July 2006

Colleen Mondor


Colleen's Summer Reading

It seems like everyone and their third cousin has been sharing summer reading lists lately, and while being bombarded by literary recommendations isn’t exactly torture it can be ten different kinds of annoying. I mean really, I think Oprah’s as generous as it gets but does she really expect us all to consider the July issue of O something worth saving forever just because it’s the “first annual summer reading issue"? And when did an article about how to read the classics become something I must take to the pool with me? (Isn’t this the sort of mandatory nightmare we dealt with in English classes back in the tenth grade?)

What I decided to do this summer was read lush, deep novels that included both thrilling and curious mysteries with healthy doses of history and atmosphere. Basically I thought that since everyone and their third cousin seems to think summer is the time for fun reading that I would read the sort of novels that appeal the most to me. And because I’m reviewing as well as writing, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask some creative writers a few questions about just how they found their stories and what led them to write about places like Hong Kong, Cuba, and northwestern Alaska in the first place. Consider this my official summer reading list.

Caroline Petit was drawn to the Sino Japanese War and colonial Hong Kong after years of reading. Long before she wrote her debut novel, The Fat Man’s Daughter, Petit learned about this era from authors like Somerset Maugham (On a Chinese Screen) and Iris Chang (Rape of Nanking). “Despite the fact [that] there were lots of fascinating events and people in Hong Kong,” Petit wrote to me recently, “few stories have been written about this time. Many saw Hong Kong simply as a port through which they moved even though they stayed weeks, months, or years. It was a footnote to history; it was a lovely bit of blank canvass to fill in.”

Petit took a personal interest and created the character of 19-year-old Leah Kolbe, a young woman who has suddenly lost her father and is struggling not only to maintain his antiques business (her sole livelihood), but also to navigate the dangerous environment of the Sino Japanese War. Hong Kong is colonized by the British, Manchuria is occupied by the Japanese, and China is struggling to cling to some vestige of independence. Leah’s world is hanging by a very visible thread and trying to maintain the significance of collecting objects of beauty when surrounded by political machinations that include former Russians, communist Chinese, nationalist Chinese, undercover operatives from the West, and Japanese soldiers intent on conquest, is not easy.

Hong Kong was an irresistible setting for Petit, as she explained, “the Sino Japanese War… was not center stage in the prelude to World War II in the West. It was below the radar for so many people caught up in the struggles in Europe. Geographically, China was regarded as remote and exotic. The Sino Japanese War didn’t rate full-time press coverage in the Occidental world; its origins were cloudy and its consequences unseen except by a few.”

The consequences for Leah are present from the start, as she finds herself the target of a plan to smuggle royal jewels out of Manchuria. Her uncertain financial situation forces her to accept a deal to travel north and meet with Emperor Pu Yi, former ruler of China (although it was a very brief and unsteady rule) and now puppet head of the Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Her task is to meet with a eunuch who is a member of Pu Yi’s household and willing to trade in stolen jewels. This was a relevant plotline for Petit who wanted the story to have “a ring of truth.” Her research had revealed that “eunuchs did leave the employ of the Emperor with a variety of jewels and antiques to set themselves up in the antiquities business.”

Getting the jewels is only part of Leah’s adventure though, as the people she works for are not the only ones interested in obtaining them. More importantly, the war isn’t going to stop just because one young woman is on a mission. How she manages to survive, even as she travels through desperate Nanking, makes for gripping reading and her female perspective on what she sees was something that Petit was determined to share. She explains, "I wanted to write a thriller with a female protagonist. Women did do extraordinary things around this time: Agnes Smedley, an important journalist and writer in the 30s and 40s, covered the Sino Japanese War, including traveling with the 8th Front (Chinese) Army; Emily Hahn, another journalist and writer, lived and wrote about Shanghai and Hong Kong; and Phyliss Harrop, who played an important role in getting information out of Hong Kong after its fall to the Japanese."

For western readers in particular The Fat Man’s Daughter should be a very welcome read this summer. Leah is a fascinating and complex character, easily dwelling in the shades of grey that surround her and her city. The mystery in this book is not only who resides on which side of this specific race for the jewels, but also just how Leah will survive. She is cagey, smart, and determined but also capable of making more than a few mistakes along the way. Petit has clearly found a wonderful way to explore her fascination for colonial Hong Kong with this title and is thankfully hard at work now on a sequel, about “the fall of Hong Kong and Leah’s escape to Macau.”

