18 May 2010

Well, that was better

Besides picking up a new Walter Mosley book at the library I also picked up a new (to me) Margaret Coel book. I was rather disappointed with Mosley and rather pleased with Coel's Wife of Moon. Like her other mysteries, it's set on the Wind River reservation in central Wyoming.

I hadn't read one of her books for awhile, partly becuase I have been put off by the romance novel tendencies in many of them. This one is better. The romance themes are there. They involve the Jesuit priest at a reservation church, a native lawyer torn between pursuing her destiny and serving her people, and a handsome native lawyer from South Dakota who is pursuing a professional partnership and maybe a romantic one. All that doesn't intrude on this story much at all.

But Margaret Coel plots great stories and writes very good action/suspense episodes. (I'm not as good at reading them.) There are actually two connected plots in this book. One involves events that happened in 1907, during one of Edward S. Curtis' photographic expeditions to photograph native people before they disappeared into the great melting pot. The other involves a powerful Wyoming politician who seems set to announce his candidacy for U.S. president. (The book was written in 2004. What prominent Wyoming politician was in the news then?)

Father John gets involved because one his parishoners apparently committed suicide. Then the dead woman's husband disappears and becomes a suspect. Attorney Vicky Holden becomes his lawyer when he reappears.

To complicate matters a new curator at the tribal musem discovers that some reservation residents own prints of Edward Curtis' photographs that were gifts to thier grandparents. The curator doesn't have to go to "Antiques Roadshow" to know the value of vintage and unknown Curtis prints. Then the curator disappears.

The potential candidate schedules a visit to the reservation. When he does, some of the locals begin asking questions about the sources of his wealth and land bordering the reservation.

And the missing curator's controlling husband shows up and begins intimidating people in an effort, he says, to find his wife. But, his motives are suspect.

It's a good story and it's well told. I wasn't once tempted to think that there was magic or imaginary technology in the air. As a matter of fact, this story ranked very high on the credibility meter. Okay, the imaginary story from 1907 is obviously imaginary and the resolution involves a couple improbables, but they didn't get in the way of my enjoyment.

If you have a choice, check out Wife of Moon by Margaret Coel. Then let this little bit of the world know what you thought of it.

PS:There's a wonderful typo on p. 124: "People here don't think T.J.'s capable of killing anybody," Father John said. "They know the man, and they twist him."

Okay, Father John is originally from Boston, but what kind of accent or speech impediment turns "trust" into "twist?" And what of the editor? Or the proofreader? Did someone do minor sabotage on Coel's book? Someone kindly penciled in the proper word in the library copy that I read. Thank you.

Margaret Coel's web page
Judy Gigstad's review at Book Reporter
Harriet Klausner's review at All Readers

16 May 2010

Mystery as science fiction

I was happy to find a new Walter Mosley book on the library shelf. I'd enjoyed his first Leonid McGill mystery (The Long Fall) a bit ago because Mosley has such a way with language. It was a treat to read his sentences.

When I picked up Known to Evil, I was looking forward to more pleasurable reading. I was half way through the book when I took it to that wonderful place by the lake known as Sidetrack. I took breaks from proofreading to finish the book.

Well, the words were there and the magical sentences and the flowing narrative, but this Leonid McGill story wasn't what I expected. It was more like science fiction than a New York-based mystery.

It might have helped if I was more familiar with the big city. As it was, whenever Mosley's character got in his car or on the subway to head off to a building or a neighborhood, he might just have well have been getting in a space ship headed for another planet. And most of those planets (buildings or neighborhoods) were pretty featureless places. They were just other planets.

Whenever McGill stopped in his office or his den for a change of clothes or a change of weapons, he might well have been going to a replicator and asking the computer to make exactly what he needed. He always got exactly what the situation called for.

When McGill's wife starts fooling around with a young man and his girlfriend takes up with another guy, guess what? The replicator produces a comely bar tender who comes on to McGill and beds him when he needs some reassurance. (Oh, and the girl friend returns by the end of the book -- no word on what happens to the 26-year, betrayal-ridden marriage.)

And the bad guys in this book were simply featureless, large, powerful, and evil. And all but once in this story, McGill, a stubby, middle aged former boxer, beat the crap out of the villians. McGill also indirectly got to the big bad guys who hired the muscle who tried to take on the private detective -- even the "bad" cops who had been eager for years to take down Leonid McGill.

