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.