Weekend Reading with the Flu:  A Wonderful Historical Mystery & Musings on Who Your Friends Are

It is a beautiful weekend, characterized by melting snowmen and snow-women.  Alas, I have a touch of the flu.  Between napping and meds, I haven’t left the house. Not surprisingly, I’m too sick to concentrate on Lucy Ellman’s never-ending novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which surely would have elevated me to the rank of a reigning intellectual had coughing allowed me to concentrate.  Instead,  I have a stack of mysteries.  I thoroughly enjoyed the following.  

Do you like historical mysteries? You’ll enjoy Tasha Alexander’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius, the latest in her beautifully-written Lady Emily series.  Set in the ruins of Pompeii, it alternates stories in two timelines:  Lady Emily’s investigation of a murder in Pompeii in 1902, and a woman poet’s experiences and frustrations in 79 A.D..

I love Alexander’s slightly verbose, old-fashioned prose, which makes the narrator, Lady Emily, an utterly believeable Englishwoman of the Edwardian age.  She is an amateur sleuth and a cosmopolitan traveler,  and when her dear friend Ivy invites her to visit an archaeological site in Pompeii, Lady Emily persuades her husband, Colin Hargreaves, a British secret agent, to accompany her.  

Alexander has done her homework–the bibliography is three pages long–and you will learn as much as you will from a documentary.  The novel opens with the three main characters exploring a triclinium (an ancient dining room), where they stumble upon the corpse of a man, cleverly concealed in one of the plaster casts of the bodies which were found in layers of hardened pumice and ash.  The murder victim turns out to be a journalist for The New York Times, who specialized in cultural pieces.  Who would want to murder him?  One of the archaeologists, a surprising number of whom had shady backgrounds? One of the guides?  Or someone else?

What I really love is Alexander’s writing.  The narrator, Lady Emily, reveals the character of her dearest friend in two sentences.  “Ivy, who who since we were children had tried to provide a tempering influence on my more iconoclastic impulses, was not prone to interrupting anyone.  From the earliest days of our acquaintance, I had observed her effortlessly perfect manners, but had never managed to emulate them.” 

I also enjoyed the story of the (fictitious) Roman woman poet, Quinta Flavia Kassandra, who has grown up a slave and the close companion of her master’s daughter, Lepida.  Kassandra loves all things Roman, especially Virgil, and she is writing an epic as a tribute.  When she and her father are freed, he opens a bookstore, and she works as a copyist (of scrolls) when she is not writing poetry.  But she misinterprets  attentions from Lepida’s fiance (then husband), who suddenly becomes very interested in her poetry.  The story finally connects to Lady Emily’s mystery in the final pages, when, in a way, the 20th-century woman and the ancient woman save each other.

DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE?  I am horrified to learn that some members of the Latino community (surely not all!) have harassed Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, to the point where she had to cancel her book tour.  There were  protests and threats against Cummins and the bookstore owners.  As Ron Charles of The Washington Post put it, Threats against the author of ‘American Dirt’ threaten us all.”

Cummins’s issue-oriented page-turner, now an Oprah book, is far from my favorite (you can read my post here) but it certainly increased my compassion for Mexican migrants.  Cummins describes the journey of two middle-class Mexicans, a bookstore owner and her eight-year-old son, who flee from Acapulco to cross the borders of the U.S. after sixteen of their realtives are killed by a cartel.

Why has there been such a rumpus in the Latino community?   They insist a white woman shouldn’t have been allowed to write it (why?), and  that the seven-figure contract should have gone to a Mexican-American.   Wait a minute:  Cummins, an experienced writer, writes a fast-paced novel which takes the side of the Mexican-Americans, and they protest?  Of course there are talented Mexican-American writers, but Cummins wrote the book.  And sales of her book could help the publishers fund more literary novels, some by Latino writers who might not write best-sellers.  

Tragically, these writers do not seem to know who their friends are. Yes, Cummins is their friend!  I do not doubt that American Dirt will raise the consciousness of many Americans, as it raised mine.  I had never thought much about illegal immigrants, but now I feel I have a better understanding of why they should be protected.

I must say, I find these attacks on free speech, whether from the right or the left, terrifying.  And don’t they all seem to originate on Twitter?

A Migrant Journey: “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins

Sometimes I dread writing about a hyped new novel. It often turns out to be not my kind of thing.  I politely scribble, “An excellent read, but not quite for me.”

Jeanine Cummins’s  American Dirt, a fast-paced, issue-oriented new novel, has been hyperbolically promoted, almost to the point of hysteria.  It is a heart-rending book, but in terms of style unmemorable.  I call it the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of migrant-journey fiction.  

Though I have reservations about the style, it is an emotional read. Cummins breathtakingly chronicles the flight of sympathetic heroine Lydia, a bookstore owner, after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco.  Lydia hopes she and her eight-year-old son Luca can make it to the border, where they will hire a coyote (guide) to help them cross illegally into the U.S.  They are on the cartel hit list because Lydia’s husband wrote an article revealing the identity of the cartel leader.

Though well-researched and well-written, the book has a hint of Y.A. didacticism. 

A syrupy headline of a review at The New York Times declares:  “Writing about the border crisis, hoping to break down walls.”

And take a look at these dramatic blurbs.

Ann Patchett:  “I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.” (Never? And now I remember how self-serving and insincere Patchett always seems.)

Stephen King:  “Extraordinary.”

John Grisham:  “It’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt.”

For most of us, the issue of illegal immigration is distant, but for Cummins, the wife of a former undocumented immigrant, it is terrifyingly real.  She details  the grueling conditions of migrants from Mexico, and the high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way.  Lydia has the money to fly from Mexico City, but her son doesn’t have a passport. They must go by foot and by train, running alongside the train, hopping onto the rungs of the ladder, and then climbing on top for the trip.  

On their journey, they make friends, but there are also criminals and undercover cartel members. It is a terrifying journey:  they must even be alert in the churches that give shelter, because they never know who’s in the next room.

Some of you will like this book,  others will love it.  Some, like me, will be lukewarm. It is a good read, if you like issue novels.