Sunday, February 22, 2009

Guardian Angel / Given Her History

(I made a big mistake this week, in that I read Eleven on Top PRIOR to posting my blog about Guardian Angel. Needless to say, I think I've got the two a little mixed up, and am having to re-scan Guardian Angel to make sure I don't confuse the two. ;)

1. Compare/Contrast.
I chose Given Her History by Melissa Vanbeck to read along with Guardian Angel by Sara Paretsky for this week. Character development in both pieces was actually very similar. In both pieces, the reader is dropped into what seems to be "the middle of things" in the life of the main character. The author gives enough information about the main characters that I felt pretty comfortable with them right away. However, as the intricacies of their situations and relationships began to unfold, I wasn't certain that I fully understood these very complicated characters. The young orphan, April-May from Given Her History had a life riddled with pain and uncertainty. Vic Warshawski, the divorcee private investigator from Guardian Angel, also appeared to have a very complicated history. her strange assortment of friends and "family" really added to underscoring just how complicated V.I.'s relationships were. Both of the main characters seemed to work hard at being "tough" in order to hide their vulnerabilities and fears from the people in their lives.

The settings were different, in that one took place in Chicago, and the other in a small town. However, this was only a minor difference. In both cases, these ladies were surrounded by people who varied from friendly busy-bodies to just downright uncaring and mean. Both characters faced isolation and death, and involuntarily found that there were some people who would care about them, even in their damaged or weakened conditions. It was pretty clear that Warshawski was cared for by her neighbor, Mr. Contreras, as well as by Sergeant Rawlings, and even by her ex-husband, Dick. The young April-May was cared for by Juris, the man who found her the night of the fire, Mr. Clarke who tried to be a good foster parent, and by Vivian, the wealthy spinster who took her in when nobody else would have her. In both Vic and April-May, there was clearly an underlying vulnerability and justifiable fear of abandonment.

The novel held so many twists and turns, and had so many things that needed to be uncovered before the mystery could be solved, the length was necessary. The short story was cleanly told as April-May's memory, and would not have been made any fuller, or "better" had it been in a lengthier form.

I think if I had to choose a favorite between these two pieces, it would be Given Her History. I think I was drawn more to April-May, both due to her vulnerability and because of the interesting (psychologically damaging) memories that were intermittently revealed throughout the story. I felt a maternal need to take care of her, and was more sympathetic when she had moments of failure.

2. Author gender.
I thought having female authors for both pieces really made a difference, at least in my perceptions. I think I was a little put off by Warshawski's attitude a few times, but I was able to accept it more easily because I felt that having a female author meant that her weakness was more of a vulnerability than a character flaw. Had a man written in such weaknesses, I think I would have felt that her weakness was being flaunted or pointed out as "stupid".

3. The Short Story.
Given Her History is all about April-May, a young girl who finds herself orphaned and alone with the family dog as the only survivors of the fire that destroyed her home and the rest of her family. She suspects that her brother caused the fire, and is at large, but nobody is very open with her about it. She is found by Juris, a man who is apparently a fireman, or officer, and is handed over to Mrs. Clarke, a married teacher who is somewhat familiar with April through the school. Mr. and Mrs. Clarke do not have children of their own, and Mrs. Clarke seems dissatisified with having both the child and the dog in the home. Mr. Clarke is most attentive and seems to genuinely care about the young girl.

Through a very strange incident involving the heartattack and death of Mr. Clarke, April-May and her dog find themselves homeless again. They are taken in by a wealthy spinster who is somewhat eccentric and reclusive. Through the strange ways of both April and Vivian, a certain bond is built between the two, and they come to care about each other despite some very strange and possibly problematic issues. The story culminates with the return of the missing brother, who confirms that he did, indeed, intend on killing the family in the fire, and has returned for April-May. (I don't want to tell any more of the it doesn't ruin it for those of you who still plan to read it!) I liked the ending, though. I felt it was wrapped up neatly.

I liked the idea that despite a very problematic and strange childhood, April-May does indeed find someone to care for her. I also thought the title was interesting, in that even after reading it, I'm not sure exactly WHOSE history it's indicating...April-May's or Vivian's. The mystery was not a "who-done-it", but rather was a suspenseful look at the child's existence in the aftermath of her family's crisis.

4. I haven't completed my online discussions on Guardian Angel yet, so I'm not sure what to say without possibly repeating. I did find that I was frustrated with Warshawski several times, which kind of made it hard to stay "tuned in" to the reading. I think what turned me off was her treatment of the neighbor with such coldness sometimes, and her apparent lack of planning or forethought about some of the things she did. I thought it made her seem a little too prideful.

I also thought the whole circle of events was a little too unbelievable. The downstairs neighbor, tied to his friend and their old workplace, tied to the ex-husband, tied to the mean neighbor, tied to the old lady neighbor, tied to the downstairs neighbor (via the dogs!). There were just too many coincidences for my taste, and it made me feel like the author really had to stretch to tie it all up at the end.

All in all, though, I thought this week was a good week of reading.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Black Betty / One Good One

This week, I chose One Good One by Chuck Hogan as the short story to compare with Black Betty by Walter Mosley. I really enjoyed the entire reading of the novel, and the short story was okay.

1. Compare / Contrast: character, plot, setting, theme, length, preference.

To me, the character development of the two pieces is the most interesting comparison. In Black Betty, the reader is clearly provided a protagonist, Easy Rawlings. Although he is rough around the edges, he is clearly the main character and the one that the reader is drawn to route for. In One Good One, there is Eddie Milk a.k.a. Milky, who appears at first to be the main character. But while reading, character after character is introduced, a web of connectedness is weaved between all of them, and it appears that Milky just happens to be the character at the beginning and at the end of this circular tale.

