30 June 2011

More about Montana before mid-century

I was enchanted by a four-year-old recently. It probably helps that she's a granddaughter, but she's pretty wonderful without that status.

I was planning on spending a couple evenings with her, but for most of that time, she'd be asleep. So I grabbed a small paperback by Ivan Doig (another of those books I picked up at the used book sale). I figured it would be easy to hold on to while I read to stay awake.

The book was Heart Earth. It was written about a decade after Doig wrote the autobiographical This House of Sky. In This House... Doig told the story of growing up with his widowed father and his maternal grandmother. The time wasn't easy for any of them. Doig's mother died on his 6th birthday. His grandmother joined the household because there was no other way for his father to continue earning a living and maintaining a family. Father and mother-in-law never seemed to like each other, but they joined forces to create a family.

I haven't read This House of Sky, but I did read Heart Earth. Heart Earth is a recreation (or reimagining) by Doig of his mother. After his uncle died, he was handed a packet of letters from his mother to her brother. Doig's uncle served on a warship in the Pacific during World War II, and his mother had time and inclination to write to her brother and share a lot of her thoughts and feelings with him.

From these letters, Doig attempts to describe his mother and her married life. There are many holes in the description, as we'd expect. In spite of the apparent intimacy of the letters, he writes about events more than about the person who was his mother. Maybe that's to be expected, too. Doig was too young to have many memories or first hand impressions. This writing exercise seems primarily to be a personal project in which Doig tries to find out more about the mother he never knew.

I never really got engaged with the story or the people. And it wasn't because I read most of this during a couple nights of babysitting. Doig's prose is rich and smooth. It's also pretty passionless and non-judgemental. His other books have plot that this real life biography doesn't. The book ends with his mother's death. As the number of unread pages dwindled, I knew where the death was going to happen. No dramatic build up or climax here. Just sorrow, but even that was mostly implied.

Maybe you've read Heat Earth and found things there I didn't. If so, write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience with the book.

27 June 2011

More interesting books

  • The Future Has A Past - J. California Cooper
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
  • Texas by James Michener
  • Rereading the book I wrote, Remnants, so I can write the sequel this summer!
  • Journal of a UFO Investigator by David Halperin (because when I was 7, I was a UFO investigator)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
  • Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

An intriguing book list

My college alumni Facebook page asked grads what they're reading this summer. Here are the results from the first two hours. It's lists like this that often lead me to books I'd never encounter otherwise.

I'll resist the temptation to comment and just post the list (without links too):
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • The Portrait by Ian Pears
  • Uncertain Path: A Search For The Future Of National Parks by William C. Tweed
  • Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl [Okay, I'll comment. The author was once in a class I taught.]
  • Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
  • Fire and Ice books by Neal Stephenson
  • In The Woods by Tara French, great mystery and great writing
  • The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi
  • Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer
  • Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami
  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (listed twice)
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Cinderella Ate My Daughter: dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture by Peggy Orenstein
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog
  • Emma
  • Unbroken
  • Fall of Giants
  • In the garden of beasts
  • The Origins of Political Order, Vol. 1 by Francis Fukuyama
  • Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Waiting for Aphrodite (essays about amphibians) by the wonderful Sue Hubbell
  • Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
  • Embassytown by China Mieville
  • Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

18 June 2011

Great story again

For at least the third time, our family book pusher provided us with a novel by C. J. Box. I think she likes carefully reading these before they become welcome gifts in our household.

I first read a C. J. Box mystery/adventure when Nancy bought one in West Yellowstone. The first one I wrote about here was Winterkill in 2006. However, I mentioned then that I'd read two earlier books by Box. (I read Open Season and Savage Run in the days before I began posting these notes on the blog. I have written about Free Fire, Blue Heaven, and Below Zero. Along the way, I passed on reading Three Weeks to Say Goodbye because it sounded too grim.

Box is such a good story teller, that I've read most of his books even though, as I've said before, I don't like nastily violent books like these.

