September 24, 2020

Two British mystery novels: “Maisie Dobbs” and “The Turn of the Key”

Jacqueline Winspear started a detective series in 2003 starring “Maisie Dobbs,” a female English private investigator and psychologist. We hear of Dobbs’ life from 1910 to 1929: her mother’s death when she is 14, her college years, her work as a nurse during WWI, her apprenticeship with famous French sleuth Maurice Blanche and finally the opening of her own detective agency.

Her first case investigating where a client’s wife goes every week, brings up painful memories of her own war-time romance.

Winspear says her interest in history and World War I, in particular, was due to her grandfather who suffered from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There are now 15 books in the series which include Dobbs’ cases through World War II.

Winspear won several prizes for her debut novel, “Maisie Dobbs,” including the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and made it to the New York Times Notable Book of the Year list.

Ruth Ware, another Brit who has made a name for herself in the mystery genre, is often billed as a psychological crime thriller author.

In “The Turn of the Key,” the reader is introduced to nanny Rowan Caine who is sitting in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of one of the children in her care.

Having received comparisons to Agatha Christie, Ware updates the spooky house setting by having it be a “smart home” with cameras everywhere, voice-controlled windows, door and lights and an out-of-town boss who indiscriminately starts talking to Rowan like a voice from out of the blue.

There is the requisite love interest, a poison garden and a plot twist. Ware wrote the book as a nod to “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, but the main characters are quite different.

Three of Ware’s books have been made into movies, “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” “The Woman in Cabin 10” and “The Lying Game.”

Winspear is the more literary writer, but Ware knows how to spin a suspenseful tale. Both are worthy of the English crime literary club.

“The Pioneers” by David McCullough

“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” by David McCullough

I have read almost all of historian David McCullough’s books (“1776,” “The Greater Journey,” “The Wright Brothers,” to name a few) so I was excited about his new work, “The Pioneers.” Two chapters in, I decided I was not sufficiently engaged enough to continue. The writing seemed to be merely a recitation of people who moved to the post-Revolutionary Northwest Territory, namely Ohio and environs.

Months later, “The Pioneers” became available on my audiobooks app and I decided to take another crack at the saga of men and women who pushed American civilization west. The book was able to keep my attention as an audio experience.

While McCullough writes about Manasseh Cutler and Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putman, Puritans from New England and principals in the development of Ohio, of much more interest are mentions of personalities who have a connection to the Ohio Territory: “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, George Washington (an early investor), Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, Lewis and Clark, John Quincy Adams and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Ohio Company was forward thinking in many respects incorporating freedom of religion and education in new settlements. The founders were also abolitionists who wanted Ohio to be a non-slave state and kept it such, even as Thomas Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to insert some slave ownership exceptions in the by-laws of the Northwest Ordinance.

Native Americans are the adversaries in this narrative; I was definitely reading history through the eyes of an older white man, however brilliant he may be.

If you are interested in early American history however, “The Pioneers” may suit you, but it does not have the strong narrative that many of McCullough’s previous books possess. Reach for “The Great Bridge,” “The Johnstown Flood” or “John Adams” instead.

Two Modern American Fiction Works: “A Friend” and “Nothing To See Here”

When Sigrid Nunez finished “The Friend,” her publisher, Riverhead, decided to print just over 10,000 copies. It was her 8th book and this was a typical print run in the 23 years since she first had her work published. Slam, bam — she wins the National Book Award for this elegant little novel focused on a female writer mourning her mentor who took his own life. He leaves behind an 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo whom our narrator feels impelled to adopt. The nameless author’s life with the dog is the surface story, while underneath is a rumination on writing and the writer’s place in current society.

Nunez tackles dark topics with humor and utterly unique prose. A delicious revelation towards the end of the book will perhaps summon a puzzled smile like it did me.

Plot will not be the main reward in “The Friend,” but writing of the highest caliber. It did not hurt to have a charming dog as a main character either. Hey, whatever gets people to read fiction with a capital F.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Credit: Harper Collins Publishers

Another slim novel packing a literary wallop is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing To See Here.” Lilian, a directionless woman living in the attic of her indifferent mother’s home, is asked to care for her old school friend’s two step-children. Magical realism steps in and makes these children literally flammable.

Lilian moves into the guest cottage of her friend Madison’s estate and is tasked with keeping the kids from burning down their home and bursting into flame in public. Their politician father is being considered for Secretary of State and having odd and possibly dangerous children is, shall we say, a career detriment.

