16 December 2007

A taste of philosophical silliness

In the late 1980s, when Neil Gaiman was a young writer, he started a short story and couldn't figure out how to end it. He sent the manuscript to his friend Terry Pratchett. He couldn't figure out where the story was going either. The story sat on Pratchett's desk for a year.

When Pratchett looked at it again, he figured out what came next in the story. Intercontinental telephone calls were made at strange hours. Floppy disks were sent back and forth by air mail (those were the days before e-mail, children) and after awhile the two wild men had a nearly-400-page novel. Well, they had the beginning of one. The got themselves into the same room and hashed out the writing of Good Omens.

All that is a preface to my purchasing a copy of the book in the famous Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon. (I'd always wanted to by a book at Powell's.)

David is a fan of Pratchett's Discworld novels. I've heard him chuckling over the books and ranting about the wonders of Discworld and the hilarity in the books.

I didn't know if I was ready for Discworld, but I thought I'd get a taste of Pratchett by buying and reading Good Omens. You may have noticed that it took me a month to read the book.

Actually, I didn't start until after I'd come home from Oregon and a 30-hour round trip to Denver. It still took a long time for me to read a book about Armageddon.

Yes, the book is about the end of the world and how it didn't happen. Seems the agents of fate were as falible as the people. Mistakes were made from day one, it turns out, and in the end not everyone went along with what was ineffable.

The dialogues (between devils and angels, between witches and witch hunters, among children mystified by goings on and their powers, et al.) sparkle with puns and logical jokes. It does remind me of the humor of the late Douglas Adams. Sometimes I was reminded of Jim Henson and the Muppets. I was also reminded of Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat's Cradle.

If a movie is ever made of Good Omens, I think it should be a Muppet movie.

By the way, seemingly the only being to really know what is going on (everywhere and everywhen) is Agnes Nutter, witch. And her prophecies don't get used to their full extent.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "So it goes."

It's good winter time reading. Look for the book in the library or in a new paperback edition. You can order it from Powell's or from Amazon below (and a few cents will come back and support this web site).

29 November 2007

Confirmation of my good taste

The New York Times book editors have named Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson as one of the 5 best fiction books for 2007.

I only mention this because it confirms my good taste. I wrote about my experience with the book back in early September.

I thank the Amery (WI) Public Library for making it available to me. I thank Graywolf Press in Minneapolis for publishing it. And I thank all those teachers who helped me learn to read and to like books.

From the New York Times: The 10 Best Books of 2007

  • MAN GONE DOWN By Michael Thomas
  • OUT STEALING HORSES By Per Petterson; translated by Anne Born
  • THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES By Roberto Bolaño; translated by Natasha Wimmer
  • THEN WE CAME TO THE END By Joshua Ferris
  • TREE OF SMOKE By Denis Johnson

  • IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: Inside Iraq's Green Zone By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
  • LITTLE HEATHENS: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression By Mildred Armstrong Kalish
  • THE NINE: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court By Jeffrey Toobin
  • THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A Woman in World History By Linda Colley
  • THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century By Alex Ross

23 November 2007

Colorado mystery

I was in the Denver airport. I had over an hour until my plane left and I'd read the New Yorker I'd brought along.

I found my way to the Hudson Bookseller store in Terminal C and bought a copy of The Sign of the Book. It's by John Dunning [at right], a Denver resident. "How appropriate," I thought.

Years ago, I'd read a couple of Dunning's mysteries. They are set in Denver and involve "cop-turned-bookseller Cliff Janeway." Bookseller in this case does not mean someone like the clerk at the airport Hudson's. It means someone who deals in rare and obscure books for collectors. (See the link to Dunning's Old Algonquin Books.)

Anyway, there weren't many Dunning books, and I never became a fanatic about them. (I don't remember why at this distance.)

Well, this one was extraordinary and compelling.

I had gotten up early on a Saturday in a Denver motel, taught a workshop for teachers all day, and then had over two hours at the airport before flying home. I was a little tired.

But, once I started reading at departure gate C22 it was difficult for me to stop. A couple times during the flight home, I did put the book down and close my eyes for attempted naps. But before long I was reading again.

Once I got home, I discovered that Nancy had had a flat tire on her way to pick me up, and I had another 45 minutes to read. By the time I did get home, it was nearly midnight and there was no way I could keep reading.

But the next night I did read more and didn't finish only because the suspenseful finish was "in sight" and I wanted to be able to get to sleep. I took time to finish the next afternoon.

The Sign of the Book was just the kind of thing I wanted to read just now. The pace of the action, the amount of detail, the intriguing asides, the near absence of unbelievables, and the clarity of narrative were just right for me.

So, if you read it, let us know how it fit you.

13 November 2007

Comic book wannabe

Eugene, OR: I read another graphic novel wannabe between spending time with my mother, working on the test bank for the new edition of Chip's textbook, and preparing materials for Saturday's workshop in Denver.

I decided along the way that Janet Evanovich's books could be animated or transformed into comic books. I read Eleven On Top. There's not a lot to distinguish it from the Evanovich book I read earlier.

Stephanie Plum, the central character, runs through cars and jobs just as fast in this book as in the other one. She is still unable to say "I love you" to her main squeeze, Joe Moreli. She still flirts with her employer of last resort, Ranger. She still loves her old neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. And she still tolerates her family (even her dad, who is all but invisible).

I kept trying to imagine what Stephanie Plum's comic book or cartoon charachter would look like. I don't think she would look like Sandra Bullock, who is featured on the front of the Stephanie Plum Forum. Maybe the character should be based on Evanovich herself [at right].

See: The Stephanie Plum Forum Site

10 November 2007

Swedish mystery (again)

The street on which Kurt Wallander and his daughter Linda shared an apartment in Before the Frost. Photo by Simon Hämmerle

I picked up two more Henning Mankell mysteries at the Northfield library to take along on my trip to Oregon. I started Before the Frost before I left, but it was a big hardcover, so I didn't pull it out during the flight west. I finished in Eugene while taking breaks from writing an instructors' manual and spending time with my mother.

This Mankell story is mainly about a police recruit named Linda Wallander. In this fictional Swedish world, Linda is the daughter of Kurt Wallander, detective inspector about whom Mankell wrote half a dozen other mysteries.

This story is pretty good, although the main characters are so flawed they seem real. Now, I am pretty sure that there aren't any perfect families, but I'm glad I'm not part of the Wallander family. Father Kurt unpredictably veers from ignoring anything his daughter says to telling her to present her theories at a case conference in police headquarters. Daughter Linda goes from being thoughtlessly cautious to being dangerously venturesome.

And most of the other characters -- especially the crazy bad guys -- aren't any more predictable. Now with crazies, that's understandable. But with an experienced investigator and a rookie just out of the police academy, such behavior is unexpected. Unless these people are real humans with a history we don't know much about. Mankell seems to have created those characters in this book.

