November 15, 2012
The problem with "reviewing everything" is that everything I read, everything I eat, everywhere I go, everything I experience becomes potential column material.
You cannot imagine the stacks of as-yet-unreviewed material in my office. I can hardly see the surface of my desk – which is actually a countertop the width of my attic office.
But it's time for me to play catch-up, reviewing a whole assortment of stuff without any attempt to make a coherent essay out of any of it.
By the end of this review, I'm hoping I'll be able to clear at least one corner of my desk. Just to remember what the color of it is.
Do you want a good Young Adult fantasy novel to give for Christmas? There are many to choose from, but I highly recommend Kelly Barnhill's Iron Hearted Violet.
Violet is a princess, but not a pretty one, and her family and the kingdom they govern are in great danger. She is left out of important events – but manages to get into deeply serious trouble when she and a friend find a hidden magical room in the castle.
What lurks there is a great danger, but she can't find information about how to counter it – or anyone who will take her seriously about what she's found.
I really enjoyed Barnhill's previous novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, and for many of the same reasons: Just when you think you're getting a traditional fairy tale bit, Barnhill stands it on its head and makes it mean something completely new and different.
Young readers are not jaded, however, and are not looking for fresh takes on old stories. That's why it's so fortunate that Barnhill is not just standing cliches on their heads. She is telling stories that are terrific in their own right, so that young readers will be captivated. The fact that adults are also delighted is simply a bonus.
I've been drinking Hint water for years now. It's good clear water with just the lightest of flavors, and no sugar or other additives. (I find most of those "health" waters undrinkably nasty.)
A while ago, the Hint people introduced carbonated waters – and I have to say, they're quite awful. They apparently forgot their concept of just a hint of flavor. The carbonated ones are seriously overflavored.
If I want carbonated drinks, I'll take the San Pellegrino fruit waters, like Arianciata or Limonata. If you want to sample them, they're available cold and ready-to-drink at Gnam-Gnam.
Meanwhile, though, Hint's regular waters are still the best, most refreshing drink around; they make all the other waters either boring or trying-too-hard.
And at Fresh Market, you can pick up a special holiday Peppermint flavored Hint water. I don't usually like peppermint as a flavor, but because it's Hint, the flavor is mild enough that it's a pleasure to drink.
Jacqueline Winspear's wonderful series of "Maisie Dobbs" novels has matured over the years. It began as a gimmick novel – with a very good gimmick. The idea was that Maisie Dobbs, a maid in a wealthy household, was observed to be far more intelligent and education-seeking than the norm.
The wealthy family, instead of being repelled by an intellectually ambitious servant, nurtured her abilities. She was trained by a psychologist in the era that marked the very beginning of psychology, and through service in World War I came in contact with the wider world.
At first, Winspear relied too much on having Maisie be a true believer and practitioner of psychology as it was understood between the world wars. Unfortunately, we are now aware that the psychology of that era was only slightly more accurate and useful than phrenology. So the stories were weakened by overreliance on the gimmick.
Winspear soon moved past that early training and has now transcended it. Dobbs is a professional investigator, and has replaced weak psychological theory with genuine compassion and empathy, which allows her to do more than merely solve mysteries.
In the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, Elegy for Eddie, the mystery of the death of a retarded man with a gift for caring for horses is solved rather quickly, and justice is done, after a fashion, before the novel is half over.
But the story is not over, because this series seeks to understand why, and lays responsibility at many doors instead of just one. The path leading to Eddie's death was set in motion by someone else, but as Maisie comes to know the man who caused the problem in the first place, she finds, not evil, but a complicated man who is actually on the right side of history – but careless with the price others have to pay for decisions he makes far too casually.
No series of mystery novels is perfectly even; that is, there are books where the story is more satisfying, books where the resonance is deeper, and books that simply misfire. Elegy for Eddie is one of the deep ones, and I'm glad to see that, unlike some mystery writers (one thinks of Janet Evanovich and Joan Hess), Jacqueline Winspear is not content to repeat the same formula over and over and over.
In fact, her books resist formula, and as Maisie moves through the 1930s and Hitler begins to loom on the horizon, there is much promise that we will get a very fresh take on the transformations in Europe, and England in particular, leading up to the Second World War.
Jean Burnett had a promising idea when she wrote The Bad Miss Bennet, a novel from the point of view of Lydia, the Bennet sister who ran off with a soldier.
The problem is that Burnett had no comprehension whatsoever of Jane Austen as a novelist, so while she bandies about the names of Austen's characters, and plays with some of the same situations, the superficiality of her treatment becomes oppressive.
Burnett is quite conscious of her cleverness, but is not as clever as she thinks. (As may well be true of me, too, as a writer – the writer is always last to know.)
Alas, everything that is good in The Bad Miss Bennet is done far, far better in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and everything that one expects from a Jane Austen novel is missing from this book.
It is a dangerous thing to step into worlds and characters and relationships created by better writers than oneself. It would be easy, for instance, to write Scarlet Pimpernel novels, because the original is so shoddy; but to write Pride & Prejudice novels is doomed by the fact that Jane Austen remains the best novelist who ever lived.
It's not enough to love or even admire a great novelist's work. You also have to understand what each work is doing and how it is accomplished, and all of this remains completely out of Burnett's reach. Too bad; she not untalented or unskilled. She's just not Austen.
Caryl's Christmas Shop on Lawndale – which, during the rest of the year, is Caryl's Pool and Spa – always has new and wonderful things for the holiday season. Each year we think, We bought everything cool from the store last year; but we stop in anyway, and find that they've found new things that we like just as well or better.
What we didn't know was that Caryl's also offers a holiday decorating service. Now, we have no interest in a "designer look" for our living room at Christmas time. Our Christmas decorations all have their own history, and if it looks to others like a bit of a mishmash, we really don't care – in a lot of ways, our Christmas decorations are a history of our family....continued on page 2