30 July 2011

Stieg Larsson, political reporter

In the shadow of the terrorist attack in Oslo, Joan Acocella posted a bit in the New Yorker, "Stieg Larsson and the Scandinavian Right."

The killer in Oslo was exactly the kind of guy who Stieg Larsson spent his pre-novelist career trying to warn the Scandinavian people about. Maybe they should have listened before Larsson created Lisbeth Salander.

In the Times' heavy coverage of the killings in Norway... the name of Stieg Larsson has not come up. That is curious. The major subplot of the stories on the massacre is what many people are now describing as the indifference of the government and press corps in Norway... to native right-wing movements and their potential for violence... [H]omegrown fundamentalist movements have been gaining power in Scandinavia since, decades ago, the citizens of those countries began to lose faith in the benevolence of their vaunted welfare states...

Larsson had an unglamorous job as the Swedish correspondent for a magazine, Searchlight, that was English journalism’s watchdog against right-wing movements in Europe. In his articles for Searchlight he describes the car bombings, the rallies, the magazines of Sweden’s extreme right. He has only one message: fascism is on the rise. “For too long,” he writes, “Nazis, in the eyes of society, have been simplistically and credulously equated with a few dozen skinheads on a Saturday-night stampede.” That’s not the case any more, he writes. They are men in suits and ties, and they are getting elected to office...

Larsson’s main concern was the abuse of women, immigrants, and Jews... Eventually he turned his attention primarily to women...

The summer camp that Anders Breivik invaded last week, a hatchery for the children of the liberal ruling class, included young people whose parents and grandparents came from Africa and Asia.

Such inclusion—or, from another perspective, infiltration—is what the Scandinavian right wing opposes, and political parties ruled by that refusal are gaining power...

27 July 2011

Hurry up and wait (for the paperback)

Paperback Publishers Quicken Their Pace
It used to be like clockwork in the book business: first the hardcover edition was released, then, about one year later, the paperback.

But in an industry that has been upended by the growth of e-books, publishers are moving against convention by pushing paperbacks into publication earlier than usual, sometimes less than six months after they appeared in hardcover…

Publishers say they have a new sense of urgency with the paperback, since the big, simultaneous release of hardcover and electronic editions now garners a book the bulk of the attention it is likely to receive, leaving the paperback relatively far behind. They may also be taking their cues from Hollywood, where movie studios have trimmed marketing costs by steadily closing the gap between the theatrical release of films and their arrival on DVD…

The entire publishing life cycle has sped up in recent years. Hardcovers have less time to prove themselves in bookstores, since retailers tend to move them off the shelves more quickly than they used to. E-book sales are usually strong in the initial period after the publication date but do not spike again after the paperback comes out, said Terry Adams, the digital and paperback publisher for Little, Brown & Company…

As bookstore owners pointed out, readers love paperbacks.

“It’s definitely making the consumer happy to have the paperback available sooner,” said Peter Aaron, the owner of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, an independent store. “If there’s one form of printed book that will survive, if there was only one, it would be the trade paperback.”

26 July 2011

Frustration rewarded

I picked up the last of my birthday cache from book pusher Mary. It was Queen of the Night by J. A. Jance. I'm glad I did, but for quite awhile I wasn't at all sure that I was fortunate to get this gift.

Queen of the Night flowering cactus

Jance's credits page lists 41 previous books. I've read several and been impressed with her characters. I guess she really knows how to structure a plot too. This one is like jigsaw puzzle that is difficult to put together. When I started the book, I had trouble following the story. The book consists of tiny snippets of story and action. Okay, but they aren't consecutive. Each one is carefully labeled with place, day, date, time, and temperature, but that didn't really help me unless I paged back and looked at the labels of earlier snippets. It was frustrating.

Even more frustrating was the huge cast of characters. I stumbled through the first 100 (of 350) pages. But there were interesting people and intriguing mysteries that made me want to continue reading. What I did was go back through the first 100 pages and make a chart of the characters and their relationships.

As you can see, even if you can't read all my scribblings, there are lots of people and lots of relationships. And new characters were introduced after the first 100 pages, too. Not all of them made the chart. This diagram became my reading companion right up to the end. Maybe my old brain isn't as capable as it once was. Maybe I just didn't concentrate enough, but this is supposed to be recreational reading, not academic study. Maybe Jance just created too many characters and too many complications.

