19 December 2013

Titan revisited

I wasn't prepared for the opportunity to do some reading. I hadn't been to the library or a bookstore.

Then I saw a very old copy (printedin 1967 when the ISBN was just an "SBN") of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s The Sirens of Titan.

I was enthralled with the book 40-some years ago. It was full of ideas and jokes that were brand new to me. This time when I read it, it seemed a lot less like fiction or satire.

The mega-story is a huge shaggy dog tale. The main characters, like most of us, have no idea of their roles in the human saga. The NSA is real, and the Traflamadorians are fiction, but it's difficult to determine which is more destructive. Just like it's difficult not to laugh out loud when the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, and LinkedIn plead with the president in Washington, D.C. to rein in the government invasion of people's privacy.
A Sirens of Titan tattoo

After re-reading it, I still like The Sirens of Titan. But I'm an old man now, like the main character, and I'm less amused by human or machine foibles.

Bring on the children. They're cute and wonderful. They'll grow out of that, but I want to spend time with them now. And eventually give them their own copies of The Sirens of Titan.

Meanwhile, "Greetings."

05 December 2013

Singaporean detective

Looking for a new series of mysteries?

Danny Yee, an Australian whose recommendations have been good in the past, has this:

Inspector Singh Investigates by Shamini Flint

  • A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
  • A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul
  • The Singapore School of Villainy
  • A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree
  • A Curious Indian Cadaver
  • A Calamitous Chinese Killing

  • Inspector Singh is a Sikh working for the Singapore police, whose investigations so far have taken place in Malaysia, Bali (Indonesia), Singapore, Cambodia, India and China. The series is tied together by Singh's character and the foreign settings, in which he usually ends up working unofficially, with some help from elements of the local police... 
    "What makes these novels a success, however, are their individual stories. These are entertaining and well-paced, with a bit of suspense and some surprises, and they have a good cast of characters — in almost all of them families and family connections play key roles. And Flint may not have literary pretensions, but she writes straightforward and effective prose... "

    10 November 2013

    Long time no read?

    No! I've been reading all along. It's just that the last few things I've read were on my Nook. Somehow, finishing a book on the electronic tablet makes it difficult to write about. I have no idea why, but I don't have a book to look at and refer to when I want to write about it.

    For instance, I read The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey. Lovesey had been recommended by someone somewhere and I began with his 1991 novel. It's about a detective working in England at the beginning of the era of computerized record keeping. He, of course keeps insisting that good old-fashioned human detecting is better.

    I have vague, rather fond memories of the book.

    Then I read The First Patient by Michael Palmer. It's a story about a doctor in rural Wyoming with guilty secrets who is asked by a college friend, who was president of the USA, to come to Washington to be his personal physician. That's about all I remember. When I looked up Michael Palmer, a physician who wrote novels, I learned he died last month.

    I read a short story by Connie Willis called All Seated. It was a semi-amusing science fiction story about first contact.

    Then I read another Willis story called D.A. It was more interesting and posed a clever question: How do you recruit loyal, but skeptical members to a national security organization. It was written in 2007, well before Edward Snowden.

    Dana Stabenow describes Conspiracy as an extended character sketch of a few recurring characters in her Kate Shugak novels. Yep.

    I read James R. Benn's Billy Boyle, A World War II Mystery. Some of it takes place in Norway.

    I read Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller. It takes place in a couple antique stores. Talk about a "cozy."

    Then there was Deadly Stillwater by Roger Stelljes. The Stillwater here is a town in Minnesota, not a placid pond. It was a good mystery about a a St. Paul detective trying to find a kidnap victim, who is the daughter of the capital city's wealthiest and most successful lawyer. Good action scenes and well described detective work. I liked reading this one.

    Oh, and Kate Atkinson took me in again. I've thought some of her books were fantastic. In Life After Life, she trots out seemingly endless story lines about versions of life and death of her main character. I looked up the New York Times review to remind me of the book since I'd done my best to forget it. That's why I can tell you that much about it. I did not enjoy slogging through a book when I had to start over every few pages.

    I read Mark Shroeder's The Book of Margery Kempe. (I think Dale Stahl recommded some version of this.) There are several versions, including an alleged autobiography of this 14th century mystic from England. It bears resemblances to Life After Life.

    I've now read everything on the Nook except Pride and Prejudice and A Beacon so Bright, a Biography of Laurence McKinley Gould. Gould was a president of Carleton College in the '50s and early '60s. The biography was written by the college archivist. Nancy edited it and saw to its conversion to an e-book, which is why it's on the Nook.

    Now to real books.

    Schwebebahn car
    A long time friend who teaches English in the picturesque German town of Wuppertal was in Scotland last summer. (Two special attractions of Wuppertal to me were the Schwebebahn and the Engles family factory museum. Yes, Karl Marx's writing partner grew up in Wuppertal and the family business helped support Marx during his years of thinking and writing.)

    In any case, while in Scotland, my friend ran across Glencoe and the Indians by James Hunter. Hunter is a Scot who was intrigued by the fact that Highlanders left Scotland to become fur traders in what is now Montana and Idaho, some working for the Hudson Bay Company and others for competing American companies. Not only that, there's a major
    Lake McDonald
    lake and mountain in Glacier National Park named McDonald, after one of those Highlanders. Add to that bits of anthropology, sociology, and politics that help compare how the English treated the Highlanders and how the European immigrants in the USA treated the native peoples in places like Montana and Idaho. Oh, and lots of people and nearly all the political leaders of the Salish tribe in Montana are named McDonald. Astrid knew I'd be interested and sent me the book.

