Tag Archives: reading

VILLAGE BOOKSTORE

Curling up with a Good Book…and a good dog too.

Just a final wrap-up note note about the Minnesota visit. Grand Rapids, population just over 11,000, has a bookstore I’ve come to love over the years for its attention to Nordic Noir. Unfortunately the Village Bookstore is located in a small, and generally failing, mall, so its days may be numbered. But while it is here I am availing myself of the luxury of selecting a healthy stack of probably-want-to-reads, hunkering down in a comfy chair, and making the final selections—usually most of them. You simply cannot duplicate the pleasure of that touchy-feely perusal on line. And I am a stack of books richer for having experienced it. Can’t wait to go to bed tonight and continue tracking the murderer loose in Larvik, southwest of Oslo, with my detective friend William Wisting and his journalist daughter Line (The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst). I do order more books than I should on line just because it is so easy—but what if we all do that so much we forever lose our access to real honest-to-god places that exude the love of books and need to be among them? Shop at your local bookstores…independent and B&N…or they’ll disappear and this will be a blander poorer world for the loss.

Title Quote: “She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.

 

NOAH AND EGGERS. LIGHT TOUCH WITH A DARK EDGE.

Holiday. Reading. Leaving just enough time for sleeping, eating, blogging, visiting, and buying shoes.

Remember my ever-so earnestly focused reading list on Wyoming, Utah, and points east in Asia. All thoughtfully planned and well-intentioned, and all of which I dedicatedly pursued until…reaching my destination in the north woods and official vacation time.

First night here I picked up Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Perfect choice. I’m a fan of Noah’s and have some small knowledge of Johannesburg so the book was engaging on both levels. Noah probably isn’t a great writer but he’s better than just good, mostly because his comedic charm shows through often, and because he appears to have been pretty forthright in relating the good, bad, and ugly of his circumstances and his response to them. Life is tough in the townships and suburbs of Jo’burg for everyone and for a mixed-race kid who didn’t really fit within the Coloured community there were some additional snags. If you enjoy Noah’s show or standup routines, you’ll love this book.

I’ve moved on now to Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (remember A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?). The official hype says this is “the darkly comic story of a mother and her two young children on a journey through an Alaskan wilderness plagued by wildfires and a uniquely American madness.” I am pretty sure this is a seriously good book. Even this far along I know Josie and her kids, Paul and Ana, are people with whom I want to share a journey. Eggers has introduced them as utterly charming, more than a little peculiar, and reluctantly adventurous (with the exception of tiny Ana who’s an unadulterated adventurer). I finished Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent a couple of weeks ago, enjoying Bryson’s travelogue snide and often hilarious descriptions of American sights and ways immensely. Eggers is even better at describing our American strangeness in a way—is it because he’s more subtle or ironic or maybe it’s attention to the odd details that are everywhere? Don’t know…but I love it.

Is there anything in the world better than a book? No, there is not.

 

 

PLACES…I Have Known

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I finished two books week before last; they appeared to be quite different at first but upon further consideration, and for purposes of including them in the same review, I’ll focus on their commonality which is, for me, that they are both about places I love—the Bay Area and the North of the World. It seems, again…for me, that all stories wind up being as much about the places in which they occur as about the occurrences themselves.

The American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst is a well-told tale of Hearst’s revolutionary years, her home territory of San Francisco, California and, to some degree, the whole U.S. during the mid-Seventies. Jeffry Toobin is a great documentarian, building his stories around big events or institutions that define and are defined by the times and places where the actions and moods of the country as a whole are playing out. This story of California in the 70s doesn’t disappoint.

In contrast, 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack is a lyrical, almost dreamy, travelogue that invites us along as the author contemplates the meaning of home on an improbable journey around the world at the 60th parallel. Tallack is a fine writer and all the ingredients for a great piece of travel literature are here—personal reflection and story, physical description laced with history from places along the 60th parallel. In fact the idea of 60 Degrees North is just so intriguing, and the author and his surroundings so interesting, that the ending let me down just a little. It seemed like he was a little tired of the whole project by the time he reached Scandinavia. Nevertheless it was a fine journey….