The characters in Black Betty were well developed, and I felt myself drawing conclusions and building varying opinions of the characters as the story developed. But in One Good One, I didn't ever really build any feelings for any of the characters. They all either seemed unsavory in some way, or were just so flat that I didn't think twice about them. I think that was the point that Hogan was trying to make, though. His intention was that the reader wouldn't become emotionally attached to any single character, so that the intricate plot could unfold more easily.

Both stories were set initially in a low-income, inner portion of a big city. The setting made both stories more believable. Both stories had plots that required the reader to pay attention and "keep up" with things as they unfolded.

The length of the short story, in this case, was just right. I was able to follow the story as it bounced from one character/location to another. It was this bouncing around that created the web-like connectedness of the plot.

Of the two pieces, I really enjoyed Black Betty the best. I think I just felt more compassion for these characters and felt more connection to their lives.

2. Differences due to gender of author?

Since both pieces were written by men, I didn't really see any. However, I did note that Hogan's female characters were pretty obnoxious.

3. Review of short story. Like/dislike.

The short story, One Good One, begins with the introduction of Milky, a drug addict, as he returns to his mother's home after having been released from jail. We learn that Milky's brother died of an overdose, and the mother is very naive about the lives of the men in her life. Milky goes to his dealer, looking for a fix. During this transaction, his dealer thinks Milky may be up to something. Then the story bounces to two detectives who work in the district that Milky and his pals live in. Then, the story bounces again to the dealer who is discussing an illegal job that the group are planning. They wonder at Milky's motives. After a few more bounces between Milky, his mom, his mom's "friend", the friend's son, the dealer, the dealer's friends, and the detectives, there is quite web of dysfunctional association revealed. I think the mystery just happens to be, "where is this all going?" The big "AHA" comes at the very end of the story, and is actually worthwhile. The ending is wrapped up pretty well, and makes it all worth reading through.

4. Reflection

I really appreciated the chance to read Black Betty. I found it a little hard to connect with Easy at first. But it was really good for me, personally, as an exercise in understanding and accepting diversity. Once I got over Easy's violent nature, and was able to understand the love and care for others that he possessed, I became comfortable with his being the protagonist of this novel. It reminded me that one can never underestimate what motivates a person.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Maltese Falcon / The Monks of Abbey Victoria

I read The Monks of Abbey Victoria to compare/contrast with the Maltese Falcon. I liked both pieces fairly well! (I've gotten my responses to the different topics in the wrong order, so I've gone back and put numbers to demonstrate.)

3. Monks was about a guy, Dale, who begins working at NBC network. Three of his coworkers put him through a few tests to see if they can trust him. Then, they offer for him to join their secret society. This secret society has a secret practice, which the main character begins to participate in. (I don't want to give away anything, so I won't actually tell too many little details!!!) Throughout the complicated tests and the big secret activity, the main character participates earnestly, but ends up being fired from his new job.

I liked the build-up of the mystery in Monks. The characters are developed well enough to give a good feel for the event. My only real "dislike" would be that I didn't want the main character to be harmed. Although I didn't agree with some of his choices, I felt that he really was lured/dragged into making those choices.

1. Compare/contrast... Monks and Maltese Falcon both have settings in large cities, although Monks takes place in a more modern time period. The reader is given enough information about the two main characters, while both authors take their time in that character development; a little at a time. These two characters are similar in that they both place a lot of trust in strangers. They are willing to take a chance on someone that they don't really know anything about (Sam Spade sets a lot on the line for Brigid O'Shaughnessy, while Dale Winslow puts it all on the line for his co-workers.)

As far as the length of each goes, I don't feel that either one could have benefited from being changed. Monks really couldn't have gone on for too long, without the rising action being wayyyyy monotonous. The big climactic point would've lost something if much more time was spent on the rising action. I think Maltese Falcon also ran just the right length. I would've started losing interest if Spade would have had too many more setbacks, but what was presented did help build appropriately. I liked both pieces; but if I had to pick, I'd say I liked Maltese Falcon better. I believe it comes down to my preference for the dark sexiness of the naughty good-guy.

2. Differences due to gender of author? I don't think in these two particular pieces, there were any major differences due to the author's gender. Both pieces were written by men, and the two main characters had enough differences that they weren't cookie-cutters of each other. Both authors developed very diverse characters within their works, and really made me feel like I was seeing the events unfold before my eyes. Both pieces did have some pretty shady or stupid ladies in them, but I think both authors were fair in also representing some of the men in some unflattering lights.

4. Thoughts, reactions, observations? I saw that Hammett wrote several books using Sam Spade for the main character. It makes me want to skip right to the last book to see if he ends up with Effie. If someone told me that the two hooked up but then broke up later, I'd be so disappointed! Sam sure could use a good woman like Effie to keep him on the straight and narrow. But their sexual tension is just luring enough that Hammet could use it for book, after book, after book! I guess that's one way to keep selling the series.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tunis and Time

I read Tunis and Time from the collection. I have to be quite honest and say that I didn't like it at all...not one bit. I'm not sure what exactly was "mysterious" about it.

I thought it was just a story about a spy. Then at the very end it gives an italicized paragraph that reveals what happens to the spy AFTER the story...Not much mystery to it.

I chose it, originally, because I thought the main character sounded alot like Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon. He WASN'T!

Sam Spade is a cool character; good looking, smart, macho. In "Tunis", Layton is just an elderly, slovenly, loser who can't make good decisions.

I really don't think there was much mystery to the story. The reader is given alot of info about this guy, and then suddenly it is revealed that he was tricked. But since the big "reveal" happens to occur AFTER the story, there isn't any "aha" or "Wow". It's just sort of, "Oh, okay."