Saturday, August 25, 2012

Doiron's "Bad Little Falls": Good people's bad choices lead to downfalls Downeast

            Nearly two-thirds of the way through Paul Doiron’s Bad Little Falls nothing intensely suspenseful has happened. There are a few potential murders lurking in the shadows, and someone is playing nasty pranks on Game Warden Mike Bowditch, but there is still such murkiness to this whodunit or who’s doin’ it that I’m only vaguely lured into turning pages in order to find out.
Still, I avidly read to the end.
Suspense isn’t what drives me; the developing complexities of Bowditch’s character, his romance and the intensity and precision of Doiron’s writing are.  It’s interesting to see 27-year-old warden Bowditch wrestle with himself, to watch him grow.  And what a sense of place!  He gives such rich and realistic descriptions of the great state of Maine in both its natural grandeur and the sad rough raggedness of its poorest people. Only a narrator who passionately loves the state could tell such a story; only a writer who knows it intimately  -- in summer and in winter, in its wealth and in its poverty, on the coast and in the woods -- could create such a narrator. As a native, year-round resident, registered game warden and current editor of Downeast magazine, “the magazine of Maine,” Doiron is such a writer.
           Character development and setting are the strengths in Bad Little Falls, the third of the Bowditch series. This novel’s plot has the feel of transition. It reminds me of a friend who once described her romantic interest following a divorce as transition man number one, meaning she needed a good but not passionate relationship as she cautiously re-entered the dating world. Following the traumatic professional, personal and romantic events of Poacher’s Son and Trespasser this book offers that same tentative lower key  -- a necessary retooling before the next passionate leap.
            Game Warden Mike Bowditch is busy searching for ties in new territory – he’s been reassigned, you might say banished, to the barrens of the Maine’s easternmost county.  It’s a lonely God-forsaken, drug-riddled place where the natives treat him like a leper.
            Uprooted, Bowditch goes through motions he did in earlier episodes. Scenes feel simultaneously familiar and unsettling. A dinner invitation at the home of a local vet doc has a smidgen of deja vu and promise of friendship and great dinners that father figure retired warden Charley Stevens and his wife Ora offered. But here alcohol seems to be the main course for the host.
Bowditch scouts for breakfast and women at the local MacDonald’s – the center of civilization in Washington County, and he imagines his former great love Sarah in her new life with new men in Washington D.C.   He flirts with Jamie, local beauty and MacDonald’s employee of the month.
His old supervisor Sgt. Kathy Frost, the person he calls the closest thing to a friend he has, is replaced by his new not-so- friendly Sgt.  Rivard, a surly supervisor who is wary of Bowditch given his past reputation. This boss seems to be bent on making his new warden’s life difficult. 
Getting through the Maine woods, back roads and wilderness continues to create scenes.  A car slides off the road in this book just as one slid into deer in the last. Snowmobiles join ATV’s as preferred alternative transportation by locals. Newly added to the series is dog sledding. Charley Stevens’ daughter takes to the air in a small plane as her father did before her in Poacher’s Son.
             In the first several chapters, Bowditch relates events that may, or may not, develop into significant conflict. Though all get picked up in an action-packed end, some stay very loose threads until quite late in the novel. Here’s a bit of what happens:

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->A weird little boy writes in his journal promising to get vengeance on his mother’s ex-boyfriend.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->Bowditch accompanies the vet to a big game farm – stocked with animals, some exotic.  (I loved this scene and had hoped for more exotic animals, more development of this place.  A missed opportunity?)
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->Bowditch breakfasts at McDonalds where the aforementioned Jamie catches his eye and two shady looking dirt bags engage her attention.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->Bowditch accompanies his boss, Sgt. Rivard, to a high school to interrogate a teenager who has been snowmobiling in an area where there have been break-ins.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->Someone nails a coyote skin to Bowditch’s door with a welcome warning note signed George Magoon, the name of a fictional jokester.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]-->During a blizzard Bowditch goes to dinner at the Vet’s house and meets ultra woodsy woodsman, Kevin Kendrick.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·      <!--[endif]--> The Vet Doc and Bowditch get called to a nearby home to treat a highly frostbitten, hypothermic man who has staggered to the home after driving off a road. Bowditch goes out into the storm searching for another man who was in the car.
            These threads weave into a solve-the-murder and find-the-prankster plot.  But it’s hard to get worked up over the deaths.  One of the potential murder victims is the least sympathetic character in the book, a drug dealer who likely sold a killer dose to another victim, a victim we care or know little about except that she was “a good girl from a good family” and the intravenous drug use was likely a first- time experiment.
            More central for me is the romance with Jamie.  She’s the character I care about. She’s the one who struggles most while disasters just keep piling on.  A recovering alcoholic, she’s single mother to an odd child and caregiver to her crippled sister. Her parents have died in an accident. Now, her brother, an alcoholic, but good guy, is maimed and in danger. She has overcome so much, including her own bad habits, and she’s doing so well. Why wouldn’t the warden fall for her?
Bowditch has additional reasons for finding her attractive. His family shares traits with hers, and he too, struggles with and recognizes his own “reckless and self-destructive impulses.” Such impulses are the focus of several of those good people with bad habits in the novel – and its setting, Washington County.
Finally, the narrator’s knowledge and descriptions of Maine bring so much pleasure. References to Maine’s unorganized townships – regions so unpopulated they’re identified by numbers rather than names; to navigational tools such as DeLorme’s GPS system and the Maine Atlas; descriptions of iced over rivers, peat bogs and blueberry fields covered in snow, all present a recognizable regional portrait.  Bowditch shares his knowledge of frost bite and hypothermia, the behavior of lost persons, how to conduct a search, how to remove a skunk, the dangers of driving or walking on frozen rivers and how drowned bodies decompose and resurface.
The writer Doiron has immersed himself in warden’s work and its history in Maine including citing the Down East Game War of the 1880s.  Nevertheless, the role of warden as detective may be limiting – particularly when it comes to murders, a matter not usually part of the job description. We’ll see how Doiron continues to negotiate this difficulty.
            His writing remains beautiful.  For example, when Doiron debunks the myth that the Inuit have umpteen different words for snow, he says, “They just combine their terms in certain ways to add specificity to their meteorological conditions.  
 He follows it by distinguishing between wet and dry snow. Here’s a bit of his description of dry kind:

“The wind whipped it like white sand in a white desert, forming metamorphic dunes and ridges that changed shape while I watched. Dry snow carries its own dangers. It clings to nothing, not even itself, and is so light it can be stirred by the faintest breeze, turning a black night blindingly white. Weightless, it resists plowing and shoveling. It covers your tracks in the woods, making it easier for you to get lost, and because dry snow is the harbinger of subzero temperatures, it makes losing your way a potentially life-threatening mistake.”

Such beauty. Such danger.  Such snow. It makes me (almost) want to give in to my impulses and travel back to Maine in winter to watch the woods fill up with the stuff.

Monday, August 20, 2012

When I was wise and foolish: Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand and me

