More Adventure Awaits

I am sorry to say I haven’t read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS to scholars, Louis to his friends), but I’ve come close by reading Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doyle, an extreme fan, acknowledges in the preface that his book is a celebration of the man whose writing he admires above all other writers in the English language. Then, writing in Louis’ voice, Doyle goes about conjuring up the four months Louis spent in the winter of 1880 in San Francisco. It was a difficult time for Louis, having left behind a comfortable life of wealth and privilege in Scotland to make his way to California and the woman he intended to marry.

His health is bad and he has very little money. He waits out the impending divorce of Fanny Osborne, who is living across the bay in Oakland with her two children. He rides out the four months staying at a boarding house on the corner of Hyde and Bush streets. This part is all true. The rest is Doyle’s writing skill.

The story is primarily one wild tale after another as told by retired sea captain John Carson and recounted by Louis. Each day Louis, if he feels well enough to get out of bed, gets to know the city and returns to a roaring fire in the fireplace of his boarding house. Just as his host Mr. Carson is getting to the good part of each story, however, boarding house owner and cook Mary Carson calls everyone to dinner in no uncertain terms.

The other character in this tale is the city itself. You will feel the fog on your face and feel the muscles in your legs ache when climbing the stair-stepped slopes of San Fran along with Louis. You’ll feel Louis’s generosity of spirit and the love he was heading toward in marrying Fanny. And you will just feel beautiful writing enveloping you.

Then you’ll wonder more about the real life of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, let me tell you, there is plenty to find out. If you just want a quick but satisfying read with photos of Louis in the South Pacific, I recommend a tiny little booklet in the Northwest room called R.L. Stevenson Poet in Paradise by Maxine Mrantz. Then there is a more complete telling of Louis’ whole life in Claire Harman’s Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To cap it all off, take a quick trip down to the 10th street boat launch road in Everett and stand just a few feet away from what is left of the Equator, the boat that brought Louis to his final destiny, Samoa.

Go Dutch

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

In his previous books, David Mitchell established his astounding virtuosity as a storyteller, weaving together numerous genres and storylines into the fabric of a single book. This time out he works mostly within the historical fiction framework and proves again that he is among the best novelists writing today. (He’s been a finalist twice for the Man Booker Prize, and Thousand Autumns is on the recently announced longlist for this year’s award.)

To attempt to summarize in a few words a book of such commanding versatility is a fool’s errand. But I have to give you some idea of what to expect. In briefest outline, and without giving away too much, the book is set in Japan just over 200 years ago, during the waning years of the Dutch East Indies Company. Young Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dutch trading post, an artificial island off Nagasaki called Dejima, for a five-year stint as a clerk – a test of his worthiness set by the father of the girl he wishes to marry back home. This work begins in earnest as he must correct the corrupt accounts of the previous station chief who is dispatched just as Jacob arrives. Through a chance encounter, he is smitten with the somewhat liberated midwife Orito Abigawa, who is, of course, unobtainable for a westerner like Jacob. As her family falls deeper into debt, Orito is pulled from her studies at the behest of powerful Abbot Enomoto and is conscripted into a “nunnery” that engages in secret and sinister ritual practices. Jacob and Uzaemon, his friend and competitor for Orito’s affection, strive to rescue her from her mountaintop shrine. There’s much more, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A brief plot summary like the one above can only take you so far. It cannot begin to convey the fully-formed characters and their complex interactions; the powerfully evoked settings on both land and sea; the multiple subplots and nuanced storylines; and the book’s underlying concern with the corrupting nature of power and money. Mitchell also explores the tensions between eastern and western culture in such areas as trade (or isolationism), science, medicine, politics, religion, and enlightenment values.

More extensive reviews can be found in The Guardian, The Times, The Washington Post, and BookForum. And The New York Times offers an excerpt from the book.

If you’ve already read Thousand Autumns and are looking for a similar reading experience, you might consider: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding; Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan; or São Tome by Paul Cohn.

Scott

It’s a mystery! Wait, it’s a whole herd of mysteries!

It’s a mystery why I’ve been in the mood to read mysteries lately. Here are some of the titles that stand above the rest of the herd.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley  

This mystery, penned in 1929, employs a classic premise: members of an amateur sleuthing club attempt to solve a murder mystery. Ah, but there is a twist that sets this story apart. The club meets every day for a week with a single member presenting his or her solution to the murder case each day. After exhibiting wholly convincing evidence and unassailable deductions, each solution is then demolished by other club members who have information unknown to the presenter. In reality, Mr. Berkeley is giving the reader a tutorial in the art of misdirection, demonstrating how mystery writers lead their audiences to believe certain assertions and ignore salient points by employing a fine coating of verbal sleight-of-hand. He presents us with a wholly enjoyable story which is ultimately a primer in mystery writing.

The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Set mostly in the Chinatown of 1893 San Francisco, this mystery finds brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, former cowboys but current private eye wannabes, in the midst of murder and mayhem. Between the police, thugs, Chinese tongs and a hard spot, the detective duo struggles to find a friend’s murderer, save a young woman from a seedy and immoral life, and stay alive. Hockensmith’s prose – this series of books is narrated by brother Otto in his inimitable speech patterns – and evocation of late 19th century San Francisco make for a fun and thoughtful read.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

Who knew that the progenitor of Winnie the Pooh had a great mystery, in addition to a plucky Piglet, in his fertile mind? In the charming foreword to this book, Milne expounds on the elements that make up a good mystery. Then he writes that mystery. The reader is transported to a typically English setting where Mark Ablett, master of the Red House, an elegant country manor, has disappeared and is presumed to be either murdered or a murderer. A passing stranger arrives just as gun shots ring out from inside the manor. The stranger, who has come to visit a friend staying at the Red House, decides to put his exceptional observational powers to the ultimate test of finding a murderer, with a little help from his Watsonian friend.