He's also created a convoluted plot full of violence and mystery.

Overall, it's a long book full or realistic characters, and it's good reading. I liked this one better than the first Mankell's books I read a couple weeks ago.

If you other ideas, write and tell us.

From Swedish TV, three actors who play major characters in Before the Frost: Ola Rapace (plays dectective Stefan Lindman), Krister Henriksson (plays Kurt Wallander), and Johanna Sällström (who plays Linda Wallander).


31 October 2007

Recorded Maisie Dobbs mystery

A couple weeks ago, I was headed up to the little cabin called Sidetrack for some end of season work. I stopped by the library and checked out the audiobook for Birds of a Feather, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear.

Back in August I'd read a couple of Winspear's books and was engrossed in the recreation of 1930 London. I said at that time that Winspear "tells the stories in a plodding, detail-filled way," but the enchanting detail of life over 70 years ago made up for the mundane story telling.

Well, the drives to Sidetrack and back only got me through the first 4 of the 9 CDs in the novel. So, when Nancy and I went back the following weekend to finish closing up the cabin for winter, I listened to the CDs between yard work, window washing, vacuuming, and napping.

The story was interesting. The murders of 3 women who had been friends in a Swiss bording school is central. There are about as many suspects as victims. Winspear does a good job of laying out the clues and allowing red herrings to distract me.

The reading is very well done by Kim Hicks, a radio, stage, and screen actress who personalizes the voices without histrionics.

However, the "plodding, detail-filled" writing is deadly when read. When I was reading, I could easily skip over the fashions of the women characters. But as a listener, it was hard to ignore things without missing something at the beginning of the next paragraph. I also think some things stood out more when recited than when silently read. Maisie Dobbs finally got to the convent where one of the characters was hiding, but I think it was a CD and a half after I'd figured out that's where the missing person was.

I wish I'd read the book. I might go back and read another of Winspear's mysteries. Then I'll be in control of which details to attend to.

Dirty cops international

Awhile back, I wrote about the Gnod web site that illustrates what authors are being read by people who are reading an author you're interested in.

One of the names that showed up when I typed in a couple of the Scandinavian authors from last spring was Henning Mankell. I'd never heard of this Swedish writer, but he's well known. The Northfield Library has half a dozen of his books on its shelves. Several of his "Kurt Wallander Mystery" novels have been produced for Swedish television.

I picked The Dogs of Riga from the library collection. It was the earliest of Mankell's books available, published in Sweden as Hundarna I Riga in 1992 and published in English in 2001.

Kurt Wallander is a middle-aged police detective in Ystad, a city of over 17,000 on the southern Swedish coast. The town promotes itself as a tourist destination ("considered one of the best preserved cities in the Scania province") and as the home of the fictional detective.

At the time of this story, Wallander's mentor had recently died. But the old guy's wisdom plays through Wallander's mind throughout the book. I thought several times that it was too bad that Wallander hadn't asked about that wisdom more often. The detective's daring-do may make good adventure and good film, but his decisions make me question his basic sanity. Well, that's me.

Wallander ends up in Latvia investigating the murder of two men whose bodies come ashore in Sweden. Why Wallander goes there is never well explained. After all, a Latvian cop came to Ystad to retreive the bodies and gather police reports.

Then, even more inexplicably, Wallander returns surreptitiously to Riga with a phoney passport supplied by an underground Latvian nationalist group. Did I mention that the story is set in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was falling apart? Riga and its police force was full of nationalists, Soviet supporters, smugglers, and organized criminals. And into this mess steps a curiously naive, foolhardy, and hardboiled Swedish detective.

The plot and its twists are intriguing. The action is well done. The setting is exotic. But it wasn't a great book.

It's not a total bust. I read the whole thing without complaint. I've even checked out two more Mankell mysteries from the library. I guess I think there's potential for entertaining stories.

If you know about Mankell's books or if you read one in the future, write and let us know what you think. If or when I read the Kurt Wallander mystery and the Linda Wallander mystery that I've checked out from the library, I'll let you know what I think.

18 October 2007

Cruise Alaskan waters

I was searching the Northfield Public Library for a book to read and came across John Straley's name on the spine of a book.

I recall reading a book or two of his a few years ago. I didn't remember much about them besides that they were set in Alaska.

So, I checked out The Angles Will Not Care, published in 1998, and now I've read it.

I thought it was pretty good. There are gaps in the characters and in the narrative, but those faults can be overlooked, I think, if you're just in this book for lightweight entertainment. This is the literary equivalent of episodic television.

The story is interestingly complex and full of action, even though I didn't understand it all. Remember, I'm an unimaginative literalist, so my complaints might not be the same as yours.

The main character, Cecil Younger, is a real mystery to me. Then again, he was, in this book dealing with his own PTSD, so maybe his behavior wasn't supposed to make sense. However, the behaviors of a whole lot of people in this book don't make a lot of sense, so I don't think my lack of imagination, Younger's PTSD, or the foreign culture of an Alaskan cruise ship are to blame the problems I had with the story. His long-time lover is the most complete character in the book, but that doesn't say much.

I read it quickly, but without joy. Maybe that's why I don't remember much about the earlier Straley books.

According to the Fantastic Fiction web site, Straley wrote 6 books. The last one was in 2001. Maybe he found other things to do.

13 October 2007

Murder, bees, Vietnam, buddies, fiance

I grabbed another Faye Kellerman mystery off the shelf at the Northfield Public Library. This time the book was Milk and Honey.

It's really two books: one about a grisly murder committed by crazy people and another about male boding and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The second one is more interesting and potentially better. It almost stands on its own. It's not really part of the murder and the process the cops went through to solve it. (The resolution of the murder seemed anti-climatic to me.)

Because the male bonding/PTSD story is intertwined with the other, it's not really fleshed out, and Kellerman's take on male bonding seems superficial. In addition, the role of Rina Lazarus in this book could have been much more central if her own PTSD had been explored as much as that of her lover Peter Decker and that of Decker's Vietnam vet "buddy," Able Atwater.

I didn't like this one as much as The Burnt House. Maybe I enjoyed the novelty of my first Kellerman mystery. I'm not anxious to go seeking another. Enough's enough. Unless one of you has a specific recommendation.

01 October 2007

It's one LONG monologue

It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon...

Like his other Lake Wobegon books, Pontoon, Garrison Keillor's latest one, is an expanded and complex version of his Saturday afternoon monlogues. I recall hearing the radio version of the last chapter on a Saturday afternoon awhile back. I wouldn't be surprised if other chapters were once complex stories told to a microphone on the stage of the Fitzgerald (or some other) Theater.

This book revolves around a woman who dies in the book's first paragraph.

