26 November 2008

Six years later

Back in 2002, I wrote that I'd read more of Zane Grey's novels. Well, six years later I've finally read another. I found Riders of the Purple Sage in The Book Peddler in West Yellowstone, Montana last July.

The cover advertises (above the author's name) "THE ONLY UNCUT, UNCENSORED EDITION!" It might also say it's UNEDITED.

Like most of Grey's fiction, it was serialized in Field and Stream before being published as a book. Undoubtedly, when the book was published, changes were made. I suspect that the censorship charge is aimed at Mormon influences. Grey is not kind to Mormons and the Mormon church in this book.

Well, maybe there were political forces behind the editing, but restored to its full extent (based on a hand-written manuscript found in the Ohio State Historical Society library), it's a complicated novel.

There are at least two stories being told. They are related in the sense that the characters are involved in more than one. But one of the main stories really gets in the way of telling the other. At one time or another during the book, each of the stories goes off on its own for a long time. Then, there are times when they intersect and sort of merge, but not always in ways that are helpful to telling either story. Not having read the edited or censored version, I cannot tell if the novel got better or worse because of the editing.

The better-told of the primary stories is a good romance, but hardly believable. The other is full of mysterious twists and turns that are never well-explained. The heroic characters are well-drawn, admirable, and likable. The villians are sketchily described and their motives are never well-explained. I guess we're just supposed to know, from our experience with melodramas, what the bad guys are like and why.

Riders of the Purple Sage is Grey's most famous book. It's been made into movies four or five times. It's described as one of the first novels of Western fiction, originally published in 1912.

To me, it wasn't as good as Forlorn River. But, I'm tempted to look for another of Grey's romance Westerns for a rainy or snowy day. It would be better in winter than a football game or a golf match on TV.

Download the book from Project Guttenberg

It's a Long Story

What's long is my story about this book. (From September 2002)

When I was very young, my grandfather Wedding [right] owned about 6 books. One of them was dictionary. Three of the others were Zane Grey novels. The other two didn't make a lasting impression.

I'd never read a Zane Grey novel until recently. It's kind of surprising since they made up half of Grandpa's library. As much as I fondly remembered the man who taught me to play checkers and didn't let me win, I didn't have a lot of faith in his literary tastes. I'd always assumed Grey's novels were rather like romance novels and I never pursued one. Well, they are like romance novels. But they're written for men as well as women.

Then I read Peace Like a River. Swede, the little sister (who, by the way, reminded me a whole lot of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) of the narrator, was an avid Zane Grey fan.

She was constantly reading one of his novels. Maybe that was a way for the author to keep her in the story, but at the same time keep her busy doing something. Anyway, I thought it was curious that this young character was such a fan of Zane Grey.

Flash forward to early September [2002]. I am driving toward Wyoming. From Minnesota, South Dakota is in the way.

Somewhere near a needed respite from driving is that well-advertised tourist trap, Wall Drug. It's rather like a shrine that those who traverse South Dakota have to stop and pay homage to. Maybe I've worshiped there too often, but the only room that held any interest was the book store. That's where I found a half-price copy of Forlorn River by Zane Grey.

The time was right to buy it, and a month or so later I read the book while listening to autumn arrive at Little Blake Lake (the wind and the rain were a little louder than the falling temperatures).

I began reading skeptically.

"Ben Ide named this lonely wandering stream Forlorn River because it was like his life."

The story is about a young, turn-of-the-last-century cowboy who turned down his father's offer of a farmer's future for life in the nearby wilderness catching, breaking, and selling wild horses. His leaving home broke his mother's heart and distressed his younger sister.

"He gloried in their (the horses') beauty, freedom, and self-sufficiency. He understood them. They were like eagles."

A sharp operator, Less Setter, has arrived in that Northern California area and finagled his way into the business dealings of Ben's father. Then, Ben's childhood sweetheart returns from Lawrence, Kansas where she was getting educated. Her father, too, has been taken in by the detestable, skirt-chasing con man.

Our hero, Ben, has two rather mysterious side kicks who are loyal because of Ben's
good deeds. There's a drought and there are cattle thieves. There's the beautiful wild stallion named California Red. There are some good guy cowhands, an upright sheriff, and a no good one. You get the idea.

It was written in 1927. Some of the language is archaic and sounds strange. But Zane Grey [left] knew how to tell a story! Several times during the day, as I read the book, I stopped as I realized how involved I'd gotten in the story. Not too much detail; not too little. No incredible motivations to overlook (well, maybe one). And good characterization. Most of the main characters are allowed some internal monologue to explain themselves and become more believable.

Now, it wasn't a totally satisfying tale.

The ending left a lot to be explained. The explanations were avoided by three murders and the rapid disappearance -- into the sunset -- of one of the main characters. Some of the transformations necessary for the ending to work happened incredibly quickly. But in its dated (75 year old) way, it reminded me of the stories of Tony Hillerman or Ellis Peters. Grey's luscious descriptions of the northern California mountains and high deserts remind me of Hillerman's meditations on the land of the Navajo. The way Grey lets his characters explain themselves also resembles Hillerman's technique. Self explanation is also a key to Brother Cadfael and other characters in Peters' books. And like Peters, Grey includes a good, though hopelessly dated, love story in Forlorn River. (In some ways Grey's lovers seem more ancient that the couples Brother Cadfael counseled and abetted in 12th century England.)

Zane Grey is a great story teller. He creates wonderful characters--even female characters. (No wonder Swede, from Peace Like a River, liked these stories.) Grey paints wonderful word pictures. I'll read others. Forlorn River is not one of the better-known novels, but it's a good place to start if you haven't read any Zane Grey. If you've only read the famous ones, here's one to move on to. It's the only one set in northern California.

Evidently, the movie is not very faithful to the book.

25 November 2008

Ride around Montana

When I got tired of trying to slog through Marisha Pessl's novel, I went to the Northrfield Public Library looking for another book by Ivan Doig.

I'd read Mountain Time and The Whistling Season awhile back and liked them a lot. The book I found was Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.

The novel is the third of a trilogy about the history of Montana. It was published during Montana's centennial of statehood.

The story features a retired, second-generation sheep rancher, his photographer daughter (who was also a character in Mountain Time), and her ex-husband journalist. The three of them set off in a Winnebago RV on a journey around Montana to produce a series of state centennial feature articles for a Missoula newspaper.

That description makes it sound like a collection of those articles. And it is, in small part. It's a sentimental journey by a loving and loyal native son (Doig).

What sets it apart from that kind of parochial writing are the characters created by Doig and the fact that they're awake, self-aware, and open to growth -- even, or especially, the recently-widowed old sheep rancher.

There are personal histories as well as historical episodes from Montana in the book, and they interact in unexpected ways. There are flashbacks and surprises; uncertain relationships and change. There's even a flat tire. Oh, and a posse of retired guys who deliver cars across the state for dealers who need to shift inventory.

