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.