War Again, Fragrance of Flowers, and Noir

May 4, 2010

Confession. Despite an earlier BLOG claim of not being drawn to books about war, I’ve read three books in a row with war back-stories. And liked them all. Oh well, what I think I know about myself…

The latest two I’ve read, “Summer of the Big Bachi,” by Naomi Hirahara, and “A Bullet for Cinderella” by John D. MacDonald ended up on my nightstand by way of two interesting circumstances.

There are places I’ve come across that seem special. That “specialness” has taken different forms. A few, when I think back, still mystify me in that they are places I know I can never be a part off. Never belong. No matter how many times I go there, how much research I do, I can never “experience” the place on the level I’d like. Chicago’s Art Institute is one I can remember from the past, and the Los Angeles Flower Market is my most recent example.

I was lucky enough to participate in a tour of LA’s Flower Market, led by Naomi Hirahara during Left Coast Crime 2010. The tour was eye opening, Naomi’s comments were informative–and on so many levels, the market in its entirety was wonderful. The flowers were beautiful and fragrant, the vendors intriguing, and the overall experience thought provoking. I could just “feel” the hundreds of untold stories haunting the nicks and crannies, stalls, and corridors. But sadly, I also realized these were tales I’d never be able to tell. I did know, however, once back at the conference hotel, I would get a copy of Naomi’s mystery. Naomi “knew” the market.

“Summer of the Big Bachi” is Naomi’s first mystery novel, and for me, quite compelling. As expected, WWII events are grim and heart wrenching. But how those events spill forward in the lives of  real people, makes for deep motivations and dramatic consequences. Naomi’s writing style and voice seem perfectly suited to tell Mas Arai’s story; and she deftly unravels his current dilemma, born in the bombing of Hiroshima, on a rich backdrop of life in modern LA. Mas is a most unusual and intriguing character, and by book’s end—like the flower market—I didn’t completely understand Mas, but I sure did like him. I’m so glad to know there are more books in the series. “Gasa Gasa Girl” will soon be on my night table.

A second confession. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything written by John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._MacDonald (Wikipedia page) until “A Bullet for Cinderella.” This time my inspiration came from Books and Cooks, my reading group. Our book for this month is “Condominium.” Unfortunately, try as I might I couldn’t get a decent copy of “Condominium” to read for a price I could afford—copies in good condition are collector priced. So in the spirit of book-club-camaraderie, I thought I should at least read something by the same author. Amazon had a Wonder Publishing Group “Noir Masters” reprint of “A Bullet for Cinderella” written in 1955 available.

So, though I also don’t usually read Noir (what the heck do I like to read, one could ask?!), I took a chance. John MacDonald was unbelievably prolific, diverse in “genre,” and a poster-person for “writers write!” This particular story springs from the Korean War, and John’s protagonist Tal Howard is a returning veteran looking for “treasure” in Hilston—USA. He brings back with him from his prisoner of war experience a cryptic phrase, and very real memories of a young man left behind.

The book was short, easy to read, and told a straightforward story involving secrets, betrayal, life after war, and love. I expected the reading to go fast, and it did. It was also very nice reading John’s uncomplicated prose, with 50’s-sensibility heroes and heroines. And it was interesting how many of the issues his characters talked about are still relevant today. Everything changes, and nothing changes.

On the surface, however, there didn’t seem to be anything complicated about “A Bullet for Cinderella.” How little I knew at the time. I certainly didn’t expect  the introspection-road this little book has taken me down. Thoughts are still bubbling…

2 Responses to “War Again, Fragrance of Flowers, and Noir”

  1. K. Kladstrup said

    Brilliant comment, Madeline, about eschewing a genre for–well–whatever reason that means something to you, and then transcending that due to outside forces. And then–finding a surprising response and growth process thanks to the change. Love that–and agree, too that these look like interesting authors and titles. Thank you! P.S.–love your blog.

  2. JD Webb said

    John D. MacDonald is one of my all time favorites. His Travis McGee series is priceless mystery/suspense. And a Sci-Fi book of his called The Girl, The Gold Watch, and Everything is still fun to read today. Every author should read one of his novels. You will learn a bit more about writing and you’ll be hooked and want to find more of his treasures.

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