Ride with Me, Mariah Montana is not as good as either of the early books by Doig that I read. But it's head and shoulders better than most of the mysteries I usually read. Except for most of Hilleman's (whose recent death probably means I'll begin a re-reading project).

And, what, you may well ask, do I mean by better? Well, the people are interesting and realistic and complex and self-contradictory and likable. There's a well-told story that proceeds at its own pace, but never falters. There's reflection and self-awareness on the part of the characters and the author, which provokes those things in me.

I'll be going back for another of Doig's books soon.

24 November 2008

Insanity and dictionaries

From 23 August 2001.

Since I mentioned Winchester in the review of Pessl's book, here's what I wrote about one of Winchester's books a few years ago.

Steve Slosberg and Verne Anderson pointed me at The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

They said it was the fascinating story of the relationship between the editor of the original Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and an American, Dr. W. C. Minor, who was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane.

After reading the sometimes fascinating book, I want to caution potential readers about a bit of false advertising.

The story of the relationship was perhaps a medium size article in the New Yorker. Winchester all but ignores the example of another asylum inmate who also contributed to the dictionary. That would have, at least, made an interesting sidebar. Seemingly everything else about the OED's creation and W. C. Minor is plumbed in great depth. Why not this curious coincidence?

The rest of the book's 242 pages was full of (I am tempted to say padded with) trivia about dictionaries and the writing of the OED, speculation on the definitions of insanity, and details of Minor's criminal case, speculation about the causes of his illness, and descriptions of the medical treatment for, what appears at this distance to have been schizophrenia. Some of the details were interesting. But the language seems as Victorian as the dictionary project. And not enough of the details were that interesting to me.

At times Winchester just seems to ramble, enthralled with his own erudition.

  • He goes on about how the OED was a unique project and then proceeds, in page after page, to explain similar projects.
  • He speculates in great detail about how Minor's singularly awful Civil War experiences might have set off the ticking time bomb of his insanity. In the midst of that there is a little essay about the horrors of medical care during the Civil War.
  • Later, he writes a great many pages describing the tropical paradise of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and hypothesizing about the effects that culture may have had on Minor, the young child of devout Christian missionaries.

Then, I had to keep asking myself, "How much of this is real?"

Winchester had access to army records, court records, asylum records, and some of James Murray's notes. But none of those could have provided the detailed descriptions Winchester lays out in this book.

So, how much of this docu-drama is speculation? How much is actual fact?

Winchester makes a big deal of the fact that earlier accounts "of the first meeting between Murray and Minor [rely] on the well-known myth…"

But I was never sure how much of the book was myth in the making. There's no bibliography and there are no indications of how much of this story is fabrication.

So, I was disappointed and sometimes bored with the book. Not enough to keep me from finishing it, but I did not like it as much as Verne and Steve seemed to.

If you've read it and want to weigh in on the book, please do. I don't want to discourage you from reading it. You might be captivated by it like many other people.

Another Take on Winchester

A couple issues ago, Dan Conrad wrote about A Common Reader.

It was a book catalog that read like these pages because the book descriptions are written by people who have actually read and liked the books.

I received a copy and found it wonderful. The people at A Common Reader liked The Professor and the Madman much as Steve and Verne did.

Here's what they had to say:

"The monumental Oxford English Dictionary was built upon a foundation of slips of paper -- millions of them, mailed in by volunteer readers who jotted down telling usages of almost half-a-million words.

"Among the most assiduous of those readers was Dr. William Minor, an erudite American word-man whose outstanding contributions soon came to be crucially relied upon by James A. H. Murray, editor-in-chief of the OED. Understandably intrigued, Murray could never have guessed the astounding truth about Dr. Minor -- that he was a long-standing inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, confined there for a murder committed in the grip of a psychosis. This account of Minor's tormented life and his 'scholarship in a padded cell' is in a class by itself -- singular, astonishing, and well-told start to finish."

Another review from BookIdeas.com

Special topic in experimental reading

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
-(often attributed to) Albert Einstein

Once in awhile I read a modern novel that seems to have pretensions of being literature as a test of how ancient and out of it I am. I really begin those efforts expecting to find that I'm not a narrow-minded geezer, when it comes to innovations.

I've picked up books by Simon Winchester, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen, for instance. I've not been excited. I haven't even finished all the books.

So, I found Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics on the remainder cart outside of the Carleton College bookstore.

Isn't the "remainder cart" a hint?

It was dirt cheap, and I remembered hearing an endorsement of the book on NPR. And the title was clearly creative enough to interest me. So I bought it.

A reviewer at The Great Books Guide wrote this about Special Topics in Calamity Physics:

This stylish debut novel from Marisha Pessl might scare you away at first glance. The table of contents of the 500 page tome looks like the college syllabus from hell.

Almost every page is strewn with references to real and imaginary books. The novel even comes with a final exam in three sections at the end. The very title aims to intimidate. But don't be fooled. Pessl's novel is -- in the words of my British friends -- bloody good fun. The prose is clever, the characters fascinating and the plot artfully constructed, with more than a few surprises along the way. Pessl has hit a home run in her first appearance at the plate.

I was going along with that description until I got to the "bloody good fun" part. I didn't think it was fun. I was bored. I didn't think the characters were "fascinating." I thought they were thinly described and pretentious, like some other bright, privileged prep schoolers I've met. I didn't think the plot was "artfully constructed." I thought it was slow-moving.

Of course I only read the first half of the book. By then I needed a break.

When I looked up Pessl on The Literature Map, her name was surrounded by interesting authors I've enjoyed reading: Joseph Heller, Nathaniel West, Tom Robbins, JK Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison. (Those are authors that Pessl's readers have also read.) So maybe it was just my mood. There have been times when the Marx Brothers have made me laugh and giggle. There have been times when I yawned at their antics.

In any case, I put the book aside (and I'll send it to anyone who asks for it), went to the library and checked out another book by Ivan Doig (see the next entry, above).

Curtis Sittenfeld and Elliot Perlman, featured below, are the authors most read by Pessl's readers.

28 October 2008

Fantastic fiction

A couple weeks ago, I started the second Sisters Grimm novel, The Unusual Suspects. Michael Buckley has created a fantastic world, not unlike the one Jason Fforde created. In Buckley's world, populated by fairy tale characters, http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifthe fantastic and normal world interact or at least sort of coexist.

The first Sisters Grimm novel was a mystery and, in spite of the fantasy, it was a good story. The Unusual Suspects is not as much a mystery as it was an adventure. A little girl and her littler sister join their grandmother to end a threat by maverick fairy tale characters, including the elementary school principal, Mr. Hamlein, who once was famous for piping a village full of kids into a mountain.

