Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kelly Link's Blog Tour

An extensive blog post on the work of Kelly Link has long been in the making, but in the mean time I wanted to provide this brief update of her blog tour which is in honor of the publication of the paperback version of Pretty Monsters (which I whole heartedly recommend, and it has a lovely cover by Shaun Tan, one of my favorite illustrators).

Here are some links to her recent postings - all worth checking out:

On self-publishing, hey! Dickens did it! If you didn't know, Link and her husband Gavin J. Grant run their own small and wonderful press, Small Beer, based up in Northampton (but IIRC, begun in Brooklyn)

On making 'zines! Hers is Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet

On generating story ideas.

And here's a link for the creative commons, downloadable version of her short story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic For Beginners. If you read them and like them, please consider buying a paper version at some point. Independent presses are good things to have.

Dame Agatha, My Cup Runneth Over!

I love Agatha Christie. I might love Agatha Christie more than any other author. I've read every novel, every short story and her autobiography (which is excellent). I re-read her books more frequently than I care to admit - I read them whenever I am sick or sad or distracted or have insomnia. I would happily defend her oeuvre with my dying breath. Look, are her books great literature? Of course not. She knew that herself and had no shame about it. But she wrote clearly and well, she was often very funny and was almost never dull. Her mysteries are remarkably consistent.

I've brought this up here and there on facebook and elsewhere and many people admit to reading and admiring her Poirot books. A smaller group of readers admit to enjoying her Miss Marple books. The one subset of her mystery oeuvre that gets no love whatsoever are what I refer to as her madcap flapper books. They include* early books such as The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit, Partners in Crime, The Secret of Chimneys, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, and later books such as They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown.

The Tommy and Tuppence books seem to be held in particular disdain. They were introduced in Dame Agatha's second novel, The Secret Adversary, in 1922. Childhood friends Thomas Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley run into each other in London, where they are both broke, unemployed and at loose ends after the Great War. They decide to advertise as adventurers and get embroiled in an admittedly ludicrous narrative that involves secret plans, the sinking of the Lusitania, amnesia, a millionaire from Texas, Bolsheviks, poorly understood politics (on Mrs. Christie's part), labor riots, kidnapping and (of course!) a wicked criminal mastermind who is behind it all. Sigh. I know. I first read it when I was about eleven, and I ate it up. I liked all of the subsequent books that follow them into adulthood and then even old age.

Look. I know what all the considerable problems are with many of the books listed above. The plots are preposterous, the politics are simultaneously simple minded, right wing and often times racist. Off setting that are her gallery of high-spirited, intelligent, adventurous and fearless young women who are full of self determination and blithely travel across the globe solving crimes. And if such a young women appears in one of the Poirot books of the twenties or early thirties, she may even wind up being a murderer.

I think the First World War effected the greatest social change of the Twentieth Century. Suddenly, women were working and earning their own money, they were unchaperoned, they drove, they lived outside of the home, they drank cocktails, they were freed from the tyranny of the corset. Agatha Christie didn't invent the detective novel or the female detective. Wilkie Collins (the remarkably feminist inventor of the mystery novel) wrote The Law and the Lady in 1875 in which Valeria Woodville solves the murder of her husband's first wife (and there is a mad, legless genius named Miserrimus Dexter, and if this isn't enough to make you want to read this book, you are clearly reading the wrong blog), and Baroness Orczy wrote Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910. But though the mystery writers of the 20s and 30s may not have invented the genre, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others made them modern. The Secret Adversary was published just twelve years after Lady Molly, but they clearly inhabit different universes. There's a giddy excitement in Christie's flapper adventures that has always appealed to me, maybe because they smell of a new found freedom.

*in my head - as this is a category I've pretty much invented, er, identified rather, myself.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Muscovites, Murder and Mayhem: Eye of the Red Tsar and Child 44

The fact that I've recently read two crime novels set in the U.S.S.R. under Stalin seemed excuse enough for a blog posting. Eye of the Red Tsar by first time novelist Sam Eastland (apparently, a pseudonym)was an interesting, if flawed, read. The portrayal of the Soviet Union in the early years of Stalin's dictatorship was a fascinating one, as was his depiction of the last reigning years of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The protagonist is Inspector Pekkala who operated as an impartial investigator for the Tsar. After ten years in the gulag post-revolution, he is pulled out by Uncle Joe himself to investigate the murder of the Tsar and his family, to once and for all lay the matter to rest.

The mystery and the setting are reasonably engrossing, but both his politics and his characterizations seem a little simple. Pekkala seems almost superhuman in his abilities as an investigator, his remarkable survival skills, and his incorruptibility. And I'm beginning to think I've read too many mysteries, but the ending seemed telegraphed and fairly obvious to me. The Tsar is seen as so kindly and upstanding I had a little trouble buying it. It also seems as if this is intended to be the first book in a series, and Pekkala will continue to investigate crimes for Stalin. Which doesn't really make sense, as according to Soviet dogma, a country as free and happy as the U.S.S.R. has no crime, so I'm a little baffled as to how this series will progress. At least I'm interested enough to find out how, if he does subsequently publish a sequel (and someone sends me a a reviewer copy).

I think I may be one of the last people to read Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's excellent thriller, which serves almost as a bookend to Eastland's offering as much of the story is set in the Soviet Union in the last months of Stalin's dictatorship. The protagonist, Leo Demidov is an officer with the Soviet secret police, and the book vividly tracks his moral and political awakening through his investigation of a series of child murders. There is paranoia and fear on every page. At some points the Soviet system is seen through the filter of office politics: imagine having a job where if the guy in the next cubicle doesn't like you, or is jealous, or wants your job, he can report you and get you arrested, or killed. The characters are believably canny and paranoid. Leo is a wonderful hero, as he goes on a true journey from being a willfully blind Soviet cog, to being someone who has found some kind of personal decency and a sense of purpose through both his investigation and through a deepening relationship with his wife. Late in the book, Smith indulges in some typical thriller mayhem and silliness which disappointed me as his book is compelling enough that the final coincidence seemed unrealistic and unnecessary.

