Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Three mini reviews: In a Handful of Dust by M. McGinnis, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by M. Spark, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Y. Herrera

I bought all three of these books and don't have a lot to say about them, so I figured they're good candidates for mini reviews. [Note after writing the so-called "mini reviews": Apparently, I had more to say than I realized. Apologies for the length of this post.]

In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis continues the story of Lynn and Lucy from Not a Drop to Drink (link leads to my review). I never did find out what exactly it meant when I heard the first book was marketed as a "cross-over" novel, but In a Handful of Dust, like its predecessor, is not for the faint of heart. If you haven't read Not a Drop to Drink, this brief review may act as a spoiler, so be wary.

Ten years have passed since tragedy struck and Lynn had to make a crucial decision about whether to join up with neighbors to defend her stream or fend for herself. A community of sorts has been built up but now disease has struck the area and is rapidly killing off everyone Lynn and Lucy know and love. In an effort to save her surrogate daughter, Lynn decides that she and Lucy should walk from Ohio to California, where she's heard desalination plants allow for abundant drinking water.

Walking for that great a distance in a dystopian world obviously poses its challenges. And, some of the things they encounter are truly gruesome. But, that didn't bother me so much as two plot points. Both are spoilers but I can tell you that one of them had to do with the ending. It felt almost perfect and then I thought it was ruined by a decision by Lynn that made little to no sense. Beyond that, I can't say without ruining it but the ending disappointed me enough that I don't intend to hold on to the book for a reread. Not a Drop to Drink, on the other hand, was a 5-star read that I intend to revisit at some point. I'm glad I read In a Handful of Dust and I recommend it. I just didn't fall in love with it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark has been sitting on my classics shelf for many years. I saw the movie starring Maggie Smith when I was quite young -- maybe 8 or 10 years old -- and it left such a strong impression that I've wanted to read it since I found out the movie was based on a novel. I'm presuming my copy of the book is one of many books that I bought from a salvage store when they got the remaining stock from a bookstore fire. That salvage stock was discounted so dramatically that it made a huge impact on the size of my home library. I've probably been hacking away at the books I purchased for at least 15 years.

At any rate, I chose The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie after ditching my first classic selection, earlier this month. Miss Brodie is an unorthodox teacher in a private girls' school. Rather than sticking to the prescribed curriculum, Miss Brodie tries to prepare her students for life by teaching a broad range of subject matter through storytelling and experience. A certain number of her students are known as the "Brodie set", the girls that she has chosen to invite to her home, to play golf with her, and to attend other weekend activities and whom she favors for reasons I never really could quite discern.

The book is told in retrospect by Sandie, one of the Brodie set who in later life became a nun. Miss Brodie's teaching method is often challenged and a number of people want to find a reason to fire her, but she's able to continue teaching for many years . . . until she's betrayed by one of her set, the girls she kept close and so completely trusted. As Sandie tells the story, the mystery of who betrayed her and why unfolds.

As young as I was when I saw the movie, I remembered the movie because of the betrayal. It so thoroughly shocked me that I've never forgotten it. The book was somewhat less shocking, maybe because of the expectation. I enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but it's definitely not my favorite by Muriel Spark. That would be A Far Cry from Kensington, a book I've read more than once. I read Spark's memoir, Curriculum Vitae, back in the 90s and from that I learned that she had a teacher who taught like Miss Brodie, so it was particularly fun revisiting her teaching method

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrara, translated by Lisa Dillman, is a book that came highly recommended by a friend who reads a very wide variety of international material (unlike me . . . I tend to stick a little too closely to the Anglo world). It had been sitting on my wish list for probably a year when I read an article that compelled me to go ahead and buy a copy.

Makina's brother crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. when he heard that there was a parcel of land that belonged to his family. He never returned. Now, Makina's mother has decided the time has come for him to return, so she sends Makina to ask favors of three dangerous men who will help Makina cross the border and find her brother.

Makina is her tiny town's telephone operator. She speaks three languages (or, perhaps, two languages and a second dialect that is almost a third language) but she's discreet and never divulges the information in the conversations she overhears. She's a strong woman and knows she's important to the town because of the trust she's earned. She plans to return to Mexico.

But, when Makina arrives in the U.S., nothing quite meets her expectations. Her brother is elusive, the land the family allegedly owned clearly does not exist, and the crossing was much more dangerous than she anticipated. When she finally locates her brother and hears his story, she makes a startling decision.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a pretty amazing book. Stylistically, it's very understated and minimalist but there's an immediacy to the writing that leaves you feeling like you were there. I gave it 4 stars because of one particular word that the translator used repeatedly, but upon reflection I think it's really a 5-star book and the translator's interference was its only problem. The word is "versed" -- a word that she used generally to replace other action words like "walked" or "exited" or other words involving movement from one place to another. I didn't like it but after realizing it was kind of a made-up word, I started playing a game, of sorts, trying to mentally pick out the best word that could have been chosen in its place.

My favorite paragraph:

Makina had no idea what so-called respectable people were referring to when they talked about Family. She'd known families that were truncated, extended, bitter, friendly, guileful, doleful, hospitable, ambitious, but never had she known a Happy Family of the sort people talked about, the sort so many swore to defend; all of them were more than just one thing, or they were all the same thing but in completely different ways: none were only fun-loving or solely stingy, and the stories that made any two laugh had nothing in common. 

~p. 79

Author Daniel Alarc√≥n  (whose book War by Candlelight I read and loved in 2005) says Signs Preceding the End of the World is a "haunting and moving allegory about violence and the culture built to support and celebrate that violence." That kind of comment makes me want to go back to school to take the literature courses I missed out on. I would never have caught that, although violence is clearly a prominent theme. I'm definitely going to want to reread this one.

©2016 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Well, now I want to read Not A Drop To Drink. But maybe skip A Handful of Dust. And I want to see the movie of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie before deciding to read the book.

    1. Not a Drop to Drink is excellent. It was one of my favorites, the year I read it. Oddly, my friend Tammy also gave A Handful of Dust 5 stars -- but she's the friend who died in January, so I can't talk to her about it. *sigh* I'd love to know how she felt about the ending. It didn't feel right to me but it was satisfying in one way if not another (vague enough for you?)

      I want to see The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, again, myself. The book was good but it just wasn't quite what I expected, you know? But, I've only seen the movie once and I was so young that I really would love to see what it was that made it stick with me for so long!


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!