Read Harder: Cocaine Blues

8 02 2015

Do you know about the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries? It is a fantastically fun Australian crime series set in the 1920s. Miss Phryne Fisher is a very modern, wealthy woman making inquiries and solving cases in Melbourne. With a wardrobe to die for and some forward-leaning morals, Miss Fisher makes quite the impression on Melbourne society, both high and low. You can find Miss Fisher, the TV show, on Netflix.

For the Read Harder independent press challenge, I was delighted to pick up a digital copy of Kerry Greenwood’s original Miss Fisher book, Cocaine Blues. The book is the basis for the first episode in the TV series, so you might want to hold off on watching the series until you have whipped your way through the book.

In this book, Phryne leaves England to investigate the mysterious illness afflicting the daughter of an acquaintance. Along the way, she stumbles across a cocaine ring and a dangerous illegal abortionist.

Greenwood’s style is brisk but evocative, full of interesting 1920s and/or Australian slang. I found myself looking up such exciting terms as “gasper” and “camiknickers.” The language really sets the scene, including some particularly gorgeous descriptions of Phryne’s fashions.

Fans of the TV series will still find plenty of new tidbits to entertain, such as a bit of interesting backstory on Dot, Phryne’s maid, and the circumstances that led Phryne from destitution to opulence.


Read Harder #3: Unfamiliar Fishes

1 02 2015

Once you have seen Hawaii, it is hard to shake it off. Hawaii captures the imagination, so foreign and so familiar. We have visited Hawaii twice since moving to Japan, and we will miss the close proximity when we move back to America. So when I needed to choose a book about native peoples for the Read Harder challenge, a book about Hawaii was a no brainer.

I have enjoyed several of Sarah Vowell’s other books, so I was eager to check out Unfamiliar Fishes. In this book, Vowell’s recounts the tumultuous period between the arrival of the first Westerners and the ultimate annexation of Hawaii. The time scale is shockingly short for such an extreme change in circumstance. Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to annexation, only 120 years had passed.

Visiting Hawaii means slowing down; everything seems a bit more relaxed. Which makes the rapid course of events even more amazing. The native Hawaiians are initially cautious but interested in adopting elements of western culture. Despite being a terrible choice for the climate, Hawaiian nobility were soon wearing black, Victorian clothes. Covering up also served the needs of the mail “civilizing” force, Protestant missionaries sent to convert the “heathens.”

In fact, more so than the many sailors that pass through the Hawaiian islands, it is this group of missionaries that shape Hawaii’s course to Americanization. Many arrive with good but imperialist intention. However, after a few years, when support for the organization that sent them wanes, the missionaries must find new lines of work. Many turn to business or politics, shifting their focus into influencing more than just the spiritual life of Hawaii. Descendants of these missionaries will eventually overthrow the monarchy and successfully petition the U.S. to take over.

Vowell’s descriptions of the beautiful places and cultural objects of native Hawaii provide a great sense of what exactly was lost when Hawaiian autonomy was taken away. The wistful writings of Queen Liliuokalani during and after her overthrow and imprisonment are nonetheless gracious and warm.

If you are looking to understand more about Hawaiian history, this is a great opening. My one pet peeve, however, is that the book contains no chapters. It is a 230 page meander through history, which can make it hard to follow at times and difficult to refer back to specific sections for information.