Monday, January 31, 2011

Bamboo and Blood by James Church

Bamboo and Blood (Inspector O, #3)

James Church's series of North Korean Police Detective Inspector O is something of an anomoly in the world of detective fiction. Here we have a keen-eyed detective whose field of expertise is not so much citizen-on-citizen violence as government-on-citizen violence. While Inspector O is a patriot of uncommon fidelity, the angle from which we view his mind working is not so much internal as external. We, facilitated by the author Church, are watching Inspector O make decisions and we are making an analysis. We are foreign agents--we are being taught to be foreign agents--in this series written by a foreign agent. We are being shown what to look for, and this is latest edition, we are even being taught tradecraft. Wacky tradecraft, but there you have it.

I like Inspector O very much. The author has a depth of compassion for him and his close compatriots that helps us to imagine them with a depth of character and a degree of humanity. We know so little about North Korea, every bit of description helps us "to put flesh on the bones", so to speak. And if even a portion of the descripton given us here of that woe-begone country is true, North Korea and its people are in a world of hurt.

I especially liked this third book in the series because Inspector O was given his head and allowed to travel overseas. He was quite witty when describing Geneva and New York, the "talks" going on there, and the spymasters he encountered. Much of the best parts of this book consisted of conversation rather than description, so Church is taking a unique jog in the business of series writing and engaging the reader in a way different from others writing detective series. Church's method is more cerebral, and less kinetic, the characters more likely to suffer psychological damage than physical. Approach this with an open mind, and I believe you will be amused, but will also have plenty of food for thought.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)

Loved the idea of this series about a female private investigator in London between the Wars from the start, though through it I recognize the difficulty of keeping a series advancing without stagnating. I so enjoyed the first books in the series, but passed up many opportunities to pick up this seventh in the series until I came across an audio version and had time on my hands. Maisie Dobbs, investigator extraordinaire, has a touch of the mystic about her which makes her feel both contemporary and exceptional. She may be reserved to a fault, but that particular characteristic is prized in certain fields. In this installment, Maisie and her sidekick Billy uncover the killer of an American mapmaker in France during the Great War. The series ends with a promise of great changes in the lives of all concerned, which will undoubtedly spark the interest of avid fans.

I was also struck this time with the thought that the series would make great Masterpiece Theatre as it does not delve into the lurid, and sometimes gruesome, details of murder or passion. It could, with some tinkering, be a profitable vehicle for a number of actors to strut their talent and keep the television public amused. However, I see no sign of the film options mentioned on her website. Filmmakers, take note!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air

A friend says this is less an immigrant narrative than a meditation on marriage, on a dysfunctional family, on ordinary life. It is true that much of it appears to be lies. Or story. Perhaps that is all the immigrant experience, or ordinary life, is...all story. We can make our own story if we don't like the hand we're dealt. That is the beauty of fiction. In the last third of this novel I was struck with some echo of the parents' lives being replayed in the son's. Of course by then we were made aware that his parents' lives were what he chose to tell us--to create for us--and his own life was equally suspect, the author being a self-professed liar. He created for the students in his English class the immigrant narrative of his father, wildly speculating and inventing on the horrors of the journey in the belly of an overburdened ship. His students began to see him--really see him--and it gave their own lives depth and grandeur. We don't fault the author of these inventions because if not true in his own instance, these things were undoubtedly true for some people, somewhere, sometime. And anything that can break through the insularity of a freshman English class is education.