Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading-- quick reviews of six books

Murphys, Ca -- Between travel and hot afternoons I have been reading a lot of different  books in the past few weeks, most of them older books. Some were fun reads, some challenging and a couple were disappointing. Here's how I reacted:

"Bad Monkey" by Carl Hiaasen:

This is Carl's 23d book,  his 14th novel, so he must be doing something right.
 His hero has the usual fun attributes: bad employment history; raging hormones; hatred of the people who have destroyed Florida as he knew it; disrespect for authority, and an inner quality and honesty that makes you like him.
In this book it is a failed detective-turned-food-inspector who spots a murder no one else sees, and pursues it despite various bosses and killers trying to stop him.
The setting is Florida and the Bahamas, territory Hiaasen knows and describes well, and just romping along with him is fun no matter where the story goes.
I thought this book was a little less edgy than earlier works, but it still will keep you up late at night or glued to the beach chair till the very end, which is never the ending you expect. A good read, full of murder, sex sand greed as always, from a truly gifted writer. Four out of five stars.

"Rainbow Pie" by Joe Bageant

This is a non-fiction look at social class in America -- mostly telling us why the author thinks poor Southerner white people are the way they are. (I meet two of the three categories, so consider this acknowledgment of my bias.)
The book blurbs call it "touching" and "majestic," but the book bogs down almost immediately and becomes a series of well written anecdotes spaced out by long rants about how unfair life can be and you just don't understand my people.

His focus in on what he calls "the white underclass," and there certainly is such a thing, but he doesn't make a compelling case that poor whites are all that different from all other poor people.

He mixes colorful stories of his upbringing in a Scots-Irish family in the early 1950's in West Virginia, and the writing in excellent in short bursts. He is very angry at our leadership, and the way it has damaged the country and its people-- opinions I happen to share.
But then what? Then he starts telling us what  he thinks it all means, which is mostly opinion without any clear support.
A good friend liked this book and thought it had something important to say. I thought it was mostly a waste of ink and paper, and I sure hope no one thinks this is the definitive work on the culture of the South, or white people, or anything else. This is a person with writing talent who needs to focus on clarity. Two of five stars.

"Death of a Doxy" by Rex Stout

                                         Argosy Magazine illustration

This was one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries written in the 1960s I ran across in a used book store. Narrated by his witty and flirtatious sidekick Archie, and full of the usual Nero Wolfe stuff, this is a well-told tale about a murder. But in this case the accused is one of Wolfe's regular private detective employees, so they have to prove him innocent and do it in a clever way that will allow Wolfe to collect a large fee without compromising his honesty. He is a clever fellow.
Stout died 40 years ago, and his books are still enjoyable, weaving stories in a captivating way and rarely giving away the end until -- you guessed it -- the end. If you are a Nero Wolfe fan, this is a five star production.

"Shattered" by Dick Francis

This mystery by Dick Francis was originally published in 2000, and joins the long list of entertaining mysteries he wrote through the years.  His great talent seems to me to be writing in an easy style that always teaches you about something you did not know -- in this case glass art blowing and manufacturing -- and pitting a fairly ordinary person against truly bad people.
This is a complex book, taking you through art galleries and horse tracks, dealing with rich aficionados and racetrack thugs, all in search of a video tape the hero is supposed to have, but doesn't.   Along the way we learn how to blow glass artwork, what sells and what doesn't, and how dangerous the tasks can be. Horses are in the background.
 There's a hint of romance but the book is more about solving the puzzle and good people versus bad people.  Five stars.

"The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America's Most Popular National Park" by Jen A. Huntley

This is a book I had been watching develop for almost a decade. I knew it was being written through historian friends in Yosemite, some of whom helped the author with her research. I  always found Hutchings to be a fascinating and somewhat overlooked character in the history of the park,  collected material on him at one time and looked forward to someone providing insight into what must be a complex person.
I am still looking for a good book on the man. You won't learn a lot about him in this book, but you will know what the author thinks it all means.
As the over-long title suggests this is a screed that reads like a defense of the graduate thesis that started the author on the way to the book. Here it is spelled out in the book flap: "...Hutchings was effectively written out of its(Yosemite's) history, and today he is largely viewed  as an opportunist who made a career out of exploiting Yosemite."
Only he wasn't, and isn't, in my opinion. He was apparently an odd person, but he made a lot of friends and influenced a lot of people, but not much money.
Hutchings, a prolific author in his day, is widely known as the first person to expose Yosemite to the world's view, a major accomplishment in his day. He did this by taking artists and writers and influential people into Yosemite, even when it was an arduous trek. He personally published magazine articles and books. Almost all the early drawings and paintings of Yosemite Valley are directly as a result of his effort to bring influential people to the Valley. For almost 25 years he personally appeared in most of the photographs of the park, because he led the photographers on their journeys and happily posed on horseback or in a boat on the river when they needed a human model. He ran a hotel, and fought the state (and lost) over his right to own the land under it as a settler, but he is mostly remembered as a writer  and promoter who opened Yosemite for the nation to see.
 I would argue, having read a lot about Hutchings from other sources, that the claims are mostly wrong and this tedious book doesn't prove much of anything.
The author uses Hutchings to argue about the clash of "class dynamics" in the 19th Century.  According to this book he "framed the debate" that led to the national park system and the way we see it today.
She did a lot of research, and had access to a lot of primary materials including Hutchings' diaries.
And yet you don't learn much about him, you simply read a lot of intellectual arguments about the meaning of everything that happened -- without much factual data to back it up.
I suspect this book was briefly popular with academics who specialize in California and Yosemite.  The respected California historian Kevin Starr  wrote a jacket blurb calling the book "innovative in its interpretation." I've loved Starr's writings, but I was disappointed.
In really want to know what kind of a person Hutchings was, what he did and what conclusions we might draw.
That book has yet to be written.
Two stars, because it may be useful to cultural anthropology students who need this sort of analysis.

"Pleading Guilty" by Scott Turow (1993)

Turow uses  the law, finance, and fascination set of imperfect characters to tell a really good story.
The main character is a rough-around-the-edges former cop turned attorney who his given the assignment to locate a missing law partner and $5 million or so that has disappeared.
The maneuverings within the law firm to avoid responsibility for anything, while maintaining a proper public face, provides the hero (or anti-hero) a free field for chasing down the presumed bad guy, not to bring him to justice but to avoid embarrassment for everyone and protect their incomes.
The hero falls off the wagon, and into bed with a partner, and then he has to face the choice of doing the right thing, or not.
Therein lies the tale, and it is well told so I won't give it away.
Four stars

No comments: