Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Martin Marten

After going to hear Brian Doyle at the Paulina Springs Bookstore in Sisters a week or so back, my interest in reading his work was re-energized. He was so passionate, funny, compassionate, and wise that when we walked out of the bookstore, my husband, who is not a big reader, said, "I want to read everything he has ever written." I was very favorably impressed with The Grail, his year-long humorous and informative examination of wine-making in Oregon, and also liked Mink River.
The adjectives I used to describe Mink River would apply equally as well here (see my blog post linked above). It seems to be his style to tell the story(ies) from many perspectives, including those of the animals who spend time near humans, and to emphasize the inter-connectedness of all beings in a place. The place is the west side of Mt. Hood, or Wy-east as is was known by First Peoples, near a small hamlet of ZigZag (which Doyle claims bears no relation to the real town of that name).
Martin is a marten, met at birth and followed until he is almost 2 years old. He develops a particular curiosity about a human he sees running through the woods--that would be 14-almost-15-year old Dave, who will be attending ZigZag High School and running on the track team for much of the time we encounter him. There are a handful of other beings--two- and four-footed--who play significant roles: Martin's mom and siblings and a mate; Dave's parents and his "Cadillac" of a sister, Maria; Ms. Ginny Moss, who runs a general store; the trapper, Richard Douglas who is in love with Ms. Moss; Moon, Dave's friend and whose parents are never home; Mr. Shapiro, one of Dave's teachers; Emma Jackson, who works with Dave's mom at the Lodge; the Unabled Lady, who gives Maria a finch; Edwin, Mr. Douglas' horse; Mr. Shapiro's dog who has not yet named himself; Louis, the largest elk on Wy'east, as far as anyone knows; Cosmas, the daredevil bicyclist in the orange jumpsuit.
There are several love stories that run throughout the tale: that between Ms. Moss and Mr. Douglas; that between Dave's parents; that between Emma and a waitress at the Lodge; that between Dave and Cadence. And then there is the fascination that Dave and Martin have for each other; Martin races through the treetops alongside Dave when he runs in the woods every day. And then, one day, they meet face to face on the top of a rock pillar--maybe an accident, maybe it's fate--and watch the sunset together. And the reader will love every one of these characters.
Another luscious, literary meal to savor from Mr. Doyle.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Day Shift

This is the 2nd installation in Charlaine Harris' new series set in Midnight, Texas. Almost no one who lives in this tiny crossroads town is what they appear to be, and most of the apparently normal folks seem to have a past they would rather keep hidden (see my post on Midnight Crossroad). This time we learn more about the true natures of Chuy and Joe, the gay owners of the nail salon / antique store and about the ancient and laconic Reverend, who turns out to have some connections with a character from the Sookie Stackhouse series. It won't be a spoiler to say that there is a good reason that a small boy is left in the care of the  Reverend; both are members of a very rare and powerful supernatural species.
When phone psychic Manfred Bernardo goes to Dallas for a weekend of face-to-face readings with clients, he is surprised to see the mysterious Olivia there in the same hotel. He is NOT surprised when the couple she is seen dining with that evening turn up dead of an apparent murder-suicide the next morning. He is further rudely surprised when an elderly woman for whom he is doing a reading suddenly dies. At first he is suspected of her death, and then, when the evidence does not support that, he is suspected of stealing her jewels -- a charge brought by the woman's crazy son. Manfred turns to Olivia to help him find the jewels in a way that won't incriminate him, so he can get back to work.      
Surprising to everyone in town is the fact that some major corporation has bought up the derelict 3-story hotel building and refurbished it to be a residence hotel for long-term travelers working at the nearby Internet company headquarters and as transitional housing for seniors. On further investigation, however, it appears that these seniors have no living relatives and have been brought to Midnight from a rundown retirement home in Las Vegas. This particular apple cart gets upset when (a) a relative of one of the seniors (who forgot he had a grandson) shows up, and (b) when Olivia and Manfred enlist the other seniors in their plan to try and find the jewels. The newly found grandson, Barry Howowitz, really does not want to be anywhere in the state of Texas because of an old disagreement with the vampires in Dallas and is desperately trying to figure out what to do with his grandfather. In the meantime, the small boy--who has now been adopted by the whole town-- is growing at an alarming rate and a crisis is approaching that leaves everyone in Midnight fearfully locked in their homes as the full moon rises.
As always, these fanciful tales are great fun to read as the characters continue to develop and you are left wanting to know more about them and what's going to happen next.