I loved traveling to the Bay Area and around the 60th parallel with Toobin and Tallack; they’re all places I’ve experienced on a deeper or slighter scale. I lived in San Francisco from 1989-1992, more than ten years after the days of the  pseudo-revolutionary activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), but the sense of San Francisco as a place where everyone somehow ‘fit’ and where possibilities for the human condition to improve was still strong. It’s a place of richly potent layers of the belief that all things are possible—from laughing and rebuilding in the cracked face of the big quakes to gold-rushing dreams to the summer of love to Berkeley marching and Alice Waters bringing the farm to the table.

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 I moved to San Francisco just before the big earthquake of ’89, and the Mission was homeless/artist/refugee/gay heaven and Silicon Valley in Mountain View seemed quite a ways out of town. I took BART everywhere, frequently visiting dancers or potential donors connected somehow with the small black-box theater I was managing so I knew something of the small towns around the area. In other words, as the goofy SLAers drove from hideout to hideout I could visualize those streets and neighborhoods! Of course the random bombings and Berkeley in its radical heyday were in the past but, in my time there, the biggest anti-Iraqi war, anti-Bush peace march of which I know took place and I marched as a volunteer of Global Exchange, directed at that time by Medea Benjamin, one of my woman-warrior heroines. When I go back now to hang out with my granddaughter that rich Bay Area history is ever present and it all still looks familiar and I’m so happy to have been part of it all even for a little while.

Being introduced to Patty Hearst and the characters in her story including her fellow SLA pals or her lawyer F. Lee Bailey (a real jerk) by Jeffrey Toobin was fascinating but I certainly did not come away feeling either warm and fuzzy, admiring, appalled or much of anything for her or any of them. I always sort of admire the rebels whoever they are but there wasn’t a lot about the SLA to admire. They were mostly insecure misfits, rebels without a coherent cause. Patty did what she did and now raises show dogs. Damn, I wanted my revolutionaries to be more substantial than that. All in all a great account of a time and place.

It was one of those lovely ‘sick’ days when I finished these books, switching back and forth between the bed and the couch and between books, which took me from San Francisco to traveling the 60th parallel with Malachy Tallack—and what a great name he has!  Tallack begins in Shetland, the home he loves very deeply and yet feels compelled to escape…and does over the years for a variety of reason…personal searching longing reasons. Shetland lies directly on the 60th parallel, signifying the edge of the serious north and, it turns out, for Tallack offering a logical path around the world…always in search of home but also always exploring the world as experienced along a distinct line separating hardy northerners from the rest of the human race.

Reading travel/adventure literature is like being along on an intimate journey with the author, from the cranky brilliance of Theroux to the thoughtful historiography of Frazier. I am completely enamored of these guys and so many others; not quite so much so with Malachy Tallack. I’ve been trying to figure this out because I love this book and I do like Tallack but I never felt I knew him well enough to be sure he would be one of those perfect companions who shares exactly the right amount of information and degree of closeness you want for the road.

Tallack’s route around the 60th takes him from Shetland to Greenland to Canada to Alaska to St. Petersburg, backtracking to Finland, Sweden and Norway, and finally, ‘home’ again to Shetland. Even though I kept wanting some undefined ‘more’, the language almost more than made up for whatever might be missing. Tallack does have a way with the descriptive phrase. “Silvery lakes appeared, then were gone – rumours among the trees.” “…just the air fussing among the branches.” “Mount Redoubt, fifty miles away, towered above its neighbours, a scarf of cloud wrapped around its middle.” But I wanted some of the mundane as well, how did he get from here to there, how was he financing his trip, how long did it take…just a little more of the infrastructure, please.

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It’s a beautiful engaging haunting-in-a-way book. I was right there for the wanderlust of it all, enjoying every bit of the poetic and personal ramblings of the author. Perhaps the ‘more’ is just that I wanted big stories about virtually each mile of the way. An impossible task of course without unlimited money, time, patience. There are after all big wonderful rich stories documenting practically every mile of any one of Tallack’s stops along the way including Maple Leaf Rag: Travels Across Canada by Stephen Brook; or doubling down in Russia, specifically Siberia with Travel in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Midnight in Siberia by David Green. Greenland: The End of the World which I’ve talked about recently offers a view of the southern tip of Greenland where the 60th parallel crosses—and I just visited.

