 I haven’t read The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn, though it is in my to-be-read pile. I read her earlier book, What Was Lost which was about a young girl, who had designs on becoming a detective, and when one “case” went very badly and she disappeared. She was never found. Thirty years later, a young woman working in a record shop sees something she thinks is a small girl on the security camera and she discovers a girl was lost at the mall, thirty years ago. It’s not really a ghost story, though the young girl’s “presence” is never really explained. More than this, though, What Was Lost is a meditation on the expansion of massive sprawling malls in the suburbs and how they have replaced small businesses. What her new one is about, I have no idea, but she’s an excellent writer.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

Little Bee and Other Thoughts

Some things I’ve discovered:

a. I subscribe to a lot of book review blogs via googlereader, and the ones that go on and on (rather like some of mine), I kinda skip over most of what they say. Unless it’s a book I’m really interested in reading, I just scroll through. So because of this realization, my posts will be a little shorter, more focused, and less rambling.

b. I like links, so expect to see more links. I look to link, if liking linking move…

c. I’ll be posting more often.

So let’s begin.

First, a piece of Wordsworth’s Prelude found in the marginalia of Virginia Woolf’s letters (via Fernham)

“The matter that detains us now may seem, 
To many, neither dignified enough
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them,
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties
That bind the perishable hours of life
Each to the other, & curious props
By which the World of memory & thought
Exists and is sustained. “
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65

It would seem that this is something in the way of what Woolf was thinking when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. It is amazing the way that we look at the hours of our days, how they string together, unending, and sometimes we think we cannot face them.  And it suggests, along with Mrs. Dalloway, that all we have are our undignified moments, thoughts and memories to bind us to the outside. That we cannot always be forthright and meaningful in our actions and thoughts is not only something to accept, but something to embrace.

Also, I know I’m behind the ball on this, but Jose Saramago died last week. I think Blindness was one of THE best books I’ve ever read. So good, in fact, that I didn’t want to read Seeing because I loved the pessimism of the first. The excerpt from the interview at Second Pass really illuminates why. Read it here.

And, finally, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read this book in two sittings of about an two hours a piece, because I absolutely loved it. It moved very quickly, the pacing and the plotting, even though it switched perspectives. It is the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has escaped to London and arrived at a woman’s door on the day of that woman’s husband’s funeral. The three of them had meet a year or so earlier on a Nigerian beach and something that happened there changed their lives forever. So you gotta know, what happened? Well, you get Bee’s perspective and Sarah’s. And don’t worry, Cleave won’t let you down. In the meantime, or real time, Sarah and her adorable son, who will only answer to Batman, are dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Sarah’s lover shows up and doesn’t take to Bee at all, but Sarah feels it is her duty to help Bee become a legal citizen of the UK.

In addition to the plot, the characters are so wonderful. They are flawed, yet they care. They are complex and thoughtful, they make mistakes. Except for Batman. He only sees “goodies” and “baddies”, though sometimes he isn’t sure which is which. In a grey world, he reminded me of that childlike simplicity of needing to know whether someone was going to help you or hurt you. The effect was sometimes humorous, and sometimes sad.

Other than that, I can’t tell you much about it. There are a lot of surprises and I don’t want to ruin it. You should read it. Go and do it. Now.

Some Old News

In lieu of a review or rant, here are some links that I’ve found particularly interesting in the last few days. Look forward to reviews on Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, and perhaps, if you’re lucky Columbine by Dave Cullen.

First, Book Shelf Porn. I have a lot of books and I like to arrange them in interesting ways. But these are just incredible. Some of the pictures are personal collections, others are large libraries that make you wish you were a librarian.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna just won the UK’s Orange Prize, beating out Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winner Wolf Hall and the much-praised The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Read about a first-hand experience at the awards ceremony here (via dovegreyreaderscribbles.typepad.com)

I also enjoyed reading this essay about World War I poetry at The Millions. I don’t think I’ve seen such a extensive treatment of the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon outside of academia. It made me think a lot about the way we study literature and how we often take it completely out of its humane and historical context.

As always, the wonderful clan over at biblioklept put me on to a new Jeffrey Eugenides short story in the New Yorker. You should really read it, especially if you’ve ever endured a literary theory course. Also, the book referenced in it, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is real and just as brilliant as it sounds.

I do love literary feuds, and the idea that so many of them were borne out of being drunk while writing a review. I wish I was erudite and aware enough to write a review while drunk. Anyway, read about Philip Kerr and Allan Massie at The Telegraph.

Last, a Virginia Woolf essay contest (via bloggingwoolf@wordpress.com) If I ever thought I had anything to contribute to the wonderful canon of Woolf-ania, I would do it through this contest.

Do enjoy.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I honestly cannot tell you why it took me so long to get to this book. I saw it over a year ago, in hardcover and for some reason, never bought it, even though I always wanted to. I think I thought it would disappoint me.  I often dislike novels based on real people, not because I think people shouldn’t speculate on the hidden lives of celebrities, but for a very stylistic reason. The authors repeat the characters’ names too often. As in, “Vanessa said to Virginia, ‘Virginia, my name is Vanessa and I am the sister of Virginia, but you already knew that didn’t you, Virginia?’ ‘What, Vanessa?”, asked Virgina. “That my name is Vanessa.’ “, and so on.  It drives me crazy, it’s as if the author needs to draw more attention to the fact that he/she is writing about a famous person.

This book, however, had none of that. It was perfectly balanced.

More than what this book is about, what happens, the chronology of events, etc., is the feelings and thoughts it inspired in me. It made me reconsider many of my previous opinions and thoughts about Woolf and Bell and brought them into focus as people rather that abstract subjects to study.

This book is Vanessa’s life. It is from her perspective and moves almost like a infrequently-written journal, flitting between place and time without any reference to the fact that time has passed or the location has moved. I did wonder, while reading, whether I understood it because I’m fairly familiar with the events of Virginia Woolf’s life. Either way, it was almost ethereal the way it moved and flowed effortlessly. 

It takes us through the beginnings of Vanessa and Virginia’s life, in the Stephen home and makes reference to all the major events in Virginia’s life, but through the eyes of Vanessa’s. So much attention has been given to Woolf (rightfully so), but Vanessa is so often overlooked. I think that we are too keen to use personal tragedy as the precursor to artistic output, especially in writing. Since Vanessa was not a writer, her tragedies are felt more on a personal level, rather than fiction fodder.

The book also investigates, but does not dwell on, Vanessa’s various extra-marital affairs, and the heartbreak it caused her. Sellers also spends a good bit of time on Vanessa’s artistic process and her feelings as she attempts to compete with her sister’s growing popularity. Even as jealousy and competition mount, the two sisters are ever connected and hold each other up almost without fail.

There is a small surprise at the end, which I won’t give away, because I think it is wonderfully done, and it should be appreciated without bias. It suggests how close the two sisters actually were and solidified in my mind that the ones to mourn after a death are the ones left behind.

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