Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

When we lived in the Mojave Desert (1982 - 2000) we occasionally ventured into the Sierra, usually on a weekend in Spring or Fall, when then weather was as temperate as it ever got.  We would walk along one of the trails for an hour or so, feeling adventurous and brave, and then climb back in the truck to return to town.  Sometimes when our family or friends visited, we would have the opportunity to introduce them to the mountains as well. But we never tested ourselves against the wilderness even close to the experiences Cheryl Strayed describes in Wild.
She was a novice hiker and trail walker, who started near Walker Pass (close to where we lived). She tells all of the details of managing a journey of many weeks and hundreds of miles, learning as she goes how her equipment works, that her boots are too small, that most people she meets are friendly and helpful, that there are some really life-threatening situations (e.g., ice on the trail).
Like all good memoirs, this is honest and frank,  funny and sad. She keeps such a close eye on the minute details of her hike that the reader feels the sweat, exhaustion, thirst, exhilaration that she feels.
I had put off reading Wild, because I thought it was being over-hyped and over-praised.  Yet once I sat down with it, I was its captive till the very end.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tupelo Man: the Life and Times of George McLean, by Robert Blade

We have been traveling through Mississippi, beginning to understand what it might mean to live in a state whose reputation is Last of the Last -- low high school graduation rate, high unemployment, generally not much choice in where to live or what to do. In the capital city, Jackson, we toured the State Capitol building and learned that the state legislature meets only sixty days each year; last time, according to the Representative from Booneville, they finished their work early, thus saving the state money because they adjourned sooner than expected.  Leaving the State Capitol, we saw a derelict factory and several partially burned and empty houses within just a few blocks. On street after street in the capital city, stores stood empty with dirty windows and trash collecting in doorways.  (Just north of Jackson is the prosperous town of Ridgeland, to which the middle class folks have fled.)
But then we stopped in Tupelo. The contrast was striking.  Stores of all kinds were open and busy, houses were painted with trim lots. A park downtown was preparing for an event, with lots of large white tents beginning to be assembled  for the second annual "Don't Be Cruel Barbecue Duel". The town was bustling.
By accident we had parked in front of the Gum Tree Bookstore (Gum Tree is another name for the Tupelo tree). Of course we had to go in and browse. The book that found its way to us is named Tupelo Man: the Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher, written by his son-in-law, Robert Blade, and published by the University Press of Mississippi/Jackson in 2012.
Now that we have both read it, we are convinced that McLean -- one determined, difficult, opinionated, passionate man -- caused all the difference between Jackson and Tupelo. As a youth and young man,  McLean (1904 - 1983) couldn't make anything work.  He was fired from his first jobs, couldn't get along with people, couldn't figure out what he wanted to do with his life. But he became involved with Christian Social Gospel teachings, which emphasized the importance of working for good in one's local surroundings, and he married a smart and savvy woman who was completely loyal to him throughout their lives.
McLean purchased a small struggling weekly newspaper and gradually built it into a successful daily paper serving northeastern Mississippi. Over and over, he used the editorial voice of the paper to urge local residents to improve their community.  The most lasting improvement was due to an idea he had late in life: realizing that Tupelo's rural children began to fall behind in school from the very beginning, McLean asked experts for advice and was told that a small student-teacher ratio could make a big difference.  Since the schools could barely afford the teachers they already had, he sponsored a pilot program using teacher aides, and then challenged and persuaded others to help support the effort as it grew, as reading scores rose and school performance in general improved.
This book is much more than a well-written biography of an interesting man; it is a fascinating study of the history of Mississippi in the latter half of the twentieth century and goes much farther than the newspaper headlines to illustrate the progress and the setbacks of people of good will living in difficult situations.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Texas, by James Michener

We have been traveling in Texas for about two and a half months now.  Soon after our arrival in the state we realized that we were completely ignorant of the early history of the state.  I felt the same curiosity I had experienced when first learning about the War of 1812, or King Philip's War or some of the other overlooked historical events in our country.
So we did some reading, and visited historic sites, and talked with park rangers -- all the stuff a tourist might do, to acquire at least a superficial understanding of the subject. As we moved South, it became more and more apparent that the early relations between Mexicans and Anglos have been touchy at best, and often heartbreaking
I found myself relying on my longstanding practice of turning to fiction when I want a quick education.  This time I found a paperback copy of Texas by James Michener, first published in 1985 and about as big as a brick.  It is the tried and true Michener format.  I think I had never read it before because I had become tired of his formula -- and he was severely and widely criticized for the way in which he hammered his research into something resembling fiction but without the grace that a good novel projects.
I'm a bit more than half-way through and have decided to quit, because the part of the history that interested me was the earliest contact between Mexico and the new Anglo settlements.  Although he characterized some of the historical figures based upon his admittedly extensive research, I became irritated quickly with becoming involved with a family or an individual character and then, checking the list he had helpfully added to the front matter, would find they were fictional.
But when I wrote my novel Pinyon Creek, California, I included both real and fictional characters. Isn't this the same thing that Michener did?  I have been struggling with this answer, for several reasons, although, since I had forgotten this habit of Michener's, I certainly did not deliberately intend to copy him.
First, in my book, the characters whom I describe are all fictional.  The only historic characters in the book are seen by others and their actions are described by others as those actions affect them.
Second, the presence of documentable detail helps set the scene and pin the story in identifiable time and place, a kind of shorthand way of introducing and pacing things.
But of course, these points apply to the Michener book as well. And I have been troubled from the very beginning by the realization that the real subject of Pinyon Creek, California, is the community itself.  If I hadn't become impatient with the whole process, but instead stayed with it and revised the book as I had originally planned to do, I think I would have tried harder to make my human characters more complex and believable.
I know I don't want to go back to it.  I am carrying around some reference material in case I decide to carry the story forward, and it could very well be an entirely different, standalone book.  I'll admit I was pretty discouraged by the realization that I probably would never find an agent or a publisher and I didn't understand, when I made my publishing choices, that self-publishing is one of the hardest, most draining jobs I could imagine. I don't think James Michener wrote very good fiction and I certainly don't want to emulate it any more than I aleady have.
So perhaps this is a useful object lesson.  If the time I have spent reading Texas has convinced me that I should stick to pure fiction next time, then it has probably been time well spent.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Boy Kings of Texas, by Domingo Martinez

