Book Notes: Alan Bradley and Roz Chast

It was a productive weekend for reading; in addition to the Margaret Oliphant and Robert Shearman books I wrote about yesterday, I also finished Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of fairly cozy mysteries about Flavia de Luce, a preteen girl in 1950s England for whom the word “precocious” might have been invented. She’s a talented amateur chemist, and when a mysterious stranger winds up dead at Buckshaw, her family’s country manor, she turns detective as well. I’m not averse to a cheerfully absurd old-fashioned mystery, but I’m not necessarily a great fan of them either, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about an eleven-year-old turning out to be a brilliant crimesolver. What saves the book is Flavia’s delightfully acerbic tongue, and the awareness of the tragedies of life that bubbles away just below the novel’s surface, which keep things from turning twee. The deductive leaps Flavia makes to keep the plot moving wouldn’t feel terribly plausible for any detective, let alone a tween on a bicycle named Gladys; they bring to mind a parodic exchange from a Dave Barry column (“How did you know Miss Prendergast never heard the cathedral bell?” … “You see, Lord Copperbottom is left-handed, so the gardener couldn’t possibly have taken the key from the night stand.”) But as ridiculously insightful detectives go, Flavia is definitely a keeper, and I look forward to buying the next entry in the series when I can get a good deal on the e-book.

The Roz Chast book is a short memoir about her elderly parents’ decline and death. Anyone familiar with Chast’s cartoons for The New Yorker will know that she’s capable of mining a lot of humor from that unpleasant subject, but Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is also a very sad and painfully honest book. In a mix of handwritten texts, illustrations, photographs, and cartoons, Chast explores not just the costs (both emotional and financial) of end-of-life care, but also her parents’ relationships with each other and with her. It’s a relatively brief book, but Chast makes every word count. There’s a lot of love on display, but no false sentimentality, about her parents or about herself. It’s a hell of a book, and I’d love to see her write another memoir like it some day, on whatever subject she might choose.

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