This book was more a book for young readers than the first one. I didn't like it as much. What would you expect from somebody who hasn't been young for a long time.

Rural Dirty Harry

A few weeks ago, book angel Mary dropped off a copy of C. J. Box's new book, Blood Trail. As a break from fall gardening and editing a government and politics book while up at Sidetrack, I picked it up and started reading one evening. In fits and starts that night and the next day I read the book. For me it was a compelling story as long as I kept it in the fairy tale category.

Since the first of Box's books I read, his stories, which he tells well, have gone from being mysteries to being "adventures." His main character in most of these stories has gone from being Joe Pickett, straight arrow game warden to being Dirty Harry of northern Wyoming.

Maybe Cheyenne is more wild west than I imagine or maybe C.J. Box just imagines (or wishes) it were more wild west. Rough justice, as defined by Box's characters is what this is all about. Maybe it works for Box and fellow Wyominger Dick Cheney. But I've had enough. I'd rather go back to reading vaguely depressing mysteries about Swedish serial killers. And I'd like a bit more respect for the rule of law in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., and Guantanamo and just about anywhere that people think they are the sole arbiters of justice.

17 August 2008

In the spirit of Jasper Fforde

At the Printers' Row Book Fair in Chicago this summer, Daivd discovered the Sisters Grimm books by Michael Buckley [right]. He read his way through half a dozen of them. When he came back from Chicago, he handed me the first in the series, Fairy Tale Detectives, and said, "You might like these, even though they're written for kids. I liked them and I'm not much of a kid anymore."

So when I ran off to Sdietrack one Saturday, I took the book along and read it. And it was fun to read and I'm trying to compare it to adult mysteries I've read recently. That's difficult since it's a variation on the world created by Jasper Fforde. (See also Fford Grand Central.) There are also elements of Men in Black.

According to Buckley, the Enlightenment was hard on magical creatures with supernatural powers. So they migrated to a little spot upriver on the Hudson called Ferryport Landing (originally Fairyport). There were led there by one of the Brothers Grimm, whose role in life was to record the history of these magical beings. Eventually, the Brothers Grimm had to get a cooperative witch to cast a spell on the area around Ferryport Landing to keep the magicals in and require them to assume human form. The Grimm family's occupation is passed down from generation to generation.

The Sisters Grimm (aged 11 and 7) inherited the family duty when their parents disappeared. They don't know it though, since their father was a rebel who ran away from Ferryport Landing and told his daughters that their grandparents were dead.

A wicked stepmother social worker finds their grandmother and drops the girls at Granny's door. Granny has to win them over and teach them their trade.

It just so happens that as they arrive in Ferryport Landing, it seems that Prince Charming is plotting to buy up all the Ferryport refuge and recreate his kingdom. And a giant has been seen.

What is really going on? Where did the giant come from? Why is Glenda the good witch helping Charming? And why is Jack the giant killer in jail?

It's a well-written and well-plotted little novel. I read it quickly and it was fun to read. And I never once gave a thought to incredible things since the whole thing is fantasy. Ferryport Landing is like Hogwarts. Anything can be real and anything can happen. So nothing is incredible. It was as enjoyable as some of the mysteries I've read in the past year.

Don't be put off by the "juvenile" label. David was right. I enjoyed reading Fairy Tale Detectives, and I might just read some others from the series.

If you read any of these books, let us know what you think.

14 August 2008

Older Stabenow stories

In an effort to transfer some of the contents of the old ReadingOnTheWeb to the new blog and since I refered to earlier Stabenow books, here are my comment on 5 of Stabenow's books I've written about in the past.

From August 2001: So Sure of Death and Nothing Gold Can Stay

On a cloudy, rainy April weekend, we headed up to Sidetrack, our escape from normal life. We were planning some major maintenance and wanted to do some work in preparation for the "guys with big trucks" who would show up soon.

  • We moved some furniture out of the mini-loft in preparation for the installation of a skylight.
  • We moved over a ton of sidewalk paving blocks and landscaping rocks in preparation for the installation of some drainage tiles.
  • I also worked hard to relax.

My vehicle for sitting down and relaxing was a book from the top of the pile next to the bed: So Sure of Death by Dana Stabenow.

Stabenow is an Alaskan writer whose early books have been diversionary treats. She does a fine job of recreating the Alaskan landscapes for those of us who have never been there. She has a skillful way with comedy, romance, and danger. The plots of the mysteries are not too complex, but the characters and the dialogue are great for entertainment.

The main characters in this book are Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell and bush pilot Wyanet Chouinard. The stories in this novel revolve around father-son relationships, an archaeological dig, hazardous waste, and hazardous relationships. A well-told tale. It made me thankful for the cloudy, cool weather at Little Blake Lake.

If you like mysteries and haven't read any by Stabenow yet, give one of hers a try. So Sure of Death is a good sample. Breakup is superb for comedy. Hunter's Moon is memorable for threats and adventure. Any and all of them contain a bit of romance. There must be some in the library near you. Check one out.

While on the topic of Dana Stabenow's books, let me add an approving nod to another.

During the early summer I picked up Nothing Gold Can Stay, another book about Liam Campbell and Wyanet Chouinard.

A plot with greater-than-usual complexity and a larger-than-usual passel of characters distinguishes this book from Stabenow's earlier writing. It's a multi-threaded story that drew me in with vignettes of life in the bush and then kept me reading with fascinating connections between people and events. A decade-old disappearance of a back country hiker, a native teenager who never returned from a fish camp, a bureaucrat with gold fever and his long suffering wife, and a serial killer in the bush are some of the features of this book. It's all as unlikely as real life sometimes. (A news article in the August 6, 2001 Star Tribune about a woman who disappeared in Yosemite National Park and an FBI agent's comments about serial killers eerily parallel part of the novel's plot.)

From October 2003: Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow, Better to Rest.

Stabenow writes about people on the edge of Alaska's wilderness: Alaska state cops, bush pilots, bar keepers, salmon and crab harvesters, and native people. I have enjoyed her books a great deal. She has written funny stories and hair-raising adventures. Some of her mysteries are convoluted and some are merely tales unwinding.

This book is mostly character study. It's not funny. It's not really a mystery. And, as a character study it's superficial.

The book was decent entertainment. I needed a break from more serious stuff when I read it. It's almost a step above romance novels, but I can't be sure. I've only skimmed through one of those. I've read several of Stabenow's books. The others are better. Look in the library for them before you pick up this one.

A couple weeks later, Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow. This one was called A Fine and Bitter Snow.

In spite of my earlier experience, I picked it up. Unlike some of her earlier books, I didn't feel any urgency to finish this one. The first half of the book is background. After I was lulled into quiet reflection about the kind of people who live on the outskirts of what passes for civilization in Alaska's outback, there was a horrific murder. Isn't that how those things happen? The event is unexpected and not foreshadowed. It's not part of normal life. That shock is part of the horror.

