Lion in the Valley

Perhaps my favorite Amelia Peabody Emerson mystery yet! Elizabeth Peters isn't exactly a brilliant mystery novelist as far as the mystery part is concerned, but she does, indeed, craft a fun tale -- and she's created two very charming lead characters whose banter more than makes up for any deficiencies as far as the mystery is concerned. Thankfully any issues which cropped up in the past few novels and proved to be irritating (aka Ramses and his speech defect) have been firmly dealt with and reasonably worked around. True, things are a bit formulaic and yes, there are several things that the reader just needs to accept and roll with, but hey, I felt more entertained by this book than I have by the previous two installments and this firmly planted me in the pro-Peters camp so that I know I'll keep reading the series, so clearly the book is a very welcome chapter in the lives of Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson.

In Lion in the Valley, the Emerson family heads to Egypt for a season spent excavating at Dahshoor. They acquired this coveted site after events from the previous novel saw them all imprisoned in the black pyramid at Dahshoor and young Ramses may or may not have helped the Director of Antiquities to a rich and exciting find. Even with such glorious pyramids, though, one could not think that Amelia Peabody Emerson would be so content as to ignore the danger from the Master Criminal, that fiend who runs a black-market antiquities ring. Those readers who were growing a bit annoyed at the constant speculation on such a character will be quite pleased with this novel, where considerable progress is made towards unmasking the devil, or at least learning more about his (her?) passions and methods.

The Emersons have a talent for "adopting" down-on-their-luck Englishmen (a role filled just as often by Englishwomen, though) and this holds true here. They run across a young man named Nemo (or such is the name he selects from himself) who is obviously a well-bred Englishman (or Scot) even if he is dirty, dressed as an Arab, and has clearly been smoking opium. After Nemo saves Ramses from potentially being abducted, Emerson insists that they take in this stray and assigns him the role of Ramses-caretaker (no one is much surprised that this post is never filled by one person for more than one book). Not to be outdone, Peabody has her own idea as to who should be taken under her wing this trip when she learns the identity of a young lady named Miss Enid Debenham, an heiress seen in the company of the scheming Kalenischeff. Of course, when Kalenischeff is found dead in her room and Miss Debenham is nowhere to be found, there is some question as to whether or not the lady can look after herself. Naturally, of course, there's plenty of romantic backstory to entangle "Nemo" and Enid and that all plays a role as the Emersons try to determine who killed Kalenischeff, who is behind the antiquities smuggling ring, and who seems to be sending Amelia little tokens of love...

Of primary importance to me in this particular volume was the fact that Ramses has mostly outgrown any speech defects that rendered his soliloquies quite irritating. Now the boy is merely tiresome, but his parents seem to share the same opinion as this reader and so they are frequently cutting the boy off... of course, this often has the obvious effect of silencing the astute young child when he's about to supply a crucial bit of information, thus leading to confusion and drama, but so it goes. The somewhat harder to swallow storyline involves the identity of the master criminal and his true passions... for even if we can adore Amelia Peabody, let's face it... she was initially described in the first book as a pretty solid spinster entirely out of fashion and unless love has totally transformed her, I'm finding it pretty hard that this mastermind has worshipped her from afar. Be that as it may, at least we do get to interact with this genius of crime and we get to see Emerson fume and fuss with jealousy as Amelia bumbles on, oblivious until it's all immediately in her face (or lap). Peters seems to have allowed herself to be a touch more romance-y in each novel, though it's not like there's anything graphic. Perhaps it's simply that she's a little freer with the jokes on this topic, as with a particularly funny exchange when Miss Debenham comments that she heard such strange noises in the desert during the night... all these cries and moans. It's rather quite cute to see Peters add in those small touches while, thankfully, refraining from totally veering into romance novel territory. As passionate as Peabody and Emerson might be, I rather prefer the pan off into the sunset technique as far as they're concerned.

Since I was a little disappointed with The Mummy Case, I was all the more pleased to see that Peters had produced quite a pleasant addition to her series with Lion in the Valley. By this point, most readers will have decided if they're jumping ship on the series or sticking it out and, unsurprisingly, I shall continue to read. The good thing, though, is the fact that these don't particularly require the reader to devour them with great speed, so I feel like I can stretch out my enjoyment to savor these books from this point on, dipping into my stash whenever a rainy day permits.

The Mummy Case

The third book in the Elizabeth Peters series that features the intrepid Amelia Peabody and her husband, Radcliffe Emerson... and our first expedition with Walter "Ramses" Emerson, their precocious young son. Emerson had promised Peabody that this season, she would have pyramids... but when he's unable to obtain the rights to excavate at Dahshoor, he grumblingly accepts a rather poor site called Mazghunah, where the pyramids of Dahshoor are close enough to taunt them. Mazghunah appears to be a burial ground, with poorly constructed later pyramids that have already collapsed to be buried by sand. It's of a much later period than Emerson cares, but with his pride injured, he sticks stubbornly to his dedication to a job well done on any project.

Of course, Emerson should be aware that with a wife like Peabody (who stumbles into every potential criminal case that could possibly be afoot) and a son like Ramses (who seeks out all manner of trouble), even a season as Mazghunah will be eventful. Peabody is intent on learning more about a smuggling ring that she believes is lead by a "Master Criminal," and her suspicions about this are only confirmed when an antiques dealer is found dead. It may look like suicide but Peabody is convinced of foul play and that the Master Criminal is to blame. Emerson, naturally, takes a bit more convincing before he can accept that something sinister is afoot. After multiple thefts, often involving the same mummy, the sleuthing couple (aided by their loquacious son and his intelligent cat, Bastet) set out to solve the mystery that seems to feature everyone around them as a potential suspect.

I must admit that The Mummy Case did not terribly delight me. Sure, it was pleasant enough as another chapter in the lives of Amelia Peabody and her husband, but the case was not terribly fascinating and the characters were only mildly amusing. Perhaps the most annoying thing is the acceptance that Ramses is, indeed, here to stay as a prime feature of the storylines and I just can't quite warm to the child. He's terribly annoying and speaks at length on any given subject. At least his parents are aware of his defects (at least Amelia is; Emerson quite dotes on the boy) and frequently interrupt him with requests that he get to the point. Honestly, he could be much more pleasant if Peters simply did away with his unfortunate lisp (well, I suppose it's not a lisp, is it, it's simply an issue with diphthongs and such). A character with such a speech defect is mildly annoying when he or she remains relatively quiet but when it's a character that speaks at such length, it's enough to be a valid reason to set down the series entirely. If his speech doesn't improve by the next installment, I might seriously be moved to discontinue my reading, no matter how delightful I might find Peabody and Emerson to be.

