Thursday, May 25, 2006

Doig Shines in Newest Novel -- The Whistling Season

49. The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig. Fiction, 5-25, p. 345

Imagine a novel in which the sense of time and place are as vivid and as realized as the characters. And the characters are so neatly drawn that you feel as if you could sit down at the kitchen table with them, across the expanse of a faded oilcloth, one with blue windmills on white squares, and share coffee and conversation.

If you can imagine this, you have sense of Ivan Doig’s newest book, The Whistling Season. Often categorized, and dismissed, as a Western writer, Doig is among our finest fiction writers today, and this may be the book that secures him a wider audience. If his most recent works, such as Prairie Nocturne and Mountain Time, were not of the caliber of his earliest efforts, The Whistling Season is Doig at his finest. It recalls such extraordinary novels as Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride With me, Mariah Montana.

Oliver Milliron and his three motherless sons – Paul, Damon and Toby – live on Montana’s Marias Coulee where Oliver is a dry-land farmer. The oldest son, Paul, a precocious 13-year-old, is the novel’s narrator.

The story begins when Oliver’s curiosity is aroused by a help wanted ad for a housekeeper that promises, Can’t Cook, But Doesn’t Bite. Oliver determines that a housekeeper may be exactly what’s needed to bring order to his tumultuous household.

The housekeeper, Rose Llewellyn arrives, her brother, Morris Morgan, in tow. Rose quickly restores order to the Milliron household, while Morris – Morrie – does the same at the one-room schoolhouse the boys attend. He is enlisted as the schoolteacher after the current eacher, the unattractive Miss Trent, unexpectedly elopes with a traveling preacher.

Most of the novels unfolds within the walls of the schoolhouse. If that sounds as if it’s too narrow a geography for a novel, under Doig’s care, it’s not. The schoolhouse and its grounds emerge as a world complete unto itself.

Doig sings the praises of the one-room schoolhouse, but he’s never pedantic or preachy. His greatest skill as a novelist is that he values a good story and knows how to tell one.

If it doesn’t make you laugh outright, The Whistling Season will conjure more than its share of knowing grins. And it can, at times, generate as much warmth as the pot-bellied stove that was a fixture in the one-room schoolhouse Doig so fondly re-creates.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Erdrich Shines as Children's Book Author; Gelb rewards the patient reader

47. The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 5-19, p. 248

Like Carl Hiaasen, Louise Erdrich is as successful writing for children as adults.

Told through the eyes of a pre-adolescent Ojibwe girl, The Game of Silence is the sequel to her superb The Birchbark House. Erdrich combines a compelling narrative with a sensitive portrayal of native American life.

It’s a great book for children 10-12 years of age—especially girls, because the protagonist is such a strong, vivid character with both faults and special gifts.


48. City Room, Arthur Gelb. Journalism, 5-21, p. 641

Dense at 641 pages, Arthur Gelb’s City Room requires, but ultimately rewards, a patient reader. Gelb spent his entire journalistic career at the New York Times, beginning as a copy boy and working his way up the managerial ladder, notably serving as metro editor for many years.

Gelb’s newspaper career began when a journalism degree was frowned on by reporters and editors. It ended as newspapers began to lose readers and advertisers to television and the Internet.

Gelb gives us an inside peek at Times’ operations as well as taking along on a personal tour of some of the major news events of the past half century. It’s a fascinating journey.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

My Best Books of the Past 25 Years

Recently, in an intriguing and controversial article, the New York Times, surveyed critics, authors and editors in an effort to determine the best American fiction of the past 25 years.

It was largely a futile effort, but interesting for all that.

The honor of best American fiction in the past 25 years was bestowed on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Updike’s four Rabbit Angstrom novels and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral were runners up.

Underworld would receive a vote from me. I’d also include McCarthy, but I prefer All The Pretty Horses, the first book in his Border Trilogy. I didn’t especially like Beloved and I’m a not a huge fan of either Updike or Roth.

So, in no particular order, I’ve listed a few books that I consider to be among the very best I’ve read in the past 25 years.

  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Morgan’s Passing, Anne Tyler
  • The Sea Runners, English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Ivan Doig
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
  • A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler
  • All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
  • Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow
  • The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
  • Mohawk and Empire Falls, Richard Russo
  • The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich
  • Ship Fever and Other Stories, Andrea Barrett
  • Underworld, Don DeLillo
  • Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  • Girls and The Night Inspector, Frederick Busch
  • The Hours, Michael Cunningham
  • Charming Billy, Alice McDermott
  • The Shipping New, Annie Proulx
  • Plainsong and Eventide, Kent Haruf
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Roscoe, William Kennedy
  • Drop City, T.C. Boyle
  • Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  • Bel Canto, Ann Patchett.

