Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Manitou Canyon

by William Kent Kruger
Atria Books    2016
336 pages     Mystery

Cork O'Connor is the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. Now he owns a burger joint/detective agency at the edge of Iron Lake, and as Manitou Canyon opens, he is closing the restaurant and dreading November. Even though his daughter Jennifer is going to be married later in the month, many ghosts of Novembers past haunt Cork even more than the prospect of the harsh winter ahead. He thinks of November as the "shoulder season, right on the cusp of winter."

Cork is drawn into the search for a missing civil engineer, John Harris. Harris designed some of the largest dams and bridges in the world, and he and Cork were childhood friends. Harris went into the Boundary Waters area with his two adult grandchildren, Trevor and Lindsay, and disappeared while he was out fishing. Although a search doesn't find his body, Trevor and Lindsay believe that he is out in the wilderness somewhere, and they know that Cork knows the territory well and can help them.

The mystery evolves slowly and builds to a page-turning, breathtaking finish. There is a tremendous interplay between the ancient and the modern in the plot. While it begins with a search for a missing person, it becomes a life and death battle for Cork to save himself and others during an evolving fight to save tribal lands from an environmental disaster. Militant natives fighting the mining industry. Interestingly enough, when I looked at the news this morning, I read about a current Native American protest over a pipeline being built in North Dakota. Protesters are saying that the pipeline is damaging a native burial grounds. Read about it in Time. In most of the Cork O'Connor books, the tension between the Native Americans and the modern culture is palpable.

Cork O'Connor is a thoroughly conflicted man. He has one foot firmly in the modern world and one foot in the ancient traditions of his Ojibwa heritage. He long ago came to believe that his heritage influenced his every movement and everything that happened to him. "It was who he was, something which had been passed down to him and from which he couldn't turn away, something that would always threaten him and those who loved him and were loved by him." In many ways, the race to save John Harris is a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey. Cork must work through his demons and lead from his heart rather than just his head. 

Native spirituality and native practices play a very large role in Manitou Canyon (and I would suppose all the Cork O'Connor books). Krueger's respect for native culture plays heavily in the character development and the plot. Henry, one of Cork's closest friends, is a "mide," a traditional healer and spiritual mentor. His influence permeates the book as do the other spiritual practices of the native peoples in the book. Besides being a thrilling mystery, the reader is imbued with spirituality and spiritual practices.

The very best part of Manitou Canyon is the setting with all its beauty, danger, and elusiveness. Cork knows the Boundary Waters very well, and has navigated its lakes and portages many times. He knows the dangerous weather signs of November and the constant threat of cold, rain, and snow. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reviewer uses this example: " Cork thinks of the 'thousand moments when a man’s breath is taken away by some sudden, unexpected beauty … [then with] no warnings of the dangers — severe storms that blew out of nowhere, high waves that could founder a canoe, falling trees, forest fires.'” The setting and its weather is as much a part of the thriller as is the thriller itself.

This is the 15th book in the Cork O'Connor series. I read the first few of them years ago, but had not read one for several years. I love reading about Duluth, the North Shore, and the Boundary Waters because this is my home turf. One of my favorite North Shore books is The Long Shining Water by Dannielle Sosin. Another mystery series based in the north woods of Minnesota is Vidar Sundstol's Minnesota Trilogy. I read the satisfying first book of that series, The Land of Dreams

Finally, I want to mention that my niece, Cory Dack, spent the summer guiding youth voyages in the Boundary Waters. She told me that she has seen marvelous growth in the teenagers who venture on those journeys and that she finds her soul there as well. Manitou Canyon explores those waters and those soul experiences in ways that are just as satisfying as the mystery the book exposes. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

New Books for Children from Flying Eye Books

 Flying Eye Books is the children's division of Nobrow Publishing. They sent me several books to look at, so I was able to put on my children's librarian hat. The books from this company have a unique look and feel. My grandchildren really enjoy them. Here are three that have just recently been published.

