Monthly Archives: November 2009

C.J. Box’s Out of Range

A friend of mind lent me C.J. Box’s mystery/crime novel Out of Range, and it was perfect for what I needed — something entertaining. It’s not a great book, but it’s good enough to provide some hours of fun.

Out of Range is part of Box’s Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming, a profession that’s pretty well suited to the mystery/crime genre, as there are all sorts of people he runs into and places where he travels as part of the job. He’s responsible for patrolling his district, making sure that hunters, hikers, and anyone else out on the land are following the rules. He has to deal with a whole range of people, including many who do not see the point of his job, philosophically and politically-speaking, and who are ready to make sure he knows it. He also has to deal with tensions in the office and with the local sheriff, and since he’s frequently away from home for days at a time, his wife isn’t particularly happy with him either. It’s not an easy job, but he loves it because of the freedom and independence it gives him. He’s pretty much in charge of his district on all his own, and he gets to decide how he’s going to spend his time and how he will run things.

This particular novel takes Pickett out of his own district and moves him to the much bigger, more complicated district of Jackson Hole, where the previous game warden has just committed suicide. Pickett is the temporary replacement, and he is interested in the opportunity because he and his wife may want to move there permanently. This is a chance to see how such a move might go. But as you might expect, things get really complicated really quickly: Pickett meets environmental protesters, hostile hunters, and a land developer who wants to start a community based on the “Good Meat Movement.” The idea of this movement is that people will live among the animals that will later appear on their tables, so that they know the source of their food. This developer, it turns out, has all the required permissions for the new development lined up, except that of the local game warden. He’s ready to put great pressure on Pickett to provide that final approval.

What I particularly liked about the book is the way Box deals with issues of food sources and land use. The “Good Meat Movement” sounds good in a lot of ways — we are so disconnected from our food sources in the west that it is a healthy thing to know exactly what it means to eat meat — but there is something not quite right in the way the developer wants to fence in land for wild animals in order to create a paradise for rich people. And then there are tensions between environmentalists, some of whom are militant in their views and willing to take action, and hunters want to be left alone in the wild landscape, and who resent any intrusions, whether from animal-rights activists or government employees. There are so many ways to use the miles and miles of open country that Wyoming is blessed with, and the state, as big as it is, doesn’t seem big enough to hold everyone.

I don’t think this is a great book — I didn’t always love the writing and I thought his women characters were too stereotypical — but it’s still a good read, particularly if you like the crime genre and would like to read about the American west. It’s entertaining, with some good ideas to think about, and that’s a combination I like.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Eating, Talking, Reading, Riding

My trip to Vermont for Thanksgiving turned out to be a wonderful and much-needed break from schoolwork and grading, and Hobgoblin and I had a great time hanging out with friends. There were five of us total, and we spent our time eating (a lot), talking, reading, and walking the dogs. I love it that this is what we do when we visit these friends — they live surrounded by the Green Mountains, and although there are places to visit in the area, the best thing to do is a whole lot of lounging around, with occasional forays into the woods. It was very restful.

We did make one trip out into society, though. There is an excellent bookstore in the area, and since we are all very bookish people, we simply had to visit. I had a wonderful time browsing, and came away with a book called The Great Age of the English Essay, a collection of essays from eighteenth-century Britain. As far as I’m concerned, I can never have too many essay collections. I came across Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Changing My Mind, which looks really good, but I decided to wait until it comes out in paperback to get it.

I spent most of the week reading Obama’s Dreams from My Father and just finished it a few minutes ago. I’ll say for now that I am hugely impressed by it, but will write up my thoughts in detail later.

Hobgoblin and I returned yesterday (Saturday), and today I had a chance to ride my bike, something I’ve neglected a bit in the past week because of my travels. My cycling club had a group ride today, and the plan was to ride for about four hours at a steady pace. That sounded fine, if on the long side, but it turns out that my definition of steady pace isn’t necessarily the same as everyone else’s. I got a little nervous when I showed up for the ride and found a dozen men and no women at all. But I couldn’t back out once I was there, so I decided that all I could do was give it a try. The first half of the ride went pretty well; I worked hard but did a decent job of keeping with the group pace. We rode over a few miles of dirt road, which was a little frightening, especially as the group seemed to fly over the rocks and ruts, but it was also fun and the landscape was beautiful.

