book review

On Rereading a Childhood Favorite: The Wrinkle in Time Books

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A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books growing up. In anticipation of the new movie, I decided to reread it. In fact, I reread the whole trilogy.* Let me tell you, rereading the series as an adult, and especially as a writer, was a very different experience. There were things that jumped out at me in L'Engle's books now that I never could or would have noticed as a child.

I still enjoyed the stories and, unlike Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, they hold up fairly well. I didn't end up hating any of the characters I once loved, for one thing, which happened when I reread Prydain. (How did I not notice Taran was such a whiner?) But I saw weaknesses in the construction of the stories and finally figured out why the last book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, bothered me so much when I read it as a youngster.

A Wrinkle in Time

The first line of  A Wrinkle in Time

The first line of A Wrinkle in Time

Let's start at the beginning, literally, with the first line of the first book (see the picture). It's the butt of many a writers' joke, a cliché if ever there was one. I read that line and put the book down because it made me laugh so much.

I also thought the first chapter ended on a perfect note. It left me with just enough questions to entice me to keep reading--exactly what a writer wants a first chapter to do.

Then things got dicey. The whole first half of the book is really set up. The story--the action--doesn't kick in until literally the mid-point. Decades after reading the story, it was the action part that I remembered. That was the part I was eager to relive. And I wish L'Engle had spent more story time there. The Camazotz** scenes were vivid. They've stuck with me for thirty-plus years, but they were a minority of the book. That part of the story felt rushed, and I would have liked some deeper world-building there, too. And then the book ended. It felt very abrupt and key questions felt unanswered. A very disappointing note to end on.

A Wind in the Door

Book Two is the strongest book of the trilogy, structurally speaking. As personal as the stakes were in Wrinkle (rescuing Meg's and Charles Wallace's dad), the stakes here felt higher: Charles Wallace's life. And as with Wrinkle, science formed the foundation of the fantasy in the story. In this case, microbiology rather than quantum physics. The theme of harmony in the universe was a bit heavy-handed, but the story started quickly, moved quickly, and ended well--and unlike Wrinkle, everything was explained but not everything was happily ever after.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The third book in the trilogy is the one I just didn't get as a kid. Reading it now, I still think it is, to quote the vernacular, a hot mess.

The story takes place nine years after the events of A Wind in the Door. Meg is married to her high school sweetheart and very pregnant. Charles Wallace is in high school. In this story, though, Meg and Charles Wallace seemed to have less agency than in the previous books. In fact, Charles Wallace "disappears" repeatedly. The disappearances are explained in the plot, but they make him seem like a link in a story anthology rather than a character in a cohesive story. And the story itself is a mishmash of vignettes that seem to tell the same tale over and over again. As a kid, I had trouble following it. As an adult, I was able to follow what was going on, but I kept thinking, "WTF is this?"

Planet diverges from the previous books in other ways, too. It is not based in actual science. It is essentially a time travel tale, but one with very little plausibility (not that time travel ever seems truly plausible, but there wasn't even an attempt to connect it to science here). Even the first chapter got on my nerves. (Never a good sign!) So much melodrama!

First published in 1978, Planet was clearly L'Engle's attempt to make a statement about the futility of nuclear weapons. But I can't help thinking her story would have been better served by a less circuitous plot and greater agency for her main characters.

If the Wrinkle movie is as good as it looks in the trailer, maybe we can ask Ava DuVernay to just rewrite this whole last book from the ground up? I mean, just look at this beauty:

 

*Officially, the series is a quartet, but only three of the books center on Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace. Those are the books I consider the trilogy.

**Interesting aside: Camazotz is the name of a Mayan god. His name is sometimes translated as "death bat."

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

The British cover of the book. The cover of the American edition features a sheep.

The British cover of the book. The cover of the American edition features a sheep.

I love Bill Bryson. His books fill almost an entire shelf of my bookcase. Every single one has made me laugh out loud. When I was in Wales last year, he had just released a new book--The Road to Little Dribbling. At the time, it hadn't been released in the United States yet, so I bought a copy at the nearest Waterstone's (the British equivalent of Barnes and Noble). It took me until this month to get around to reading it.