So, in short, fans of the series will appreciate another book but clearly must be one of the hurdles that I was forewarned about. I don't mind the simplistic mysteries so much as annoying characters, because Peters is actually quite good at sketching amusing characters and Ramses seems like a real lapse in judgment. The unconventional family dynamics, however, are a bit amusing. Emerson is a ridiculous softie when it comes to his son and Peabody loves him but is far more rational than most mothers when it comes to their offspring. Indeed, it's not quite fear that tinges her observations of her child, but there's certainly a bit of concern for her far-too-intelligent son and his capabilities for getting into scrapes. Since there always seems to be a sub-plot of uniting two lovers, I predict that the need for Ramses to be watched 24/7 will supply us with a parade of fellows (or strong governesses) to provide one half of the equation there. Through it all, though, the interactions between Emerson and Peabody make for a delightful cornerstone on which the foundation of the series is built. Here's hoping we can overcome the small irritations so that we can continue to enjoy these two characters as they dig through archaeological sites and mysterious cases of intrigue.


Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

To be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure what to make of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but I know that I liked it. It seems to be a novel that illuminates how opposites not only are able to coexist but absolutely must exist to define the other. This book feels like a journey, for more reasons than the exotic locations, and what's more, it's a journey where it's perfectly fine to lose one's way a bit, to not always completely follow where it goes, or to suddenly be perfectly in tune with the narrator's thoughts.

I've been on the lookout for Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi even before its release in hardcover, but I couldn't tell you why. Perhaps it wasn't anything more than the allure of Venice (which is really all it takes for me to be interested), but I was delighted when I found a copy at a stoop sale, thus saving me the hardcover price and the paperback wait time. I cannot quite remember what I expected, but it wasn't this... and yet that's not at all a bad thing. Dyer's book continually surprised me with its insight and descriptive detail that vividly inserts the reader into the scene, whether that's the Biennale or the ghats along the Ganges. After reading up on Geoff Dyer, one can tell that the fellow writes books that defy genres and this book is no different. It might be presented as a novel, but really it feels more like two novellas or stories, the first taking place in Venice and the second in Varanasi. It could just as easily be described as a travel book, for each story is as interested in the city as the narrator (indeed, the narrator's interest in the city often deflects us from discovering more about the narrator).

The first part, "Jeff in Venice" features our narrator, Jeff Atman, a C-level freelance journalist attending the Biennale in Venice with the additional objective of interviewing a woman whose fame exists by association -- she was once the lover of an artist, had his child, and raised the girl, who is now rising to her own stardom as a singer. Atman is to interview her, obtain the rights to a never-before-seen sketch from the famous artist who was her lover, and also photograph the woman as she is now. Of course, Atman is also just happy to be at the Biennale, which apparently causes a segment of the London population to be transported to Venice for a few days: "You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore." The stated objective might be to see a large amount of art, but clearly everyone seems bent on consuming as many bellinis and as much free risotto as they possibly can. (There's a fantastic examination of human nature in a particular scene that involves the promise of free risotto and the anger when it does not manifest.) Jeff is a pretty impressive cynic when it comes to this scene, but then, he's also incredibly funny as a guide that's tired of it all and yet cannot bear the idea of being left out. It's this humor that makes everything even more delightful than it already would be as simply an examination of a yearly Venetian event. Early on, Jeff meets Laura, a beautiful woman with whom Jeff has instant chemistry (unsurprisingly, Laura is an American with a dolphin tattoo though surprisingly only seems to have a tame supply of white cotton panties). Dyer paints some wonderfully erotic scenes and as their whirlwind romance begins, the reader (along with Jeff) is left to wonder where it all might lead in the twisting canals of such an eternal city.

Of course, from the very title of the book, one has to think of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and will notice multiple nods along the way. Is Jeff is Aschenbach and is Laura Tadzio? Well, if only by virtue of the rampant sex and the age of consent for both parties, no... but in Varanasi, we have another beautiful woman that Jeff looks at with a more diluted sense of attraction and this relationship will never come to fruition. The real thing to notice here is that Jeff is always longing for something. Just because one desire is fulfilled, it doesn't mean another does not take its place. When we head off to Varanasi, we find the other half of Mann's title, though perhaps not the same Aschenbach fate. (Side note: there's no assurance that the narrator of the second half of the novel is the same Jeff Atman, as there are no specific ties. Yes, the narrator is a journalist from London who is now traveling in Varanasi, a location which had come up in discussions between Laura and Jeff during their time in Venice, but there's no absolute affirmation. Of course, the reader inevitably assumes they must be the same man and, indeed, assumes that his experience in Varanasi takes place after that of the one in Venice.)

There is a palpable difference between the stories; gone are the swarms of art world bellini-swillers. Instead, in the "Death in Varanasi" section, we have a man traveling alone and veering off on a very different kind of bender; this one is full of the concept of emptying one's self and focusing on the present, one's surroundings, and the life that occurs in Varanasi. Of course, where we had sex in Venice, there's death aplenty in Varanasi. It all seems to originate from the funerals and burning pyres on the ghats of the Ganges... and then it simply spirals out to touch everything with the knowledge that life is very fragile indeed. From terrifying taxi rides to horrifying squalor to quite disgusting illnesses... well, we're a long way from the Biennale. Atman has companions from time to time, other travelers who drift in and out, but Atman himself rather loses his desire to travel away from Varanasi and so stays in his hotel and simply exists. It's not really as though he's waiting for something, but rather, he's slowly exploring the location, taking his time and doing whatever he pleases. There's a distinct sense of melancholy, but then, this could also be interpreted as a kind of solitary peace that simply feels sadder in comparison with the parties in Venice. Jeff still seems to be seeking something, if not "enlightenment" exactly, then some kind of understanding... yet this quieter and more personal longing is starkly different from the erotic and professional longing experienced in Venice. That might be called more frivolous, but then, it could also be simply one side of a coin that represents the longing for life.

