Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More of the Bayou

Hot on the heels of In the Electric Mists with Confederate Dead, I whipped through another book in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series on the weekend. Sunset Limited was similarly gripping and atmospheric, a perfect lazy long weekend read. We even (finally) had some rain here which was quite appropriate given the almost constant rain in Burke's New Iberia, Louisiana.

Sunset Limited is a more complicated story than In the Electric Mists... and I think it suffers a little for it. There are lots of characters, some of whom only last a chapter or two, and I will somewhat shamefacedly admit I had to flick back now and then to remind myself who was who. Characters are often introduced only to be killed (usually very violently- a warning to more faint hearted readers) pages later. All the plot threads are unravelled by the end but I think the story could have been told with greater clarity.

That said, the story was pacy and compelling. It centers around an unsolved murder from Dave's past in which a labour organiser, Jack Flynn, was crucified and left for dead on the side of a local barn. Jack Flynn's two adult children, Cisco and Megan, return to the town at the beginning of the novel and this forces the town to address some old demons from their community's history.

Burke touches on some interesting ideas in Sunset Limited. His characters are forced to acknowledge a violent history in their town that many would rather forget. There is also an interesting dissection of the class system in New Iberia as we see the relationship between rich plantation owners and the poorer working class whites and blacks in town. Dave Robicheaux challenges the local philosophy that only the poor ever really pay for their crimes. There is also the obvious Christian imagery of the crucifixion which is linked in to the idea of the town's need for redemption. Burke doesn't hit the reader in the face with these bigger concepts- they could be ignored if plot is all you're after- but they give a greater depth to what could be a fairly ordinary crime story

I really enjoyed this novel but in some ways I feel it is less than the sum of its parts. I thought a more unifying thread was needed to bring everything together successfully. As expected, Burke creates his world of New Iberia in gorgeous rich detail, but maybe at times he needed to hold back a little and not give the reader so much of everything when it comes to plot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Breaking the Silence

There has been a rather long silence here at this delicious solitude lately. Partly this has been because my work has changed this year, and with extra responsibilities there, there has seemed to be little time to write here.

Also, I've had a sort of writer's block when it comes to my blog. Somehow when I'm on the internet I seem to be more easily distracted by other bright and shiny sites and have neglected my own. Embarrassingly enough, Facebook has been sucking up my time, as has my recent obsession with cooking blogs. I'm not quite sure where that came from but perhaps in times of stress and tiredness it is quite nice to read the sort of blogs that don't make me feel just a little guilty about not writing posts for my own blog.

Finally my reading has been a little lacklustre lately. The last two books that I read for my book club were fairly uninspiring and before that I spent a lot of time reading The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, which I enjoyed to an extent but which didn't really deliver in the long run (for me at least, I know lots of other people loved it).

Thankfully though I now have two weeks holidays and have read some great books that actually make me feel like blogging again.

Many of you will no doubt be familiar with the crime fiction of James Lee Burke. I had heard all sorts of good things about his Dave Robicheaux mysteries but hadn't gotten around to actually reading one until this week and I really loved it. In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead is steeped in atmosphere. Burke is particularly good at evoking the smells of the landscape, which might sound strange, but is absolutely appropriate when describing a place as humid and lush as the Louisiana Bayou where the novel is set. Although this novel falls somewhere in the middle of what is now a long series of novels, it worked really well as a stand-alone book. A back story was hinted at but I didn't feel that I needed to read all the others in the series to understand what was going on here.

In many ways the novel covers typical crime fiction territory. Robicheaux is a troubled detective with a chequered past and a gruff demeanour. The plot concerns the serial murders of young prostitutes, possibly connected with mob activity. So far, fairly standard. However it is Burke's descriptive writing that really brings the setting into vivid life. I really felt like I was right there in New Iberia, Louisiana. I could feel the dripping humidity and the smell the rotting vegetation. There is also an intriguing sub-plot involving the appearance of the confederate soldier ghosts that give the novel its title, which in lesser hands might have been a bit silly but actually works here. I'm curious to see what the film version of this novel will be like- it's due for release this year some time.

The other book I've read, and loved, recently is David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. I recently raved about When You Are Engulfed in Flames in this blog, and I loved Me Talk Pretty One Day for all the same reasons. Sedaris is clever, funny and touching in these personal essays. The thread that runs through the book is one about language and speech, as the title suggests. One of the most touching essays is the one in which a speech therapist is assigned to David at school in order to 'correct' his speech, a process that amounts to little less than formalised humiliation. This links nicely with one of the funniest essays which describes Sedaris' language lessons in France in which the class is routinely humiliated by their sadistic French teacher. The attempts of the class to describe, in broken French, the meaning of Easter is laugh out loud funny ("It is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus" etc).

On that note, I wish you all an enjoyable Easter break and am heading off now to curl up with a cup of tea, some chocolate and another James Lee Burke mystery.