Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Long Live the Queen of Mystery!

Quick! Name a book genre!

Did you guess mystery?  If so, then you picked the second most popular genre of fiction books (it just cannot beat that steamy ol' romance genre).  Mysteries range from espionage mysteries to fantasy mysteries to themed mysteries to horror mysteries; the sub genres go on and on. However, in the end, there is no mystery like the classic mystery, with a plucky, eccentric sleuth coming upon a problem (almost always murder) and then proceeding to solve said problem with cunning and little outside help.  This is the tried and true method for writing a mystery and it has endured since the debut of the mystery genre.

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However, no one has quite mastered the art of turning the simplistic formula into a complicated and articulate story like Dame Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890, the English author began her lengthy career during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (1920's and 1930's).  However, where many, many others quit, lost steam, or faded into obscurity, Christie continued to be a roaring force of mystery fiction, producing some her best works later in life.  Her personal life read as a mystery/romance novel as well, from her vastly publicized disappearance in 1926 (the stress of her husband's affair and demand for divorce left her distraught, thus prompting her flight), her eventual marriage to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (she loved him because "the older I grow, the more he appreciates me,"), to the international whirlwind success of her writing career.  Christie was not only confident in her success, she also served as a figurehead for female authors breaking into the mystery genre, a book form which has been previously dominated by men.  Christie wrote books that appealed to both men and women, both in England and abroad. Her books have been published in at least 103 languages. 

Christie came onto the literary scene in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The novel also marked the debut of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, who brought Christie international literary fame and remains today what she is best known for.  Poirot starred in thirty-nine of Christie's novels.  The novels were marked with a flair of international jet-setting and class; the mysteries revolved around the rich and the famous, those desperate to keep their crimes and secrets to themselves.  However, as Poirot reminds the reader again and again, "Papa Poirot" sees everything. Everything about Poirot is lovable yet antagonizing; he is able to deduce solutions from his keen sense of awareness and his brilliance at being able to tailor a situation to work in his favor.  Despite the fact that the ingenious but often haughty detective vastly annoyed Christie towards the end of her career, her last published book during her lifetime was Poirot's final Curtain in 1975; early on she had recognized the fame of Poirot, thus had written his ending book early on, while she was still physically able.  By the time the novel debuted, Poirot had become so internationally popular, his literary death received an obituary from The New York Times, the only fictional character ever to receive such.

Christie did the same for her other literary sleuth, Miss Marple, an English spinster whose quiet observations of her English village give her great insight into the human psyche.  Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, the year of Christie's death.  However, Christie did not live to see her favorite sleuth's literary journey end.  Marple was the star of twelve novels, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930); yet, to some readers, Marple's legacy as the amateur sleuth is overlooked most mystery readers. The tone of the Marple novels are different that the Poirot ones; these are more simple, quaint, and tend to less complex plots, yet retaining their signature Christie twists and turns.  There is a much greater cosmopolitan sense in the Poirot novels, yet the Marple novels exude a distinctly English feel, luring the reader into the eccentricities and dangers of countryside English life.  Miss Marple is the perfect English gentlewoman; however, she is cunning, sly, and uses anecdotes and her deep understanding of the human condition makes her a different sleuth than most.  She is not worldly or fancy.  Yet, in her simplicity lies a genius that makes her more interesting to read about than Poirot.

So, yes, I am telling you to read mysteries from the 1920's to 1970's (Christie kept busy).  Why? Several reasons.  There are no modern frills with these novels; the lack of modern communication and technology makes the mysteries very exciting and twisting. Without technology dating the novels, the stories are able to be timeless, with the crimes and solutions based entirely on human emotions, passions, and folly.  It is solely up to the smarts and observations of the sleuth to deduce the solution, therefore bringing forth the quintessential strength of Christie's talent.  The context in which Christie was writing is also worth the attention.  The life of England past is filled with servants, mansions, manners, class distinctions, and speech that is indicative of times past.  The reader is transported to a world and lifestyle that reigned not even a hundred years ago, yet is so different from modern times it nearly seems fabricated.  The historical aspect of the novels is also interesting.  The publications span from the end of World War 1 to past World War 2, offering glimpses into how people lived and thought during Christie's time periods.  Clearly, real life and culture are infused in fiction, so it is only natural to connect with history through Christie's characters and settings.  Lastly, and most importantly, Christie's novels are intriguing.  They remain relevant in today's world.  The whodunit is almost always a surprise (READ THE BOOKS!), yet Christie manages to engage the reader in the cat and mouse game that is and will always be the classic mystery.  She is a writer for the ages and her books, although short, will thrill to the very end.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Enchanting World of Sarah Addison Allen