Both of these cities seem to rise up from the water, but they do very different things to the pilgrims who travel to them... or do they? Once thinks of Venice as being about life and love (even if it's swirling out of control with drugs and alcohol), whereas the holy city of Varanasi at first sight appears to be more about death and sickness (though this, in turn, makes the city a city of life, too). Venice personifies consuming passions whereas Varanasi is emptying one's self of everything (be this in a spiritual sense or a physical sense that involves copious amounts of vomiting and such). It's not that Varanasi is a bad place, necessarily, but for the casual tourist, it will seem rather dirty and squalid. As a holy city, the tourist attraction oddly lies with the ghats on the Ganges and several times, the narrator watches bodies being burned. A great deal of time is spent musing on this sacred river that seems so polluted and yet is such a source of life, but the whole time in Varanasi is not spent musing on death by any means. Jeff is, essentially, mesmerized by the life in Varanasi, from the dancing that occurs beside burning funeral pyres to the complexities of the Indian music as spontaneous jam sessions develop on the terrace of his hotel. Some very humorous scenes arise, often involving monkeys -- it almost seems like cheating in travelogues to visit a place with monkeys, as they provide reliable humor. It's as though the only way the narrator really comes to appreciate and enjoy life in Varanasi is by staying to see beyond the constant requests for money (for boat rides, for tours, for temples, for beggars) and the filthy conditions. Many fascinating experiences arise from this time in Varanasi, but when one compares the two sections, one has to wonder if a certain amount of the spiritual discussion in Varanasi is not so different from all the bollocks one talked in Venice. In Varanasi, Jeff watches two of his friends embark upon a romance and he remains the one outside. There are echoes of each story in the other, though each left me with very different emotions.

Naturally, the reader will have to notice the comparison between Geoff the author and Jeff the narrator. Even if they're not the same person, there is great significance in a character that shares the author's name and several descriptive traits. The New York Times review described it as such: "Jeff, in other words, feels a lot like Geoff: an all-purpose writer for the high-end British papers and a determined idler whose love of freeloading can never quite conceal his hunger for something deeper and more transcendent." It's easy to think of Jeff as an alternate version of Geoff... indeed, Atman is apparently Hindu for the true and universal self. Read into that what you will, but I count it as another one of Dyer's playful touches. Above all, the thing I enjoyed was Atman's tone, which was incredibly intelligent and self-aware, unafraid to be honest and yet still allowing for the chance that things could be just what they seemed and yet still be more (at one point Atman says "it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time").

So ultimately, I quite enjoyed the novel and really, if I haven't processed all of it, I'm not too concerned. It's a novel that stays with you and to which your thoughts will occasionally drift back. I'll certainly be seeking out more of Geoff Dyer's work, though I shall take great pleasure in adding this book to my list of authors who have fallen in love with Venice and on whom I can rely when I need to dip into their adventures and remember the taste of that great city.


Revolting Rhymes

It's that time of year where I rack my brain for birthday present ideas for my godson, Cole. The child has every toy and game that one could possibly wish for and so I rarely feel too bad about being the reliable godmother who always gets him a book. (To my credit, I always try to find an entertaining book and supplement these with things like Gamestop giftcards or t-shirts with a giant squid attacking the Brooklyn Bridge.) This year, I decided that it might be time to introduce the lad to Roald Dahl. Sure, Matilda and The Witches might be reaching for it a bit, but then I remembered Revolting Rhymes. This is a sure winner of a gift for any child with even a smidge of an interest in reading. Why? Does the title not tip you off? These deliciously awful poems are short, fun, and incredibly wicked. Plus, they're paired with illustrations by the delightful Quentin Blake. This little volume is sure to be a hit and if you are looking to do a sweep of great Roald Dahl poetry, you can also pick up Dirty Beasts.

Revolting Rhymes features reimagined fairy tales, so your recipient should be familiar with the basic Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. In particular, these six poems touch upon Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk, Snow White and the seven dwarves, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, and the three little pigs. In general, the stories begin just as you remember, but somewhere along the line we get a bit twisted (as is usually the case with Dahl). Cinderella's prince hacks off the heads of her stepsisters and Cindy realizes she wants a decent man, so ends up married to a jam-maker. Jack learns the benefit of bathing every day at the expense of his mother's life. Snow White and the seven dwarves get rich at the races with a moral that promotes gambling "providing that you always win." Goldilocks ends up eaten as punishment for her crimes. Little Red isn't fooled by the wolf in her grandmother's clothes and gets herself a wolfskin coat. In turn, the three little pigs know just who to call to help with their wolf problem, though unfortunately they don't much benefit from their plan.

Perhaps my favorite two are the last. In Little Red, we have the great lines: "The small girl smiles / Her eyelid flickers / She whips a pistol from her knickers / She aims it at the creature's head / and BANG! BANG! BANG! / she shoots him... dead." In the three little pigs, we have an amusing ending as Little Red exacts payment for her assistance. The poems are all delightful, but I was always delighted that Dahl ended the collection with those two.

If your kids have a wicked streak or perhaps if you're just up to hear them laugh as they see familiar stories twisted, you should certainly consider adding this Roald Dahl volume to your library. Not only will the kids get a kick out of these, but you will, too. An excellent volume for reading aloud, whether that means you're reading to the kids or the kids are reading to you. If they don't have a streak of dark humor, though, then you might steer clear... or at least wait a few years. My godson is nine, though I think this is perfectly acceptable for kids of seven or eight, too.


Dead in the Family

I feel like it's been ages since I've last sunk my teeth into a Sookie Stackhouse book, which is perhaps why I felt like Dead in the Family was a little bit of a letdown. True, I did binge on the series and then a year passed before a new installment could be written and published, and yes, after all the drama from Dead and Gone, there would have to be a book where everyone took a deep breath... but still, I can't help but feel a little disappointed. Sookie needs time to heal after being tortured during the fairy war, needs time to figure out what kind of relationship she wants from Eric (since they're now married in vampire custom), and needs time to regain some normalcy to her life (relatively speaking). She has a lot to deal with and is doing remarkably well, all things considered. The world is still reeling from the revelation that not only are there vampires, but there are shifters, too -- and unsurprisingly, not everyone is pleased. At least things have gotten a little simpler and the fairies are all gone, right? Well, it turns out a few remained behind after Niall closed the portal to the fairy world, including Claude (Sookie's cousin and the brother of Claudine, who died in the fairy war) and possibly a few others who might not be so friendly. Top it off with some werewolf drama, vampire politics, and a bit of jealousy over one's ex... and, well, it's a pretty standard Sookie Stackhouse book, with fewer fireworks and dramatic confrontations.