I’d also add the works of Laurie Colwin and Jim Harrison to the list, although I have no particular titles to suggest. I prefer the short stories of both authors to their novels.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tyler Explores Relationships in Provocative 17th Book

46. Digging to America, Anne Tyler. Fiction, 5-15, p. 277

In the past half century, few authors have probed the pain and the pleasure of relationships or the beautiful tumult of the American family as elegantly and incisively as Anne Tyler.

She has succeeded again in her provocative 17th book, Digging to America.

Because the release of Tyler’s novel coincides with a national debate over immigration and the treatment of illegal aliens, much has been made of this book’s exploration of the assimilation of immigrants and of what it means to be and to become an American.

But the immigrant experience is secondary to Tyler’s principle thrust in this novel, which is how we forge bonds of connection between one another. The Baltimore author uses Korean orphans, Iranian immigrants and well-meaning Americans to examine the question of what constituents a family.

The book opens at the Baltimore airport where two families have eagerly gathered to await the arrival of their recently adopted Korean daughters. One of the families, Bitsy and Dave Donaldson, is “American” – their immigrant experience a part of the distant past. They are noisy, dominating and heedless; they belong here.

The second family, the Yazdans, are quiet and deferential. Sami Yazdan is American born and fully assimilated. His wife, Ziba, and mother, Maryam, are Iranian immigrants and not altogether certain about their place in American society.

At the invitation of the Donaldsons, the two families meet for a “leaf raking” party and supper. Soon, they are seeing one another regularly, notably once a year to celebrate “Arrival Day,” the anniversary of the girls’ arrival in America. “Arrival Day” is one of many ill-conceived notions of Bitsy Donaldson, who never stops to consider that to celebrate an “arrival” also serves to underscore that a person was once apart and did not belong.

As the families’ friendship develops there are the predictable, but unfortunate misunderstandings. The families’ approaches to child-rearing are poles apart. The Donaldsons retain their adopted daughter’s Korean name, dress her in traditional Korean garb and refuse to use anything but cloth diapers. The Yazdans quickly immerse their daughter in American life; they re-name her Susan, whisk her off to pre-school and dress her in blue jeans.

As the two girls age, we see how quickly children become assimilated into a foreign culture. Although, in truth, American culture is not foreign to the two Korean orphans, it is the only culture they know.

It is via the adults that we see how misunderstandings arise. There are subtle resentments. The Yazdans view the Donaldsons as too loud, too pushy, too opinionated. In particular, Maryam resents the Donaldsons eager embrace of Iranian culture, customs and food. “Americans are all larger than life,” she says. “You think that if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they’re making you shrink; they’re expanding and edging you out.”

The Donaldsons seem largely enamored of the Yazdans because of their very foreignness, yet also silently criticize their patterns of speech or appearance.

This tension and struggle for understanding is an important part of Digging to America, but it’s not the most important part. Ultimately, the book focuses on three people, Bitsy, her father, Dave, and Maryam.

Bitsy may be Tyler’s most irritating character. She is also among her saddest. Bitsy is a clumsy, awkward woman, who has never truly fit in. It’s instructive that when Bitsy and Dave, both in their 40s, meet the Yazdans they have no close friends beyond their immediate family. Bitsy is a woman of decided opinions, which she foists on people like some women extend food or hospitality. The opinions are her defense against a world she has never been comfortable with and which has caused her pain.

Her father, Dave, is a rumpled, well-intentioned man, who finds himself at loose ends upon the death of his wife. Maryam is a reserved woman who has never felt at quite at home either in her native Iran or in America. She severely limits her friends and is most contented in her moments alone.

A romance blooms between Maryam and Dave, but falters after an unfortunate proposal.

In the interchange between these three characters Tyler explores the question of what it means to develop a relationship with another person, to “assimilate” that person into one’s life. Such assimilation is a universal part of the human experience. It comes naturally to so many, but others—like Bitsy—struggle for understanding and acceptance.

In the culminating moments of Digging to America, the walls come down and three people recognize their mutual need, love and affection for one another. As with the mysterious Borg in the Star Trek series, assimilation has begun.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

D.C. Noir a fine introduction to unknown authors

45. D.C. Noir, edited by George Pelecanos. Short Stories, 5-12, p. 308

As a collector, I am inordinately fond of book series.

Because a series is a defined or limited set, it is easily collectible – which makes its appeal difficult to resist.

Series of recent interest include the Penguin Lives set of biographies and Times Books’ American Presidents. Past series of interest, which are more difficult to collect both because of availability and price, include the American Trail series and Rivers of America.

