Thursday, November 13, 2014

Executing History Perfectly- Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her "Burial Rites"

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Today, Iceland is a prime example of a country absolutely thriving in the modern, changing world.  It is at the top of the game in education, technology, human rights, and regularly tops the stats lists for one of the best and safest places to live in the world.  Yet, 200 years ago, Iceland was a desolate, harsh country, mostly empty space, with a smattering of extremely close-knit, interwoven communities, which feared strangers and change.  This setting, chilly in both the physical landscape and the social one, is where author Hannah Kent sets her novel, Burial Rites.  Burial Rites focuses on the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, in 1830.  A brilliant combination of historical fact and fiction, Burial Rites is a lyrical, somber, yet beautiful novel about love, betrayal, and the ability to overcome first judgments.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two others are accused of the brutal murder of their employer.  Two of the three are condemned to die.   Kent explores what could have happened; the event itself and Agnes are both hard to pinpoint down in the historical record.  Agnes is known only from the court and execution records.  However, it is a fact that, while awaiting Copenhagen's final decision on her fate, Agnes is sent to work for the family of a local district officer; the real family is portrayed in the novel.  It is this aspect of the ordeal that Kent makes her story.  Agnes's initial arrival is met with almost open hostility and distrust; after all, she is a convicted murderess.  Also thrust into the spotlight is a hesitant, uncertain pastor (also based on a real person), who has been instructed to counsel Agnes in her remaining days and to help her seek penance for her crime.  All persons who encounter Agnes are unhappy to be doing so; they are fearful of her, fearful of her crime, although they were also fearful of the man she killed.  Through the everyday interactions and work performed, both the depth and complexity of Agnes is revealed, leaving the family burdened with her questioning her, themselves, and their overall faith in God and in Iceland.

Agnes tells her story to the pastor, making Burial Rites literally a story within a story... and surprisingly, this works.  Agnes's storytelling gives character and emotion to the novel; the story of day to day life with the family sets up an excellent illustration of the setting and the way of life back then.  Agnes's personal history is largely fictional; however, it is convincing.  Kent does a wonderful job of portraying the stark poverty of the lower classes of Iceland and how their lives are completely in the hands of the upper class, resulting in a tumultuous lifestyle of near-slavery, constant movement between employers, and never-ending poverty and misery, especially for women.  Put this situation in a setting of frigid winters, nearly uninhabitable landscapes, and suspicious and intolerant townspeople, and the reader can see that there was no hope for Agnes from the beginning.  Nevertheless, the reader also sees that Agnes is highly intelligent, introspective, and serious.  She does not take her emotions lightly, thus ending up in the volatile situations that leads her to kill. Her story is heartbreaking, yet there is a certain amount of strength that is the undercurrent for her tale.  She never gives up, never doubts herself.  This strength lends itself to a beautiful character, albeit a murderess.  As a person, Agnes herself is what creates the crux of the story: can someone convicted of a murder be a good person?  Can morals and laws be ambiguous to the point where the convicted is the victim?
Author Hannah Kent, courtesy of

Agnes's passion and recklessness play a perfect parallel to the other main character,  Iceland.  The weather, the rugged landscape, and the unforgiving nature of rural living in Iceland all contribute to the demeanor of the people who live there.   Kent, despite being an Australian, paints a haunting portrait of a country and its people at odds with itself and with a changing world.  The reader can see how year after year of rough and hard living and coexistence with one of the world's most extreme climates has turned the Icelanders into hardy, cold, sensible, yet highly superstitious people.  Agnes's character, which is different from their own, causes whispers of witchcraft and sorcery.  This is almost in complete contrast to the way they view their lifestyle, which is logically and realistically.  The beauty of Iceland lies within its mountains, its proximity to the ocean, its streams, and the summer vegetation. The book is worth reading solely for the representation of Iceland, a country that is not usually featured in novels.  However, the reader will get a succinct and memorable setting from Kent, who does not shy away from lengthy setting descriptions or from just pulling the reader away from the story for a bit to enjoy the country side.