Stabenow's characters don't so much find the murderer as they are found by the killer. Spinning out the yarn takes the second half of the book. It's pretty well done, though I thought there were too many details glossed over.

Once again, Stabenow was practicing writing romance fiction in the midst of this book. (At least the romance novel sections didn't overwhelm this book.) She didn't gloss over the details of the sex scenes, but she did gloss over the motivations. (Method actors would have trouble with some of the scenes.)

There are many references to scenes from previous "Kate Shugak novels." If you're new to the series, it might be off putting. Even I, who has read most of these books, had trouble figuring out what some of the references meant. (Then again, I have no great memory for what I decide are non-essentials.)

A Fine and Bitter Snow is better than Better to Rest. But, if you want to sample Stabenow's books, begin with some of the earlier ones. They were better yet.

From August 2004: Nancy checked out Dana Stabenow's newest Kate Shugak mystery from the library and brought it up to Sidetrack on a wonderful July weekend. She stayed up late and woke up early to finish it. That was a good recommendation for me.

I was writing about Nigeria and taking breaks by pulling weeds in the patio, walking up and down the road, and reading some non-fiction. On one of my breaks, I picked up A Grave Denied.

I never know quite what to expect from one of Stabenow's books. She's written mysteries, thrillers, adventure stories, a romance novel, and at least one mystery full of comedy. This one's definitely a mystery. The regular cast of characters from Niniltna, Alaska is there. The hint of romance and sexual tension (and relief) are there as are the reminders that the Alaskan "outback" is a place where people can disappear. (Although I'd think the residents of Niniltna would be as wary of Kate Shugak as those people of Cabot Cove, Maine should be of Jessica Fletcher. (I know, I know: suspend disbelief!)

Kate Shugak was an investigator for the Anchorage DA before burning out and returning to the home she grew up in. Now when the local Alaskan trooper needs help asking questions about the murder of someone who had disappeared in plain sight in the "outback," Kate gets hired. Instead of eliminating suspects as she asks questions, she finds more and more of them. Then someone tries to kill her.

There are secondary stories about family and romance, but the main story is well told. This was one of those books I was really sorry to see the last page of. I still have writing to do tomorrow, and I'll have to go back to the road or the garden or the non-fiction for my breaks. None of them -- well maybe the road through the woods -- will be as good as Stabenow's book. It's been in the Northfield library since November, so it's probably in yours. Go for it.

Use these links to purchase books from Amazon.com.

A shoot 'em down

I've mostly enjoyed Dana Stabenow's mysteries. Some are a lot better than others, but I haven't paid enough attention to tell you offhand which ones were better.

I read Prepared for Rage, her newest, last spring. (You can see I'm catching up with my old reading.) This one takes place mostly in Texas, Florida, and the waters east of Florida, not in Alaska, where most of Stabenow's stories are set.

USCG cutter Munro on which Stabenow spent a month learning about shipboard life and Coast Guard SOP. Climactic action in the book takes place in and near the forward gun turret.

Instead of a setting in a rural native community, this story is set at NASA, on a Coast Guard cutter, and along the trail of a terrorist sleeper cell. The main characters are a shuttle astronaut, a Coast Guard commander, and the seemingly unstoppable leader of the terrorists. The shuttle is about to launch, the cutter is part of security for the launch, and... Well, you can figure out the rest.

The plot is obvious from early in the book. The questions are how Stabenow will describe the action and whether the bad guys will be successful. Well, maybe the last one is not a question. Maybe the question is how close to success will the bad guys get before the good guy thwarts their evil schemes.

A 2006 launch of the shuttle Atlantis.

Yes, this is that much of a melodrama. Add in a love affair between the commander and the astronaut, the presence of the astronaut's parents and the commander's father on the cutter the day of the launch, and the absolutely incredible skills of the terrorist leader. Yes, he's really that talented, smart, and prescient. How will we protect ourselves from these evil doers. (Hint: in this story Homeland Security is no help.)

Does that tell you that Prepared for Rage was not one of Stabenow's best for me? She may enjoy the warm ocean breezes more than the blizzards of Alaska, but I prefer the stories she's written about Kate Shugak, Liam Campbell, and the crew up north.

10 August 2008

Two from Mr. Kellerman

Mary passed on Jonathan Kellerman's latest murder mystery, Compulsion awhile back. It's one of nearly two dozen "Alex Delaware Novels." (Alex Delaware is an LA psychologist, like Kellerman. But the author's alter ego works with an LAPD detective to resolve murder cases.)

Compulsion begins with a few seemingly unrelated random murders. But Delaware recognizes a pattern, and when his LAPD "partner" digs into the cold case files, they extend the pattern in time and space.

Alex Delaware is in the Nick Charles class of mystery solvers: rich, sophisticated, insightful, active, and dogged. Unlike the movie Thin Man, Delaware remains sober.

Kellerman tells a good story. He doesn't hint at things to come since his characters tell the story in the present tense. And the sequence of discovery is believable and rational. I liked this book because of the story telling.

So, when I was in the Bookworm in West Yellowstone, MT, looking for a vacation book, I picked up Obsession, the "Alex Delaware Novel" that preceded Compulsion.

This story begins with questions about a cold case raised by one of Delaware's patients. As he and his LAPD buddy Milo Sturgis poke around in the old case, murder in the present rears its ugly head. And there are, of course, connections between the old deaths and the new ones.

Once again Kellerman's story telling is great. The convoluted plot might be a little too clever. As I finished reading this while sitting next to the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, I had an image of Kellerman and a large chart diagraming all the links between main character Patty Bigelow and all the seemingly unrelated people and events in this book. Then I imagined him making a list of which links to describe in what order and dreaming up ways that Delaware and Sturgis learn about the links.

It's almost as if the formula for writing the book is too obvious. Almost. Because I liked this book too, although it was complemented by noisy rivers, tall moutains, twenty years of forest regrowth in the burned over areas of Yellowstone, and chance sightings of elk, bison, a bear, a coyote, and a variety of birds and rodents. I probably would have liked the book in more mundane settings, so I recommend it. You don't have to visit West Yellowstone to find a copy. Your local bookstore or library probably has one for you.

09 August 2008

Montana 1910

So my experience with Ivan Doig's Mountain Time was delightful enough that I bought another of his books at one of West Yellowstone, Montana's premier bookstores.

(By the way, one of those bookstores, the Book Peddler, a book store and coffee bar, is for sale.)

The book I bought was The Whistling Season. Like Mountain Time, The Whistling Season is character driven. There are only two or three real events in the story and they won't take your breath away.

But the people, from narrator Paul Milliron, to whistling Rose Llewellyn, to University of Chicago-trained teacher Morris Morgan, all residents of Marias Coulee, Montana in 1910, are fascinating.

