All the Strange Hours, by Loren Eiseley

Although I found this memoir by the famous anthropologist hard going at first, I have to say that the book rewards persistence. At first the book's structure seemed based on free association. While loosely chronological, Eiseley skips around in time, jumping decades forward or back to recount a meeting with some colorful character. He admits that this hopping about makes the book difficult for the reader to follow, but obviously it was up to me to adapt or stop reading. Eventually I began to recognise how carefully he'd constructed each chapter and the way his tales spiral back with enhanced meaning.

The other aspect that hindered my reading is the tone. Although only in his late 60s, Eiseley refers to himself as old and in fact did pass away two years after this book was published. Here he is summing up his life as he prepares to leave it, with the thought of death and the insignificance of life permeating every reminiscence. He writes of returning to a childhood place where he had carved his name in the sandstone “deep against the encroaching years” only to find that the stone has been worn smooth. Sometimes he comes across as a cranky, dissatisfied old man, railing against the students of the 1960s, for example, or complaining about his insomnia. Incidents that another writer might present in a self-deprecating or even amusing tone are offered as gloomy evidence that there is no achievement that lasts; we live only to die. Yet as the book goes on, he finds the value of one's time on earth, describing the wonders of this life, the dogs who accompany us, the work that inspires us. He says, “all we are quickly vanishes. But still not quite. That is the wonder of words. They drift on and on beyond imagining.”

Eiseley certainly had a hard early life, with a deaf and seemingly unhinged mother and an elderly, ineffectual father who begged him to protect and make allowances for his mother. After his father's death, Eiseley enters a long period of illness and poverty, coincidentally during the worst of the Depression. I enjoyed his descriptions of how to hop trains, his chance acquaintances, hostile brakemen and the body's betrayal. His account of these years is a lesson in how easy it is to fall into poverty and how hard to climb out. He calls this period a prison “in that I could not get outside the ring, the ring of poverty. Like a wolf on an invisible chain I padded endlessly around and around the shut doors of knowledge.”

Only timely help from his uncle enables him to go to college and then graduate school. He writes brilliantly of the professor he studied under, Frank Speck, a man who learned Mohegan from his Indian foster mother and was more comfortable in the woods or pine barrens than in a classroom. Speck tells him of a story by Algernon Blackwood of a man “whose soul was stolen by the past”, a fitting image for these two men, changelings in a way.

I was fascinated by Eiseley's fluid sense of time, even though it made the text a bit confusing. He talks about his sense of the past and future existing simultaneously. He says that being on the road, “People were always appearing from some other century, entering and exiting, as it were, at will. You never knew whether your companions were from the past or the future.” He speaks of the intersection of the two, finding objects “hidden in arroyos” that had been remade by Indians from “the discards of white civilization”, such as iron arrowheads ground from hoes or scrapers from fragments of glass. “Here under the timeless High Plains sunlight, the primitives had tried to reshape the new materials of another age than their own into forms they could comprehend.”

As an anthropologist, he notes physical characteristics of people he meets, such as the 6'5” sailor with fingernails like claws. He ponders human differences and “all that difficult entangled thread that produces successive generations.” This meeting provides another interesting moment, as the man invites Eiseley to sign on with his ship. Eiseley is tempted to abandon graduate school and take to the sea and the freewheeling life he once knew riding the rails and working odd jobs.

Thus does our personal past, not just the world's past, spiral around and return to us. Tripping over my past self as I have been these last few weeks, losing myself on streets I've known all my life, I agree and finally come around to praising this book as the intensely moving experience it has been for me.

The Man of the Forest, by Zane Grey

Although he started out as a cowboy and still occasionally visits the village of Pine, 30-year-old Milt Dale prefers the solitary life of a hunter. Roaming the White Mountains of Arizona accompanied only by his semi-tame cougar, Dale’s woodsmanship is sufficient to supply him with everything he needs. One day, taking refuge from a storm in an abandoned hut, he accidentally overhears Snake Anson and his gang meeting with a local landowner. Beasley hires Anson to kidnap his rival Al Auchincloss’s young niece who is headed west to help her dying uncle run the ranch. Beasley figures that if she disappears his way will be clear to take over Auchincloss’s ranch. After trying unsuccessfully to warn Auchincloss, Dale surprises himself by deciding to pre-empt Anson by catching Helen Raynor before she boards the stagecoach at Magdalena. “He who had little to do with the strife of men, and nothing to do with anger, felt his blood grow hot at the cowardly trap laid for an innocent girl.”

Laugh if you want, but I love a good western. In a recent review in the London Review of Books Joshua Cohen writes that “genre literature was until recently the lowest of the low” and contrasts it with the use of metaphysics in literature. He describes how “they represent two opposing drives: the desire to be taken seriously and the desire to be popular,” yet have interacted and influenced each other. The qualities that make a good western, or any other genre book, are the same ones that—for me—make a good book: a flawed hero with a strong moral sense, complex characters with whom to interact, an evocative setting, a hefty and intricate plot, and a satisfying ending that pulls it all together without being predictable or sentimental.