Lilian’s unresolved feelings toward Madison and her nascent love for her friend’s damaged step-children is the heart of the novel, but the wacky family situations and acerbic prose will have you laughing out loud when you don’t have a lump in your throat.

“Nothing To See Here” was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, People, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and Time Magazine. This is the book I have been looking for since “Geek Love.”

“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

If you like books and libraries, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean is highly recommended. Her journey starts with her son fulfilling a school assignment to interview a city worker. He chooses a librarian. Orleans starts to reminiscence about happy childhood times with her mother as they regularly visited their local library.

The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library starts as Orlean’s point of departure, but she quickly branches out to include how the LA library system began, thumbnail sketches of notable past library directors, and then segues farther afield to consider the history of books and libraries. Fascinating sections deal with Andrew Carnegie’s library building boom, book-mobiles and book burning.

Each chapter begins with a handful of seemingly random book titles that cleverly appear in the subsequent writing. Throughout the work, running questions include: Who or what started the fire? Will the Goodhue library building be salvaged or torn down? Will libraries stay relevant as we enter ever more deeply into internet culture?

Some of my favorite sections of the book illustrate what libraries, worldwide, are doing to keep libraries as not only repositories of information, but as community meeting places for people of all ages and needs. You can see a concert, take a yoga class, get tax help or sign up for free computer time at many libraries.

Orlean, a staff writer for “The New Yorker Magazine,” also counts 
“The Orchid Thief” and “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” as some of her previous books.

One final note. My lovely hardcover library copy of “The Library Book” is a brilliant red with gold lettering; the trompe l’oeil check out card inside the back cover shows none other than Ray Bradbury and Susan Orlean as having both checked out the same book. Long live libraries!

The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford

A friend was moving to California and gifted me with three door-stopper sized books before his departure. All three tomes are by historical fiction author Edward Rutherford and depict centuries worth of Irish history. The shelter-at-home time has been the perfect opportunity to tackle the first 800-plus page volume, The Princes of Ireland.

Rutherford has the amazing talent of making history come alive by creating fictional story lines which are woven into mention of real people, places and recorded events.

From the early time of druids and human sacrifice, to the arrival of the Vikings, St. Patrick and the English to the Emerald Isle, we become invested in the personal stories of warriors, farmers, priests, wives and children. Romance runs through the chapters as characters find and then lose love or miss it altogether due to historical fate.

The other two large volumes Rutherford has written about Irish history are Dublin Foundation and The Rebels of Ireland. Even those with no Irish blood might find these historical fiction books edifying as well as entertaining.

I previously wrote a blog post on Edward Rutherford’s excellent book entitled Paris.
Here is the 2015 blog post link:

Genius & Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht

This has certainly been a time for book-lovers to get immersed in history and large novels. While some book reviewers have suggested picking up War and Peace or One Hundred Years of Solitude, I chose books to learn more about Jewish and Irish history.

Norman Lebrecht has written a jam-packed history book entitled Genius & Anxiety – How Jews Changed the World, 1847 – 1947. Freud influenced how we view sex and psychology. Einstein pioneered concepts of time and physics. Marx mapped out the elements of communism versus capitalism. Kafka and Proust changed how we view literature. Sarah Bernhardt revolutionized acting and celebrity.

Less well-known people also contributed to our modern world. Karl Landsteiner helped make blood transfusions and major surgery a reality. Paul Ehrlich helped formulate chemotherapy. Rosalind Franklin paved the way for genetic science. Siegfried Marcus may have created the first motor car.

Lebrecht frequently writes about music so there is ample mention of seminal composers like Mendelssohn in the 19th century and Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein in the 20th. He highlights Korngold and Eisler on the West coast and Leonard Bernstein in the east. In truth, what would Hollywood or Broadway look and sound like without Jewish creativity? Name three famous American composers and one reels off George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein.

The book’s brilliance is particularly in Lebrecht’s description of what was happening in the world as he profiles these creative people. Industrialization, the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis, the McCarthy era, the creation of the state of Israel, all figure into this expansive canvas. Lebrecht does not argue that Jews are genetically smarter and more talented than others but that they have a strong tradition of culture and education. Historically being outsiders may have also caused them to think “out of the box” and push new ideas in everything from science, politics, business and the arts.

Genius & Anxiety is the type of book you could either absorbingly read cover to cover, or skip around in, according to your tastes.