20 March 2014

Lake Wobegon, Alaska

I was feeling a little flush. Probably a budgetary bad way to feel when I'm in a bookstore. It can contribute to deficit spending. So I bought a book.

As big as life on the new mysteries shelf was John Straley's Cold Storage, Alaska. I had good feelings about Straley's earlier books. Goes to show how I'd forgotten the most recent one, The Angels Will Not Care. I've read at least one other, but my written response is buried in the paper files of the old newsletter.

Well, whatever shortcomings I found in The Angels Will Not Care are forgiven.

I started reading Cold Storage, Alaska thinking it was a mystery. It was a reasonable assumption for most of the first half of the book. But about half way through the book, I realized that Straley wasn't writing a mystery, but he was writing a Garrison Keillor-like story of an Alaskan Lake Wobegon (or a seaside version of Cicily, Alaska from Northern Exposure). And he was doing a damn fine job.

Cold Storage is a tiny sea side village that once had a thriving fishing-based economy. Then freezing fish replaced canning fish and the village went into decline. But the story is really about the people who wash up in the backwater of the Alaskan coast. And Straley does a wonderful job of populating the town with natives, returnees, and haphazard immigrants. Like the Norwegian- and German-American residents of Lake Wobegon, the people in small town Alaska are interesting and attractive once you get to know them. And Straley creates characters who are easy to get to know.
Hoonah, Alaska (could be a prosperous version of Cold Storage)

There's Miles, the former army medic who is now the town's physician's assistant (even though there's no physician to assist). Miles' brother, Clive, returns to town with a pile of cash after serving a prison sentence for drug dealing. There is a group of cruise ship refugees who appear just as Clive is rehabbing the old family bar and in need of a house band. Ed and Tina are teachers in the Cold Storage school. Billy is an old fisherman who sets out in a kayak on a fund raising mission to meet the Dali Lama in Seattle and returns with Bonnie, the woman who rescued him when his kayak sank. There's the Alaskan state trooper who is anxious to bust Clive for returning to his old occupation and two of Clive's old criminal buddies who want the money Clive made off with.

If I compare Cold Storage, Alaska with the last of Keillor's novels I read, Pontoon, this is head and shoulders above what the Old Scout turned out.

I learned that this is one of two "Cold Storage" novels Straley has written. Somehow I missed the one about the parents of Miles and Clive, The Big Both Ways. Now, I get to find that book. I don't know if that will be as good as this, but I heartily recommend Cold Storage, Alaska.

Have you read Cold Storage, Alaska?  

Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

10 March 2014

Science without the fiction

I know I've told the story of meeting and talking to Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Leakey. They were speakers and I was an attendee at a conference. The three of us were in the shelter of a building where Leakey and I could smoke. Gould just wanted to talk to Leakey. So did I. So I hung out with them for a few minutes. I must have told the story in the ancient printed version of this blog because the only reference I can find to the story online is in Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 - 2002.

After meeting Gould, I began reading his essays. Books full of them. They were (are) masterpieces of exposition and art. One of my favorites is Dousing Diminutive Dennis's Debate, arguing, years before the millennium, for the the importance of the year 2001.

Recently I picked up a book of essays by one of Gould's successors at Natural History, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I'm impressed by Tyson's interviews and good humored appearances on television. I wrote about one of his essays here last year, More non-fiction .

The book I picked up was Death by Black Hole. Tyson, is good. He's not Stephen Jay Gould great, but perhaps no one will ever be. Some of the same questions I asked when I last read "The Importance of Being Constant" rose in my head when I read it this time. Go look at my physicist daughter's response.

Tyson won me over in an early essay by noting that "One of the challenges of scientific inquiry is knowing when to step back -- and how far back to step -- and when to move in close... A raft of complications sometimes points to true complexity and sometimes just clutters up the picture." That's an important lesson I strive to teach students.

Over and over Tyson points out lessons like that. Sometimes his analogies are too complex and sometimes his explanations are inadequate for my little brain. But I enjoy what I read and I learn things. But I didn't finish the book yet.

It has to go back to the library. I might have finished it, but Eric Johnson lent me Junkyard Planet (see below), and I wanted to read about recycling and see what my former student had written. I might check Death by Black Hole out again and finish it. But right now I'm sated on non-fiction, and I have two new books on my shelf.

So have you read Death by Black Hole or other essays by Tyson? What did you think of them? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

05 March 2014

Minnesota junkyard boy far from home

Once upon a time, a long time ago in a classroom not too far from here, a young man was a student in a class I taught. He became a Shanghai-based journalist. (He is one of two Shanghai-based journalists I got to know when they were students, but that's a story for another time.)

The young man grew up helping to run the family business, a "junkyard" in north Minneapolis, not far from where my parents grew up, but that's also a story for another time.

Adam Minter started his career writing about the junkyard/scrapyard/recycling business in China. I had no idea there were specialized journals about such obscure topics. Goes to show what I know.

