Kathleen Bennett, one of the owners of Allende Books, writes a monthly book review for The Baja Citizen, a local bi-weekly English-language newspaper. Below are older reviews from her column, The Bookstore Kat.The Automatic Detective
I don't know about you, but when I read a book first and then see the movie, I'm usually disappointed. Of course, there are exceptions. A few. But, in general, if you're going to enjoy both the movie and the book, it's better to see the movie first, then read the novel after. Usually less disappointing that way. I know that. We all know that.
But knowing that doing something is likely to disappoint doesn't always prevent me from doing it. What's the cliché? “Old enough to know better, young enough not to care.” Or, in my case, “dumb enough not to care.”
That said... We recently received copies of Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane at the store. I ordered it because I like Lehane's work. I hadn't known it was going to be made into a movie, but when it arrived and there was a giant picture of Leonardo DiCaprio's face on the cover, I had my suspicions. I dutifully jumped on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) to check it out. Sure 'nuf. Early next year, the movie (directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) is being released. Discovering that, and knowing I would undoubtedly go see the movie, I should have put the book right on the shelf and gone about my business. That would have been the smart thing to do.
Nobody ever accused me of being smart. (Smart-ass, yes. But that's something altogether different.) I picked the book up and immediately started to read.
Shutter Island is the story of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, investigating a case in the mid-1950's. Teddy is called to Shutter Island, the location of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to search for an escaped patient. En route to the island, Teddy meets his new partner, Chuck Aule.
The missing patient, Rachel Solando, is a dangerous multiple murderer. However, as Ashecliffe is located on an island, chances are high that she is still on the island and not a threat to the residents of Boston across the water. Initially, the case seems straightforward. Search the island, find Rachel, and get her back into her room in the asylum. Easy.
Of course, if it were that easy, it wouldn't be much of a story.
As Teddy and his partner interview staff and patients looking for clues to how Rachel disappeared from her locked room and to her possible whereabouts on the island, they become suspicious that something more than psychiatric care is going on at Ashecliffe. Everyone seems to be lying to them, hiding things, and subtly trying to sabotage their investigation.
As evidence is gathered and tension mounts, it becomes obvious that there is, indeed, something sinister going on at Ashecliffe – something involving unethical, radical experiments, with hidden funding from questionable sources.
Shutter Island is a refreshingly original story, paced to keep the reader engrossed, with satisfying plot twists and layers of complexity. The thrilling story is further enhanced by Lehane's ability with the pen. His descriptions make us shiver with the emotional darkness and threatening atmosphere at Ashecliffe. His dialog brings to life the tenor of the 1950's. I could practically feel the fedora perched on my head. As I read the book, I couldn't help visualizing the whole thing in black and white, with Robert Mitchum speaking Teddy Daniel's words. (They've cast Leo DiCaprio in that role. Really?)
And the ending (which I thoughtfully will not divulge here) provides a nearly physical shock.
This is a masterfully written, dark and suspenseful thriller. While it is a quick read, Lehane's skill as an author puts it a step above your average beach read. The next time you're in the mood for a great noir novel, pick up a copy of Shutter Island.
Now I just need to decide if I'm going to see the movie.
If you have been in La Paz for any length of time, you have probably heard some version of the legend of El Mechudo. For those of you who haven't heard of El Mechudo, this is the version told to me by a paceño friend. (The version as related by my friend is lengthier. I have condensed it here for the sake of brevity.)
Many years ago, a pearl diver was having a run of bad luck. He prayed to God to let him find a perfect pearl, the Pearl of the World, in the hope that he could sell it and make some money to solve his problems. The next day, his prayer was granted. He found the perfect pearl. Instead of selling the pearl, however, he dedicated the pearl to the Virgin of Guadalupe to thank God for answering his prayer. Shortly thereafter, his luck changed, and he received every blessing his heart yearned for.
There was another pearl diver, El Mechudo, who saw the first diver's success and was consumed with jealousy. Instead of praying to God to find a perfect pearl, El Mechudo prayed to the Devil. His prayer was granted when he went diving the next day. He found another perfect pearl. Instead of bringing him blessings, however, the pearl granted by the Devil brought him nothing but misery.
In an effort to escape the misery brought by the Devil's pearl, El Mechudo rowed into the bay to throw the pearl back into the sea. As he tossed the pearl, the Devil reached up, grabbed El Mechudo, and dragged him under the waves. There, El Mechudo did not die, but was transformed into a sea demon. He remains today in the same spot where the Devil trapped him – looking for unwary boaters to drag down to the depths.
The thing about legends, though, is that there are as many versions of the legend as there are people to tell it. Other indigenous peoples of southern Baja tell legends in which El Mechudo plays no part, but in which the Pearl of the World was found, and subsequently thrown back into the sea.