    If only Hunter hadn't written the book like he had to tell all the stories at once. There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't include one, two, or three parenthetical back or side stories before reaching its conclusion (see above where I begin to write about how I got the book and got sidetracked with the Schwebebahn and Fredrick Engels). I skipped a lot of those asides. The idea of the book was more interesting than the book.

    However, Hunter does conclude that the Highlanders, given the social safety net the UK, came out of their domination by the English better than the native peoples of Montana and Idaho came out of their domination by Americans. Nowhere in Scotland, is there poverty like that on the reservations of those American states.

    Finally, there's Qiu Xiaolong's Enigma of China. Qiu is an immigrant to the USA. He's a poet and the author of eight mystery novels featuring Shanghai detective Chen Cao. The Shanghai settings are contemporary, so the city is practically alive with growth and change. At the same time, Detective Chen is an assistant Party Chairman in the police force, and the Party works assiduously to maintain its power and position in the face of change its leaders have set in motion.

    BMW Shanghai cruiser
    The plots of Qiu's novels always involve some of the conflict between the inertia of change and the inertia of stability and between rule of law and corruption. Some of his novels have been published in China after being "harmonized" to erase those contradictions. This one won't be. The contradictions are too central to the plot. There's no way to erase the political influences on the central death, supposedly a suicide. There's no way to exclude the corruption, big and small, that pervades the story. Even the main character rationalizes his way into accepting favors large and small. And at the end apparently accepting a promotion to a high level job in Beijing.

    It's a well-told story that holds together. It might help if you're a bit familiar with Chinese politics and know what "socialism with Chinese characteristics" refers to, but the story is universal enough to entertain most everyone.

    I highly recommend it. I've read a couple other Detective Chen mysteries and they were good too.

    Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think of these or other books you've read.

    10 August 2013

    Mystical mystery

    Back to the half-price used books I bought last spring. I read this one a month or more ago, but it was set aside for other things.

    The book was The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke. I picked it up because I've read a couple other books by Burke. Twelve years ago I read Cadillac Jukebox. Sometime since then I read Swan Peak. There's no online record of my thoughts about that one.

    I also picked up the Burke book because of Bird Loomis' recommendations (now and a dozen years ago).

    I was in a different mood this summer than I was in August of 2001. I didn't like The Glass Rainbow as well as I liked Cadillac Jukebox. Then again, the books might be different too.

    A decade ago I compared Burke to Steven Greenleaf and complained that Greenleaf had included too much foreboding. Well, The Glass Rainbow is permeated with foreboding. The foreboding almost overwhelms the story telling. As Burke's detective Dave Robicheaux seeks solutions to the deaths of seven young women, he's pursued by the hallucination of a huge paddle wheeler on the canal behind his house.

    The landscape of watery, hot, and humid Louisiana again plays a role in the story telling. I still have little appreciation for the tropical images Burke paints so well. I do much better with the desert images of Tony Hillerman or the dry mountains described by Craig Johnson. (I want to point out that I'm comparing Burke to two of my favorite mystery writers.) No wonder Burke has retired for summers in Montana.

    By the end of The Glass Rainbow, I wasn't sure what was real and what was part of Robicheaux's fevered psyche. As I closed the book, I wondered if Burke had finally killed of his hero after 18 books. The big riverboat had come for him and his ancestors had welcomed him aboard. It was only when I read a review of Burke's newest book that I found it out it opens in Robicheaux's hospital room when he wakes up.

    There was some good story telling, but I closed the book unhappy with my reading experience. I didn't like the exquisite depiction of the Turkish bath weather or the mumbling philosophy of the man on the fevered edge of life. That stuff overwhelmed a complex plot with lots of bad guys and suspense.

    Have you read The Glass Rainbow? What did you think about it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

    26 July 2013

    Reading a Nook

    Reading a novel on a Nook (or another tablet-type appliance) is not like reading a book. I haven't figured out the dimensions of difference, but, I'm not as satisfied after finishing the newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Leaving Everything Most Loved on my Nook as I usually am after putting down a book.

    Okay, it might be that this mystery is not up to Jacqueline Winspear's par.

    The plot, while complicated and multi-cultural is pretty thin. It might be that Winspear's protagonist spends a lot of time pondering her place in the universe. All that time spent in self-analysis is probably one of the reasons she didn't nab the perp sooner than she did.

    The book was also the beginning of a transition for Maisie Dobbs, who, at the end of the book closes her investigative business, farms out her two employees, marries off her widower father, puts off her fiancee-wanna-be, and boards a ship for India. (No word about what happened to the cute little MG she tooled around in.)

    It could also be that so much of the cultural details from 1920's England seems missing from this story. That stuff made Maisie and her world so much richer than many stories. Winspear moved from England to California sometime after starting the Maisie Dobbs series and maybe she's out of touch with details about London buses, telephones, street scenes, and houses.

    It could also be that I started reading this book a week or so ago at home and finished on a Saturday afternoon at the cabin called Sidetrack on a lake called Blake. Maybe the story deserves more concentrated attention.

    Two immigrant women from India, roommates in a sort of shelter, are murdered in London. The brother of one of the women arrives in London and hires Maisie to help find the murderer. There are suspicious missionary types, wild children in a park, gifted healers, mystified London cops, a confessed murderer who seems an unlikely culprit, and Maisie trying to decide what her place is in the universe.

    It just didn't seem, when I finished it, to be a great reading experience. Was it because of the Nook or something else? I really did miss the paper and turning pages with more than a tap on the right edge of the screen.