       Like Paul Ryan, my thinking was deeply influenced by Ayn Rand.  When I was 15.
     Like Ryan, I renounced her. When I was 15 and a half.
     Though Ryan’s fervid admiration and subsequent rejection may have different roots and causes than my youthful infatuation, I share with him the simple belief that Rand’s books changed my life.
     Looking back it was a pivotal few months in my intellectual life because it was the first time… the first time I felt the thrill of  working out a literary opinion.  
     Shy and slight, more observer than a participant in social circles, I was a watcher, a listener and a reader. In my sophomore year, the year I learned that “sophomore” derives from the Greek, sophos, wise, and moros,  dull or foolish, my reading was, well …  sophomoric. I read and “liked” books – or not.  I read what was assigned and whatever was suggested by teachers or librarians, but I didn’t think about books, didn’t really understand how to think about them. Words like “style,” “theme” and “archetype” were just beyond my mind’s grasp; even words like “character” and “context” were words I was gawkily trying on like sophisticated adult clothing.  I could spout them and match the words with definitions on multiple-choice tests, but applying them to what I read was an ill fit.
     Then mid winter, my English teacher gave us an assignment with a list of choices matching books with themes.  I picked Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead despite, or maybe because of the length. I had already identified myself as a reader after all – and length would be a measure of how serious I was.  Serious, sophomorically serious, I plunged into reading and then thinking about reading. Though I don’t remember the details, I recall the great exciting gush of thoughts, my mind fluid and swept away into a world of romance, superheroes and villains as sure and certain and as any contemporary action figure film. Rand confirmed my status as a nonconformist, defiant, outsider, (though I doubt anyone else would have), standing just outside the status quo and what was popular.
     Rand was so right. And so many adults in the world were so wrong.  There were a very few men like Howard Roark, and women – like Dominique Francon, like me – who would fall in love with them.  I was taken by Roark, by Rand and by her Objectivism, her anti-collective philosophy that proclaimed selfishness to be virtuous.
     So taken that as soon as school got out, I continued my Rand reading --plowing through the thousand plus- page Atlas Shrugged and then Anthem.
     Perhaps it was the long slog of philosophy I had to get through.  Or maybe it was just too much repetition, Rand hammering away, repeating the same characters the same conflicts and ideas, just giving them different names and situations. I didn’t get bored.  I got annoyed.
     So annoyed that I wrote letters to a friend articulating all that was wrong with Ayn Rand. I composed a new rush of thoughts – my first real stab at literary response, my awkward first steps into what might be called literary criticism.
      It probably went something like this: all the characters were the same, superior people or losers; good guys or awful people; strong self-made, independent sorts who didn’t need God or anyone else and the leeches, those who lived – or tried to live off others.
     Neither type really resembled anyone I knew.  Characters were more like cartoons and the more I thought, too extreme. I didn’t know any bureaucrats. In my family the emphasis was on jobs that served others – medicine, nursing, teaching, that sort of thing. I  spent a lot of time in church listening to gospels and sermons about helping the poor and the disadvantaged, about forgiveness and humility.  Selfishness would never be a virtue.
     It likely turned into a Rand rant:  She’s rigid, uncompromising. Too simplistic. Too extreme. Too dualistic.   Rash, and maybe even a little nasty.  Lacking humanity.  Lacking generosity of spirit. Generosity. Spirit.
     And she didn’t write very well either…
      I liked most people.  She didn’t.
      So as fervently as I had embraced Rand, I rejected her.  For a while I privately basked in my newfound intellectual acumen and all the big new words I was learning to use to show the flaws in her thinking, the weakness of her writing.
     Then I forgot her altogether.
      Years later when a college professor posed the question: “Has a book ever changed your life,”  I considered it a profound and interesting question. Henry James? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Herman Melville?  Shakespeare? But my answer was “No, I could not think of one.” Altered my thinking a little, but changed my life? Not really. 
     In recent hoopla over Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, I was again brought to thinking about her books and why they were again causing so much stir. When it was announced that Ryan would be Romney’s running mate, three names flooded twitter: Romney, Ryan and Rand. News reports said Ryan was a “fervent” admirer who handed out her books as Christmas presents and encouraged his staff to read them. I identified with that word “fervent.”  Ryan, who also first read Rand in high school, was apparently so taken was he with her philosophy that he spoke to the Atlas Society, a Rand-inspired group just a few years ago. His pro- Rand views caused the Catholic Bishops to take notice. In addition to being pro-capitalism, anti-government and anti anyone who is poor, Rand was an atheist with pro-abortion views. As Ryan is also Catholic and conservative, he either had some explaining or some renunciation to do. He chose the latter.
      Drawn to the controversy, I read two quotes written about Rand in her heyday by writers I now admire, writers I had not yet heard of when I was 15.
      First Gore Vidal from Esquire:

“This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the ‘freedom is slavery’ sort….
 She has a great attraction for simple people ….
What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her ‘philosophy,’ but the size of her audience.”
And then Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.”
     Well, I was one of those simple people, part of that audience, and I am grateful that my English teacher, whatever her motives, didn’t toss Rand’s books in the garbage but rather suggested The Fountainhead as a book to read my sophomore year.
     For, in retrospect, I think Rand and her books changed my life.
I went on to be a reader and a teacher, as well as a journalist often writing about literature and theater, something I now do only for the love of it as an “amateur,” from the Latin, amator for lover. I most love deeply layered, inventive, complex books that seem at first a bit beyond my understanding, books that resonate, books that linger in my thoughts and feelings long I’ve finished them. I  don’t care  if they are very difficult or very long, but I don’t care for polemics -- or most politicians.
     I learned that if ever I am to be wise – and I don’t foolishly think I have achieved that yet, I must first, and also, be foolish.  That’s the value of an oxymoron  from the Greek oxy, sharp, and moros, dull or foolish– seemingly contradictory words yoked together, that nevertheless make sense,  another one of  the many literary vocabulary words I learned my sophomore year. Sophomore year:  when I was very young, when I was very wise, when I was very, very foolish.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Discovering John Sandford's Bad Blood; plunging into Paul Doiron's Bad Little Falls

August 12 Sunday Salon (a facebook group for book bloggers)

Because I am newly resolved to blogging more often, I am posting again – two weeks in a row on Sunday Salon. Woohoo!!!  A habit for others, a record for me.  Reading this week included more mysteries.
I finished John Sandford’s Bad Blood, a “Virgil Flowers novel,” and then just when I was about to swing back to literary fiction, another mystery, one that I had preordered from Amazon, arrived in the mail.
 I couldn’t resist. I had a temp job lined up the next day that required sporadically directing others and allowed nearly eight straight hours of reading.
 I dove into Paul Doiron’s Bad Little Falls, the third in a series featuring Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch.
I am just coming up for air and blogging, with a full review likely to follow this week.  Doiron’s first book was the subject of my first review on this blog, a little more than a year ago, so I have a particular fondness for this self-assignment.
Back to Sandford. It seems I have some catching up to do.  I had never read Sandford’s works before and only picked this one up at the library for a slightly silly reason. One of my favorite television stars, Mark Harmon, who plays Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, is a fan. Harmon took on the role of  Lucas Davenport last year in a USA television movie   “Certain Prey. “ I figured whatever Gibbs -- oops, I mean Harmon -- likes, I might like. How easy it is to conflate the two.  There are 22 titles in the Davenport/ “Prey” series, in the “Kidd” series and five more (in addition to Bad Blood) in the Virgil Flowers series.  Good reading ahead.  Sandford is the pseudonym of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Roswell Camp.
Bad Blood was fun to read. After a daisy chain of murders – three in the first 30 or so pages, Sheriff Lee (a female) Coaxley, calls in Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  What she and he eventually uncover  (other than themselves together alone) is a religious cult involved in what it seems many closed groups get into – sex abuse.  In addition to the nice contrast between two adults in consensual sex and  the plot's multiple partners in creepy unconventional and non-consensual sex, the Flowers- Coaxley combination offers plenty of clever sexy repartee.
Humor stands out for me in Sandford’s writing.  One of Flowers’ unconventional methods of gathering tips and applying pressure to the guilty is to announce his progress in the local Yellow Dog CafĂ©.  All the town’s ears tune in while he blabs to the owner about the ongoing investigation.  Takes a village to catch the guilty, along with Flowers’ expertise.
 I’ll be reading more. Sandford’s writing makes me smile.
One down.  Thirty-one to go.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Outta my head; into my body

