Irene Adler: Girl Detective

The Dark Lady (Sherlock, Lupin, and Me #1) by Irene Adler (Capstone)

The Dark Lady, which the publisher describes as written for children ages 9-13, is based on a promising premise: Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler met as children and, along with a third friend, began their detecting careers early. The characters in this series—though this is the first volume, the publisher makes it clear that more titles will follow—are engaging, if still being developed. Irene is willful and clever, a strong female figure; Sherlock is diffident and also clever; and their friend Lupin is equally clever and a gifted acrobat.

What disappoints here is the plotting. The book begins well enough, but the young detectives do relatively little leg-work or solving—certainly not what one would expect from characters who will grow up to be the Great Detective, the only woman to ever best him, and, we are told, a future master criminal—gathering up a few clues with some minimal adventure. The denouement, however, comes when the young detectives confront their murder suspects, who quickly offer a detailed confession.

This dependence on a rushed, third-hand solution makes it seem as if the author tired of presenting clues one at a time and decided to dump a whole bushel basket of them into the children’s laps in the last twenty or so pages of the book. Yes, The Dark Lady is aimed at a young audience, but youth and careful plotting aren’t incompatible.

This isn’t to say that this series won’t develop into something worthwhile. It has plenty of potential—but the first book in the series leaves much of that potential unrealized.


The Dark Lady will be available in bookstores beginning February 1. I received an early, digital review copy from the publisher.

Brava, Ophelia!

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee (Random House)

If you’re looking for one of those wonderful “children’s” books that works for readers of all ages, you’ll most definitely want to read Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. A retelling of the Ice Queen story, this books grasps the reader (yes, even grown-up readers) from the start and only becomes more compelling as it progresses.

Ophelia’s father has been hired to curate an exhibition of swords at a museum in an unusual town where it is always winter. Ophelia’s mother has recently died. Her father is burying himself in work; her sister grows increasingly distant. So Ophelia sets off to explore the museum, finding the boy of the title, then joining his campaign to save the world from the Ice Queen’s domination.

Ophelia is a wonderful character. She’s committed to the scientific method, even as events around her become less and less rational. She’s vulnerable: frightened (with cause) frequently and asthmatic. Yet despite this vulnerability, she finds the courage to act bravely when necessary.

Read this book for your own pleasure and/or share it with a younger friend. Get to know Ophelia, join in her quest. You’ll probably wind up hoping, as I am, that this isn’t the last of her adventures.

Necessary Poetry

Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, eds. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu,  (W.W. Norton)

On January 22, I received an electronic review copy of Poetry of Witness from W.W. Norton. Like all of the Norton anthologies this book is huge, so I haven’t begun to work my way completely through it, but I am already at a point where I feel that, even if I used every superlative in my writer’s armamentarium, I wouldn’t be doing this collection justice.

Poetry of Witness, which Forché also calls literature of that-which-happened, has a long history, though I find it less often than I’d like in English-language poetry, which seems more preoccupied with relating the complexity of individual emotion—whether joyful of mournful. Forché’s forward, “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Lives,” attempts to forge a definition of poetry of witness that captures its meaning for author, reader, and society alike, concluding

In the poetry of witness, the poems make present to us the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.

Forché reminds us that this living archive is not just figurative, but literal: Anna Akhmatova burned many of her poems after friends had memorized them, keeping them present when their physical presence would have been a very real threat to her life.

Poetry of witness emerges from, not after, experience, since it testifies to experiences that cannot be left behind, cannot become after. Forché argues that the language of poetry of witness is a damaged—and therefore transformed—language. The body of thought, like the body itself can be broken, (partially) rebuilt, mended:

The witness who writes out of extremity writes his or her wound, as if such writing were making an incision. Consciousness itself is cut open. At the site of the wound, language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic. The form of this language bears the trance of extremity, and may be composed of fragments: questions, aphorisms, broken passages of lyric prose or poetry, quotations, dialogue, brief and lucid passages that may or may not resemble what previously had been written.

This volume, which is arranged chronologically, is a companion to Forché’s 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting (also published by Norton), which focuses on 20th Century poetry of witness. Poetry of Witness, with its broader focus, offers a powerful lineage of refusal, of questioning, on individuals destroyed upon the altars of states. These poems are part of the flow of literary witness across the last five hundred years of our history: long, damaged, glistening strands, like ropes, like rivers, like the twist of dna. By testifying to the worst in us, they preserve not only horror, but the hope of something better.

I don’t have now, and don’t know if I ever will have, words to capture the fierce, essential nature of this collection. I do know I will read and reread it—and, I hope, use it as a spur to thought, word, and action.

