Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Death of a Poison Pen

Hamish's troubles with women continue. Jenny Ogilvie, one of Priscilla's friends, has come north to Lochdubh to try and seduce Hamish. Her inroad is Hamish's latest case- the double murder of the postmistress and former schoolmistress, who had been sending poison pen letters around the village. Finding someone who would want to murder both women proves to be a difficult task for Hamish.

One thing that strikes me about all the books in this series, but particularly this one, is that everyone seems to exist outside the present time. Though the books are presumably set in the early twenty-first century, people seem to have the sensibilities of the 1950s. I realize that Lochdubh is supposed to be in the far corners of the Highlands, but the people just don't seem to fit with the time period. Rural or not, they can't really be decades behind the times, can they?

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Poison Pen (Mysterious Press, 2004) ISBN: 0892967889 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: Union Street

Barker's book looks at the lives of women in a working-class neighborhood in northern England. Seven episodes examine the lives of women at every stage of life, from childhood to old age. It offers an unflinching look at the struggles of poverty and unrelenting work. Sexuality is often dangerous, and the women of Union Street are subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Their lives revolve around trying to take care of families and stretch resources.

Each story is compelling, and I was touched by the stories of women barely holding body and soul together. This is a book that makes the reader feel deeply, feel thankful, and recognize much about women's lives, feelings, fears, and responsibilities. Through these stories the reader sees the sum total of a life- the hopes and fears, the pains and celebrations. This is a deeply moving book, and one that is well-worth reading.

Pat Barker, Union Street (Trafalgar Square, 1987) ISBN: 0860682838 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Welcome to My Country

Slater, a therapist who has suffered from mental illness of her own, recounts stories of treating severely mentally ill patients. She tries to show that the severely mentally ill yearn for friendship, love, and companionship just as much as their healthier counterparts do. This hardly sounds groundbreaking, but it does contradict certain psychological treatises-- most notably, Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Slater works with severely schizophrenic men. These men suffer hallucinations, their linguistic abilities have been stolen by disease, they are sometimes catatonic. In these conditions Slater uses talk therapy to find desire for connection, though it is often deeply hidden. Slater manages to convey the sadness and despair that surround profound mental illness, though there are glimmers of hope too.

The writing in this book is too florid at times, but Slater always approaches her subjects with grace and humanity. I enjoyed Slater's discussion of her academic training and the theoretical universe in which she works. Readers get to see how she uses academic training to make treatment decisions. We get to see how she thinks as a practitioner. This is a fascinating memoir, though perhaps not as groundbreaking as it was in 1996.

Lauren Slater, Welcome to My Country (Random House, 1996) ISBN: 0679447857

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Jenny Wren

This is a book about trying to live within the strictures of Victorian sociability when one does not fit neatly into any of the categories. Jenny Rendall's father married down, his wife Louisa was never quite able to adapt to middle class rules of behavior. Sidney Rendall was able to educate his daughters in social graces, and Jenny, in particular, takes to the demands and graces of middle-class life. Sidney's death creates a crisis for the family. To earn money Louisa and her daughters attempt to start a boarding house. The work and the clientele are shocks to Jenny's delicate sensibilities. She finds herself regularly embarrassed by Louisa, but disquieted by her embarrassment. When Jenny meets the heir to the local manor her shame leads her to adopt a fake persona, becoming the upscale Jenny Wren.

A novel about class and manners, the book presents Jenny as the parvenu. She is the woman who has been introduced to the sensibilities of the upper classes, but who can't materially sustain them. Jenny has acquired enough of the sensory delicacies of the upper classes to feel acutely upset at her situation, but she lacks the resources of the upper class that would prevent her problems. Louisa retains enough of her lower-class orientation to enjoy more visceral pleasures, but not enough to avoid being horrified by her sister the servant and her suitor/moneylender Mr. Grimshaw. The novel roils in intellectual and emotional discomfort. Everyone is discontented. Weeding through that discomfort takes a great deal out of each of the characters. Though the book is set in the early 20th century, it had a very 19th century feel to me.