Child 44 was also of particular interest to me as the serial killer in the book was based on Andrei Chikatilo, who was active in the waining days of the Soviet empire. About ten years ago, Fuzzy Bastard wrote and directed A Little Piece of the Sun (which was revived last year by Gemini/CollisionWorks at The Brick), which also used Chikatilo as a filter to look at a certain moment of Soviet history, so I was curious to see how the case would be used, transposed to a time nearly 30 years earlier. In the world of Child 44, serial killers cannot exist. They are a product of the decadent west. During the course of the investigation, various populations are blamed for the killings: the mentally disabled, homosexuals - or perhaps a crazed Nazi still in Soviet territory since the war. Bad memories of the war and famine hang over the bad present like a miasma.

It seems too silly and obvious to say, but a sense of history is awfully important if one is going to write historical fiction. People fall in love with their research and use entire chapters as an info dump (something I've unfortunately indulged in myself - but, hey, so did Victor Hugo!). The story might be interesting, but the feeling of the particular circumstances of the time and place being written about may be lacking. Tom Rob Smith avoids all of these possible pitfalls, and some over-plotting aside, delivered a thriller that managed to break through the sometimes seemingly impenetrable genre barrier, and made it to the Man Booker long list. His sequel to Child 44 is out now, is speeding (relatively) towards me via the US Mail, and I'm greatly looking forward to reading it and will report back here when I do!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Oh, Joss Whedon

WARNING: If you have not yet seen Season 5 of Angel, and care about such things and don't want any spoilers, you should likely skip this blog post.

Oh, Joss Whedon. The other morning I woke up very, very early and couldn't fall back to sleep, so I got up, made coffee and ate breakfast. While doing so, I turned on the TV and an episode of Angel was on TNT, so I watched that. It was from Season 5 and I'd seen it once before.

Okay. This is the episode where Fred dies. She was always a character that I found to be tolerable at best and a complete annoyance at worst. I don't know if Joss Whedon fell in love with his own creation, or if he was in love with Amy Acker, the actress who played her, but he really did over-play his hand. When she was introduced, all the men on the show pretty much fell for her, so there was an absurd amount of blather regarding the wonderfulness and adorableness of Fred. What is interesting is that Joss Whedon's dramatic sensibilities are strong enough that he made Cordelia, the other female character, simultaneously irritated, baffled and impatient of her friends' fascination.

Back to the episode I saw this week. I don't have much feeling for Fred in a general kind of way, but there was one moment of this episode that made me burst into tears. I mean, I was sobbing. And it happened both times I watched the episode. Even when I knew what was coming. And then when I fast forwarded through the DVD to draw the screen cap, it happened again.

Fred is lying in her bed essentially dying. Wesley, who has loved her for years is with her, looking for a cure or a solution in a book that is really a conduit for calling up every book that has ever existed. Alexis Denisof (who is married in real life to Alyson Hannigan who played Willow on Buffy) is a wonderful actor, and I don't understand why he doesn't work more. The point comes where she is clearly gone, and there isn't going to be anything he can do. Denisof's work here is really lovely. The character he's playing is desperately trying to keep it together as he watches the love of his life die in front of him. She finally asks of the mystical book he has with him: "Can that be any book in the world?" Then we cut to Wesley reading this:
"She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face. It would have been an old look for a child of twelve, and Sara Crewe was only seven. The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to. She felt as if she had lived for a long, long time."
This is what sent me over the edge. The above quote is from Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. I'm not sure when I first read it, but I couldn't have been older than six or seven, as I don't remember a time when I didn't know it, and I think I was around the same age as Sara when the story started. To say it was my favorite book is an understatement. For a while there, it was the only book.

Burnett's The Secret Garden gets most of the attention, which I think is a shame, as A Little Princess has so many things going for it. In particular, something I realized embarrassingly recently, is that as much as anything it's about the creation of a writer. It's one of the two great Victorian novels by female novelists about the creation of a female writer. The other being, of course, Little Women, that wonderful and problematic book by that child of Transcendentalism, Louisa May Alcott.

Jo gave up the writing life to marry that German professor and become a teacher, which to so many women and girls was an extremely heartbreaking turn of events. We don't follow Sara Crewe into adulthood, so we don't know if she continued to tell stories, but I choose to believe she did.
"She did not care very much for other little girls, but if she had plenty of books she could console herself. She liked books more than anything else, and was, in fact, always inventing stories of beautiful things and telling them to herself. Sometimes she had told them to her father, and he liked them as much as she did."
How on earth could the girl described above not become a writer?

I think Joss Whedon is the only man I've ever heard of who has read A Little Princess. Girls are viewed as embarrassing creatures in our culture, so boys mostly avoid books that are too closely associated with them. Fred wasn't a writer, but she was a physicist, a hard scientist who was much more comfortable with books than with people, so her attraction to this book makes sense. It's about story-telling as an instrument of healing and a conduit to understanding the world. Joss Whedon likes morality plays and putting his characters in impossible situations full of difficult choices. He also has written a wonderful and vast array of female characters of distinctly different personalities which is, to say the least, rare. I think this scene (or really, it was just one cut) affected me so immediately and unthinkingly because I am so unused to being presented in our culture with things I actually care about.

Oh, Joss Whedon.