    I don't know. Right now I want to return to concentrating on the loon who is calling on the lake. What do those calls mean?

    Have you read Leaving Everything Most Loved? Have you read a book on a tablet? What did you think? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

    07 July 2013

    A change of pace

    Most of us writing here read mysteries more often than other genres. However, Dale Stahl wrote with thoughts about one alternative. He's encouraging me to add Elisabeth Strout to my to-read list.
    Changed up my summer reading from Hakan Nesser and Inspector Van Veeteren, whom I enjoy, to Elisabeth Strout.

    Her novel Olive Kitteridge is about a seventh grade math teacher, now retired. It's really a collection of short stories about the people, the families, and the interactions in a small Maine town. They are the kind of things a long-time high school teacher in a small town would be in touch with. Olive is the subject of some of the stories and crosses paths with the main characters of the other stories.

    I really enjoyed this book, Strout's insights on the human condition are entertaining and valuable. While people deal with life's challenges and disappointments and find their way through the difficulties fears and emotional challenges of life are fascinating and instructive.
    I highly recommend this book when you are ready for a change from murder and mayhem!
    Have you read Olive Kitteridge? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

    06 July 2013

    Thriller waiting to happen

    I have to write about the Yrsa Sigurðardóttir book I read a couple weeks ago. Nancy got it for me at the library, I had to renew it, and now it's due again. I did have things to say about it when I finished it, but I've forgotten most of what I wanted to say about The Day is Dark.

    It seems that the first thing I have to say about the book is that it was forgettable. That's not new, since I forget about most of the books I read. One of the reasons I began publishing the newsletter Reading, 25 or so years ago was to help me remember what I'd read.

    As I look at the book cover, I see that it's labeled as "a thriller." I remember something now. It's not a thriller. There are certainly plenty of settings and opportunities for thrills in a tiny native fishing village in eastern Greenland. The reclusive residents could be seen as mysterious and threatening. The abandoned mining camp outside of the village offers plenty of empty buildings, complicated survival technology, and snowy wilderness. Add to that the reputation the area has of being haunted, the fleeting sightings of an unknown person outside the mining camp HQ, the missing people, and you have lots of ingredients for a thriller.

    Fishing village in eastern Greenland
    But, Yrsa doesn't manipulate those things in order to instill fear and anxiety in the reader. I can imagine her characters were fearful, but I don't think many readers will be. Her characters, including the Icelandic lawyer Þhóra Guðmundsdóttir (transliterated as Thora Gudmundsdottir), are too busy keeping the generators working, the heat on, and puzzling over the skeleton found scattered in various desk drawers in the main office and the body found in the kitchen freezer. Oh, and they're looking for clues to the disappearance of two of the mining crew. As described by Yrsa, the investigators flown in from Iceland don't have time to be scared. The only anxiety I had was about when the impending threat was going to cause great peril.

    The mystery is an interesting one. The story is well-told, but it's not a thriller. Maybe there's an Icelandic word that translates to "thriller," but which has a different meaning in the original.

    I also had very picky (and probably unfair) nits to pick about the description of the isolated and self-sufficient mining camp in the wilderness. I'm one of the very few people outside of Australia who reads the newsletter and looks at the webcam from an Aussie research station in Antarctica. [Mawson Station newsletter. Mawson Station webcam.] So I have a somewhat informed image of how an isolated, self-sufficient community operates, sociologically and mechanically. Yrsa's mining camp wasn't cut off from the outside world for most of the year, like the Aussies at Mawson, and the Greenland operation was commercial, but there were things she described that didn't quite ring true. Sarah Andrews spent time in Antarctica on an NSF Antarctic Artists and Writers fellowship to get things right for her mystery, In Cold Pursuit. Yrsa's story might have benefitted from an extended visit to an eastern Greenland mining camp.

    All that is minor. The story is a good one. The telling of the story is well-done. It was a great diversion for a few days back in June. Check it out if it's in your library.

    Have you read The Day is Dark? How did you react? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

    23 June 2013

    Unexpected story

    G'pa Rohl in my memory
    Back when I was a little kid in the middle of the last century (gotta get that line in somewhere), my great grandfather was in his 90s. He loved telling stories about his experiences. Some of them might even have been true. Albert William Rohl, known to friends as Willie and to family my age as Grandpa Rohl, was a carpenter. He was born in Michigan during the U.S. Civil War. That fact alone made him an intriguing figure to a kid who'd just heard about the Civil War of ancient history. What's an 8-year-old supposed to do with a 90-year-old war?

    One of the stories Grandpa Rohl told was about setting off for the great American west when he turned 21 . That would have been 1883. He went on horseback, sleeping on the ground with his horse tied to his ankle. He stopped and did farm work for settlers along the way. Went out to Yellowstone, which had been named the United States' first national park in 1872. Grandpa Rohl came back and practically never left the city of Minneapolis afterward.

    Young Willie
    I don't remember him describing anything about Yellowstone, but I wish now that I did. If, that is, he said anything about Yellowstone. I just don't know. I do remember him saying that when he got to Deadwood in Dakota Territory, people told him to get out of town. They didn't like strangers in town after the killing of Wild Bill Hickock. Well, that seems unlikely since Hickock had been killed in 1876. But maybe...

    All that is preface to my unexpected reading pleasure. One of the free things on the Nook I got for Christmas was a book by Sinclair Lewis, Free Air.

    I'd never heard of it. No wonder it was free. It was probably free of copyright restrictions too. So, what's senior citizen supposed to do with a 90-year-old story?