A Heart that Soars and Dances

Bird with the Heart of a Mountain, by Barbara Mariconda (Amazon Children’s Publishing)

Yes, I’m not the first to say it, but good children’s/young adult books are good books for anyone. Barbara Mariconda’s Bird with the Heart of a Mountain is an example of just such a book. Set in Spain during the civil war, the book is narrated by Drina, a young woman who is half Romany, half Spaniard. At the book’s start, she is living with her mother among a small Romany group, but that life is upended when her mother is raped by a Nationalist soldier.

That rape sets in motion a series of events that lead Drina to unexpected places and people—and on each step of that journey she wrestles with the question of her own identity. Lots of people, especially certain young men, are eager to tell her who she should be, but she has the sense to realize that the real question is who she is.

Drina longs to be a dancer—and it’s this desire, along with her own questions about her identity that drive the narrative. The passages about dance—flamenco—and music are beautifully written, cultural history lessons themselves, and the book deals with history in other ways as well.

I first wanted to read this book because I was curious how it would make use of its setting in the Spanish Civil War. The war is background here, but important background that shapes the temperaments of many of the people she meets. As a Romany, Drina is so marginalized that neither side represents her. Both Nationalists and Republicans are more than willing to attack and pillage Romany groups. While the narrative makes clear that the position of some characters is more “correct” than that of others, this story never descends into a simple good side/bad side binary. Like the war itself, people are complicated, mixes of good and bad, sometimes compassionate, sometimes blind to the lives of those around them.

This book is currently available from Amazon in hardcover and electronic versions. The electronic version sells for only $3.99, so it’s most definitely worth taking a chance on—whether you’re buying it for yourself or for a younger friend.

Anna Madrigal, I Love You

I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the latest book in Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City series, and I am filled with a weepy-sweet nostalgia, glad to be spending time with old friends, but a bit wistful that they’re aging, just as I am.

I grew up in the SF Bay Area, so I’ve been reading Maupin’s books since they first appeared as serials in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was in high school then, part of a circle of friends that’s turned out to be nearly as eclectic as Maupin’s characters. Before Tales of the City was serialized, the only gay author I knew of was Tennessee Williams. I was devoted to him—but his plays and short stories were a mixed blessing, with the characters, especially the gay characters, inevitably coming to bad ends. Maupin showed me and my friends that the endings didn’t have to be bad. And he showed this to us day after day in the pages of the newspaper we all read eagerly each morning.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of The Days of Anna Madrigal because I think all the Tales books are best read “virgin,” but I can say that much of this volume takes place at Burning Man, an interesting location in which to observe Michael, Mary Ann, Brian, Anna Madrigal and their extended families.

This series has gotten richer over time; the characters have deepened, as have their relationships with one another. If you’ve spent time with them before, you’ll be able to settle into their company in great comfort. If you’ve never “met” them, let me assure you, they’re well worth meeting. This book, like the others in the series has a fundamental gentleness at its core, a willingness to forgive and be forgiven, that is a real tonic. Things aren’t always neat or pretty, but the characters keep working to do right by each other and, mostly, they succeed.

Put on something cozy and flannel, pour a glass of wine or brew a cup of tea, prop some pillows behind your back, and enjoy.

Flavia and Enola: Girl Detectives

I’ve been meaning for a while now to check out the Flavia De Luce detective novel series. They’ve got great cover graphics, so I’m always noting them on my strolls through bookstores, but until now that was as far as I’d gotten.

Now that I’ve read The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, I have to say they’re pretty much as I’d expected: lightweight, charming, best read in spurts. Flavia, the main character, is quirky and charming, but quirks and charms only get one so far. I’m not saying this is a bad book; I’m just saying it’s a book to suit a specific mood. Taken in too-large doses, it’s going to be cloying.

Flavia is a character along the lines of Nancy Springer‘s Enola Holmes. Both are smarter than most of the adults around them and creatures of action. Both draw on wide bodies of eclectic information to get themselves out of difficult scrapes.

When you want to cozy up at home with a novel that will entertain without making demands on you, pick up a Flavia or an Enola. Just remember you’ll enjoy them most in moderation.

Remembering the Plague Years

Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, by Sean Strub (Scribner)

Let me open by saying that Sean Strub’s Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is an essential, engaging piece of social history that belongs on everyone’s reading list. Word!

Body Counts is one of a number of books being released this spring that reflect back on major social movements of the late 20th Century. Other such titles include Eating Fire, Freedom Rider Diary, and Resister, all of which I plan to review upon their release. For some readers, these will be “history” books; for me they feel much more immediate.

My world has changed immensely over the course of my 50+ years. In high school in the late 70s, when I was drawn to gay rights issues, but didn’t yet view them as personal issues, I kept a picture of Leonard Matlovich hanging in my locker. In graduate school in the early 80s, I volunteered in support of a local non-discrimination ordinance that included gay men and lesbians. As a professional in the late 80s and 90s, I helped found the Lesbian and Gay Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (my field’s most important professional organization); co-edited The Lesbian in Front of the Classroom, the first published collection of writing by lesbian teachers; and taught several first-of-their-kind Composition courses designed to create a writers’ community among lesbians and gay men.