This is not a mystery.  There is a crime, yes, but there is no solving the problem.  We know from the outset that Agnes is executed; it is a historical fact.  However, Burial Rites is more than worth reading.  It is worth several reads.  One will simply not be able to forget the daunting facets of living in Iceland; Kent makes their lives not romantic, but seeming trials of tenacity.  Burial Rites will leave you questioning.  Questioning morals, law, punishment, and just what exactly is a crime.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do Not Be "Fool"ed by Shakespeare

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Oh, the classics. We read them because they were perhaps revolutionary for the time period, thus we are enlightened by the antiquity yet still taught by the applicable lessons in them. Or we read them because our mean high school teachers forced us to. One of those commonly required authors is William Shakespeare; he wrote seemingly endless amounts of fodder for future English classes. Yet, one man saw greatness in a particular Shakespeare play. He saw the potential for humor, gore, smack talk, smut, and an endless amount of sarcasm in King Lear... he saw his eleventh literary creation, Fool.

Fool is the story of Pocket, King Lear's court jester. Pocket is a witty, highly intelligent, manipulating, kind, crude, sweet man, who is subtly the voice of reason in Lear's crumbling kingdom and family. Fool follows the original King Lear story line... and that's about it. The characters are much more richly detailed, their interactions more complex, emotional, and conniving. Pocket is stuck in the middle as Lear divides his kingdom and falls into a pit of self-pity. Pocket decides that it is up to him to solve the crisis and the reader will see how King Lear's plot ACTUALLY moved along.

Christopher Moore is no stranger to humor, crudity, and controversy. His earlier books revolve around a strange, fictitious community with a penchant for attracting wackos, people on the run, supernatural forces, and plain tomfoolery. In 2002, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal was published and tongues started wagging about Moore's writing; reviews ranged from scandalized to adored. (It is a great book; however, if you are delicate, it might not be the book for you!) Moore forged ahead, cranking out books with his ideas ranging from vampires to his favorite fiction community to death hounds. In 2009, Fool arrived on the scene. During this time, readers had seen a deluge of "retold classics"; no one could escape Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yet, Fool is not a retold classic. It is the classic story told from a different perspective, the one of the jester, who, in most stories from the time period, is just a background character. There is none of the flowery, aged language that we suffered through with Shakespeare; Moore uses modern language for his dialogue only slightly peppered with old English (mostly for sarcasm's sake), which adds a very entertaining twist for the time period. Like Shakespeare, Moore doesn't waste time with lengthy descriptions of settings or background stories. He too jumps straight into the fray that is King Lear's family and kingdom. Moore has an distinct writing style; he combines wit, humor, and stark detail, with twisted, complicated story lines that leave the reader fully immersed in the story and in the characters' lives. His characters and their escapades are memorable; you cannot help but laugh at their shenanigans and chaos. However, Moore also weaves sorrow, anger, and a sense of moral dilemma in each novel; thus, while humorous, each will leave the reader thinking about the story, the outcomes, and the characters long after they have finished the book.

There is a certain amount of crude language and adult scenes in the novel. However, there is a purpose with every adult scene (or mention of women with "a generous spirit in the dark"); marriage, sex, and relationships all play a huge part in the decisive actions in King Lear, thus they play the same role in Fool, only with copious amounts of humor and cheek involved. There is nothing horribly graphic; however, like with Lamb, Fool has raised several eyebrows with the unchecked language and the compromising situations that several characters find themselves in.

