Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Well, Flavia de Luce isn't Lord Peter Wimsey, but I still enjoyed this mystery novel with an 11-year-old heroine set in 1950's rural England. When I saw a summary of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie on Semicolon's list of Top 12 Adult Books Published in 2009, I immediately put it on hold at my library.

Flavia is a very precocious and presumptuous young lady. She has a graduate student's knowledge of chemistry and an analytical mind which quickly absorbs and processes details. So when she finds a man breathing his last in the cucumber patch of the family estate, she's thrilled (not terrified) and immediately begins to piece the puzzle together, always managing to stay one step ahead of the police inspector.

I was a little unsure about Flavia at first. Her eccentricities have not endeared her to her two older sisters, and there is an ongoing rivalry between them wherein Flavia uses her chemistry skills to inflict various, shall we say, discomforts. It's a little unsettling for an 11-year-old character to be talking about poison so frequently, not to mention the fact that the detective could just as easily be the villain, at least in the matter of skill and resources.

In spite of this little uncertainty, I soon grew sympathetic toward Flavia. Her family situation is unusual since her mother died when she was a baby, her father is obsessed with his stamp collection, her oldest sister is consumed with her appearance, and the middle sister lives in books (now that I could sympathize with immediately!). As for the mystery, it was not so very complicated, but there were enough suspicious characters to keep me guessing most of the way through. I thought the climactic ending was a bit overdone, but it wrapped things up neatly and with a touch of humor, at least.

Mysteries are an ideal genre for serials, and I'm glad to know that Mr. Bradley has another Flavia de Luce mystery scheduled to be released in less than two weeks. I've already placed a hold on The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag at my library!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

Ah, Lord Peter Wimsey, it has been too long since last we met. . . in the pages of book. Let me count the ways that I love thee, O masterful creation of Dorothy Sayers.

I love how Sayers manages to give her readers an education, in this case, by including details of rare Dante documents or folios, which Lord Peter collects. Even more interesting is that this was not yet one of her areas of academic expertise, since she didn't learn Italian and translate Dante's Divine Comedy until twenty years later (published in three volumes: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Sayers broad classical education, however, is evident in more than references to Dante. Lord Peter quotes poetry and other bits of literature quite naturally throughout his dialogues and even his monologues when thinking out loud. Perhaps after teaching my children along classical lines, I'll be able to recognize and understand more of the literary references that permeate these novels.

I love that Sayers' characters have depth, and even in this first Lord Peter mystery, we learn a lot about his nature and idiosyncrasies, including such humorous touches as his very dry British humor and the more serious lingering effects of World War I upon his health and disposition. Solving crimes is a distraction from the brutal memories of war, but he still wrestles with the fact that once he has found out who-dun-it, the murderer will pay for his crime with his life. He's tempted at times to leave well enough alone, but whether for the mental exercise and triumph or for a sense of justice he perseveres.

I began my acquaintance with Lord Peter in the middle of the series with Strong Poison when Harriet Vane makes her appearance. Although I still have eight novels and the collection of short stories to read (so I can't be certain of whether it's mentioned elsewhere) I find it very intriguing that we see this very personal side of Peter - of how he struggles with the fact that his sleuthing will not only bring justice, but death to the criminal - in the first and last novels, Whose Body? and Busman's Honeymoon. That's a nice bit of chiastic structure to bookend the series.

Sayers also introduces us to other important characters who reappear in later books. There's the inimitable Bunter, the epitome of an English butler in all matters of propriety and service, as well as assistant and sounding board for detective matters. Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess also plays a more prominent role in this novel than most of the others I've read, giving Lord Peter the tip about the murder and following the case with more interest than his brother the Duke thinks proper. The family dynamics here seem realistic, or at least they are stereotypical of how Americans envision nobility, which makes it all the more humorous.

I love British humor, probably because I always take things so seriously, and Lord Peter manages to be funny while at the same time being dead serious. But while there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, Sayers also deals with serious subjects such as psychology and morality, or the question of whether morals are universal or merely patterns infused upon one's brain. Without preaching or even drawing explicit conclusions, it is clear that Lord Peter Wimsey has a solid foundation for morality, at least when it comes to "thou shalt not kill." And that is another reason I love Dorothy Sayers mysteries: they were written before postmodernism killed all attempts at absolutes, and quite frankly, I find that very refreshing.