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Books that randomly appear.  An apple tree that promises to show you the most important moment in your life.  Promises that cannot be broken.  Women whose emotions can leave tangible traces on objects. A lone peach tree that guards an untimely end. Alligators with secrets. Families whose magical tendencies are the talk of the town.  Seven books, seven different sets of magic, hopes, dreams, and perseverance to overcome obstacles grace the novels written by American author, Sarah Addison Allen.  With five stand-alone books (The Sugar Queen (2008), The Girl Who Chased the Moon (2010), The Peach Keeper (2011), and Lost Lake (2014)), and a budding series stemming from her debut novel (Garden Spells (2007) and First Frost (Jan. 2015)), Allen has managed to infuse magic and mysticism in her novels about everyday people and the lives they lead.  However, these are not fantasy novels.  They are novels about life, love, loss, and the eccentricities in people that make humanity diverse and wonderful.  Allen's work is delightful simply because the reader can be enchanted by the magic and beauty of life and its nuances.

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Her debut novel, Garden Spells, remains her most popular novel.  The novel centers around the Waverly family, a quirky, tiny family unit that has survived heartache, stigmatization, passion, and depression.  Infused with the subtle magical abilities that all of Allen's characters have, the Waverlys have struggled to find their place in the community and even in their own family.  Allen captivates the reader with her characters: Claire Waverly is a caterer who has a renowned 'magic' touch when it comes to food; Sydney Waverly is a lost soul, struggling to find beauty in life and herself.  The story swirls around the two sisters, accompanied by relatives, friends, and enemies who are also trying to find themselves.  Seven years later, Allen picks their story back up in First Frost (due out January 20, 2015).  Once again, the reader will find that the Waverly sisters are once again struggling to find their place in the world, as well as finding out where exactly their 'powers' fit into the mix.  Allen introduces new characters, both to the Waverly family fold and to their community.  The new novel centers mostly around Bay, Sydney's daughter, who was a small child in the first book.  Bay is struggling to come to terms with her gift and with her family's quirky reputation in the community. First Frost has a very different tone than Garden Spells, with the desperately lost feeling of many of the characters having been settled in Garden Spells.  There are several forces that have disrupted the quiet lives of the Waverlys, throwing their settled, happy lives back into confusion and self-doubt.  It is a quintessential coming-of-age novel; however, Allen takes it a step further and delves into the coming of age into middle age.  Both Claire and Sydney are hitting middle age blahs while Bay is coming into turbulent teenage hood.  Allen delicately parallels the self searches these women undergo as they try to adapt to their new life phases.  While not as powerful as Garden Spells (one of the most refreshing novels I have ever read), First Frost is a fun read, and makes you review your own views on age and adapting to change.

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My personal favorite is The Sugar Queen.  Allen's second novel, a stand alone, The Sugar Queen revolves around Josie Cirini, a sweets loving, painfully shy woman, whose domineering mother (not to mention her own insecurities) keep her from living life to the fullest.  To me, this novel is Allen at her best.  The ancillary characters keep the story moving forward, and Allen gives us glimpses (both brief and extended) into their lives, making them an integral part of the novel.  It is set during the winter time at a mountain resort town; the chilly background provides a stark contrast to the fiery emotions that drive the characters towards a satisfying conclusion.  The Sugar Queen is truly a novel about forgiveness, whether it is the characters forgiving others or mainly, themselves.  Allen illustrates how punishing oneself for misdeeds past and present can do nothing but prolong the misery in our lives.  The magic in this novel is subtle but alluring.  Each character has a trait that impacts their lives and how they interact with the world.

