Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

This is the sixth in the Chief Inspector Gamache series but it’s the first I’ve read. I began with Bury Your Dead because the reviews were so great (The American Library Association named it the best mystery of 2010.) but now I wish I’d started with, Still Life, the first in the series as I plan to read them all. The series and the quality of the writing remind me of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series and they've won many of the same awards.

In addition to a rip-roaring mystery and great characters, this tale makes the city of Quebec a character and has me pining to visit there this winter (and I don’t ever pine to visit a northern city in the winter).  Penny depicts the unique history and beauty of the old walled city so beautifully that I can easily imagine myself sipping hot chocolate and eating croissants after a quick stroll.

Gamache is visiting his mentor in Quebec City to recover from an investigation that had dreadful consequences that are haunting him.  He visits the English Literary and Historical Society where a crazed historian goes in search of the remains of Samuel de Champlain, Quebec’s founder.  When a body is found in the Society’s basement the wide divide between the French and the English threatens to ignite the separatists. Meanwhile Gamache sends an aide to the village of Three Pines to take a second look at the circumstances behind a hermit’s murder. The book has three distinct story lines, the two murders and Gamache’s lament over his last case and Penny skillfully intertwines them to make the mystery a complex emotional ride.

Every character in this novel seems to leap from the page and bring to life the smoldering tensions in the city and in the seemingly peaceful village.  The book will also educate readers about the feelings behind the separatist movement in Quebec and on the history of Quebec’s founding.

Penny says her books are inspired by two lines from a W.H. Auden poem: Goodness existed, that was the new knowledge/his terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it.  It’s rare that a novel shows us the inner terror that the characters suffer while reinforcing that goodness exists.  Inspector Armand Gamache fights terror both within himself and within Quebec and he does it by searching for the goodness that exists

Summing it Up:  Read this to fall in love with the characters, setting and language in this page-turning mystery.  Start with Bury Your Dead or with Still Life, the first in the series.  

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: September 28, 2010

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine Hanna, who graduates from Brown University on the day The Marriage Plot begins, had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”  She adored Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, and Dickens.  Thus, classmate Mitchell Grammaticus is the perfect man for her.  He adores her, he’s smart and her parents find him as ideal as Mr. Darcy.  But Madeleine has fallen for the frightening Leonard Bankhead, a loner in her semiotics seminar. 

Semiotics, the theory and study of signs and symbols, is the glue that holds this novel together. “Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism.  Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution.  It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental…if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option… You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about. “

What everyone else was talking about was looking behind things for their real meaning and not dwelling on what people did or even on what was realistic. In that context Madeleine could easily fall for Leonard because of who he was while ignoring his bizarre behavior.  

Madeleine noted that “Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights.”  Reading the second half of this novel after trudging through the weightiness and satire of the first few hundred pages is also like shedding a heavy burden.  The latter sections dealing with the love triangle composed of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are a soaring song compared to the funeral dirge of the novel’s beginnings. 

Mitchell’s struggles with his dream of serving the destitute and dying under Mother Teresa in Calcutta and his interest in Christian mysticism are both beautifully written and eminently readable.  Leonard’s descent into mental illness that seemed overdrawn early in the novel, realizes a perfect symmetry with Madeleine’s efforts to save him. The novel‘s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read – I just wish it might have been a more entertaining journey to reach it.

Summing it Up:  Read it to admire the writing and for the careful, Tolstoy-like manner in which the ending captures the wisdom contained throughout the novel.

Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date:  October 11, 2011

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