Of course, Keillor has to tell the back stories and the stories of the dear departed and all the people connected to her. And for a small town, Lake Wobegon has a wide range of individualistic and truly wierd characters.

Some of the stories and characters ring true for their nïavité. Others are clearly just Keillor's imagination or childhood dreams. Just like in the little tales he weaves on the air.

If you enjoy the "News from Lake Wobegon," you'll probably enjoy reading an extended version of several of those episodes.

It's Barbara, the dead woman's daughter, who quits drinking and grows up in the end of the book. She reads an old letter from her mother before she sells her house and goes off for her life's adventure. The message is, "I miss you when I'm away... I miss you listening to me... You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories. And how we love them...

"But then other people get hold of [our stories] and they kill [them]... I need to get away from the killers. Righteous people can be so cruel when they go after sinners and infidels, I just don't want to be around to see it...

"And then it's time to get in the car and go..."

And Barbara goes. The last sentence in the book is, "Night fell and Wisconsin passed in the dark, Chicago a distant glow in the sky, and the white stripes raced by, and the radio played one great song after another."

(If you didn't realize it sooner, that last phrase proves the book is fiction.)

30 September 2007

Banned Book Week

It's Banned Book Week.

Go to a library near you and read a good book. Or read a book that's good for you.

And for a word from another "country" there's this: Banned Books Week: Smoke screen of hypocrisy that explains how conservatives are banned by the system of "freedom to read."

Another by Kellerman

When I told Nancy how much I'd enjoyed reading the new Faye Kellerman book, (The Burnt House), she said I should read the first of Kellerman's books, The Ritual Bath, to find out about the origin of the characters.

So I stopped at the Northfield Library and found the 1986 debut novel of, as the jacket so kindly told me, "a gifted storyteller... a dentist, an expert fencer, a musician who plays four instruments, a guitar maker — and the mother of three young children." Her mother-in-law must have been so proud. The photo on the back cover is of a girl who doesn't look old enough to have graduated from college. (She was in her mid-30s when this book was published. Maybe she used a college graduation photo for the book cover.) Faye Kellerman was an overachiever 20 years ago. I wonder did she write that profile herself? Or did her agent write it?

Well, she wrote the book. It's a mystery novel! It's a romance novel! It's a police procedural novel! It's a romance! It's an anthropology paper on life in an Orthodox yeshiva. It's a romance!

From the first time LAPD detective Peter Decker meets the widow Rina Lazarus, you suspect it's more a romance than a detective story. In the end it's about half and half, but by the end I think all readers will suspect that deep in her heart, Kellerman wanted this to be a romance. And she wanted to write more stories about Decker and Lazarus. (By the way, even high school sophomores with a bit of Biblical literacy will recognize the symbolism of the widow Lazarus' name, even though its origins are in a Christian gospel. It's enough to give cheap thrills to English majors.)

Kellerman sets up the romance by channeling widow Lazarus when she meets Decker. "He was a big man, she thought, with strong features and, despite the fair skin and ginger hair, dark penetrating eyes. He looked intimidating yet competent...

A few paragraphs later, she channels Decker. "She had an intangible presence — a quite elegance. And she didn't cover her hair with a kerchief like the others, allowing him a view of her thick, black mane. There was something classic about her face — the oval shape, creamy skin, full, soft mouth, startling blue eyes..."

You'll know in one of the later chapters, when the Rosh Yeshiva says, "Your biological father was Jewish," and Decker responds, "And so was my biological mother," where the Decker-Lazarus relationship is going to end up. (Not in this book, but somewhere down the line.)

What you don't know, until the very end, is who the bad guy is. Kellerman does a good job of outlining the characters and the suspects, hanging out some red herrings, and telling the story.

It's a good romance/mystery. The yeshiva culture is foreign enough to me to make this as cross-culturally interesting as stories from Scandinavia. That did add a good dimension.

Given how much I liked the dentist/musician/instrument maker/mother's latest book, I will go back and read some of the in-betweens. Without your recommendations, I'll probably just check out what's available at the library and hope it's not so much romance.

Do you have any recommendations?

24 September 2007

Gnod books (that's not a typo)

Awhile ago, I discovered Pandora, an online music service. You tell the program what artists or albums you like, and it plays selections from them and identifies similar music and plays selections from those.

I've found it to be wonderful. I typed in a dozen names of performers in almost as many genres, and I can listen to music through the tinny speakers on my computer all day without hearing an advertisement, a repeated piece, or having to change a CD. And for every piece Pandora plays, you can click on "I like it" or "I don't like it." If you don't like it, the selection stops immediately, and won't be played again for you. You can also tell Pandora that you're tired of hearing a song or a performer right now, and the program will put that piece of artist on hold for awhile.

This all leads up to something similar for readers.

Bird Loomis sent me a link to a "literature map" centered on Elmore Leonard. Leonard, the author of 3:10 to Yuma, has been writing westerns, mysteries, and screenplays since the early 1950s.

The map purports to show what other authors' books are read by readers of Leonard's books. The annotation also says that the "closer two writers are [on the map], the more likely someone will like both of them."

There's very little explanation of the artificial intelligence behind these mappings, but it seems that there's a group of Leonard readers who also read Christopher Moore, Anthony Burgess, and Bernard Malamud. (Malamud?) Does that happen because this is so new and there aren't many contributors yet? Another cluster of names includes Dave Barry, Ian Rankin, and Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. (?) Joensuu is a Finnish writer of crime fiction. Maybe there's a club of crime fiction readers in Finland. Rankin is a Scottish crime fiction writer. Okay, maybe the readers club is Finnish-Scottish-Detroitish (Leonard's home town). But Dave Barry?

Interesting and curious connections show up in these maps. They might be a good source for suggestions of what to read next. And you can click on any name on the map and see a map centered on that writer.

For instance, the map for Tony Hillerman shows that there is one group of Hillerman readers who are fans of Michael McGarrity, Beverly Connor, Mikhail Sholokov, and Patrick O'Brian. (Sholokov?) There's another group who read Conan Doyle and Emma Lathen. And that group is near a group who read John Mcphee, Loren Eisley, and Alexander McCall Smith. (Smith?)

In other quadrants, there is a cluster of people who are likely readers of Marcia Muller, George P. Pelecanos, William Cruz Smith, Nancy Atherton, Nick Toshes, Louise Erdrich, and Nevada Barr. Laurie King readers are also likely to be readers of Dick Francis.

I don't quite know what to make of these maps. They did point out to me one thing about the books I've read most recently. Few of the names on the map for Faye Kellerman showed up on either the map for Janet Evanovich or the one for Elizabeth Peters. That's further demonstration that Evanovich and Peters appeal to very different audiences than Kellerman.

