26 July 2009

Book of many stories

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I was standing in front of the "Best Sellers" rack of paperbacks while waiting for a prescription to be filled. I was next to a grocery store pharmacy.

Although the store now has some organic produce and a partial row of other organic products, it's still a middle/working class store that emphasizes thrift and large-sized cans of vegetables and Miracle Whip more than a wide selection of breads, cheeses, or sliced meats. Thirty years ago the store was called Erickson's. Then for a couple decades it was known as More 4. (The 4 was for four stores in one, but I could only ever count three. Maybe there was something out back I didn't know about.) Nowadays, it's called EconoFoods. Same corporate ownership all those years. Recently I noticed that a branch of the store in Hudson, Wisconsin, formerly called EconoFoods has a new name. I guess someone's still looking for corporate identity.

That's where I was when the eye-catching cover of Stieg Larsson's book caught my eye. It was in the #8 slot of best sellers, but the bar code sticker on the back said, "Best Seller #16 Expries July 30." However, the cash register receipt said I bought "Hanna Montana" in the "GM and Health Beauty" section. I guess someone's still looking for inventory and accounting identity.

In the back of my mind, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, rang a quiet bell. I'd read something about this book, but couldn't remember what I'd read or where I'd read it. The blurb on the back cover offered, "a murder mystery, family saga, love story, and a tale of financial ingtrigue wrapped into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel." I was headed for a quiet weekend at Sidetrack which everyone expected would be rainy, so I bought the book and some orange juice along with medication that promises to help me combat my hyper-lipidemia.

What an incredible luxury. Time to do nothing but read. Saturday was indeed a cool rainy day at the lake. Nancy and I were up early and headed to the neighborhood coffee shop (Cafe Wren in Luck), 15 miles up the road, for breakfast and an e-mail check-in.

When we got back to Little Blake, I opened up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It's a 640-page book. By page 110, I told Nancy that I was hooked and wanted to finish the book. At the time, I didn't think I'd finish this weekend. There's usually a lot of competition for attention what with bald eagles, loons, kingfishers, garden flowers and weeds, and chores.

The rain persisted, off and on, most of Saturday. I was able to spend some time with neighbors during rainless interludes, but mostly I read. I watched the sun go down behind the clouds as I read. I got up to stretch after dark and discovered that it was 11:15PM.

I brushed my teeth, took my prescribed medication, and crawled into bed. Sometime later, I learned who one of the real bad guys was, I put the book down.

Sunday morning I paddled the canoe around the lake, poured myself a big glass of orange juice, made some coffee, and started reading again. I finished the book just after noon.

Recommendation enough?

How about that the author came from Sweden, but his attitude doesn't quite match the misanthropic perspective of that other Swede I've read recently, Henning Mankell. In fact, in spite of one of the main themes (in Sweden the book and the movie based on the book are titled, Men Who Hate Women), there's little in Larsson's book like the dyspeptic view of life that Mankell seems to live sourly with.

The translation by Reg Keeland is quite good and very much in American English. There are a few strange things in the translation and some things just don't translate well. ("After the meeting Blomkvist had coffee with Malm at Java on Horngatspuckeln.")

The mystery revolves around a teenager who disappeared 40 years before the story told in this book. The cast of characters includes a large Swedish clan descended from a very successful 19th century industrialist. The hired investigators are a discredited journalist and a self-taught, tattooed, pierced, punk polymath.

Larsson tells several side and back stories in this huge book, but the pace never lags. I didn't keep all the family names straight, but I never kept all the names in my own family straight either. I never got confused, but I also never felt I was being talked down to by the author or the characters.

If you have read other of my commentaries, you know I don't have a lot of patience with incredible things in realistic fiction. The last story Larsson tells in this book is incredible. I wish he'd left it out. Well, I wish his editor had dumped it. I'll buy a self-taught, neurotic polymath, but not one who does the things described in the last story. It's just too much.

In spite of that, I'm ready to read Larsson's next book (it's due out in hardcover now). I rather expected the discredited and rehabilitated journalist to be the main character of the second book. I'm not sure that's true. According to the chapter published in this volume, it's the punk polymath.

There won't be many books. Larsson died in 2004 after handing three manuscripts to his agent.

The paperback edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out in June 2009 in the U.S. The library might have a copy, but you'll probably have to hang out near the rack of paperback best sellers to find a copy. I think it will be worth it.

