Vermilion Drift, by William Kent Krueger

I think I've read all of Krueger's mysteries featuring Cork O'Connor. A long series like this gives me a chance to see a character change over time. In each book O'Connor is changed, of course, but over the course of these dozen books the changes are cumulative. After as stint in the Chicago PD, Cork returned to his hometown in Tamarack County, Minnesota, where at the beginning of the series he is the sheriff, although now he is working as a private eye.

One thing that draws me back again and again is the setting of these books, the small towns, Native American reservations, and deep woods of northern Minnesota. Krueger writes knowledgeably of woodcraft, the moods of the lakes, the subtle currents of life in a town where everyone knows each other's business and have known each other all their lives. O'Connor himself is interesting: ordinary, thoughtful, stubborn. He is also one-quarter Ojibwe, a heritage he honors, forcing him often to balance competing loyalties, as he does in this book.

Vermilion One is a long-closed mine that the Department of Energy is considering for storage of nuclear waste. Among those protesting this plan, the most vocal are a group of Ojibwe led by Isaiah Broom, Cork's age, though not one of his friends. Cork has been hired to help with security after those associated with the mine received death threats. In the course of his investigation, he stumbles across long-dead bodies that he thinks might be associated with his one of father's last cases. A drift, by the way, is the term for a horizontal passage off the shaft of a mine.

This is my favorite of Krueger's books. They are all well-plotted and full of interesting characters and tidbits of information about the north country and Ojibwe customs, but this book in particular places Cork in emotional danger rather than physical danger. All the books, of course, have that element, but here it is accentuated as Cork struggles to understand and come to terms with his father's legacy as well as with the Ojibwe values inherited from his mother and nurtured in him by old Henry Meloux. Without the distraction of physical danger, the emotional struggle that underlies his investigation becomes more significant.

And it's a great read, like all Krueger's books, one that I gobbled up in a day, a pj day, one of those days I reward myself with once in a while.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I was amused at Barnes's cheek in using the same title as Frank Kermode's influential book on the theory of fiction, and even more amused when I saw a reference to it on the first page (“tick-tock”). Having just read Barnes's remarkable nonfiction book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a meditation on how to live with the idea that we will eventually die and disappear, I was also moved by the title and thought of Kermode's description of “our deep need for intelligible Ends.” Kermode goes on to say, “We project ourselves . . . past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.”

I read this book twice, the first time for my book club. Tony Webster, retired, divorced, content with his unremarkable life, thinks back over his personal history, recounting episodes as he has always understood them. Then, the re-emergence of two friends from his past throws his understanding of those episodes into question.

I read quickly, page-turning indeed, to find a path out of my bafflement. Not that each scene wasn't precisely clear; it was. But I felt there was something more that I should understand, an underlying connection that was eluding me. We are set up from the beginning to expect more. “I remember” are the first words, and the first scene is from Tony's schooldays, in history class, where the new student, Adrian, makes a remark about the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about what happened. That sense of unease kept me reading until the end, although even then, as one of my book club friends said, we still don't know the truth; only what we are told by Tony.

History, time, memory: these are potent subjects, all the more so for me having just read Absalom, Absalom.

I actually enjoyed my second reading even more, going more slowly, seeing how each detail fit neatly into the whole. What a gem of a book! Tony has always felt in control of his life, but when he examines his memories, he finds instead that he has let things happen to him, settled for a peaceful life instead of the extravagant dreams of youth. What he believed were free choices were constrained by the forms imposed by his historical context (the times), and his understanding of them colored by his need for causality.

Kermode talks (with reference to Iris Murdoch and Ortega y Gasset) about the impossibility of a novel ever actually being true to life. A novel “imposes causality, development, character, a past which matters and a future within certain broad limits determined by the project of the author rather than that of the characters. They have their choices, but the novel has its end.” Thus, I was amused all over again by this meta-fiction, both the author and the narrator struggling to balance the messy facts of a life with the structure we require. The trick that Barnes pulls on the reader, well, me anyway, is to maintain all the uncertainty while creating a solid structure with every detail slotted into place.


This Möbius Strip of Ifs, by Mathias B. Freese

The author asked me to read and review this book, which he described as “a kind of Bildungsroman of my psychological life as a writer, psychotherapist, spiritual seeker, and teacher”. Intrigued, I agreed.

The book is a collection of short essays in three parts. The first and longest part is indeed about the life described above. The essays in the brief second part are mostly about films and actors, while those in the third part are mostly about members of his family. Contrary to my expectations, I found the latter two parts the most interesting. The often stilted prose of the first part smoothed out and became more natural. I also felt that the author was actually trying to convey something to me, to the reader.

