Friday, May 26, 2017

My Recently Read Books: Some with Food

Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman.
The characters in the newly-published police novel Song of the Lion include Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and above all Bernie Manuelito, who are all officers of the tribal police on the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico. It's the third novel by the daughter of the late Tony Hillerman, author of the earlier books in the Navajo police series and inventor of these characters.

Anne Hillerman is really hitting her stride: I found this book to be a really great continuation of Tony Hillerman's many novels. I especially like Anne's development of Officer Bernie Manuelito, now married to Jim Chee.

In The Song of the Lion, I found it to be amusing when Bernie's sister Darleen tries to convince Bernie, a lover of hamburgers and other such foods, to become a consumer of vegetarian health food. Especially when Darleen serves a salad with garbanzo beans; Bernie picks at the salad and then:
"Bernie cleared the table, secretly disposing of the garbanzos she’d hidden under a lettuce leaf and hoping Darleen’s experiment was a one-time adventure."
(Song of the Lion, Kindle Locations 1010-1011).
The Debut by Anita Brookner. 
Too many novels portray women who are on the brink of a fulfilled, self-determined life free of obligations to demanding relatives, but then are sucked back into a stultified and dominated existence. The Debut (first published in 1981) has this plot. Though it has some amusing passages, and isn't bad on the whole, reading it made me sort of edgy. I always find the frustration of the subjects of such books to be difficult to read about with pleasure. I marked a ton of passages where the characters prepare food for themselves or feed others to comfort them, but I don't feel like expanding on the observation that food was used to mark various emotions.

Henry James did the lifetime disappointment and stultifying personal sacrifice theme better. So did Barbara Pym. I think I prefer other books by Brookner.

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster.
My first try at reading anything by Auster was Mr. Vertigo (first published 1994), because I found it in a bookcase while visiting family this week. Maybe I should try one of his more acclaimed novels. I've sort of been meaning to try this author for ages.

Mr. Vertigo is not a bad story, but Auster overdoes the philosophy or whatever it was. I would call it fake profundity, especially the conclusion. I think it's a flaw in the novel that at the end of his long life, the narrator doesn't quite know how to wrap up and says some very shallow things to try to make sense of his past.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. 
I recently read The Blue Flower (first published 1995) because it's a historical fiction about the author Novalis (1772-1801). Years ago, in a college class, I read some or all of Novalis's book Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which is about the Blue Flower, symbol of the unattainable, to put it extra-briefly.

I'm not sure anyone would like Fitzgerald's historical recreation of his life very much if they hadn't had a class like that. It's really obscure, but beautifully constructed, or as the reviewer in the New York Times wrote in 1997, "This is, on the face of it, Ms. Fitzgerald's most recondite and challenging book." (NYT review: "Nonsense Is Only Another Language").

How to Be Both by Ali Smith. 
How to Be Both (published in 2014) is a challenging read since you have to figure out or guess a lot of things about who is imagining and what is (maybe) real. I liked it well enough to give my copy to my sister so she could read it too.

Half the book is historical fiction -- but a more fun and convoluted type of historical fiction than the straight-arrow narrative in The Blue Flower. All in all, a pretty good read. I loved its many references and biographical data about 15th-century painter, Francescho del Cossa and his works.

A good point in a review of the book: "Smith has said that the duality of the novel, in which stories run over and alongside each other, is inspired by frescoes, which often bear layers of drawings underneath what’s visible." (From "The Artful Duality of Ali Smith's How To Be Both" in the Atlantic.)

Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.
I wonder how many people are rereading Tony Hillerman's original books about Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo detectives. My enjoyment of the sequels by his daughter (see above) has created a new interest in these books: I started with Dance Hall of the Dead. It was the second of this series -- Tony Hillerman wrote eighteen of them, published between 1970 and 2006 -- this one in 1973.

Although the character of Joe Leaphorn was more thoroughly detailed as the series proceeded, in this book Hillerman had already endowed him with the essential quality that made the books so readable. Namely, Leaphorn functions in two worlds.

First, Leaphorn is fully grounded in the Navajo world where witches, spirits, and the uncanny powers of the dead prevail. He can speak the Navajo language and can follow the rules of Navajo politeness, respecting others' privacy and also their pain, and allowing long silences in a conversation or even an interrogation. He also knows the effects of poverty and hopelessness, and how decent individuals can be ruined by drug addiction, alcoholism, and shame. He knows their pain when they can't care for their own beloved children, and knows the pain of those children.

As a professional policeman, a graduate of Arizona State University, and a sophisticated American, Leaphorn also fully understands the non-Navajo world. He knows the hierarchy of tribal police, state police, Federal Narcotics Agents, and FBI men. He appreciates the need for rules of investigation, standards of evidence, documentation, and proper procedure. Leaphorn successfully combines both worlds with their contrasting ethical demands, combining insights and values as he needs them.

I was fascinated to read the following about the influence on Hillerman of another author I've enjoyed in the past, Arthur Upfield:
"Hillerman repeatedly acknowledged his debt to an earlier series of mystery novels written by the British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield and set among tribal aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. The Upfield novels began to be published in 1928 and featured a half-European, half-aboriginal Australian hero, Detective-inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte. Bony worked with deep understanding of tribal traditions. The character was based on the achievements of an aborigine known as Tracker Leon, whom Upfield had met during his years in the Australian bush."  (From Wikipedia, Tony Hillerman, retrieved May 25, 2017).

1 comment:

Pam said...

Interesting post! I'm not familiar with the Hillermans and will be checking their books out on Amazon, as well as the Smith book. I read your Marie Antoinette post below. I've read several books about her, she grew into a courageous, intelligent woman at the mercy of some horrific people.
I have to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog, Mae! The problem is I miss many of your posts because my blogroll does not detect a feed for your blogs URL and new blog posts will not update, nor is there an RSS or Feedburner for email updates that I can follow. Hope you're having a good day!