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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Codex by Lev Grossman

At the heart of Codex is a manuscript that may or may not have existed, written by a man with a mysterious background, that may or may not encrypt a secret that could devastate a prominent British family. Margaret is a medievalist with expert knowledge manuscripts, book bindings, and the putative author himself. A prickly, interesting character, she is skeptical at first that the manuscript even exists, but soon her passion to discover the truth drives her to take more and more risks.

She's not the protagonist of the story, however, just the sidekick to the hero: a bland, passionless banker bro.  It's what I recently heard described as the Hermione problem -- modern literature (and movies, and tv shows) are littered with Strong Female Characters who are quite accomplished and interesting (often more so than the male characters), who are no longer relegated to passive-love-interest roles but who nonetheless don't get to be the center of the story, either.

It's a major disappoint in an otherwise exciting story, and I think it's also the reason why the end fizzled out. Edward (the boring Wall Street dude) spends the novel wandering from scene to scene and letting things happen to him. He never really decides what he wants or whose side he's on, so fittingly he's left in the dust by people who wanted something (the manuscript, the truth, revenge) and acted on it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo's Macbeth was the second novel I read of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This book was quite a bit heftier than Vinegar Girl; Nesbo turns the tragedy into a crime noir story, and sets it in an unnamed town (probably Glasgow) in the early 1970s amongst police officers and drug dealers at war for control of the city.  Drugs -- specifically, two formulas with the street names "brew" and "power" made by three female chemists -- account for the supernatural elements of the play, and gangs replace the Norwegian and Irish invaders.

The advantage of turning Shakespeare's plays into novels is the opportunity to flesh out the characters' backgrounds, motives, and so on, an advantage Nesbo fully uses. Lady's obsession with blood and babies is a consequence of her harrowing past. Less effectively, Banquo is loyal to Macbeth despite his misgivings because he was a surrogate father to him. But the bulk of the narrative is devoted to Macbeth's and Duff's relationship; their shared past in an orphanage and later the police force explains both their friendship and their eventual determination to destroy each other.

Crime noir is not my favorite kind of fiction, but what kept me reading (in addition, of course, to Shakespeare's storytelling) was Nesbo's way of humanizing the characters. When the novel opens, pretty much every one of them had done questionable, or even downright evil, things, yet Nesbo gives each one chance after chance to be brave and do the right thing. Some don't, some do, some do after a lot of waffling, so the tragedy plays out as expected. But by showing the role choices -- both active and passive -- have in what happens, Nesbo manages to achieve a kind of hopefulness in the narrative despite the bloody end. People do terrible things, but they can choose to do good the next day. Redemption is always available, if one is willing to accept it.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

The Hogarth Shakespeare project consists of modern retellings of the plays; Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler's riff on The Taming of the Shrew. Tyler's Kate -- smart, prickly, insecure, a little odd, and kind of a jerk sometimes -- is not your typical "sassy" young woman. Pyotr is a dorky, equally odd Russian scientist working with Kate's father, in need of a wife right away because his visa is about to expire. Watching the two of them slowly grow to understand each other was entertaining and touching.

The other characters are good, too; Bunny is vain and bratty, but smarter than people give her credit for. She becomes a surprising advocate for her sister, although she ultimately doesn't understand why Kate goes through with the marriage (uh, spoiler!). Their father is an extremely absentminded scientist who loves his oldest daughter but doesn't understand why she doesn't leap at the chance of fraudulent marriage to a weirdo. Amusingly, his primary motive for the marriage is selfish -- he doesn't want to lose the best assistant he's ever had, right before his big breakthrough -- and only belatedly does he realize that he will therefore lose Kate's heretofore unappreciated housekeeping services. And Pyotr's landlady, her aide, and Kate's aunt all stole the few scenes they were in.

The only misstep is the speech Kate gives towards the end, defending Pyotr in particular and men in general. Not only did I disagree with the content (yes, it's wrong and damaging that men are taught to suppress most of their emotions, but no that doesn't mean men have it tougher than women), it seemed out of character for someone who otherwise tends to keep her own counsel.

My advice? Skip the speech and enjoy the rest of this delightful book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Bureau of Peculiar Crimes

Christopher Fowler's mystery series centers around London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, a department of oddballs who investigate odd crimes. They are led by the septuagenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May.  I read the first three novels: Full Dark House, The Water Room, and Seventy-seven Clocks.

There's a lot to like here -- quirky characters; abundant references to mythology, folklore, and London history; spooky crimes; and clever solutions. But for all the lighthearted elements, there is an undercurrent of darkness. Full Dark House had a terribly sad solution, and some of the deaths in Seventy-seven Clocks were quite upsetting. Fowler doesn't shy away from showing the evil in human nature.

Fowler also sets the books in different time periods; the first is set during World War II and details the Unit's first case, the second is set in early twenty-first century, and the third in the 1970s. This allows Fowler to comment on London society at different stages and to make use of different levels of crime detection technology. And yet certain commonalities become apparent. Bryant (an old-fashioned type) laments the changes happening all around him. But apparently he's been complaining for decades, which suggests the problem is his -- change is inevitable, but that doesn't necessarily mean things get worse. Reading all three together highlight that fashions may change but human nature doesn't.