The years Sean Strub writes about in Body Counts are the same years I was engaged in my own activism, and his writing simultaneously makes those years feel very immediate and very removed historically. Today, at least in the liberal college community where I work, being lesbian is pretty much normal. I’m legally married (when a finance guy my wife and I were working with recently referred to us as “domestic partners,” we explained to him quite firmly that we are married and had never participated in that separate-but-equal charade). We’ll even be filing joint federal taxes this year, rendering unnecessary the asterisks and explanatory statements that have been accompanying my federal tax returns since we were married.

Strub’s book reminds us that this normalcy is quite a new phenomenon. In the period from the late 70s to the 90s we were definitely not normal. Roughly half the states in the U.S. had laws criminalizing sexual acts between people of the same gender. Not only that, but in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of these laws. (That decision was finally overthrown in 2003.) George Moscone and Harvey Milk were murdered by Dan White, who got a minimal sentence thanks to his “Twinkies defense.” The AIDS epidemic erupted, followed by all sorts of anti-gay legislation. We had a president who refused to use the word AIDS. Congress passed laws denying funding for any AIDS research or education programs that included information on safe sexual activities for gay men or lesbian. We were—quite literally—dying by the thousands, and, as the title of Randy Shilt’s book about the AIDS epidemic made clear, “the band played on.”

I experienced these years on the “left coast,” which makes Strub’s account of gay activism in New York all the more interesting. Strub was politically active from a young age. Before he began college, he worked as an elevator attendant in the U.S. Senate, and he spent years involved in D.C. politics. Ultimately, Strub gave up on his mainstream political dreams and began working more overtly on gay rights, particularly on the fight against AIDS. He went on to found POZ magazine and continues to devote his life to activism on behalf of those who are HIV+, particularly the economically and politically marginalized. Political figures, artists, writers—Strub seems to have known almost everyone, and they all appear in the pages of Body Counts.

Reading Body Counts will give you a detailed, accurate, engaging historical overview of this period. It will remind you of the necessity of street activism, as well as more mainstream politicking. It will also point out that the struggle (and really it’s struggles plural, not struggle singular) is nowhere near over. We have much to celebrate, but we can’t afford to be complacent.

Ten Different-But-All-Too-Similar Women

Ten Women, by Marcela Serrano (Amazon Crossing)

Marcela Serrano is a well-known writer in Chile, but Ten Women is the first of her books to be translated into English. The concept underlying the book is straightforward: nine women, all clients (some paying, some pro bono) of the same psychologist come together to tell their stories to one another. After the nine speak, an assistant to the psychologist tells the psychologist’s story as well. These chapters are framed by very brief opening and closing vignettes describing the psychologist viewing the women at a distance as they arrive for this group session.

I wanted very much to love this book. I’m particularly interested in literature from post-Pinochet Chile, and the idea of such a multiplicity of narrative voices was tantalizing. I wanted to love this book. But I didn’t. I’m not sorry I read it. I learned from it. But that act of reading was rather like eating a large serving of Swiss chard: I knew it was good for me, but the experience wasn’t intrinsically rewarding.

The women in Ten Women represent a broad range of classes, ages, and life experiences, including a young lesbian; the wife of a man who was “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime; a well-known television host; a poor woman struggling to provide not only for herself, but for her bipolar daughter and disabled mother as well. Unfortunately—and I don’t know if this is a characteristic of the original or a result of the translation—these voices come across in a sort of monotone, difficult to differentiate from one another.

The structure Serrano uses, while interesting in concept, is part of the problem here. The book is essentially ten monologues with almost no cross reference. Each woman speaks about herself, but we hear only her voice as she speaks. There’s no exchange of words among characters. In addition, we’re not offered visuals of the group or the room in which they’re meeting, so our experience is abstract. We get no interplay of voices, no facial expressions or body language.

The distance inherent in the monologues becomes most perplexing when the story of Natasha, the psychologist, is told by Natasha’s assistant. Natasha’s story is interesting, but doesn’t explain why she hasn’t met with the group herself or why she’s decided that this indirect form of self-revelation is appropriate in this therapeutic setting.

One learns about the details of daily life for women in contemporary Chile: the expectations and opportunities that are largely regulated by class. However, since we can’t really connect with these too-similar-despite-their-differences women emotionally and since the novel as a whole lacks any narrative arc, what we get is a set of details that could have been communicated with equal efficiency in a shorter work of sociological non-fiction.

If you’re interested in understanding some of the variety of contemporary Chileña experience, read this book. However, if you’re hoping to build relationships with characters and to travel along beside them you’ll be disappointed.