Unlike Petit, author Stan Jones did not have to do much conventional research at all for his mystery, Shaman Pass. Jones lived in northwestern Alaska for several years and the fictional Inupiat village of Chukchi is based on the very real bush village of Kotzebue. This is the second entry in the Nathan Active mystery series, but I read it first and it stands alone just fine. As a former Alaskan (ten years freezing my butt off in Fairbanks, thank you very much), I was curious to see what Jones would do in the way of  bringing something original to his setting. As Shaman Pass delves deeply into the history of religion among the Inupiat people and looks at the modern determination to repatriate native remains to the tribes they were stolen from, Jones proves himself to be quite adept at showing how unique Alaska is among the fifty states.

Nathan Active is an Inupiat who was born in Chukchi but raised by white adoptive parents in Anchorage. He now lives in the village as an Alaska State Trooper but struggles with outsider status. Jones uses Nathan’s unique position in the village both as a vehicle to explain things and to provide a point of view that Active sometimes shares with the reader. “The business about noticing things any outsider would notice is a useful narrative device,” Jones wrote to me recently, “as it makes it reasonable for Nathan to examine and ponder these things in the text for the benefit of readers who haven’t and never will see a place like Chukchi; if Nathan were an insider, then, of course, these peculiarities of Arctic and/or Inupiat life wouldn’t even catch his attention, because he’d have grown up surrounded by them. They would be as familiar as subways or freeways are to an urbanite.”

Because Nathan is an outsider he immediately begins to question the murder of tribal leader Victor Solomon that opens Shaman Pass. Solomon was killed with an antique harpoon, something that was just returned to Chukchi with the mummified body of an unknown Native who was removed from the area decades before. Nathan struggles with the guilt of a too obvious suspect and finds himself delving into the past in order to determine the identity of the long dead man and what his possible relationship was to Solomon. Initial questions soon reveal secrets about the lives of Chukchi Inupiaqs from generations before and lead Nathan far out into the bush as he looks both for the murderer and the answer as to where the dead belong.

In his Afterword, Jones explains the source for his mummified character, and how he discovered the true story of Maniilaq, an Eskimo prophet and social reformer from Northwest Alaska in the 19th century. He first heard about Maniilaq in Kotzebue and ran across him in what Jones terms as “gray literature” or “material out of print or never published, available only to the specialist or the determined or lucky generalist.” He was very intrigued by the story of Maniilaq and what he tried to accomplish for the Native people as they struggled against both white missionaries from the outside Christian religion and their own shaman leaders who preached a message that was all too often tainted by personal goals of wealth and power. “I knew right from the start I wanted to do a story built around the Maniilaq character,” wrote Jones. “It was just a matter of coming up with a plot. Reading stories about repatriation activities with the Native Graves and Remains Act finally provided a device for the propulsive event needed to set any story in motion.”

Jones focuses heavily in his Nathan Active books on storylines that are unique to his Alaskan setting. In the first book, White Sky, Black Ice, he relied on a copper mine and an environmental angle to weave a tale of murder and suicide. “The first book… coalesced around several elements that really weren’t connected at first. One was the character of Kinnuk. I knew I liked him, I just didn’t know what to do with him. Another was the idea that one suicide in a family becomes a kind of curse that can destroy subsequent members in its turn -- I’ve run across actual stories like this in the Bush.”

Jones has written four separate books about Nathan Active and his life in Chukchi, and he does an excellent job of showing how past events can influence the current lives of his native Alaskan characters. Unlike novels that deal with majority cultures in a landscape however, Jones is able to plumb the depths of native interaction with whites and show the many ways that these mutual involvements have impacted the minority culture. It is clear from reading Shaman Pass that Stan Jones knows Alaska -- he nails the climate, the cold, and the small town life of villages that are unlike any other place in Alaska, let alone America. But what is most impressive about Shaman Pass is the way in which Jones reaches back into a small corner of the past and finds a story that he is able to transport with ease and style into the modern era. He thrilled me with this story but more importantly, he made me want to know better the story of Maniilaq. And I certainly hope that books three and four in this series will see the light of day in regions beyond the scope of their current German publishing house.