It was on the way home that things started to go bad. I’m used to riding two or three hours, but not as many as four, and not four hours of really hard work, so during the third hour I found myself getting slower and slower and falling behind again and again. The group was very nice and waited for me now and then, but after a while I got to the point where I wanted to ride all on my own, so I could go at my own pace without holding anybody else up. So I headed off in a different, less hilly direction, and rode the last 1 1/2 hours on my own, getting slower and slower, but feeling a whole lot better now that I was by myself.

The ride was 72 miles total and was fun in spite of the tiredness. As long as I’m by myself, I can generally keep up my spirits, even if my legs refuse to work hard and my speed gets slower and slower. I know I will get there eventually. So now I’m about 135 miles away from my 5,000-mile goal, and I can probably finish in the next two weeks without any trouble. I think after that I may take a good long break. I will need it as training for the spring racing series will start in January.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Essays, Life

A short vacation

I’m off to Vermont tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with some friends. I should be back this weekend. I hope all my American readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that everyone else enjoys themselves as well!


Filed under Books

Brideshead Revisited revisited and other notes

First of all, the book for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion has been chosen, and it’s going to be Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. The discussion will begin on January 31st, and everyone is welcome to join. All you have to do is read the book and then post about it on your blog, if you have one, and then participate in the discussion. All newcomers are welcome!

It seems about right that after I posted the list of books I’d like to read, I ended up choosing something not on the list at all. For me, lists of books I’d like to read are very much works of the moment. They reflect how I’m feeling on a particular day or in a particular hour, and the world usually looks entirely different only a little while later.

I’ve been feeling like reading something from the 19C, and was considering Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, but then when the moment came to pull a book off the shelf I noticed Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley. I’ve had that book sitting around for almost a year. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to it, except that it’s been awhile since I read Charlotte Brontë, but only a few months since I read Collins, and I wanted to read something that felt new and different. So there you go.

I also began reading President Obama’s first book Dreams from My Father, which one of my in-person book groups will be discussing in a couple weeks. I’ve read 60 pages or so in this book, and so far I’m liking it very much. Obama has such an interesting story to tell, and his focus on what it was like to grow up with his complicated racial heritage is fascinating. He comes across as a very smart, very thoughtful person, and so far I very much like the personality that comes through the writing. It’s also fun to read it knowing that he would grow up to be president; I can’t help but wonder what his parents and his grandparents would have thought if they had known what would happen, and what he would have made of it himself, both as a young boy, and as the 33-year-old who wrote the book. I want to tell all the people in the book not to worry, that things are going to turn out just fine, and that “Barry” is going to have a wonderful career. (Although as far as I’m concerned, being President of the United States is surely one of the worst things that could happen to a person.)

And now to Brideshead. Yesterday I met with two friends (including Musings) to discuss the novel, and it turned out to be a very interesting talk. I didn’t lose my feeling that the book is kind of all over the place and lacking in focus, but I did get a better sense of the book as a reflection of Waugh’s ambivalence about Catholicism. None of us thought that the book was proselytizing for Catholicism in any way, and if anything we thought it was more about the ways it can really screw you up. Yes, there is a moment at the end where the main character has a spiritual experience, but it’s unclear where this will lead. Catholicism seems more like a curse than a blessing — a tradition that will shape everything about you and that is impossible to escape, no matter how much you want to.

As important as Catholicism is in the book, though, we all also agreed that many of the problems of the Flyte family come from their own screwed-upness, and religion just happens to be a great weapon to fight family battles with. The novel is at least as much a tale of how impossible it is to escape your family as it is about how impossible it is to escape your religion.

Oh, my, I’m depressing myself. But I like depressing books, so I’ll be sure to read more Waugh. Mostly, we agreed that Brideshead is a book about loss and trying to come to terms with it. The circular structure of the book makes the point that although we can’t leave our past behind, we can sometimes come to see it in a new way. There’s a little consolation at least.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

That’s the Way the Music Sounds

A friend of mine, Laurel Peterson, recently published a chapbook of poetry called That’s the Way the Music Sounds, and I’m so pleased to say that it’s a gorgeous book and the poems are beautiful. It’s so much fun having friends who are writers, as I enjoy reading their work and seeing another side of them than I might otherwise, and it’s especially fun when the work is so good. The poems in this book take up a lot of different subjects and the voice varies in each one, but there is an elegance that runs through them all, coupled with a quiet, but powerful emotional charge, as though the persona could say so much more than she actually does, and you get a glimpse of the depths underneath. It means an intense reading experience, which is the way reading poetry should be, I think.