In his travels with his friend Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck visited southern Baja and La Paz. While here, he heard the legend of the Pearl of the World. It was this legend, albeit with a great deal of poetic license, on which Steinbeck based his achingly beautiful novella, The Pearl.
Steinbeck's protagonist in The Pearl is a diver named Kino. As all pearl divers of that era, Kino and his family are poor. When his infant son is stung by a scorpion, Kino is denied treatment for the baby by the local physician because he is unable to pay. After Kino and his wife apply what home remedies they can for the scorpion sting, they head out into the bay, as on any other day, in search of pearls. On this day, however, Kino finds the Pearl of the World.
After finding this treasure, Kino dreams of the things he will do with the money when he sells the pearl: he will be able to pay the physician to cure his child; he will be able to pay for his son to go to school; he will be able to buy shoes for his wife; he may even be able to buy a rifle.
However, as anyone who has ever read Steinbeck might guess, things don't develop as Kino dreams.
While the story of The Pearl, in and of itself, is compelling, it is Steinbeck's genius for description, his ability to illustrate complex issues in accessible and yet graceful language, that truly make this novella great. Consider Steinbeck's description of the walk from Kino's hut in the fishing village to the physician's house in the town:
They came to the place where the brush houses stopped and the city of stone and plaster began, the city of harsh outer walls and inner cool gardens where a little water played and the bougainvillaea crusted the walls with purple and brick-red and white. They heard from the secret gardens the singing of caged birds and heard the splash of cooling water on hot flagstones.
In these few short, beautifully crafted sentences, Steinbeck captures the poverty in which Kino and his family live, the relative splendor in which the townspeople live, and the class discrimination inherent in that era. Through Steinbeck's eloquent prose, one captures a feel for the lives of the people of that time – their thoughts, their feelings, their hardships, their joys – what it must have been like in the La Paz of long ago.
Regardless of where you live, The Pearl is a stunning novella – something everyone should take the time to enjoy. But if you actually live in La Paz, it should be required reading!
In my last column, I reviewed a masterpiece of Mexican literature, Pedro Páramo. This time around, I thought I'd go with something a little less high-brow. “How much less high-brow?” you ask.
Think Raymond Chandler meets Isaac Asimov meets the Marx Brothers.
A. Lee Martinez is an award-winning author, but don't hold that against him. He's also one of the most entertaining authors I have come across in a long time. The first book of his I read, Gil's All Fright Diner, I found by accident. I didn't know anything about the book or the author, but I liked the title. I figured from the title it would be either a really funny book, or a really stupid one. I was delighted to discover it was, indeed, really funny. For me, the test of how witty a book is, is not whether it makes me laugh out loud, but how much of it I share aloud with my husband, Bruce, after I've laughed out loud. By the time I had finished reading Gil's All Fright Diner, Bruce didn't even need to read it himself. I'd read just about the whole thing to him. I couldn't wait to get my hands on more of Mr. Martinez's books – and that's one of the joys of owning a bookstore. I only had to wait as long as it took to order other titles.
Last week, to my joy, one of the books that arrived in the store was The Automatic Detective, another of A. Lee Martinez's works. It was torture, waiting the 15 minutes it took to enter the title into the database before I could start reading it. But it was worth the agony of each of those 900 seconds of required data entry.
True to form, The Automatic Detective is not just entertaining, but hilariously funny.
It is the story of a robot (in politically correct parlance, an “automated citizen”) that (who?) was designed by an evil genius for the purposes of world domination, but then developed the “Freewill Glitch.” Due to this glitch, our robot hero, Mack Megaton, decides not to dominate the world, but instead to become a productive member of society by getting a job as a cab driver.
When Mack's next-door neighbors, a family of “biologicals,” goes missing, Mack inadvertently takes on the role of private investigator in an effort to find them. Hence we have a hard-boiled private eye (á la Raymond Chandler) who happens to be a robot in a futuristic society (a nod to Isaac Asimov), in a story told with ridiculous wit and clever word-play (enter the Marx Brothers).
The story, in and of itself, is a fast-paced detective novel with the requisite beautiful dame, P.I. decked out in trench coat and fedora, innocent victims, interfering police, dubious “good” guys, and sinister bad guys. Even without Martinez's off-beat wit, the novel would be a good read. But when you add to the mix the author's wonderful sense of humor, the novel becomes superbly entertaining.
“Off-beat wit?” you query. “Wonderful sense of humor,” you muse. “Prove it!” you demand.
I can do that without leaving the first page of the book. Let's look at Mack's introduction of himself and the setting of the story – officially known as Technotopia, colloquially known as Empire City.
“But Technotopia was the official party line, along with the motto 'Building Tomorrow's Town. Today.' I guess it all depended on what you thought the future should look like. If you were looking for a bright and shiny metropolis where all of civilization's problems had been solved through the wise and fortuitous applications of equal parts science, wisdom, and compassion, then I guess you'd be out of luck. But if your ideal tomorrow was a sprawling, impersonal city with rampant pollution, unchecked mutation, and dangerous and unreliable weird science, then I guess you would be right at home.