The narrator is recalling his 6th grade year from the vantage of 1957, mostly in the first person. But everyone gets speaking roles in this story. (Unlike the narration in Disobedience which is monopolized by 17-year-old Henry.)

Since everyone is on stage and not just a shadow puppet in another's memory, I was interested in all of them. I found young Damon's scrapbooking interesting. I found younger Tobey's twitchy excitement about nearly everything interesting. I found the aura of mystery around Morris Morgan and his sister Rose interesting. Heck, I even thought learning a bit about dry land farming in early 20th century Montana interesting. (But luckily, Doig doesn't go on too much about that.)

There's even an interesting connection between the mid-20th century and the setting of most of the story. Narrator Paul, now superintendent of schools for Montana is reflecting, in part, on his experience in the one-room school in Marias Coulee while trying to figure out how to carry out a legislative mandate to close Montana's remaining one-room schools in the face of the threat represented in '57 by Sputnik.

There's a bit of a soap opera as well about how Oliver and his sons, Paul, Damon, and Tobey, make their way in the world after the death of Mrs. Milliron. There's a bit of a romance story here too between the housekeeper, widow Rose Llewellyn and the widower Oliver Milliron. There's a bit of a mystery about how the dapper Morris Morgan ended up cutting wood, cleaning chicken coops, and teaching school among homesteaders on the Montana frontier. And there's a wonderful escape into a century-old world where Halley's comet could still be brilliant enough to cause awe and consternation. (In 1986, I was very disappointed by Halley's appearance. Then again, I never made a great effort to get away from the lights of civilization to look.)

If you want an antidote to the cliched cowboy-dominated image of the western frontier in America, this is the book for you.

I really liked this book. I recommend it highly. I'm headed back to the Northfield library to see which other Ivan Doig books they have on the shelves.

If you've read a book or two by Doig, please let us know what you think.

31 July 2008

Disobey and learn

I wandered the aisles of the Northfield Public Library looking for books to travel with. I saw Jane Hamilton's name and recalled Jane Smiley's 1000 Acres. Jane Smiley. Jane Hamilton. Sometimes I'm a confused old guy.

I really liked Smiley's book. I figured I could read Hamilton's Disobedience while sitting by a mountain river while distracted by high cliffs and peaks. And so I checked it out. And I read it in the Montana mountains just outside of Yellowstone National Park. See Old Faithful by clicking here.

It wasn't what I expected having read Thousand Acres and Moo by Smiley. The book was intriguing. I slogged through it because I kept expecting to learn something about love, life, families, differing perspectives, or something. Lacking lessons, I kept expecting something to happen. (I knew this book was more realistic than the murder mysteries I read so often.)

I suspect this is an English major's book. Maybe I should contact a member of Garrison Keillor's Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM) for help.

Someone could point out important metaphors and themes. She or he could help me see the parallels between Beth Shaw's marriage and affair and her son Henry's first love and his close platonic friendship with Karen.

Maybe a POEM member could help me write a paper about how all the characters were incomplete human beings whose deficiencies were compensated for by other characters. Or maybe I could critique the role of Karen, Henry's friend, whose perspective was a corrective lens to Henry's myopic view of the world around him.

But that's not why I read books.

Here's the deal: forty-something Jane Hamilton channels 20-something narrator Henry Shaw's memories. Henry is still trying to channel his mother by rereading her e-mails about a love affair.

Henry's mother, Beth, gets to speak through her e-mails to her friend Jane (aha, Jane!) and her lover Richard. It would have been interesting if author Jane had channeled Beth Shaw in a few chapters.

Henry's little sister is crazy enough to deserve her own book that might be better than this one.

Henry's father is a real cypher, although Hamilton does a marvelous job of describing the life of a high school history teacher. She must know a couple of them.

Henry's love, Lily, is also a cypher. About all we learn about her is that she's smarter than 99% of us and that she's hot in bed.

Hamilton drops interesting hints about Henry's friend Karen, who has the potential to be the most interesting character in Disobedience. Her role as commentator on Henry's narrative has the potential to be as important as Henry or Beth's version of events. But, alas, Hamilton chooses to stick almost exclusively with Henry's soliloquy.

The book really becomes, "What did Henry learn about love and life during his last 18 months as an intimate member of the Shaw nuclear family?" I think it's clear what Hamilton thought she knew about love and life at age 40-something. But it's not clear at all that she channeled Henry completely enough to find out what he learned. Then again, what do we expect of 20-something guys' understandings of their 18-year-old selves and the world they inhabited? Even smart, perceptive guys?

So what I want now are Henry's story at age 40-something, Karen's book, Beth's book, little sister Elvira's book, maybe father Kevin's book, and maybe, just maybe books about Henry's lover Lily and Beth's lover Richard.

Yes, but those books would have to teach me more or be more event-filled than this one to get me through them. If not, I'd just spend my time listening to the glacier run off and geyser overflow running in the river next to me or meditating on the high mountain meadows in front of me.

Did you read Disobedience? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.


The day before Nancy and I headed west for some respite from the routines and "demands" of everyday life (like television, telephone, and the Internet), I stopped at the Northfield library for some literary baggage. Faye Kellerman's name stood out among the paperbacks. My earlier experiences with Milk and Honey, The Ritual Bath, and The Burnt House had been good.

The book I picked up was Sanctuary, a book she wrote 15 years ago. Somehow it sounded appropriate to read Sanctuary since we were seeking the temporary sanctuary of being in the Rocky Mountains over 1000 miles from home.

Trouble is Kellerman's book is about the absence of sanctuary. There's no sanctuary in the suburbs of L.A., in the diamond bourse of Tel Aviv, in a self-isolated religious community in New York, in a Jerusalem yeshiva, or in a Damascus suburb.

That summary should tell you that L.A. Sergeant Detective Decker and his wife Rina get around in the course of this story. Other characters get around even more.

It's a well-told story that kept bringing me back to book. I read it in fits and starts while traveling across South Dakota and Wyoming and while taking a day of rest in Montana. You don't need to travel to enjoy this book, but it would be a good airplane or beach book. Just don't expect it to offer more than literary sanctuary from the world around you.

The publisher's site for Sanctuary

Sidetracked at Sidetrack

Before we headed west to see our required quota of mountains, I headed up to Sidetrack, our little cabin on a northern Wisconsin lake. I didn't want things in the fridge or the breadbox to be a growth medium for green fuzzy stuff while we were gone.

On my way out of town, I found Sidetracked, a seemingly-appropriate book to take along. The book was a mystery by Henning Mankell, the Swedish author who unstintingly bemoans changes in Swedish culture and the underfunding of law enforcement (and other social programs). One question is, "Is it a mystery or a political tract?"