    Somewhere in the distant past I think I read a Sinclair Lews novel. Maybe Arrowsmith or Babbit. I'm not sure, but maybe... I don't remember anything about it. In my mind, Lewis was an ancient, honored novelist that literature students had to read to be considered educated. Like David's summer session programming classes, boring but important.

    I do remember reading about Lewis' reputation as a cynic and critic of people's illusions about themselves -- especially small town people. It took years (a generation?) for people in Saulk Center, Minnesota to stop hating Lewis for basing his first best seller, Main Street, on their fair "city" and some of its honorable citizens.

    So I'm at the lake place called Sidetrack with my Nook and its library containing Free Air. What the heck, Zane Grey surprised me. Well, Lewis surprised me too.

    The story begins in the Minneapolis of 1919. The main character is a plucky young woman who is tending to her widowed father. He was a big time banker in Brooklyn and the family was part of high society there. Then he had a breakdown, and was persuaded by his daughter to move to Minneapolis and tend to the Midwestern part of his banking empire. When he had another breakdown, she convinced him that a road trip to Seattle was just the cure for his overwork. (It seems like an early 20th century version of getting the old guy off line.)

    Young Sinclair Lewis
    Somewhere northwest of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in Sinclair Lewis' version of Lake Wobegon, the plucky young heroine attracts the attention of the plucky young local auto mechanic. He's so enamored with the plucky young society girl on the road to the west coast that he jumps in his little ersatz Model-T and decides to follow her. Being the plucky, young, self-sufficient girl that she is (from Brooklyn high society?), she resents his attention even though he helps her out of a huge mud hole and rescues her and her father from a highwayman.

    In spite of her remonstrances, he follows her at a distance, helps her adjust her car to conquer some mountain driving, and is invited by the ailing banker to join them in a tour of Yellowstone. (See I did get back to the Yellowstone theme.) The plucky youngsters are entranced by the natural beauty of Yellowstone Canyon and falls and they share a climb down the canyon to the river. (A plucky young woman from Brooklyn high society?)

    Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
    About that point in the story I began wondering if this was written by the same Sinclair Lewis whose reputation was as a cynical social critic. He even had me chuckling out loud enough times that Nancy asked from the other room, "What's so funny?" Free Air is a romantic comedy. I'll bet Katherine Hepburn would have jumped at the role of the plucky young woman from high society. ("Could you make that Philadelphia high society instead of Brooklyn?" Miss Hepburn asks.) Sandra Bullock would probably love it if she was just a little younger. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence would be good. Jimmy Stewart would have been a good male lead. In current time, Daniel Radcliffe would stand in for old Jimmy. Cary Grant would have been great in the role of the self-important Brooklyn banker/suiter who shows up from Brooklyn high society several times in the story. Matt Damon might take that role today. Tom Hanks might pull off the role the father, although in real life he's a little too old. Ah, what day dreaming will lead me to.

    This story was the big surprise. I was waiting, during the second half of the book for the taming of the plucky young Brooklyn society girl. It never happened. She's a pretty determined feminist. Lewis does a great job of skewering both the illusions of the high society characters and the insecurities of the small towners. His sympathies are all with the plucky young mechanic from the edge of the prairie. Well, other sympathies are with the democratic aspirations of the plucky young woman from Brooklyn, too. The story doesn't have a "happily ever after" ending, but it does have a "happy so far" ending.

    Was this written by THE Sinclair Lewis? Yes, it was. It turns out that in the days before Main Street, his Nobel Prize, and the Pullitzer he turned down, Lewis paid his bar tab (and that wasn't small) by writing serialized stories for women's magazines. And that's where Free Air comes from. The title comes from the once-ubiquitous signs in front of gas stations. It's mentioned once early in the story. I'm not enough of a scholar to tease out further meaning from the phrase or the story. So what!? It was a romantic comedy. And it was fun to read.

    Have you read Free Air? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it. Or what you think of Sinclair Lews.

    22 June 2013

    Another of the half-priced used book

    Another of the books I picked up at the used book sale was actually on my "to read" list. It was The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg. This one was a two dollar special. And worth more.

    Dan Conrad and I discussed this book after reading one of Läckberg's books a couple years ago. Somehow I hadn't gotten around to reading it. Maybe it wasn't in the library. If memory serves me, this one is better than the previous book.

    Fjallbacka, setting of the novel
    The plot centers around a multi-generational family secret, a huge pile of money, and some not very nice people. Läckberg does a great job of telling the story. She uses several narrators to tell the story and one of the interesting things she does is have them describe themselves and each other. If you've seen the television ads that ask people to describe themselves for a sketch artist and then have someone else describe them for the same sketch artist, Läckberg's technique makes sense. The differences between how we see ourselves and how others see us can be amusing and insightful. Läckberg uses this writing trick for both purposes. It's delightful.

    Then there's the big reason this book is better than the last. Läckberg tells snippets of story, one after the other. Last time I likened it to writing stories, cutting them apart, mixing up the pieces, and then pasting them back together in mostly chronological order. The technique made it really difficult to follow what was going on. This time around, Läckberg has added many more transistions. All it takes is a reference at the end of one snippet to the character who then tells the next snippet. Well done.

    However, she really disappointed me in the last half of the book. About three-quarters of the way through the book, one of her narrators, who has been telling us readers nearly everything she sees, hears, and thinks, suddenly opens a letter, reads it, and announces to the readers that she knows who the killer is. But she doesn't tell us readers. Nor does she tell the detective she's been shadowing, even though they've been sharing clues, ideas, and each other for over half the book. Läckberg doesn't even offer a rationale for this breach of faith. It sort of (not completely) spoiled the end of the book for me. I learned while writing this that Ice Princess was Läckberg's first novel. For that fact she gets a break from me for this little betrayal of her readers.