Finally, Cuban author Leonardo Padura was celebrated earlier this year with the release by Bitter Lemon Press of the latest English translation of one of his Cuban mysteries featuring Mario Conde. Padura is a two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize for Best Literary Crime Novel and I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed his earlier title, Adios Hemingway, for Bookslut last year. At the recent release party, Dr. Stephen Wilkinson, an expert on Cuban crime fiction, lauded the author, saying, “he has taken the Cuban detective novel and brought it up to date, almost single-handedly carrying out a genre shift.”

I was attracted to Padura’s new title, Havana Black, because of the historical and uniquely Cuban subject matter. While it does begin with a murder (Conde has been referred to as a “tropical Philip Marlowe” after all), the dead man’s former position with the government forces Conde to take a long look back to the time when the bourgeoisie fled the revolution, abandoning most of their valuable possessions in the process. Miguel Forcade was deputy head of the Provincial Office for Expropriated Property until he walked off of an airplane in Madrid while on a government-sponsored trip, and never returned. In his former life he made decisions about the value of confiscated property and as Conde learns, Forcade’s parents have been living in a house surrounded by proof of their son’s former position:

furniture in different historical styles, mirrors in carved frames, porcelain from various eras, locations and schools, two enormous grandfather clocks, alive and kicking, a number of canvases with hunting and mythological scenes, still lives and 19th century nudes -- which could be dated by area of flesh exposed -- as well as a couple of -- Persian? flying? -- carpets and lamps that only had to cry Tiffany to prove that was exactly what they were: particularly one on a metal stand, in the guise of a tree trunk supporting a glass frond that was open and weary, perhaps from a visible surfeit of warm fruit ripening from red to purple.

Clearly the dead man had discovered how to enjoy a revolution in the years before he left.

As Conde and his partner interview family and friends of the victim they become more convinced that his murder was not about his current visit back to Cuba, or even his disappearance and eventual relocation to Miami so long ago, but more about what he found on the job decades before. In the process of finding the killer Padura allows his main character to wonder about Cuban life, both for those who left and those who stayed behind. This is an important facet of all four of the books in the Conde series and something Padura develops as diligently as the murder mysteries themselves. “I attempted to create images and scenes of Cuba today with all the frustrations, the desires, and the hopes and to create a kind of fresco of life in Cuba in the last ten or fifteen years,” he told the London Metropolitan University newspaper last year. “The police novel was ideal. Crime fiction puts us into contact with the worst there is in society. I wanted to get into the reality of my country.”

While investigating the murder Conde is also struggling with a host of personal issues, most importantly whether or not he wants to be a police officer at all and if he thinks he can succeed as a writer. When he is faced with the reasons behind Forcade’s return, Conde and his friends also begin to consider if staying on the island is the best choice for them, and to reconsider, in the face of Forcade’s dissatisfaction with life in Miami, what has really happened to the many Cubans who left. For Padura, that issue has long been settled, as he explained to Wilkinson in an interview last year, "I have no interest to live outside Cuba for many reasons, and the first is that I am Cuban, it is my country despite its problems, limitations, and shortages. I need my surroundings in order to write. I must know my reality in order to interpret it and if this was not enough, I like living in Cuba even though at times I wish I were far away. And even when I find myself at odds with what is going on I wish to stay. I believe it is one’s right not to be in agreement with everything; I am a thinking being and as such I must exercise the right to think.

"On the other hand, my character is such that I am very attached to my place and I think that to be far away, in exile let’s say, would be a terrible condemnation. The necessity to know that one belongs to a place is very strong and I am bound to the island."

Padura’s relationship with Cuba is complicated just as is Conde’s, and even, to a certain degree, Forcade’s. But the author does not shy away from the ugly truths about his country and a scandal of dirty cops permeates Havana Black from the very beginning. The most surprising thing for Americans might be to learn that Padura has suffered no ramifications for his critical style and indeed enjoys a great deal of popularity in Cuba. “I live in Cuba, I write in Cuba and my books have never been censored in Cuba,” Padura told Wilkinson. “On the contrary, they have all won important prizes and they are read widely even though the editions are much smaller than the demand that exists for them.”

It is unnecessary to be interested in the current political situation to enjoy reading Havana Black, however. While The Fat Man’s Daughter paints a singular portrait of colonial Hong Kong and Stan Jones lays bare the truth behind Alaskan native culture in Shaman Pass, Leonardo Padura has written a gripping mystery about the lingering desire for power and prestige, and the corruption that continues to dog a revolution decades later.

Good books should always transport readers but these three titles manage to travel not only around the world, but also across time. They are the best kind of summer reading and on that score each of them succeeds at the highest levels.