I was reminded of the Russian novels that had lists of characters at the beginning. Jance could have helped by making such a list. I also remembered reading Michael Fredrickson's second book, Witness for the Dead, that I read back in 2003. It had a large cast of characters, but something about the way the book was written and how the characters were introduced made it easy for me to keep track of them. (If you look back at that review, done in a pre-blog presentation, you'll find that some of the links are no longer functional.)

Making the chart and referring to it everytime scenes in the book changed, made all the difference for me. I got so I could recognize names and checked the chart for relationships and statuses. From there on the book was great. Reading the last 100 pages kept me awake until nearly 1:00am (long past my usual bedtime).

I'm really glad I made the effort to finish the book. It's really too bad the beginning was so difficult. It's a story full of heroes and villains and family feuds and family loyalties. The story centers on actions -- good and bad, and you know from reading things here that I like good stories. I just wish the story telling had been easier for me to follow.

Have you read Queen of the Night? What was the experience like for you? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

20 July 2011

Nosey nurse

Nineteen months ago, Dan Conrad passed on a recommendation of a Masie Dobbs-like mystery by Charles Todd, A Duty to the Dead. I finally read it.

It's good.

I found a copy at the used book sale run by the hospital auxillary last spring. I plucked it off the pile a week or so ago.

It's not a Masie Dobbs mystery. It is set during World War I, not in the war's aftermath. Hero Beth Crawford is an active duty British nurse from a well-to-do family, not a fortunate, talented former nurse who, with the right mentors, has made her own way in the world. Beth Crawford is home on recuperation leave after her hospital ship was sunk by a mine (she doesn't spend much time on R&R).

She's carrying a message from a dying patient to his family. She doesn't know want it means, but she has an overactive imagination and a really nosey attitude. She also has enough money, enough friends and family, and enough time and energy to poke around in the "private" world of a dead soldier's family.

Okay, I might make it sound bad, but if you read the book, you'll find Charles Todd putting an opposite spin on the whole situation.

The mother-son duo who is Charles Todd

In spite of that I liked reading the book. The story is complex and well unwound. The characters are pretty thin and the British countryside is mentioned, but not featured. There are some improbabilities, but I'm not inclined to award any Heart of Gold prizes for them. Well, except maybe the final one where Beth Crawford goes to a previously unmentioned aunt or cousin or something and finds a sympathetic and helpful advisor. It made me wonder why Crawford hadn't she gone to Aunt Melinda sooner.

I'll second Dan's recommendation of A Duty to the Dead, and look forward to reading another "Bess Crawford Mystery." However, I'll look forward with greater anticipation for the next "Masie Dobbs Mystery."

Have you read A Duty to the Dead or another of the Bess Crawford mysteries? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

17 July 2011

Why not dead?

Well, I was reading through a welcome stack of books that I began accumulating in April, and dear Nancy brings home a book from the library. That means I should read it before it is returned unless I want to make the effort to find it later. Not that I minded much. The book was another in the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow. I've liked most of Stabenow's books that I've read.

This one is Though Not Dead.

Right off the bat, I have to give this book two Green Lantern Superhero awards and a Heart of Gold Improbability award.

That bat, that I mentioned above, is about the only thing that wasn't used to hit Stabenow's superhero Kate Shugak in this book. I lost count whether it was 3, 4, or 5 times that Shugak was knocked silly and unconscious during the course of this story. I would suspect that Stabenow has a medical consultant she could consult about the short and long term effects of those injuries, but I really doubt that Shugak could wake up, blink, and carry on as nonchalantly as she does in this story. (Of course, as I recall, Shugak has survived worse in other stories, but in my memories her recoveries have been more realistic.)

Then there's the plot within which all this damage is done. As the book opens, Shugak's self-appointed foster father has died. He was a respected community elder. His gruff, outspoken manner was appreciated by most people. He left a mysterious message for Kate Shugak with his will, and that sets the story in motion.

It's a wonderfully complex story. Only slightly improbable. It's the actions of Kate Shugak and her "enemies" that are improbable. The bits and pieces of the story unwind and then join together in fine ways. Stabenow is a very good story teller. That is what holds this all together in the face of superheroism and incredibly unlikely events.

Like the other Kate Shugak stories, it takes place within the mostly native community on the edge of wilderness in southeast Alaska. The area is about 200 miles southeast of Wasilla in "the park," Stabenow's name for the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Since the park is so new, there is still a lot of private land and some native communities within the park. (After all, there's still some private land within Glacier National Park, and it's 101 years old.)