    But overall, it was a great story, well told.

    Have you read The Ice Princess? What did you think of it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

    [ begin crocdile tears ] I know that few of you used the links to Amazon to purchase books, but there won't be any more cute little links. Amazon "fired" all its "Associates" in Minnesota in order to avoid paying sales tax (VAT) on things sold in the state. [ end crocodile tears ]

    28 May 2013


    The rereading wasn't intentional this time. I was at the last day of the Northfield Hospital Auxiliary used book sale. Everything was half priced. I picked up a Laurie R. King novel from 2007 for a buck. It didn't look or sound familiar.

    However, the opening chapter of The Language of Bees seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe it had been a teaser appended to the end of a previous book??

    Most of the first third of the book seemed new. Then there was a section about flying around the Scottish islands in 1924. That rang some memory bells. But the ending seemed all new to me.

    Once again, looking out the window at the shores of the little lake named Blake on a cool, cloudy weekend promoted reading. Between naps and gardening and cleaning, I read the book.

    My memory must be going or The Language of Bees just wasn't very memorable. I wrote about reading it in the spring of 2010. I wasn't terribly impressed then. I'm not terribly impressed now. Go back and see what I said then. I agree with myself. I am still ready for Laurie R. King to write about people other than Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

    13 May 2013

    Some thoughts from Down Under

    Bird Loomis has been doing the visiting scholar bit in Australia, so his has been a year without a winter. Along with lecturing, writing, and observing, he's also been reading and visiting galleries down under. I don't know what he's been doing in the galleries, but here are some of the things he's been reading.

    Long-running series:.  Just finished the last two C. J. Box books, with Joe Pickett as the central character. Force of Nature is #12 in the series, Breaking Point #13.  And I recently finished Ian Rankin’s latest John Rebus book, Standing in Another Man's Grave.

    The Rankin and Force of Nature were pretty good, but not great. Both represented late-series books that were more than a bit formulaic.  At some point Pickett’s domestic tensions and his buddy Nate Romanowski’s super-human exploits grow wearisome, as does Rebus’s drinking, smoking, and listening to a who’s who of jazz. Still, Box and especially Rankin are skilled authors, and even an average outing is not bad, especially when you can download it on a Nook in 30 seconds. 

    This brings us to Box’s latest book, Breaking Point, which has been discussed a bit here previously.  Given its cartoonish treatment of the EPA specifically and governmental regulations in general, I was prepared not to like it at all. I checked out Amazon and found lots of very positive reviews, and a devastating critique of its treatment of bureaucracy.  Still, I’m sitting here in Australia, and my wife Michel has gone home. So I’ve got hours to fill in the evening. Well, there is a lot of excellent wine… In any event, I ordered Breaking Point yesterday and started reading.  And all the folks on Amazon were right. It was riveting and cartoonish in its depiction of bureaucrats.  But by the end of forty pages, the story has won out. I suspended my disbelief and let go.  Great read. Virtually no Nate and no domestic issues for the last half of the book, just a fast-paced set of story lines.  C. J. Box and Joe Pickett still have some juice. I’ll still be a bit suspicious, but will look toward #14 with more optimism. 

    I also recently finished Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground, introducing a Belfast Catholic detective during “the Troubles” of the early 1980s. McKinty is a young, but prolific, author, who I saw discussing his trade in a TV recording of his presentation at Adelaide’s Writer’s Week discussions (which took place in March). McKinty was a good talker, and he stated his suspicion of series, even one as consistently good as Mankel’s Wallander set.  McKinty's done a couple of short, three-book series, and was just starting with his new detective, Sean Duffy, in Belfast (a Protestant stronghold, of course). McKinty is good (based on my one-book reading). His Belfast was great, in that he’d grown up there. The tensions of being a Catholic cop in a Protestant city, during a violent time, are well-developed. I already have pre-ordered the next volume, due out in the next couple of days

    McKinty argued that he had nothing more insightful to say about his characters after three books.  I’m still thinking about that. But it does make one think of whether a long-lasting  series offers much beyond predictable narratives.  I think that Breaking Point does it pretty well, but most later books in long-running series are likely to be written and read with formulaic expectations.  Maybe McKinty is right, but you need to be highly confident in your own abilities and willing to turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of your editor and publisher.

    Have you read C. J. Box recently? Have you read the latest Rebus novel? How about McKinty's The Cold, Cold Ground? Do you agree with McKinty that authors have little new to tell us after three books about the same characters? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

    09 May 2013

    Slipping into another mind

    One of the books that Nancy added to my Nook before it became a Christmas present was The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. What a great gift.

    Elizabeth Moon
    If you've read enough of these postings, you know I like stories. Usually that means a series of events. While there are events in this little book, it's really not a story. The book is about a person. Most of the book is an interior monologue or dialogue, if you'd rather.

    The reason it's so fascinating is that the character isn't normal. He's autistic. He's several giant strides ahead of Raymond Babbitt, the charater played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, but nonetheless, he's not normal. Using the language of his therapist and boss, he calls the non-autistics the normals and wonders constantly how they know the things they do and how they know how to do the things they do.

    If anyone were really paying attention, they would ask the same questions about Lou Arrendale, the primary character in  The Speed of Dark. Only a couple people come close to asking, but they do so too timidly and too late.