As with at least two other Box novels, I didn't want to put this book down once I got into it. Paradoxilly, I kept taking breaks in my reading because I didn't want to be done with the book.

There are two stories in Cold Wind, and they pretty much run parallel to one another until the end of the book. In an earlier book, Wyoming ranger Joe Pickett and his outside-the-law doppleganger Nate Romanowski were seriously estranged from one another. As we might expect one of this book's stories is about Joe and the other is about Nate. At the end of the book, the two stories merge and Joe and Nate reach a kind of truce. And the ending sets up the next story which is likely to threaten Nate, Joe, and Joe's family.

Between the covers of this book, a fabulously rich rancher is murdered, his widow (Joe Pickett's mother-in-law) is accused of the crime, someone clumsily tries to kill Nate, Joe's oldest daughter heads off to college, and Joe spends time monitoring the fall hunting season in north central Wyoming between taking comp days to investigate the murder. The plot is satisfyingly complicated, but it's the story telling that stands out.

As usual, there's a fair amount of improbability in the details of the story, but I can overlook it when it's told this well.

Have you read Cold Wind? other C. J. Box books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

From the Kindle store

15 June 2011

Enough Scandinavian. How about a Canadian author?

Dale Stahl wrote from his post-school year leisure with another suggestion for reading. He's another valuable friend who is regularly reading interesting things. This is what he recommended today. (And no, Dale, no one else has mentioned these before. Thank you.)

Here is another series I wonder if you have read or anyone has written about: The Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny?

They are all set in an idyllic little Canadian village outside of Montreal that seems to have an inordinate number of murders. [Sounds like Murder, She Wrote] The characters are wonderful -- Penny creates a social life of flawed but connected people that I would love to drop in on for dinner. And speaking of dinner, every meal enjoyed by the characters makes one’s mouth water. Not to mention the wine and cocktails before during and after!

The murders in these books are all a little convoluted, no straightforward bludgeoning or stabbing, and I had thought them a bit farfetched until I opened my Star Tribune and read about the MN man who is accused of crushing his wife with a giant totem pole.

PS also I am for sure going to pick up and read the rest of the works by the Norwegian author K.O. Dahl I mentioned to you earlier. Really enjoyed the Fourth Man.

Do you have a suggestion for us? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Louise Penny's web site

Louise Penny introduces her hero Armand Gamache.

Multiple recommendations

Dan Conrad dropped me an e-mail with an interesting list attached.

I thought you might find this of a tiny bit of interest.

What follows is my "request" list at Hennepin County Library.

The interest, I think, is not what I happen to have on order but as a check of the relative popularity of several books, which we might have a common interest in. Check, for instance, the long list for The Ice Princess. This will be my first Camilla Läckberg book. Have you read anything by her in your perusal of Scandinavian crime fiction? Also, note that Masie Dobbs beats out her "clone" Bess Crawford, 7+ to 1. That seems just.

Anyway, all in all a totally  frivolous FYI. Any here you have on your "to read" radar?
TitleAuthorPosition (Place in Line)
Bad IntentionsFossum, Karin15 of 45 (on order)
A Bitter Truth: A Bess Crawford MysteryTodd, Charles15 of 32 (on order)
The Devotion of Suspect XHigashino, Keigo21 of 23
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and
the Search for the Good Life
Hughes, Bettany15 of 32
The Ice PrincessLäckberg, Camilla463 of 485
A Lesson in Secrets: a Maisie Dobbs novelWinspear, Jacqueline17 of 228
Naughty in Nice: a Royal Spyness MysteryBowen, Rhys35 of 112 (on order)
A Red Herring without Mustard: a
Flavia de Luce Mystery
Bradley, C. Alan87 of 92
A Singular Woman: the Untold Story of
Barack Obama's Mother
Scott, Janny102 of 136
So Much Pretty: a NovelHoffman, Cara27 of 67
Started Early, Took my Dog: a NovelAtkinson, Kate5 of 214

It's going to be awhile until Dan gets to read The Ice Princess. On my mental to-read list are the Maisie Dobbs mystery and Janny Scott's bio of Obama's mother. However, I'll have to investigate the others on this list as well. Except maybe the Soctates book. I might add Socrates to my fairly short list of things I'm unwilling to spend much time on anymore. Go ahead, call me a philistine.