Survival Lessons

This short book by Alice Hoffman was written subsequent to her diagnosis with breast cancer. She wanted to share what she found most helpful when coping with this constellation of events in her life. The chapter titles are as follows:
Choose Your Heroes: someone past or present "who can teach yo what you need to know, a guide through the darkness" (p.1). Hers was Anne Frank, who was "able to keep her spirit strong even in the most brutal of times" (p. 1). But she also admired family members (mother, grandmother, sister-in-law) and friends who had dealt with adversity and survived.
Choose to Enjoy Yourself: "Start by eating chocolate" (p.11). I'm on board with that!
Choose Your Friends: she wisely notes that one may be surprised which friends stay and which new ones arrive. "If people aren't there for you now, when you really need them, they never will be, and it's time to move on. You'll be amazed by how many new friends you have in the after. They'll be the ones who aren't afraid of sorryow, who know we can't avoid it. The best we can do is face it together" (p. 21).
Choose Whose Advice You Take: "...listen to my grandmother when she says you only live once. As far as we know" (p. 25).
Choose Your Relatives: "...you can choose the people you'll spend time with...Some want to do too much, some too little. But some are just right...Only answer the phone when you want to..." (p. 27). She says when we are afraid of dying that what we need is to know we are loved.
Choose How You Spend Your Time: "Watch every old movie you've always wanted to see...Two more words that need no explanation: Johnny Depp" (p. 31). Yes! "Don't forget books...Reisit the stories you loved as a child..." (p. 32). "Here was my life raft. A book" (p. 35). I'm definitely on board with that.
Choose to Plan for the Future: "Write your troubles on a slip of paper and burn it. Now make a list of what you want to do next year" (p.36).
Choose to Love Who You Are: "Don't judge yourself harshly. Don't listen to people who do" (p. 42). She talks about the baldness that accompanies chemotherapy.
Choose to Accept Sorrow: She talks about what she learned from reading Viktor Frankl's (survivor of a concentration camp) Man's Search for Meaning. There are circumstances we cannot escape or control. "We are responsible for how we respond to situations we cannot control" (p. 44). She found that choosing to help others made her own problems more bearable.
Choose to Dream: Plan something you have always wanted to do.
Choose Something New: Those things you wanted to do but were afraid you might fail, or things you have been putting off. Be prepared to keep going if you fail, because "failure is the only way to become better at something" (p. 52). She thinks all writers should try knitting a hat before they take up writing, so they learn the importance of revision.
Choose to Give In to Yourself: "Take a nap whenever you want to....Go and don't feel guilty" (p. 59). Look out the window, listen to music, get a dog.
Choose to Make Things Beautiful: Work if that is what satisfies you or "take out crayons, glitter, a camera, a notebook. Take a deep breath, then begin" (p.64).
Choose to Tell Your Own Story: Choose who to tell and how much. Don't lose touch with those closest to you because you are afraid they won't understand.
Choose to Forgive: "Don't hold grudges; it takes up too much energy" (p. 69). Say goodbye, apologize, or forgive.
Choose to Claim Your Past: Re-connect with people from your past. Re-collect old stories and photos. Make a journal.
Choose to Be Yourself: Indulge your wishes and passions.
Choose to Share: "Talk to a stranger. Join a support group...Even if it's not your style...the act of sharing changes you" (p.75).
Choose Love: The people you love are going through this with you. Try to see through their defense mechanisms and stay with them. "My expectations of what I wanted in a man I learned from a dog: loyalty and kindness" (p. 81).
Choose the Evidence: "Write it down...Make a list of what all you have loved in this unfair and beautiful world" (p. 82). Someday your problem won't be the main character in your novel.

I was initially disappointed in this book. I expected more. But there are genuine nuggets of wisdom here, and it may be just the right amount for someone struggling with a serious issue in their life.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Rosie Project