    Most of the people Lou interacts with are other people with autism at work. They work in a special division, hired as people with disabilities. But they are valued as people with very special analytical skills by the company.

    Lou also interacts with some "normals" in a fencing club and at church. He's threatened and attacked by a rival from his fencing club. He feels attracted to a woman in the group, but has no idea how to act on those feelings. He almost gets close enough to the couple who run the fencing club to get advice on acting on those feelings and the "hinge" of the story.

    A new division leader is hired at work. He resents the accomodations provided to the little group of autistic analysts and he's anxious to make a big name for himself. His ladder to fame and fortune and a route to eliminating the workplace accomodations is to get these "not normals" into an experiment to test a procedure for curing people of autism. His attempts amount to blackmail and they're foiled by a supervisor.

    Lou is recognizing some development in his mind as he processes the attack, works with a police detective, and tries to figure out why he's entranced with the bright reflections from the hair of one of his fencing opponents. He tries to decide whether to volunteer for the experimental treatment and wonders who he'd be if he became "normal."

    Elizabeth Moon wrote this book when her low-functioning autistic son was a teen-ager. I have no idea how accurate her portrayal of a high-functioning autistic mind is, but it's fascinating. Her perceptions about his thought processes seem very insightful. The guy she describes is someone I'd like to get to know -- especially if he were as insightful as as Moon makes her character. Thinking back, I am sure I missed my chance to get to know people like that a couple times. (Metaphorically, I kick myself at this point.) Of course, I had enough trouble getting and keeping myself on a near-normal track. If I had spent the time and effort to get to know someone like Lou Arrendale, I ...  I would have been a different person. (Talk about a "hinge" event.)

    I was entranced with Moon's character and the bits of story and dilemmas that surrounded the guy. I highly recommend this book.

    Have you read The Speed of Dark? How did you react to it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

    If you're curious, Elizabeth Moon is a proflific science fiction writer and The Speed of Dark is set in a near future, so there's some science fiction projections in it.

    23 April 2013


    Alan Cheuse says at the beginning of his review of The Round House, "I've devoted many hours in my life to reading, and among these hours many of them belong to the creations of novelist Louise Erdrich." And I concur. I haven't understood everything she's written, but I've never felt I wasted any of those hours.

    I think I must have been in some kind of magical trance when I read Love Medicine thirty years ago. I had been working with Ojibwa people on a Wisconsin reservation, and it seemed that Erdrich was writing about people I'd met there. I tried to follow those people in her later novels, but sometimes I lost track of what they were telling me. (Maybe it's time to go back and figure things out.) Often, Erdrich told me things about my world while she was writing about "worlds" that were exotic and foreign to me.

    Something I read about The Round House made me anxious to read it. I'm very glad I did.

    Maybe the fact that most of the story was told by a 13-year-old boy helped. There are many parts of my brain that are still those of a 13-year-old. Other parts of the story are told by the man that young teenager became. And I could recognize that too. Most thirteen-year-olds struggle with the concept of fairness and earned fate. I still do, too. So too does the lawyer Erdrich's boy becomes.

    And what is justice? Is fairness an essential part of justice? What if the social systems we create to provide justice fail? Where does justice come from then? Is revenge part of justice? Does evil produce good, as the local priest asserts in Erdrich's reservation parish? Is the good produced automatically or do people have to create it? What if the good results from more evil?

    This story is a mystery. But it's not the police procedural that I'm fond of reading. This book is full of ideas, not just events and people. It demands thought and response, but, unlike some books in which complexity imitates depth, this story facilitates analysis and questions. Not answers, but questions. Erdrich is not the priest offering answers. She's the philosopher asking questions.

    A woman is brutally raped as part of an attempt to cover up secrets of an extended family. Did it happen on reservation land (one justice system), in a state park (another justice system) or on US government land (a third justice system)? Returning from the hospital, the victim retreats to the silence of her bedroom shutting out her husband, her son, and the rest of the world. Where is justice going to come from? A 13-year-old boy? A tribal judge? The community? The FBI? A county sheriff?

    The pursuit of justice we learn about is that of the boy. Along with his buddies, he tries to enjoy the summer and adventures and find out what happened and where. It's not a story of precocious detecting. It's a story of growing up and asking questions. It's a story that kept me entranced. It's a book that reminded me that there's more to a novel than telling a story and describing characters.

    I'll repeat what I said to Ms Erdrich in 1985 when I got her to sign my copy of Love Medicine. "Thank you so much for writing about people who are very much like people I've met." And thank you for writing about ideas I haven't paid enough attention to.

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

    Boxing the feds

    C. J. Box knows how to describe adventure. He's good. He's also good at corralling me into his stories with characters and story lines.

    I picked up my Nook last night and began reading his latest, Breaking Point. I read longer than I intended to because I quickly got caught up in the morality play he was telling. This morning, I resumed reading when the power went out and I couldn't use my computer and we had no Internet connection. By the time the power was restored, I'd read enough to keep me from doing much of anything but read the rest of the day. Melodrama, action, danger, childish and nasty evil doers, and a great wild fire in the Wyoming mountains will do that to me.

    Throughout the adventure, I was distracted by the unbelievable oversimplifications and the Wyoming politics that pervaded the book. I have some sympathy for honest libertarian politics, I'm firmly convinced of the need for the rule of law rather then the rule of individuals, and the need for the realistic right of appeal and review of institutional decision making.