Dan also wrote with a note that could only come from someone who identifies himself closely with his Swedish immigrant ancestors. But maybe you'll find some recommendations that will fit your reading mood even if you're not Swedish, Swedish-American, or Scandinavian. (I don't think there are any "important" books on this list.)

Two years ago, Dan sent me the same list. That time he'd found it in The Guardian. If you go to that blog entry, "Vem hade kunnat gissa?" you can see links to reviews of the books on the list besides Dan's. If he's read 6 of these books in the past two years, he's made great progress, especially if he's waited for library copies.

"I get a magazine called Swedish Press. In the current issue there is an interview with a current "hot thing" in Swedish crime fiction, Camilla Låckberg (Ice Princess, e.g.--not read it myself, but have it on my library request list, see above). Anyway, they asked her what she thought were the "Top Ten Swedish Crime Novels." Here is her list.

"I put an asterisk by ones I have read and also what I rated it on a scale of 1-5. [Note: I do have a "6" but that's for books I would like to read a second time]. Which have you read?"

  1. Mind’s Eye, Håken Nesser (Read his Borkman’s Point and didn’t care for it)
  2. * Blackwater, Kerstin Ekman (4.5)
  3. * Missing, Karin Alvtegen (4)
  4. * Sun Storm, Åsa Larsson (4)
  5. * The Fifth Woman, Henning Mankell (3)
  6. * Unseen, Mari Jungstedt (2)
  7. Shame, Karin Alvtegen
  8. Echoes from the Dead, Johan Theorin
  9. * Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson (5)
  10. Midvinterblod, Mons Kallentoft (Not translated yet)
If you look at the ReadingBlog entry, you'll find that my reaction to Nesser's Borkman's Point was much like Dan's. I read Mari Jungstedt's Unspoken and liked it. I've read all three of Stieg Larsson's books and I liked them all, although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best. Netflix delivered the third Swedish movie based on the books, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and we watched it last weekend. It was really good -- maybe as good as the first film. I have no interest in seeing the American versions which are currently in production.

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13 June 2011

That's what I get

Every once in awhile, my ego whispers in my ear that I ought to read something more "important" than merely entertaining fiction. Sometimes, I listen to that voice.

Prelude: Forty-some years ago, I trotted off to one of my first college classes. It was a math class titled Math 10. It was the most basic math class offered. The topic was something called calculus.

I had no idea what calculus was. It sounded like calculation. I'd taken all the available math classes in my small town high school. I'd done well, even in the most advanced class: solid geometry and trigonometry. I knew I had to take a few math/science classes to earn my degree even if I wanted to major in political science. What better time to fulfill one of those distribution requirements than a couple months after finishing the math curriculum in high school?

I was lost in the calculus class from shortly after attendance was taken. I don't think I knew how lost I was for a couple weeks, but I was in over my head. Indeed nearly everything that was said in the class went over my head. Unfortunately, the prof lectured. I have no idea what he said. He didn't ask us to do problems in class. He had no way of knowing how lost I was until the mid-term.

I asked a friend for help. She'd graduated from high school at 16 and had taken calculus in high school. She tried to explain things, but it was probably too late. I started hanging out at the prof's office during office hours. That's when he found out how lost I was. He helped me figure out how to solve some basic problems, but he never did succeed in teaching me what calculus was or why anyone would want to know how to use it. I think I passed the class because I hung out asking for help.

What is all this reminiscing about? I picked up an important book recently that I'd read about. The topic sounded interesting and the review I saw was enthusiastic. It turns out, the reviewer was enthusiastic about the anecdotes that dot the book's chapters. But most of the book is about abstract math and quantum physics and genetics, none of which I understand any better than I understand calculus.

