Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.

Reading For The Prose

I tend to be a fast reader, getting in the story but not always stopping for the writing. This year, however, I’ve determined to read more slowly and appreciate the craft. Two books, in particular, have helped me keep that resolution.

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is full of molten prose, thick and flowing across the page. A compelling story lives in the lava as well but I found myself rereading passages to appreciate how effortlessly Bronte made it seem. Here’s a quick example from the early pages when Lucy Snowe comes to the school where she will begin her career as a nanny:

After the “Priere du soir,” Madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories–which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells; for the premises were in parts of ancient date–and through the oratory–a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils–she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate, a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spiritous essence–a smell, in short, of whisky. (p. 56)

That “in short” appears other places in the novel, a momentary break to make sure the reader is clear on what she is trying to say. But it also serves as a marker for the reader that what has gone before deserves a review.

I am currently reading Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. It is a thick book, over 500 pages, but the prose just pulls you along. Spitz is a master of voice, weaving narrative with quotes in a way that makes it seem as though Julia herself is speaking. Not to mention the descriptions of food that have my mouth watering. Here’s just one example from a book where people and food just leap off every page. This is the moment when Julia meets French food in the form of fish:

She smelled it before she saw it. For an instant, there was sweetness of a kind she had never experienced before–butter perhaps, but more full-bodied, like a butter bomb, with a smoky, scorched tang. An instant later, the sea–probably a briny fish fume with a splash of white win. Wait! A faint lemony whiff drifting by…now gone. The ensemble of smeels was impossible to contain. Second later, a waiter set a large oval platter on the table, and all the aromas shot off like Chinese fireworks. But the scents refused to sync with the sight. The presentation was ridiculously simple: a fish on a plate, with a sprinkling of parsley. From the sides, tipped inward at an angle, a stream of molten gold pooled around the fish. Otherwise, there was nothing unusual about it , nothing to suggest the explosion of smells. She leaned over and inhaled with conviction. A delirious rush of pleasure filled her lungs. Wave upon wave: the aromas began to overlap and coalesce. The butter brought a richness to the fresh saltwater fish. By adding some wine to the sauce, the richness took on a honeyed brightness. Each ingredient influencing the aggregate…A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.

This was the Sole Meuniere–Sole of God–that was Julia’s first meal in France and propelled her into the icon she became. Like Bronte, Spitz has amazing control over language. This is the introduction to the chapter of coming to France and from these opening paragraphs, he moves us backwards to provide an overview to France after the war, the beginnings of the Child’s marriage and the move to France. Only after another 5 pages do we return to that famous lunch.

And, like Bronte, Spitz mediates the way his prose lays out on the page. From those long sentences describing the fish, he provides a door stop similar to Bronte’s “in short.” That sentence: “A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.”

I’ve been savoring Spitz’s book one chapter at a time, and when I finish, As Always, Julia, the book of letters between Julia and Avis DeVoto that covers her time in France and Germany as she works on what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.


Changing Perspectives: A Few of My Favorite Things

If, when I was living in my quiet suburban bungalow, you had asked me to name a few of my favorites things I would have mentioned my sets of family dishes. I am lucky to own my great grandmother’s Johnson Brothers china as well as my in laws’ Glidden pottery. Meals served on these dishes seem to take on a larger sense of family as we eat and remember the many other meals we have shared on them with family members long gone. They connect us to the past.