If the title didn't clue you in, then be prepared for lots of family ties to pop up in this book. Sookie agrees to babysit Hunter, her dead cousin Hadley's son who is also a mind-reader. Despite the fact that Sookie's helping the kid deal with growing up a mind-reader, this is perhaps the most normal we've ever seen Sookie as she takes Hunter to the park and makes him dinner. As a young boy, he is quite intelligent and well-behaved, but he still needs to learn that most people don't want to know someone can hear what they're thinking. Top it off, Sookie realizes that she still doesn't want people to know about Hunter's abilities for fear that they might put him in danger, but she only realizes this while she's introducing the poor kid to FBI agents, vampires, and fairies. As for the fay, after Claude shows up on Sookie's porch after losing his sister, Sookie's not sure what to expect -- but when he asks if he can move in for a while, she's certainly surprised. Evidently, even the little bit of fairy blood that Sookie has is enough to make Claude feel a kinship and fairies easily come to miss their own kind. Since the portal to the fairy world was locked up, with Claude choosing to stay in this world, it means that he's willing to try being polite if he can be near his part-fairy cousin. There are other fairies on this side, too, including Sookie's crazy great-uncle, Dermot, who looks just like Jason, aside from being certifiable and potentially dangerous. And Jason? Well, he seems to be doing surprisingly well this book -- he's getting over the death of his estranged wife and is currently dating Michele, who seems to be one of his more sane girlfriends. He's also making an effort to stay in touch with Sookie and his presence comes in handy a few times in the course of the book, particularly when Sookie has to attend a werewolf hearing that regards a body found on her land and Sookie winds up taking some kind of drug that allows her to determine the guilty parties. Clearly, the werewolves have their own issues and while these concern Sookie, she stays largely on the fringe of this.

As per usual, though, Sookie is still all wrapped up in vampire dealings. Bill is still suffering from being bitten with silver during the war and normally, exchanging blood with the vampire's sire would help that vampire become well, but Sookie killed Bill's sire several books ago. As a result, Sookie steals Bill's vampire directory and gets in touch with another vampire sired by Lorena to see if a "sibling" would have a similar effect. Speaking of vampire sires -- Eric's maker is in town. The Ancient Roman vampire has his latest creation with him, too -- Alexi Romanov, the last Romanov tsaravich who was believed killed along with the rest of his family. The vampire savior description is terribly far-fetched, but then, we're talking about vampires so your best bet in any Harris book is to just roll with it. Despite the fact that he didn't die, he did see his family killed and the kid is seriously twisted, quite possibly more dangerous than your average vamp. Eric is not doing well with his family in town -- Sookie has never seen him like this and realizes that because of the sire-get bond, if his sire requests anything of Eric, Eric will be forced to comply. Sex, money, murdering Sookie... it's all a possibility and Eric does not deal well with being under anyone's power, particularly at a time when he's fighting his own power battles with Victor, the envoy of the King of Louisiana. Pam, Eric's lieutenant and a growing fan of Sookie, believes that Victor might be itching to "settle down" and take over Eric's territory for his own -- better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Given that Victor was also responsible for keeping Eric from flying to Sookie's aid as she was tortured by fairies, Victor is not on Sookie's good list, and even less so after Victor sends his own lieutenants to try and kill Sookie and Pam.

Without giving major things away (and I know this sounds silly, given the large amounts of summary I just went into), I feel like very little was actually accomplished as a result of this book, beyond getting rid of some characters that were only just introduced anyway, so whatever. On the topic of all that summarizing, I'll admit that when I started reading Dead in the Family, I was a bit concerned that I might have forgotten some important details or character names, thus requiring a bit of a refresher and limiting my enjoyment of the book. But less than twenty pages in, I realized that it was incredibly easy to slip back into the rhythm and world of Charlaine Harris. It helps that it's not exactly Tolkien and Middle Earth. There was even a moment I noticed where the writing itself tripped over the discussion of a character, launching forward without explanation, and I felt the familiar feeling of wishing that Harris had taken a bit more time to polish her work. This is very much a stepping stone book -- Harris is gearing up for new developments and clearly the foundation is being laid for that. This is a book for true fans to scan for hints and what is to come as opposed to spending a lot of time discussing events that happen within.

As far as the long-term storylines go, things seem to be plateauing a bit. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the Sookie-Eric relationship anymore. I liked it when it was passionate and fueled by the fact that Bill was in the background, seething with rage; now that it's more of a relationship, it's less interesting. They have a pattern, Eric actually feels like he needs to explain things to Sookie the way a real partner does. The Eric we first were introduced to didn't seem like he would be okay explaining himself to anyone; he wasn't a long-haul kind of vampire as far as human relationships were concerned. He's too wrapped up in his work to really be the kind of partner that Sookie needs and to be honest, he's lost his edge with Sookie around. I still chuckled each time he calls Sookie "my lover," but I'm ready for something else in this soap opera. The introduction of a potential love interest for Bill at least brings him back into play for Sookie in future, as the love-sick, moping vampire was never going to win her back, but a complicated relationship with his vampire sibling... sounds a little sick, but does at least inspire Sookie's jealousy. And as for Sam? Well, Sam's dating a Were but clearly it's mismatched. We're all still waiting for poor Sam to either get a woman who's equal to him or to make a new play for Sookie.

Bottom line, fans will be mildly amused. It's book ten, clearly we're going to read whatever she puts out until it all gets too terrible to pay for. This certainly isn't that but if I have to wait another year for the next installment, it needs to be better than this one for me to keep up the three-star ratings.


The Curse of the Pharaohs

The Curse of the Pharaohs is the second installment in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series... and does anyone else think it's weird that it's only the second book and she's married, thus is no longer named Amelia Peabody? It's Amelia Emerson now, though her husband Radcliffe Emerson (usually just called Emerson) uses "Peabody" as a term of endearment. At the close of The Crocodile on the Sandbank, we knew what was in store for the Emersons -- a few years of happy excavations and the promise of a baby, perfectly planned to arrive after their working season with enough time for Amelia to be ready to return to work the following season. Well, here we learn that their blessed bundle of joy turned out to be a boy, named Walter for his uncle... but unsurprisingly is quite precocious and is turning out to be a bit of a tyrant, thus more frequently referred to as "Ramses." Indeed, after their first season away from the boy, Radcliffe found he couldn't bear to be parted from his offspring, and since even the Emersons realized one should probably not take an infant/toddler out to the deserts of Egypt, they spent five years in England, slowly going out of their minds with boredom.

