The Marrowbone Marble Company is a great big read — the kind of read that transports you all the way to West Virginia, 1941. The book tells the story of Loyal Ledford, an orphan who works the swing shift at the Mann glass factory and attends classes at Marshall University. Ledford is dating the factory owner’s daughter, Rachel, whose father does not feel that Loyal is intimidated enough by this in the way that a young man in his situation should be. Rachel and Loyal are falling in love when the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor. Ledford enlists in the Marines and lands on Gaudalcanal.
The book follows Ledford through the Pacific campaign on Guadalcanal, where he develops a friendship with a future Italian mobster, through his journey back to West Virginia and his marriage to Rachel (the factory owner's daughter), parenthood, alcoholism, and most significant of all, the rise of the civil rights movement.
It’s a gritty read. The reviews make parallels to Cormac McCarthy's work, and I can understand the comparison, because Glenn Taylor writes with the same straightforward, compelling style that keeps you hooked until the very last word. (How did I ever manage to miss Taylor’s first book The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart? I need to go back and read it, for sure.) But this book, oddly, reminds me of another book about the civil rights era — Five Smooth Stones, by Ann Fairbairn, which is twice its size and written in a totally different — dramatic, almost overblown style.
What the two books have in common is creating the sensation of being in the middle of this era and wondering (at least if you’re a physical coward, like me) how so many ordinary people could risk so much, to right such a serious wrong. Both books also have in common compelling characters, strong plots, and unexpected twists of fate.
The other strength of both of these books is that we are seeing the picture of a huge, national struggle through the eyes of the small players: the stories are not told by leaders of the movement, but by the people who were on the front lines, picketing segregated restaurants and renting houses to African-Americans. Not big deals in the civil rights world, but ordinary people who have a huge part to play in their small communities.
There’s a scene in The Marrowbone Marble Company where one of Ledford’s children is threatened in a way so appalling, but so easy for me to imagine (I could picture it happening here, in Nashua, on poll day) that I started to hyperventilate. I had been holding my breath as I read it.
At the end of the book, I felt slightly bewildered and confused, the way I am when I see a movie that removes me from my current reality to the reality of the movie. The Marrowbone Marble Company will do this for you, too — it may not be the most comfortable trip, but it's worth the ride.
Recently, for the purpose of sheer self-indulgence, I re-read the Blanche White series by Barbara Neely. I wanted to see if they were as good as I remembered. They weren't. They were better.
I had enjoyed reading them so much the first time around that I recommended them to my sister Pat. I never recommend mysteries to Pat. Never. Pat is not a mystery reader.
"You've got to read this."
"Why? Isn't it a mystery?"
"It's doesn't matter that it's a mystery. You'll love it. The main character — Blanche. You will absolutely love her."
And Pat did. She ended up reading the entire series, too.
If you have not read the Blanche White series (which consists of four mouth-watering reads: Blanche on the Lam, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go), and you have a sense of humor, it will not matter if you like mysteries or not. Blanche is so much fun that you want to keep reading her.
Blanche White is a fortyish African-American woman who does domestic work to support herself and the two children she inherited when her sister died. Blanche (whose name means 'white, white') is described as eggplant dark, and the irony of her name seems to have sharpened her sense of justice and the way she looks at the world.
Blanche on the Lam, the first novel in the series, opens with Blanche defending herself in court against a bad check passing charge. I realized, as I read it, that I had never before been inside the head of a modern African-American woman who is strong and intelligent and up against the law. I've been inside the heads of many African-American women before in my reading, but no one quite like Blanche. Blanche does things her own way.
After being convicted of check fraud, Blanche escapes from jail by walking away during some confusion and goes to work a short-term contract for a wealthy white family in their country home. She feels that this will give her some time to sort out what to do about the check fraud while earning some money. The characters in the house could be out of any Gothic novel: the troubled young married couple; their rich elderly aunt, sequestered from the rest of the people in the house and supposedly ill, who reeks of alcohol every time Blanche brings her food; and Mumsfield, the eccentric nephew. Mumsfield has Mosaicism, a form of Down's syndrome, and seems to be telepathically linked to Blanche.
Blanche is not happy about the connection she feels with Mumsfield, because she maintains a very clear line of separation between herself and the people she works for. She talks about Darkies' Disease, her name for a syndrome that she feels afflicts some black domestic workers who act as if the white people who employ them to do their dirty work are beloved family members. When Blanche starts to care about Mumsfield, she wonders what is happening to her. Is she finally succumbing to Darkies' Disease? Then events escalate, with the murder of a law enforcement official, and the fun gets more intense, with Blanche seeming to be the only one clued in to what's happening.
What I love about this book (and the others in the series) is that Blanche is such a well-developed character. She not only explores the conflict of being a black domestic in the white world, she talks about the conflict she has with other black people about choosing to be a domestic worker. Blanche is a capable woman and her family feels that she should have been a professional: a nurse or a teacher. But Blanche likes her work, is good at it, and likes the control she can maintain over her own schedule.