However, after moving to the farm, my list of favorite things has changed in a way that demonstrates how my perspective on much of life has changed. Oh, I still love my dishes and one of the draws of the farm house was its built in china cupboard where I am finally able to display them. But, as I immerse myself in the work of the farm, especially during this rainy winter, the top of the list is occupied by the practical objects that make my life easier, as in drier and cleaner. Number one on the list are my boots. They are Bogs–my second pair–and I wear them at least three times a day, every day for most of the year. They are easy to get on and off, easy to clean with the hose, and actually comfortable enough to walk the dogs. I can splash through standing water, sink into ankle deep mud, and walk over tree roots comfortably. And they have a fun pattern that livens up even the dreariest of mornings.

mytractorAs the polar vortex headed our way, we were also quite grateful for our little tractor. Even in the sub freezing temperatures, it started up with a roar and made it easy to haul bales of hay and buckets of water to the pigs. The truck would have sunk up to its rims in the mud. When the tractor did get stuck, I was able to jump out and give it a solid push to get it moving. I told my husband we need a name and he suggested Old Yeller. That was not a book I ever read, as I was avoiding the sad ending, so I’m still thinking about it. I considered Old Reliable but that’s a bit dull. Now I’m thinking about women’s names after reading one of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books. Her bicycle is named Gladys. Trudi the tractor? Maybe too cute?

Finally, I have a new found love for my espresso machine. A small Krups that I found at a thrift shop, it has been with me for many years, churning out my daily four-shot latte. When your fingers are a bit frozen and your nose is cold, hot espresso and steamed milk are a wonderful thing.

Dear NPR


I am writing this blog post in response to your request on Facebook:

If you’re a book lover, you probably have shelves upon shelves of literary treasures. We want to know for an upcoming story: How do you organize all these? Do you keep fiction and literature separate? Do you go alphabetical? Or do you sort by size and appearance? What has to be in hard copy and what only lives on your Kindle? Where do you hide those guilty pleasure reads?

First, the book lover part: My husband and I actually bought an old house partially because it had a library where I could finally put out the bulk of my books. Many years ago, I rented an apartment for the same reason, and in those days, the collection was probably not even 1/4 of what it is now. My previous house was very small, and I had to find interesting places to put all the books I couldn’t resist buying. It led to a funny story about hiding books in the linen closet. They weren’t particularly guilty reads, but I had made a pledge I wasn’t buying any more books so when I broke the pledge almost immediately, I needed to keep them out of my husband’s sight. He found them when he went looking for toilet paper.

Even in my new house, there are still a few books stored in the cupboards below the open shelves, and the collection has spilled over to other rooms. Almost every room in my house has at least a few books that live in it.

booksYou seem particularly interested in organization. I’m currently working on scanning my books into a database and have been thinking a lot about how I organize. For now, my books are loosely organized by genre. I have several major collections: children’s books, education, nature and history, and they are housed together in groups but not in any other order. I also have a huge collection of fiction and literature, but they are in no particular order and tend to be sprinkled throughout the shelves as I don’t have any more open areas so I just shelve them where I can. Probably my favorite shelving pair is the Kama Sutra sitting next to the Bible, something I didn’t plan but that a friend pointed out.

Some books were placed where they are because of the height of the shelves. The house came with books from the previous owner, a doctor whose children were not book people. He had a huge collection of dime store paperbacks that fit perfectly in the top shelves. They are put together by author since I had to move all of them and took the time to put them together as I placed them on the shelves.

At this point, with books spilling over everywhere, I try to limit my purchases in general. I buy first editions and hard covers in the  nature and history categories since they are my major areas of collecting. I will buy hard cover first editions of other kinds of books. I also buy analog books when I’m supporting independent book stores, part of something I call book store tourism. I make it a point to seek out local stores when I travel and usually have room for a couple in my suitcase. Kindle and Nook purchases and library checkouts are for books that I’m going to read quickly, in a day or two. But, I will break that rule if the books are used and cheap. I don’t mind reading ebooks, but there are times when I just crave a real book.

As for guilty pleasures, earlier this year I announced that I wasn’t going to feel guilty about reading anything ever again. I’ve read my share of the classics, tackled some tough nonfiction, so I don’t have to justify my reading habits to anyone. My books are on the shelves for me, and I’m old enough that I just don’t care about what other people think. If you’re ever near by Bottle Tree Farm, feel free to stop by and browse.