It appeared on the Best of the Year list for the National Book Award.  Out of the blue, a memoir by somebody who was not famous, not even a mainstream Achiever, published by a publisher whose very name was unfamiliar, and set primarily in Brownsville, Texas, a place so out of fashion it seems almost out of the United States.  Brownsville, after all, is for most of us a quirky refuge for Americans fleeing Winter and maybe wanting to look at birds.
But what is this book? It is an autobiography (called a memoir possibly with an eye to classifying it in a category which might win an award) of a boy who grew up in a desperately poor and disfunctional family, where the grandmother is more ferocious than many of the men, where meals are irregular and wildly unhealthy and where the major skills are not agriculture or ranching but repairing and driving large unwieldy vehicles sometimes for long distances and frequently without brakes.
The author paints exasperated but loving portraits of his family members and doesn't shy away from telling about the misdeeds and minor crimes he and his family have committed (in his first night in jail, he edits and corrects the police report because he can't stand so many grammatical errors).
He eventually became a graphic designer and illustrator and, as of this year, a writer.  He has promised a second volume continuing his adventures; this book ends when he was a young adult.
By ordinary standards this wouldn't catch anybody's eye, but someone somewhere in the literary world saw it and liked it.  It was passed from hand to hand and became a finalist for one of the most prestigious annual book awards. Stranger things have happened.
This is not a recommendation.... exactly.  But I do admit I couldn't stop reading till the end.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Prairie City, by Angie Debo

In Enid, Oklahoma, we visited the local museum which was hosting a traveling exhibit prepared by the Oklahoma Historical Society.  It featured men and women who had been instrumental in the history of the territory and state, and of course included many people unfamiliar to us.  One, a writer, caught our attention: Angie Debo, who was one of the major historians and teachers of Oklahoma history. It took us a few more stops before we found a copy of her best-known book, Prairie City, which was published in 1944 but now reissued by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Debo tells the story of the town she calls Prairie City but which is really Marshall, Oklahoma, where she arrived as a child and spent much of her life.  The book, which won several awards for its treatment of social history, reads like a story; in fact in some lists it is described as fiction, but it is solidly based on facts and statistics (and it is her gift that those statistics don't obtrude on the narrative).  Prairie City, soon known to its residents simply as "Prairie" because it never became a real city, was one of the places affected by the Runs, a strange lottery in which would-be settlers registered for a chance to homestead a section of land, then at the bark of the starter's gun they raced to find their spot in a chaotic, dusty, dangerous event -- the opening of the Cherokee Strip.
One of the first settlers established a general store. Others broke ground for farming, while still others either sold their claims or negotiated some other deals.  As the town grew, we learn about the establishment of first one church and then others, then the beginnings of a school.  In the course of time, Prairie experiences booms and busts, they reluctantly turn from wheat farming to oil production with its noise and pollution and volatile financing.
When the First World War began, Prairie planned to ignore it, but as soon as the first of its young men went off to fight, the town discovered reserves of patriotism  -- and anti-German prejudice.
During the Great Depression, Prairie was hard hit, and she tells us in vivid detail how it affected the settlers, even though, as she points out, the Oklahoma farmers outside the dust bowl were relatively able to survive the hardest times.
But growth and progress and tough economic times took some of the spirit out of Prairie.  Or perhaps it was just that the first settlers were getting older. The last part of the book has a gently mournful tone.
Debo won an Alfred Knopf fellowship for Prairie City when it was first published. She spent her entire career as a historian, writing and teaching about the history of Oklahoma.  In her nineties she was still going strong.  Prairie City would have a more critical reception today because of its lack of notes or other documentation and her blithe admission that she has created a composite community.  But whether or not this is an accurate description of the history of Marshall, Oklahoma, it is a convincing and memorable portrait of any number of small Midwestern towns.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In the Shadow of Gotham, by Stefanie Pintoff

In 1906 New York, we meet police detective Simon Ziele, who investigates the murder of a young woman in her bedroom in the middle of an afternoon.  There should be many clues, but the detective is at a loss when he is contacted by Alistair Sinclair, a criminologist at Columbia University.  Sinclair is deeply interested in learning about the psychology of criminals, especially murderers.
Ziele teams up with Sinclair and his assistants and together they develop some theories of who the murderer might be.  But will they be able to stop the killer from killing again?
I found this novel interesting throughout and once again failed to identify the real villain.  The historical touches -- using the telephone, the disaster aboard the General Slocum ferry, various details of living in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century -- were fun.
This is Pintoff's first published book;  I look forward to her next.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I resisted this book for months, after hearing from one, then another trusted reader that it was  worth reading.  No, said I, I really don't like books with unreliable narrators, as this has been described in reviews (it seems to be one of this year's fashions).
Then I gave up and read the first page.  And several days later I finished it, and found that I had thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.
The characters are not lovely. In fact, they are, most of them, rather nasty.
 The writing is workmanlike but not persuasive.  I couldn't put it down.  Mostly, I wanted to see how the author would peel another layer from the onion and turn our expectations around.
Loved it.  You will, too, most likely.