There was a time when I practiced yoga to get outta my head. My messy head. My anxious head. My perseverating head. My head that spinned with stories of loved ones in danger. Loved ones out of control.  My head that thought that if only it could understand, it could give to others, help others, change others, ….. control others. 
Understanding seemed so important and so slowly, did doing the opposite: accepting not understanding, not giving, not helping, not changing……. not trying to control.
I slipped back into my body making it what I might focus on, bringing awareness to a posture, a muscle, a twinge, a breath. Thinking only ooooh, that’s what that feels like; that’s how this hinge I call my elbow wobbles in side plank, this  muscle I call my thigh works.  Strange how my legs seem different lengths. This is how I make waves of breath like tides course over the beach of my body.
 My fears shifted.  Forget the loved ones. In handstand I faced the floor – and feared it might just disappear beneath my hands and then where would I be?  In crow I thought I would tumble face forward into it. Clunk.  Hitting it hard. Ow my poor head.
And then there was the bliss. The end of a practice. Savasana. Corpse pose. Dead to thoughts. Dead to spinning stories. Dead to what yogis call monkey mind. Release.
I sought this over and over and over again.
And so for a dozen or more years, yoga was one of the places I would go to sink into my heart. I wanted to go deeper.
I did. I took a great teacher training course from a very smart woman who brought in other very smart and thoughtful experts.  I learned anatomy, ethics, Sanskrit,  yogic literature, assisting, yoga for special conditions and lots of restorative yoga.
Then abruptly I moved. Everything changed, including my practice. The yoga in my new home town  was different, and I determined to do as much as possible. I discovered new practices, wonderful new teachers. I took an additional 10 day training in   teaching yoga to seniors.
And then I hit bottom.  Nothing was taking me deeper. There was no deeper. There was not even deep.  After a while I began to dislike my practice. Really dislike my practice.  Intensely dislike my practice. I have an aversion to the h word or I might even use that one.
I took a break.  I swam, but practiced little yoga.  While formerly I practiced three to five days a week, I drew it down to once.  And then not at all. No yoga.
Until two days ago. And there it was just waiting for me. Yoga, I thought after and strong, good practice, is in my body Yoga is in muscles’ memory, in my breath. Even after neglect, it welcomes me back.  I need it anew.
I went back to a class and did it again today. I think I'm hooked.
While there may be benefit to cultivating a indifference as to whether or not one “likes” or “dislikes” one’s practice and doing it anyway, that’s not my pattern.  I’m more erratic. Too late for me to cultivate the intense daily discipline of an Olympian and other admirable human creatures.  
 I'm going to give myself a break and say it isn't that I don’t have  discipline.  It's just a different kind of discipline  (and  I admit, maybe not as productive a one). I do things intensely for a while and then slack off, but throughout my life I regularly circle back to the things I do, the things I am.   Yoga is one of those things. Writing is another.
 To be followed soon by: Outta my body and into my head 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Salon post: Watching Olympics

August.   I love watching the Olympic athletes.  Such discipline.  Such focus. Such single mindedness.  The Olympics make me feel scattered even as they inspire me.
I make new resolves. Increase my exercise. Increase my blogging.  Read more.
 So here’s a Sunday Salon update – something I haven’t done it a while.
I finally finished my reading response to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I distinguish a response from a review in that I ignore whether or not I am giving spoilers.  The purpose of the piece is different. A review proposes suggestions for others as to why they might read it – or not.  A response is for me; it allows me to go deeper into my understanding of a book by composing thoughts about it; others may want to read it to compare theirs.
The Tiger’s Wife response was a difficult piece of writing for me, and I’m not sure why.  I think it’s mainly because my writing muscles are flabby right now from disuse.  (The Olympics make me feel soooo undisciplined in all parts of my life. Get that, “all parts” –there are too many of those parts.) I think it’s also because so much is left unknown – not tied up in the book – and while I’m comfortable with that, it’s as if I finish my reading and writing with an ellipsis  . . .
I move on.  I read a little history and then a mystery I’ve already forgotten. I open the first pages of John Sandford’s Bad Blood because that’s what’s available at the library. I like zigzagging back and forth from literary fiction to mysteries. It’s a good reading rhythm for me. Next up in literary fiction: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Anonymity and the Web