All of Allen's works have the same underlying character themes.  Her main characters, first and foremost, are women.  Allen beautifully depicts women who have or are trying to make their way in the world, despite their pasts, their reputations, and whatever else has plagued them.  All of her female characters are acutely aware of themselves, almost to a fault.  However, they do not shy away from their eccentricities or personalities; they embrace them and find lives, careers, friends, and partners that best accentuate who they are as women.  Allen does not write about women who shy away from life or who accept their fate.  Her novels ultimately are about strong women and the magic that comes from accepting yourself.

These are not huge books, yet Allen manages to pack in a novel that will leave you wondering about the characters.  Allen has a simple writing style.  She uses a clipped, yet flowery prose for her writing.  The descriptions are precise, yet thorough.  Nevertheless, she manages to convey powerful lessons in her novels.  The quick paced storytelling, the inter-generational stories that Allen manages to weave together, and the dynamic characters is what makes Allen one of my favorite authors.  There is romance, but nothing ridiculous or bawdy; just plain love, with characters radiating their happiness and contentment.  There is mystery to a certain degree; mysteries that unravel as the characters find out more about themselves and their loved ones.  From Garden Spells to the highly anticipated First Frost, Allen has created non-stop beauty and happiness in her novels.  Her memorable characters is what places her above most "chick lit" dramas; they are easy to relate to and, by the end, you are immersed in their lives.  It is the simple things in life and in yourself that Allen makes magical.  It is the characters' interactions with themselves, their self-awareness to a fault and their peaceful, but determined self-acceptance, that make Allen's works worth reading.

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Thanks to St. Martin's Press for my ARC!  

Friday, January 2, 2015

What You Should Do For 2015 (According to Your Librarian!)

Life is crazy.  Life is hectic.  It is busy, straining, and exhausting.  Yet, now more than ever, people need to make time to just chill out and relax.  What better way to de-stress and disconnect than to cozy up with a book?  This year, 2015, everyone should make the effort to read a book.  Grab an old favorite or, better yet, try something out of your comfort zone.  You will never know the worlds and stories you are missing until you pick up a book and immerse yourself in it.  Reading can help us better communicate, better relax, but most of all, better expand our imaginations.

Set some reading goals for 2015!
Check out a list of ideas!
Come by the library for some books!  We would love to see you!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Maus: One Man's Ancestry is a Society's History Lesson

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The Holocaust, an event that has been seared onto the memories and history books of the world, an event fanatically gruesome yet so diligently efficient it has overshadowed genocides that have wiped out several times more people than the mere 6 million victims of the Nazis.  However, as time passes, the events from the 1930's and 40's continues to grow more and more distant to us as a society.  As time moves on and survivors, along with their memories, die, the Holocaust will inevitably become just another catastrophe in the history of mankind.  It will lose the human tragedy element of it, the guilt, the shame, the fear, the overbearing shadow of an event too big for its survivors and their descendants to even start to come to terms with; it risks becoming just another chapter in a textbook.

Yet, to one man, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the Holocaust will never be just another chapter.  It is the defining chapter... yet he didn't even live it.  His father was a Holocaust survivor; it became a permanent part of Vladek's life, one that shaped who he was, as a husband, a father, a person.  Spiegelman constantly felt hounded by the specter of the long over Holocaust that his father felt, thus it became a focal point for his career.  Speigelman began his comic career working for underground magazines and newspapers.  He had several successful strips that ran in various publications, as well as being the creator of the Garbage Pail Kids.  However, it was the frequent strips about his father's experience in the Holocaust and how that affected their relationship that kept coming back to Spiegelman.  He would base comic strips off his father's anecdotes during the Holocaust, letting his father see them and discuss them (sometimes with good results, sometimes with antagonistic guilt trips).  With more and more information from his father, Spiegelman started conducting interviews with him about his experiences, chronicling Vladek's life from the early 1930's to the end of World War 2.  These interviews culminated in Maus: A Survivor's Tale in 1991, a graphic novel.  Graphic novels are books written entirely in comic book form, with pictures, dialogue, and only scant narration to lead the story.  Highly reviewed and a critical success, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in the Special Citations and Letters Category, becoming the first graphic novel to win such a prize.  Maus has been cited as bringing graphic novels, which had been a small and mostly underground field of novels, into the forefront, later making graphic novels one of the most popular book types for both young adults and adults.