This blog of mine grew out of the reading journal I kept where I noted what I as a writer learned from books that I read. What I learned from this book is how important it is to revise with the reader in mind. By that I don't mean write for the market—vampire books are selling well, so that's what I'll write—but take at least one editing pass through the book reading it as your reader will. Even better, have someone whose taste and honesty you trust read it. My writing group gave me invaluable assistance in this regard, telling me where I had not provided enough information or left the reader adrift after a flashback.

In the first essay in the book, Freese recounts how an early short story of his was published in The Best American Short Stories of 1975 under another author's name, an error he was unable to correct. From this experience he “learned a remarkable truth”: that he had worth as a writer and that he did not need “the fruit” of publication or public approval. In another essay he says, “Because I need to explain myself as I sojourn, I write not to entertain (shush!). I write not to sell, convince, or massage, much less condition. I write for the only audience that counts and that is me.”

He several times quotes Krishnamurti saying that every society is corrupt and refers to himself over and over as an outsider who has “de-conditioned” himself from the expectations of other people. That's fine, but at some point a writer must consider his reader, if he expects to have one. In his book On Writing Stephen King advises writers to close the door and write the first draft for themselves, but with the second draft, open the door and think of the reader.

In the essays in the first part, I found many opinions but little information to substantiate or give context to them. I also found almost no one besides the author. A few times he mentioned others—a student he felt sorry for; a wealthy mother and daughter at an auction; a blogger who wrote a savage review of his book, making him feel he “was being tortured by a Nazi”—but he says this student is just like the ones before and after him; the mother and daughter were as disgusting as all rich people with their conspicuous consumption during a recession; the blogger is just as vain, incompetent and ignorant as all bloggers. Perhaps this says more about my taste as a reader than about the book, but I was thrilled to get to the second part and read a whole essay about Buster Keaton. Then one about Peter Lorre! Or perhaps I just preferred reading what Freese admired about these artists rather than his contempt for our corrupt society and the Yahoos that populate it.

The best books, for me, are conversations. I was relieved to finish the first part where I felt someone was talking at me and move on to the second part where I felt someone was speaking with me. The third part, about Freese's family, moved me. I will long remember his Grandma Fanny, a free spirit, sometime seamstress, and surprising woman. Echoes of the young enchantress still hover around the elderly gypsy dragging her colorful hoardings from one garret to another. I love the vision of her tearing at a herring and gnawing on a piece of hard pumpernickel with her few remaining teeth. This lesson, too, I will take from the book: how effective sensory details can be in presenting a distinctive and astonishing life in just a few pages.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Otsuka's book gives us the lives of Japanese picture brides starting with their journey to the U.S. in the early 20th century. Contrary to the prosperous images promised them in letters, the men they married were mostly farmworkers, usually older and less attractive than the photographs the women had pored over before and during the journey. These women worked in the fields, as did the children they bore, and, later, as shop clerks and maids in the homes of the wealthy. We stay with them from the initial betrayal by their husbands through all the others that follow, the burden of poverty and discrimination, the small victories, up through the forced migration to the internment camps during World War II. It is a sad and moving story, filled with small details that drive home the realities they faced.

However, it was not quite as moving as I expected it to be. I felt distant from the women in the book, observing their pain but not feeling it. The reason, I believe, is that the book is written completely in the first person plural: we did this; one of us did that. While the details mount around the reader, there is no single person to follow or identify with, no central character, just the chorus. The details are all that one can ask for: specific, colorful, connected. The language is perfect, conveying their trials with dignity, without complaint. The thread of a common story emerges, but no individual faces. Perhaps if I were not already familiar with the story of these women and the suffering of hard-working Americans of Japanese descent in the internment camps, I would have been more shocked.

I loved and was fully invested in Joshua Ferris's remarkable Then We Came to the End, also written in first person plural. The difference is that, without losing his collective viewpoint, Ferris identified individuals I could care about, such as Lynn Mason, Joe Pope, and Tom Mota. Here, there is no one we stay with for more than a sentence. For example, this is how we learn about the children:

Some of them were stubborn and wilful and would not listen to a word we said. Others were more serene than the Buddha. He came into the world smiling. One loved her father more than anyone else. One hated bright colors. One would not go anywhere without his tin pail . . . They played by themselves all day long without making a sound while we worked nearby in the fields. They drew pictures in the dirt for hours. And whenever we tried to pick them up and carry them home they shook their heads and said, ‘I'm too heavy' or ‘Mama, rest.' They worried about us when we were tired. They worried about us when we were sad. They knew, without our telling them, when our knees were bothering us . . .

So, however beautifully written, I came away a little dissatisfied. I wanted individual faces to emerge from the crowd, so that I could give them the respect and attention due to each person. But that's my problem, not the book's. If I look at it as a prose poem, as some reviewers have suggested, then I have no complaint. I also see that I should look up her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, which follows a single family. For this new book, though, Otsuka has done an amazing amount of research and written an important and accomplished story. I hope many people read it and learn more about the details of these lives that threaten to disappear under the accumulation of history.