GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2014
Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen
Carl Hiaasen has been called the funniest crime novelist in print by many reviewers, with complete justification: he has a long list of novels to his name, all best-sellers, and all set in Florida, his home state. He has a fan base of millions, not only because he produces with each new story a fast-paced, hilarious plot with great characters, but he also has an important ecological and environmental message to deliver: he is a major voice protesting against the overdevelopment of Florida’s beautiful wild places; the despoliation of the environment by big corporations and the destruction of rare animals thanks to loss of habitat. He is a champion of creatures great and small and the places they call home, and what better way to skewer corporate greed than with a pen.
The bad monkey of the title resides with Neville, an elderly fisherman in the Bahamas who has just been deprived of his idyllic beachside home and land by an unscrupulous Miami fraudster who has faked his own death by having an arm surgically removed (!), then bribing a fishing mate on a cruiser to have it fished up by an unsuspecting tourist. After his ‘death’ is declared an accident, he will be free to develop Neville’s home as a luxury timeshare resort where he and his pudgy wife will live a life of sinful pleasure on their ill-gotten gains – they think.
Neville, however, is not without initiative. He consults the local voodoo woman, a disreputable old hag who demands his body and the use of as payment for the powerful spell she will cast to rid him of the fraudster – a bridge too far for Neville: he has his standards! Even copious quantities of alcohol would not be able to disguise his revulsion – instead, as a second option he reluctantly hands over his monkey, much to that bad-tempered creature’s dismay, then waits for the fraudster to meet a horrible fate.
It doesn’t happen.
Enter Andrew Yancy, disgraced former Monroe County detective demoted (by his boss for an act of public violence against his girlfriend’s husband) to restaurant inspector, a job guaranteed to put anyone off their grub. He is deeply unhappy but the only thing that sustains him is that something smells fishy (sorry, couldn’t resist) about the lone arm dragged from the deep, and the chain of murders (including an attempt on him) that follows: he sees a way back to his boss’s good graces and his return to detective status if he can follow up and make sense of the clues that reveal themselves.
Oh, it’s all happening in ‘Bad Monkey’, with the monkey playing an important part in the downfall of the baddies, and an eventual satisfactory ending for the goodies, but the overarching message is clear: don’t foul your own nest! Which is what is happening with distressing frequency everywhere. Bless Mr Hiassen for highlighting this in every book that he writes. Highly recommended.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.
On her eleventh birthday in 1805, Sarah Grimke is given a ten year old slave, Hettie ‘Handful’ to be her waiting maid. Sarah is the daughter of wealthy Charlston plantation owner and judge John Grimke and his imperious wife Mary; it is high time she left the nursery and had her own proper room (fortunately vacated by one of her older brothers, sent off to college to be a lawyer) and Hettie has been taken away from her mother Charlotte the enslaved family seamstress to learn the duties of looking after a young lady.
Unfortunately, Handful lives up to her name – she is disobedient and sassy, earning without effort cruel punishment for her misdeeds. She pines for her mother, and instead of sleeping on the floor outside her young mistress’s room – in case she be summoned during the night – she constantly sneaks back to the slave quarters to be with the only person she loves in the cruel world they are forced to inhabit.
For her part, Sarah is appalled to be given another human being as a gift and tries to free Handful, much to the outrage of her family: her carefully crafted document of manumission is ripped apart and flung into her room and intensive instruction in the duties and future expectations of young ladies is commenced. In its own way South Carolina aristocracy has imprisoned Sarah as much as the slaves that are vital to its way of life; the role of the Southern gentlewoman was that of wife, mother and housekeeper: she owned nothing, was not allowed to vote and her opinions were not sought on any subject by the patriarchal society in which she existed. And it didn’t do to rattle the cage!
Regardless, Sarah still champs at the bit, especially as she has a lively intellect and is clever enough to know that her plain looks will not easily snare her the husband her family wishes for her: indeed, her younger sister Angelina has much better success in that area and would be married ten times over were it not for her regrettable and forceful opinions on emancipation.
Sarah’s only means of escape is to journey north to New Jersey as companion and general dogsbody to her ailing father, who as a last resort has been prescribed bracing doses of Northern sea air; she is astounded to experience the North’s differing political viewpoints, and when her father dies having received no benefit from the climate Sarah decides to stay in the North, eventually making a life for herself with the Quakers, who are devout and staunch believers in the emancipation of slaves – but not of women.
Angelina eventually joins Sarah, and her fiery eloquence, combined with Sarah’s irrefutable logic gains them fame – and notoriety – among the first abolitionists to tour the Northern States lecturing on the evils of slavery, until their message comes unhappily close to calling for the emancipation of women as well as slaves. Their male counterparts are not happy!
And neither is Handful: with the departure of Sarah her protector, Handful’s life has become almost unendurable; she is terribly crippled as a punishment for attending a Black African church, despite having permission to do so but far from breaking her spirit and being the good nigger that her owners expect, she becomes more determined than ever to make her escape, or die trying.
Ms Kidd writes with great power of the iniquity of slavery and she has based her novel on the true life story of the Grimke sisters, early and fearless champions of emancipation for all. She has researched assiduously the Southern way of life and its ingrained and casual cruelty to the human beings who kept it wealthy before the Civil War, and she illustrates beautifully the courage born of desperation needed to take the first steps in defence of the enslaved. Above all, this is a novel about sisters, the love they have for each other, black or white, and the wings they have to invent for themselves so that their spirits may fly. Highly recommended.