A new addition to my interest is the "Noir” series issued by Akashic Books. Conceived by Akashic publisher Johnny Temple, it debuted in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir and has since grown to include D.C. Noir, Baltimore Noir and Dublin Noir. Beyond its appeal simply because it’s a series, the “Noir” books are distinguished by vibrant writing.

Temple has astutely combined established writers like George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and Jim Fusili with virtual unknowns. In the introduction to D.C. Noir, which he edited, Pelecanos writes, “It’s about the collective memories of the locals, and also about the voices. If you close your eyes and listen to the people of this city, you will hear the many different voices, and if you’ve lived here long enough, the cadences and rhythms, the familiarity of it, the feeling that you are home, will make you smile.

“This is a collection of short stories that, in the context of crime/noir fiction, attempts to capture those voices.”

Pelecanos, Fusili and Lippman do not disappoint. Their stories are the work of polished professionals. Lippman's story, in particular, is deliciously evil. But equally enjoyable -- impressively so -- are stories by Robert Andrews (Solomon’s Alley) and Richard Currey (Names of the Lost), to name only two.

The stories are not uniformly great, but it is a rare short story collection that achieves such uniformity. The majority of the stories in D.C. Noir are well worth reading. On more than one occasion a story sent me flipping to the back of the book to read the author’s bio to see what else they had written.

Temple and Akashic are to be applauded for introducing readers to a host of new or unknown writers. Dublin Noir, Baltimore Noir and Manhattan Noir are all on my shortlist. I look forward to reading each book and to collecting the entire series with great anticipation.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Brooks' March a book of hard realities

44. March, Geraldine Brooks. Fiction, 5-10, p. 273

I’ve never read Little Women. The window of opportunity for me to read Alcott’s classic novel would have been in the mid ‘60s and no respectable male teen or pre-teen of that era was going to read a novel with such a title.

It’s the same sensibility that led her publishers to suggest that Janice Rowling publish under the sobriquet, J.K. Boys, of a certain age, simply don’t read books by women. My J.K. Rowling was Andre Norton. I didn’t learn that Andre was Alice until it no longer mattered; it’s not that I was no longer put off by a woman author (I wasn’t), I just wasn’t reading juvenile sci-fi by Andre or Alice.

All this is a roundabout introduction to Geraldine Brooks’ 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, March, which extrapolates passing events from Little Women into a full-fledged novel. Brooks even furnishes us with a back story on one of Alcott's minor characters – more on that later.

In many respects – and certainly in those that are most important – March has nothing to do with Little Women in the way that The Jane Austen Book Club did with Austen and her works. The Jane Austen Book Club was an affectionate tribute to Austen as well as a tender and amusing examination of the trials and tribulations of contemporary romance.

March isn’t tender or amusing. It’s a dark, brooding novel that explores the brutality inflicted on Blacks before and during (and one can only assume after) the Civil War and the stark absence of understanding that can occur between a husband and wife, who may dearly love one another, but make unfortunate assumptions about one another’s desires.

March focuses on Mr. March, the sire of those darling little women, who is limited to a cameo in Alcott’s novel.

The bulk of the novel is given over to March’s Civil War experiences, which, not to put to fine a point on it, don’t go well. As for the back story, it’s critical to understanding this principled, but hapless man, who is viewed by his own wife as an “inconstant, ruined dreamer.”

As a callow youth, March tromped through Virginia as an itinerant peddler. He is oblivious to the harsher aspects of slavery until he teaches a young slave girl to read and write. Abruptly, he is exposed to the cruelty of slavery as he witnesses firsthand the effects of the lash upon an innocent women’s back.

A man of extremes, especially for his time, Marsh is a vegetarian (he eschews milk because it belongs to the calf), a guide on the Underground Railroad, a financial underwriter of John Brown’s ill-starred ventures and an unconventional minister of religion. But when tested under the greatest of extremities, Marsh learns that principle and action do not always find accord.

March is an insightful, powerful book and elegantly written, but it is not an enjoyable read in light of the unrelenting brutality of slavery, war and marital misunderstanding.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lippman novel an enjoyable read

43. By A Spider’s Thread, Laura Lippman. Mystery, 5-4, p. 354

Baltimore writer Laura Lippman has a loyal following in the Washington, D.C. area. After reading, Every Secret Thing, I thought that enthusiasm might have more to do with geography than literary skill. The book did not live up to expectations.

But after reading, By A Spider’s Thread, which features Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan, it’s evident that the enthusiasm for Lippman is not misplaced. This is a terrific yarn and Monaghan, a Jewish-Catholic Baltimore native, is a terrific character.

I have one more Lippman novel on my reading list, To the Power of Three, a one-off, which doesn’t feature Monaghan. So, it represents a literary rubber match of sorts.