Moore has not written anything outlandishly obscene or awful. He is merely joining a growing crowd
Author Christopher Moore,
courtesy of
of authors, like Carl Hiassen, Robert Olen Butler, David Sedaris, and many others, who write without pretension and without the fear of offending others. They write real life-like interactions, situations, and scenes; life is chaotic, funny, and awkward. Critics have chastised Moore for his destruction of a classic. Others, however, have praised Moore for resurrecting a play that almost no one reads for joy. He adapted a story that has solid morals, lessons, and emotions (King Lear is one of the most emotionally turbulent Shakespeare plays) and made it readable for the current generations. Fool is a wonderfully written, thoroughly enjoyable book. It does not subtract from the original; in fact, to readers who enjoyed King Lear, Fool almost enhances the story line, giving life, breathe, and personality to characters whose surroundings, etiquette, and beliefs are out of date and hard to relate to. Critics must remember that Shakespeare's play were not famous because of flowery language, hidden literary tools, and deeply convoluted literary meanings and metaphors (if I had a dollar for every time a teacher said, "But what does it mean?!"...); Shakespeare's writings were famous because it captured the human condition and the characters had emotions that we all feel and that we all hide. His characters range from being saviors of their peers to cold-blooded, ambitious murderers. He became famous for exploring the human emotion in play, which had not been done before. Fool does the same thing. We see the characters at their worst and at their best and it makes us wonder how we would react in similar situations. Shakespeare and Moore, centuries apart, both capture the human spirit: all the filth, the crudeness, the hilarity, and the beauty that life comes with in their works.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Death of Bees"- Destroys and Restores Your Emotions

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"Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday.
Today I am fifteen.
Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved."

Right off the bat, you know that The Death of Bees (2012) is going to be rough.  This is a book about horribly neglectful and abusive parents; the pitfalls of the government's policies on child welfare; misplaced and malicious judgement made about people; growing up in general; and the tenacity that children and teenagers have to survive their situations no matter how dire.  The book is gritty and in your face; the author does not shy away from the violence and neglect that pervades homes and families.  Author Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees does not hesitate to shock; it is the shock factor of the novel that jolts the reader to the realization that this story is one that could very well happen. O'Donnell uses short, abrupt descriptions to create the stark surroundings that the girls live in.  The realism is further conveyed through the dialogue between the characters.  It is real, emotional, secretive at times, and also full of slang that normal teenagers and children would use.  O'Donnell has a distinctive style that keeps the story moving along quickly, but also embeds the story into the reader's mind and soul.

In layman's terms, Marnie and her younger sister, Nelly's, lives are terrible.  Their parents are violent drug addicts, who have little time for their children.  Marnie reflects throughout the novel about her having to care for Nelly since Nelly was a baby. Nelly, who appears to have autism and is very brilliant and mature for her young age, is burdened by the fact that they are keeping a huge secret. The critical plot point for the novel is not revealed at once.  Rather, the situation is slowly and painfully revealed to the reader through the interactions between the characters and flash-backs.  When they find that both their parents are dead, they have no choice but to keep it a secret. However, the secrecy of the two leads to suspicions from their neighbor, Lennie, a homosexual man who is ostracized in the neighborhood due to a scandal; Lennie's dog seems intent on digging in the girls' backyard and Lennie does not quite buy the whole 'our parents are just on vacation' story.

Lisa O'Donnell, courtesy of
O'Donnell does not pull any punches with The Death of Bees. To the outside world, they seem like two deadbeat girls.  However, O'Donnell paints an enlightening family portrait of them; they are two smart girls who are living under the shadow of their parent's drug use, even after death. They are determined to stay together out of love and camaraderie. The realism portrayed in the parents' drug use, and the far reaching consequences of it, is startling.  We see how one of the main villains of the story is the government and it bureaucracy.  O'Donnell makes a poignant, yet firm point about the results of trying to tear apart siblings who have nothing but each other.  Time and time again, the Child Protection services from the government flit in and out of their lives, not really doing anything, not really helping the girls like they should. We see how the girls' fear of being separated by the government drives their actions, making the government possibly the most despicable character in the book. Their fear only drives them closer, which in turn cements their relationship; they are tough sisters who will stick together no matter what. O'Donnell really explores the topic of how government action, especially after the fact of neglect and abuse, is more destructive to the girls' lives than if they would have been just left alone. That is quite possibly O'Donnell's main point: one is left to their own devices when everyone else around them fails to help.  

