Category Archives: Review

Book Review: People of Darkness

People of Darkness Tony Hillerman
People of Darkness
Tony Hillerman

Title: People of Darkness
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee (#4)
Published: 1982
ISBN: 038057778-x
Publisher: Avon

Part One Part Two

Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years.  I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school.  Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me.  Even though I lived along  north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply.  I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.

In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below.  The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s.  These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.

People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created.  Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people.  As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.

Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture.  Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues.  FBI or Navajo Police?  Sheriff or BIA?  Some combination of that or someone else?  In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.

What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs.  One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door.  One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.

Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well.  Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony.  A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony.  Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony.  It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.

People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin.  Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship.  She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American.  He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white.  It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.

Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages.  They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.

Review: Minions

The Minions Movie
The Minions Movie

I have loved the little yellow absurdities known as the Minions since Despicable Me.  I giggle at their antics and their lovable interactions with the three adopted girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes.

Are there problems with the movies?  Yes.  Sexist tropes by the handful, stupid scatological jokes, and mean parents, and violence to name a few.

And okay, I get that there are huge problems with the gender stereotyping in Minions.  My friend, Melissa, at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has a great article about the problems of gender in animated movies, in general, starting with specific issues with Minions.

When Melissa first brought this up on Facebook, I was a little chagrined that I hadn’t actually noticed.  Minions have always been genderless, or gender-fluid to me, so the fact the three main minions were named Kevin, Stuart and Bob just kinda flew by me.  Yeah, okay they’re male names but honestly, I didn’t see anything particularly male about them.  Except Bob.  Bob has always been a goofy little boy who flirts with yellow fire hydrants pretending to be a player and failing.  As the narrator says, “Bob’s an idiot.”  Bob has always been like that, in all three movies.

Kevin is the leader.  He’s the one who steps up to go on a quest to save the minions from the mind-numbing leaderless time they’re spending in ice caves.  Minions need someone to serve, and Kevin volunteers to lead the quest.  When he sees Scarlet Overkill, it is game over for him.  He falls in love with her, not because she is some ideal of feminine beauty but because she is the most evil villain in the world and he wants to work for her.

And loveable little Stuart hauls his eyeless, over loved teddy bear with him everywhere, adopting animals along the way, including a rat he names Butchie.  He’s afraid to enter the larger world and Kevin and Bob make sure he knows they’re right there for him.

I still think it’s brilliant that Scarlet Overkill is the evil villain.  She is so deliciously over the top and up to no good.  There’s even a little girl sitting in the audience when Scarlet makes her first overblown entrance who stands on her chair and excitedly proclaims, “I want to be just like Scarlet when I grow up.”

Scarlet’s dream doesn’t reach far enough.  She only wants to steal the Queen of England’s crown because she wants to be a princess, because, “everyone loves princesses.”  Scarlet clearly didn’t get enough love as a child and her stunted childhood dream is to be a princess so people will love her.  No super villain has come from a family where there was enough joy and love and support.  They wouldn’t be villains if they had.

I also thought it was brilliant that when the minions stole the crown, the Queen started hanging out at the pub drinking pints and telling jokes with the common man.  (And yes, they were all men.)

Things happen, Kevin is made king because he stole the crown and that makes Scarlet very angry.  But all Kevin wants to do is serve Scarlet, because that’s his purpose in life, to serve.  So he abdicates, and then her coronation day gets spoiled by another super villain.

Make no mistake, Scarlet turns into a whiny, petulant child when she doesn’t get her way.  She is stuck in a childhood dream which makes no sense.  She believes that she must be pretty and have a tiny waist to be adored.  And yes, that’s a big problem in terms of gender stereotypes.  There’s also a stereotypical gay hairdresser who doesn’t quite understand why his vision isn’t better than the childhood crayon drawing of a stick figure princess with “curly” hair.

At the end of the movie Gru arrives on the scene, uses his freeze ray gun and Kevin knows where the minions belong.  This is really the story that connects Despicable Me and the minions, it’s the story about how Gru and the minions found each other.

The biggest problems I had with the movie were not the gender stereotypes but the violence.    And the stupid jokes given to Bob who flirts with yellow fire hydrants and shows the audience his thong underwear.  That was just idiotic.

For all of that, I’m glad the conversation is ongoing about problems with representation of boys and girls in movies.  About how movies sell women and girls short on a regular basis and how men and boys are shortchanged on learning to be anything other than stoic, protective, fumble fingered with emotions, and yes, stupid.

Director Pierre Coffin didn’t help himself by saying he made the minions boys because “boys are stupid” and he couldn’t imagine girls being that stupid.  If what he meant to say was that little boys do goofy things because they’re little boys and little girls don’t tend to do the same goofy things, that’s a different story.  Saying girls are smarter than boys doesn’t help.

Yes, I see the point of the criticisms of Minions, and I’m glad Melissa’s post addresses some of the larger issues in cartoons and how girls/women are portrayed.  I do get it.

From a story-teller’s point of view, it’s the story of three yellow things (out of thousands) who go on a quest to find their purpose in life.  It’s the story of how the minions met Gru.  That’s the point of the story.  That one of the villains is a woman inspiring a little girl is something we should cheer for.  That the Queen became a “regular” person is something we should cheer for.  It’s a step forward.  A small one to be sure, but it is a step.  And that’s something to cheer for too.

Book Review: The Players’ Boy is Dead

The Players’ Boy is Dead
Leonard Tourney

… in the last few days she had found herself nearly overwhelmed with a sense of futility.  There was, she now accepted, no evidence for what she knew intuitively, and no safe way to bring the evildoer to justice even were there evidence to substantiate her intuition.
(pp 160-161)

Matthew Stock is a clothier with a bustling business in Chelmsford (32 miles away from London).  He is also the town constable and so is called on to solve crimes from time to time.

A troupe of players have arrived to perform at Sir Henry’s, the Magistrate, home.  But the young man who plays all the women’s parts in their entertainments has been found dead in the stable at the inn.

This sweet Elizabethan mystery features questions Matthew is quite shocked to have the answers to.  He and his adoring wife, Joan, solve the murders, which keep multiplying, together.

Fairly early on, the murderer/s are alluded to, but proving they did the deed is almost beyond the reach of Matthew because of class status.  In the end, justice will out with some help from a highly placed official in London.

Although there were rather abrupt changes in character and point of view with no indication the character had changed, I found The Players’ Boy is Dead to be engaging and entertaining.  A nice interlude from the heavier works I have been reading.

 

Book Review: My Friend the Fanatic

My Friend the Fanatic
Sadanand Dhume

Full disclosure: This was an ARC (Advanced Readers’ Copy) given to me through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers’ program. In exchange, I agreed to give an honest review.

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three

“Mosque is not a good word. It is like mosquito. It is taken from the Mexican language. You know we do not like mosquito. This is deeply propaganda …”
Herry Nurdi to Sadanand Dhume (p. 136)

It’s all too easy to point and laugh while dismissing the ignorance of people.  But we should take care because this sort of ignorance from religious extremists (not just Muslim) is what fuels the fires of intolerance.

Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend the Fanatic, is filled with examples of stubborn ignorance and hypocritical thinking.  It is also filled with examples of how this fuels the move against equal and civil rights in favor of sharia law.  So far, this could be the story of any nation struggling with identity politics.

But Dhume’s book is set in Indonesia and reflects what he encounters in his travels under the auspices of Herry Nurdi, editor of a Islamic fundamentalist magazine and fan of Osama bin Laden.

The extreme differences between secular life and religious ideology are most striking in the first section focusing on events in Java.  A pop star who has popularized a dance move called drilling (something akin to twerking), a Muslim televangelist, and what passes for literati are in stark contrast with those who live in abject poverty living in shacks with dirt floors begging to support their family.

It took over one hundred pages for My Friend the Fanatic to become cohesive.  Not only were the familiar stories of poverty, ignorance and zealotry told but so were the struggle for identity as a nation.  Although Dhume begins with the 2002 bombings in Bali, the story begins earlier in Indonesia’s history, with Indonesia winning independence from the Dutch in 1949.

Simplistically put, Indonesia’s problems can be seen as the growing pains of a young nation searching for identity.  What is it to be Indonesian?  I found My Friend the Fanatic to be an interesting look into these issues from the point of view of an atheist journalist from India seeking answers from Islamic fundamentalists fighting against secular values.

Dhume writes of the stark contrasts in Indonesia and the conflicts in politics and ideology.  His work has made me curious about Indonesia and its history.

 

Book Review: Adam + Evelyn by Ingo Schulze

Adam + Evelyn
Ingo Schulze

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three

Another in the Canongate series, featuring global writers retelling myths.

Imagine what it would be like to leave a place where all your needs were met for a place in which you now have  freedom of movement but must scrabble to meet your needs?

Adam had everything he wanted:  a home, a thriving tailor business, food, a car that ran, women …

One day Evelyn quits her job waiting tables and comes home to find Adam having sex with one of his clients in the the bathtub.  Enough already, Evelyn decides, and leaves to take the vacation to Hungary she and Adam had planned together without him.

Adam cannot understand what has gotten into Evelyn.  He packs his car, including pet turtle, and heads off to follow her and friends, Simone and Michael, into Hungary.  Throughout most of the book, he simply does not comprehend why Evelyn is so angry with him.

There is bickering galore as Evelyn tries to tell Adam why she’s mad, why she’s sleeping with Michael, and why she’s decided not to go back to East Germany, but wants to head into the West to make her own way.

Set against the history of politics in Eastern Europe (there’s a chronology included) and the fall of borders and, eventually, the Berlin Wall, Adam + Evelyn is Ingo Schulze‘s (German) version of what happens to Adam & Eve after God expels them from Eden and they must make their own way in the world.

Book Review: The Hurricane Party

The Hurricane Party
Klas Ostergren

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart Two Part Three

Overall, the best part of The Hurricane Party, was the retelling of the Lokasenna, the banquet of the Norse gods featuring the trickster god, Loki, killing and insulting others. You know, causing trouble as trickster gods do.

This part was interesting and read smoothly, even when tangents were taken to explain the background story of Loki and some other character.

It was the foundation laying that was stilted and somewhat mundane.  It’s necessary to meet Hanck and learn his story, and for the scenery to be explained as classist, grey and toxic (literally) for the ordinary worker.

We learn many details about Hanck but it truly felt as though Ostergren had taken bullet points about Hanck’s life and then tried to flesh them out with some details.  Most of these details make little sense in the context of the story and add nothing to the plot of Hanck finding, losing, and learning about love.

That the innkeeper’s red-haired daughter was a virgin and her hair was perfect in the calibration of some obsolete gauge still has me wondering.

I often remind myself that I must meet the author where he is, not where I want him to be.  This could have been a more interesting story about a man living in 1984 like times who learns about love through the death of his son.  Ostergren’s way of telling this story wasn’t how I wanted it to read.  This is another case of author and reader being on different pages.