On Monday National Public Radio’s All Things Considered discussed a case in which the Spokane Review of Spokane, Wash., was willing to go to court to defend the anonymity of an on-line commenter who made a snarky comment that implied a woman was a thief and suggested she was also plump. The editor believed in fighting the case on the grounds of upholding the principle that they protect “sources.”
Here’s the link:
I found this odd because during the 20 years I worked for a small newspaper we rarely thought of letter writers as sources. We verified the names of all those writing letters to the –editor and required they identify themselves with their real names. In short, the principle we most adhered to was that writers should be responsible for their writing, a principle that we believed added to the integrity of both writers and the paper.
I still believe that – with some rare exceptions.
Most of the time we required that “sources” be named in the stories. We did protect those who gave us only tips and deep background – but the information they gave most often had to be verified by someone willing “to go on the record” which meant using the source’s name in print.  We very occasionally used an anonymous or unnamed source in order to protect the source, say when one was already a victim or could become one as a result of disclosing information.   (Think crime victim or in today’s world maybe war zone blogger). In a media ethics seminar, we were encouraged to explain to tipsters, particularly whistleblowing tipsters, what exposure and going on the record might mean -- that serving as a source might cause reaction, repercussions, consequences they might not be considering.
 It made sense to me.
As a critic, I wrote reviews for 20 year. As a journalist my name was on all reviews and the articles I wrote. If I made mistakes – and I did – I was responsible for them.  If I wrote unfair or nasty remarks, people could respond or pick up the phone and complain. As an employee, I was also responsible to the paper – If I made too many mistakes or was consistently perceived as unfair and nasty– which apparently I wasn’t, I would have been shown the door.
I confess that I wasn’t so high-minded that I didn’t have occasional snarky or catty thoughts. I confess that I occasionally thought of brilliant ways to describe people and actions that would have shown how clever I was – but may have embarrassed and made others angry. I even shared these words with friends. But I knew I didn’t want to say those things publically – in part because they would have been more about me than my subject.  So I found ways to say what I needed to say but say it as fairly and truthfully as I could.
Fast forward 20 plus years.
 I started a blog and considered writing anonymously. I was scared of all the crazy trolls and nasty people out there. I soon learned that crazy trolls don’t read blogs like mine. I’m not sure who does. I also decided I knew how to write thoughtfully and carefully enough that anything I had to say I would be willing to put my name on.
 And I decided writing should be a little scary. That’s part of the thrill of it.
Newspapers are dwindling. So now the new media  -- social and otherwise --are the ones struggling with the anonymity issue. According to the NPR story YouTube is starting to require real names and news organizations are increasingly encouraging commenters to login with a Facebook connection.
Good for them.
I don’t agree with the NPR source Dave Oliveria, who a runs a blog called Huckleberries Online in northern Idaho.  He defends anonymity as a way for free speech to exist.
"To have free speech in this community, I think you have to have anonymity," Oliveria argues. …
This may be true in a community where people do not have rights. This may be true for the truly oppressed or those in a war zone or where there could be real consequences to oneself and one’s family for recording what’s happening. It may be true for those who have stories of self-disclosure that could result in reprisals.
But for those who do have rights,  rights come with responsibilities. One way of writing responsibly is to stand behind what you write by putting your name on it.
But then again it sounds like Oliveria’s community is a war zone, fuelled in part by things said anonymously on blogs:
"In this town, there's so much infighting, if some of these folks identified themselves, they couldn't make these comments," Oliveria says. "I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community."
 I say it's time for that community to get rid of some of those folks “in key positions.”  Free speech is not irresponsible speech.  Often writing anonymously is just another way to bully. Like other forms of bullying, it’s cowardly. Good writing – comments and otherwise -- requires bravery.
  So  I say be brave. Write.  Stand behind your words; use your name.