 Archie Snufflekins Oliver Valentine Cupcake Tiberius
by Katie Harnett
Flying Eye Books     2016    Picture Books

Both of my grandchildren liked this tale of a roving cat that visits all the houses in the neighborhood and then unites all the neighbors to help a lonely neighbor woman make some friends. The title comes from the fact that each of the neighbors have a different name for the cat. The drawings are excellent, and the book has a vaguely 1960s cast to it, which is utterly appealing. Both children were eager to tell me the story about when their cat strayed to their old house about a month after they had moved to their new house. He apparently had gone there for a visit.

Archie etc. reminded me of the book Six-Dinner Sid by Inga Moore that always engendered a lot of discussion when I read it in my library. Children who have cats understand the imperious nature of cats—and Archie etc. definitely is imperious, if not downright snooty.  

Do You See What I See
by Helen Borten
Flying Eye Books     2016    Picture Books

Helen Borten's books were originally published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This particular series of books includes 5 volumes, all part of the Do You Hear What I Hear series. They are returning to print following extensive enhancements to the printing process, including an authentic reproduction of the colors. 

Do You See What I See introduces children to the process of combining lines, shapes, and colors to form pictures. Basically, it is an introduction to art. Adela, age 5, was very interested in the concept of the book and drew a picture using shapes and lines. Davick, 3, was too young to appreciate the book's intricacies and soon wandered off. I can see this book used very successfully in a beginning art class for early elementary children. 

Here is an extremely interesting article in Publisher's Weekly about how Flying Eye Books, the children's imprint of Nobrow Press, found Borten and her series and returned them to print.  

 Smart About Sharks
by Owen Davey
Flying eye Books     2016    38 pages     Children's Nonfiction

What I learned from reading Smart About Sharks to my 3-year-old grandson is that he wants to interact with the books that we are reading together. This is different from his sister who wants to know the story. Davick really liked the pictures in this book—all the different types of sharks, their size and shape, and most importantly the size of their teeth. He wasn't particularly interesting in having me read all the interesting facts the book has, he just wanted to talk with me about the pictures.

 I learned a great deal that I didn't know about sharks, and I think that a 7 or 8-year-old would have a great time with this book. I can even see Davick transitioning from his fascination with dinosaurs to a fascination with sharks if I present this book to him again in a year or so. More importantly, this book is a great introduction to nonfiction reading for children. It has a table of contents and an index. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Bedlam's Door: True Tales of Madness and Hope

by Mark Rubinstein MD
Thunder Lake Press     2016
  275 pages     Nonfiction

Dr. Mark Rubinstein is a physician and psychiatrist, but in his heart, he is a storyteller. He has published several novels and medical nonfiction works over the years in addition to practicing psychiatry. Bedlam's Door, his newest book, is a series of reminiscences about patients he encountered through his years as a psychiatric resident and then in his private practice. 

Each chapter of Bedlam's Door is a case study, from a Hungarian man who thinks that he is the King of the Puerto Ricans, to a suicidal woman suffering from post traumatic shock following the death of her husband.  Each story is unique, heartbreaking, and eloquently told. Rubinstein says: "It's really quite ironic. I fell in love with psychiatry because each patient—through sharing human commonalities—has a uniquely personal story."  Following each case study, Rubinstein outlines the diagnosis and the pathology, or the reason for the treatment. Often he offers a postscript to the story about how the patient fared following treatment. The after words are extremely valuable to help the reader understand the case.

My favorite story concerns a  man named "Mr. Smith" who was brought to the hospital by the police. He had been hanging around a famous New York hotel, saying that he had plenty of money and that he wanted to rent a suite at the hotel. He was dressed in expensive, although worn out, clothing and was carrying a large briefcase and said that he had a lot of money inside. He looked around the hospital and decided that instead of the fancy hotel, he wanted to rent a room in the hospital. Dr. Rubinstein played along with the charade all the while trying to assess Mr. Smith's mental stability. But it was not until Mr. Smith opened the briefcase to show the money—thousands of dollars of Monopoly money—that Dr. Rubinstein concluded that Mr. Smith really did need a room in the hospital.

Patricia, the suicidal woman suffering from post traumatic stress following her husband's death, had been under treatment for several weeks when  Dr. Rubinstein visited her and found her much calmer and more in control of her life. He mentioned that what she had needed was a chance to begin healing. Her response spoke volumes. "Thank you for not letting me make a permanent decision in a temporary frame of mind."

