22 May 2015

Great Leader, by Jim Harrison

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NY Times review

This is the first book I've read by Jim Harrison. His writing is unusual. There's a kind of economy to it that can be just a little confusing. He doesn't waste words on transition; a character will move from one place to another, one action to another, one time to another, with little or no explanation. Several times I had to stop and go back to see what I had missed, and usually discovered that I had missed nothing--I was simply being challenged to use my head to figure out what's going on. In general, I like this in an author; I don't enjoy reading unnecessary reams of exposition, but maybe Mr. Harrison overdoes it a little.

The story is pretty good. I like the Upper Peninsula Michigan setting, the cold and bleak images of Lake Superior, its role as a sort of symbol for evil in the book. Sunderson is a State Police detective who retires soon after the story begins, but who continues to hunt down his last suspect, a religious cult leader that he sometimes calls the Great Leader. The Great Leader's main transgression is statutory rape: he likes to have intercourse with underage girls who join the cult. He also welcomes adult women as long as they have lots of money to donate.

Sunderson is a complicated person, probably an alcoholic, although his personal brand of alcoholism doesn't exactly ring true, and I have a little expertise in this area. He is extremely sexually active for a 65-year-old man, and doesn't seem to have much in the way of moral compunction. Add to this his habit of spying on his 16-year-old female neighbor Mona, and it's a little difficult to see exactly from where his intense moral outrage against the Great Leader comes. Perhaps it's one of those instances where we hate others the most when they remind us of ourselves.

Nancy Pearl's book recommendations NPR 22 May 2015

Link to program

The books are

The Revolutions, by Felix Gilman
The Swimmer, by Joakim Zander
Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
Unbecoming, by Rebecca Sherm
The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter


11 May 2015

Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen

In trying to think of appropriate labels for this entry, I think I've just about summarized what I want to say. Isak Dinesen is a pseudonym for Karen Blixen, and is the author of the more-or-less-famous (at least the movie is) Out of Africa.

These seven stories were are very unusual (odd, quirky, weird, and strange also occur to me as adjectives) but all in all very good. I started reading this on a camping trip and thought after a few paragraphs that I'd put it down, but I didn't.

I'm not going to rehash all seven tales, or even one of them. I will say that the technique of story-within-story is well represented here. I may never have seen it done more, or better.

These stories tend to be set in the early 19th century, and have many references to the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, a war between Denmark and England of which I was not aware (my command of history is, at best, dismal), and not a little to do with the supernatural--though I would not describe them as tales of the occult, even to the extent that Edgar Allan Poe's might be.

All in all, I'd highly recommend Seven Tales to those who crave a damned good read.

A New York Times review by John Updike.


Winter, by Rick Bass


A beautiful, even soothing, account of the author's first winter as a resident of the Yaak valley in Montana.

Biography from Rick Bass's web site.

Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin


This is not an Inspector Rebus novel. It is, instead, a novel told partly in first person by a hired assassin, and partly in third person about the private detective who pursues him from England to America.

After a few Rebuses, I was disappointed to find myself noticing some cardboard-cutout characters, and not-so-great writing.

I did read the whole thing. It was well-plotted, even including a religious cult, and a fictional account of a real-time financial error made in the time of Manuel Noriega and the Iran-Contra scandal.

New York Times review.

04 May 2015

Joyland, by Stephen King

A Hard Case Crime Novel.

This is another Stephen King novel that could be described more as a mystery, or noir-crime novel, than a typical King supernatural thriller. There is, however, an element of the supernatural (maybe he just can't help that) contained in the story, but nevertheless, this is a valid and very entertaining mystery novel.

Set mostly in the vicinity of Wilmington, NC,  this is the story of young Devin Jones, who takes a summer job with a carnival.  Jones, after losing his college girlfriend, finds himself at loose ends, and begins to focus more on his life as a carnival employee. He learns that there is an unsolved mystery associated with the carnival, and here we go. There is a lot of nostalgia and terrific carnival atmosphere. The book cover harkens back to the days of pulp fiction.

King is practically criticism-proof. He hands you a story like this, what are you going to do? If you don't feel like reading it, don't. It's not to be taken as great literature -- but what is it? Merely an entertainment? Somehow, while putting on a great show, King manages always to sneak in a little commentary, a little observation of the human condition, and maybe a little criticism of his own.

I'm a fan.

LA Times Review