    However, Box didn't come close to convincing me to endorse his views about big government and bureaucracy by ignoring the ambiguities of a real life situation that he says his story is based upon. And he further distances his cause from me by inventing a villain who pursues childish revenge through the unrealistic use of bureaucratic power. His bad guy displays no outward signs or talents of leadership that would get him into a position of power, especially in hide bound federal bureaucracy. What Box describes could only happen in the crazed imaginations of Tea Party radicals.

    Now a couple secondary villains in the story strike me as more plausible. Their power is not as extensive, but their threat is great. If Box wants to promote his political ideas beyond Wyoming, he needs to keep things real and believable.

    A canyon from Breaking Point?
    So, what story am I talking about? A couple armed EPA agents are killed while delivering some legal papers. A federal manhunt ensues and sweeps game warden Joe Pickett into its process. There is a private manhunt taking place at the same time and as things spin out of control, there are murders, drones, a huge forest fire, and an improvised rafting trip down a wilderness river. There are some family matter sidelines and a few misdirections, but mostly is simplified politics and action adventure.

    The story telling is great and compelling. That kept me going.

    Have you read Breaking Point? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

    19 April 2013

    Readin' Ritin' and pRocrastinatin'

    Sorry to have been away.

    I have been reading. I just haven't been writing about what I've been reading.

    I blame it on the Nook.

    I got a Nook for Christmas. And it came loaded with a bunch of stuff to read. But reading from the screen of little computer-like tablet threw me. Reading was very different. And when I finished, I didn't have a bound pile of pages between covers to hold and look at and remind me that I really did want to keep up the practice of writing. I've been doing this for 25 or more years.

    Well, I finished a real book this evening. It's sitting here next to my keyboard and writing about it seems easier. More natural.

    The book is Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King. You remember, she's the woman who began writing about Mary Russell, the young woman who became the apprentice and then the wife of an old guy named Sherlock Holmes after he'd sort of retired. (See what I wrote about that first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice if you're curious.)

    By my count this is the thirteenth story about Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes. It's a follow up to Pirate King and is set in Morocco. Nancy checked it out for me from the Northfield Library along with a couple e-books for the Nook for my birthday.

    Enough preface. Like Pirate King, this was not one of King's best. Garment of Shadows was pretty un-Holmesian. It was more Holmesian than the pirate book because Holmes played a bigger role. And there was some Holmesian sleuthing and logic. But the old guy and his wife were really out of their element in Morocco. They were probably not out of their element more than they were in a couple of the stories set in the Middle East. (Remember, Ken, it's fiction!)

    Maybe I'm not remembering well the early Laurie R. King plots or the Doyle stories. Every time I try to think of examples from this book that seem un-Holmesian, I remember examples of situations, plot twists, and conundrums from Doyle stories. Maybe I'm not willing to admit that King really does a good job of writing in the Doyle genre.

    This story begins where Pirate King left off. Russell and Holmes abandoned the movie company about they time the film is finished and separately end up in the Moroccan city of Fez. I had to get out a map of Morocco to follow the story. At the beginning of the book, Russell awakens without any memory. She's rescued by a mute little boy, who rescues lots of the good guys before the book ends.

    While Russell searches for herself, Holmes is searching for her while visiting a diplomat in Morocco who happens to be a distant cousin.

    In the meantime, there is growing tension between Britain, France, and Spain. Holmes' brother Mycroft is messing around in these tense international relationships like Dick Cheney selling a story about WMD in Iraq. Then there are the groups of Moroccan rebels fighting for independence and superiority.

    Russell and Holmes are reunited. Russell gradually regains her memory. They facilitate a summit conference between a colonial diplomat and a rebel leader. They get shot at, drugged, imprisoned, and framed. They sneak back into the city of Fez through a "back door" and...

    But that would be giving things away.

    It's not as good as some of the earlier Russell-Holmes books. Laurie R. King has written some non-Russell-Holmes books, but the Russell-Holmes books have become so popular she's given up writing about Kate Martinelli, the San Francisco detective. And I doubt she'll be able to take time to write other books as good as A Darker Place, Folly, and Keeping Watch. Her publisher probably demands at least one Russell-Holmes book a year.

    Too bad. I would really like another book about Detective Matinelli. Or an intriguing story about someone conquering inner demons.

    04 February 2013


    View from Dr. Loomis' temporary home
    Bird Loomis, who is now enjoying the coming end of summer in Adelaide as a Fullbright Visiting Scholar, asked me awhile back if I'd read Peter Temple's The Broken Shore. Indeed, I had. In September 2009, I wrote about my experience in "Southern (hemisphere) fiction." I rather liked the book.

    Then I wondered why I hadn't followed up by reading more of Peter Temple's novels.

    So I went to the library and found Truth, a 2010 novel by Temple.

    I read about half way through the book.

    I gave up.

    The book (or at least the first half) is written almost entirely as dialogue or monologue. Very little context. Very little (if any) introduction of characters. Just names thrown out.

    I could, I suppose, have taken notes about scenes, characters, and events. But I wanted to be intrigued and entertained, not employed. It reminded me of the self-check out lanes at the grocery store. If I wanted to scan and bag groceries, I'd apply for a job at a grocery store. Besides none of the characters I could identify were interesting. I didn't get far enough into the book to be intrigued by any of the crimes being investigated. (Well, I assume they were being investigated, but I couldn't really tell.)

    Example from page 1:
    "Villani looked at the city towers, wobbling, unstable in the sulphurous haze. He shouldn't have come. There was no need. 'This air-conditioner's fucked,' he said. 'Second one this week.'

    "'Never go over here without thinking,' said Birkerts.


