16 July 2007

Jon Katz on people and other animals

When we began coming to the little lake cabin called Sidetrack a decade ago, Nancy and I got library cards at the Amery, Wisconsin public library.

Amery, 16 miles mostly south of Sidetrack, is about three times the size of Lake Wobegon and has a great public library. The library is well-supported by its public and run by people who love reading. There are always great new books inside the front door, and the rest of the place is packed to the rafters with books. Every window in the building has become the frame for added bookshelves. And the librarians are gracious enough to offer library cards to us summer people.

We got into the habit of stopping in Amery Fridays for groceries, pop, beer, and books on our way to Sidetrack. On Sunday, our ride home included a stop in the library parking lot to drop books into the return slot.

It's mid-July and only my second trip to Sidetrack this summer, but I remembered to stop for a book in Amery.

What I found was Jon Katz's latest book, Dog Days, Dispatches from Bedlam Farm. I enjoyed a couple of Katz's mysteries long ago, and I really liked his "middle age crisis" account of buying a mountain top retreat, Running to the Mountain. Since then, it seems, he's been writing mostly about his dogs.

Katz is a keen observer and a good story teller. He's also worked hard at learning how to have good relationships with his dogs and other critters.

He has left his mountian retreat for a farm in upstate New York. He makes a living writing and teaching. I can't figure out how he has time. Bedlam Farm is home to named animals, like his dogs, donkeys, and cows. The farm is also home to numbered livestock, the sheep. Katz is also overseeing the restoration of the old house and barns on the farm.

I liked Katz's stories, but I liked his stories about people better than his stories about animals. His stories about Rose and Izzy the border collies are a close second to those about "grunt and grumble" sessions, Annie, the goddess of Bedlam Farm, Adelaide, and the "Quiet Group." The people stories reminded me of what I liked best about Running to the Mountain.

Unlike Chip and Jon Katz, I'm not an animal person. I can't imagine wanting to expend the effort and emotional energy to maintain and tend the animals on Bedlam Farm that Katz describes as normal. There aren't many people I can imagine who would ungrudgingly get that kind of effort and attention from me. (Luckily, I can think of several people who fit into that category.) So most of the animal stories left me shaking my head and unable to understand the rewards of scratcing donkey noses, being licked awake by a large smelly dog, or mucking out a barn after a rainy spell.

If you're an "animal person," you'll probably like these stories a lot. And if, like me, you're not an "animal person," you might still like this book. The people stories are great. Give it a shot. The book is brand new, but even the Amery library has a copy.

Tell us what you think of the book. (See the "comment" link below? That's what you click on in order to add your comments to mine.)

Murder in Yellowstone's "free fire" zone

Book giver Mary dropped off another mystery by C. J. Box on her last visit. This one is Free Fire, and we have personal connections to the setting of this one.

Box's latest is set in Yellowstone National Park and West Yellowstone, Montana. The connections are long term. The sisters A slept through the ginormous 1959 Yellowstone earthquake -- in a tent and a camping trailer. Grand Dame Jo and grandpa Steve had a summer home just outside of West Yellowstone. We visited frequently -- once in mid-winter. We feel like we know the Park (or parts of it) pretty well. (We could direct you to a real hotspot for cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake or an unpublicized swimming hole on the Firehole River if you're interested.)

I liked this story better than the last one Out of Range. There is less forboding in Free Fire and more story telling. There are some geology and history lessons, but they do help tell the story. If anything, there should be more story telling. Sometimes the story seems to move faster than the telling.

Besides the Park and glimpses of little West Yellowstone, features of this story include bioharvesting, corrupt officials, con men, an amoral West Yellowstone lawyer, and people in the wrong places at the wrong times. Game warden Joe Pickett, the star of seven mysteries, manages to be present at the destruction of another Wyoming state vehicle (it's become a recurring story element). It should be noted that this time, an earthquake did in the GMC Yukon.

In spite of his penchant for being in the proximity of the wrecking of government vehicles, Joe Pickett must be one of the world's cleverest men. He never misses a clue or an implication.

He's also one of the most persuasive people around. Whether he's getting FBI cooperation, access to the locked and winterized Old Faithful Inn, or a larger cabin for his family visiting at Mammoth Hot Springs, it seems that no one turns him down. Oh, except for the governor of Wyoming, who in this book is a maverick Democrat and not one of Dick Cheney's henchmen.

It was a great book to read while sitting on the deck at Sidetrack. Now the book goes on to Williston Jane, who has worked in the Park for the past several summers. You can find yourself a copy in the library or your friendly neighborhood bookstore or the link to Amazon.com below.

Thanks, Mary.

05 July 2007

Hillerman successors

For the past 30 years, Tony Hillerman has been writing mysteries set in Navajo country at the rate of one every 2 or 3 years. To me it seems like he invented a popular genre featuring Native Americans as crime solvers. Other people have followed his example. Margaret Coel is the one I'm most familiar with.

Hillerman is 82 years old. His most recent book, The Shape Shifter, could well be his last. Becoming his successor as a "mystery writer of the Navajo" would be a big deal. Even being a Hillerman imitator could be something to brag about.

At the Northfield library recently, I saw a couple paperbacks in the mystery section by Aimée and David Thurlo. I picked up Red Mesa and brought it home. Like Hillerman's mysteries, this one is set in Dinétah (the Navajo reservation) and tells stories around a Navajo police officer.

The Thurlos, like Hillerman, are knowledgeable outsiders in Dinétah. They've created a good mystery story. But their telling of the story is not up to Hillerman standards. Special Investigator Ella Clah, headquarted at the Shiprock station of the Navajo police, is a single mother who had significant experiences in the Anglo world before returning home. It's probably not a fair comparison based on a single book, but Ella Clah is not as compelling a character to me as either Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee.

The majesty of desert and mesa that Hillerman writes about with such passion is missing from this book completely. The Thurlos' story telling is sporadic: sometimes moving too slowly for me; other times jumping ahead leaving gaps in my understanding.

That characteristic shows up in the writing in other ways. Characters sometimes offer a lot more explanation than they would in a real conversation and at other times they seem to leave out important details. I don't need to be told, for instance, that as a suspended police officer drives off from home that her white pick-up only gets used for personal trips.

On the other hand, it would be nice to know where that police officer, who was on the job all day, heard the gossip about her family that is central to her internal dialogue at the end of the day.

In other words, this was a dissatisfying book for me. I was hoping to visit Hillerman-land with huge skies, stark beauty, stormy male rains, and reflective attempts to harmonize the old and the new in the course of resolving a mysterious and dangerous set of circumstances.

What I read in Red Mesa was a patchwork story about politics, clan rivalries, irrational, murderous revenge, and magic intuition full of unexplained developments, sinister unidentified forces, and hard to accept rapidly-changing loyalties. In some ways that might be more realistic than Hillerman's romantic vision. But the realism isn't matched by the narrative.

Next time I go to the library, I won't pick up another of the Thurlo's novels.