Thursday, May 2, 2013
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (of the Surete) is pulled into a strange case while taking a leave of absence. An amateur archeologist, bent on discovering the grave site of the founder of Quebec, is found murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Library, an old and treasured library of books in English. The local police ask Gamache's informal assistance. Although he tries to stay out of it Gamache cannot help himself. His mind churns endlessly, searching for answers.
Meanwhile, he is haunted by memories of a recent confrontation with the kidnappers of a young subordinate. Bits of the final scene and the hours before it play in his mind like a tape, stopping and starting seemingly without his control. His broken memories gradually reveal to us the mistakes he made and the consequences of his actions, as well as those of others in command, until we finally get the full picture.
But that isn't all. A previous case has been kept alive in his mind as well. The partner of a convicted man remains unconvinced of the guilt of his friend. He writes a note to Gamache every day, asking "Why did he move the body?" When Gamache finally decides the case deserves another look, he sends Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir in to Quebec to investigate quietly, informally. Neither man is particularly convinced that they got the wrong guy, but Beauvoir is willing to do his best to find out.
These three cases run alternately through the book, to the setting of Quebec and particularly Old Quebec City. I did have to pay some attention to the description of this lovely city and to think about visiting myself some day. Or at least looking at it in Google Earth. For Ms. Penny seems determined to impart some of her own love of the city to the reader.
We learn, too, of the uneasy alliance between the French and English in Quebec, where the English are a decided minority. Although their fighting times are long over, memories seem to span generations.
An interesting introduction, for me, to Chief Inspector Gamache. I felt I got to know him a little in this long book, to know his heart, as well as that of his mentor and a few of his subordinates. The case of the dead archeologist turns out to take many different turns, while Gamache does a great deal of reading at the Lit and His and beyond. I am wondering how he behaves in more familiar stomping grounds now.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
The disappearance is of a former missionary, Walter Teller, followed his hospitalization for a mysterious illness. He apparently came out of the paralysis that siezed him and took off out of the hospital, sight-unseen. Teller and his brothers were "assigned" their vocations by their overbearing father, and while they complied with his wishes none of them found their careers satisfying. Some people suspect that Walter was reacting to a call from his church to return to the field, a return he clearly did not want to make.
But there is a wrinkle in the whole family story. A woman is found dead in another community, and it turns out her last name is Teller also, and that she married someone named Peter Teller, the same name as Walter's brother. Coincidence? After all, Peter already has a wife. IS this a relative or is it bigamy or what? This is the question Rutledge has to answer.
We get to know Rutledge in part through his work on these cases. We learn that he is suffering from "shell shock"and hears the voice of a former subordinate in his head. He has bad memories of how this person died and is careful not to let anyone know that he is talking to him. I found his investigative method a little odd. Perhaps I expected more of a standard procedure to be followed. Nonetheless, he followed his own instincts and got there in the end. It's as much a story about Rutledge as it is about the people he investigates. I am always on the side of stories that dig into characters like this.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
The main character of this large book appears to be Patty Berglund. Her husband Walter figures prominently as well, as do several other characters. But Patty is the only one who gets to write portions of her own "autobiography", oddly in the third person.
Patty was an athletic young girl who got knocked off the track to a basketball career when she injured her knee. She changed her dreams, married Walter, had children, did her best to become a super housewife. She knew all along that she was not as nice as others thought she was, but there was much she did not know about herself.
Patty was originally attracted to Walter's best friend, Richard Katz. Katz was a musician, womanizer, who initially did not respond to Patty's hints. Patty, however, found herself increasingly attracted to Walter anyway. Walter was almost an anti-Richard. Thin, geeky, an environmentalist. Something in him, though, responded to something in Patty, the ex-athlete who was not much aware of the environment.
We follow Patty and Walter through many years, dipping into the lives of their children and parents as well. Until comes a time when something has gone out of their marriage and Patty is dissatisfied in general. She has become less and less fun to be around for just about everyone. In spite of which Richard is drawn to her.
What is "freedom" in this context? The freedom to do as we please? The freedom to be away from others, to be alone? We watch as Richard continues his self-destructive life, as free as can be. We see Patty and Walter's son free himself from the nest, then later engage make some questionable choices in his career, free from interference. Patty and Walter live their own lives, essentially free of each other.
Some reviewers have called this a novel of its time, and as I think of it I can agree. In a way, it sums up life today in the US for many in the upper middle class in a way that reminds me of John Cheever. There is a lot of humor but underlying that is real warmth. Something you don't see so much in Cheever.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Rachel brings us a clear, well-documented account of how our military has expanded and changed since WWII. She takes us from the entry into Vietnam, through Johnson's and Reagan's presidencies, and on through to Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond. She shows us how each step was taken that led to where we are now. And where are we?