Yet, there is an underlying note of hope throughout the whole novel.  Rays of light and hope permeate through the grime of the main characters' lives, making the novel suspenseful in it's own right.  The one person who cares enough to try to help is the neighborhood pariah.  Lennie's homosexuality poses problems throughout the book.  He is cruelly discriminated against; however, he is the only adult in the novel who wants to selflessly help the girls and he demonstrates the greatest amount of kindness and understanding.  Lennie is a beautiful character, perhaps the best written of the entire novel.  A juxtaposition to the despised drug addict and alcohol class in the area, Lennie is shunned because of his homosexuality.  This isolation puts him in an awkward position, one where he has to chose self-preservation or chose the girls that have become his eccentric family.  O'Donnell weaves the story in a way to where the reader does not really know who is actually the main character, if it's the girls that need redemption and love so badly or if it's the man who needs the same.  The outcome is sublimely dramatic; the reader is thrown off course and then treated to a whirlwind that leaves them breathless and hopeful.  

This is a beautiful book about different lives coming together. Lennie, Marnie, and Nelly are all in the same boat; they are preemptively judged by those around them and tossed aside, labeled as no-goods.  The pain and suffering that they endure, however, leads to hope.  O'Donnell uses the horror of their lives, the sadness, the loneliness, to illustrate that their is always hope, even in the most unexpected places. It is a beautiful piece of fiction.  This novel never quite tears you down; you keep rooting for Marnie and Nelly, despite their setbacks.  You begin to think in their terms and realize that nothing should tear you down completely.  It is a story about survival, acceptance, and love.  It is not elegant or academic.  Yet, it examines the human condition and what we do to survive in such a way, it makes you question your own ability to withstand life's challenges.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Making Crime and Chemistry Charming: Flavia de Luce

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Flavia de Luce does not go looking for trouble; it just happens to find her.  She does not mean to make the police look bad; she just cannot help that she knows more about chemistry and science than they do.  So, armed with her immense knowledge of self-taught chemistry and her dogged persistence, Flavia does what any 11 year old girl would do: she solves the crime. A creation of Canadian author Alan Bradley, Flavia and her family were first introduced in 2009'sThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a delightful, twisted mystery involving boarding schools, dead birds, and stamps. Bradley continued with Flavia's genius chemistry-centered answers to crime in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010), A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011), I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (2011), Speaking from Among the Bones (2013), and most recently, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014).

Growing up in a post- WW2 English village as one of the last members of a worn-out prestigious family name and ruined fortune, Flavia displays the famous hereditary de Luce genius and also a personal knack for danger.  She dabbles in poisons, daydreams about her missing beauty/genius of a mother, and avoids her remaining family: her stoically mournful father, her wistfully dramatic sister, Ophelia, and her bookish but blasé sister Daphne.  Their family is all that is left of a once proud, immensely talented family; the quirkiness and the genius of the de Luces lent itself too often into madness and/or complete detachment from the outside world.  Haunted by the specter of their adored mother and wife (who disappeared when Flavia was two) and desperate to maintain their sprawling estate almost as an homage to her, the de Luces keep to themselves, interacting with the outside world but not with each other.  With lots of free time and a fully equipped chemical lab (one ancestor was obsessed with chemistry), Flavia has no choice but to get involved in her own crime investigations, much the chagrin of the local constables.  She is the type of character that is compelling, since you do not know whether to hate her or love her.  Her age and maturity can be trying; Bradley has a firm grasp on the annoying qualities of an 11 year old.  Nonetheless, the reader cannot help but be enchanted by the precocious girl, who uses her tender age to con adults into letting her in on secrets she uses to her advantage and also uses her astonishing knowledge to find clues that the normal person would have missed.