And, of course, she's a nosy lady. What better profession could a snoop have?
After a satisfactory ending to Blanche on the Lam, we next find Blanche on her way to a tony black-only resort called Amber Cover in the next novel in the series: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth.
Blanche Among the Talented Tenth is a delight. In it, we see two other sides of Blanche —Blanche as mother and Blanche as lover. Blanche's children are visiting weatlhy friends at the resort and she goes up to see them and the people they are visiting. It's partly a reconnasissance mission: Blanche wants to find out what kind of people her children might be turning itno. They are going to a private school, and she's not crazy about some of the attitudes they have been developing — especially about skin color.
This was a great read for me, because in it Blanche explores prejudice within the African-American community — prejudice about skin color and class. Blanche has always had to deal with how dark-skinned she is: for me, it was a revelation to discover that the need to be light-skinned prevails among some members of the African-American community.
While Blanche is busy dealing with her feelings about color, the son of a prominent Amber Cover commits suicide and another resort member suffers a suspicious death. When Blanche is asked to help discover what is going on, she uncovers secrets that explain the murderer's motivation. All of this happens while she is being pursued by a man who makes no secret that of his infatuation with Blanche.
In Blanche Cleans Up, we're in Boston. Blanche is working as a substitute for a family friend at the home of an old-time Boston politician, who is running for bigger and better office. Of course, Blanche stumbles into a crime and a scandal — one among the rich and one among the poor. How the communities connect to one another is at the heart of the mystery.
I loved Blanche Cleans Up, partially because I am somewhat familiar with the setting, having spent a lot of time in Boston and a little time in Roxbury. It was also nice to get to hear how people make their way through the confusion of city government.
The fourth (and I hope, not the final) book in the series is Blanche Passes Go. In it, Blanche returns to her hometown of Fairleigh, North Carolina, after three years in Boston, for a summer spent helping her best friend Ardell in Ardell's catering business. While she's in her hometown Blanche has to confront her past every way she turns: David Palmer, the man who raped her is still in town and runs with the crowd that tends to hire Ardell; she has to deal with her relationshop with her mother, and she has to; she has a new relationship with a man named Thelvin, who she cares deeplu for but does not care for his possessiveness; and she has to deal with her old boyfriend, Leo, and his new wife.
I liked Blanche Passes Go and I hope that Ms. Neely is not going to end the series here. I felt flike the title was so apt: Blanche had finally passed go. Her children are on the the edge of adulthood, and Blanche will soon have an empty nest. Blanche has cleared up so much of her past that the future is much wider than it used to be. I was hoping to see Blanche expand. I was thinking that she could open a restaurant in Boston, one that would become a real foodie hangout. Or maybe she could go into real estate: helping black people get way more of the pie than they have in the past. Or she could get onto some Massachusetts political committee and get appointed to do something about public school foods. The possibilities are endless.
I just finished Hometown Appetites by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris, at the suggestion of my sister Pat and her significant other, Dan. They're both foodies (and chefs) and they passed on this book, asking me to let them know what I thought of it.
And what did I think of it? I thought it was a fabulous story, told in a drier way than I would have liked. Hometown Appetites is the story of Clementine Paddleford, who was the food writer in the United States from the 20's to the 60's. How come I had never heard of her?
Well, I bet you've never heard of her either, unless you are some kind of food writing junkie. It seems to me, after reading this book, that Clementine Paddleford created food writing. Without Clementine Paddleford there would have been no Craig Claiborne, who is the first food writer I ever heard of.
Paddleford was an amazing woman --- a farmgirl from Kansas who rose to be one of the most famous reporters of her time. The fact that she did all this after having had throat cancer and had a silver tube in her throat is simply incredible.
Definitely a good read, although I wish the writing was a little juicier. And I am going to try some of the recipes. (The essay describing how the testers updated the recipes from the original is great reading.)
I was compelled this week to re-read S.J. Rozan's mystery series, featuring Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin and her partner Bill Smith, who originally hails from Kentucky. (Those of you who read me regularly will understand why I'm attracted to a series featuring these two people.) I'm blasting through these mysteries, finding them as enjoyable the second time around as they were the first.
If you haven't read Rozan, you're in for a treat. I was hooked from the moment that I read China Trade, the first book in the series. In the debut novel, Lydia Chin and her partner Bill Smith are hired to investigate the theft of some Chinese export porcelain from a Chinese-American society headed by one of Chin's childhood friends. It's a great first for a series --- strong characterization, believable plot, and good writing. I immediately cared about Lydia and her family. Lydia is the youngest of five and the only girl in her family, all of whom seem to feel that she should get a real job and find a nice Asian man to marry. One of the great things about the series is the ongoing tension between Lydia, her brothers and her mother, and their reactions to Lydia's American partner.
