What I'm Reading Now: 12 September 10

Jim & Casper go to church: frank conversations about faith, churches, and well-meaning Christians-- Jim Henderson & Matt Casper (non-fiction)
The ritual bath-- Faye Kellerman
The nine tailors-- Dorothy L Sayers
Operating instructions: a journal of my son's first year-- Anne Lamott (memoir)
Vanished--Liza Marklund
Not in the flesh-- Ruth Rendell
Just send me word-- Orlando Figes (history)

Jim & Casper go to church: Picture a Christian (a former pastor, even) paying an atheist to go to church with him a few times - a dozen churches in total. Picture said pastor wanting said atheist not to convert during the church-visiting experience. Picture some very blunt questions being asked, including :"Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?" Jim (the pastor) and Casper (the atheist) do exactly that, and the North American church through an atheist's eyes is not at all what I expected. There's respect on both sides, and food for thought for both as well. Definitely worth reading.

The ritual bath: A woman leaving the ritual purification bath at a yeshiva is raped. The yeshiva is not in Israel, but in a bad part of the Los Angeles hills, and LAPD Detective Peter Decker runs into culture shock every time he walks through the yeshiva gates. Between that, the serial-rape cases he is investigating elsewhere, and his growing attraction to the intelligent and very Orthodox woman who is his contact inside the yeshiva, things get very complicated, and deadly. This is the first meeting between Decker and Rina Lazarus; I started later in the series, so it's interesting to see the genesis of the connection. I enjoyed the book, but with a feeling that there was something not quite right about it; I suspect, though, that the not-quite-right was my personal bias making itself felt, as I prefer Faye Kellerman's husband's books (Jonathan Kellerman) to hers. I can't explain it-- but I'd certainly never tell someone not to read Faye Kellerman because of that. Good writing, good plot, so try it and see if you enjoy it.

The nine tailors: A disfigured and mutilated body is discovered in a few-months-old grave. Identity: unknown. Cause of death: unknown. Lord Peter Wimsey, who had visited the parish a few months previously, was invited by the Rector to see if he could help discover what had happened. What follows is a tangle of bell-ringing, a priceless emerald necklace, family loyalty, jail-break, and desertion. This is one of the few mysteries I know that goes into English campanology (the science of churchbell-ringing), and it does go into some detail, which is both interesting and a little overwhelming. The whole story unfolds quite slowly as well (the mystery doesn't make an appearance until page 70 in my edition), but even with all of that, it's an excellent mystery, and most enjoyable. If you like classic British mysteries, Sayers is a must-read.

Operating instructions: Anne Lamott is not the first person to have a baby, alone, at the age of 35, but she is one of the few to write about it with grace, humor, and thorough-going honesty. She talks candidly about her anger at her colicky son, and about the incident with the rectal thermometer that resulted in, well, brown everywhere, as well as her overwhelming love for her son. Reading Anne Lamott's memoirs (I haven't read any of her fiction yet) makes me feel that I've connected with someone real, that this is the way it is, and that there is beauty in telling the truth about the ugly as well as the beautiful things in our lives... and that I'm not the only one who doesn't have it all together. Thank you, Ms. Lamott.

Vanished: A young woman is on the run in Stockholm after a brutal double murder. She contacts journalist Annika Bengtzon with her story, and Annika sends her to Rebecka, who has also recently contacted the journalist, and the foundation Rebecka runs that helps threatened people disappear. Annika follows up on both these stories, and the facts point in a different and deadly direction. It was a good story, albeit bleak, and I have to say that the resolution of the primary plot thread (woman on the run) was thoroughly unexpected and beautifully set up. I thought the resolution of Annika's personal problems was too easy, though, and unless Marklund was setting her up for more difficulty in the next book instead of giving her a karmic reward, it wasn't at all satisfactory. I don't regret reading this book, but I don't think I'll be reading another Marklund.

Just send me word: There are no easy resolutions in this biography, a slice of Stalinist Russian history. Lev was sentenced to ten years in the Gulag, a Russian prison work camp, for "treason against the Motherland"-- serving as a translator for a German officer as a Soviet prisoner of war. Somehow, he and Sveta, the woman he loved, managed to exchange over 1500 letters during his sentence. The letters were smuggled by friends and sympathetic camp workers, so the camp censors never saw them. Sveta even managed to visit him more than once during his stay. The story of life in Russia, both in the Gulag and in Moscow, during that time is shown vividly through these letters, which the couple preserved, and eventually donated to the archives. Figes uses these letters, as well as a few supplementary sources and interviews, to tell their story. Inspiring, and recommended.