Name's Mack Megaton. I'm a bot. Or automated citizen, as the Learned Council liked to phrase it.”
Okay, so the above passage may not be the epitome of sophisticated humor, but it's definitely worth a chuckle. And it gives you an idea of the fun that is in store throughout the rest of the book. If you're looking for sophistication, this isn't the book for you. But if the mere idea of Raymond Chandler and Isaac Asimov getting together to write the script for a Marx Brothers movie makes you snicker, pick up a copy of The Automatic Detective!
It probably wouldn't surprise you too much to learn that, being a bookstore owner, I am an avid reader. I have pretty eclectic taste when it comes to fiction. I love the old classics and the modern classics – in short, literature. However, I also love a good mystery, thoughtful science fiction, a complex fantasy series, quirky humor, a fast-paced spy thriller. I wouldn't call any of those genres “literature,” but that doesn't make them any less fun.
No matter how much fun it may be to sit down to the latest spy thriller, though, there is a something that occasionally happens when you read literature that doesn't happen when you read a mystery, or a spy thriller, or science fiction. It's a feeling you get. A feeling of reverence, of awe – the knowledge that you have just been brushed by a beauty nearing perfection. It doesn't happen every time. Maybe it happens only once every few years. Maybe only once a decade. But it does happen. And if you're like me, you remember each of those experiences. For me, it was the first time I read Othello (Shakespeare), the first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), The Cave (José Saramago).
And now, the first time I have read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo.
Pedro Páramo is the story of a young man, Juan Preciado, who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will seek out his father. Juan's mother had fled from his father many years ago. He knows little of his father, Pedro Páramo, except that Pedro lives in the village of Comala. Juan, never having been to Comala, only knows the village from his mother's recollections.
After his mother's death, Juan sets out to fulfill his promise to her. But when he arrives in Comala, he finds not the idyllic village of his mother's memories, but a barren ghost town. A ghost town that is still inhabited – by the ghosts of the village's last residents.
While this novel is most often described as “surreal,” one sees in it the seeds of the magical realism that has come to epitomize Mexican literature of the last 40 years. The story is told through multiple points of view: Juan Preciado's, Pedro Páramo's, various ghosts'. The story also jumps around in time based on who is narrating. While these multiple viewpoints and changes in time frame initially make it a little confusing to follow the story, instead of detracting from the work, they brilliantly add to the overall atmosphere. And, like Juan Preciado, the reader stops trying to analyze and simply accepts. Without knowing, or particularly caring, what is going to happen next, one is freed to enjoy the events as they come – to experience them instead of analyzing them.
One is also freed to appreciate Rulfo's amazing prose.
Pedro Páramo is a short novel, almost a novella. Yet on nearly every page, I was stuck by a well-turned phrase, a perfectly chosen word, a breathtakingly beautiful description. Juan Preciado's description of Comala upon his arrival is a good example.
“It was the hour of the day when in every little village children come out to play in the streets, filling the afternoon with their cries. The time when dark walls still reflect pale yellow sunlight.
At least that was what I had seen in Sayula, just yesterday at this hour. I'd seen the still air shattered by the flight of doves flapping their wings as if pulling themselves free of the day. They swooped and plummeted above the tile rooftops, while the children's screams whirled and seemed to turn blue in the dusk sky.
Now here I was in this hushed town. I could hear my footsteps on the cobbled paving stones. Hollow footsteps, echoing against walls stained red by the setting sun.”
Taste in literature, what one finds beautiful in prose, differs from person to person. But the above passage did, indeed, give me that feeling of reverence, of awe, that I spoke of earlier. Beauty bordering on perfection.
Pedro Páramo may not be to everyone's tastes. But if you are looking for an exquisitely written masterpiece of Mexican literature, don't miss Pedro Páramo.
When I was in grade school, I though history was the most boring subject on earth. It seemed to consist of nothing more than events and dates – a large proportion of which related to battles. The Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775. The Battle of Blandensburg, War of 1812. The Battle of Appomattox, 1865. (The ethnocentricity of history as taught in the US public school system is a matter for a different dissertation.) It seemed to me that the only reason to know these things was to be able to regurgitate them for the inevitable History test.
It wasn't until I read Gone with the Wind in the seventh grade that the light bulb (first commercially viable version: Thomas Edison, 1879) lit up. While reading the story, it dawned on me that history was more than just a list of events and dates. History was real. It happened to real people. While Scarlet and Rhett may be fictional characters, there were thousands of real people, both Confederate and Union, who actually experienced Sherman's march to the Atlantic. Gone with the Wind did something for me that none of my history teachers had ever done. It brought history to life.