China Trade is told from Lydia's point of view. The second novel, Concourse, is told from Bill Smith's point of view, and in his voice. Concourse has a more complex plot than the first novel, involving an old people's home in the Bronx, the Bronx Renaissance, gangs, and plain old thievery. In Concourse, we learn a lot more about Bill Smith's character. He plays classical piano for enjoyment and therapy, and there are wonderful descriptions of the pieces he is learning to play. Concourse won the 1996 Shamus award for the best PI novel.
Mandarin Plaid, the third book in the series, takes us back into Lydia's head. She's called on by a friend of her brother Andrew, Genna Jing, to make the money drop in a ransom case. Andrew is Lydia's favorite brother, probably because he is also bucking the family's traditional values. He's a gay man who is not out in Chinatown, and a working artist --- a photographer. What's interesting in this book is that the ransom is not for a person, but for Jing's original sketches for her clothing line, Mandarin Plaid. Once the drop goes bad, Lydia and Bill need to figure out what's really going on. The plot involves the fashion industry, a crooked cop from Bill's past, and, once again, the inability of Lydia's family to believe that private investigation is what Lydia likes to do, and that she does it well.
Right now, I'm in the midst of No Colder Place, told from Bill's point of view. He goes undercover at a construction site at the request of a former colleague to investigate strange goings on. At this point, there are two dead bodies, a lot of theft, ans a lot of complaints from Lydia, who is working undercover as a secretary to back Bill up. She hates office work. This one won the Anthony, another award given at the Boucheron Mystery Conference (like the Shamus).
What makes this series so good?
It's a series for grownups. It's well-written and realistic, but not particularly gory. New York City is not just a location, it's another character. The sexual tension between Lydia and Bill is part of the series, but not an excuse for it. The characters are interesting and believable. I'm harping a lot on the believable right now, having just finished Chelsea Cain's Sweetheart.
Sweetheart is the sequel to Heartsick, both of which feature a female serial killer who hunts down a male detective named Archie Sheridan. I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe in Gretchen Lowell, the killer. Plus, have I mentioned that I am done with the serial killer genre? I feel that the bar was set incredibly high by Thomas Harris when he created Hannibal Lecter, and since that time, no one has gotten close, with the possible exception of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series. Maybe it's just me, but I am tired of reading about psychopaths.
This week I've read a few books, all of which have a mystery theme. The first one was The Eight by Katherine Neville, which was a real thriller. I enjoyed it. The characters were quirky and fun and the heroine was not the usual gorgeous blonde. I liked the idea of the Montglane Service, a gorgeously jeweled chess set endowed with magical powers, and the bopping back and forth between 1972 and 1792. The only thing I did not like was the ending --- it was far too obvious and leads right into a sequel. All that said, I will be sure read the sequel when it comes out.
The next books I read were also much to my taste --- the first and second books in the Jane Austen mystery series: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrove Manor and Jane and the Man of the Cloth by Stephanie Barron. I found these to be perfect summer reading. I liked the author's idea of having Jane Austen detect crimes and I found the weaving of Jane into the crimes deft and entertaining. I'll read more of these.
Next, I read Dolly Departed by Deb Baker, which I found only okay, although in the defense of the author, it probably has something to do with my not being into dolls. I also found the characters a little bit too similar to each other to keep them straight.
After Dolly Departed I re-read Mystery House by Kathleen Norris, still a delicious read almost 70 years after it was published. Granted, it's sometimes sentimental and over the top, but the plot is clever, the characters are well-drawn, and it's fun. (You must remember, though, that Norris was a woman of her time. I did not appreciate her descriptions of Asians, although I am sure they were considered appropriate during her own time.)
Child of A Rainless Year --- Jane Lindskold. This is the third time that I've read this book, and each time I thoroughly enjoy it. It tells the story of Mira Fenn, a high school art teacher who returns to the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where she was born, after her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is planning to simply sell the Victorian house she has inherited, but she feels strangely unable to do so. She becomes more and more involved in restoring the house and in attempting to find out what happened to her mother, whose disappearance 40 years ago lead to her adoption.
Part mystery, part fantastic story, Child of A Rainless Year is a great read. I love the author's usage of liminal space in the plot, as well as magic, color, and kaleidoscopes. This is a book that I would love to have a sequel. There are lots of questions that are left to be answered.
The last book this week is Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault, the story of a female Bureau of Land Management agent and her wolf, Mountain. I liked it, and I definitely felt it was better than Dolly Departed, but I did not find it compelling reading. Maybe it's the wolf. A major plot point revolves around this wolf and I'm really not into wolves. I loved Jane Lindkold's book, but I could not get into her other series, which also involves wolves, so maybe it's the canis lupis.