Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Roundup: Mysteries, Of Sorts

The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri is a fun book I picked up at a library conference last year. Since it has been sitting on my shelf, I’ve continuously forgotten it’s a mystery. It’s one in a series of mysteries, in fact—the Inspector Montalbano series, translated from Italian, of which there over a dozen titles. The Potter’s Field is #13 in the series, one of the newer ones published in 2011. I can’t even remember the last time I read a mystery, and I really think I should dig into this genre more often since I’ve always enjoyed it. (I distinctly remember back in the 8th grade, we had to read And Then There Were None for English class, and I sat in the back of Algebra class devouring the pages of Agatha Christie as my teacher rambled on about FOIL.)

Because I don’t really read mysteries that often, I’m not practiced at writing about them, either! Obviously, I can only share the briefest plot summary. In this Montalbano installment, an unidentified corpse is found in a clay-rich field known as Potter’s Field. In the midst of this, the Inspector is also tracking down what his deputy Mimi is up to as his behavior in the office has recently become insufferable. On top of that, there’s another piece when a young woman reports the disappearance of her husband who apparently had family ties to an infamous mobster.

I’ll stop there, but the writing is quick, straightforward, and witty. Montalbano is not afraid to throw a few expletives, and his procedures may not always be up to code. As I was reading, he struck me very much as that character who is sarcastic and a bit of a rogue, but entertaining enough to probably have his own BBC series. AND GUESS WHAT, HE DOES! It’s technically an Italian series, but the BBC does air it in the UK! Colin and I don’t agree on books (or movies or TV shows) very often, but I did pass this one along to him.

My second quasi-mystery is the well-known Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I actually knew nothing about the plot of this prior to reading; it was only on my list because it’s seen a lot of buzz in the past year, so I thought it was worth picking up. To quickly set the stage for those of you who haven’t already read it, it’s about an eclectic family living in Seattle. Elgie the Father is a super-wiz at Microsoft, usually working, rarely at home; Bernadette the Mother is a one-time architecture great who once won a MacArthur Genius Grant but now doesn’t seem to do much but complain; their daughter Bee, short for Balakrishna (see, eccentric family), once suffered congenital heart defects but now is 15 and totally fine and sick of that attention. Bee is brilliant and thriving at her sort-of hippy dippy school. The issues come when Bernadette, all “misunderstood-genius-woe-is-me,” has to interact with anybody, because she is insufferable. There’s a fight with another parent, a Russian mafia who may be stealing her identity, and a looming trip to Antarctica. None of these things bode well for Bernadette, so she just up and disappears.

This book was entertaining enough. I really enjoyed the style and structure that used notes, letters, and other pieces of evidence to tell the story (with a bit of Bee’s narrative built in.). It was so madcap that I couldn’t really ground it in reality, though. First of all, the setting was odd. It constantly felt like it was 1995, but then there are lines thrown in about iPhones and you remember it’s supposed to be present day. There are references of Encyclopedia Brown and Friends reruns, but then we’re jumping to TED Talks and Bing. I never really made peace with when this story is supposed to be. My biggest trouble, though, was Bernadette. UGHHHHH. She represents everything that drives me crazy about people. She’s incredibly judgmental; she talks down to anyone she doesn’t agree with; she complains incessantly just to voice her opinion. She is basically everything I strive not to be in life. As a result, I couldn’t sympathize with anyone in this book. (I used to say, “I don’t have to like the character to like the book,” but now I think that is a lie; I do need to mostly like the characters.) Bee was the most interesting, but even though this story was from her perspective, I didn’t feel very close to her.

This is exactly that kind of book that is going to catch on with a large crowd because it’s quirky enough to make people think, “This is so quirky and I am so quirky for reading it so I love it,” and look at that, it made me utter words of judgment when that’s just the kind of thing I try not to do, so that is my point, UGH I’m done with this book. Great cover art, though!

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