Thank goodness for mysterious deaths and Egyptian curses, because it's the combination of these two things that give the Emersons the excuse they need to return to Egypt. Ramses is left with his capable Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Walter while the Emersons go to take over a famous excavation that has captured the attention of the tabloids due to the mysterious death of the expedition leader, Lord Baskerville. Without an apparent cause of death and the sudden disappearance of a trusted crew members goes missing, the tabloids naturally assume that this chap must have killed Lord Baskerville. This is all interesting to Amelia, of course, who considers herself to be a bit of a sleuth in addition to an uncertified lady doctor. Emerson, however, is much more concerned with the tomb... and possibly a little bit with the widow of Lord Baskerville, who evidently has known Emerson for a long time. While we the readers know that Emerson would never go astray, the woman in question is certainly one to keep an eye on. Mix in the expedition photographer (who is really Lord Baskerville's estranged brother's son in disguise and thus the heir and new Lord Baskerville), a vile drunkard of a woman who fancies she can remember her past lives (which happen to include Emerson as her husband and lover), the woman's lovely daughter, a German expedition member who worships Emerson's brother's work, and an American amateur Egyptologist looking to get in on all the action... well, once again, we have a work that is far more entertaining for the characters than the mystery.

The mystery is, indeed, quite easy to figure out -- at least this time, Emerson and Amelia write their respective guesses and leave them in a sealed envelope, proving that our dynamic duo each at least solved the case around the same time as the reader. I would have to admit that I didn't enjoy The Curse of the Pharoahs as much as I had hoped, though it was a perfectly pleasant and quick read. I was warned upon starting this series that I should brave it out for a few books before things picked up -- and I believe this might be the book to spark such a warning. It isn't that anything is particularly wrong, it's just not terribly fresh. Emerson and Amelia are charming in their banter -- it's nice to see a couple that can feud well and you still believe that they can be in love at the same time. I predict that Ramses will be quite a handful and, indeed, perhaps a bit annoying if we have a few books where he's still quite young... so I'm thankful for at least this book where we can still enjoy Emerson and Amelia on their own. Again, a quick read and an amusing installment, but I must admit I'm looking for Peters to sharpen her sleuthing skills so that we have some more interesting cases to which we can look forward.


The Crocodile on the Sandbank

After years of seeing Elizabeth Peters novels on the bookstore shelves, glittering with the promise of Egypt and mystery (though it's hard to glitter in mass market paperback, so perhaps they only beckoned), I finally decided that it was time to give them a whirl and I am quite pleased with the decision. They're more whimsical than I otherwise would have expected, but Peters certainly can craft amusing characters. The Crocodile on the Sandbank is the very first in a series of mysteries that feature Amelia Peabody, a nineteenth century woman with the spirit of Indiana Jones... if Dr. Jones was a bit more prone to solving mysteries and leaping to conclusions that got everyone into a spot of bother. As proof of my enjoyment, you should know that within forty-eight hours, I purchased two copies of this book -- the first for my nook and the second in paperback for my mother, as I could tell that she would never forgive me if I didn't pass copies of this series along to her.

Amelia Peabody, a thirty-two year old self-professed spinster with both a figure and a personality that are decidedly not in season, has just inherited her father's half-a-million pounds upon his death. After amusing herself for a while by watching men fall all over themselves to ask for her money--er, her hand--she decides that she will not stay locked up in the house like her father, reading about far-off lands. Miss Peabody intends to venture forth to see the world for herself -- and she is not a woman easily dissuaded from a course of action. The conventions of the time might have stopped other lesser women, but not Amelia Peabody; she plans quite well for her journey, supplying herself with plentiful first-aid materials, a simpering companion whom she can bully for the entire trip, and a study parasol. Top it all off with her no-nonsense British sensibilities and confidence in the power of the British empire, there's nothing in her way -- until she reaches Rome and her companion takes ill. Even Amelia Peabody knows that society will prove quite troublesome if she disregards all convention by traveling alone, but a solution immediately presents itself when she picks up the young Englishwoman Miss Evelyn Barton-Forbes in Rome. Quite literally, she picks up a fainting Evelyn from the streets of Rome and finds a delightful and brave young woman who made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong fellow. By running off with him, Evelyn enraged her grandfather and was struck from his will -- thus resulting in her unworthy lover's abandonment. With her honor ruined and with no one to whom she might turn, Evelyn finds her savior in Miss Peabody... and Miss Peabody finds a devoted companion and friend.

Together, Amelia and Evelyn take off for Egypt... and Amelia promptly entangles them in the affairs of others after noticing that Evelyn might have a worthy admirer in Mr. Walter Emerson, an expert in Egyptian hieroglyphs who is currently working on an excavation headed by his brother. Said brother is a different kettle of fish -- introduced to us in the form of a howling bear, furious with Amelia for picking up shards of pottery in the antiquities section of the museum, an incident which only fuels his rage at the curator for failing to run a proper institution. This is Mr. Radcliffe Emerson, a temperamental ogre of a man with an unrivaled knowledge of ancient Egypt and no good opinion of tourists or English ladies. We can all see where this is going.

Noticing Evelyn's fondness for Walter (Amelia has a matchmaking streak, despite her own unwed state) and eager to see an actual excavation site, Amelia manages to reroute their own travel plans so that their paths will cross with the Emerson brothers' site. Of course, her plans are fortuitous, as they arrive just as the elder Emerson is struck will illness; Amelia manages to save his life while allowing Walter and Evelyn time to get acquainted. Evelyn, tormented by the belief that no good man would want her in her fallen state, actually finds herself with an abundance of suitors when her cousin shows up, insisting that her romantic mistake can be forgotten about if she will marry him and come home. If this seems a bit fishy, then don't be surprised when other figures appear, too -- like newly risen mummy that frightens the locals and threatens our main characters. Everything works out in the end, of course, and since we're surrounded with sensible British stock, you can bet that they get to the bottom of this mummy nonsense.

If you're looking for a great mystery novel with twists, turns, and gasps... then this isn't your best bet. The mystery and the plot are a distant second to the personalities, but if that's okay with you, then I think you'll be as delighted as I was in discovering some terribly entertaining characters. Amelia Peabody is a delightful heroine, full of enthusiasm and energy, eager to barrel into danger yet still concerned for the well-being of her friends. At once quite rational and yet imaginative enough to wildly hypothesize, she's a wonderful blend of wit and whimsy. I did rather assume that romance might not happen quite so quickly for the resigned spinster, but evidently Peters had different ideas and wanted a couple to tackle these Egyptian mysteries as opposed to Amelia on her own. With her stubborn nature, she's willing to take on both mummies and the even more foreboding Emerson... both to very amusing ends. The reader will figure out exactly what's what far ahead of the characters as far as mysteries and romance are concerned, and yet to watch everything play out is a delight.