A number of poems in the book are about religious experience, or more often memories of religious experiences, and these are among the ones I like best. The tone in these poems is sometimes sad, sometimes angry and regretful, and sometimes thoughtfully critical. The persona in “I Have Come to Return Marbles,” for example, looks back at her childhood spent in church services from the perspective of an adult, thinking about the legacy she inherited from the sermons she heard:

Always I picked the needy ones,

boys who stretched khaki’d legs

out on the church floor

and shot their problems

like marbles

toward me.

On those teenaged nights I sat

in the balcony watching

Jack, in the pulpit,

I thought I’d tuned him out.

But Jack, the preacher, knows that his sermons will sink in anyway, even if the teenagers aren’t listening:

Jack’s voice choes

in this empty nave

where I now sit

surrounded by all those

khaki’d boys — husbands and lovers —

demanding stones for a prostitute,

sacrifice of a mother’s first born,

and quiet, quiet

when men speak.

The persona has returned to the church, trying to return those marbles — the burdens she’s been expected to carry — but Jack’s voice is still there. Another poem describes a panic attack experienced while in a church service on Christmas day, where the persona is suddenly taken back to childhood experiences in the church and has to remind herself that she is not the young, vulnerable girl she once was and that she:

doesn’t need to to say she wants to be a missionary,

that she believes the husband is the head of the wife,

to sing “Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth…”

while pretending her toes don’t bend in red impotence.

But the poems aren’t all about church experiences, and they aren’t all sad. The poem “Late Jazz,” which is where the book’s title comes from, describes a night in New York City listening to jazz, and it’s one of those nights where everything is perfect:

And the way the music sounds is

as if all of New York is on fire,

while ice floes crackle on the Hudson

and the morning falls with ice

and the evening rises with heat

and the sparks fly off the floes

into the burning air…

The poem captures that feeling of exhilaration at a time when New York City is as it should be: glamorous, elegant, thrillingly alive. Another favorite poem of mine is called “Mantra,” and it’s about writer’s block. The persona starts with an empty, clean desk with room for words to move around in, and then the words take on a life of their own, and suddenly they are everywhere, and they are overwhelming. Familiar phrases, song lyrics, and advertising jingles float around and repeat in the writer’s mind again and again, until they begin to lose all meaning and empty out, and soon enough, the writer’s desk is clear again and there is an empty space for the words to move around in. It’s a funny and clever contemplation of what it’s like to try to work with words, to conjure them up and control them, when words are all around us all the time, almost taunting us with their omnipresence.

I’ve described only a few of the poems here, but there are many more that capture something true about experience and do it with that evocative tone I’ve been describing. I’ve been discovering as I read more and more that voice is what I really value in writing — of whatever genre — and it’s the voice in these poems I admire so much: insightful, suggestive, in love with language.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is about many things: war, religion, education, love, ambivalent sexuality, class, landscapes, architecture, alcoholism, art, snobbery, friendship, family, nostalgia. I suppose all books are about a lot of things, really, or they wouldn’t be interesting, but this book seemed to have an especially long list, and it’s not that many pages (my edition had 350). I really enjoyed the novel, although I continually felt like I wasn’t quite getting it. I couldn’t decide which things I was supposed to focus on, which were going to be the most important.

Brideshead Revisited seems like an excellent candidate for a rereading because I might understand it better, now that I know what it’s about. I’m not quite sure if this lack of focus is a flaw or not, and another reading might help me figure it out. This is not something I would do any time soon, but perhaps someday. It seems possible that there isn’t a lack of focus at all, but rather that it takes a while to become oriented to what the author is doing, and that a second reading would help me pull everything together.

The novel begins with a war scene: it’s World War II, and the main character, Charles Ryder, is about to move with his company of soldiers to a new camp in England. The soldiers are all tired and dispirited, hoping to see some real action, and disappointed once again. It turns out that the new camp is going to be at Brideshead, a place Charles once knew very well.  The sight of Brideshead sends him back in time to memories of the many days he spent there with the family after meeting Sebastian Flyte at university.

