kaigou: this is what I do, darling (1 nobuta smiles)
[personal profile] kaigou
Of the last round of library books, I finished Faust's (more like tore through it) and then decided the only other one that held my attention was Nina Revoyr's Southland. Easiest here to be lazy & copy the summary from Amazon:
Jackie Ishida, 25, is undone by the sudden death in 1994 of her loving, seemingly healthy Japanese grandfather, Frank Sakai. A veteran of World War II, he lived a philanthropic life and in the 1960s owned a small grocery in the racially integrated Crenshaw district he grew up in. When Jackie's aunt Lois finds a large shoebox with $38,000 in cash in Frank's closet, both women are perplexed, particularly since they also discover a mysterious beneficiary, Curtis Martindale, in a decades-old will. Lois dispatches Jackie to find Curtis. Enter strong, street-smart James Lanier, a cousin of Curtis's, who informs Jackie that Curtis is dead. An employee at Frank's store during the Watts riots in 1965, Curtis, along with three other black teenage boys, was found frozen to death in the store's freezer. This heinous crime was never reported (nor discussed within the Sakai family) and though white beat cop Nick Lawson was pegged as a prime suspect, the case was never solved and Frank closed the store permanently. As Jackie and James dig deeper into Curtis's past, their friendship (and awkward attraction to each other) takes its toll on Jackie's fading three-year relationship with girlfriend Laura. In chapters alternating past and present, clues are uncovered that romantically link Curtis's mother Alma to Frank. When a surprise suspect in the killings is fingered, it paves the way for a dark conclusion rooted in skepticism, injustice and racial intolerance. Somewhat overplotted but never lacking in vivid detail and authentic atmosphere, the novel cements Revoyr's reputation as one of the freshest young chroniclers of life in L.A.

The voice is matter-of-fact without being dry, just evocative enough that some of the flashback chapters -- which could've ended up drowning in info-dump -- are still well-written and page-turning. Jackie's chapters are hampered by her indecisiveness, and her inaction, and her lack of knowledge (and a strong dose of guilt for being mid-twenties self-absorbed law student who'd been avoiding or just ignoring her elderly grandfather for the several years before his death). James' role -- at least for the first third of the book -- seems to be to act as a grounding connection for Jackie, between her current (law school) life and where her parents/family had settled as Issei, in a community destroyed in the Watts riots and again in the mid-90s. As multicultural stories go, this one had everything, including a grounding in actual places and events and tensions.

But I quit at maybe a third in, due to frustration. The current-day story is a sort of framework; the mystery of the boys' death is what brings Jackie and James together in investigating, but it's only half the story. The bulk of the chapters are actually back-story, literally. You get Frank's personal history, in the early 1940s, you get Alma's history in the mid-60s, and so on, and it's really more like two flashback chapters for every current-day chapter. There just isn't that much going on in the current-day framework part of the story.

The frustration, though, was because I was getting these massive amounts of personal information about these characters -- who are (at the time of the current-day story) now deceased. There was no sign of any lowering of the barrier, whether through intermediary characters who knew the elderly and the young, or through more awkward literary conventions like finding a diary or whatnot. Instead, the sense I started to get was that I was privy to these family histories... and the main protags never would be, or would only be so in a very peripheral or marginal sense.

I haven't made a habit of reading stories like this; not that I've tried to avoid them, just that it's not the most common literary technique, so I can probably name on one hand the books I've read with framework-around-past plotlines. I clarify that so you understand why I was startled by my reaction: annoyance. First, at being given all this insight when nothing indicated the current-day characters would ever get to hear this. It distanced me from the current-day characters, because I was getting more information than them. And second, because -- being a mystery, after all -- at some point, the characters would need to discover something if they're to solve a mystery, and where's the mystery if I'm seventeen steps ahead of the investigators by dint of all this additional information?

I don't mean "mystery" in the strict sense (the whodunit part), but that for me, a mystery is in part a case of tone. Information must be withheld, whether by malicious intent or distractions or a character's reticence. I like when things slowly unravel, a string pulled here, tugged there, and the story gradually unfolds. Getting intercepting chapters with a backstory that's exclusively for the reader was like getting family history laid-out, not quite info-dumped but definitely non-mysterious.

All that said, I'll be looking for the next book by Revoyr that's on my to-read list; I just don't think the literary conventions she uses work all that well within the construction of a mystery (genre) work.

Returned those books, and now I have the next set to read:

The hell screens — Lu, Alvin
Mama rocks the empty cradle — DeLoach, Nora.
The mistress of spices — Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee
The Midnight Palace — Ruiz Zafón, Carlos
The Dervish House — McDonald, Ian

Started on Lu's work, and it's... a little surreal, a strange mix of the magically real, the mundane, and the insubstantial (in terms of details and motivations and histories). You really do land in the middle of the story. People give their histories and it's a mix of superstition, but matter-of-fact, and an undercurrent of the smash-up between the American Chinese and the native-born Taiwanese in (what I presume to be) Taipei, and the cultural assumptions of each. And, too, the issues of being fluent enough to discuss with the locals, yet distant enough to get warnings from his interview-subjects about their ambivalence, how their culture might be represented.

Also reading DeLoach's work, and wow, it feels like no translation is needed, at least of some parts:
"Okay," I told Mama, "but I want you to cook roast pork, fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, string beans and new potatoes, rice and okra. And, for dessert, I want carrot cake and sweet potato pie."

I should've eaten lunch before I started this book.

DeLoach's voice is chatty -- at times it borders on an almost chicklit kind of feel -- but it's also incredibly concrete. You get details like the filling the dishwasher, putting in the soap, and then starting it, but it's not like it's bogged-down in these kinds of details. They're just tossed in, here and there, and it makes me suspect that it's a pleasant kind of ramp-up (or cover) for later details that may, or may not, help solve the mystery. I guess getting the reader used to glazing past these little details, and only later realize that the two protagonists (Simone, a paralegal, and Candi, her mother the social worker) didn't glaze past any of it, but remembered it and all the other many mundane details.

More on the rest later, when I'm done with these. (I suspect Lu's is going to be a slower read, because the book's voice doesn't really give you the room for speed. DeLoach does, though.)
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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