As a matter of fact, most of the names on the Kellerman map are unfamiliar to me. That probably helps explain how I've missed her earlier books.

These are fun to play with. More fun than most television these days, so turn off the tube and play with these maps for awhile. The literary maps are part of Gnod, which describes itself this way:

"Gnod is my experiment in the field of artificial intelligence. Its a self-adapting system, living on this server and 'talking' to everyone who comes along. Gnods intention is to learn about the outer world and to learn 'understanding' its visitors. This enables gnod to share all its wisdom with you in an intuitive and efficient way. You might call it a search-engine to find things you don't know about." I have no idea who the owner of this is. But the maps are created by participants' inputs.

Besides books there are "maps" of "Gnod Music" and "Gnod Movies." Things on the site are really new, and you might not yet find what you're looking for. But, you might find good recommendations for your next library book, DVD rental, or iTunes download.

Could be good fun.

Cartoonish novels

I recently read a couple of "bubble gum for the mind" books. Jana Eaton, who recently endorsed C. J. Box's novels set near her home town, noted that she liked Janet Evanovich's books. A recent Evanovich book, Lean Mean Thirteen, showed up in our home and I read it.

A colorful cover tempted me to check out Elizabeth Peters' new book, Mummy Case, from the Amery Library. I read that too, but like the Evanovich book, it was more a skimming exercise.

Here's what I really want: Evanovich should find a cartoonist and transform her book into a graphic novel. The action and behaviors in the book are quite like those in a comic book. I'd like the book more if I could look at drawings and see some frames that had big blazing stars with graphic words in them (like "BOOM!!!). Instead I had to read through lots of descriptions and dialogue to get to the action. Maybe Art Spiegelman could be persuaded to do a "lite" version of his usually dark style for this project.

Peters' book, on the other hand should be a cartoon. Maybe in the style of The Family Guy. The 4-year-old Ramses in this book is a dead ringer for Stewie. Of course it might be more appropriate if the cartoonist animated in some late 19th century style, but it won't be as much fun for me. The action in Mummy Case is extravagant and the characters are cartoon heroes. Wouldn't you want to see a 4-year-old archaeologist/genius/super hero? And Peters' humor is worthy of cartoon treatment.

Nancy tells me I might not have a proper appreciation for either of these books since I have not read any of the numerous earlier books in either series. You can use the comment link below to tell me more about that.

Sound like fun? Check them out.

18 September 2007

You thought Lake Wobegon was small

As I was scanning the shelves of new books at the Amery Library, a librarian at the front desk asked if I read Population 485. "It's over in 921P," she said as another librarian waked down the aisle, picked the book off a shelf, walked over, and handed it to me.

The title hadn't rung a bell, but as I read the book jacket I recalled having heard of Michael Perry's book when it was published about 5 years ago. It's complete title is Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.

Michael Perry, native of the rural northern Wisconsin, ranch hand, nurse, farm worker, and volunteer EMT, had returned to his home township because he needed a place to belong; a place to write poety and essays.

Population 485 is a collection of essays and episodes in the first years after his return to New Auburn, Wisconsin. They are about life and death, community and self identity, family and individualism. Perry writes well and digs up literary references now and again to supplement his own trenchant observations.

For me he is at his best reflecting on his own mortality while dealing with the dead and dying on emergency runs. His reflections are a lot like my own since that day a few years ago that a large truck bumper flashed by the end of my nose and the door of my car (touching neither). He is a bit more poetic and he's seen more examples of death and near-death than I have. But our attitudes are similar.

I also enjoyed his attempts to explain to himself and his readers his wide tastes. How is it, he asks himself and us, that he can take joy in classical orchestral music, modern dance performed by an aging queen and his partner, polka dancers at a wedding, and Friday night karaoke and the local tavern?

The part I don't get? Small towns.

I read Carol Bly, figuring I'd missed something big while hating nearly every minute of growing up in a small town. Bly did make the point that as a child and teen ager, I probably missed a lot of the diversity that existed. Point taken. Otherwise, no help there. I read Kathleen Norris trying to see if I'd missed something spritual about small town life. No help there either. Norris convinced me that spirituality is what you bring to a place. Any place.

Perry ran home to the small town to find a community to belong to. He signed on with the volunteer fire department to help out and be a contributing member of the community. But he gets out of town often. He goes on book tours and speaking circuits. Then he goes home.

In spite of his efforts, it's not for me. When I tell urbanites that I live in Northfield, they often remark, "That must be a wonderful small town to live in." Well, it's pretty good, but the reasons I like Northfield are the reasons it's not a small town. There are two colleges in Northfield, with lots of interesting people, guest speakers, and occasional guest performers. I like that.

I'd be a lot happier living closer to more than college and community theaters, more than college and art guild exhibits, more than a tacky, 3-screen theater that shows only high grossing Hollywood flicks. But there are compromises and it's easy to get embedded in a community even if it's not ideal. Maybe it's even easier in a town of 485 than in a town of 12,000 (plus 5,000 college students).

Delightful details

After having a delightful dinner with granddaughter J, her mother, grandmother, and aunt on Friday, I ran off to Sidetrack on Saturday afternoon for a 3-day vacation. N stayed home to edit my words and lay them out for the 3rd edition. Maybe it was a vacation for both of us.

One of Book Giver Mary's presents was sitting atop the bedroom dresser, and since I had little else to read, I picked it up. The book was The Burnt House a mystery/procedural story by Faye Kellerman.

Kellerman's name was unfamiliar to me, but N seemed to know her books. How had she evaded my radar? She'd written nearly 20 other books before this one. The book jackets says she is a "NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR." And a sticker-like graphic on the cover says, "Decker and Lazarus are back!"

Well, I don't have a clue about why a mystery fan like me has missed Kellerman. Perhaps neither N nor any of you have written her about her. Or maybe I have not been "listening."

I enjoyed The Burnt House. The story is well-written. The characters are believable and likeable (at least to me). Upon reflection, the investigation is smoother than is likely for identifying a 30-year-old missing person and finding a missing victim of a deadly plane crash, but the way Kellerman lays out the story, it's an unfolding of clues that reminded me of assembling a picture while putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

There are three main Los Angeles detectives working on the missing person/homicide case. But they don't do everything themselves. There are a large number of other cops involved. Gee, just like real life. Kellerman describes a lot of the thinking, complexities, and planning that go into the investigation. The boss gives orders and sets agendas and sends his lieutenants (well, sergeants, since the boss is a lieutenant) off to do what needs to be done. It sounds realistic. And at least two of the main characters have real lives away from the job. You'd think they were real people. Like the families of the victims, who are also realistic characters in the book.

I went into the Amery this morning and stopped at the public library to find another Kellerman mystery, but they had none. What? I'll have to ask next time I'm there why they don't stuff more of their window ledges with more books.

