Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Didn't I Feed You Yesterday?

18. Didn't I Feed You Yesterday? A Mother's Guide to Sanity in Stilettos, by Laura Bennett

On the third season of Project Runway, the first that I watched and the one that got me hooked on the show, there was a striking, tall redhead in her early forties who had arrived with vintage Louis Vuitton luggage and a bun in the oven. She went through the early months of her sixth pregnancy designing and sewing gorgeous clothes, and wearing stilettos. I was instantly a fan. (I still think she should have won the whole shebang!)

Lately, she's been emceeing on various red carpets and writing the occasional column over at The Daily Beast, about the vicissitudes of raising five boys (her oldest child, a daughter, is out of the nest) in New York City, while trying at the same time to maintain a career and one's sanity. Now she has written a book of essays (illustrated by fellow Project Runway contestant Robert Best) on the subject, with wry wit and a no-nonsense attitude.

Bennett has no patience with so-called "helicopter moms", nor with those who drown their own needs in their children's lives. As she puts it, comparing parenting with flying, you have to "provide yourself with oxygen first, or you will be of no use to your children." This sensible attitude and the sly humor with which she expresses it has, of course, driven some with no sense of humor around the bend, as evidenced by some of the comments left on her Daily Beast column. These same people huff and puff and say, "It's all very well for her. She has nannies!" But they miss the point. You don't have to have nannies or a successful architect husband to realize that your kids are human beings, you aren't perfect, and that you have to relax, enjoy your life, and enjoy your children (while they are children). If you can be fabulous along the way, more power to you.

I have no doubt that it would be great fun to share a martini and dish with her, too.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The God of the Hive

17. The God of the Hive, by Laurie R. King

If you read my review of King's last book, The Language of Bees, you'll understand why I approached this book with some trepidation. But after some initial concern, I found that my fears were unjustified.

For those unfamiliar with King's Mary Russell series, know that she has married off inveterate bachelor Sherlock Holmes to a woman much younger than, but just as intelligent as, he. In her last, she also gave him a son by Irene Adler, as well as a daughter-in-law and granddaughter. So purists need not apply! And if you haven't read the last book, and don't want to know, read no further, because I have to give away some of that plot to discuss The God of the Hive. You have been warned!

When we last saw Holmes and Russell, they had rescued his granddaughter and his wounded son Damian, leaving for dead (or so they thought) the cult leader who had murdered Damian's wife as well as several other people. Circumstances had made Damian a suspect, and a warrant had issued for his arrest, as well as for the arrests of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and Mary Russell.

The tale continues, told from several points of view. Holmes has taken his son off by boat, picking up a stray female physician along the way, and gone to ground in Holland. Mary and the child Estelle have found their pilot, and are flying off, but someone shoots at the plane, wounds the pilot, and they are forced to land in a forested area where they meet, and are assisted by, an odd man who goes by the name of Robert Goodman. In London, meanwhile, Mycroft has been kidnapped, and is being held prisoner by persons unknown for reasons unknown.

All roads, in this case, lead to London, as Holmes and Mary try to re-connect via the agony column of the Times, staying one jump ahead of the evildoers trying to find them, while Mycroft tries to figure out where he is and why. All sorts of complications arise. If the plot sounds rather intricate, that's because it is, and if I have any criticism at all, it's that the plot is a mite confusing at times (but that's the Intelligence Service for you!), and there are rather too many new characters introduced, some of whom, if you've read Dr. Watson's memoirs, you may have heard of before.

But King is a master of misdirection, and of story-telling. In Robert Goodman particularly, King has created a very intriguing character, the disaffected scion of a noble family and shell-shocked veteran ("that old responsibility dream" as Peter Wimsey once said). Indeed, I think my favorite parts of this book were those with Mary, Estelle and Robert, learning more about him, and watching his easy play with the child.

So I'm happy to say that, unlike with her last, I did find this one satisfying, and can say that King is back on track, and I am looking forward to more, particularly if the end presages what I hope it does.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Florence: the Days of the Flood

16.  Florence: the Days of the Flood, by Franco Nencini

November 4, 1966.  The city of Florence, capital of Tuscany, repository of centuries of art and history, had prepared for the Armed Forces Day holiday.  What happened instead was a flood that devastated the city, though the loss of life was not as great as would likely have occurred had it not been a holiday.

Franco Nencini, a Florentine journalist,  writes in the days immediately following.  He is not content merely to describe what happened, though he does so in depth and to great effect.  He talks about why it happened, and anyone who watched in horror the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans will weep with recognition.  "The carabinieri  .  .  . had no further boats at their disposal  .  . ."   "Not one of [the authorities] realised in time what was happening."  "So many voices, so many recommendations!  And at the time of the tragedy there was only silence and impotence."  The story is the same.  Inadequate equipment, inadequate warnings, loss of forest land to "act as a giant sponge".   The same jockeying for political advantage.

But there are stories, too, of great courage, of great dignity, of cooperation and ingenuity, even of humor in the face of disaster.  Nencini tells the story of a young man who had clung to his roof for eighty hours, with no food or water.  When food was dropped to him by helicopter, he did not eat, but crawled, "at the limit of his strength", along the roof, to share the food with others.  "Priests, Communists, carabinieri, troops  --  these were united in the great work, sometimes risking their lives, chronically short of food and sleep."