A president can wage war now without bothering the rest of us. Fewer than 1% of US citizens are in the military, and as a rule we tend not to care about modern-day mercenaries: the employees of Brown, Kellogg, & Root, Halliburton, and Blackwater by whatever its current name is. At this time the private companies are putting more boots on the ground than is the US military. Because of sloppy or nonexistent oversight, these companies are costing us far more than just the cost overruns: they have wiped out our image in many companies, where they behave as ungovernable bullies - and in fact they are.
The privatization of war has consequences beyond even this, however. We can spend our way into and out of wars and keep going on about our business. We see no difference in our day to day lives. We don't pay for these wars in sacrifice or any other way. And therefore we have become numb to what they really are.
Years ago I remember reading an economics textbook. I remember little of it, but I remember this point: you can't have a successful economy manufacturing destruction. You have to build, not destroy. It is hard for any of us "regular folks" to comprehend the deficit we've created by waging these wars, and even harder to comprehend that payment will have to be made. In fact, it appears that collection has started. Our economy has been in the tank for a while now. It isn't just because of inflated housing.
I don't read many "political" books. I'm not a political junkie, although like many I hold strong views. This may be why I personally like Rachel so much. She does the work! And she explains it really really well. She rarely gets it wrong because she's passionate about facts. I came away from this book understanding how our constitution got to be irrelevant, how our standing army gradually and then exponentially increased, how we started farming out the work, even how we built up our nuclear arsenal, and even after the end of the cold war how we keep building it.
At the end Rachel offers us a checklist of what we need to do to get back on track. I believe that every member of congress and the president and his advisers all need to read this book and pay attention. I think it's possible that many of them are so caught up in day to day politics that they have lost the thread. It's here, it's clear, and we all need to pay attention.
I can't leave it there. Rachel brings to this tale all of her usual wit, which helps when we try to swallow.
Monday, February 25, 2013
An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.
It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.
Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.
How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.
The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Kate Atkinson's novels just delight me. I get great pleasure reading them. There are books that I like but these I love.
As in the others, this novel features a range of characters, some central and some peripheral. Jackson Brodie is again featured, former detective now supposedly retired. He falls for one more case: to find out who gave birth to a woman, Hope McMaster, a woman who now lives in New Zealand but who was born in England. Jackson figures it shouldn't be that hard, considering he's already traveling. Wandering, really, not settling anywhere. Might as well look into the case while he's on the road.
Another major character is Tracy Waterhouse, former police detective, present head of security for a retail store. Tracy is an amply-built woman who has made her job her life, for the most part. She is not married, has no children. When she spots a familiar woman on the street, pulling a small child, she can guess what will happen to that child when she gets home. She confronts the woman, a drug addict Tracy had arrested when she was with the police. On the spur of the moment she does something highly unusual and unexpected, which changes the course of her life.
When Jackson starts to hunt down birth and adoption records he runs into a blank wall. The presumed birth parents do not appear to exist. So who really did give birth to Hope?
There are other minor characters whose lives are intertwined with these and whose actions surprise and delight at times. It's like a full, satisfying meal that left me feeling just right.
Friday, February 8, 2013
Curious story. A kind of historical fiction that I can live with.
In 1806 William Thornhill, illiterate waterman, is convicted of theft and sentenced to hang. By paying for letters pleading his case to be sent to authorities, he manages to get his sentence commuted. He is sent to New South Wales (now Australia), along with his wife and small children, to live out a life sentence there.
The system in New South Wales allows Thornhill to work his way out of his life sentence. He is still "branded" as a former convict but is able to be free on the continent. Working on the water again, he discovers a piece of land that is fairly remote from any kind of civilization, and he covets that land. In time he moves his family there and they take on the task of creating a home and growing food, while he continues to run his boat.
Throughout this time he encounters "savages". There is a conflict, because they were there first, although they don't tend to have the same concept of property ownership. Thornhill and eventually his convict workers push against the land, forcing it into submission. He even makes a kind of peace with the savages, an uneasy one.
His wife Sal is strong and capable but not in love with this land. Thornhill is deeply in love with his wife and struggles with his two loves: the land and Sal. Eventually the savage situation comes to a head, an ugly and violent one. Throughout the book the tension is almost unbearable. In a way the ultimate "resolution" was almost a relief.
I read The Fatal Shore years ago. It impressed me with its details of convict life in early Australia and the settling of the continent at the expense of the aborigines. I remember life for the convicts being harder than indicated in this book, but there were different settlements. I have no reason to doubt the details in this book, written by an Australian writer and praised by fellow Australians. This fiction story fills out the story I read so long ago.