The title was sort of appropriate. Jim Klingel, a former cabin owner, bestowed the name Sidetrack on the retreat because it is a place that offers lots of distractions. For instance, I discovered we have a bad plumbing leak as I closed the place up. That kind of thing will distract anyone from lots of minor annoyances. (The call's in to the plumber.)

In Mankell's southern Swedish world, "sidetracked" referred to things that kept distracting detective Wallander from piecing together clues to solve a series of murders carried out by a serial killer.

(This is the second of Mankell's books with a serial killer plot. Either he's trying to kill off the valuable tourist business in Ystad or serial killers make better television movies -- where several of his books have ended up.)

Like most serial killers in real life and fiction, this one is far-fetched. So is the plot. That made the book difficult for me. But Mankell is a good story teller in spite of his carping about change and creating a villain who channels Geronimo. (Yes, that Geronimo. It seems there are Swedes as well as Germans who are hooked on the image of the noble American savage, the costumes, camp outs, and the imagined urges for revenge.)

Overall, I was entertained by the story in Sidetracked, but not as much as I was distracted by the beauty, the loons, the eagles, and the lake at Sidetrack. I wouldn't say, "Don't read this." But, I'm not buying a copy for my bookshelf.

15 July 2008

Mysterious story

A friend who was here for dinner handed me a book of stories by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. There was a post-it note on the cover that asked, “What is your conclusion about the last story, 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden.'?"

We're leaving for a trip shortly, so I read it tonight, and here's my answer.

You and I are not among the "configured gentlemen" (p. 146) who are "configured to win..." So the story may seem non-sensical.

But, it picks up on a theme that Doctorow has been working on for some time.

That theme is that the guys running the country for the past 7 and a half years are the "configured gentlemen." They do whatever they want to do and they get away with it. In his story, they can cover up the discovery of a child's body on the White House grounds and stop almost any investigation of it. I think he's asking, "What else have they done and covered up?"

In 2004, Doctorow wrote, "The Unfeeling President" for CommonDreams, an internet newsletter.
"I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

"But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.

"He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

"But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be...

"But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest 1 percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the quality of air in coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a-half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.

"And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it..."

A 2004 article in the Washington Post, recounted how Doctorow was booed and cheered at Hofstra University when he said in a commencement speech that President Bush and his supporters were liars and that just because someone important said something didn't mean you shouldn't question the veracity of the statement.

That article went on to mention this story:
"Over a cup of coffee with skim milk, Doctorow wanted to talk about his own stories. One story in the new collection, 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,' is about arrogance of power in the White House.

"The daughter of a Texas tycoon who supports the country's unnamed president tries to bring attention to bad policies by staging a mock crime at the White House. In one eloquent soliloquy, the daughter speaks out against those who run the country. 'Oh Lord . . . they always win, don't they. They are very skillful. It didn't come out quite as we planned -- we are such amateurs -- but even if it had, I suppose they would have known how to handle it. I just thought maybe this could restore them, put them back among us. It would be a kind of shock treatment if they felt the connection, for even just a moment, that this had something to do with them, the gentlemen who run things.'

"'If it is a good story,' Doctorow said, 'it will work 15 or 20 years from now no matter who is in the White House.'...”

Just last month, Doctorow wrote in The Nation magazine:
“In the domestic political fantasy life of these past seven years finds us in an unnerving time loop of our own making--in this country, quite on its own, history seems to be running in reverse and knowledge is not seen as a public good but as something suspect, dubious or even ungodly, as it was, for example, in Italy in 1633, when the church put Galileo on trial for his heretical view that the earth is in orbit around the sun.”

Doctorow seethes with the anger I can't find. I'm just discouraged and despondent. I'm not one of the "configured gentlemen," and I've known it all my life.

As the old joke goes, George Bush was one of those guys born on third base who grew up thinking he'd hit a triple. I am one of those guys who was born on second base and grew up thinking I'd lucked out to get a walk and reached second on a throwing error. I haven't been tagged out yet, and in some ways I've reached third base. In other ways, I'm still leading off from second.

Enough of that. The story is a good one. If the rest of the book is as good, I'll borrow it when I'm back from vacation. If you've read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

13 July 2008

Stories about people

I read two books recently that I expected to be very different from one another. I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the problems with some mystery novels is that there's so much focus on the crime and the clues that the characters are neglected. Then there are books about people and the less deadly things in their lives in which there's too little story for me.

I thought about that some while reading One Step Behind by Henning Mankell [right]. This is a murder mystery involving a serial killer and a very involved plot. Mankell tells a good story this time. (Better than The Dogs of Riga that I read last fall.

This time too, the main character, detective Kurt Wallander, came across to me as a multi-dimensional character. I kept comparing the portrayal of Wallander to Tony Hillerman's portrayal of Joe Leaphorn. Over the course of all the books he appeared in, Leaphorn became a well-rounded, complex guy. One Step Behind is the sixth book about the Swedish detective, and Wallander is a pretty complete person. Certainly more complete than the guy I read about earlier. I may go back and read some of the in-between books.

The division of the world of literature into plot-driven books and character-driven books came into focus again when I read Mountain Time by Ivan Doig.

I had heard of Doig [right], but I had never read any of his books. He's gotten some awards and good reviews in high places. But somehow I was put off by a guy whose last name seems to be an onomatopoeia for a sound effect. Pardon my silly prejudice.

Then one of Nancy's high school friends recommended Doig's books. The endorsement was so heartfelt from someone who seems to be a thoughtful and utterly honest person, that I couldn't resist picking up one of Doig's books the next time I was in the Northfield library.

I was about a third of the way through Mountain Time when I remarked to a friend that this book was the opposite of the plot-driven mysteries. What I'd read in the beginning of the book was all about the people with practically no story.

Well, my early impression was wrong. There was a story to tell in Mountain Time. Telling it began slowly with limning the characters. And both the characters and the story telling are great in this book.

Without a series of books filled with improbable murders within which to flesh out the characters, Doig creates the sisters McCaskill and Lexa's POSSLQ, Mitch Rozier. And then he tells the story of a short period in their lives. That period involves resolution of parent-child relationships, sibling rivalries, love, distrust, jealousy, heartache, and nearly forced marches through beautiful mountain wilderness.

I really liked both of these books. And liked them for their similarities -- good story telling and interesting people. They're not perfect, but I don't think that's a reasonable expectation. There are some of those pesky improbabilities in both books. (I almost quite reading Mountain Time 30 pages from the end, but Doig earned a save.) Mankell and Doig persuaded me to read more of their books.

I recommend both One Step Behind and Mountain Time.

If you read either, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

29 June 2008

Nickel and Dimed

David read Nickel and Dimed recently as part of his summer internship. We haven't had a chance to talk about it yet, but here's what I wrote about it back in August 2004.