Only about 30 people died, but thousands were rendered homeless, businesses were destroyed, there were major food shortages, and the loss to the city and region's patrimony was immense.  Ghiberti's great doors of the Baptistery were saved only because a gate miraculously held and kept them from being swept away in the flood's currents.  Cimabue's masterpiece, The Crucifixion, was horribly damaged.  "For two days monks and restoration experts went through the mud and water left behind by the inundation, recovering one by one the minute fragments of colour that had been flaked off by the water  .  .  ."   In the weeks and months to come, a second flood would descend on Florence, but this time a welcome one, for it was a flood of art experts and volunteers (the "angeli del fango", angels of the flood) who came to help save its history.

This was not Florence's first flood by any means.  The early days of November are a particularly vulnerable time for the city, and Nencini has included in his book descriptions of floods dating back to the 13th-century.  In another familiar trope, Marchione di Coppo Stefani wrote in 1333, that "all the people of Italy regretted the damage that had been done in Florence and the loss of merchandise (which was inestimable), except the Cardinal, who rejoiced, saying that all had been done by God in return for the damage which Holy Church had suffered in Ferrara at the hands of the Florentines  .  .  ."   I guess every age has its Pat Robertsons!

(For further reading, I recommend Katherine Kressman Taylor's Diary of Florence in Flood, and Robert Hellenga's novel, Sixteen Pleasures.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World

15. La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith

Not every battle of World War II was fought by soldiers, on the seas and oceans, on the beaches, on the landing fields. And if there were no combatants involved, some were still indeed fought in the fields and the streets, as ordinary English men and women went about their lives, riding out the storm of war, doing the small things that needed doing.*

This novel, a departure from McCall Smith's usual serial work, is about one such Englishwoman, Lavender Stone, in one small Suffolk village.

Lavender Stone did not go to Cambridge to find a husband, yet she did. While at Girton College, she met and was pursued by Richard Stone. Marrying him, she fell into an ordinary sort of marriage, gradually coming to love him as she had believed he loved her, only to find the idyll shattered when he absconds to live with another woman in France. La retreats to a cottage owned by her in-laws to lick her wounds, but is shortly called to go to France where her husband has been fatally injured in a freak accident. On the way home, her ship stops and the captain informs the passengers that England is at war.

Back in Suffolk, La begins to rebuild her life under the cloud of war. She must learn that life here is different from life in London, that people are different, that customs are different. As we have come to expect from McCall Smith, we are introduced to a variety of interesting folks, from Henry Madder, the arthritic farmer for whom La begins to do a bit of work, to Feliks Dabrowski, the Polish soldier and refugee in whom she takes an interest and who may not be what he seems, to her neighbors the Aggs and their odd son.

Gradually, La settles in. Then a chance word in a conversation with an Air Force officer gives her an idea, an idea that "came suddenly, as perfectly formed ideas sometimes do. She would start an orchestra." And so she does. Villagers and soldiers come together to play music, unifying the community in the face of a crisis that goes on, day after day, until they play a victory concert.

That concert is echoed years later, in the days of the Cuban missile crisis, when La brings the orchestra back together for a concert for peace, a time when, as I well remember, we all thought we were going to die in a nuclear holocaust. She chose "Bach for order; Mozart for healing", good choices, I think.

I don't believe that one can fully appreciate or understand this book if one does not take into consideration the great love that Alexander McCall Smith, a musician himself, has for music**, and his belief in its transformative power. It is music that brings La into her own, after a life that has been mostly reactive, a life that, as she herself says, has been that of a "handmaiden". Music, and the bringing together of others for the purpose of making music, helps her move forward into life and love.

* apologies to Winston for the paraphrasing!

** Surely the fact that he named a character "Leontine Price" is not accidental!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bite Me: A Love Story

14. Bite Me: A Love Story, by Christopher Moore

When we last saw our heroine, Abby Normal, Goth girl sidekick to a couple of vampires, she had bronzed them. And now she and her love monkey are all that stand between San Francisco and a giant shaved vampire cat. Actually, a lot of vampire cats. She must also battle her mother unit, who has no sympathy with Abby's desire to become Nosferatu. Poor kid. It's tough being a teenage emergency back-up mistress of the greater Bay Area night!

Typical Christopher Moore bizarre humor. (And it's not necessary to have read the preceding two books, Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, to enjoy this one.)

Locked In

13. Locked In, by Marcia Muller

The 27th Sharon McCone mystery finds McCone hospitalized, paralyzed by a gunshot wound to the head, in a "locked-in" state, meaning that she can hear, she can think, but she cannot move or talk. At best, she can respond by blinking - once for "yes", twice for "no".

Her colleagues gather to try to find out who attacked her, delving through old files on the not unreasonable assumption that this was likely related to one of her old cases.

Ordinarily, Muller writes from McCone's point of view. But because of the situation in which she has placed her protagonist, this book is written from multiple points of view. It's a departure which I found interesting, and which worked, particularly as we also got inside Sharon's head as she responded mentally to what she was being told by others. Muller really captured the frustration that someone who is "locked-in" must feel, particularly if that person is ordinarily as physically and mentally active as McCone.

Although some McCone fans may feel there is not enough of her in this novel, I liked this unexpected twist.