23 January 2009

Another Montana story

I liked reading a couple earlier books by Ivan Doig, so when I visited the Northfield public library, I picked up another of his books, Prairie Nocturne.

Prairie Nocturne is the story of three people connected to Montana in the 1920s. One of them is Black cowboy, son of a post-Civil War US Cavalry sergeant. One is a woman who abandoned her nascent career as a professional singer to return to family in Montana. The third is a scion of a very successful ranching family in Montana.

The rancher sends his employee with an impressive, untrained singing voice to the rancher's mistress for voice training. His motive seems to be a desire to see this cowboy make something more of himself. It also offers opportunities for him to see the voice teacher -- although the rancher's family is firmly ensconced in New York society and never spends time in Montana.

Interesting characters, but I never felt they were complete. Interesting story for most of the book, but not much more. Those things probably account for my surprise at the ending. There weren't enough hints for me to suspect what was coming.

I think that Doig also assumed that his readers were more familiar with early 20th century Montana than I am. But I doubt that many non-Montanans are. Nor are many Montanans. That limits the audience who can really understand the book.

The authors most read by Doig's readers (according to the Literature Map below) are Gretel Erlich, Clyde Edgerton, and Annie Proux. I've never read anything by any of them. And I don't know whether this is a recommendation of them or Doig.

Has someone else read any of Doig's books? Your thoughts?

10 January 2009

Elegant rodent?

I was closing down my computer on this Saturday evening, when I noticed that Dan Conrad had written on his Facebook page almost two weeks ago, that he was "undecorating the Christmas tree having brought in the New Year by finishing the best book I read in 2008: Elegance of the Hedgehog."

He didn't say why it was the best book of 2008, but maybe he will.

Here is an excerpt from Michael Dirda's review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the Washington Post.

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery [right], translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

"Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building...

"Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd... despises her coddled existence, her older sister Colombe (who is studying at the École normale supérieure), and her well-to-do parents... After careful consideration of what life is like, Paloma has secretly decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday.

"These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will -- this is going to sound corny -- fall in love with both... Out of context, Madame Michel's pensees may occasionally sound pretentious, just as Paloma might sometimes pass for a Gallic (and female) version of Holden Caulfield. But, for the most part, Barbery makes us believe in these two unbelievable characters...

"At one point Madame Michel asks herself, "What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?" What indeed? Certainly, the intelligent Muriel Barbery has served readers well by giving us the gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bittersweet Elegance of the Hedgehog."

05 January 2009

Water Elephant Youth Old age Luck Romance

About the same time that Carmella Washburn sent me the note about Umberto Eco's book, she loaned me Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. She'd heard me quote something I'd read about the book, so she read it and then sent it my way.

My reaction is complex. There are two simultaneously-told stories: one about a young man beset by misfortune and good luck; one about a 90 or 93-year-old nursing home patient who is similarly the beneficiary of good health and disability. The stories are about the same man.

The story about the young man is set in a second-rate traveling circus during the depression. The story about his old age is set in the present. I liked most of the contemporary story better than the 70-year-old story. But there wasn't as much of the present-day story in the book.

The old circus story was more interesting and filled with arcane details about old circus culture. I wish there had been more about the old man and the nursing home culture he lived in.

Both stories are romantic, even though they contain nasty elements of gritty reality. Jankowski, the central character and narrator, is rescued several times throughout the stories. It's hard to believe that anyone could be so lucky.

There is a smart elephant in the circus story. It understands Polish, but not English. The elephant has more moxie than most of the people in either story. Nearly all the people in the book are accepting and complacent, except the Jacob Jankowski.

In an "Author's Note" and an interview at the end of the book, Sara Gruen touts all the interesting research she did before writing the book. It shows in the detail she describes, but it's impossible, without seeing her research or doing your own, to know what's real and what she's made up to fill the holes in the record.

And in some ways, it seems like she's picked things she found out about old circuses and posted them along the story and built connecting roads between them.

Oh, it was interesting to read. But not fun. I'm not sure if it was enlightening about circus culture in the '30s. It wasn't enlightening about human nature to me.

Eh? Did you read it? What did you think?

Sometime I should get my friend Astrid to tell the story of Tuffi who fell out of the Schwebebahn into the River Wupper (not far from the River Neander). That story might be more interesting. (You can look it up if you're curious.)

Umberto Eco's bookseller

Carmella Washburn is a neighbor of Nancy's mother, Jo, here in Northfield. She and Jo ended up living in Northfield because their daughters lived here. Carmella is an amazing Nebraska native, born in Omaha before the U.S. entered WWI, who still wears red and cheers for the Cornhuskers during football season. She also has wonderful stories about her Italian family and neighbors in Omaha. I send her paper copies of the blog entries because she's still learning about using the web. She does have e-mail down pat.

Some time ago, she sent me this note:

Ken, I appreciate and enjoy your "Reading Blogs." At my present age, I tend to philosophical stories and neglect to appreciate "good stories" written by authors of the Baby Boomer Culture, which I confess is a bit narrow on my part.

Presently I am reading, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (Italian, what else?).

It's the story of a 60ish rare book dealer in Milan who has suffered loss of memory. He can remember the plots of every book he has ever read, but no longer knows his own name. The last sentence on the book jacket says, "A fascinating, abundant new novel -- wide-ranging, nostalgic, and personal."

The book is interestingly illustrated with color photos of the book covers the main character has read throughout his life. If nothing else, you could relate to the pictures in the book.

I am ever impressed by writing talent.

I've started Doig's Prairie Nocturne.