Spiegelman's idea was that using a graphic novel would better record his father's story; however, instead of using humans, he used an anthropomorphic animal element.  The idea behind the use of animals for people came from the idea of certain races of people being 'subhuman' or like animals.   He also believed that the use of animals to represent different races would expound on the absurdity that people were different due to race and that the theology of the Nazis that targeted Jews was comical.  The use of animals was also intended to help the reader better understand the politics, however preposterous, of the time period and to illustrate what exactly the Nazis thought divided them from others.  The Jewish people are depicted as mice, since they were seen as terminable vermin by the Nazis.  Cats are used in the portrayal of Nazis, a classic enemy of mice.  Polish characters are shown as pigs, since Vladek and his family were sold out by a Polish man.  There is a haunting human element that comes from the use of animals.  It incites a strong sense of vulnerability of the Jews during the Nazi regime and acutely conveys the sense of fear of the enemy, the Nazis, or in this case, the cats.  The entire novel is black and white; the is no depiction of color, no distraction from the story at hand. The cartoons are simplistic yet detailed, a beautiful example of the talent and pure artistry of Spiegelman.  Despite using animals, these cartoon panels do not have a trace of cuteness or fun in them.  It is perhaps due to the stark contrast of the events being told and the medium being used that a deep sense of tragedy and pain is conveyed.  As far as graphic novels go, the illustrations do not clash with the dialogue.  Both are succinctly clear and concise, making the novel extremely captivating and easy to read.  First time graphic novel readers will not struggle with this novel; Spiegelman does an artful job of making the story flow and not confusing the reader.
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Maus is separated into two sections: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began; the first is Vladek's experiences leading up to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  This is a type of first person account of history and it does not fail to deliver.  Spiegelman represents his father's words and memories exactly from their interviews and it gives great insight to the family life of people leading up to the Nazi invasion of Europe.  Spiegelman does not sugarcoat his father's actions or words; at time, Vladek seems like a jerk.  Spiegelman does a wonderful job using the cartoons along with his father's stories to portray the growing sense of unease and unrest spreading through Europe in the late 1930's among the Jewish populations.  And Here My Troubles Began brings us to a point in adult Spiegelman's life, where he is grappling with his father's growing eccentricity and anger.  This is the part of the novel that covers Vladek's time in Auschwitz and it truly a heartbreaking, yet interesting account of how one could survive.

The interactions between father and son periodically break the story to illustrate how the past has dominated and shaped not only Vladek's life but also Spiegelman's.  Spiegelman, both as a child and as an adult, is haunted by memories that are not his but are of the past, a time when he wasn't even alive.  He is the product of two survivors and their actions and beliefs are purely guided from their past and survival.  The Holocaust stains every family interaction, every familial connection they have.  The label of survivor runs undercurrent to both Vladek's and Spiegelman's actions.  This phenomenon is common; it is a type of survivor guilt that is passed down through generations of families.  He cannot escape a past he did not experience.  This is a significant topic that is not commonly broached during discussions of the Holocaust, yet Spiegelman lays out his own personal examples to better show people how far reaching the Holocaust still is.
Spiegelman's self portrait,
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What makes Maus a valuable read for not only graphic novel enthusiasts (a must due to the beautiful illustrations and the significance it played in reviving the medium), but to history buffs as well is the honest depiction of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, and the ancestors left to burden the tragedy.  The underlying fear, guilt, shame, and horror of the Holocaust continue to reach into the Jewish and European populations today, with ancestors still feeling the aftershocks of surviving (and perpetrating) the Holocaust.  The Holocaust, in Spiegelman's opinion, has served as a large, common bond that ties all Jewish people together; the benefits of that, however, are possibly less than positive, according the Spiegelman.  He sees that the continuation of suffering from the Holocaust, long after it's end, is what will always paint the Jewish community. It painted every moment of his father's life; Vladek never found closure from it.  It also influenced Spiegelman's life for a long time, which is what led him to start Maus. There continue to be studies and books done about the lasting effects of World War 2 and the Holocaust on today's modern society.  However, there tends to be a lack of emotion and pure humanness in the academic works.  It is up to books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Maus that will help society never forget the horror incurred during that time period.  Perhaps, with accounts like these, we as a society will not forget.  Perhaps then, we can avoid repeating history.  

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.