I will read more of Kellerman's books. I'm sure other libraries must have copies of the older ones. The Burnt House might be there too, but it's at the book store.

When you read one of them, write and let us know what you think.

13 September 2007

Reading recommendations from 'cross the pond

Remember those lists of books that English teachers, high culture mavens, and librarians publish for insecure high schoolers aiming at good colleges? "50 books you must read before college!" or "500 books an educated high school graduate should have read." I always felt a little sheepish that I'd never read most of them. I got into a good college anyway. I still haven't read most of them. I don't feel deprived. At least I recognized most of the titles.

This list from the Guardian Unlimited (UK) is full of books I've never even heard of. Well, it is British. But the people who created the list aren't all British.

The first half is, "How did we miss these?" The second list is "How did we miss these? Part 2."

The list is intoduced this way: "Far from the fame and glamour of the Booker and bestsellers is a forgotten world of literary treasures - brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine. We asked 50 celebrated writers to nominate their favourites..."

I don't know about the books, but the recommendations are good reading. The list of "celebrated writers" is also British. I recognized A. S. Byatt. But there are temptations in the list. If you're looking for something unusual (from an American perspective) to read, check out the list and call your library.

  • Lanark (1981) by Alasdair Gray
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) by Flannery O'Connor
  • Angel (1957) by Elizabeth Taylor
  • The Wind From Nowhere (1961) by JG Ballard
  • The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) by Jose Donoso
  • Midnight (1936) by Julien Green
  • New Perspective (1980) by K Arnold Price
  • The Reef (1912) by Edith Wharton
  • Strange Fits of Passion (1991) by Anita Shreve
  • Belchamber (1904) by Howard O Sturgis
  • Pendennis (1850) by William Makepeace
  • The Drinker (1950) by Hans Fallada
  • Incandescence (1979) by Craig Nova
  • The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1948) by Victor Serge
  • Any Human Heart (2002) by William Boyd
  • Labyrinths (1971) by Christopher Okigbo
  • The Tortoise and the Hare (1954) by Elizabeth Jenkins
  • The Balloonist (1977) by MacDonald Harris
  • The Long Ships (1941-45) by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson
  • As Meat Loves Salt (2001) by Maria McCann
  • Season of Migration to the North (1966) and Tayeb Salih
  • The Cottagers (2006) by Marshall N Klimasewiski
  • Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson
  • Amanda and the Million Mile High Dancer (1985) by Carol De Chellis Hill
  • Life With a Star (1949) by Jiri Weil
  • Eden Eden Eden (1970) by Pierre Guyotat
  • Why Did I Ever (2001) by Mary Robison
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) by George V Higgins
  • Death and Nightingales (1992) by Eugene McCabe
  • The Complete John Silence Stories (1908) by Algernon Blackwood
  • Blaming (1976) by Elizabeth Taylor
  • Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
  • Langrishe, Go Down (1966) by Aidan Higgins
  • The Conclave (1992) by Michael Bracewell
  • Blood Kin (2007) by Ceridwen Dovey
  • The Short Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (collected in 1983) by Breece D'J Pancake
  • The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg
  • The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Pig and Pepper (1936) by David Footman
  • The Gentleman of the Party (1934) by AG Street
  • Bear v. Shark (2001) by Chris Bachelder
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) by Elizabeth Taylor
  • Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) by Ford Madox Ford
  • Pereira Declares: A Testimony (first published in Spanish, 1994) by Antonio Tabucchi
  • No Pain Like This Body (1972) by Harold Sonny Ladoo
  • Obasan (1981) by Joy Kogawa
  • Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun
  • Portrait of a Young Man Drowning (1962) by Charles Perry
  • The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1975) by David Nobbs
  • The Law of Dreams (2006) by Peter Behrens

11 September 2007

Geology and Art (from 2005)

Here's another bit of old Reading. This is a review from 2005.

Ten or so years ago, Nancy found Tensleep, a book by Sarah Andrews, in the Northfield library. We both liked it very much. It was a good summer mystery. The main character was a geologist and the story was partly about rocks and land. Her second book was not quite so good and the third was less enjoyable. Somewhere back there we stopped looking for Andrews' books.

Nancy picked up another Sarah Andrews book in the library last year. It's the ninth mystery she's written. Geology is still a key element. And this one, Earth Colors, is worth reading. There's a bit of forensic geology (Isn't everything vulnerable to becoming forensic in today's entertainment milieu? I'm waiting for forensic poetry to make its appearance.) and some art history. A couple scenes take place in the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming — a place I really enjoyed visiting a couple years ago.

Andrews has a deft, although not consistent, touch creating dialogue. A couple times while reading I found myself chuckling at exchanges between characters. Some of the relationships and some aspects of the characters are complex yet succinctly and delightfully described. There are some art history mini-lectures in this book, mostly about Frederic Remington and the 19th century romantic realists. I enjoyed them. I also liked learning about the chemistry and geology of the paints artists like Remington used.

Andrews' story is pretty good, but there are some gaps in the way she tells it. A couple times her main character slips into the Sue Grafton implausible behavior pit. A couple times the main character is incredibly perceptive and a couple other times she's wildly clueless. Andrews resorts to a courtroom scene to end the story. When her main character, as a witness, takes control of the proceedings to spin out the tale of the intrigue and murder before an astounded judge and prosecutor, I had some credibility issues with the author. (We had a little heart to heart discussion in my head about that one.)

All in all, I recommend Earth Colors for good escapist reading. Let us know what you think. And if you read any of Sarah Andrews' books between number 3 and this one, let us know what you think of them.

04 September 2007

Reflections on a life lived

Once again on a Friday afternoon I found myself at the Amery (Wisconsin) Public Library. The newest books are on shelves just to the right as you come in the front door. That's where I begin.

Mary, the family book giver, had dropped off several mystery/adventure/thriller books, but I was in the mood for something different. I didn't know what.

I scanned two shelves of books and began to wonder if I'd find anything that in some mysterious way looked interesting.

Then I saw the title of a small book with a dark cover, Out Stealing Horses. I took it off the shelf. It's amazing how much a title and a book cover design can influence what I read. I don't know why I picked this book off the shelves full of new books. I guess the title might have been an invitation to something interesting.

The first thing I noticed was the author's name, Per Petterson [below at the right]. I flipped to the back flap. Sure enough, he's Norwegian, and this book was translated by Anne Born, who's touted as an experienced translator. "Aha," I said to myself, "It's another in our ongoing series of Scandanavian books."

Okay, what is this book? I flip to the front flap. "We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July."

A couple paragraphs down I learn that the book is about Trond Sander, who at age 67 has retreated to a cabin in the Norwegian countryside, without telephone, television, central heating, or indoor plumbing to "live the rest of his life with a quiet deliberation."