It's fantasy science fiction as much as anything else. It's not a bad story and it's well told. Just be ready for a story set in contemporary New York that might as well have been set at a time long, long from now in a universe far, far away.

Book summary from BookBrowse
Sarah Weinman's review from The Los Angeles Times
Vincent T. Davis' review at My SA Entertainment

08 May 2010

Comment on "Hoarding"

Dan Conrad wrote, "With a writer as famous as Doctorow you hesitate to say whether its your fault or his, but I don't believe I've ever finished one of his books. I have the same record with Updike since Rabbit Run -- to say nothing of Norman Mailer. By what --and whose-- criteria are these America's great writers?"

07 May 2010


Hoarding has its own cable TV shows. (Buried Alive and Hoarders) It must be fascinating.

Hoarding has some fancy names attached to it: disposophobia and syllogomania. There's not a conclusive definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But there are five levels of hoarding described in the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD).

Back in the 1930s and '40s, the Collyer brothers (Homer and Langley) gained fame as wealthy hermit horaders who "lived" in their Fifth Avenue brownstone in Manhattan. When the brothers were found dead in the house in '47, over 100 tons of stuff was removed from the house before it was torn down.

The Collyer Brothers' Fifth Avenue home on the day in 1947 when the police tunneled their way in and found Homer's body.

The New York Times wrote at the time the brothers were found that, "There is, admittedly, something unattractive about the avidity with which society now pores over every detail the Collyer brothers vigorously withheld from public scrutiny . . . . It is almost as though society were taking revenge upon the brothers for daring to cut the thread that binds man to his fellows." It seems that hoarding may be a form of OCD, but that fascination with hoarders is another form of OCD.

Books, a play, and episodes of television series have been based on the Collyer brothers. Most recently E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley. I picked this one up in the Northfield Library seeking to read something other than a mystery.

It seems that most of the time that I venture out to read "respectable" fiction, I come away disappointed and baffled by what good literature is.

A couple years ago, a friend recommended a Doctorow story, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," which I thought was a pretty good parable. But I never went back and read the rest of the book.

Many years ago, I was intrigured by Ragtime and the movie version (and Elizabeth McGovern's nude scene). But I don't know now whether I remember Doctorow's book or Milos Forman's movie.

Like other Doctorow novels, Homer and Langley is a romanticized bit of fiction that uses the names and psychoses of two real people as a starting point, with a bit of the OCD fascination with hoarding thrown in.

The story sort of wades through 40-50 years of American history as "seen" by a blind guy sitting in a boarded up Fifth Avenue mansion while it (and the world?) falls apart around him. He's tended to by a brother who is more crazy than he is. The crazy old blind guy writes a memoir about all this on a Braille typewriter his brother has scavenged from somewhere.

The deterioration of everything happens so gradually, that the writer sort of accepts as normal the Model T reassembled in the dining room, the Japanese servants hauled off to a relocation camp, hauling water from Central Park when the city shuts off water service, the hippies who crash for a summer, the booby traps that his brother builds in the accumulated trash to deter burglars, and the rats who live (at first) in the walls and (later) around his feet.

I was curious about this book and looked up a couple reviews. The reviewers in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker all went on and on about how the book was packed with details and how the narrative forged ahead. None of them said it was a good book. None of them said it was a bad book. None of them said it was a mediocre book. All of them were intensely interested in talking about the real Collyer brothers and presenting photos of the trash-filled house. It's the fascination with hoarders again.

I don't know if it's a good or a bad or mediocre book. Im back with one of my favorite poets, Reed Whittemore. In his poem, "Today," he wrote
I come from Minnesota.
I must get a great big book with all the critics in it
And eat it. One gets so hungry and stupid in Minnesota.

I do know I didn't think much of Homer and Langley as a novel. It didn't entertain me. I was curious about these characters in the first half of the book and curious about what whould happen to them in the second half. My curiousity about what messages Doctorow was sending grew smaller and smaller until I skimmed through the last dozen pages. Doctorow seems to describe a lot of trivia and neglect most of the essentials of the brothers' lives.

If you want my advice, pass on this one. Go read some Reed Whittemore instead. Now that I've hauled Poems, new and selected (1967) off the shelf, that's what I think I'll do.

Have you read Homer and Langley? Have you read other Doctorow books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Michiko Kakutani's review in The New York Times

Michale Dirda's review in The Washington Post

The review in The New Yorker