Mini book reviews

It is amazing how many more books you can read if you do not have access to television. And when you have a wife like Kris who recommends really great (not necessarily “the Great”) books, reading is so much more interesting and satisfying than television.

We do have a television here with a satellite dish even. But the landlady has a package that is (naturally) mostly Sinhalese channels. The only English language channel we get on the dish is Al Jazeera. Now mind you it has been very interesting getting Al Jazeera’s viewpoint on the news, but like all other news channels it suffers from being pretty much all news and it repeats itself after awhile. I could not watch CNN for long periods of time for the same reasons.

So I’ve finished three books recently: Jeanne Cambrais’ Murder in the Pettah, Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle, and Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. If you exclude physics books and computer books, this would be about a year’s worth of reading for me back in the States.

As its name implies, Murder in the Pettah is a murder mystery. For me, its hook is that it is set in Colombo. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan who emigrated to the United States, is experiencing burn out on the job, and comes back to Sri Lanka to spend some relaxing time with his favorite cousin, a famous Sri Lankan fashion model. He has a chance encounter with a sexy Brit who ends up dead the next day and the mystery begins. He was not too comfortable being on vacation anyway and his cousin pressures him to help so she can get in bed with the dead girl’s very rich father (which is basically her retirement plan). Aside from the familiar and not so familiar Colombo locations where the action takes place, Cambrais does a convincing job of giving the character of the investigation a Sri Lankan feel. So, for example, the investigation becomes a project of the protagonist’s extended family. His favorite old aunt gathers information from her bridge club members. His cousin uses her glamour to distract and acquire information from pillow talk. The  family driver either knows or is related to the domestic help of  the various principals in the case. More help comes from the dead girl’s best friend, who turns into both a love interest for the protagonist and a suspect in the case (of course).

Kris met Cambrais at the Galle Literary Festival and liked her. Kris admires Cambrais’ frank reasons for wan ting to write: to make money and to spite her ex-husband. From what I can gather from Kris’ report, Cambrais had the first husband from hell who not only treated her shamefully, but told her he would make sure she stayed impoverished, and did manage to leave her without a dime. Writing has been Cambrais’ revenge. She authored a Playboy guide to San Francisco but under an assumed male pseudonym since she knew she would not get the assignment as a woman. And there is a sense on ets that the characters in Murder in the Pettah could easily find themselves reassembled for the next murder. In fact, I think it would make a pretty good TV series on the BBC’s Mystery. One thing she might have to tone down for TV is the sexual deviancy that is central to the story. Murder in the Pettah is not recommended for impressionable youth. In any case, for adults, while not great literature, Murder in the Pettah is a good satisfying read.

I have to confess here that I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf. The only reason I know the name is as part of the title of the Edward Albee play that might single-handedly make one decide not to teach at a small college. Well it turns out that Virginia Woolf had a husband, Leonard Woolf, who was also a writer. His book, The Village in the Jungle, draws on his personal experience as a minor British administrator during colonial times in the most southerly part of Sri Lanka, the town of Hambantota. In his administrative role, he acted as a low level judge, trying minor criminal complaints in the area. The Village in the Jungle is the story of a tiny village deep in the jungle that does not get enough rain to enable the villagers to thrive on the crops they produce. Instead they barely get by, always in debt to unscrupulous money lenders and the village headman who control the seed they need to plant the next crop. Woolf describes the jungle as evil, but the evil in the story is all man-made.

The story is not that long but is powerful. Actually, I started the book reluctantly, I tend to shy away from tragedies. But the book surprises with unexpected directions and the description of life as seen through the eyes of the villagers is fascinating. I got hooked. The real tragedy turns out to be that the villagers trap themselves. They are unwilling to leave the small jungle clearing that represents to them home and family. We  also see how little connection there is between the colonial rulers and those they ruled. Recommended.

Finally, I just finished Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. It is also supposed to be a murder mystery, but is quite unlike any murder mystery I’ve ever read. In fact, when the “who” of the “who done it” is revealed, it is almost beside the point. The story is told in a combination of the first person of the protagonist, a New York City art gallery owner, and third person accounts of significant past events. The art gallery owner is given possession of some astonishing drawings, apparently drawn by a creative genius who is fettered with mental shackles, and who has suddenly disappeared. The art gallery owner makes a desultory search for the artist, but enthusiastically puts on a show to sell the drawings. Everything goes smoothly until he gets a call from a retired New York City cop who has seen a reproduction of the central panel in the drawing and recognizes the cherubs as the faces of five murdered children. The art gallery owner starts a quest to prove the innocence of the artist and the sleuthing is on.

But just as the story gets down to the detective work, the story changes character. At first, the flashbacks seem like the usual writer’s tool to fill in background details. But the flashbacks themselves build in intensity until I was reminded of nothing else than a freight train from the past hurtling forward in time aimed right at the protagonist in the present. Without revealing the ending, let me just say that the crash of past and present knocked the wind out of me.

So, will I sign up for cable again when we get home? Probably, if only for Mystery, but now I will know what I am missing when I waste my time on Monk.

Tim

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