Small Change and Common Sense

My sister-in-law the banker gave me Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, On (not) Getting By in America for Christmas last year. I had heard of it. When it was published, it was widely reviewed because it was seen as an important book.

The importance came from the fact that it opened a window into a world unfamiliar to most reviewers. The unfamiliarity was real even though the reviewers (and the rest of us) see it every day.

Even in Northfield, the "Molly Maids" cars are visible reminders of the 21st century version of hired help. The waitresses at Mandarin Garden are likely to be college students, but the servers at Applebee's are more likely supporting a family. The people who care for the hundreds of nursing home residents in Northfield are mostly invisible, but without them we'd be in crisis. In Northfield, those of us who write about books we read might see the woman who checks out our groceries playing softball at the South 40 field, but we don't know much about her job -- or the jobs of the cleaning ladies or the servers or the nursing home aides. Barbara Ehrenreich's book is meant to reduce our ignorance.

She set out to tell us a first hand story about these nearby but unfamiliar worlds. In addition, she wanted to explore the job opportunities available to women "fired" from the dependency of welfare.

She went under cover to work at Wal-Mart, a restaurant, a cleaning service, and a nursing home. She tried to live on what she earned. She even took a second job during one of her undercover stints to make ends meet.

Even considering she had little experience in living near the edge materialistically, she would have had a terrible time without the safety net of her rental car (Rent-A-Wreck it may have been) and some cash to start with. As it was she raised some serious questions about the effects of welfare reform. Is welfare dependency more degrading than Wal-Mart dependency? How can it be that even two low-wage jobs don't offer enough income to rent decent housing? Where does parenting fit into a day in which work consumes 12 hours? And that says nothing about health care, stress relief, healthy food, and quality time with friends and family. This book ought to be required reading for all high school students who are tempted to make careers of after school jobs at stores, restaurants and fast food joints near their parental homes.

In spite of her intellectual goals, Ehrenreich was distracted by the people she met and the stories they had to tell. I'm not at all sorry that this isn't exclusively a polemic. The people she met and cared about ã albeit for a short time ã make this all the more worth reading. Like the little anecdotes on the note cards that Ronald Reagan used to pull out of his pockets, these vignettes humanize the issues and the dilemmas.

The executives can sit in the home offices and, with their accountants, write business plans dependent upon low wage workers and high turnover, but they'll never worry about the welfare of any of their employees ã who are merely factors of production with a price. In our society, that's "not their job." Politicians and bureaucrats can run numbers in DC offices to demonstrate that reducing government spending and taxes is good for the economy, but they won't worry about the welfare of their constituents liberated from the heavy hand of government. That's "not their job." That's the job of employees and constituents -- individually, not as members of some coercive union or special interest group.

If something sounds awry in that description, you should read Ehrenreich's book.

Learn more about Iraq

Susan Schnurr wrote from her island in Maine with a review and an assignment. It sounds like the book some of the White House officials should have read six years ago.

I will take the opportunity to add my recommendation for Stop-Loss, a powerful movie about American soldiers' experiences.

"The time has come for a book recommendation. The Mid East is VERY complicated, and nowhere have I found it better explained than in the book War Journal: My Five Years In Iraq by Richard Engel.

"Normally I do not read books full of blood and gore and gratuitous violence, but the author has the credentials to make a person sit up and take notice. He speaks Arabic, has lived in the Near East for years, and was in Iraq before we invaded it.

"He has a lot more to say than the sound bites in the evening news. The book is both hard to read and hard to put down, and we learn a lot about Iraqi culture and Islamic culture as well. We have to give thanks for every minute Richard Engel survives to report another day. If he keeps doing it, he will die there. He risks his life every minute he is in Iraq.

"I am extremely impressed with his summary of the differences between Shia and Sunni. I read Islam for Dummies and didn't get as clear a picture. Also, with examples, he is able to give us insight into the paranoia of Islam. Some examples are absolute lunacy: Israel has trees that are loyal to Allah, and, when Judgement day comes, Jews will try to hide behind the trees, but the trees will call out to the Moslems that here is a Jew behind it. Jews, knowing this, are trying to cut down all the trees, but there are too many. Other examples sound almost rational: We would not be making the huge mistakes in Iraq if it weren't part of some larger plot so that the Sunnis can rule again because obviously we wouldn't want the Shia to rule. Or the obverse, we came in to put the Shia in power. Clearly to most Iraqi rational observers that can't be true because that is virtually handing Iraq over to Iran so there must be some sort of conspiracy not yet clear.

"Engel got to meet with Bush. The account is fascinating because Engel is another person who finds Bush to have a good mind. This is the second book I have read which shows that Bush is motivated by idealism.

"There are some parallels that show up in the book From the Islamist: Egyptian Politicians are corrupt; Islam is the solution. Israel is on our border; Islam is the solution; Dirty water is making my child sick; Islam is the solution. From George Bush: The Palestinian Authority has collapsed; Democracy is the solution. Iraq is in chaos; Democracy is the solution.

"This was a painful book to read, but it is not hard reading. You can probably never find a better book to increase your understanding as to what is happening in Iraq.

"EVERYONE should read it."

27 June 2008

No new books?

Maybe I don't have to seek out any new books.

This spring, two books arrived at the top of the "to read" pile and I picked them up and took them to Sidetrack, that little oasis on the lake. Between spring clean up in the yard and planting new blossoms, I picked up the first one and began reading.

The book was J. A. Jance's Justice Denied. I read about the first 30-40 pages and said to myself, "This seems familiar." But I had no clue about what came next. About half way through, I said to myself, "I've read this before." I still had no idea how it ended, and being away from an Internet connection, I couldn't look up ReadingBlog to see if I'd written about Justice Denied.

The more I read, the more familiar the story sounded, but I was awfully close to the end before I remembered what happened. The book cover says this is "A J. P. Beaumont Novel," and indeed Beau and his lover (also a Seattle detective) are the main good guys in the book.

And I had read it in August of '07 and written about it under the blog entry Vigilantes and the slow pace of justice.

I liked it the second time around at least as much as I liked it when I said, "...this is one of her best."

The next book I picked up that weekend at Sidetrack was The Burnt House by Faye Kellerman. After my experience with Justice Denied, I suspected a little more quickly that I was reading this book for a second time as well. But once again, I had no clue about plot twists or ending. By the time I'd finished, I knew I had read it and thought that the ending was familiar.

Sure enough, I had read and written about The Burnt House in September 2007 in the blog entry titled, Delightful details. I liked it then and I liked it again this spring. Reading it a second time was not all that different from reading it the first time. I guess I don't engage my memory much even when I'm writing about a book like this.

More good summer reading. They go on the shelf and maybe they'll be on the "to read" pile again someday. Maybe my "to read" pile should be made up of books that have been on the shelf for a few years and I can avoid trips to the library and the book store.