The book? The Information by James Gleick. Some of the anecdotes are indeed interesting, but finding them is a chore. They should have been in a different typeface than the other stuff. And since I never really understood what the book was about, I never figured out why Gleick told the stories when he did. I know what a fibonacci series is, but why would anyone care enough to even identify it?

There were whole chapters where all I could do was scan the first sentence of paragraphs looking for an interesting story, because the textbookish stuff was opaque to me. Numbers, to me, are meant for counting and measuring. What do you do with a sentence like, "Turing proved that some numbers are uncomputable." I shrug and say, "So what?"

The book was big, 525 pages with footnotes. The cover was white. It reminded me of Twain's so-called autobiography. It was less interesting, but it was easier to ignore the boring (incomprehensible) parts. I would have been very satisfied with a New Yorker article.

I should have focused on this line from the review, "Gleick ranges over the scientific landscape in a looping itinerary that takes the reader from Maxwell’s demon to Godel’s theorem, from black holes to selfish genes. Some of the concepts are challenging..." Challenging, hell. For me most of the concepts were meaningless.

Anyone have a more basic introduction to information theory? You don't have to answer that question. I'm not sure I want to know anymore.

Have you read The Information? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

I get the impression that none of these people really understood much of what Gleick wrote either.

Freeman Dyson, I am sure understood what Gleick wrote about. His review in The New York Review of Books helped me make some sense out of The Information even though it didn't help me understand the math and science that Gleick chronicled. But, by the time I read it, I didn't much care anymore.

05 June 2011

Reading what I write

I guess I better read what I write as well as what comes to me from other hands.

A couple days ago, as I concluded my thoughts on a new book, I wrote, "I liked reading Fidelity. Now, I'll have to go looking for a Jane Whitefield mystery and see how Perry handles a series."

When I looked at the plot summary of the first Jane Whitefield novel I thought it looked familiar.

Then I searched this blog. I neglected Bird Loomis' advice and didn't read the first of Thomas Perry's Whitefield novels (Vanished), but I did read Dance for the Dead last fall.

I even wrote about it: First romance, now fantasy. I sort of liked it, but I wasn't terribly impressed. It must not have been very memorable. I'd forgotten about it. I guess writing about things I read isn't a way to remember forgettable things.

01 June 2011

Murders most foul

After reading about Montana at the beginning of the 20th century, I picked up a book about southern California at the beginning of the 21st century. That hundred years might have been the least of the differences between the two books.

First Bird Loomis and then Gary Sankary recommended Thomas Perry's books, and I've read a bunch of them. (Search for Perry in the search box at the top left.) No series of books centered on a few stock characters in Perry's bibliography; the books stand alone and the characters are unique (except for the "Jane Whitefield series" which I haven't come across yet).

Fidelity is one of the books I bought on my most recent Sunday afternoon expedition to a bookstore.

While Dancing at the Rascal Fair was an antique Western romance, Fidelity is a murder mystery thriller. Doig writes about people's lives over a 30 years span; Perry writes about events during a week (with some narrative flashbacks); the tensions in the story of last century Montana came from the ongoing nature of relationships while the tensions in the southern California story come from the murderous intent of a couple of the characters.

The only internal dialogues and reflections indulged in by Perry's characters are directly connected to the mysteries and the dangers. Doig's main narrator was often thinking about meaning and self as well as destiny. There is some progression in the emotions of the threatened widow of the first murder victim in Fidelity, but it seems to come without anguish. Would a woman still in shock at her husband's murder, who just found out about his long term affair, really approach her husband's mistress with an "I dont' care about that, I care about this..." attitude? Ah, well, even if it's unlikely, Perry tells a good story -- and remember, I'm a story guy.

The story begins with an ambush murder. It continues with sinister and horrific threats against the dead guy's widow, and the circle of horror expands from there. The characters and their back stories are lightly drawn, but it doesn't matter. It's an adventure story and well told.

I liked reading Fidelity. Now, I'll have to go looking for a Jane Whitefield mystery and see how Perry handles a series.

Have you read Fidelity? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.