Hey, this guy sounds like a Hindu, going off to be a holy man. Hindu Net describes the Sannyasa Ashrama as "the final stage of life in which an individual mentally renounces all worldly ties, spends all of his or her time in meditation and contemplation and ponders over the mystries of life. In ancient times one would part company with one’s family and become a mendicant."

But a Norwegian Hindu? "That does it," I say to myself, "I'm going to try reading this over the weekend."

It's now Sunday. I'm sitting in the courtyard of Sidetrack, the little cabin on the little lake a few miles north of Amery. The sun is going down across the lake. I'm distracted by large, swallow-like birds floating overhead in their search for insects, by chipmunks chasing each other on the retaining wall (they're not used to people out here), by a quiet creaking or gnawing sound coming from a small wood pile at the top of the wall, and by the moving shadows in front of me. The sun will be down soon, and one distraction will be gone. The little solar lights next to the stairs will come on, but they won't offer enough light to allow me to see the chipmunks anymore, and another distraction will disappear from sight if not hearing.

Oh, the book? It was good. Petterson writes well. Amy Tan is quoted on the cover as saying, "I was completely taken with Out Stealing Horses from the first page." I agree.

Petterson seems to be best known as a short story writer, and it shows -- in good ways and not so good ways. The stories woven together in this book do become one. There are stories about the summer of '48, some about the winter of '43, and stories about old man Trond Sanders in the fall of 1999. The stories are narrated by participants and they are all good story tellers. Trond Sanders' questions about how the world works are vital parts of all the stories.

And, it's necessary to read nearly every word. Over and over again, just as I was tempted to skip to the end of a sentence or paragraph, I discovered that Petterson was saying something important, and I had to go back and read more carefully.

But, this collection of intimately related stories is at least a couple stories short of a whole novel. First off, there's no conclusion. I know, I'm supposed to invent my own. I prefer finding out what the author's creation is. Maybe I'm dense, but I don't think a meaningful ending is implied in the stories.

Secondly, there's too little outside perspective on this Trond Sanders character for my taste. In one of the last stories, his daughter tracks him down and visits unexpectedly. It seems the old widower had retired, sold his flat, left his old life in Oslo, and gone off to be a recluse without telling anyone. The episode reveals a lot about Trond Sanders. I would have appreciated more outsiders' perspectives. There are characters in the stories who could have told stories about the young man, but they don't.

There are other things I wonder about the pre-recluse Trond Sanders, but I readily see that those things are beyond the scope of a collection of stories about an old guy retreating from his apparently successful life and career only to confront an important, but ignored part of his childhood.

One of the reasons the stories resonate with me is that I'm nearly Trond Sanders' age. I recognize the urges to simplify and retreat to the wilderness.

Well, I'm not ready to retreat to an unheated place with an outhouse, but I did spend some time this summer searching for a place I could go next summer and look at some mountains while I hiked, read, wrote, and was quietly deliberate.

I liked this book a lot. I may read it again tomorrow. But that doesn't mean that you'll like it. You get to decide for yourself. I hope my reactions will help you decide.

Two more things:

ONE: Maybe Petterson's ending is implied in the stories. Maybe I just don't understand the Norwegian psyche well enough. Living in Minnesota, I'm well aware of the stereotypes of the silent stoic Scandanavian. Old Trond certainly fits that mold. As a youth he gets angry once, but resists acting on his anger. Several times he gets sick and throws up. Otherwise, he's as phlegmatic as Simon and Garfunkel's rock (see or hear the lyrics).

TWO: Translator Anne Born may have translated "many works from the principal Scandanavian languages into English," but she needs an English editor. When the baby deer are called fauns, when the young Trond jumps out of bed and runs out of the house without buttoning his flies, and when a train causes the sleepers to creak as it moves down the tracks, an American reader has to do some more translating. It keeps the brain working, but it does distract from stories Petterson is telling, where every word seems important.

The book is brand new, published by Graywolf Press in St. Paul with grants from NEH and Target. If your library doesn't have it, ask for it. Or find it at your nearest neighborhood bookstore.

28 August 2007

Want to read along AND comment?

Bird Loomis, long time friend and contributor to Reading, teaches political science at the University of Kansas. He wrote about a new course he's teaching this semester. He's looking for people to respond to some of his thoughts before and after he takes them to the classroom.

I'll offer this space as a place for Bird's reflections. And you can take whatever space you want to use in the comments section to add your own 2 cents' worth. Or you can e-mail Bird directly. His address is in the syllabus below (although I disguised it a bit to avoid the spamming trolls on the Internet).

Here's what Bird wrote and the course syllabus:

I'm teaching a course on Politics and Literature this fall -- something that I've wanted to do for some time, but hve been thwarted by various other duties. Now I'm doing it. I've attached a syllabus. What I'd like to do is this: produce a running set of commentaries and reviews as I go through the course (all informed by the syllabus, to begin with). I'm finding that this is a different kind of course than those I have historically taught, and I'm doing a fair amount of reflecting on what I'm doing. So -- would you/readers be interested? I'm not sure what I'd say, or how much, but my guess is that I'd post pretty frequently. And I'd obviously like to have some response, though who knows.


POLS 503 Literature and Politics

Burdett Loomis
515 Blake Hall
Area Code SevenEightFive-864-9033
bloomis AT ku DOT edu

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
Stephen Colbert

As a political scientist long fascinated by the actions and lives of politicians, I've always wanted to explore how fiction can add to our understanding of political life. Well, this is my initial plunge. I have used a bit of fiction in my Congress courses over the years, and probably will do the same in interest groups in the future. Scholars often infer or postulate motivations for politicians, yet it's tough to know what does move them toward action or belief. Novelists get around this problem by creating characters - by lying in essence to create the truth (or maybe a truth). To be sure, some politicians create their own novel-like narratives as justifications for public policy, but our focus here will be more on actual novelists than some presidents.

This course will approach the politics-literature connection through readings that emphasize American politics, broadly defined. We'll read a bunch of books, some short stories, and watch some films (and even a couple of television episodes). By the end, we should understand a bit more about politics and politicians, as well as appreciating how novelists choose the words for their narratives. We'll also read a play (The Best Man).

This is a political science, not a literature, course, but we'll focus on both the fiction and what political lessons we might learn. And since it's the maiden voyage for this course, it remains something of an experiment. If there are two major players in this course, they are Ward Just and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. The latter is the archetypal American political novel as it addresses the core idea of power (and its ability to corrupt); we'll also watch the 1950 Oscar-wining film (not the 2006 Sean Penn monstrosity). In many ways, ATKM stands at the heart of the course. More pervasive, however, will be the writings of Ward Just, a first-class contemporary novelist who often examines the inner workings of the political class, from legislators to journalists to Foreign Service officers. No one writing over the past fifty years has a better ear for the nuance of politics, and the considerable personal costs that public figures often choose to pay.