E.H. Young, Jenny Wren (orig. 1932) ISBN: 0140161082

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: A Great Deliverance

This books marks the beginning of the Inspector Lynley series, though the focus of the book is very much Lynley's partner, Barbara Havers. He and Havers are sent north to investigate the murder of a reclusive farmer, seemingly killed by his daughter.

Havers loathes being paired with Lynley. She is unattractive and argumentative, dealing with mentally ill parents. She sees Lynley as the beneficiary of unearned class privilege.

I wanted to like this book. I usually like books like this, but it was hardly one of my favorites. The novel is written in absolutely purple prose, and this is a case in which the prose interrupts the reader's ability to enjoy the book. There are also character issues. Havers is irritating and angry. There's no subtlety to Havers. Everything seems to devolve into full-on vitriol. We learn that Havers was kicked out of CID because of anger issues. By the end of the book the reader is supposed to understand Havers's issues. While I certainly felt some sympathy, I still found the depths of her pathological anger to be inexplicable. Her class issues are never really explained either. Finally, the American couple at the hotel is simply ridiculous. George is American; she should know better.

Elizabeth George, A Great Deliverance (Bantam, 1989) ISBN: 0553278029

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: On Beauty

A dysfunctional academic family, headed by a dysfunctional academic, fights intellectual, academic, and personal battles. Howard Belsey finds himself teaching at the same institution as his arch-rival. More disastrously, he finds himself infatuated with his rival's college-age daughter. Victoria Kipps is a bit of a temptress, and Howard has no ability to control himself. Add to this equation Howard's long-suffering wife, Kiki, his academic superstar daughter Zora, one son competing with his father for Victoria, another fighting political battles he doesn't understand, and it becomes clear that this family is on the fast-track to disaster.

The book is set in what looks very much like Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I kept thinking that the school was modeled on Wellesley College (it's co-ed, but in all other respects seems a match). At least, that's how I kept envisioning it. I enjoyed the academic setting of this book, and absurdities of that world, which Smith details well. There were many times during the book when I simply wanted to hit Howard. I learned that I have very little tolerance for the weak-male mid-life crisis. I also occasionally wanted to smack Zora, who has a tendency towards the obnoxious. So, the characters are not exactly likable, hardly so. It says something that despite that I enjoyed this book very much.

Zadie Smith, On Beauty (Penguin, 2006) ISBN: 0143037749

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Chalked Up

In the 1980s Sey was a world-class gymnast. She was national champion in 1986. This is the story of all of the sacrifice, physical and emotional, that it took to be an elite gymnast. This is a world in which coaches, scream, hit, and berate students. Families make huge sacrifices and become obsessed with their daughters' success. Low grade injury and pain are constant. Daily workouts and routines risk serious injury. Girls are forced to starve to be as skinny as possible, and are told that three percent body fat is unacceptable. Injuries are handled only by a team doctor, whose main consideration is getting the gymnast back winning medals. 

Sey was at the peak of her career in the mid-1980s. Looking back in 2013 I suspect most of us probably know that some of this sort of thing happens in elite gymnastics. Still, the full explanation and Sey's personal story show that the scope of the problem is overwhelming. I'm curious as to whether things have gotten better in the twenty-five years since Sey competed. Sey suggests that no one addresses these problems because too many people get a sort of perverse pleasure watching pre-pubescent girls fly through the air in tight leotards. I'm sure that does play a role. Sey is very clear that hers is not the story of a girl pushed unwillingly into the elite levels of gymnastics. She was and is obsessed with achievement just as she does and did love gymnastics. Sey was willing to do whatever it took to be the best, and this is not a story of victimization. Sey wanted to be the best so badly that she was willing to endure any level of emotional and physical abuse. Her parents had invested so much money that they were willing to let her. The takeaway is that there are systematic problems in competitive gymnastics. Will they ever be solved? I'm not sure.

Jennifer Sey, Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics (It Books, 2009) ISBN: 0061351474