A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

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Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

Wonderstruck is a movie you really need to see!

We just saw the amazing movie Wonderstruck, which is based on a novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.  This is a marvelously New York movie starring Julianne Moore and three amazing child actors.  Millicent Simmons, who is deaf, gives a strong and compelling performance as a deaf girl who refuses to settle for a constricted life.  It is such a pleasure to watch a strong, young actress who doesn’t play a “sweet child” or a “conniving temptress.”  A number of other deaf actors were incorporated in the cast.  I was so caught up in the story that I only occasionally noticed that much of the movie has no dialogue.  The action is enough, and by foregoing dialogue, the movie draws you into the world of the deaf.  Oakes Fegley, who plays an orphan on the run, and Jordan Michael, the local boy who befriends him, also given strong and unaffected performances.  

And then there is New York  —  a very realistic bustling city that can seem overwhelming.  The Museum of Natural History figures strongly as does a real-life used and rare bookstore on the Upper West Side and the Queens Museum of all places.  Wonderstruck is a period piece with two periods —  the time of silent movies and then fifty years later.  It all works, and New York shown off to perfection.

This movie’s reviews were mixed, but I thought it was one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year.

Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.

Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

What’s the Matter with Kansas — Thomas Frank’s 2004 Book is All too Timely

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing.  Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens.  In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich.  The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find.  Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest.  It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding.   Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre.  I checked:  Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party.  Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment.  Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.

This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right.  Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party.  This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve.  Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.