The class will depend greatly on active discussion; you will need to do the reading and keep up through out the course. High levels of participation are expected.

  • Ward Just, 21 Stories or The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas
  • Ward Just, A Dangerous Friend
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
  • Henry Adams, Democracy
  • Bud Norman, The Things That Are Caesar's
  • Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place
  • Gore Vidal, The Best Man
  • Jeffrey Frank, The Columnist

26 August 2007

Four-year-old reviews of J. A. Jance mysteries

When we returned from our wonderful jaunt to the UK, we began resuming some of our old routines. One bit of that routine was spending Labor Day weekends at the little cabin called Sidetrack. We had been away from it for over 5 weeks.

A result of my absence (since I do most of the "yard work") was that the patio was overgrown with little green and purple clover. Since we've decided that anything growing in the gravel of the patio was a weed, I set out to weed the patio.

On Saturday, I rubbed my eyes while weeding. My eyes did not like whatever plant juices were on my hands. Even after I rinsed out my swollen, red, and itchy eyes, I was uncomfortable and a bit worried. That was my excuse for sitting on the deck reading for the next 24 hours. (By the time I went home I was obviously on the mend.)

The book I picked up was one of the many around Sidetrack that await times like this. It was Skeleton Canyon by J. A. Jance. Nancy had read it and left it on one of the groaning Sidetrack bookshelves. (There are also a couple under-bed boxes full of books.)

I have now read several of Jance's books and liked them. I am glad I read this one too. This may be the best one for my money. It's sort of a Goldilocks book. The plot is neither simplistic nor overwrought. The pace of story telling is just right. There are some, but not too many side and back stories. The characters don't do stupid things, but they aren't passive. The ending contains one not quite believalbe "happy ever after" element, but I can ignore that with everything else so well done. I might also wish for a bit more Hillerman-like rhapsodizing about the natural setting of southern Arizona, but I just read some of that in Hillerman's last book.

J. A. Jance is a very successful mystery writer. Her petite Sheriff Joanna Brady is a well-known creation. Skeleton Canyon is about tragedy, revenge, self-denying sacrifice, arrogance, hubris, racism, smuggling, teenage romance, and police brutality. If you haven't read any of Jance's books, this may be one to start with. As always, your dissenting or concurring opinions are not only welcome here, they're needed.

After that experience, the next time I was at Sidetrack I picked up another Jance novel, Name Withheld. This is evidently part of a series of mysteries about a Seattle homicide detective named J. P. Beaumont. There were a dozen other mysteries listed next to the title page of this 1996 novel.

Name Withheld was a compelling book to read. The story is as well-paced and well-told as the story in Skeleton Canyon. I started to read it during a cool windy day at Little Blake Lake. Even though it got to be 11:00 PM, I didn't want to put it down. However, Nancy and David turned out the lights and were asleep. I finished it the morning of the first frost of the season. The plot was a nicely constructed package nefarious activity.

Maybe I was just bored by being confined by the weather. This was not as good as Skeleton Canyon and the characters weren't as well drawn. Nearly everything was plausible. Well, the fact that star of the show J. P. Beaumont was richer than Croeses and drove around in a Porsche worth several years' of a detective's salary was a little hard to accept. But if you can accept things like Perry Mason's winning streak, you can probably adjust to Beaumont's Porsche and penthouse. I think I've read enough J. A. Jance for awhile, but her books are worth a look or two.

Vigilantes and the slow pace of justice

Our friendly family book giver dropped off more books a couple weeks ago. One of them was J.A. Jance's Justice Denied. I took it along on the trip to take D back to Beloit. But since the trip required us to spend time with granddaughter Jaime, I didn't get much reading done until I got home.

I have enjoyed Jance's mysteries before, but I was in exactly the right mood for this one. Justice Denied takes place in the Seattle area and involves seemingly unrelated investigations by two people working on a special task force for the state attorney general. Those two people happen to be lovers. But the romance part of the book is minimal and actually makes the characters more realistic for me. It reminded me of some of Laurie R. King's San Francisco mysteries.

I appreciated the fact than none of the investigators or detectives in the story were lone wolves. They worked together. They talked to each other. No one went off on a heroic solo to save the world from nefarious bad guys. I rather liked all the major characters in this book. I don't know about your experiences, but that's rare for me.

I was taken aback mostly by the ease with which the principals could find relevant and useful information on the Internet. I know that law enforcement people have access to things us mortals don't, but multiplying the amount of information doesn't mean that it's easier to find what you want to know.

The story flows well. It's complex and the connections between the sub plots are reasonable. Conversations and internal dialogues supplement descriptions of events. For me, it would have been a great book to read on the deck at the lake. I just wasn't at the lake.

Try it out if you haven't read Jance's books. For me, this is one of her best.

19 August 2007

Maisie Dobbs mysteries

One of Nancy's friends recommended Jacqueline Winspear's series of four mystery novels featuring Maisie Dobbs as the primary character. Nancy got one from the Northfield Library and read it. Then she went back for the other three.

That, along with little comments from Nancy as she read the books, led me to pick up one of them on a quiet evening. I ended up reading two of the four: Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth.

Winspear invents commendably complex plots, but tells the stories in a plodding, detail-filled way. So, you should ask, "Why did you read all the way through two books?"

I read on because of the marvelous mood and setting that Winspear has created. The setting is London in 1930. Maisie Dobbs was a near frontline nurse in France during World War I (like Nancy's grandmother; that was a bit of a hook for Nancy). After the war, Maisie studied what we'd call forensic psychology and learned meditation from two important mentors. She worked as an investigative assistant for one of those men.

The war left Maisie's fiancee in a shell shocked catatonic stupor that we'd call extreme post traumatic stress disorder today. She "knew" that the world was dead to him, but her affections for the man he once was had persisted.

Maisie was a bit shell shocked herself by her wartime experiences and had a breakdown a decade after the war. As part of her recovery, she was casting off from her mentors, buying her own apartment, and establishing her own investigative consulting business. The depression is beginning to have terrible effects, but there were still people with money to hire others to find the graves of soldiers lost in The Great War or determine whether a brother's death had really been an accident.

Winspear's descriptions of London, southern England, and northern France are replete with details that drew me in as completely as any BBC Mystery movie. (And I would not be surprised to find these books translated into BBC films in the near future.)

The details are all there and Winspear does it all with words: from the dreadful fall London smogs that surrounded everyone as people lit their fires for warmth to shifting the claret red 1930 MG that Maisie drove; from the details about the death of a toddler from diphtheria to those about the clothing of an American who wanted to fit into London high society to those about an artist's retreat created from old railway carriages on a desolate beach in Dungeness.

