April 2015

Mink River

Brian Doyle, Mink River: A Novel, (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.), 2010

Doyle - Mink River
A story about a town is a story about more than place. It is a story of people. Brian Doyle has a knack for character development that not only makes you like the people. You find a way to identify with them - perhaps even love them. I don't think that is too strong of a word for the way the story makes the town come alive with its complex blend of native and newcomer, Old world survivor and new world indigenous each carry strains of their stories that become intertwined into a story of the connections between hard times in Ireland and hard times for Pacific tribes.

Of course we know it is a novel. The talking crow has far too much capacity for independent thought. Crows are smart, but one has to marvel at the creativity of the mind that can make a talking crow who suffers a disability as a result of an accident and becomes a credible character. I'm still now sure how Doyle makes it work, but it does work.

This book is a wonderful story that is so well told that I was tempted to pick it up and read it again as soon as I finished. I don't say that about many novels. It was a complete treat.

David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, (New York: Little Brown & Co.), 2013

Gladwell - David and Goliath
When I was dating my wife and in the early years of our marriage, I used to love visiting here parents' house. Of course the people were a big part of the attraction of that home, but another attraction was that her father subscribed to The New Yorker Magazine. I remember visiting and pouring over copies of the magazine from cover to cover. I would even read the calendar of events in New York. The magazine was so well written and so well edited. It seemed as if everything from the cartoons to the poetry to the fiction to the nonfiction reflected care, precision, and respect for the intelligence of the reader. Over the years, however, I have had the sense that the New Yorker has slipped considerably. The editing is less precise. The writing is a bit more slipshod. One can even find errors in fact checking from time to time in the contemporary magazine.

My image of the magazine wasn't helped by Gladwell's book. Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and his book has the flavor of a hurriedly written research paper by an undergraduate student. He mistakes anecdote for evidence, misinterprets statistics, and fails to even consider multiple sources. I suppose I'd probably rate the effort worth a C for a grade: not failing, but hardly exceptional.

The premise is reasonable. What we know about the sources of success is often incomplete. Obstacles and disadvantages can lead to growth of character, integrity and maturity.

The biggest problem with the book is that Gladwell isn't an underdog. He fails to see his position of exceptional privilege. He isn't a civil rights leader - he doesn't even know what it means to have his rights denied. He isn't a student trapped in an unsuccessful classroom. By writing about the challenges of underdogs from a position of personal privilege, Gladwell comes off as preachy and overbearing. The book is little more than his opinion and his opinion seems not to be well founded.

If you want to read the book, I recommend against purchasing it. I'm glad to give away my copy and I suspect there are a lot of others who have the book who would be willing to do the same.

And, by the way, I have no plans to subscribe to The New Yorker.

Blue Horses

Mary Oliver: Blue Horses: Poems, (New York: Penguin Press.), 2014

Oliver - Blue Horses
You might expect that a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has been publishing poetry for more than 60 years to have an air of seriousness and perhaps even a formality of style that adheres to the rules of poetic expression. I guess I did. What I didn't expect from this book, even though it isn't the first volume of Mary Oliver's poetry that I have read, was the simply delightful, roll-on-the-floor-laughter sense of humor that exudes from some of the poems in this book.

"Yes, by the heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want a boat I couldn't steer." I know you have to read the whole poem for this simple line to come as a "zinger" at the end that gets you laughing.

this is a book to savor and delight and put down and pick up again and read again - the kind of book that finds a home on the headboard of my bed.

Perhaps the Pulitzer prize judges aren't as stuffy as I imagine.

It Spooks

John Caputo and respondents, It Spooks, (Rapid City, SD: Shelter 50 Publishing, 2015)

Caputo - It Spooks
This delightful volume is essentially an extended essay by John Caputo with responses in poetry, visual arts, and essays by a host of other contributors. The initial essay is a bit dense, and it took me a couple of readings to be confident that I was following Caputo's line of reasoning. It is classic deconstruction - a bit of deja vu for those of us who remember the "God is dead" conversations of the late 20th century. The argument is that if you can describe it, or incorporate it into an institution, what the "it" is must be something other than God, who remains wholly other. "Spook" seems to be a preferable word for Caputo than Spirit or Ghost, but essentially, it is a concept that has been a part of Christian history from its earliest roots.

Part of the joy of the book is the intellectual stimulation of philosophical ideas without any arguments that even come close to threatening my core beliefs. Part of the joy is the striking visual presentation. Ideas that are far from black and white presented in a black and white format make for a poetic impression. Unlike many anthologies, each contributor is introduced to us in a very clever format that gets us to engage the contributors more deeply.

Another joy of the book is the delightful contribution, near the end of the book, by Catherine Keller, who responds in the form of a letter to John Caputo with responses, questions and comments on differences and gaps in Caputo's logic. The effect of making these two essays the bookends of the collection of essays is to give the overall impression of being in the midst of an ongoing conversation. It is my hunch that there could easily be a second volume - perhaps a volume of conversations between Caputo and Keller.