 The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

In a world where nursery rhymes are real events, Inspector Jack Spratt of the Reading Police Nursery Crime Division is called upon to solve the apparent murder of Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III. Spratt faces the difficulties of being overshadowed by golden-boy detective Friedland Chymes (who writes exquisite tales that exhibit his unparalleled crime-solving abilities), of working in an under-funded soon-to-be-shutdown department, and of having a new partner (Mary Mary) who is none too happy to be working with him.  Amongst the difficulties, sinister goings-on, and spine-curling plot twists, Pratt must overcome adversity and catch his … man?

 American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum

This true story relates a tragic tale of terrorism on American soil: the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, which resulted in 21 deaths. Detective William J. Burns, America’s non-fictitious answer to Sherlock Holmes, is called in to unearth the truth. By employing a series of fascinating sleuthing techniques Burns slowly unravels threads of truth that bring him ever-closer to the mystery’s solution. Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith, two larger-than-life historical giants, contribute significantly to the story’s outcome.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a police division that investigates bizarre crimes no one else wants to touch, is run by two elderly and brilliant detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May. In Full Dark House, the author creates an intriguing juxtaposition between the end of this odd couple’s partnership and the beginning of their career together. As May looks into Bryant’s death it becomes clear that their first case, solved some fifty years earlier, is somehow related to the current investigation. A Gothic phantom-of-the-opera-esque mood prevails as May attempts to make sense out of a senseless situation.

Ron

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Meet Brad at the Evergreen Branch

The Evergreen Branch recently welcomed a new manager, Brad Allen. Brad comes to us from Kansas, where he worked at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. We’re happy to introduce him to you here. Be sure to say hello next time you’re at the Evergreen Branch.

Brad Allen
Welcome to Everett! You drove here from Topeka. That’s a long drive. Did you listen to any cool music or audiobooks?
book coverWarren ZevonIt is a long drive indeed, but I’m a fan of road trips. I listened to two great audiobooks: I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I also listened to some of my favorite music including Pavement, Wilco, Radiohead, R.E.M., Neil Young, Warren Zevon, and The xx.

Kansas makes me think of The Wizard of Oz. Can you recommend any favorite Kansas authors or books or movies about Kansas?
Wizard of OzWildwood BoysI’ve yet to travel from Kansas and not heard, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s an irresistible response to learning someone is from Kansas. Two great authors more or less from Kansas are Gordon Parks and Langston Hughes. A great book is James Carlos Blake’s Wildwood Boys, a historical novel about the pre-Civil War Kansas-Missouri Border Wars told from the perspective of Bloody Bill Anderson. I love John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, set in both Kansas and Colorado. John Williams’ wonderful book Stoner is one of my absolute favorites, but it’s set in Missouri.

Do you have any favorite books or shows with a Washington setting or author?
Financial Lives of the PoetsTwo of my favorite television shows are closely associated with Washington: Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. As for books, I’ve recently become a fan of Spokane author Jess Walter and Olympia author Jim Lynch. The Financial Lives of the Poets and Border Songs are two of the best books I’ve read in the past year.

What’s your favorite book?
StonerRevolutionary RoadMy all time favorite is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Yates is an incredibly underrated writer. My previous favorite book was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The aforementioned Stoner is a recent favorite.


What was your favorite book growing up?
Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyTo Kill a MockingbirdThe book that blew my mind as a youngster was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Its meditation on the great expanses of time and the universe changed the way I thought about the world. The other seminal book of my childhood was To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it the summer after sixth grade and it hooked me on a life of reading.

What’s your favorite movie?
Nurse BettyThe Big LebowskiThe Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski is the greatest movie of the last 25 years. Other favorites are Mulholland Drive, Nurse Betty, Ghostbusters, and No Country For Old Men.


Infinite JestIf you were stranded on Jetty Island and could only take three books, what would you take?
Infinite JestI’ve been meaning to reread it and it’s really long. Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe. And Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — it might be quiet enough to actually concentrate to read it.

Red in Tooth and Claw

It’s out there. Just beyond the dim light of the fire. It waits for the darkness and then roars into camp to carry off yet another member of your party. It’s huge, indescribable and seemingly unstoppable. What is it? Why is it? More importantly, how do you survive? This ancient story and all the primal feelings it inspires lies at the heart of a monumental book I just finished reading: The Terror by Dan Simmons.

The facts are these: In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out with two of the most modern ships of the day, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, across the frozen Canadian Arctic to try to find the famed Northwest Passage. Other than one note and the ruined ships and bodies of the expedition that were found much later, there is no evidence for what exactly happened. The one thing that is known is that no member of the party was seen alive again.

Jumping off from these morbid but intriguing facts, Dan Simmons creates a fictional world that is both dreadful and compelling. His depiction of life aboard the ice-bound ships captures the claustrophobic conditions and the increasingly desperate attempts to avoid freezing to death. Simmons’ attention to detail is amazing, everything from the requisitioning of tinned vegetables to the wearing of cold weather slops is covered, but the real fun starts with the appearance of the thing out on the ice. It would be criminal to reveal too much about this character. Let’s just say it is large, lethal, and not something you would want to meet on a bright sunny day let alone in the continual gloom of an Arctic winter.

While reading The Terror, I couldn’t help being reminded of a beloved book from my adolescence, Grendel by John Gardner. Grendel covers some of the same ground, men vs. monster, but from a distinctly different point of view. It is a retelling of the age-old story of Beowulf but Gardner is more concerned with the motives of the creature than the dashing, and dare I say smug, Beowulf and his Norse henchmen. Not that I am biased or anything…

Whether you like your monsters malicious or sympathetic, there are plenty lurking in the stacks of the Everett Public Library.

Richard