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.