See also:

15 July 2009

Alaska frontier mystery

Sometimes I finish reading a book and write about it immediately. Other times, I put the book on the corner of my small desk with the intention of writing about it soon. I don't yet know what determines the course I choose. It might be the book or my reaction to it. It might be the press of other tasks. I was thinking it might have to do with whether or not a book is from a library, but I've gotten overdue notices before writing about a borrowed book.

So Dana Stabenow's Whisper to the Blood has been on the corner of my desk for several weeks now. Since I read it, I've written about several other books.

I really liked this mystery. It's one of Stabenow's Kate Shugak novels. I find the little wilderness community of Niniltna as interesting as Lake Wobegon. I think I like it better than Lake Wobegon because, in spite of the murder and mayhem, the events in Niniltna are less fantastic than most of the events old Garrison Keillor spills out on Saturday afternoons.

Okay, so I like the characters in Niniltna. I like the Aunties who spend their evenings in one corner of the local tavern piecing quilts together. I like the local native elder who spends his time there watching sports on the big screen TV. I like the main character, her teen-age foster son, her wolf-dog, and her lover, the local Alaska Trooper. I like most of the other frontier residents, who have escaped from one thing or another.

How does a tiny, mostly subsistence-based community react to the discovery of gold nearby? There won't be a gold rush, but the big company that has rounded up the mineral rights will be creating more jobs than there are people locally. How do the people react when first the company PR rep is murdered? And then when the most outspoken opponent of the mining is also murdered? And how does the local Trooper along with his unofficial partner in love and investigation find the murderer(s) and protect the community? Oh, and how do Kate and her lover resolve the relationship difficulties they have? (There is a bit of soap opera in this book, but it's better than the bits of romance novel that have been stuck into other novels by Stabenow.)

Stabenow is a very good story teller. Even though she's written 15 other Kate Shugak novels, most of them are set away from Niniltna. So the little frontier village is not the hotbed of murder that some writers seem to create in bucolic settings. (It's hard to imagine, for instance, more than a couple murders a century in a place like Lake Wobegon.)

Stabenow is also very good at creating characters, and after 16 books she's got this crew down pretty well. That's why there has to be some soap opera in the central love story, a budding romance for Kate's foster son, and a new character or two who come to town and end up waiting tables in the tavern or catching on with the mining company's PR project.

Enough, already. I liked this book, Whisper to the Blood. If you've read it, let us know what you think. If you haven't read it, try it out and react here.

See also:

For Kindle

14 July 2009

From the Monkey Cage

Lee Sigelman, a Carleton classmate, wrote about his most recent reading in the political science blog, The Monkey Cage. That blog is written by a number of professors, most of whom teach with Sigelman at George Washington University.

You can read what he says here.

He wrote about Windy City by NPR journalist Scott Simon and The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

12 July 2009

Stories quick and slow

Another weekend at Sidetrack, another stop at the Amery library, another book.

On Friday afternoon, I didn't want to spend much time nosing around the library, so I quickly picked up a John Dunning mystery, The Bookman's Promise. It was on one of the first shelves I looked at.

I was delayed by a greeting from the head librarian, who must have a phenomenal memory for faces, because she recognized me. I'm one of thousands of patrons. I only come in half a dozen times each summer. But we've always had pleasant exchanges as I've checked out or returned books. That woman, whose name I don't know, has to be one of the reasons that the little town of Amery has such a great library.

Back to Dunning's book.

I've read several of his books and enjoyed the stories and the mysteries. Dunning is a book seller like the main character, Cliff Janeway, in his mysteries. Janeway is a former Denver police detective. There's no hint in his bio that Dunning was ever a LEO.

This book is the best of Dunning's I can recall. That's true even though there was a big, ponderous story in the middle of the book about British explorer Richard Burton [right]. The imaginary story is relevant, but the details that Dunning offers aren't. Plod, plod, plod. Skim, skim, skim...

What makes The Bookman's Promise so good is the story told about a supposed notebook belonging to said Burton. Dunning tells that story well and populates it with great characters, some of whom are bad guys, a couple who are good guys, and many others who are suspicious. I was suspicious of nearly every character until the last few pages.

And how can you dislike a story in which Cliff Janeway gets to single-handedly defend Fort Sumter from attackers coming over the wall?

