26 May 2011

Dancing in Big Sky Country

Every year the Northfield Hospital Auxiliary holds a used book sale as a fundraiser. We look forward to it as a way to offload books we don't want to host any longer. This year I went to the book sale to purchase some children's books for a granddaughter who will be visiting in June.

I came home with more than just kid lit. I already had several books from my Sunday expedition to the book store, then I got some birthday books from my favorite family book pusher, and now I have more on the short shelf of books to read.

I did start reading another of the books from the pre-April 15 purchase, but I haven't finished it yet. It's one of those books that's taking a long time to read. When I headed off on a road trip to visit another granddaughter, I grabbed one of the book sale books as well as the tape of the French philosophical novel (see previous entry here).

So, while in the quiet times between play dates with the kid, I began reading Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. The earlier Doig books I've read have been interesting and entertaining to one degree or another.

Dancing... was published in 1987, and was Doig's third novel. It's set in the northwestern Montana country where he grew up. His love of the country is as obvious as Hillerman's love of the desert southwest. Right away, I have more in common with Doig. However, while Doig likes the east slope prairies, I'd rather be in the mountains themselves. I'm not trying to make a living there though. Doig's people are.

The book is a western romance, starring a pair of young Scotsmen who came to America in the late 1880s. They would have been about the same age as my great-grandparents who came to Minnesota from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. (Well, okay, some of my great grandparents weren't immigrants.) As a little kid, I knew two of those great grands, and as I read Dancing..., I kept trying to think of my ancient worthies. Didn't work. Doig's characters seemed entirely too human, normal, and modern.

The Hancock homestead, July 23, 1910, photo by Walter Lubken, a Bureau of Reclamation photographer (from Wikimedia Commons). Original source

My great grands were near and over 90 years old when I remember them. They were dependent upon my grandmother. They didn't get out. I'd have to work my imagination to the bone to see them as young, vital, and passionate. Even the old great grandfather who bragged about riding a horse to Yellowstone and back as a 21-year-old was probably only telling stories to his grand and great grandchildren.

The worthy ancients of Doig's imagination are human, normal, and modern. And they are young, vital, and passionate. And they're stars of a soap opera. The two heroes arrive in Montana with nothing but the name of an uncle. That part I get. One of my great grands arrived from Denmark with nothing but a name. (Unlike the Scotsmen, he didn't speak English.)

The Scotsmen homesteaded land in foothills of the Rockies. They became sheep farmers and members of a rural community of sheep farmers. They struggled to make a living; they fell in love, wisely and unwisely; they raised families; helped each other; and hurt each other. The ups and downs of life.

Doig adds some drama to the telling and his narrator adds some reflection and analysis. Sometimes that gets in the way of the story. (Remember, I'm a story guy.) Sometimes that reflection is thoughtful and descriptive. It makes me slow down in my reading. There are big sections of this book where I had to read slowly and carefully and pay attention to more than just the verbs.

I enjoyed the book. I'm glad I have a couple more books by Doig on my short shelf (I found three at the book sale). However, I think I'll read other things before I read another. I'll probably even go back to the book I didn't take on the road trip to visit my granddaughter.

Meanwhile, I think Dancing at the Rascal Fair is a good book. Have you read it? Did you like it?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

18 May 2011

The return of the philosophical rodent

About two and a half years ago, Dan Conrad wrote on Facebook, that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the best book he'd read in 2008. He didn't write to tell us why, but I picked up his comment here and quoted a review from The Washington Post.

I don't recall that Dan ever explained his preference, but did mention the book by Muriel Barbery a time or two in conversations since.

So, I was heading off for a visit to a granddaughter. That meant 10-11 hours on the road. As usual when facing a road trip, I visited the Northfield library. When I saw the CD version of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I checked it out. I listened to half of it on the way to Jim, Ange, and Jaime's. I listened to some of the rest on the way home.

I know why Dan liked this book. The author is a professor of philosophy. The book is full of philosophy. Ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and metaphysics. There's very little plot. In fact, one English marketer noted that the book wouldn't do well in the UK because people there want plot more than anything else.

I'm a plot fan too. So I had trouble with the book. I don't think I could have read it. For me the philosophical processes of analyzing alternatives and meaning are tedious. I do understand why and how such cogitation can be appealing. It's just not appealing to me. While driving down the road, I could let the philosophical verbiage go in one ear and out the other. When I listened to the last two CDs at home, I kept falling asleep.

BUT, did you notice that I finished listening to the whole book? When I awoke and found that I'd slept through a track, I went back and listened to what I'd missed. Why? None of the tedious philosophizing was imperious or pompous. None of it was trivial. In fact, it was all tied to the "reality" Barbery created in the book. There were far too many big issues raised for me to keep track of. I think I could have spent a month with this book if I was of a mind to think through all the ideas she raised. But, I'm a plot fan.

AND, the three main characters are just amazing. There's a middle-aged Parisian concierge in an upscale condo building. She acts like the dumb country bumpkin the residents expect her to be. But in her back room she's reading Kant and Tolstoy, listening to Purcell and Mahler, and studying 17th century Dutch still life paintings. In her spare time, she's seen all the arty films of Yasujiro Ozu.

There's a friendless 11-year-old resident of the building, who is equally bright and forced to keep that quality under cover to satisfy her bourgeoise family. (She gets to narrate a third of the book through her journals.)

And then there's the new guy in the building. He's a rich Japanese businessman who, while being a successful importer, is also a secret intellectual, whose tastes in art and philosophy match those of his new concierge.

And then there's the ending. Eleven year old Paloma says, "I learned 'never.' It's awful!"

Have you read The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it. Or, if you read it, don't forget to tell us about your experience.

Your choices are the book, the recording, the Kindle version, or the French film on DVD.