The truth is 60 Degrees North is a wonderful read, enlightening, entertaining, and enjoyable enough to make me whine about there not being another thousand pages of it. Better yet I want to go on that same journey. I absolutely love the idea of following lines of longitude and latitude around the world. If I won millions in a lottery tomorrow I could still do that…if I hurried.

 

KILLERS

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What to read while traveling is not such an easy choice. Completely frivolous versus serious fiction or non-fiction related to regional destinations? For my round-the-world venture last year the central theme was Russia and the trans-Siberian trains so I opted for the serious side, downloading volumes of important Russian literature and Robert Massie’s Peter the Great. Imagine how they bloated the insides of my tiny Nook? And how’d that work out for me…fairly well actually. While the greatest of Russian novels are still tucked unread into that pretty little tablet, I spent quite a few hours on Peter the Great, enough to see him into battles with those dastardly Swedes. Reading and pondering Russia’s rich and formidable history while gazing at the passing taiga was truly a lazily-invigorating intellectual experience. But that was then…. I do fully intend to finish Peter the Great this winter on Albuquerque’s one snowy weekend.

This year in the north, it was mostly a different story.  I started at the very light end of things with Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill, the latest in a series of light and lively detective novels about a retired Laotian coroner, quite perfect for a small read by the light of the midnight sun on a skimpily-mattressed bunk bed at the end of a long day in Greenland’s rocky hills.

Having begun One of Us: the Story of a Massacre in Norway—and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad before I left I couldn’t stay away from it too long. Started back again on the flight from Greenland and didn’t put it down until we reached Neset Camping. What a fine and brilliantly-researched and written book about a monster of the first order. Anders Breivik, a psychologically-damaged (possibly with a combination of personality disorders, including narcissistic [just like Trump], borderline and antisocial)  and very smart, with an unstable family life and unlimited time on the internet-of-all-that’s-good-and-bad, slaughtered 77 people, most of them young kids at summer youth camp. Seierstad probes deeply into his life, his character, his upbringing, his place in Norwegian society as well as exploring the social and political world in which this horrendous human being was brought into being. What a thorough and tantalizing character study Seierstad has written—rivals the best of the best of true crime literature and social/psychological non-fiction…think Capote.

I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in how mental illness, societal structures and access to weapons and the internet come together to create the kind of mass killings with which we are growing increasingly familiar.

The truth is I stopped reading just as Breivik is heading into Oslo to begin his killing spree. I was in Norway, visiting family, and spending a few days at the most peaceful of all places, Neset Camping, the spot where my dad was born. I could not bear to read of the horror of the day, having come to know a few of the victims through Seierstad’s beautiful and intimate profiles of some who lost their lives that day. I will go back to the book in the next few days as it’s too important and too well-told of a story not to read to the end.

Meanwhile in Oslo, walking by…no I mean into…a bookstore I found a book I had overlooked entirely—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I started it immediately after putting One of Us down and just finished a few nights ago after getting home. It has plenty of killers, fictionalized it’s true, but at least as believable and probably as close to non-fiction as we care to go when probing the inner workings of the Vietnam War. It is a mystery, a comic novel in some ways, and a novel of places and times with which the author has intimate knowledge. I believe this may be as true of an account of the end of the war in Vietnam, the immediate aftermath, and some of the cast of Vietnamese and American characters as I’ll ever read.

I didn’t quite know where to go with The Sympathizer originally. It is immediately obvious it is smartly written and an original. It took me just a little while to accept it as a fine novel with comic interweavings; it took me a little longer to believe it’s a crime novel which some reviewers call it—and I’m not sure I still get that although there’s no shortage of crime of the greatest variety. Actually, contemplating it with just a few days hindsight, I believe it’s a brilliant novel full of truths about war and peace; Southeast Asians in their homeland and in America; the American brand of war-making; and basic human nature. And all the time you’re reading you just know you’re getting a straighter story (underlying the fictional comedy of death and destruction) than any of us would care to admit. I’m going on line right now to order the non-fiction companion, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. For more about the author, go to

http://vietnguyen.info/author-viet-thanh-nguyen