13 April 2009

Narrow focus. Too bad.

I was getting anxious about reporting on another bit of light reading I'd done. Shouldn't I be reading more substantial books? I even started a non-fiction book (more about that when I've finished).

Then it occurred to me that my serious, substantial, non-fiction reading does not come in books. In fact, most of it isn't even on paper.

Every day, I read headlines in at least 16 online news sources (they really aren't newspapers). And that doesn't take into account the fact that one of those sources provides links to half a dozen Nigerian newspapers' web sites.

I also read entries in at least half a dozen blogs.

And I write about how to teach with one or two of the articles I read in my teaching comparative blog for teachers (and some students) of comparative politics. When necessary, I also write updates to my book, a study guide for students of AP Comparative Government and Politics. I also labor through textbooks when new editions come out.

So, I guess I can read chewing gum "literature" in my spare time. And I shouldn't feel embarrassed.

Therefore, let me introduce Skeleton Lake, A Nik Kane Alaska Mystery by Mike Doogan that I picked up at the Northfield Public Library. [A Skeleton Lake at right]

When I saw "Alaska" on the cover, I probably was thinking of Dana Stabenow, who has done a fine job of writing adventures and mysteries set in Alaska. The bits of sea ice floating in the cover illustration probably made me think of the season just passed. And I really did want to read a new author's work.

Mike Doogan is a newspaper columnist and an Alaskan state legislator. He writes in complete sentences and spells all his words correctly (or at least his editors insist that he does). He tells this Nik Kane story in a complicated way.

Nik Kane, nearly washed-up old detective is coming in and out of consciousness during the first half of the book. He was badly wounded and in his pain-killer facilitated dreams, he sometimes recalls his childhood and other times a vexing 20-year-old murder he never solved. It's an intriguing plot device, and over time, I felt like I got to know Kane a little bit. Not much, mind you, but a little. But I never cared about him. If he'd died on page 50, I wouldn't have missed him and the story could have continued somehow. But he didn't die.

His childhood traumas matter a great deal to the 60-year-old Kane, but I never got to the point of empathizing with his pain and longing. His ruminations on the old homicide never really got me interested.

Then, on page 234 of a 300-page book, I read what Doogan's story should have been about. Describing Kane's family, Doogan writes, "A nun, a volcano about to erupt, a gay guy, a beauty queen, and a lifestyle-a-minute drifter, Kane thought. Does that make me the normal one? God help us all."

This should have been a book about the Kane family. Add Kane, the cop who spent 7 years in prison, his sister who died of breast cancer, and a brother who disappeared into the maw of Vietnam to the crew described above. I almost drool thinking of the stories surrounding those 8 people. Why did Doogan choose to write about Nik Kane? Why not write about the nun? Or the volcano of a brother who, "looked like hell; overweight, unshaven, and in need of a haircut. He was the one who had the most conventional life; a wife, five kids, a big house in the Seattle suburbs, an important job, a deacon in the church... There was something in there fighting to get out and it didn't look like it would be pretty when it emerged."? Or Barry, who was a hotel manager in Bangkok, who "lived with somebody named Kongsangchai who everyone was careful not to ask about."? etc. etc.

Harriet Klausner liked it better than I did. If you read it, let us know what you think. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

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