[Edited to add] I forgot one little thing that I didn't like in this book: Lord Peter and a few of the other characters were dropping their "g's" all over the place. I don't remember this bit of vernacular in the later novels, and it doesn't really seem fitting for an English gentleman, educated at Oxford and all. I'm not quite sure what Sayers was trying to accomplish with that, and I hope it doesn't last long.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

I really should write a review of one book before I start another, because now I don't want to put down another Lord Peter Wimsey mystery to write about A Girl of the Limberlost. So I'll try to make this short (although a quick scroll down my posts indicates that is generally not a quality of this blog).

As much as I liked Freckles, I think A Girl of the Limberlost is a much better novel. The characters are much more diverse and developed in more detail. The story is more complex, though there are some similar features: a neglected child with innate goodness and a strong work ethic, details about the Limberlost swamp and its creatures, and a little romance with the male lover becoming deathly ill. I wonder if these are consistent themes throughout Stratton-Porter's novels.

Once I got over the initial disappointment that this sequel did not directly or immediately carry on the story of Freckles and the Swamp Angel (though they do have minor supporting roles), it was easy to love Elnora - to cheer for her hard-working tenacity and good nature and sigh over every turn of hard luck. At one point, Elnora thinks she might as well be a fatalist for all the bad things that keep happening, but in spite of many difficulties, everything turns out all right in the end for all the characters. In comparison with the fatalism of Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Elnora's life is almost a fairy tale.

In respect to characters, I appreciated how Gene Stratton-Porter portrayed Elnora's mother, the primary antagonist. She was so grief-stricken and, as a result, self-centered that she has no regard for her daughter until the truth about her late husband's character really does set her free. Her transformation of character is truly amazing, and a healing balm to Elnora, who had hungered for her mother's love for almost 20 years. Mrs. Comstock's transformation is not the only biblical truth illustrated in this story. Elnora's mother gives a wonderful speech, no, an exaltation really, when she accompanies Elnora to the swamp to collect moths (which was the primary way Elnora funded her education). As I mentioned in my review of Freckles, Stratton-Porter presents a biblical worldview that is quite refreshing in this day of political correctness.

"Young people," she said solemnly, "if your studying science and the elements has ever led you to feel that things just happen, kind of evolve by chance, as it were, this sight will be good for you. Maybe earth and air accumulate, but it takes the wisdom of the Almighty God to devise the wing of a moth. If there ever was a miracle, this whole process is one. Now, as I understand it, this creature is going to keep on spreading those wings until they grow to size and harden to strength sufficient to bear its body. Then if flies away, mates with its kind, lays its eggs on the leaves of a certain tree, and the eggs hatch tiny caterpillars which eat just that kind of leaves, and the worms grow and grow, and take on different forms and colours until at last they are big caterpillars six inches long, with large horns. Then they burrow into the earth, build a house around themselves from material which is inside them, and lie through rain and freezing cold for months. A year from laying they come out like this, and begin the process all over again. They don't eat, they don't see distinctly, they live but a few days, and fly only at night; then they drop off easy, but the process goes on. . . There never was a moment in my life," she said, "when I felt so in the Presence as I do now. I feel as if the Almighty was so real, and so near, that I could reach out and touch Him, as I could this wonderful work of His, if I dared. I feel like saying to Him, 'To the extent of my brain power I realize Your presence, and all it is in me to comprehend of Your power. Help me to learn, even this late, the lessons of Your wonderful creations. Help me to unshackle and expand my soul to the fullest realization of Your wonders. Almighty God, make me bigger, make me broader!'" (296-297)

Well, you see, I can't do short reviews. But I think that long quotation was worth sharing. A Girl of the Limberlost is a delightful novel for those who love historical fiction. Like the Bird Woman's photographs*, it captures a place and period of history that are gone forever, but the insights to human suffering and joy, truth, and growth of character are timeless.

*My library had a copy of Moths of the Limberlost, a non-fiction title by Gene Stratton-Porter, originally published in 1912 and illustrated with black and white photographs. (Apparently some earlier editions had hand colored photographs - now that would be worth finding at a used book store!) I did not read it in its entirety, but it was interesting to see some of the moths mentioned in Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost as well as read some anecdotes about how the author incorporated her own research and experiences in these novels.