Books, books, books

I’ve been on a book buying binge lately: summer at the airports, September at the Outer Banks, culminating at the Cornwall Manor Fall Festival. Books have been arriving in the mail as well, and every time I open the Kindle app, I’m surprised to see the new digital books that are so easy to buy, spurred on by the numerous books-of-the-day emails I get. So, this week, after making yet another resolution to stop buying books but determined to finish up Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, I put in my request for Death of Kings to the library and managed to pick up two more books before heading to the check out.

And this is at a time when I seem to be reading less and less. My days are filled with farm chores and project work, and it’s only when I tumble into bed that I have a few minutes to pick up a book. I am jealous of Joe Queenan, author of One for the Books, who reads books two hours every day. His book, which I picked up this week after reading the first few pages some time ago (that little detail will be important in a moment), is filled with stories of books, places where books live, and people who love books. I love his acerbic style but also his ability to paint loving portraits of important people in his life.

Queenan has no time for electronic books as they get in the way of his annotation habit, and he doesn’t like library books for the same reason although he seems to spend a lot of time in libraries as they feed his love of browsing. Perhaps part of the reason I am really enjoying this book is that we have so much in common when it comes to books. I am never happier then when I am browsing in a book store or library, able to pick up a book, flip the pages, read a few lines, imagine myself buried with it in my chair, lost to the world beyond. Bookstores, according to Queenan, open us to the realm of chance that doesn’t happen when we head to Amazon to purchase a specific book. People who do that are missing something:

by refusing to patronize bookstores and libraries, by refusing to expose themselves to the music of chance, they have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives. They have rolled over and surrendered to the machines. This may be convenient, but that’s all it is. All technology is corporate (p. 27).

Queenan understands something that non-book people and those who continually declare the end of the book do not. Books are more than just a device for conveying words but objects that hold a certain power and, according to Queenan, are perfect the way they are:

Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books…are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affiar with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on (p. 27).

Also, like Queenan, I’ve begun reading several books at a time. Not the 30 or 40 that he might be in the midst of, but at current count, about eight or so, including Queenan’s books itself. I’m not sure how it happened. Partially because I started No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome about the Roosevelts during World War II. I find it fascinating but it’s a huge commitment, and I don’t want to give up other books until I finish it. I had actually read a few pages of Queenan’s book when I first brought it home, even posted a few sticky notes, but then moved on. Unlike Queenan, once I’ve left a book for more than a week or so, I don’t just pick up where I left off. My memory is not as robust as his, and I like the experience of reading a book from beginning to end in one more or less continuous chunk of time. So, as I was running out of the house to catch the ferry, I grabbed it, choosing partially by size as I wanted something I could tuck in my bag.

The only problem with Queenan’s book, of which I am not even half way done, is that I am feeling a bit inadequate, both in the number of books I read but also the titles. He has whole pages with titles of books, many of which I have never encountered. And lots of classics that I have never read despite my claim to being a lifelong English major. Spurred on my Queenan, I rose before dawn this morning and settled in with Kearns Goodwin for an hour before heading out for chores. It was a delight, a reminder of my childhood when I would set the alarm for 4:30 AM in order to get in reading time before school where I was forced to disconnect, not from my digital world like today’s student, but from my analog one. I may return to that practice and start my day with books.





Music in Prose

I’m almost finished with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, a story crafted in thick, rich prose with sentences that go on for miles. Music plays a central role in the book, and Chabon manages to make music with his writing, crafting fictional songs with language to the point where I actually went looking for the album he described. This passage is about a fictional musical interpretation of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