The tag line of Bedlam's Door is True Tales of Madness and Hope. Rubinstein illustrates graphically how there is almost always hope—hope that comes with intense counseling and balanced medicine. This is the great value of the book; while the stories are fascinating, the upbeat tone and implicit sense of hope pervades everything.

I have been trying to think about who benefits most from reading Bedlam's Door. Certainly it would be valuable for medical students deciding whether to pursue careers in psychiatry, but it would also be valuable for families facing psychiatric treatment for loved ones. Dr. Rubinstein's message of hope will resonate in many settings.

Linda Fairstein, a well known novelist, recommends Bedlam's Door. “Bedlam’s Door is a riveting read about madness and mental illness. Mark Rubinstein—award-winning novelist, physician, and psychiatrist—is the perfect guide for this journey through the mysteries of the mind, from despair to hope, and he does it in brilliant form. If you enjoy psychology, crime fiction, a good story, and forensics, this is a must-read book.”

Here is Mark Rubinstein's website.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Book that Matters Most

by Ann Hood
W. W. Norton     2016
368 pages     Fiction

A book club! Most of us who read book reviews or are on Goodreads belong to a book club. Ava, a university French professor in Providence RI, had been wanting to be in a book club for several years. But when a place opens up in the library book club run by her friend Cate, the librarian, she is ill prepared to join. Her husband has just left her for a younger woman and her children are far away. However, she knows that contact with others and intellectual stimulation will be valuable for her mental health, so she accepts the invitation and meets the group. "All these faces, looking open and ready for something, she needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books."

 The group's theme for the year is "The Book that Matters Most", and each club member needs to choose a book that the entire group will read for discussion—one book a month. Most members of the group choose books from the American school reading lexicon—Catcher in the Rye; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Pride and Prejudice; To Kill a Mockingbird; One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Great Gatsby among others. Ava chooses From Clare to Here by Rosalind Arden, an obscure New England author. Ava has her own reasons for choosing that particular book, and therein lies the plot of The Book that Matters Most.

I had never read anything by Ann Hood, although she has several books in her lexicon, and she is well-reviewed.  I appreciated the book's theme, structure, and character development, particularly that of Ava and her daughter Maggie. I loved that Ava didn't read Pride and Prejudice and instead watched the movie. I have to admit that there have been books that I didn't read for our book club, like Wolf Hall and Madame Bovary. (Actually nobody in the club read Madame Bovary!) 

Ava is a woman struggling to regain her footing following her divorce, and when we are privy to the other baggage that she is carrying, we are very understanding of her reticence to participate fully in the book group. Maggie, the other main character, is also deeply flawed, but at the same time deeply appealing. She is ostensibly on a study abroad in Florence, but has gone to Paris without her parents' knowledge and has gotten herself into a scary situation with an older Frenchman. Drug and alcohol addled, she is struggling to come to the surface and really begin her life. The reader longs for her to come to her senses.

As the book club explores the reasons why each month's book was important to the member who chose it, we see that books have the power to aid in the recovery from all the various types of loss. Each book club member has his or her own story.  I was intrigued by the concept of The Book that Matters Most and raced through the book. I spent a lot of time pondering which books mattered most to me, and why most people pick books that they read as young adults. Perhaps that is when they are the most vulnerable. 

While the character development is strong, the plot suffers from the author's desire to move the story line to resolution using very obvious plot devices.  A couple of times I said "Oh, for heaven's sake!" out loud, the plot twist was so obvious. The surprising thing to me was that I didn't need a "happy" ending for the book to be fully developed. Apparently that was the author's need, not mine.

I have written this book blog for six years—it has been an exercise for me—more like a diary than a review tool. I have explored more than 400 books with the purpose of finding what matters to me in each book I read. In those six years, some books have stayed with me longer than others—some I have no recollection of at all. Some books mattered a great deal; sometimes one little detail was what mattered; sometimes the author's intent was the most important thing.  When reading The Book that Matters Most, all of my mental effort went into thinking about why we read, why books matter, and why some books become so important to us. If that was the author's intent, then she succeeded. If her intent was to create an illuminating plot, she didn't succeed quite so well.