This is clearly a novel written with the intention of being the first in a series, establishing personalities and acquainting the reader with the world of Egyptian excavations in the 1880s. It certainly helps that the characters are well worth the effort and left me eager to read anything that might come after. It also helps that Elizabeth Peters is quite a creditable writer with an unimpeachable knowledge of ancient Egypt and an ear for charming dialogue. It didn't much feel like a mystery novel, but I trust that such instincts will improve... and quite frankly, even if they don't, I'll still happily content myself with the banter between Amelia and Emerson. While Walter and Evelyn are a bit one note, they were somewhat of a relief from the strong personalities of Amelia and Emerson, and yet I suspect their presence will be limited, as characters like this have a tendency to settle down and produce a large brood of children, thus rendering them unable to run around the Egyptian deserts after mummies. As a series that will likely have each book strike a very similar chord (mystery in Egypt, Peabody and Emerson clash while adoring each other), I suppose it all has the potential to grow tiresome after a while, but I certainly hope that Peters will be quite capable of presenting fresh scenarios as we go.


Man Walks Into a Room

While Man Walks Into a Room was Nicole Krauss's debut novel, I was first brought to experience her genius in The History of Love. Her first work feels like less of a novel and more like a lengthy short story -- though, to its credit, it certainly doesn't feel any longer than a short story. Instead, it's more of a lingering discussion on an idea that begs to be explored. As a result, it feels hard to summarize the plot in a tantalizing way beyond the initial scenario, as a large part of the novel is really a reaction to just that.

Samson Greene is found wandering the desert outside of Las Vegas eight days after going missing in Manhattan. Almost immediately, he undergoes surgery to remove a newly discovered brain tumor and when he wakes up, he has no memory of his life after the age of twelve. No memory of his loving wife, his career as an English professor at Columbia University, his friends, his dog, his mother's death... nothing. Remarkably, he appears able to make new memories and is still an intelligent and functioning adult, but the slate appears to have been wiped clean of over twenty years of experiences. Without any connection to this life, he doesn't particularly feel a desperate need for these memories to return so much as he just wants everyone to stop looking at him with expectation. This is an unusual response to memory loss and is incredibly painful for Anna, his wife, who just wants her husband back, intact, with memories of their ten years spent together. As he adjusts to this new world (though thankfully we are spared the Big ideas and he seems to have the mentality of an adult if not the personal memories), he struggles to establish a relationship with Anna and find some purpose to his own self. Unsurprisingly, things do not go well. Samson retreats further into himself as he realizes he cannot really make Anna happy, developing a strange friendship with a former student and relying on the companionship of his dog, Frank, who does not expect Samson to remember their time together. This is all moving along when Krauss throws in a bit of a twist: a neuro-scientist offers Samson the opportunity to take part in a hushed-up memory experiment and Samson quickly signs up. The experiment does not claim that it could return his memories, for those are lost for good, but instead the experiment is attempting something much more revolutionary and potentially much more traumatizing. Of course, if one picks up the novel and reads the very first few pages, one might wonder how the depiction of a young soldier witnessing an atomic bomb testing plays into the rest of the story. It is this memory that will hit Samson with all its atomic force, finally breaking him open to understand everything that has befallen him. It takes the story a while to get there, but impact is astounding.

As I mentioned, this novel is not one that should be read for plotlines; it's the exploration of a "what if...?" idea. From the beginning, you should be pretty aware that everything cannot end well. It might end not terribly, but that's about all you can hope for after a tragedy that takes someone from those he loves without actually killing him. Indeed, as characters wonder in the story, would Samson's death have been preferable to wiping his memories but leaving him standing? For a large part, I enjoyed the awkward and painful examination of what to do with this man who has been cut from the ties of his life, yes remains floating around. It's believable and heartbreaking, which is a hard emotion to muster when it comes towards the beginning of a novel and you have not really had time to get to know your characters. Your sympathy focuses mainly on Anna, the "widow" who is told to act against her hopes, to smother her desire that the Samson she knows will return to love her, and to simply help him adjust to his new life as a helpmate rather than a loving wife. Even though Samson is the one to experience the memory loss, he has no real remorse for something he has no attachment to in his present condition, so it's Anna who has experienced the real tragedy.... though Samson does come to understand his loss, in a way. Once we arrive at the memory experiment, things change a bit. Krauss is not interested in creating a science-fiction epic, though its aim to graft the memories from one person to another is rather fearsome in its implications. She uses this experiment as an opportunity to give Samson new ties and to allow him to explore his loss and the burden of what he gains.

Krauss is simply exploring the trajectory of a lost soul... what one might do in today's day and age if completely unanchored from the life they knew and yet somehow still inhabiting the shell of it. Strangely, if there were kids involved, Samson might have felt obliged to make more of an effort at rekindling a relationship with Anna. He trusts her because she's there but perhaps he does love her after all, if he would only open himself up to the idea. Instead, he struggles to find his own way, feeling untethered and yet concerned for Anna's welfare and future. Whether this springs from the knowledge that she tried to reorient him to the world, the fact that she seems so terribly hurt by what has happened to Samson, or a growing/returning love for this woman... well, without memories to understand one's motivations, perhaps everything is wrapped up together. By removing us from the story arch that might define more conventional novels, Krauss achieves a dreamlike state of wandering exploration... perhaps a more pleasant version of what Samson might feel as he suddenly finds himself as a thirty-something year old man with no knowledge of the twenty-odd years that led to his current state. It's haunting and painful, causing readers to question how they might react in similar circumstances, and ultimately having to accept that there is no way to know, as the person one now is would no longer exist without the last two thirds of one's life to shape him/her.

Nicole Krauss writes with such beauty that I now know I'll read anything she publishes. I might not push Man Walks Into a Room on anyone with the same passion as I did The History of Love, but I still think it's a lovely work of incredible quality. Reviews that I've read online have lamented that the ending doesn't seem to bring any real closure or epiphany, but then, the situation hardly suggests that there will ever really be closure. As for an epiphany, well, quite honestly the understanding that life continues on seems to be a rather painful and yet hard-won moral. It may not be the ending that one wants, but such is life.


