Thursday, November 29, 2007
One Good Turn is wonderful! From the very first sentence I was entranced by Atkinson's use of words and her terrific low-key sense of humor. I was surprised to find that the book is actually a mystery, but there is nothing genre-like about it, no standard investigation or even single investigator. I was further surprised to find that it makes use of characters first developed in another of Atkinson's books, again a genre technique. It doesn't matter as we learn what we need to know from this book alone.
The story begins with a "road rage" incident in Edinburgh involving a suspicious name-changing character and a beefy guy who wields a baseball bat. The incident draws together an interesting group of characters, but the story reads rather like strings spreading further and further apart, or perhaps more like a web built by a spider. Each chapter develops the story for one or two of the characters, and only near the end do the paths intersect, in a crazy, hilarious episode, rather like the punchline in a shaggy dog story.
The writing is superb. The insights into character are well-informed. The humor is delicious.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Two families wait at the gate in the Baltimore airport for the same flight, which is carrying their newly-adopted Korean babies. One family, fully American, has made an event of it. Everyone is wearing labels ("Mom", "Grandpa") and the family is filling the waiting area, almost forcing out others, making a party of it. The other family is transplanted Iranian and has made no fanfare of the arrival of their new baby.
Bitsy, the American mom, eventually invites Ziba, Iranian mom, to join an invented "arrival" celebration of the two infants, and the two families are thus joined. The differences in the families pricks at the edges of each encounter, with members of both families trying - or not trying - to understand the other. Throughout the book the individuals seem unable to keep from generalizing, the Iranians finding the Americans laughable, crude, at times overbearing, the Americans finding the Iranians stiff, sometimes unresponsive, perhaps "too good" for them.
Ziba's mother-in-law, Maryam, is perhaps the most reluctant Iranian. She was at peace with her widowed existence, her proper life, and she has no need for the sometimes overwhelming assault of well-meaning friends. She is proper and polite, often seeming cold because of her reserve, so she does join the parties because it would be rude to refuse.
Although we get into the minds of almost all of the many characters, ultimately it is Maryam who takes center stage. Through her thoughts and actions we begin to understand how difficult it must be to live in such a foreign culture, unable to join it. She admits to herself, though, that she had differences in Iran as well, and we begin to grasp that it may not be so much the differences in cultures that affects these clans so much as the differences in individuals.
The book is so easy to read that it is easy to miss its complexity, its quiet effects on our thinking. I felt at times that there was too much generalizing but those who read carefully will see that the generalizing came from individuals rather than from Tyler herself.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Black Swan Green is a funny, insightful book about a 13-year-old boy, told in the language of a 13-year-old in England in 1982. The book spans one year of Jason's life, through the Falklands war and within the Reagan-Thatcher years, into a dip into the pond of "girls" and the unintended viewing of a coupling in the countryside, in the village of Black Swan Green (a village where there are no swans, black or otherwise).
Jason is addicted to contractions the like of which, the extent of which, I have not seen before. We go way beyond "could've" into "...our marines'll..." and "...with any luck, my strategy'd clear some spaces..." and "..the talk'd shifted..." and so much more. The contractions alone had me laughing right from the first page.
Jason, like so many adolescent boys (and girls), struggles most of all to fit in. He hides his propensity for writing poetry, turning in poems to a local magazine under a pseudonym, which later leads to his making strange and secret visits to an elderly woman living in the vicar's quarters, who offers advice about life - and poetry - that ultimately Jason takes to heart. Jason gets sorted this way and that from his mates, from bullies, from teachers and his parents, as he tries to find his place, and somehow emerges a little wiser and ready to be fourteen.
At first I found the book simply funny, and that was enough. Over time, though, I was won over by the compassion and sense of realness Mitchell gives to his hero. It's a lovely slice of England. And of adolescence.