The Man of the Forest succeeds on all counts. Gale’s decision to intervene calls into question the life he’s chosen, and he has to re-evaluate his decision to ignore any responsibility to be a contributing member of society and remain aloof from “civilisation”. As they try to adapt to life in the west, Helen and her sister go through changes that set them apart from the usual fainting-maiden/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes. Characters such as the four Mormon brothers who are Gale’s friends and other cowboys experience equally unexpected changes. Even Anson and Beasley surprised me with their depth.

And of course the setting is magnificent and eloquently described. “He crossed the wide, grassy plain and struck another gradual descent where aspens and pines crowded a shallow ravine and warm, sun-lighted glades bordered along a sparkling brook. Here he heard a turkey gobble, and that was a signal for him to change his course and make a crouching, silent detour around a clump of aspens.” Grey describes the wild turkeys running like ostriches which, having seen a few, seems like a perfect description to me.

This is a larger story than Gale’s inner conflict or the danger to Helen and Auchincloss. It’s the story that the television series Deadwood explores so brilliantly: how an isolated group of people agrees on social norms and develops structures, including law enforcement, to support them. The book wears its significance lightly. It’s simply a good read.

Breaker, by Sue Sinclair

This is the third book of poetry from the Toronto-based Sinclair, though the first one I've read. Or rather, immersed myself in, since I've read and reread it, set the book aside for a few months, and read it again. Poets are often advised to go deeper, to make space for more profound meaning to emerge. Sinclair's poems show me how far short of that goal I've fallen. They disturb and entrance me. They make me look at the things of this world in a new way.

In talking about the difference between design and art, Milton Glaser says “. . . the only purpose of art is that it is the most powerful instrument for survival—art is so persistent in all our cultures because it is a means of the culture to survive. And the reason for that, I believe, is that art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive.. . . if you look at a work of art, you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive.”

Sinclair's poems are truly art, then. She makes her unusual images work, confounding my expectations and delighting my soul. In “The Garden”, for instance, she says:

As it flowers, the garden

sinks, a ship being pulled slowly

under the earth. The sail rises

as it goes down.

I stop to puzzle over this image, appreciating the rooted hull sinking ever deeper, while banks of flowers rise as though hoisted by invisible hands. I think about Timothy Findley writing Not Wanted on the Voyage, his engrossing novel from Mrs. Noah's point of view, in the old barn on his farm, an ancient structure that creaked and groaned in the wind like an ark upon the ocean.

I cannot imagine where Sinclair is going with her image, though, wondering what on earth ships and gardens have to do with each other. She goes on to the flower and how the flower holds the “Sign of its own disappearance” yet draws the light to it, making me think of Dylan Thomas's green fuse. Then we are back to the garden and the light and the “density below”. I don't want to ruin the ending, so will only say that Sinclair ties the poem together in a way that conveyed, to me at least, a truth completely new and yet so deeply familiar that it gave me chills even on a steamy August night.

And so with the rest of the poems in this startling collection. She takes the ordinary things of daily life, such as workmen headed into a railway tunnel, an abandoned mine, or people waiting for a bus in the snow, and finds a larger meaning. She rejoices in beauty without losing sight of its impermanence. In “Awe” she says: “Only in this life does beauty/pursue us, pounce on us” before moving in the second half of the poem to “these are savage times”. Her strong, active verbs and rough judgment brace and balance the lyricism of her images.

I am humbled and exhilerated at the same time. These poems make me pay attention and see something different, something deeper. Wonderful.

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

In this sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone Lehane brings back Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. That brilliant and disturbing book centered on their search for the missing four-year-old Amanda. Now, twelve years later Patrick and Angie are the parents of their own little girl, Gabriella. Patrick is struggling to make a living as a private detective while Angie finishes her master's degree, but the tough economy has him reluctantly hoping to turn piece-work for a big firm into a permanent job. Unfortunately, as he's told by his contact there, he'll have to lose his attitude first. Then Bea McCready, Amanda's aunt, turns up and demands that Patrick find Amanda, now 16 and once again missing.

Sequels are risky business. You have the advantage of starting with characters who are likely to be familiar to the reader, but then you have the difficult task of providing enough characterisation and backstory so new readers won't feel left out while not boring your loyal longtime readers. Lehane's decision to let so much time pass between the two books gives him a way out of that dilemma: while still recognisably the same, the characters have aged and changed. One reason why sequels, especially in films, so often don't measure up to the original is that authors rely on the formula that worked for them the first time. Lehane never falls into that trap. He challenges himself with every book to become a better writer, always trying something new, such as with the psychological thriller Shutter Island and the historical novel The Given Day. This makes it all the more impressive that he has been able to return to these characters so successfully, coming to them almost as though they are entirely new to him.