This has been a wildly popular book by Graeme Simsion--you see it in every bookstore right now and it has received lots of positive reviews (e.g., The GuardianNPR, The Washington Post). It was a light enjoyable read about an Australian genetics professor, Don Tillman, who  happens to be on the autism spectrum.  Obviously highly functional, he nevertheless is subject to living a well-ordered life with few disruptions and plenty of repetitive routines to cut down on the potential overload to his brain. He can never seem to make it past his first date with women. When he decides that he wants to get married, he initially approaches it in a dispassionate and systematic fashion (The Wife Project), formulating a questionnaire that will screen for unacceptable behaviors, characteristics and attitudes. No smoking, no drinking, must be punctual...well it's a long list of criteria, sure to rule out 99.99% of women in the world. Then, through a manipulation by his co-worker Gene, he encounters Rosie, who is clearly NOT a suitable partner, and decides to help her find her biological father,  at which point his life takes on nearly overwhelming roller coaster intensity. At the same time, he is trying to save the marriage of his best--make that only--friends, Claudia and Gene (psychology professor and Casanova who is trying to bed a woman from every country in the world). This is an entertaining book, but the conclusion is foregone and somewhat unbelievable. I share the concerns voiced by this review in The Telegraph, and the character inconsistencies noted in this review. I suggest that anyone who wants a more realistic picture of adult Asperger's syndrome read Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, which, although it has elements of science fiction, is based on her own experiences living with an Asperger's son. Nevertheless, The Rosie Project is on stage and soon to be made into a movie, so those who loved it will have more opportunities to partake.
Post Script: Finally, after a recent book group meeting where we discussed this boo, I figured out what irritated me so much about the Rosie Project. One of the group members shared her experience raising a child who has Asperger's, and this crystallized for me how I did not like the somewhat light and flippant way that Asperger's was handled in the book. I think it is easy to get the impression that "oh, this is an inconvenience that I have to make all these accommodations in my life (limit stimuli, focus on routine, etc.) to just get by."  My impression that this is what people take away from the book was reinforced by reading reviews and by reading the summary of the upcoming movie, i.e., brilliant guy who just has not been able to get a 2nd date. AAGGGHHH  It so clearly is not a comic matter to raise a child or live as an individual with Asperger's or any level of autism, and I resent the fact that Simsion has, in my view, trivialized the reality of this. If Don had been a more realistic and consistent character, introducing this topic with humor would certainly have been a way to make people aware of the difficulties faced by this population. As it stands, he is a caricature, and therefore has done a disservice to general understanding. Suggesting that "love can conquer all" is about as realistic as attributing this neurological disorder to bad parenting, as was done in the not too distant past.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


This is the 2nd book I have read by Norwegian author Anne Holt; see my post for What Never Happens, also. Apparently she has written 7 previous novels in this, the Hanne Wilhelmsen series (see Wikipedia , etc. for lists of her other novels). Given that in this book Hanne is in a wheelchair from a bullet that severed her spine several years earlier, I feel compelled to do some back tracking in my reading. Apparently Holt has worked as a police officer and a lawyer so she has a good grasp of the procedural details that come to bear in this case.
A freak blizzard has derailed the train to Oslo with 269 people on board. The conductor is killed, but the rest are rescued through the valiant efforts of a handful of staff from a nearby mountain resort hotel and brought to stay there until help can come from the outside. The blizzard continues with screaming winds and feet of snow, promising some significant delay before that happens. People start to die--a baby who was injured in the wreck, an elderly man from a heart attack, death from a gun shot wound and stabbling with an icycle take out two more-- and Hanne can't help but take charge, in a roundabout way, to try and determine who the killer is. She is reluctant at first, having secluded herself from virtually all friends, family, former colleagues, and society in general for the intervening years since she was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. But two of the hotel staff and an interesting dwarf doctor named Magnus Streng bring her onboard and assist with her inquiries. There are so many complex interpersonal dynamics going on in this book that I could not begin to do them justice.
For example, there was an extra train car added just before departure that has been kept totally separate from the others and the passengers have also been sequestered in a separate wing of the hotel with guards posted to keep people out. Hanne tries to befriend what is apparently a runaway boy in his late teens, but his response is mixed--first adversarial, then more accepting, and then once more cutting her off. The young Goth-character woman he takes up with will play a significant role in the story. Berit, the hotel manager, emerges from her somewhat mild-mannered initial presentation to become a force to be reckoned with. We hear indirectly about Hanne's partner, their daughter, and her housekeeper. The storm itself is a character here and we feel its threat and challenge to life. This is largely a story of Hanne starting to re-engage, in a very limited way, with the world and particularly with the job that was both highly stressful and intensely satisfying.
So far, I have found Holt's work to be very well-written with complex, well-developed characters. Hanne will not strike you as particularly likable, but certainly compelling. If you are at all a fan of Scandinavian mysteries, check out Holt. ( and if anyone can find a home page for this author, send me the link!)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Midnight Crossroad

