My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede is a nurse; her younger sister Ayoola is a serial murderer; My Sister, the Serial Killer is a first novel; Oyinkan Braithwaite is a writer to watch.

Greater love hath no sibling, one supposes, than to clean the mess left when her younger sister murders yet another boyfriend. It helps that Korede, the older sister, knows exactly how to go about the cleanup (rubber gloves, plenty of bleach, attention to detail, determination.).

51gcFBRHprLbraithwaite.jpg

This is the situation that opens Braithwaite’s striking, and often strikingly funny, novel. Korede, a hospital nurse (and eventually head nurse) in Lagos tells her story clearly and crisply, with both a wry sense of perspective and a wistful (to say the least) sense of her predicament.

That predicament is, on the (bloody) surface her dealings with the corpses her lively ()as it were) younger sister keeps producing. Braithwaite is very good with the details of the cleanups, and with Korede’s anger at Ayoola—an anger rooted as much in Korede’s impatience with Ayoola’s irresponsibility as with Ayoola’s crimes.

Beneath the surface, Braithwaite is after something larger than the superb dark comedy thriller her book definitely is.

Bit by bit—in short c(sometimes less than a page) chapters—the larger story of Korede and Ayoola’s family, and especially their relationship with their hustling, abusive father emerges. But Korede’s story is more than the story of her family and the demands it makes upon her. She makes demands upon herself, desiring, or at least imagining that she desires, She wishes, or thinks she wishes, that she could be more like Ayolla (sans the murders) but understands that her sister’s carefree, indulgent life is denied her.

This is a brief novel, but an exceptionally rich one. Korede is an observant narrator: through her vice, Braithwaite brings Lagos alive in sharp scenes of traffic, corrupt police, bridges over rivers with bodies in them. The hospital where Korede works is fully realized, a true setting not just a backdrop. Braithwaite is sharp and perceptive as well on the penetration, as ubiquitous in Lagos as LA, of social media, and the effects of social media on individuals and culture.

The deepest and most moving relationship is Korede’s with the comatose Muhtar Yautai, an elderly man neglected by his family who becomes Korede’s mute, unresponsive confidente.

To say too much about the plot and its startling, perfect resolution would be to do a disservice to Braithwaite’s confidence in her readers. She pulls no punches, nor does she force her plot in artificial directions. Even the largest of surprises the novel contains arrives naturally and believably.

This sis a remarkable first novel, one that will stay with me and that I will be rereading before long to savor once more the bold, beautifully-pitched voice of its narrator—and her author.,

KATHY YAKAL'S HARSH, HARROWING FIRST NOVEL

yakal book.jpg

A caveat upfront:

I’ve known Kathy Yakal for more than three decades. She is a good friend, a great wit and grand conversationalist, a fine and prolific nonfiction writer and technology journalist. So far as I know, she has never written fiction, or at least never published any.

Now she has.

Her first novel, Dopamine Diary, came out last year, but it’s not the sort of novel that dates. Yakal’s protagonist, Lisa, is a twenty-something working for a computer magazine in the latter 1980s—as did Kathy Yakal herself.

It’s an honest—and as a result harsh—look at a young woman’s struggles, challenges, and outright battles with both her mental illness and its consequences, and also an unflinching look at the reactions of friends, co-workers, lovers and loved-ones, medical professionals, well-wishers and otherwise.

It is not easy reading, and I’m not speaking of the prose, which is distanced and neutral throughout. Rather, the harshness of the book derives from Yakal’s unrelenting honesty in presenting the choices Lisa makes, and the consequences of those choices, some of which are devastating.

Among the devastations are the consequences and contraindications and complications of the meds Lisa takes, and the attitudes of those who prescribe them. Target the psychosis and let the patient deal with the depression her medications cause: Cheer up! You’re just a little down, that’s natural, you’ll get over it. That sort of thing, all too common in treatment then, and hardly rare today is handled bluntly and in the book.

At the heart of the novel—and for all its unsparing bluntness Dopamine Diary, like its author, does have a heart, and a large one—is Lisa’s long wrestle with the question of choice itself: whether to take or leave meds, whether to seek different treatment and what kind, whether to stay in relationships (both marital and adulterous), and more.