I've been a fan of Lehane's writing right from the start. His books are compulsively readable. He has said himself that the mystery is least important part of his books. He sets out to tell a story. It may be a story about gentrification or ethics or what a failing economy does to ordinary people, but whatever it may be, he builds in serious thought and complexity along with a generous dose of smart humor. The mystery is there to serve the story.

We readers bring our own concerns to a book. For me, this week, revisiting a place I first saw over twenty years ago, I couldn't shake that double exposure feeling, the sense that I was following the shadow of my younger self, remembering how I perceived things then and what this place meant to me. So I was particularly attuned to the changes in Patrick and Angie: his recognition that age has slowed him down and made him less willing to put up with the b.s.; her declaration that nothing, not even the questions of right and wrong that drove her in the past, matters more than protecting Gabriella.

I was curious, too, to see who Amanda has become and what happened to Patrick and Angie's relationship after Gone, Baby, Gone. It's hard to let go of characters sometimes, hard for the writer, hard for the reader. Plus it's always fascinating to look at how people change over time and how they remain the same. I looked forward to reading this book, excited as soon as I heard about it, and I have to say that it is even better than I expected. Lehane never disappoints.

Precious Bane, by Mary Webb

I loved this book. It took me forever to read because every time I picked it up, I went back and reread the previous chapters for the pure joy of the prose.

In Precious Bane Prue Sarn tells the story of what happened after the death of her father of apoplexy or stroke following an argument with her brother Gideon. Gideon takes over running the farm, determined to force it to yield the wealth that he believes he requires in order to marry the woman his loves and lead the life he is determined to lead. A good man and a hard worker, he is blind to everything but his goal and pushes Prue and their mother to take on additional work to help reach it. Prue is more than willing. Born with a harelip, which makes some of the villagers mutter that she is a witch, Prue holds fast to Gideon’s promise that he will pay for her disfigurement to be corrected. Only when she is as beautiful as a fairy, Prue believes, will she be able to attract a husband and have a family of her own, like other girls.

First published in 1926, this is a novel about life in a village in the Ellesmere district of Shropshire. It captures the sumptuous beauty of rural life in the pre-industrial past but also the superstition, brutality and terror, thus providing a realistic picture of what is often sentimentalised as Merrie England. Isolated on their farm next to Sarn Mere, Prue works in the fields alongside her brother and trades plowing for writing lessons from a neighbor, Beguildy, who calls himself a wizard and refuses to go to church—such a perfect name for a wizard! It is his daughter Jancis whom Gideon loves and plans to marry when he is rich enough to buy her a big house in town and take her to the Hunt Ball.

I love the strong descriptions that evoke the countryside’s splendour in summer and terrible emptiness in winter. Most of all, I love the way the author weaves them into the story. It is all too easy to drop chunks of description into the action, but Webb integrates action into the description and uses it to reinforce and illustrate the story. In the first chapter, Prue says, “When I look out of my window . . . I call to mind the thick, blotting woods of Sarn, and the crying of the mere when the ice was on it, and the way the water would come into the cupboard under the stairs when it rose at the time of the snow melting. There was but little sky to see there, saving that which was reflected in the mere; but the sky that is in the mere is not the proper heavens. You see it in a glass darkly, and the long shadows of rushes go thin and sharp across the sliding stars, and even the sun and moon might be put out down there, for, times, the moon would get lost in lily leaves, and, times, a heron might stand before the sun.”

I love that image of the heron standing before the sun. I want to quote the whole book. Every passage, whether full of action or ruminative, is so deeply felt. Now that I’ve finished, I can also marvel at the structure underpinning the story, something I barely registered while immersed in Prue’s world. I think I need to read the book a few more times to tease out the threads that tie the story together, the images and ideas that Webb presents with careful pacing that make the ending so satisfying. I love when an object or an image changes in the course of a story, echoing the protagonist’s journey. Paul Scott was a master at this. Here, for example, Webb gives us Sarn Mere in the troubling opening above and as the father’s funeral procession winds past: “. . . the only light there was came from the waning clouded moon and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep.” Later she talks joyously of the mere in summer, ringed about by oaks, larches and other trees, then a ring of rushes, and an inner ring of lilies “lying there as if Jesus, walking upon the water, had laid them down with His cool hands.” She speaks of the different types of dragonflies to be found at the mere and describes their struggle out of the old skin, staying still just at the end as if wondering if they could do it, before making one last heave and bursting free.

There is much about the fields, the way the corn seems to shine during August nights, and the woods and wildflowers. I’ve gotten distracted by the descriptions but there is plenty of action as well. The title is an oxymoron, of course, since a bane is something that causes ruination or death so one would rarely consider it precious. Hard not to think of Tolkein, writing at the same time. Prue only uses the term in reference to Gideon, and his bane may be precious in itself, such as the riches he works for, or it may be that gift that makes us reach ever higher and achieve more than we ever dreamed possible.