Cochise Jones always liked to play against your expectations of a song, to light the gloomy heart of a ballad with a Latin tempo and a sheen of vibrato, root out the hidden mournfulness, the ache of longing, in an up-tempo pop tune. Cochise’s six-minute outing on the opening track of Redbonin’ was a classic exercise in B-3 revisionism, turning a song inside out. It opened with big Gary King playing a fat, choogling bass line, sounding like the funky intro to some ghett0-themed sitcom of the seventies, and then Cochise Jones came in , the first four drawbars pulled all the way out, giving the Lloyd Webber melody a treatment that was not cheery so much as jittery, playing up the anxiety inherent in the song’s title, there being so many thousand possible ways to Love Him, so little time to choose among them. Cochise’s fingers skipped and darted as if the keys of the organ were the wicks of candles and he was trying to light all of them with a single match.  Then, as Idris Muhammad settled into a rolling burlesque-hall bump and grind, and King fell into step beside him, Cochise began his vandalism in earnest, snapping off bright bunches of the melody and scattering it in handfuls, packing it with extra notes in giddy runs. He was ruining the song, rifling it, mocking it with an antic edge of joy. (p. 279)

It goes on for another paragraph or two…amazing, intriguing, engaging. And the whole books is like that, whether describing the flight of a parrot over Oakland in a sentence that lasts for four or five pages, or the lives of his characters as they struggle to live authentic lives that seem out of step with the mainstream. Ultimately, the book is about race but it is about so much more.

There is plenty of real music in the book, though, and that you can find on the Internet as Forrest Wickman at Slate has thoughtfully put together a Spotify playlist.

Reading on the Road

I spent most of August on planes and in hotel rooms. Bad for the soul, really, but good for the reading. I wrote a long letter to a reading friend and here’s the section about books:

I finished off Maisie Dobbs and am working on Bernard Cornwell’s series on Alfred. I picked up a few books at the airport that were fun: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was an engrossing fantasy story with a sequel coming out in January. David Baldacci’s One Summer was a bit predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway. I’ve also been diving into some young adult fiction from Cory Doctorow who writes about ed tech topics. Little Brother and Homeland were really science fiction but dealt with contemporary issues of privacy and surveillance.

I also read Rhett Butler’s People, authorized by the Margaret Mitchell Foundation. It took me a bit to get into it as it was written in somewhat stilted prose but it turned into a good story, very sympathetic to Rhett. And it led to another book by Donald McCaig that is waiting on the Kindle: Jacob’s Ladder, considered one of the best fiction books about the Civil War and set in Virginia.

And more: Wallace  Stegner’s Angle of Repose, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and West of Here by Jonathan Evison. The last was sort-of-historical fiction set on the Olympic Peninsula. The story moved between past and present. It took me a few chapters to get into it, mostly because I was only able to find time to read a few pages here and there, but one I started in earnest, I found it hard to put down.

I’ve also been listening to a new mystery series set in London during WW II. The main character is an American, Maggie Hope, who ends up as Winston Churchill’s secretary. Lots of fun work with cryptography and cyphers that has led me to Alan Turing and more about Blechley Park.

Now, I’m recuperating with a few days at the beach, and I visited the Island Bookstore in Corolla, always a favorite. I have a bagful of books. I pulled out Beautiful Ruins and read it in two days. I loved the complexity of the characters but also the engaging prose.

One more link to a blog entry I wrote about unions on my professional blog.

OK, just one more link: here’s the full list for 2013. I’m up to 54 since the Daniel Pink anthology included five novels.

Book Buying

Reading books and owning books are two different things. I have resumed my love affair with the library when it comes to books I want to read. Generally, these are popular fiction or mysteries that I will read in a few days. They are all part of a series with, in some cases, eight installments. And they rarely come up in the bargain ebook bin. With five of them under my belt, I’ve probably saved $50!

Which I then invested in analog books. The library will never replace buying a book for me and it seems as though book shops have been throwing themselves in my path. I had to take an extra suitcase to San Antonio that would be essentially empty coming back but still have to be checked. What to do? Fill it with books!