Bradley paints a melancholic yet nostalgic picture of a tumultuous time in English history.  The great, crumbling fortunes and estates of an England long gone due to war and economic downturn are at the heart of these novels' settings.  We can see the old ways of life clashing with the upcoming, more modern way of life; these clashes often lead the comic relief, confusion, or the oft- poignant reality that life is not going to be the same anymore for the villagers of Bishop's Lacey, simply from the fast-pace times that have followed the war.  For having never visited England, Bradley paints an accurate and picturesque idea of the English countryside.  The reader is treated to the quaint comings and goings of the villagers, the wildfire of small-town gossip, and the ever-present suspicion of people who are not from Bishop's Lacy.  The villagers are well-rounded additional characters, with whom Bradley makes a revolving facet of the de Luces' lives. The colloquialisms of mid-century English villagers (and the comparison of speech to the well-educated de Luces) is simply delightful and adds to the whimsical feel of the novels.  This whimsical feel clashes fantastically with the often brutal crimes that the novels center around.  The crimes' perpetrators sometimes have a near senseless reason at the end, giving the novels a growing sense of 'times-are-changing'.  The straightforward dialogue is reminiscent of the "Golden-Age" of crime novels, reminding the reader of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

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These are not award-winning novels.  Instead, they are colorfully crafted stories about a family barely hanging on and a little girl whose wits and intellect bring not only justice for the village but also a sense of strength in her family.  The solving of the crimes is fun and the stories that Bradley weaves are contorted and surprising.  However, the real stories are about the de Luces. The reader cannot help but be intrigued by the de Luces and their history, which pops up often throughout the series; the falling apart of what was once a great family is morbidly fascinating.  Her father is a fallen, depressed man, who cannot (perhaps will not) get over his beloved wife's death.  The mystery of Flavia's mother is a constant theme throughout, culminating in the VERY revealing, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.  In spite of her brash independence, time and time again, Flavia is saved by her sisters, who seem to hate her, but, as Flavia discovers, love her fiercely.   They appear to be worlds away from each other, separated by their grief, their secret hopes, and their vastly differing personalities.  Yet, in the darkest and most desperate times in the books, the de Luce clan fiercely defend each other and are each other's greatest protectors.  The novels illustrate that sometimes, the differences in one's family does not matter; what matters is the undying love, respect, and admiration that binds the family together and does not falter in the face of danger or loss.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The King Has Returned

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For a while, it seemed that the king of psychological horror books had stepped down.  Stephen King's books in the last decade have tended to be off-the-wall, weird, difficult to follow, and were just overall disjointed, badly written, and uninteresting.  Fans everywhere continued to buy the books and slouch through them, out of respect for his past works.  And then, in 2013, Doctor Sleep happened. With Doctor Sleep, we saw the return of the Stephen King we grew to love (amazing stories!) and hate (sleepless nights!).  While still reeling from the revelations, thrills, and horrors seen in Doctor Sleep, fans were then hit in June 2014 with King's first hard-boiled crime novel, Mr. Mercedes; it was a success not only with King fans, but also with crime/mystery fans.

It appears that King has finally moved on from his brush with death in 1999, when a distracted driver ran him over with a van.  The accident clearly had a huge impact on King, not only physically, but emotionally as well; he had recurring nightmares about the accident and had great difficulty sitting up for more than forty minutes to write.  Almost all of his books written after the accident had underlying themes of near death, accidents, and theories about time reversal and how it could affect the future.  Several books have characters that were suspiciously similar to King and who dealt with the consequences from near fatal accidents.  It was perhaps due to his emotional and physically painful recovery (as well as maintaining his several decades long sobriety) that King began writing the disjointed and muddled books that marked the 2000s.  There were no great hits from King, no books that would make the reader's blood run cold or keep them up at night.  Fans worried that this was the end of an era; Stephen King was a has-been, an author who had run his course of success. Yet, with these two novels, King has triumphantly returned.  He has returned to his classic form: a suspenseful build-up of a battle between good and evil, with ample interjections of fear spawning not only from objects and surroundings, but also from everyday people.