Charles and Sebastian become close friends, and although Sebastian resists it, Charles comes to know the family quite well. It’s an unusual family, partly because Sebastian’s parents have split up, his mother living at Brideshead and his father abroad. Sebastian has two sisters, both of them with very strong personalities. The family is Catholic, setting them apart in an entirely different way. Charles is mildly bewildered by this Catholicism, as he tends to assume everyone is agnostic, but he slowly learns just how much it means to them.

The novel describes how Charles’s relationships with the various family members develop over the course of many years. Sebastian develops a drinking problem and Charles has to choose whether to side with the family and anger his friend or to do what Sebastian wants at the risk of his health. He watches as Julia becomes engaged to a really awful man, and then ends the engagement. He meets both the mother and the father and sees what different paths their lives have taken.

After the opening war scene, Waugh takes us back in time to Charles’s university days, and from there forward, we follow the story chronologically, but we are reminded again and again that Charles is looking back on his life as a young man from the perspective of someone caught up in war and looking out on a changed world. Occasionally Charles will reference an event that happened much later than what he is currently narrating. So although the chronology is clear and fairly well-maintained, there is a strong sense of everything in the past that the present-day narrator has lost. I should add “loss” to my list of themes the book takes up, and it’s one of the most important ones, both on a personal and a national level. Charles revisits Brideshead during the novel’s opening and closing sections, and the changes that have taken place, described in the middle, show how impossible it is to truly revisit the place. It has changed and Charles has changed so much that both have become different beings entirely.

There’s so much going on that I can’t describe it all; I’m ending this post with the same note I started on. Brideshead Revisited may not succeed in developing all the themes it takes up, but it was a pleasure to read such an ambitious and thought-provoking novel.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Dreaming about books

You will be relieved to know, I’m sure, that I took your advice seriously about not feeling guilty when I acquire books, and I will be acquiring a bunch more of them soon. I’ll tell you about that later. As I don’t have a whole lot of time to read right now, the next best thing is to think about what I will read soon, when I get the chance. So here’s what’s looking most interesting right now:

  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker. I’ve heard lots of good things about Powers over the last couple years, and have heard about him recently from a friend, and I’m intrigued. He writes about science a lot, and I think I’d like that.
  • Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy/Tacy books. I just received a lovely edition of Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself in one volume from Kate, and the book is too lovely to let sit on my shelves for too long. I loved these books as a kid, and I want to see how I like them now.
  • Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I really loved Abide with Me when I listened to it recently, and so now I want to get to this one. Plus, a friend recently gave me a signed copy of the book, and that feels like a reason to read the book right there.
  • Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. With all the Collins posts appearing around the book blog world, he has been on my mind a lot. This is the book of his I have waiting on my shelves.
  • Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. I’ve said I want this book enough times in enough places, that if it doesn’t appear under the Christmas tree, well, I’ll rush out and buy myself a copy the day after. Baker is one of my favorite writers, and this book is about a guy trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology, so of course I will like it.
  • Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I’ve been hearing about Davis for a while and am intrigued. This is a book of short stories, a genre I haven’t read in a while and would like to get back to. Two very good reasons to read this book. I’m curious about the extreme shortness of many of these stories, and also about their poetic quality. I guess since I don’t read many short stories and have been known to complain about overly-poetic prose, this book feels like a challenge, and I wonder if I will like it in spite of my biases.
  • Anything by Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood, two writers I have never read, and really should.
  • Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. I’m slowly reading through Woolf’s major works in chronological order (at the rate of a book or two a year), and here is where I’m at, into the more experimental work.
  • Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories. I love Gluck’s poetry, and this is a book of essays. I hope I like them as much.
  • Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt. I look for this one in every bookstore I go to and haven’t found it yet. From what I remember hearing about it, it’s a good novel that does really interesting things with the writing. It seems to fit into the category “experimental, but not too much so” that I like a lot.
  • John Keats’s letters. I’ve heard these are great, and I need to find out for myself.

I haven’t had much time to read, but I did finish Brideshead Revisited recently, and I hope to write up my thoughts soon.


Filed under Books, Lists