I dabbled enough in archaeology to be fascinated by material culture and the understandings that come from studying artifacts and the details of their arrangements. Winspear is fascinated too. Plus, she adds sociological insights about post-World War I Britain, that, for example, offered more opportunities for women than Victorian England had.

Winspear grew up in London and Kent, but she's certainly not old enough to remember the late 1920s-early '30s. I suppose if you looked carefully, you could still find a 1930 MG or a coin-operated gas meter to describe, but she wrote these books after moving to the USA. She gives thanks in her books to her "Cheef Resurcher (who knows who he is)" who helps recreate Maisie Dobb's world. I'd say his role is vital.

These books are time travel experiences. There are plots and story lines, but they're almost unnecessary for me. On another dreary, cool afternoon like this one, I'll be tempted to sit down with another of Winspear's books and safely travel back to the London of 75-80 years ago. If it sounds like a tempting. trip, check your library or local bookstore for a copy of one of Jacqueline Winspear's books.

(And if you are curious about the strange and lonely beach at Dungeness, use the satellite photos at Yahoo or Google maps to look it up. It's an amazing sight.)

07 August 2007

Swedish mystery

Here's a continuation of the theme Dan Conrad and I discussed earlier: mystery novels from Scandanavia. This one's from Sweden and I found it in River City Books here in Northfield while I was shopping for birthday gifts for 2-year-old granddaughter Jaime. (I know, the mystery shelves are strange places to be looking for books for toddlers. Is there a rule against shopping for more than one thing at a time?)

This time the book is Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson [at left] who is a native of Kiruna, Sweden, an iron-mining town so far north in Sweden that Norway and Finland are probably visible from the highest nearby mountain (which is also the highest in Sweden). It's so far north that there's an astrophysics lab there that studies Martian climate. It's so far north that the aurora borealis is visible from the 1:00 PM sunset until the 10:00 AM sunrise.

All of that is to prepare you for the setting of Sun Storm. It's set in a mining town in the very northernmost part of Sweden called Kiruna. This place is so far north that Larsson's description of winter there makes Minnesota winter sound like warm vacation spot. On top of that the houses she describes don't seem to have central heating. And the cabin in the mountains -- the scene of a crucial event -- relies on snow drifts outside to seal the drafts.

Rebecka Martinsson, Stockholm tax attorney and Kiruna native (like author Larsson), gets drawn back to that northern town by the murder of a friend from her youth and the dead man's sister who is accused of the killing (unlike author Larsson). But there's more. The dead man was a central figure in the creation of a large Pentacostal church in that town of 20,000 on the glacier-swept landscape. It's a church that's grown wealthy from evangelism and the sales of books and videos of sermons. The killing and Martinsson's defense of her old friend threatens the church and the wealth of its movers and shakers.

There are powerful images here. Larsson is very good at descriptive writing. There's a complicated story and it's well told. Throughout the book I was sure I understood most of what was going on, but I had these nagging questions. Larsson answers most of them with dramatic flashbacks and conversations between old friends and acquaintances.

The ending is dramatic and suspensful. Larsson does action endings well too.

Oh, by the way, neither Martinsson nor her old chum are terribly attractive people. My favorite character in the book is not Martinsson, but a local detective, Anna-Maria Mella.

There are a couple things that don't fall together at the end, but they are not essential to this tale. I enjoyed reading this book. Larsson has a second book that's just been released in the US. I'm going to have to pester the library about loaning it to me.

I thought this was a good one. If you read it, let us know what you think.

05 August 2007

Yiddish Alaskans, Harry Potter, and an old Pulitzer

Dale wrote about the Kit Carson book, but he also added notes about two other books he's read recently. In response to his expressed intention to read Chabon's earlier, prize-winning book, I append my thoughts on it as an import from the old Reading web page.

Confused yet?

Here are Dale's comments on Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union , Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my reactions to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

Dale wrote:

I read The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.

He is a master of descriptive, innnovative phrasing, and his imagined world in which the Jewish people are not in control of Israel, but instead have their greatest population concentration on the southern border of Alaska is clever, believable, and intriguing.

His charactes are vivid, the story is a mulit-layered mystery, and I was genuinely sorry to come to the end. So much so, that I rushed out and bought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for which he won the pulitzer prize.

I got distracted from starting that, however, because I had to take a couple days and read the last of the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

I liked it, although I felt that Rowling relied a bit on caricatures of her previous characters, I was satisfied witht the finale and how she concluded the epic good vs evil struggle.

I suppose it reveals that we all have a basic need to escape, even though the magical world of her novel is filled with danger and turmoil, a fascination and, perhaps, a yearning for the power of magic and the guiding hand of destiny enables even a "medium aged guy" ( in the words of my 11 year old daughter) like me to lose himself in the wizarding world for awhile.

My 2003 reactions to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

Some time ago, someone asked in these pages about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, but said nothing else about it. I had an approach-avoidance reaction to what I heard about the book. I have to admit being somewhat curious at the time. There was quite a bit of publicity about it because it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I'd heard the story was about a couple movers and shakers in the comic book industry of the 1940s. Well -- I'm one of the few people in the world who has read the history of Mad Magazine. On the other hand, other things I read about the book weren't attractive. Don't ask me now what those things were. I don't remember. I only remember the feeling.

Then son Jim gave me the book for Christmas. Make that Christmas of 2001. It took me a year to get to the book and it's taken me 6 months to get to writing about it.

One reason it's taken so long is my confusion about the book.

What does it take to win a Pulitzer? And what does it take to get Daniel Mendelsohn to say in New York magazine that he's "not sure what the exact definition of a 'great American novel' is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one..."?

Well, I still don't know. This novel contains several stories. I'm not sure they're connected except by the author's assertion that the same characters were involved. I guess I'm not a reader of literature. I need things laid out for me. There are stories about

    • a young Jewish escapee from the Holocaust
    • a creative and hard-driven young New Yorker
    • a tolerant and beautiful woman
    • suppressed sexuality yearning for expression
    • the internal dynamics of a comic book industry

If there are supposed to be connections between the stories I couldn't discern them. If you want to know which ones are about which characters, you'll have to read the book. Some of the stories are interesting. Others are not. I really don't know what holds them all together. If the critic for New York magazine isn't sure what a great American novel is, how can he be sure this is one? I really don't know what makes something a great American novel. And I know even less why this is a "great American novel." I kept reading hoping to get some clues.

Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that this is "a big, ripe, excitingly imaginative novel... that echoes of Ragtime..." I read Ragtime long ago. My memory may not be as clear as Ms Maslin's but the only echo of Ragtime I sense is that the stories mostly take place in New York. I have fond memories of Ragtime. Maybe I should go back and reread that. I can imagine rereading Ragtime. I can't imagine rereading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Anyone else have a reaction to the book? I'd like to hear from someone besides the New York critics and Pulitzer judges.