I caught up with Adam Minter a few years ago, when I ran into an article he wrote for The Atlantic. Then I found his blog -- about the scrapyard business in China. It seems he wrote enough episodes in his blog to convince someone (maybe Minter himself) to write a book about the topic. My friend Eric Johnson had just read it and mentioned it one morning. When I claimed acquaintance with the author, Eric loaned me the book the next day.
 Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade was published last year. It's been noticed far beyond the scrapyard/recycling world and it's earned good reviews globally.

The reason it's been noticed is that this goes beyond telling stories about the entrepreneurs in China who have built a business dependent upon importing cast offs from the USA, Europe, and Japan (although those stories are often interesting).

Minter offers abundant data on the vast scope of the global trade in trash and the ways it is changing. He also explains the mysterious processes used to extract value from trash (like harvesting copper wire from discarded strings of Christmas lights which are sent to China in huge bales that fill many shipping containers).

But he forcefully makes that point that much of the value in trash from Japan and the USA comes not from recycling, but from reuse. Old cell phone screens become screens for hand-held video games. Discarded computer chips become the hearts of new game counsels. Discarded computers and monitors become affordable computers for Chinese homes.

In fact, Minter repeatedly makes the case for the importance of reuse and how reuse is more important for our futures than recycling.

Minter writes well. He circles his topics and keeps coming back to his main points. His data seems as complete as it would be for a term paper. Luckily, he doesn't write like a student. Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade is an enlightening book. I encourage everyone to read it. It's important stuff. At least catch up with Adam Minter's blog, Shanghai Scrap or his Twitter posts, which you can follow on Facebook.

Have you read Junkyard Planet? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.

28 January 2014

Miracle superhero

The stories in some books pour off the pages like slick water. Other stories come out of books like cold, thick molasses, and then only with a lot of work. Jo Nesbø's Police is one of the latter.

I think those molasses-like stories are often more interesting to read. Not necessarily better, but more interesting.

Police is intense and interesting. Often too intense for me. I skimmed through several sections looking for semi-climaxes.

Nesbø spins a good yarn and writes suspenseful action scenes. Many of the scenes are theatrical. Several times in the book he dangles red herrings as he narrates some action, only to sweep them away and reveal deception at the end. It's neatly done, but it's also a somewhat nasty trick to play on readers.
I could never be sure I understood what had happened until I read the post-action description that Nesbø has to include or no one would blame you for thinking his hero is crazy to talk about a surprise present as he walks into a room where he knows a psychopath has a gun aimed the hero's son and fiancé.

Oh, and remember the special awards I give out to stories that needed superheros and unbelievable good fortune to work? Well, Police earns both the Green Lantern superhero and the Heart of Gold improbability awards.

The Heart of Gold
Green Lantern

If you're not willing to tolerate an unbelievable superhero and enough improbability to send the Heart of Gold across the universe a couple times, stay away from this book. Otherwise, enjoy it like a good Batman story.

Have you read Police? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the universe.

14 January 2014

Well, I suppose. If I have to.

I seem to remember a robot character in Restaurant at the End of the Universe who was resigned to his status and his duty. It was constantly saying, "Well, I suppose. If I have to."

Arnualdur is an Icelandic mystery writer. I've read at least three of his books in the past five years. I remember The Draining Lake and Voices as being good.

Inspector Erlendur, the main character reminded me of Douglas Adams' robot. His approach to life was "Well, I suppose..."

At the library recently, I found a new novel by Arnaldur Indriðason, Black Skies. Inspector Erlandur is gone. His protege, Sigurður Óli steps into the main role in this book. If anything, Sigurður Óli is more phlegmatic and self-centered than his mentor. With a main character like that, the story has to carry the burden of the novel. I always knew that Sigurður Óli would act like he was saying "Well, I suppose. If I have to."

The story does carry the book. There are actually two stories. One is a case study of the banking corruption that brought economic disaster to Iceland in 2008. Two murders, seemingly unrelated at first, lead Sigurður Óli to a small group of bankers and a complex multinational plan to make piles of money.

The second story is about sexual abuse of children. It's while trying to make sense of the ramblings of an old drunk that Sigurður Óli actually seems to grow as a person. I don't know if that was intentional on Arnaldur's part or one of those things that takes over during the writing of a book.

That second story is more interesting and more awful. What is it about the Icelanders and depression? Not enough sunlight in the winter? Too much in the summer? The first story portrays the Icelandic bankers as just like the American and British bankers who saw nothing wrong with playing fast and loose with other people's money in order to make obscene profits by finding loopholes in the law.

The book was good. Not great, but worth the time.