An Unfinished Woman

An Unfinished Woman is one of several autobiographical works penned by the American playwright, Lillian Hellman. It was published in 1969 and two others followed it: Pentimento in 1973 and Scoundrel Time in 1976. If you're wondering why there were multiple memoirs, I can't quite answer that (having not read the other two), but isn't it lovely to think that our lives require multiple volumes? It's not that they're first, second, and third acts, but rather, I imagine they each have a different focus, a particular gaze through a different lens so each might see an alternate perspective, and perhaps all together they come up with something disjointed but real. If nothing else, I do hope that the other two fill in the gaps on a few events that were not touched upon in this volume. There's no doubting that Hellman is, indeed, a hell of a writer, but she was quite selective in describing events within this memoir. She knows it and has no problem letting you know that, too, but it still doesn't mean she's giving you a complete picture. Ultimately, though, An Unfinished Woman is a unique work by one of America's great female playwrights whose life spanned remarkable events and the things she does have to say are quite fascinating in their telling... and, of course, beyond the events you have a perfect blend of wit, cynicism, and straight-forward observation that characterizes both her work and her own self.

I'll admit that prior to picking up this volume, my knowledge of Dashiell Hammett was greater than that of Lillian Hellman. My mother would send me care packages at college, but occasionally forget that she'd sent me something and I would wind up with doubles or triples of an item; the worst case included no fewer than six copies of the DVD Charade. (During break, I carted them home and lined them all up to impress upon her that we owned it -- stop buying it already.) Another such item that snuck into my care packages multiple times was Lillian Hellman's An Unfinished Woman. This particularly happened around the time that I took a month-long course on hardboiled crime fiction and so Hammett featured in heavily. Unsurprisingly, books that were not on my reading lists often went unread. I attempted to start it a few times (as evidenced by some occasional underlining and margin notes in the first few chapters), but a few days ago, I saw this on the shelves at my parents' home and decided it was time.

In An Unfinished Woman, Hellman selectively relates parts of her life and then closes with three chapters each focused on a separate person. These surprised me when I reached them, though ultimately I was pleased as I felt that at least two of these people had been short-changed by their limited presence in the rest of her narrative versus the impact even I knew they had on her life. Hellman begins her memoir right at the beginning: her parents, her family, and her childhood in the south. (This is perhaps the only part of the narrative that feels linear, but don't worry, she'll bounce back to it later on, too.) While she did spend time in both New York and Louisiana during her childhood (often bouncing between the two), she preferred her Louisiana upbringing and so it absorbs the majority of her focus. Bouncing between schools left her off balance, succeeding wildly in one and struggling to catch up in another. Despite that, though, she had a great love of reading and came to understand the benefits and trials of an only child. Having grown up in the south under the guidance of a strong black woman, it's no surprise that questions of race play an interesting role in her perspective. (Indeed, one of the three people she talks about at the end of the book is Helen, her black housekeeper who was a friend of a sort, but the relationship of employer/employee made things complicated.) Hellman's description of her first job in publishing is interesting for the fact that she paints a picture of a rather inept young woman, ultimately keeping her job as a result of sympathy from the men in charge after she has an abortion (which each of those men in charge speculate belonged to one of them, even though it actually belonged to the man Hellman would eventually marry a year later). Her first (and only) marriage is rather glazed over, but then, it seems as though the experience really just made her bored and she'd rather save her ink for other topics. She traveled, of course, but her motives for that travel were surprising, both for the lack of focus to start and then the actual focus that continued:

"I wandered around Europe in a jumble of passivity and wild impatience. I believed I was not doing or living the way I had planned. I had planned nothing, of course. I was bewildered: if I really felt there were a million years ahead of me, why then did I feel so impatient? So restless?"

This youthful lack of direction is common, but seems strange coming from a woman whose writing seemed to truly convey the imperative need of the present as the world became an increasingly unstable place. "I watched other people go to a war I needed to be part of," she wrote, and then finally got her chance in the form of a "cultural mission" to Russia. She nearly died from the journey but went on to Moscow and joined the Russian army at the front. She wrote about the Spanish Civil War from various locations in Spain. Hellman uses excerpts from her journal in both of these locations to paint a very vivid picture of what it is to live in war beyond the heat of battles. She talks about the hunger, the struggle of each long day, and the people frightened to think about a future. "That's the way I remembered many nights during the way, somebody reciting Pushkin, long, long, long." I was repeatedly surprised by her front-row seat to such events... and by her way of talking about them, which cast her in the role of a rather unlikely spectator who didn't seem to much want to be in either location at the time. She traveled back to Russia twenty years later and had a very different experience, particularly dwelling on her age.

"Twenty-two years later, the same week in October when I had arrived during the war, the plane lowered for the Moscow airport. I put out my cigarette, took off my glasses, closed my book and was shocked to find that I was crying. All women say they do not cry very much, but I don't because I learned long ago that I do it at the wrong time and in front of the wrong people. The two young English commercial travelers opposite me stared and then turned their heads away, but the German in the next seat made no secret of his interest, and a Russian across the aisle shook his head at me. I shut my eyes on all of them. What fragment at the bottom of the pot was the kettle-spoon scraping that it had not reached before?
"I told myself that maybe I was worried about seeing my old friend Raya: it is not easy to see an old friend after so many years, and certainly not women because they change more than men. But I knew the tears were not for Raya: they were for me who had, twenty-two years before, been able to fly across Siberia for fourteen days in an unheated plane, lying in a sleeping bag on top of crates, knowing the plane had few instruments even for those days, starting to be sick in Yakutsk, unable to explain in a language I didn't know, not caring, thinking that whatever happened the trip was worth it, although when the pneumonia did come, I changed my mind about that. The tears had to do with age and the woman who could survive hardships then and knew she couldn't anymore. I was sorry I had come back to Moscow."

My understanding of her work focused primarily on her playwright status as opposed to any journalistic contributions. And as far as the writerly set is concerned, it would seem like name dropping if she hadn't really lived in an age and within a group where she got rides to parties from F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent time in Spain with Hemingway, fell asleep while Faulkner was talking, was the dear friend of Dorothy Parker, and spent thirty years together with Dashiell Hammett (who she still referred to as her "dear friend" in much of the book). I feared that we might lose Hellman to the stories of these others, but I shouldn't have worried -- even when focused on someone else, the reader is distinctly aware that this view is through Hellman's eyes and while she's content to let someone else have the spotlight, she never lets herself get pushed aside.

Hellman rarely tackles a topic in a conventional way, which is interesting as she still manages to see straightforward in her eventual discussion of things. One has to get used to her sidling up to a story and then being very direct. She's particularly like this when it comes to a discussion of emotions and people that she loves. Seeing Dorothy Parker through her eyes is quite fascinating, for such a legendary wit can gather an image that loses its humanity. Hellman presents "Dottie" as wonderfully human and flawed, the way a girlfriend can. Second to her wit, Dorothy Parker was known for her love affairs, and Hellman does not ignore this: "She had been loved by several remarkable men, but she only loved the ones who did not love her, and they were the shabby ones." Their friendship was uncommon and perhaps the more precious for that.