What Remains in the Congo

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram (Doubleday).

Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer is, like much travel writing, simultaneously engaging and off-putting. Engaging in that it, presumably, depicts a region the reader had some preexisting interest in; off-putting because, invariably, it is as much about the writer as it is about that region.

For years, I worked on a team-taught course that included among its readings Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a detailed and devastating account of the genocidal havoc wrecked on the Congo when King Leoplod of Belgium held the region as, more or less, a personal fiefdom. The story of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo in the name of profit is heart-rending. One wishes one could treat these atrocities as anti-colonial exaggerations, but the caliber and detail of Hochschild’s research make that impossible.

However, King Leopold’s Ghost documents not just the atrocities, but a worldwide crusade to end them. So we see not only the megalomaniac Leopold, but also those who revealed his actions and crusaded against them, inclulding E. D. Morel, originally an employee of Leopold’s shipping company, who noticed great wealth arriving from the Congo, but almost nothing—other than guns—going into it; African Americans George Washington Williams and William Sheppard who brought many of the atrocities to light, while suffering under the U.S.’s own racial caste system; and Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, later hanged for treason, who saw the struggle of the Congolese against Leopold and Belgium as analogous to the Irish struggle against British domination.

In the years since teaching that course I have often wondered and, to be honest, simultaneously wished not to know what contemporary life is like in present-day Congo. The country became independent in 1960 under the leadership of an idealistic Patrice Lamumba, who was assassinated within six months of that independence—and with U.S. cooperation—by his secretary Mobutu Sese Seko, and has since seen constant fighting among and dictatorial rule by para-military strongmen, of whom Mobutu was only the first.

Enter Anjan Sundaram, a graduate student in math at Yale, originally from India, who decides to become a reporter and sets off on his own to Congo to report shortly before the 2011 elections, which were touted worldwide as heralding a new era of democracy in the nation. Not surprisingly, what Sundaram encounters on the ground bears little resemblance to the images “new era of democracy” might inspire.

At first, I resented Sundaram’s presence in his own book. He came across as naive and self-centered, as determined to tell us about the difficulties he had adapting to life in Congo as about the actual lives of the Congolese. My resentment never disappeared completely, but as the book progressed, as Sundaram became more sure of himself and more knowledgeable about ordinary life in the Congo, I found him a more enjoyable companion, one I could learn from and whose complaints seemed not entirely unjustifiable.

One of the great disappointments of Stringer, as compared to King Leopold’s Ghost, is that there are no heroes. The accomplishments of the U.N. and N.G.O.s are negligible, the fighting among various militias from inside and outside the country is endless, and the endurance and denial demanded by day-to-day life are immense. Sundaran is telling us a truth, but this is a messy, violent truth with no change in sight.

At the end of the book, having proven himself as an AP stringer and having survived the post-election violence, Sundaran is able to leave Congo with offers of journalistic postings in several regions. The Congolese remain in Congo, the implication being that their story will continue as painfully as before, but without a ground presence of reporters to cover it.

One More Wonderful Book of 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra (Hogarth)

I spent a good part of the last two days of 2013 reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Although I’m not sure why, this book was on my radar before it came out, and I bought it in hardback within a few days of its release, certain somehow that that would be the right choice. Right, indeed.

The best word I can come up with to describe this book is luminous. The prose, the characters, the plot have a glow about them. That is not to suggest that Constellation is a happy book. Rather, this is a book that radiates truth so that, even though much of it is sad, one finds a beauty in its precision. Marra has taken a difficult subject, life in Chechenya during the decade from 1994 to 2004, and explored it in a way that does justice to its topic and characters, granting them a well-deserved dignity that is free of pretension.

The constellation at this book’s heart is earthly, not heavenly, a constellation composed of intersecting moments in a series of lives. None of the characters fully understands the way he or she is related to others, but Marra allows us to see what they cannot: an outline of meaning that rises from their combined choices. The omniscience works here because it does not judge. The narrator isn’t telling us a simple tale of right and wrong (though, of course, right and wrong are the bones it’s built upon). Rather, he’s broadening our field of vision in a way that lets us bear and understand what might otherwise be unbearable and incomprehensible.

I don’t want to provide a plot summary here; readers deserve the experience of moving—innocently? pure-heartedly? virginally? un-forewarnedly?—through the plot as it unfolds. Suffice it to say that people struggle to do their best, often falling short, and the Marra’s gift to readers is letting them travel beside the characters as they make their choices. This is a book to pick up when you want a rich meal, one that will make demands of you and will return every bit as much as it demands. Read it when you have time and presence to savor and to wrestle. This isn’t a book you’ll use as escape, but one in which you will find yourself arriving somewhere absolutely new and necessary.