Downtown Chitina, Alaska, near the site of Niniltna
(reminds me of Cicely from Northern Exposure
Of course, outside shots for that TV show were filmed in Roslyn, WA)

Niniltna and the native villages are familar communities, full of familiar people to readers of earlier Stabenow books. But, there's a big mining company doing an environmental impact study for a proposed gold mine nearby that brings in a lot of outsiders as well as providing jobs to many locals. Plus, Stabenow allows the community to change, as with the death of Shugak's "father." That kind of vitality is one of the things that makes these stories attractive to me.

Oh, and Kate Shugak's love interest? He's off in California because of the death of his father. And presumably he's coming back to the wilderness richer than Croesus. What will become of two rich adventurous do-gooders in "the park?"

The hard-headedness of superhero Shugak and too many improbabilities keep me from proclaiming this really great. But I liked reading most of it.

Have you read Though Not Dead or other Stabenow books? What did you think of them? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

11 July 2011

Burned by Barr's Improbabilities

Many years ago, long before I dreamt up the Heart of Gold awards, I stopped reading Sue Grafton's novels about the adventures of Kinsey Millhone. I think it was around G is for Gumshoe (1989) or H is for Homicide (1991). Grafton's private eye was improbably doing dumb things and improbably surviving attacks by bad guys. It was too much fantasy for me.

Before the little California girls flew home, I picked up another of the birthday books from our family book pusher. (Thanks, Mary.) This was a Nevada Barr book, Burn.

This book earns a couple Heart of Gold awards. Usually, improbablities leave me cold. I like stories and I like realism. I am not keen on superheroes in an otherwise realistic environment. Maybe I should give Burn some kind of superhero award too. A Green Lantern award for improbable superhero?

Well, the improbabilities in Burn could power The Heart of Gold across the universe and back several times (I know that's an oxymoron in Douglas Adams' universe). One of the biggest improbabilities is that Barr's hero, U. S. National Park ranger Anna Pigeon, is a superhero in an otherwise normal universe. At least in modern Superman's "world" there are super villains to contend with. (I don't recall super villains in the 1950's Superman of my youth, but that's another issue.) And then there are the scenes where straight-laced, uptight Ranger Pigeon goes undercover as a hooker in New Orleans' French Quarter. And she doesn't get tagged as a female impersonater. Nor does she get approached by any Johns.

And Barr resorts to a plot device often used by mystery writers: sending her main character off on an investigation she has no duty to follow and one that's far outside her purview. I see that most often in TV scripts, but it's here, right out in public. In fact, Ranger Pigeon is supposedly in New Orleans recovering emotionally and physically from her last adventure. Instead she decides to jump into situations she knows little about and without any consultation with people she loves and respects (like her husband and her sister).

I've really enjoyed most of Barr's mystery-thrillers. As escapist lit, she does a good job of story telling.

There are two stories in Burn which merge about half way through the book. I enjoyed the separate stories more than the single joined story. Once Anna Pigeon got involved with murder suspect on the lam from half-way across the country, things went downhill. I read the second half of the book wondering how Barr was going to pull all her irons out the fires. Her methods were improbable.

My unsolicited advice to Nevada Barr is to send her ranger back into the arms of her sheriff-preacher husband and find out how the two of them can more realistically work together. And don't neglect to have Ranger Pigeon's psychiatrist sister come for a visit. In my mind each of those people offers needed balance for the Anna Pigeon character (and stories about her).

Have you read Burn? Or another of Barr's novels? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.


A couple years ago, I awarded some books I read "Heart of Gold Prizes." The name for the prize came from Douglas Adams' space ship in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. [It had a black control panel (like my now obsolete audio amplifier). Black controls mean that no one can really tell what the controls control. But given the way the space ship worked, no one needed to use the control panel anyway.]

Heart of Gold

The reason I choose that space ship for the prizes was becasause of the power source used by the Heart of Gold. Kevin Kelly in his io9 blog, described the propulsion system this way, "The Heart of Gold ran on an infinite improbability drive that took it through 'every point in the universe at once' when it was switched on. Not too shabby. All it took was an electronic brain and a good Brownian motion generator, like a cup of tea, and you're off. Probably the cheapest form of travel ever invented."