About twenty years ago, Bryson published a book called (in the US) Notes from a Small Island. It was a travelogue of sorts. Bryson was--and still is--an American living in the United Kingdom. In Notes from a Small Island, he traveled around his adopted country and shared his impressions. It was hilarious. The Road to Little Dribbling was intended, I think, as a celebration of Small Island's anniversary. Once again, Bryson ventures around the British Isles and shares his remembrances and impressions. (That said, you don't have to have read Small Island to enjoy Little Dribbling. However, if you've never read Bryson before, please start with A Walk in the Woods, which recounts his misadventures hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

My favorite illustration in the book

My favorite illustration in the book

Bryson's humor is dry, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. I laughed out loud through the first thirty pages. I giggled through the rest--often at something Bryson said, but sometimes at one of the illustrations that opened each chapter. The illustration that opened Chapter 16 was my favorite. At first glance, it's a dodo with a wicked case of body odor. Later in the chapter, though, I learned I was wrong. It's a dodo, all right, but body odor was not its problem. By the time I finished the book, I was overcome--not for the first time--with a desire to move to the UK.

 

The Best Book I Read This Month: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The best book I read in September was A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. I started it during my lunch break on a Monday. By the end of my lunch hour, I wanted to call in sick for the rest of the day so that I could keep reading.

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Set in Calcutta in 1919, A Rising Man centers around policeman Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran newly arrived from London, as he acclimates to his new home and attempts to solve the murder of a high-ranking colonial official. He faces the dual tasks of deciphering the culture of colonial India and navigating competing powers within the British government. His partner in crime, so to speak, is a local,  "Surrender Not" Banerjee.

What struck me first--what enthralled me from the get-go--was Mukherjee's descriptions of Calcutta. I could not only see it, I could hear and feel it too.

Then I was drawn in to the two main characters, each challenged in his own way. Wyndham, for example, is an opiate addict--the result of injuries from his war years. He struggles to manage his cravings while simultaneously wishing for the oblivion of a high. Banerjee is caught between cultures--not entirely trusted by the British police because he is Indian and disowned by his family for working in/with the colonial government.

The solution to the mystery could have used a few more seeds planted throughout the story, but I will definitely be reading the next book in this new series, if only so I can spend more time with Wyndham and Banerjee.

REVIEW: Death of an Assassin by Ann Marie Ackermann

**Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for writing this review.**

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Death of an Assassin is a short but fascinating work of history. It tells the story of a murderer from the German states who died at Robert E. Lee's side during the Mexican-American War. He made enough of an impression on Lee that Lee mentioned the man in a letter home. As much a history of crime-solving techniques as a biography of a little-known historical character, the story Ackermann tells is intriguing.

Ackermann's writing is clear, vivid, and engaging. Her choice of detail, spot-on, and the photographs included enhance the story, rather than distract from it. Sometimes it really does help to actually see what a place or an object looks like, instead of relying on a written description. History is best told from primary sources, and that's exactly what Ackermann did. Her narrative is based largely on primary sources, both German and American.

There were only a few small things that I wish Ackermann had done a little differently. The first part of the book is set almost entirely in Germany, with the exception of a chapter about Robert E. Lee and a chapter about Texan independence. Because those chapters were one-offs in a sense, they were a bit distracting. I would rather have stayed in Germany and then read those chapters when the narrative moved across the Atlantic.

My other quibble comes as a lover of mysteries. Ackermnan reveals the assassin's name about halfway through the book. Or rather, she reveals the name of the soldier and tells us he's the assassin. I'm glad we got to know the soldier's name when we did, but I would have preferred to make the connection to the assassination when the world did--after the soldier's death.

She also made a passing reference to Commodore Perry, and I very much want to know if that's the same Commodore Perry who forced Japan open to trade in the 1850s. That wasn't addressed in the Notes, and I wish it had been.

That said, these are all minor quibbles, and they did not interfere with my interest in or enjoyment of the book.