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.