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A sequel to 1977's The Shining (admit it, you still can't hear REDRUM without shivering), Doctor Sleep picks up on Danny Torrence's life as an adult.  Battling his demons left over from his eventful stay in the Overlook Hotel, Dan hits rock bottom and needs to reclaim his life.  He still has his Shining; but it has diminished due to years of alcoholism and self-hate.  The reader sees Dan getting his life back together, along with strengthening his Shining.  Interspersed through Dan's recovery, King introduces us to the True Knot, a group of wanderers who maintain their immortality with the lives and souls of children with Shining.  The story becomes a race against time and evil for Dan to save Abra Stone, a girl with immense Shining which makes her a valuable asset to the True Knot. Doctor Sleep is Stephen King at his finest.  There is horror: the True Knot hunts down their victims and dispatches them in a gruesome method in order to get the Shining from them at its strongest.  There is psychological panic at facets of everyday life: you will never look at normal looking people in RVs the same.  There is the classic King style: a battle between good and evil is embedded in everyday life, fought by momentous evil and by people who might have flaws, but are unfaltering good in their core character.  King illustrates the power of self and of normal people's determination to defeat evil.  There are several ancillary characters who rise up to the challenge to help Dan save Abra.  Ancillary characters are often King's greatest creations; they are us, with our flaws, our pettiness, our desires, our overall humanness.  However, these characters play huge parts in King's novels, whether by encouraging the protagonist to continue on no matter the hardships or by actively playing a role in the hardship itself.  The dialogue is clipped, realistic, and powerful; King manages to convey a range of emotions and wishes in his minimalist dialogue, reminiscent of his earlier works.  It is a book that will leave you breathless, satisfied, and very uneasy.

While a departure from King's go-to genre, Mr. Mercedes was yet another reminder that King has not lost the suspense, the terror, and the overall excellent prose style that he became famous for.  The reader is introduced to Bill Hodges, a retired cop who flits with ending his life out of boredom.  We also meet Bradley Hartsfield, a mild man who flits with mass murder out of boredom.  A seemingly gruesome but unsolved crime hangs over Hodges, who becomes unofficially involved in the cold case again when a letter arrives at his house, with the writer claiming to be the perp.  A back and forth between the two culminates in Hodges realizing that he is toying with a psychopath, a person who is intent on killing again.  Mr. Mercedes traces the cat and mouse game between the two men, the climax building to Hodges attempting to stop Hartsfield's biggest spree yet.  Once again, King relies on his ancillary characters to drive the story forward, using them to either block or propel the main characters' actions.  Readers are treated to a different type of crime novel set-up.  Instead of an unknown, in the shadows bad guy, Hartsfield is identified to the reader almost immediately and has his persona and justifications unwrapped throughout his interactions with others and himself.  Crime is a departure from the norm for King. Nonetheless, King manages to include his signature suspense, complex characters, and portrayal of the human psyche into the story, making it feel almost more like one of his older works, despite being very recent and very different from any type of genre he has previously written.  This is the type of book that is not read for the ending or the whodunit; it is read for the story itself, to see how King will lead the reader to the inevitable, yet seemingly elusive conclusion.The novel reads as a battle of the psyches, of who can outwit the other faster and more efficiently.

Can The Stand or Salem's Lot ever be recreated?  No, of course not.  King's earlier books literally launched a genre; he introduced mainstream literature that was not your typical crime or romance novels.  King's novels from the 1970's have earned their spots in literary greatness simply because of their originality and their (at the time) unrivaled content; they will not be outdone by King again.  However, readers can now look forward new, fresh Stephen King books, books that have all the components that made King a legend plus his renewed vigor in storytelling.  There might never be another The Shining, but give these two a chance; you won't regret it.