I investigated independent bookstores in San Antonio and found The Twig Book Shop, but it was too far away with my limited schedule. One evening, however, I wandered through the Rivercenter Mall and came upon the Thai Princess Book Shop. It was an intriguing shop, small with extensive collections of a few popular authors and then an interesting smattering of other stuff including San Antonio authors. That’s mostly what I bought along with two of the Thai Princess’s books.

Yes, there is a Thai Princess and she’s been endorsed by Oprah! Her name is Nuensie Nancy Suku Oakley. Poor, abused, she fought hard to become a successful businesswoman. The proceeds from her books go to charity. I had the privilege of talking with her and she promised to come help me when I’m ready to open my own book shop.

Here’s the list of what I bought. I’ve already finished Simple Genius, the third book in David Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series. It was a well written version of a pretty formulaic genre. So much so, I borrowed the first book in the series from the library. Split Second was also good…a little creepier than Simple Genius but with similar dead ends, plots twists, and generally well-developed characters.

My folks invited me to spend a few days with them in their condo at Massanutten. It was a last minute trip…they didn’t expect to have a second bedroom. I accepted and had a lovely visit with them that included some Skyline Drive, an interesting lunch at the Thomas House restaurant in Dayton, and a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair. I resolved to only fill one basket and managed to do so quite nicely. I bought a couple cookbooks and six other books. Here’s the list, which includes books purchased when I was there in the spring. I picked up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter today and am finding it intriguing and a bit fun.

Speaking of book shops appearing out of nowhere, I don’t think I posted about the books I bought when I was visiting in Pennsylvania in early May? Turns out BJ’s Wholesale Club has a pretty good selection of recent titles. I walked away with a few books including Edward Rutherford’s new tome, Paris, which I started but then abandoned until I have a few days when I can immerse myself in the sprawling novel.

I did write about my visit to Blue Whale Books in Charlottesville.

It has been a good book shop year so far…not sure what I’ll find this summer. It’s going to be an airport summer, and I found some great books last summer in the airport book stores. I’ve already gotten started with Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I bought it in the Richmond airport and finished it during a recent trip. I did bring it home…any one want to borrow it? It’s a novel with a message about environmental stewardship woven into a complex tale of family and community.

I’ve been reading quite a bit, it seems, escaping the afternoon heat and incoming emails for an hour here and there. I’ll post a longer review of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which flowed richly from the page, a big story of the West that managed to also be an intimate portrait of a marriage.

I am going to start my career as a bookseller this summer. We’re going to have a table at the local farmers’ market, and I’m going to fill up my book spinner with a few paperbacks. I think I can part with a few things. I need shelf space for the new books I bought.

Guilty Pleasures: James Lee Burke

Creole Belle CoverI generally do not like violent mystery stories where psychopaths practice their evil and tormented detectives struggle to bring them down. But, I got hooked on James Lee Burke in my commuting days when Will Patton‘s gentle southern voice made the violence less stark and the introspection more riveting. Burke’s thick prose rolled from his tongue like molasses from a spoon, and there were moments at the end of a paragraph when I just had to hit pause and even rewind.

I don’t listen to audio books much anymore, and I managed to miss two additions to the Dave Robicheaux series: The Glass Rainbow and Creole Belle. My public library had both of them and I managed to breeze through them in just a couple days. Just in time for the latest book–Light of the World–that will be coming out in July.

Here’s just one example of his prose from Creole Belle:

The winter was not really winter at all, and therein may lie Key West’s greatest charm. If one does not have to brood upon the coming of winter and the shortening of the days and the fading of the light, then perhaps one does not have to brood upon the coming of death. When the season is gentle and untreatening and seems to renew itself daily, we come to believe that spring and the long days of summer may be eternal after all. When we see the light trapped high in the sky on a summer evening, is it possible we are looking through an aperture at our future rather than at a seasonal phenomenon? Is it possible that the big party is just beginning?

And I discovered that you can view all the Kindle highlights as well.*

Rich, luscious, sometimes over the top…but riveting and really just fun even in its violence and introspection.