Every choice any of us makes is a junction of possibilities opened and possibilities closed-off, of course. But for Lisa, cycling among the various states of mind manifested by her illness, crossroads of possibility are also minefields, not all of which Lisa navigates successfully. As Yakal shows Lisa’s ability to navigate them differs, and drastically, from the approach to minefields (we all have them) made by those not dealing with mental illness.

We’re all confronted with choices, of course. But one of the larger gifts of Yakal’s novel is her presentation of the ways in which Lisa’s state(s) of mind compromise her ability to trust the decisions she makes (not that she necessarily knows this at any given time). This is what makes the book difficult to read—and not in a bad way. Fiction should be challenging, and Yakal’s is. We cringe—and on occasion gasp—at some of the decisions Lisa makes. But when we do we should also remind ourselves that if Yakal didn’t look away when writing those scenes, and clearly didn’t, then neither should we.

There is courage in the openness of Yakal’s approach, but not luridness. This is not a sensationalist novel—there are no cheap thrills here. Only expensive—in every sense—lessons, nearly every one of them learned the hard way, and some learned in the hardest ways imaginable.

But Lisa does learn them, however much she may curse the lessons that won the knowledge.

Dopamine Diary is not a polished novel, nor in some ways do I think it could have been. It’s very much a first novel and that, along with the nature of Lisa’s life and mental state, makes much of the book a cascade of rough edges and raw observations. I don’t think this is a bad thing, much as I would love to have seen Yakal put the book through another draft.

But if she had it wouldn’t be the same book, which is finally both novel and testament, and rewarding in both identities. A note at the end of the book tells something of its interesting history.

Before that, though, comes the novel’s closing lines, a a five-word couplet so perfect—and so perfectly transcendent and, again, devastating at exactly the same time—that it’s impossible to imagine Lisa’s story ending any other way, or with any other or any more words.

Kathy Yakal has a thoughtful and ongoing blog that deals with many of the issues her novel explores. She continues to write, and write well on business technology and related subjects.

I hope she’ll write more fiction—I’d like to see another novel from her.

ELLERY QUEEN'S THE LAMP OF GOD

Ellery Queen’s great 1935 novella “The Lamp of God” turned out to be the perfect antidote for the lousy weather here Thursday.

The forecast was for sleet, and maybe ice, starting late Wednesday night and continuing through Thursday morning. My response to such a forecast is to a) batten down anything that needs battening down and b) decide what to read during the deluge,

I had been meaning to reread “The Lamp of God” for years—it’s probably three and maybe four decades since the last time I read it, even though I have gone on more than a couple of Queen binges since. But those binges are almost always focused on the novels, particularly the great run of their middle period, the 1940s and early ‘50s, starting with Calamity Town. I would read an occasional Queen short story, sometimes a handful of them, but their shorter-length masterpieces, 1934’s “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” and “the Lamp of God” from the following year never got picked up.

That changed this week.

I reread “Mad Tea Party” this past Tuesday, and enjoyed every bit of its crazy cloud-cuckoo-land playfulness. For all its whimsy, it’s a major Queen story, and a lovely example of the cousins’ ability to fabricate a universe unto itself, in which outlandish clues and misdirections are part of the natural order of things, things which, set asunder, only Ellery can set aright.

“the Lamp of God” is something else—and something more.

By 1935 Ellery’s character was in full evolution from the snobbish Philo Vance-clone of the early novels into a more recognizably human figure. Still brilliant, still obsessed with order, but less supercilious, less artificial, less derivative, less affected. Indeed, only once in “Lamp” does Ellery fiddle with his pince nez—and while I can’t guarantee it I believe this might be the last mention of that particular Philovian affectation in the entire Queen canon.

The Ellery of “Lamp of God” is on the brink of becoming the Ellery of Calamity Town, Cat of Many Tails, Ten Days’ Wonder and the other masterpieces that lay just few years ahead.

“Lamp” offers a magnificent stage-setting for the debut of this new, improved Ellery—in fact, the setting, and the mystery that unfolds there is arguably the most magnificent of all the Queen venues (although the forest fire that rages around the mountain-trapped Queen in The Siamese Twin Mystery is a close second).

Certainly the mystery that unfolds against “Lamp’s” setting is the most audacious the Queens ever wrote.

The novella is set on a remote Long Island estate during a fierce snowstorm. A young heiress has come to America to re-establish communications with the miserly father from whom she’s been estranged for decades. Ellery is asked by the miser’s attorney to accompany him and the heiress to the estate—where they are immediately snowed in, along with a gargantuan physician, the physician’s wife, and a hulking, mysterious (aren’t they all?) groundskeeper. The miserly father has died, secluded in his immense, decrepit, foreboding stone mansion. Ellery and the others are put up in the more comfortable (though lacking in modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing) house beside it.

