Reading through Pain: Crime Fiction, a Booker-Longlisted Novel, & Humor


The planet is so hot, it’s hard to imagine its getting hotter.   It was 100 degrees today, and it feels blazing, impossible.  
But in addition to suffering the heat, I’ve  been in a lot of pain this summer.  I  injured myself during a power yoga session.  Remember aerobic dance classes?  This was similar, only with yoga moves. I felt my ribcage rattling at one point.  For over a month, my ankles were swollen, and I could hardly bend my knees or  wrists.
I am now the queen of modified calisthenics:  leg stretches and gentle weight-lifting. Some days I managed to walk a mile (in pain), other days I could barely make it around the block.  One day I considered crawling home, but my knees weren’t bending properly.
I am almost 100 percent, but I couldn’t have gotten through it without Advil, calcium pills, gentle workouts, and some great books.

CRIME FICTION:  The greatest American fiction being written today is crime fiction. (I’m not the first to say this.)  And Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawki series,  is the best American writer working today, says I.  
Her savvy, tough P.I. is V.I. Warshawski, a native Chicagoan and a cop’s daughter who became a lawyer and then opened her own P.I. office.  In Paretsky’s latest novel,  Overboard, V.I.’s  dogs run away from her on a walk along Lake Michigan and find an injured girl in a cave. The girl is taken to a hospital, and the case is turned over to the police, but it keeps coming back to haunt V.I.  The police thinks she’s holding out on them.  Really great writing, and if you know Chicago, or even if you don’t, her precise, deft prose will vividly recreate it.                       

BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE:  I reread Elizabeth Strout’s stunning novel, Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker.  Her sentences are so graceful that they give a new meaning to the word “grace.”  Yet her characters have lived through a  lot of pain, and her lyrical sentences balance that in a way, not to make it palatable, but so that we can see their complexity more clearly.

Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lucy’s ex-husband William’s second wife and their daughter have left him, and he  invites Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to investigate his mother’s past.  He has just learned that before his mother left her first husband, a farmer, to marry William’s father, a German P.O.W., she had had a baby daughter. He never knew he had a sister. Can anything good come out of such a trip?  It’s not a Hallmark movie.   
Do read this because Lucy is good company.

 HUMOR WRITING:  I had read very few of P.G. Wodehouse‘s standalone novels, until I found a “Best of” list by Robert McCrum, one of Wodehouse’s biographers.  Piccadilly Jim is hilarious.   There are the usual imposters –  Jim, a practical joker  always in the society columns, changes his name so he can have a chance with a beautiful, bright American girl who scorns the antics of Piccadilly Jim. Imagine his surprise when he meets her family’s new butler – and it is his father, who has fled his wife in England because he couldn’t  bear to miss another baseball season.  I kept tipping back my head and laughing.  I don’t remember ever tipping my head before – that shows how funny Wodehouse is, I guess!

Pestilence Pots, Literary P.I.s, & Sara Paretsky’s “Dead Land”

“Carriers are all we can be! La di da di de-e-e!”

Oh my God, not another family of pestilence pots!

And, yes, they’re barreling right toward you, without a thought of social distancing.

They put everybody at risk, by wrongly thinking they are immune, and not worrying that their children may be carriers (or become infected themselves).  

Perhaps a restriction on “family hours” would help.  Meanwhile, we can’t give them the peace sign, because they’re ignoring the health of the citizens of Planet Earth.

WHAT TO READ.  Are you a fan of P.I. fiction?   During the plague, I recommend losing yourself in a good detective novel.  The award-winning Sara Paretsky has a brilliant new novel, Dead Land, the nineteenth in the V. I. Warshawski series.

 V.I. Warshawski is a Chicago lawyer-turned-P.I., with a social conscience as well as detective skills.  She embarks on chilling adventures as she investigates violent crimes that are often linked to corporate corruption.  V.I. is far from ladylike:  she goes running with her two big dogs, which she shares with her 90-year-old neighbor, is an amateur climber, and seems to know everything about street fighting and guns.  Paretsky’s descriptions of V.I’s  legwork, risky interventions, and investigations of the rich and powerful  will transport you completely into this well-plotted mystery.

In the opening chapter,  V.I. and her goddaughter, Bernie, a university soccer star,  encounter a homeless woman who is playing a haunting song on a toy piano.  Bernie recognizes this woman as Lydia Zamir, a classically-trained musician whose songs about social issues were very popular wth the young, until Lydia disappeared four years ago after her Latino husband was killed in a mass massacre at a music festival in Kansas. 

V.I. connects Lydia’s  plight to two murders and the redevelopment of a park on the South side of Chicago. V.I. also takes a dangerous trip to Kansas, Lydia’s birthplace, after Lydia disappears a second time.   Plain,  brisk writing, and an unputdownable plot.

If you have other P.I. novels to recommend, I want to know!

Riveting Reads: Sara Paretsky’s “Shell Game” & Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”

This week I discovered an infected molar was causing my acute sinus pain. I swear I was at death’s door until the tooth was extracted.  I took a lot of Ibuprofen, which dulls the pain but made me groggy.  In the rare hours I was awake, I managed to read two engrossing novels,  Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.

Sara Paretsky is at the top of her game in the 20th novel in the V.I. Warshawski series, Shell Game V.I. Warshawki,  a private investigator in Chicago, must solve two cases:  her friend Lotty Herschel’s nephew, a Canadian engineering student at the University of Chicago, is accused of the murder of an unidentified man; and her niece, a prostitute’s daughter with an associate’s degree who recently was singled out by her corporate employer, has disappeared.  The investigation turns up smuggled archaeological artifacts, Homeland Security’s harassment of a group of students from the Middle East, and a corporation’s exploitation of poor people in a stock scam.  Paretsky’s writing is so honed that you admire her style as much as the plot.

The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s lyrical novel Sunset Song (1932) is the first in the trilogy A Scots Quair and one of my favorite books.  A film adaptation of Sunset Song was released in 2015, and there is an excellent 1971 BBC series of Sunset Song (free on YouTube).

It belongs to the subgenre of “the novel of peasant crisis,” along with classics like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, says Thomas Crawford in the introduction to the Canongate edition. Sunset Song, set on a hardscrabble farm in Scotland, opens in 1911.  The heroine Chris Guthrie, a farmer’s daughter,  loves the beauty of the land but has divided loyalties; she is also the best scholar at school, where she studies English, French, Greek, and Latin, among other subjects.  She hopes to become a teacher.

Life interferes, as we know it will.  Her father, a hard-working but moody poor farmer, is verbally abusive, forever raging, and  ignores the toll of childbirth on  Chris’s  mother, who almost dies after having twins.  When she gets pregnant again, she kills herself and the twins.  Chris survives this tragedy but must drop out of school. She falls in love unexpectedly with a farm laborer.  Is it worth it? She thinks so.  Alas,  World War I turns her world to dust.

But life goes on.  Chris is a survivor and an optimist.

Sunset Song (BBC series, 1971)

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