    "'My granddad. On it.'

    "One spring morning in 1970, the bridge's half-built steel frame stood in the air, it crawled with men, unmarried men, men with wives, men with wives and children, men with children they did not know, men with nothing but the job and hard, hard hangover and then Span 10-11 failed..."
    And it goes on. And on.

    I didn't.

    Have you read Truth by Peter Temple?

    What did you make of it?

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

    All these people really liked the book

    31 January 2013

    Library favorites

    The whole lists are 25 items long. I've only reprinted a few. If you want to see the complete lists, "check out" the Hennepin County Library site.

    Psst... I haven't read any of them, not even the Fancy Nancy titles.

    Top 25 Adult, Teen, and Children’s Books at Hennepin County Libraries In 2012 Show Consistent Author, Genre Favorites

    Hennepin County Library has tabulated the top 25 adult, teen, children’s and very young children’s titles checked out in 2012, and the lists show that Hennepin County readers are remarkably consistent in their reading interests year to year.

    In 2011 and 2012, 24 of the top 25 adult titles checked out were fiction. The one non-fiction title in the top 25 — both in 2011 and 2012 — was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption...

    Once again crime and mystery fiction by well-known writers such as John Sandford, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, and James Paterson were clear favorites.

    1. Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller by Vince Flynn
    2. Stolen Prey by John Sandford
    3. Shock Wave by John Sandford
    4. Explosive Eighteen: a Stephanie Plum Novel by Janet Evanovich
    5. V Is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton
    6. The Litigators by John Grisham
    7. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
    8. Private: #1 Suspect by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
    9. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
    10. Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

    1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
    2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
    3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
    4. Divergent by Veronica Roth
    5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

    1. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff Kinney
    2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal by Jeff Kinney
    3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney
    4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinney
    5. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney
    1. Lego Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by Hannah Dolan
    2. Curious George Goes to the Zoo by Cynthia Platt
    3. Fancy Nancy and the Mean Girl by Jane O’Connor
    4. Fancy Nancy and the Delectable Cupcakes by Jane O’Connor
    5. I Can Be a Ballerina by Christy Webster

    The first big library I remember (Minneapolis)
    The fondly remembered library of my youth (Redwood Falls)

    21 January 2013

    A company company

    I checked out another non-fiction book from the Northfield Public Library a month ago. The fact that it took me a month to finish it ought to be an indicator. The book was Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

    This book had been on my "to read" list since I'd seen a laudatory review of it last year. In addition, I grew up in a Ma Bell family. My dad worked for one of the Baby Bells and was a true believer. So, I grew up seeing the company magazine and hearing stories about the great Bell System, including that wonder, Bell Labs. When I was in high school (in the early 1960s), I got a Bell Labs kit for making a solar cell and another for making a transistorized buzzer circuit that was powered by the solar cell. They both worked for me.

    Gertner's book, like Sam Kean's book on genetics, was disappointing.

    I decided that The Idea Factory... was a good set of notes which could be used to write a book, but it wasn't a real book. Like Kean's book, it had no voice. There were stories to tell, but the disjointed anecdotes were not a story. There were characters, but their appearances and disappearances in the pages of The Idea Factory... were hard to follow. I'm sure there are more dramatic stories about the development of the first kinds of transistors and the rivalry among the ambitious inventors, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

    Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ

    Gertner kept relating anecdotes and when he finished with one, he'd circle back to the decades between 1939 and 1959 to begin another (sort of like the circles around the Bell Labs HQ, above). As a reader, I felt like a tether ball winding round and round a pole until reaching the end of my rope and then being pushed back in the opposite direction until I hit the pole again.

    There are other important stories to tell about the relationship of business, research, engineering, and product development hiding in this book, but they're not there. Gertner describes a bit about the lengths to which AT&T went to preserve their telephone monopoly, but that probably deserves its own book. (That book might exist in the business school library for all I know.) There are hints about things like business decisions to promote picture phones and initially discard fiber optics, but they're only mentioned.

    There are hints about the revolving door between Bell Labs and the U.S. government (especially top secret R & D), but it's not told.

    There are hints about patron-client relationships and keeping friends on the payroll even when they no longer worked for Bell Labs.

    There's a brief description of the break up AT&T and the disappearance of Bell Labs into Lucent and then into Alcatel•Lucent. The merger of some parts of the old AT&T's engineering, manufacturing, and research organizations probably also deserves its own case study in business schools, and it might also exist (in the history section now). And what about the developments outside of Bell Labs that became competitors with AT&T? I really expected to read about how Bell Labs was involved with DARPA in some of the initial development of the Internet. There's nothing in the book, and Bell Labs isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the development of the Internet. How'd all those smart guys working in communications miss that?

    That last bit made me realize that, in spite of the propaganda I grew up with, Bell Labs was not unique. Every really large corporation does R&D. Bell Labs did come up with some remarkable inventions, like the transistor. But Texas Instruments came up with integrated circuits. Xerox PARC came up with laser printers and computer mice. Hewlett Packard developed scientific calculators and thermal printing. Microsoft, Apple, and Google invented themselves. And, to go back a bit, Thomas Edison, James Watt, Eli Whitney, and Henry Ford came up with some amazing things. So, to call Bell Labs' heyday "the Great Age of American Innovation" is a pretty big overstatement.

    So, what I was looking for was a book, not a collection of notes and anecdotes. I guess I'll have to go back and read something more by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Tim Berners-Lee.

    Have you read Jon Gertner's book, The Idea Factory?

    What did you think about it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.