Winter with wolves and worse

I'm really lucky to have been in National Parks all over the U.S. Our parents and grandparents devoted resources to these gems that helped make visiting them wonderful. Those investments have allowed most of them to remain welcoming and wonderful to visit in spite of 25-30 years of deferred maintenance, reduced staffing, and the need to devote more and more resources to law and order and homeland security. [grumble... grumble... rant ending]

My experiences in national parks probably contribute to my attraction to Nevada Barr's mysteries. She's a former park ranger and all of her books are set in national parks. I like the realism of the settings as well as the institutional relationships that she describes in the books.

She writes graphically about the places and does a great job describing the characters. I get the impression that she works hard at the action scenes in her book, but they're often too detailed for my taste. How can I feel the fear and panic of the character stranded on a Lake Superior ice floe when I'm reading details about the ice edge and the character's efforts to keep the ice sheet from flipping over while removing her bulky backpack?

Barr demonstrated the power of her descriptive abilities to me when she scared me off from finishing the book she set in Carlsbad Cavern (Blind Descent). Other times, I've been totally involved, as I was in Firestorm.

I finished Barr's newest book, Winter Study, and it wasn't the best of the lot. It's still well worth reading on a summer weekend. I wouldn't want to read it in the winter.

Like Superior Death, Winter Study is set in Isle Royale National Park. However, the setting is a park abandoned to winter and to a small group of researchers who are part of a 50-year-long study of the wolves and moose of Isle Royale.

That setting makes this book a little like the locked-room mysteries set in British manor houses. There's even a point in Barr's book where one of her characters suggests that eveyone in the little group on the island is suspecting everyone else of murder. She adds a seeming bit of mysticism to the pot, but it's only a red herring.

The mixture makes for an intriguing story about tragedy, revenge, death, and a small, isolated group. Maybe it's plot line for television's Lost or Survivor.

For me, the action scenes were distractions. The descriptions are too complex. Barr manages suspense a lot better than fight scenes. And the injuries she inflicts on her main character in the climactic fight for survival are unbelievable. Maybe my banging around and minor injuries on the high school football field didn't prepare me for understanding and empathizing with the adrenaline and pain of a hand to hand fight for life.

Overall, I liked the book. I could look at the warm summer scene out my window when the shivering of the characters got too real. It wasn't, however, one of my favorite Nevada Barr mysteries.

Did you read Winter Study? What did you think of it?

08 June 2008

Frames of reference

In 1977, I saw the movie Turning Point. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft might have been the stars for most people, but Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne were all I saw in that movie. I know full-well that the dancing was enhanced by camera angles and lighting, but I was absolutely enthralled.

Later that year, I saw Gelsey Kirkland and the American Ballet Theater perform Swan Lake. (Baryshnikov was out sick the night I was there.) Kirkland was as fantastic as Baryshnikov had been in the movie. No camera angles or movie lighting needed. I was once again enthralled -- even though I remember Kirkland landing un-ballet-like on her butt during one of her exits.

Thus began a decade when I saw a lot of dance. And loved most of it. And found nearly all of it interesting.

There was another performance of Swan Lake, a few years later, that helped me learn how good Gelsey Kirkland and the ABT were. A well-reviewed local company performed. The music was recorded, not live. The dancers were probably well-rehearsed and dutifully trained. But there was no life in the performance. Neither the dancers nor the recording of a famous orchestra could come close to what I loved about dance.

Books, Ken, books! Remember?

Oh, yes, books. Banker Mary gave me Turquoise Girl by Aimée and David Thurlo for Christmas. A couple months back, I got around to reading it. I was hesitant because last July I'd read and written about the Turlo's book, Red Mesa. I wasn't pleased with it.

One of the reasons I hadn't liked it was probably the inevitable comparisons with the novels of Tony Hillerman. The Turlos and Hillerman write about Navajo police officers and the desert southwest of Dinétah. The comparisons are all over the cover of Turquoise Girl. Obviously the publisher thinks that hooking on to the Hillerman name is worthwhile.

If I'd never seen Gelsey Kirkland and ABT do Swan Lake, I might have appreciated the local company and their tape recording. If I'd never read Hillerman, I might have liked the Thurlo's books a bit more.

But maybe not. After page 25, I stopped remembering the typos and the awful word choices. Did these people not have an editor? or a proofreader? Don't they know that spell-check won't tell them that "thought" is not a substitute for "though?" And somebody ought to tell them about pacing. Speeding up narration and shortening sentences as the climax approaches is appropriate. But doing that in the middle of the book, only to slow down the story telling and then waltzing into the climax is not fun. It's rather like riding the downhill runs of the roller coaster with the emergency brake on.

I said after the first Thurlo book that I wouldn't go back to the library for another. The next time I have a hankering to read about Navajo police officers and the high desert, I'll reread a Hillerman.

Other opinions?

24 March 2008

Funny thing about philosophy

Last fall I noticed a little ad for a book in The New Yorker. The title caught my eye: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... The subtitle, Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, convinced me to buy it for David for Christmas. The book is by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein [below].

David and I have enjoyed listening to Garrison Keillor's joke shows, reading political humor, and reading and talking about philosophy. (Sophie's World was one of his favorite books a few years ago.) So, I bought the book.

David read it in the days after Christmas. When he went back to Beloit, I asked him if I could read it.

There are some good jokes, but the title is just about the best thing about the book. The punchline is at the end of the book.

The jokes are illustrative of the topics in chapters on metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, et al. But I was really lazy when I read the book. I often wanted more explanation for the connections between topics and jokes. In other words, I didn't always get the philosophy.

If I were still teaching philosophy, I would probably "borrow" some of these jokes to use in class. Well, maybe. I'm not one of those people who readily remembers jokes and tells them spontaneously. The jokes would have to be in the lesson plans and I'd have to rehearse them.

Well, what, you ask, are some of the jokes?

Here's an epistemological joke: "A scientist and his wife are out for a drive in the country. The wife says, 'Oh, look! Those sheep have been shorn.'

"'Yes,' says the scientist. 'On this side.'"

How about an existential joke?

"Norman began to hyperventilate when he saw the doctor. 'I'm sure I've got liver disease.'

"'That's ridiculous,' said the doctor. 'You'd never know if you had liver disease. There's no discomfort of any kind.'

"'Exactly!' said Norman. 'Those are my precise symptoms.'"

There's this from the chapter on the philosophy of language: "As the poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her partner, Alice B. Toklas, leaned over and whispered, 'What is the answer, Gertrude?'

"Replied Stein, 'What's the question?'"

Finally, there's a meta-philosophy joke: "A blind man, a lesbian, and a frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks up at them and says, 'What is this — a joke?'"

Okay, my reaction is definitely mine. Your reactions will vary. If you're curious check it out.