There are minor plausibility problems at a couple points in the story, but I can handle one or two. I don't think either was really necessary, but what do I know?

So I recommend this book highly if you like mysteries. It was published in '04, so there ought to be paperback or used copies around. Go see a bookseller like John Dunning, or check with Amazon using the link below.

For Kindle

08 July 2009

An old Kellerman mystery

I hinted at this a few days ago, but I read another Jonathan Kellerman book awhile back. It was Private Eyes, An Alex Delaware Novel.

This was an old one. First published in 1992. It's even older than any of our cars. But, enjoying it was sort of a guilty pleasure. Then again, movies and books about the rich were popular during the Great Depression, so maybe a book about rich people is attractive now. Why that should be so I don't know.

Maybe when people are anxious about their economic futures, reading about people who have more money than god is reassuring. I know I've lived through recessions before, but never with the anxiety I've felt recently. Of course, I've never been retired before. In any case, a story about wealthy people who are different from the rest of us, was attractive, not repulsive.

Kellerman's Dr. Delaware is rich enough to work only when he wants to. And his client in this book is a lot richer than that.

In the first fourth of the book, Delaware recalls the little girl he treated and describes his analysis and the course of therapy. (That's what inspired me to pick up Oliver Sacks' book.) The rest of the book is about what happens after the nearly grown-up little girl calls Dr. Delaware because she's convinced her mother has been kidnapped.

As is common, I guess, in Kellerman's novels, Dr. Delaware recruits his LAPD detective buddy Milo Sturgis to help investigate the disappearance.

I told David, when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, that the exchanges between Delaware and Sturgis were well-done. Kellerman really moved the story along through the dialogues. Instead of describing things from some distant third-person perspective, the story is told by the investigators as they share what they've learned along the way. I really liked it.

That all broke down at the end of the book. When the evil bad guy talks and talks and talks about what he's done and why. It's boring. The evil bad guy deserved to be shot on the spot just for blabbing on and on.

So the last 50 pages or so were a bust. The first 400 or so pages contained a good story.

Now, what did you think of it?

For Kindle

06 July 2009

Antarctic arts program of the NSF

A few years ago, I found the web cam from the Australian research station in Antarctica at Mawson [left]. I was fascinated by the summer day, the winter night, and the experiences of the few people who live and work there summers and the fewer people (about 16) who live and work there during the dark of winter. I still look at the Mawson web cam regularly and read the weekly newsletter about what people are up to down below the Antarctic Circle.

That's one of the reasons I was attracted to Sarah Andrews' book In Cold Pursuit when I saw it on the shelf at the new Amery library. It's set in Antarctica.

More than a few years ago, I read Andrews' first novel, Tensleep. It was very good. I've read several of her books since, but none of them lived up to that first one. A couple were discouraging to me.

The hope of reading another really good book by Sarah Andrews is another reason I checked this one out.

Andrews is a geologist who has written nearly a dozen mystery novels. Em Hanson, a geologist who solves mysteries is the main character in most of them.

In this book, Em Hanson appears only in a few e-mails to a glaciologist grad student who arrives to do research at McMurdo Station in Antarctica only to discover that her advison (and principal investigator) has been arrested for murder and shipped back to the US.

Guess what?

Another geologist becomes an amateur slueth.

One of the strengths of this story is that grad student Valena Walker is not a lone wolf in solving the murders she learns about. An informal crew of academics and support personnel at McMurdo get involved in sorting out the clues and red herrings.

The story is a good one. There were too many characters to keep track of. The misleading clues were well done and believable. The main character was too anonymous. The story is well-told, but there are just a few too many geology lectures.

So this wasn't a disappointing book, but it doesn't live up to my memories of Tensleep.

If you read this one, tell us what you think.

Andrews wrote the novel after receiving a grant through the NSF Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. That suggests that she got to see the places she wrote about and meet people who worked in them. I trust her descriptions of McMurdo [right] and the research sites in the book. I also trust that her descriptions make it obvious that McMurdo (at least in summer) is much more like a small, well-connected city than the little family at Mawson Station.

Who knew there was an National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs that offered artists and writers grants? Is that a way to get more Congressional support? Or do the scientist-types think that artists and writers can help spread the results of scientific research?

I'm still intrigued and in awe of people who can work in a place where there's no escape for months from either the place or the people in the family.