Have you read Arnaldur's Black Skies? What did you think of it? Read anything else lately? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

09 January 2014

Complications in Kenya

It seemed to take forever to reread Sirens of Titan. Then I read at seeming light speed through Margaret Coel and Dana Stabenow's books. I think familiarity with the styles and characters of those authors made reading their new books less daunting. (Although Stabenow threw a curve at the end.)

So, I wasn't surprised that reading a first novel was slower going than the previous two.

Richard Compton was born in London, UK and lives in Nairobi, Kenya and his first novel is set there at the time of the 2007 elections.

Kenya is one of three African countries I know enough about to be utterly mistaken about any evaluation I might make. I first got interesting in Nigeria when I met a Nigerian classmate as a first year college student way back in 1963. I've taught about Nigeria off and on since 1970. I studied and taught about Kenya back in the '70s as well and taught about South Africa in the last years of Apartheid. (I have a ballot from the 1994 South African election on the wall above my computer.)

So Richard Compton told a fascinating story that took me back to what little I knew about Kenya and its capital city. The book was published in the USA as Hour of the Red God. It also shows up in the UK at Amazon.co.uk as The Honey Guide.

Compton's book is absolutely within the mainstream of Western detective fiction. And the main character might be a former Massai warrior dragged into the big city, but he's as much a British or American law officer as any in Anglo-American murder mysteries.

The story is also in that mainstream, even though the names, adjectives, adverbs, and even some of the verbs are Kenyan. That's one reason the beginning chapters were slow going for me.

There's murdered prostitute, a possibly stolen baby, a rich evengeical pastor, an ambitious and educated pastor's wife, various political high flyers, and of course a detective who doesn't always follow orders and his skeptical assistant. All of this takes place at the time of violence and tumult that accompanied the presidential election. (That's the same link as the one above.)

Compton weaves a fine tale. It's at least as complex as Dana Stabenow's Alaskan tale and more convoluted than Margaret Coel's Wyoming replay of the Custer battle. I really liked it.

And, I suspect he'll write another. His days as a BBC reporter are probably over. Compton's name goes on my list of books and authors.

Have you read Hour of the Red God or The Honey Guide? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

01 January 2014

Reading about the past in the present

Sometimes I can't get enough time to read. Other times I can't find enough energy to read. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I found both the time and energy. Now, I'm trying to find time and energy to write.

I started with a trip to the library and finding a new book by Margaret Coel on the shelf. Many of her books have been interesting and entertaining. Some have been too close to frustrated romance novels. I took a chance and checked out Killing Custer.

A crazy old historical reenactor was channeling "General" Custer and traveling around the west marching in parades, acting in reenactments, and giving speeches in character. When he shows up in Lander, Wyoming for a parade, the local Natives are not pleased. Some of the young men, also riding in the parade plan to insult the Custer character with a "dare ride." Part way through the parade, two lines of Native American riders ride rapidly outside of the Custer riders, circle the group, and ride off ahead of the reenactors. The trouble was that the old crazy guy chanelling Custer was dead after the maneuver.

As might be expected the leaders of the dare ride are blamed for the murder and the local police and the FBI begin looking for them. One of the suspects turns to Father John O'Malley for help and refuge. Father John, in turn puts him in touch with local attorney Vicky Holden.

The set up is almost irresistable. The story is well told. I read it quickly and with excitement. It was a dramatic contrast to the effort I had to put in slogging through The Sirens of Titan. This is one of Coel's better books. Some central Wyoming color, interesting people, perplexing mystery. I liked the book and I liked reading it.

Before I'd even finished Killing Custer, Nancy went to the library and brought back a new mystery by Dana Stabenow, Bad Blood. Stabenow is another writer whose books I've moslty liked. It didn't take much for me to pick it up and get engrossed in the story as soon as I'd finished Killing Custer.

I don't want to pretend this story has any classical aspirations, but Bad Blood is a Romeo-Juliet or West Side Story retelling. It's closer to High School Musical or Shakespeare in Love than to the Shakespeare original. Stabenow's story does have a very bloody ending, though.

Two clans in villages on opposite sides of a small river. One village is prosperous and growing. The other is poor and disappearing. The two clans are rivals and embittered neighbors. There are killings that seem to be the result of feuding. There are young lovers, from opposite sides of the river, trying to escape.

Alaska Trooper Jim Chopin and his lover, the influential Kate Shugak are on the job to investigate the murders, prevent further feuding, and find the young lovers.

What they don't know is that someone is stalking Kate Shugak, seeking revenge for a killing in the distant past.

This story is even more smoothly told than Coel's story. It's easy to read and to enjoy.

SPOILER ALERT: However, when the main character and her faithful wolf/dog in 19 of Stabenow's book catch bullets in the final bloody scene, it's shocking. Almost as shocking was Stabenow's response to an interviewer's question of whether she'd killed off her long time heroine. The author said she'd be crazy to that, but that the last scene would guarantee big sales of the next book. Sales sagging, Dana?

Have you read either of these? Have you read something else that you reacted to? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.