The stage is set.

The story grabbed me as I began to read in the middle of the night and held me on past dawn as a cold rain fell outside. We were spared the ice and sleet, but Thursday was a raw, bitter day, and I stayed in, reading “Lamp” and marveling at what the Queen cousins wrought as they wrote.

There is of course a murder. There is a missing fortune in gold. There are multiple suspects. And there is, most audacious of all, the strange case of the stone mansion the disappeared in the night.

ellery.jpg

Seriously—in the annals of impossible crimes, the disappearance of an entire stone mansion has to be at the top of the list.

Pince nez aside, I don’t think the cousins missed a single note in the entire short novel. They hold the reader’s attention in thrall, the characters are convincingly drawn, the mystery unfathomable, even by Ellery who, though committed to agnosticism, finds himself invoking God more than once—and from more than one religion.

To say much more would be to spoil the revelations (sic) that cascade over the novella’s final pages. I will say only that the cousins play fair—everything in the story makes sense. Admittedly, the novella takes place in a Queenian pocket-universe, though less artificial than the one in “Tea Party,” and the tricks that are pulled out of a hat in the denouement come from a hat in a believably real world, not a Mad Hatter’s Wonderland.

This is a marvelous story, well-deserving of John Dickson Carr’s opinion that it’s one of the ten best mystery stories of all time (the time of Carr’s opinion being the mid-40s). I have no doubt that it’s the finest thing the Queens wrote at less than novel length, and is the equal of all but two or three of their novels.

Perfect reading for perfectly awful weather! (And any other kind of weather, too.)

“The Lamp of God” is included in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kindle version available from Amazon.

UNDER THE DESK

My pal Millard's preferred spot when I'm working. I write, he snores: a happy combination.

I trust that he's happy, sleeping as I work. And I'm almost positive that he's dreaming of the day — a ways away — when he's not on a diet.

 

IMG_20180523_130536.jpg

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau

My good friend John Kitterman — writer, English professor at Ferrum College, Thoreau aficionado — reminded me that today is Thoreau's 200th birthday.

Neither his prose nor the insights and observations he captured have aged a bit for me over the half-century or so since I was introduced to him in a junior high school English class. The opening sentence of Walden remains as fresh and compelling as when first published, much less when I first read it:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor my hands only.


Who could stop reading after an opening like that?

Not me — and not, by now, millions of readers across the centuries.

And not just, one hopes, the millions of those readers who encounter Walden because it is assigned. Not a bad way to encounter it, of course — worked for me! — and undoubtedly still the likeliest path to its pages for the young.   

But Thoreau's writing speaks clearly to readers of all ages. He has much to say, and says virtually all of it elegantly and precisely.

He died at 44, having accomplished much, but with much left to be done. As his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully wrote:

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that leave in the midst his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that it should depart out of Nature before yet he had been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.


Our Age, in which knowledge, virtue, and beauty are all and each so imperiled, is in need of a Navigator with as steady a hand and as keen an eye as Thoreau.

Fortunately we have had one for two centuries.

Read some Thoreau, and not just on his birthday.

Your world, and our world, will be the better for it.

 

Garden Spot

Even on the hottest days — and the last few have been climbing in that direction — my little shady garden office offers respite, a place to read, write, and reflect...

And nap!

 

Half Past 2015

Firsts of July always strike me as offering an opportunity for planning, for reflection, for projection and preparation. The first of each month offers the same, of course, in smaller scale, as does the first of each week.

But the First of July provides larger perspective, extending both ways. We are mid-way through the year, and, depending upon our nature (both in general and at the moment) we may ask:

Is this year half-over, or only half-begun?

The answer differs from year to year, but more often than not, the older I get, I choose the latter.

I've had easier years than this one, but this one's only half-started.

Plenty of 2015 tomorrows ahead, after all.

Half a year's worth.


Blackberries Soon

Nearly there!

Maybe as early as tomorrow (and I will probably find at least one or two that are ready this afternoon), and certainly by Tuesday . . . Blackberries!

Just in time for the Fourth!

And judging by how productive the plants are this year, plenty of berries for the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh, too.