I bring this up because of some of my recent reading. I'm ready to award some more HoG Prizes. Improbabilities drive me up a wall. Especially blatant ones. These are not awards of honor. A couple prize winners follow.

Doing my Doig

Ivan Doig is one of those names I see tossed around in the world of Literature. Well-known authors review his books.

On the Ivan Doig Literature Map, there are no names really close to his. That, to me, indicates that Doig's work is ideosyncratic. But some people whose books I've liked are not far away: Dan O'Brien, Norman Maclean, Leif Enger, Alexander Mccall Smith, and Kathleen Norris. On the fringes of the map are names like Willa Cather, Rita Mae Brown, C. J. Box, and Louise Edrich, whose books I have mostly liked. But there are also names like Danielle Steel. Danielle Steele?

Yes. I liked the first couple of Doig's books I read. I should have stopped after the first couple. I'd have better memories.

I'm more convinced than ever that these books are script outlines for television soap operas (if there are any still around). The little scenes he describes as his way of telling stories could easily be 4-minute televison scenes. And the way in which the scenes follow characters instead of timelines fits with what I've seen of soap operas as I've surfed channels. And the extended timelines (e.g. slow progression of story telling) also fits with my image of those daytime sagas.

Well, I've now done my Doig. I picked up Bucking the Sun at the Hospital Auxiliary book sale. It'll be the last of his books that I'll pick up.

This one centers on the extended Duff family, immigrants to Montana from Scotland. They get displaced or recruited to help build the Fort Peck Dam in Montana.

Dredging to build the Fort Peck dam.

Most of the Duff family were hired hands on the project and lived in one of the boom towns around the dam. Doig romanticized those towns and the people who survived there. Not everyone shared those views.

Dr. C.C. Lull, a doctor in the boom town of Wheeler, described the place and its people this way:
The natural result of this desire for recreation and entertainment when not on shift of work was that these places became a fertile field for the professional gambler and those of questionable reputation, both male and female, who live off the 'sap' and his hard-earned money. Bootlegging became rampant and a 'red-light' district was established.

There were gamblers, bootleggers, women of questionable income, and the men who associate with them. Professional dancers, grafters, robbers and morphine addicts and not a few wanted by the law sought refuge in this area. As time passed, the better and more substantial citizens became acquainted with each other, casting the influences against these undesirables, and made it too hot for them to remain any longer to plunder on the strange public without detection.

Lull doesn't mention that the workers were also begin recruited by the IWW other union organizers. Proletarian politics at its best and worst.

Bucking the Sun is light on plot and big on characters. It's evidently big on symbolism, too, but most of that missed me. The reading group guide that was at the back of the edition I read was full of questions about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the purpose of "back stories," and the causes of the betrayals in the story. Okay, not my kind of questions. Well, except for the one about fiction/nonfiction. I did go looking to find out if one of the big events late in the book actually happened. (It did.)

I'm as tired of the stories Doig has told as I am with the dry, high praries of eastern Montana. I know, those praries might be one of the reasons I enjoy the mountains just to the west, but I cannot think of what the romances of 20th century east slope Montana will help me enjoy more.

Agree? Disagree? Write and tell this little bit of the world why.

Readers, put this on your calendar

The Library of Congress

July 18, 8:00pm EDT from CNN

"This program looks behind-the-scenes at the Library of Congress, allowing viewers to learn the history of the institution as they tour the Library’s iconic Jefferson Building and see some of the treasures found in its collections of rare books, photos, and maps. It will also feature a look at some of the presidential papers housed there, ranging from George Washington through Calvin Coolidge. Viewers will learn how the library uses technology to preserve its holdings and expand public access to them. It will also show how technology is helping to uncover new information about some of the items in its collections."

"The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with nearly 150 million items. It was started in 1800. Its first books were bought from England with a $5,000 appropriation from Congress. Housed in the U.S. Capitol, the library was destroyed in 1814 when British soldiers burned the building. Hearing of the fire, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his book collection. After much debate, Congress agreed to buy the collection for just under $24,000. In 1851, another fire destroyed 2/3 of the library’s holdings. In 1870, Congress passed copyright legislation that required two copies of every book published be sent to the Library of Congress. Subsequently, the holdings of the library grew extensively. Congress debated whether to give the library its own building. That didn’t happen until much later. The library moved out of the Capitol building and into the Jefferson building in 1897. Today, the Library of Congress spans over a total of 8 buildings."