This is the first of a new series by Charlaine Harris, set in Midnight, Texas--a wide spot on the road to Davy, Marthasville and points beyond. There are only a handful of surviving businesses: the nail salon/ antique gallery, the gas-n-go convenience store, a small diner, a pawn shop, and a new age/magic store. Manfred Bernardo is the new kid in town, a sometimes genuine psychic who runs a largely con-based online psychic hotline. He is coming to realize that everyone in town has either secrets and/or strange talents. Manfred is renting his house from Bobo Winthrop, who owns/ runs Midnight Pawn. Any of you who have read one of my favorite series (Lily Bard) by Harris about Shakespeare, Arkansas (e.g., Shakespeare's Counselor), will recognize that name. Bobo has run away from a moneyed family in Shakespeare, but also from the shame of having a white supremacist grandfather who stole a lot of arms from the sporting goods store run by Bobo's father. Every white supremacy group in the U.S. thinks that Bobo knows the whereabouts of this weapons stash, so he is hiding out from them, too. Bobo lives upstairs from the pawn shop and he also has two tenants in the basesment: the mysterious Olivia, who travels a lot and has something going on with Lemuel, Bobo's other tenant who is--apparently--a variety of vampire.  Turns out the woman who runs the magic shop, Fiji, is in fact a real witch with powers, and has a cat who talks. The two guys who run the nail salon/ antique store are gay. The Lovells have the convenience store and Mr. Lovell keeps an exceptionally tight leash on daughter Creek and son Connor; Manfred isn't sure why Lovell is keeping a low profile, but he would love to get to know the enigmatic Creek a lot better.
The action is set in motion when the body of Bobo's former girlfriend, Aubrey, is discovered in the riverbed at the first and only annual town picnic. The sheriff's suspicions fall on Bobo of course, but both Olivia and Fiji have lied to give him an alibi. It turns out that Aubrey had ties to the white supremacy group from Marthasville, who had discovered where Bobo lives and sent Aubrey to get information on the weapons stash. When that fails, they send people in to bug the pawn shop, then to attack Bobo, and are starting to cause all kinds of trouble, some of which is dealt with and some of which is precipitated by Lemuel and Olivia. Then Fiji is kidnapped. She escapes through her own devices but the rescue party has arrived, reluctantly guided by Mr. Snuggles, the cat. The real culprit in all this, however, came as a total surprise to me.  Harris drops hints about other dark powers on the prowl throughout the story--e.g., Lemuel runs the pawn shop at night and has a "select" group of customers. This looks to be great fun as there is still lots to learn about the inhabitants of Midnight.

The Keeper of Secrets

This historical mystery by Judith Cutler is the first of a series featuring a newly ordained parson, Tobias Campion, who has taken a parish under the benefice of a rich distant cousin, Lady Elham.  He quikly manages to offend his patroness when he is moved to preach against the abuses of the poor by the landed gentry, even though he has recently come from just this group. This is considered a Regency period novel, post-Victorian, when some things are beginning to change in England but women are still largely subservient and the class system is still in full control, to the detriment of anyone not born to family wealth or a trade.
It is an odd collection of parishoners in Moreton St. Jude and Campion is floundering somewhat until he is befriended by Lady Elham's head housekeeper, Mrs. Beckles, and by the local doctor, Edmund Hansard. Mrs. Beckles finds Campion a competent housekeeper and serving girl and Campion also has the support of boyhood friend and now groom, Jem.
Much of the early story revolves around a convoluted situation in which Campion, Jem and a local man, Matthew, are all in love with Lizzie, Lady Elham's maid. Campion has rescued her from the unwelcome attentions of a friend of the Elham's son, and earned the young, soon-to-be Lord Elham's animosity for his pains.  Then a series of attacks, deaths, and disappearances create a building sense of apprehension in Campion. He is attacked by someone in the woods and left for dead. A local man, poaching for desperately needed food for his family, is caught in a "man-trap" and dies as a result of his injuries. The lord of the manor ostensibly drowns, leaving Campion's cousin a widow, and the violent and sadistic younger Elham in charge. Lady Elham and her son, however, respond to the death by largely vacating the premises for their other houses and estates and, as a result, the contested Lizzie is also absent, leaving the three men heart-broken. When Lizzie subsequenly goes missing and is finally found murdered in Campion's woods, Hansard and Campion set out to find the perpetrator of the murder, and, believing Lady Elham to have been deceived and unaware of Lizzie's death, to track her down and inform her of events.
The secrets they uncover are shocking and, although you may have suspected early on that Lord Elham had some help into the next world, the complexity of the motivations for murder will still be a surprise.  You can read Judith Cutler's own summary here.