And, I also noticed that it’s written in a mix of first and third person although we understand that Dave is telling us the story. But sometimes he is getting us caught up on what other characters were doing and tells that in the third person. It helps relieve some of the stream of consciousness that happens with all first person books. Sometimes, I just need a break from the thoughts of one character.

Here’s my biggest question: just how old is Dave Robicheaux? He made a comment in one of the books I just read that he was entering his 8th decade. Really? According to wiki answers, he is 72. Seems a bit improbable. And Clete Purcel, his buddy, is always on the edge of dying but somehow continues to survive.

Now that I’ve gotten caught up with Burke, I’m moving on to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles series and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I’ve checked them out from my local library who has an amazing interlibrary loan system. If they don’t have it, I get it within 24 hours. I’ve saved almost $50 in the past week! It’s meant a few trips to the library, but it’s only a few minutes away and I get to know more people each time I make the trip.

*One downside of library books: I had dog-eared a few pages with juicy quotes to share (I know, I know, I’m a criminal) but I would have had to type the quotes from the book and I wanted to get to the library before the worst of the storm hit. Maybe there’s an app for that.


The Potential Problem with First Person

I seem have to stumbled into a mystery series cycle lately. I read the first two books in the Josiah Reynolds series, set in Lexington, Kentucky. The main character is a middle age beekeeper whose sleuthing begins after a body is found in her beehive. I also read the first book in the Jesse Watson series, set in Stanardsville, Virginia. Jesse is a single 30-something who moves to the mountains with her parents and takes up work with a private investigator.

Both are written in the first person so we hear both the thoughts and the voices of the women. In both cases, we learn a lot about the women, including their past and their relationships with the other characters as both of them are part of ensembles. While the mysteries form the centerpieces of the stories, they are enhanced by these other relationships.

Neither character is all that happy: Josiah’s late husband had had an affair with a younger woman before he died, and she struggles with finances as she tries to keep up her house and farm. Jesse ends up in the mountains because there seems nothing to tie her down in Newport News. No boyfriend and no real work prospects.

Jesse is a bit more dramatic and immature than Josiah that makes her seem younger than 31. She sometimes seems like a middle schooler mooning over boys. But Josiah is also somewhat abrupt and often rude even with those who are her close friends. She only seems happy with her bees.

And, there’s my problem…I just don’t really like these characters. I don’t care which main Jesse ends up with but am mostly just bored with the obsession. And while I identify with Josiah a bit better, I still find myself feeling frustrated with her stubbornness. I’m wondering if this feeling comes from the use of first person…just too much of their presence as part of the mystery and their personal problems since the stories themselves were interesting and kept my attention. In the case of Josiah Reynolds, I immediately bought and read the second book since the first ends with a real cliff hanger that I didn’t see coming.

Meanwhile, I am almost done with Book Eight of the Maisie Dobbs’ series by Jacqueline Winspear and may read the rest of them in a Maisie binge since my library has all of them. The series has some similarities with the other two: a female detective, a small entourage, mystery interwoven with personal. Granted, it has the added interest of being set in England in between the wars so there is an historical aspect that appeals to me. And the main character is much more reflective and serious than the other two. Not much screaming or crying going on.

It also uses third person narration: we are told the story by a narrator rather than hearing from Maisie herself. While the omniscient narrator lets us into her thoughts and we mostly see the world from her perspective, we aren’t hearing her stream of consciousness the way we are with the other two.

Finally, it may just be writing style that influences my opinion here*. There is an elegance to Winspear’s prose that seems to match the elegance of the main character and the world in which she lives. The third person narration helps to add to that elegance. The other two books are less precisely crafted. And, their style matches that of their characters, seemingly always just on the edge of losing control of themselves, their lives and, in the case of the authors, their stories.

*I realize the next mystery on my list dispels this theory. I love Dave Robicheaux  and just dive into the thick language of James Lee Burke with all its slow southern description. And, it’s written in first person.