03 July 2009

Sweden to Zambia

On the way to Sidetrack (the little refuge in the woods), I stopped at the new library in Amery. What a great new facility. No more are the window ledges full of books. No longer are there carts full of books in the middle of aisles.

There's plenty of new space. There are tables and comfy chairs and a fireplace. There are even empty shelves waiting for new books. Hooray for the Amery library.

As I was scanning the shelves, I saw, in the mystery section, a Henning Mankell book. Slightly curious and very skeptical, I picked it up. The description inside the front cover said, "Interweaving past and present, Sweden and Zambia, The Eye of the Leopard draws on bestselling author Henning Mankill's deep understanding of the two worlds he calls home: Sweden... and Africa..."

"Well," I said to myself, "it's not set in Sweden. Maybe the dispeptic Swede won't be so pessimistic if he's writing a story about a Swede in Africa."


I should have read the first couple sentences. "He wakes in the African night, convinced that his body has split in two. Cracked open, as if his guts had exploded, with the blood running down his face and chest."

His main character doesn't know what to do with his life. As a child, he'd had a realization that he was an individual and that his life was separate from everyone else's. He ends up in law school, but decides he doesn't want to be a lawyer.

He goes to Zambia because a woman who had befriended him as a motherless child wanted to go there. He stays in Zambia because he's asked and he doesn't know what else to do. He stays for 20 years even though he doesn't like what he's doing and he's scared most of the time and he doesn't understand Africa or Africans.

It's not a mystery in the conventional sense.

About half way through the book, I decided it's the Swedish/Zambian version of Camus' The Stranger. I skimmed most of the rest of the book. On page 246 (out of 315), Mankell writes (in the voice of his main character), "From my upbringing I received neither self-knowledge nor a sense of purpose... Now I try to move through hostile terrain without surrendering to confusion."

That's how I got through most of the book: without "a sense of purpose" and "without surrenduring to confusion." I still can't really answer the question of why I sort of read the whole thing. Maybe I kept hoping for some kind of redemption for the character or the author.

No such luck.

Why would Mankell choose to live in Zambia? Why would he choose to live in Sweden? Why does he choose to live? I guess he either gets by without "a sense of purpose" or he's not writing about himself at all.

So it goes.

See also:

Neurology text (almost)

While reading another of Jonathan Kellerman's books (about which I'll write soon), I was taken with the opening section. It was the fictionalized, and probably idealized narrative of a course of therapy for a fictionalized, and probably idealized patient.

I thought I'd like to read more things like that. So I picked up Oliver Sacks' [left] The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. From what I recalled having heard about the book, I thought it might be full of stories therapy and analysis.

I was wrong. There are some notable stories, a couple of which I remember reading in the New York Review of Books: the man who couldn't tell the difference between his wife and his hat and the man whose memory extended back only about 20 seconds.

But, most of the book is clinical diagnoses of patients and very little about therapy. There were the inseprable autistic twins who amused themselves by sharing prime numbers. There was the savant who knew the music, words, performances, and stage settings for nearly every prominent production of Bach's choral music.

Sacks offers intriguing literary allusions to help explain details of many of these case studies. But I'm not familiar with them. Sacks' references are meant for a more literary audience.

Much of the book includes references to seminal works in neurology. I've never heard of any of them, and Sacks' comments are directed to a more informed audience.

However, what I didn't expect and found fascinating were Sacks' philosophical questions.
  • How is abstract reasoning different from simply knowing?
  • Are there advantages to visualizing knowledge over knowing things by their verbal labels?
  • What does it mean to know?
  • What does it mean to be able to calculate?
  • How do the talents of visual savants manifest themselves?
  • Is it good therapy to direct autistic savants away from their natural talents and direct them to more socially useful (though not very valuable) activities?
  • What makes it possible for someone to understand the narratives of stories but not the narrative of her own life?
  • How can a person who cannot do simple calculations identify 12-digit prime numbers?
  • Why are so many numerical savants preoccupied with prime numbers?
  • Are numbers part of our brain's biology?

I would be interested in more about many of those questions, but they're beyond Sacks' professional expertise, so he's just asking.

The book wasn't what I expected, but it gave me a lot of ideas to think about.

While I was reading the book, Sacks appeared on The Daily Show, publicizing his latest book and a television production based on it. It's about music and the role music plays in human thinking and understanding. I missed the television production and I'll have to watch for a rerun, but I'm intrigued.