"I enjoyed her more than I have ever enjoyed any other woman. She was modest--this wasn't all virtue, she liked to think that she was not worth much--her view of people was original and sharp, her elaborate, overdelicate manners made her a pleasure to live with, she liked books and was generous about writers, and the wit, of course, was so wonderful that neither age nor illness ever dried up the spring from which it came fresh each day. No remembrance of her can exclude it."

While time is spent on Parker, it's Hammett that naturally trumps all. Lillian Hellman certainly is not a woman "made" by her relationship with a man, but she does know that he had a remarkable influence on her, even as she maintained her individuality. She speaks a little about their political differences and how she could never quite reach Hammett's degree, which pained them both for the facts of their commitments to a cause and if it could influence their commitment to each other:

"For Hammett, as he was to prove years later, Socialist belief had become a way of life and, although he was highly critical of many Marxist doctrines and their past and present practitioners, he shrugged them off. I was trying, without knowing it, to crack his faith, sensed I couldn't do it, and was, all at one time, respectful, envious, and angry. He was patient, evidently in the hope I would come his way, amused as he always was by my pseudo-rages, cold to any influence. I do not mean there were unpleasant words between us. None, that is, except once, in 1953, after he had been in jail and gone back to teaching at the Jefferson School. I was frightened that his official connection with the school would send him back to jail and was saying that as we walked down 52nd Street. When we were a few steps from Sixth Avenue, he stopped as said, 'Lilly, when we reach the corner you are going to have to make up your mind that I must go my way. You've been more than, more than, well, more than something-or-other good to me, but now I'm trouble and a nuisance to you. I won't ever blame you if you say goodbye to me now. But if you don't, then we must never have this conversation again.' When we got to the corner, I began to cry and he looked as if he might. I was not able to speak, so he touched my shoulder and turned downtown. I stood on the corner until I couldn't see him anymore and then I began to run. When I caught up with him, he said, 'I haven't thought about a drink in years. But I'd like one. Anyway, let's go buy one for you.'"

Hammett seems to have brought out the best in her, despite some lost years of parties that may have ruined them both and, indeed, Hammett didn't really recover. Perhaps the lasting tribute to these years of wit and booze is The Thin Man, which Hammett wrote using himself and Hellman as the models for Nick and Nora Charles. Hellman wrote, "It was nice to be Nora, married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place--Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess. I don't know now if he was joking, but in those days it worried me: I was very anxious that he think well of me." But he was clearly the love of her life, even if she uses terms like "dear friend."

"Even now as I write this, I am still angry and amused that he always had to have things on his own terms: a few minutes ago I got up from the typewriter and railed against him for it, as if he could still hear me. I know as little about the nature of romantic love as I knew when I was eighteen, but I do know about the deep pleasure of continuing interest, the excitement of wanting to know what somebody else thinks, will do, will not do, the tricks played and unplayed, the short cord that the years make into rope and, in my case, is there, hanging loose, long after death. I am not sure what Hammett would feel about the rest of these notes about him, but I am sure that he would be pleased that I am angry with him today."

While Hellman does not in any way become explicit about her relationship with Hammett, what is obvious is the love they shared, despite what might have seemed an unconventional arrangement in a time when marriage was the norm. Her description of Hammett's declining years is terribly sad, and this is where Hellman ends her narrative, even if she's insistent about life continuing on.

While the memoir is wonderful, I would feel remiss if I didn't also admit to a feeling of surprise when Hellman left out certain things. She never talks about the writing experience much, the general experience of being a playwright as it directly contributed to her work. Sure, Hellman talks about how she didn't much like the theater even though it was her livelihood and every now and then she mentions working, but she never really specifically goes into her work... the inspirations, the writing of each, the initial reception (though once or twice she does give credit where credit is due, in citing the origin of a line that someone said to her and she then used). She occasionally uses the names of her plays as touchstones, such as an event taking place after The Little Foxes, but a description of opening night or debut performance is not to be found. The second (and perhaps even more surprising) gap was of everything surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy. It's enough to make you think that you must have skipped some pages the way this period of time is so absent from her memoir. In one of the only places where she makes mention of that time, she is discussing the selling of her farm in Pleasantville.

"I stopped there to look at the hundred French lilac trees in the nursery, the rosebushes waiting for the transplant place they would never get, the two extravagant acres of blanches asparagus, and standing there by the road that May afternoon of 1952, I finally realized that I would never have any of this beautiful, hardscrabble land again. Now, in the Moscow room, I was glad it was gone, but sorry that the days of Joseph McCarthy, the persecution of Hammett, my own appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood blacklist, had caused it to be gone. There could never be any place like it again because I could never again be that woman who worked from seven in the morning until two or three the next morning and woke rested and hungry for each new day."

Perhaps she wished that it never happened, but Hellman is not one to ever shy away from unpleasant things. Certainly, it would have been hard to write about, so perhaps other works deal with her experience here in a more comprehensive way, but it left me with the sense that things were incomplete.

Hellman's tone suggests that if you're reading this, then you must have some knowledge of the things that passed. There's no real implication that this will be read by those who might not be familiar with these figures and events, and thus, she has no need to explain about anyone or anything beyond herself. Her whole life, indeed, seemed to be lived with this same focus on the present -- the future was undetermined and likely to be snatched away at any moment, so it was the present that deserved her attention. Indeed, the book's last lines speak to this need to live in the present:

"But I am not yet old enough to like the past better than the present, although there are nights when I have a passing sadness for the unnecessary pains, the self-made foolishness that was, is, and will be. I do regret that I have spent too much of my life trying to find what I called the 'truth,' trying to find what I called 'sense.' I never knew what I meant by truth, never made the sense I hoped for. All I mean is that I left too much of me unfinished because I wasted too much time. However."

I underlined the hell out of my copy and I don't usually underline things in books anymore. Her turn of phrase and crystal-clear vision yields some fascinating observations about others and herself. If you have any interest in Lillian Hellman, then I suggest reading this very short memoir to gain some insight on a rather remarkable woman... and if you're only vaguely familiar with her, then it might be a great introduction. Either way, I don't think you can lose spending some time with the inspiration for Nora Charles. Her dry wit and cynical smirk are apparent on every page and while those might be the initial appeal, it's the heart and mind behind it all that prove to be the more engrossing elements.