Since then, I have become a fan of historical fiction – the more thoroughly researched the better. Which is why, when The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C. M. Mayo arrived in the store, I couldn't wait to start reading a copy.
The novel deals with the tumultuous decades after the Mexican War of Independence.
From the boring-events-and-dates category, we have the following: 1855 – Ángel de Iturbide, son of the exiled Mexican emperor Agustín de Iturbide, marries Washington, D.C., socialite Alice Green. Ángel and his wife Alice move to Mexico not long after the wedding. 1860's – the French occupation of Mexico, culminating with the installation of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph (Hapsburg) of Austria as Maximiliano I, Emperor of Mexico. 1863 – Ángel de Iturbide and his wife Alicía have a son, Agustín de Iturbide y Green. 1865 – Emperor Maximilian and his consort Carlota adopt Agustín de Iturbide y Green as their heir, and bestow on him the title of His Highness, Prince de Iturbide. 1867 – Emperor Maximilian deposed and executed.
From the history-comes-to-life category, we have C. M. Mayo's richly written novel. One of novel's strong points is the varying points of view from which the story is told. From Alice's point of view, we experience her frustration and bewilderment with Mexican customs – something I imagine we have all felt from time to time. This is balanced, however, with passages from the point of view of Alice's Mexican sister-in-law, who is equally frustrated with Alice's lack of knowledge of the most basic points of good manners in Mexico. We see Maximilian vilified by the commander of the French army as well as by the Mexican people, balanced by what Maximilian is thinking and feeling as he tries to be Emperor of a country he doesn't understand. We discover Carlota's anguish at not having born a child, and Alice's initial delight and subsequent anguish on giving her child to Maximilian and Carlota.
In an afterward and a selected bibliography, the author tells us the sources and inspiration for the novel. She has done her homework. But while the story is based on fact; of course, all the thoughts and dialog attributed to the personages in the novel are fiction. It is, however, this fiction of thoughts and dialog that brings the story to life for us.
Through Mayo's lavish prose, we are swept into the Mexico of the mid-1800's, with all its flavors and colors, dust and sunshine, confusion and pageantry. The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a wonderful way to learn more about this fascinating epoch of Mexico's history, as well as a just a great read.
The best thing about working in a bookstore is you get to see all the new books as they arrive. The worst thing about working in a bookstore is you have to pick which one to read first.
A few weeks ago, one of the new books that came in was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I knew that it had received good reviews, but didn't know much about the story. I brought it home after work, and started reading it about 4:00 that afternoon. And didn't go to bed that night until I had finished it.
The novel is set in England during and just after World War Two. Juliet Ashton, a London newspaper columnist, receives a letter from a man she has never met, Dawsey Adams of Guernsey in the Channel Isles. In his letter, he explains that he bought a used book and was enchanted by it. Because Juliet's name and address are on the flyleaf of the book, Dawsey knows it originally belonged to her. He tells Juliet that the book was so good it made him laugh during the German occupation of Guernsey, no small feat. He also mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. He asks if she knows of other books by the same author, and, as books are extremely hard to come by on Guernsey, if she knows of a bookseller in London who can send him more books.
Juliet, delighted with Dawsey's obvious love of one of her favorite authors, and also somewhat amazed that one of her used books has made it to Guernsey, responds to his letter with one of her own. In her letter she wonders how the book got to Guernsey. “Perhaps,” she writes, “there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” She shares information about the book's author with Dawsey, and lets him know she has contacted a London bookseller on his behalf. And, because it has peaked her curiosity, she asks him about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The tale unfolds from there.
The story is told though a series of letters – between Juliet and Dawsey and the other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By means of these letters, Juliet comes to know and care deeply about a group of people she has never met on an island she has never visited.
Each of the Society members relates to Juliet his or her experiences during the German occupation. They write about what the Society specifically, and literature in general, meant to each of them during that difficult period. The personalities, backgrounds, interests, and education levels of the Society members are widely varied. A few were readers before the occupation and formation of the Society. Most came to reading only through the Society. One member, a fisherman by trade, relates to Juliet that he hadn't had much to do with books since his school days, and it was only with great difficulty that he managed to open a book at all. But his membership in the society changed all that. He writes to Juliet about the first book he read:
It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is 'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.'”
Not surprising that someone living under German occupation during World War Two should be especially touched by those words.
The fisherman's experience when he reads Shakespeare's words sums up one of the main questions the story examines. How does a love of books and the written word help people to withstand difficult circumstances? The story also looks at how one's personality and experiences affect one's choices in reading. Further, it challenges the idea that all the occupying German soldiers were evil, and all the occupied British citizens were good people.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a wonderful book, written with wit and warmth. It is an engaging story with (mostly) likable characters, and has the added appeal of posing some interesting questions about stereotypes, and the place of friendships and the written word in one's life.