Originally posted on Catherine Sherman:

Classic Books postcard

As a writer and photographer, I’m often territorial about my words and images, so I can understand any creative person getting huffy or even litigious when their intellectual property is used without permission. If I want some pithy quotes, I use the words of a long-dead people, always crediting them, of course.

I designed a greeting card using a photograph I took of old books my mother has collected. I added some quotes from five long-dead authors and philosophers about books and then posted the card on a Print on Demand (POD) site where I have many products. The card is to be a small gift for my fellow book club members (Shhh, don’t tell them.)

A few days later, I received an email from the POD site informing me that my “design contains an image or text that infringes on intellectual
property rights. We have been contacted by the…

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October 2009 Books

The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney and  One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd  by Jim Fergus were our two books for October.  Both take place in areas where white settlers are beginning to establish settlements on land where Native Americans live.  That these books were related in theme made the discussion about the books much richer.   Choosing two related books is something we aim for, but we don’t often succeed.   However, we’re so good that we can find relationships between any two books.  We all agreed that we would recommend both of these books, a rare occurence.

In both books, the main character is a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum because she doesn’t fit into upperclass white society but whoOne Thousand White Women is later released, because a place for her is found outside regular society.  I don’t know how often wayward women were actually committed to asylums, but it seems to be a theme in books we’ve read, including The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox  by Maggie O’FarrellIn both the October books, white women form relationships with Native American men.  There’s a whole genre of romance books devoted to this theme.  I haven’t read any of them, but it seems to have a broad appeal.  These two books were not romance novels, however.  Human society of all kinds was depicted in both books as harsh and violent with some tenderness giving comfort.  White settlements were sometimes seen as oasis, but were often revealed to be less welcoming and more rigid than the Indian societies. Yet, particularly in the May Dodd book, Native American society also had its rules and restrictions that Dodd chafed against.  Additionally, there were some acts of cruelty that were horrifying.

This is from the Author’s Notes of One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd: “In spite of efforts to convince the reader to the contrary, this book is entirely a work of fiction.  However, the seed that  grew into a novel was sown in the author’s imagination by an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors.  Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother’s tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man’s world — a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyenne’s request was not well received by the white authorities — the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and of course, the white women did not come.  In this novel they do.”

The Tenderness of Wolves seemed the more realistically realized story of the two and was drawn on a smaller stage with fewer characters and a straightforward plot.   There was a mystery to be solved, a mother’s need to find and save her child and a some relationships to be worked out.

One Thousand White Women seemed cartoonish to me at first, but it was entertaining.  The author seemed to include every type of female stereotype he could find — wild Irish girls, noble black woman, haughty religious woman, prejudiced Southern woman, mannish upper class Englishman and so on.   The Indian characters seemed to be more realistic, although there was less time spent on describing them.  May Dodd was an attractive, smart, almost perfect woman with an independent spirit who had defied her strait-laced family, ran off with a man she loved, had two children with him and who then abandoned her and for her defiance of “normal” behavior was sent to an asylum.  Later, she fell for an Army officer who later turned out to be something of a cad, too.  In the arrangement of white women for American Indian husbands, May Dodd was matched up as the third wife of a chief, Little Wolf, who was a decent man, but May and Little Wolf never became close.

When I was reading this, I thought of the book and the movie Little Big Man about another character who is able to move between different societies and provide a unique perspective.  My family is from South Dakota, moving there in the late 1880s, so I grew up fascinated with pioneer life and those of the Indian tribes who lived in central South Dakota and in the Black Hills.  In One Thousand White Women, Fergus says that the locales are all fictional, but he does write about the Black Hills, an area I am very familiar with.  One of my great grandfathers arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1883, and later settled in Sturgis.  Other relatives lived in the area, too, including my great-aunt Esther Bovee whose family ranch included Bear Butte, a butte mentioned in the book that is a real location.  Their old farm-house is now part of a state park. I’ve climbed Bear Butte twice, once a child.  Signs tell that this is a place sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux, and you see medicine flags and bundles tied to bushes and trees.    I took my interest in this area and its people further through my graduate studies in American History at the University of Kansas, specializing in “Trans-Mississippi West,” so I enjoy reading any book about the topic.  Click on Bear Butte to read about this sacred place.  The article also mentions the Bovee family.  By Catherine Sherman.

Below are book reviews.

 

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus  (paperback)
From Booklist
An American western with a most unusual twist, this is an imaginative fictional account of the participation of May Dodd and others in the controversial “Brides for Indians” program, a clandestine U.S. government^-sponsored program intended to instruct “savages” in the ways of civilization and to assimilate the Indians into white culture through the offspring of these unions. May’s personal journals, loaded with humor and intelligent reflection, describe the adventures of some very colorful white brides (including one black one), their marriages to Cheyenne warriors, and the natural abundance of life on the prairie before the final press of the white man’s civilization. Fergus is gifted in his ability to portray the perceptions and emotions of women. He writes with tremendous insight and sensitivity about the individual community and the political and religious issues of the time, many of which are still relevant today. This book is artistically rendered with meticulous attention to small details that bring to life the daily concerns of a group of hardy souls at a pivotal time in U.S. history.

From Kirkus Reviews:  Long, brisk, charming first novel about an 1875 treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, by the sports reporter and author of the memoir A Hunter’s Road (1992). Little Wolf comes to Washington and suggests to President Grant that peace between the Whites and Cheyenne could be established if the Cheyenne were given white women as wives, and that the tribe would agree to raise the children from such unions. The thought of miscegenation naturally enough astounds Grant, but he sees a certain wisdom in trading 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses, and he secretly approves the Brides For Indians treaty. He recruits women from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutionsoffering full pardons or unconditional release. May Dodd, born to wealth in Chicago in 1850, had left home in her teens and become the mistress of her father’s grain-elevator foreman. Her outraged father had her kidnaped, imprisoning her in a monstrous lunatic asylum. When Grant’s offer arrives, she leaps at it and soon finds herself traveling west with hundreds of white and black would-be brides. All are indentured to the Cheyenne for two years, must produce children, and then will have the option of leaving. May, who keeps the journal we read, marries Little Wolf and lives in a crowded tipi with his two other wives, their children, and an old crone who enforces the rules. Reading about life among the Cheyenne is spellbinding, especially when the women show up the braves at arm-wrestling, foot-racing, bow-shooting, and gambling. Liquor raises its evil head, as it will, and reduces the braves to savagery. But the women recover, go out on the winter kill with their husbands, and accompany them to a trading post where they drive hard bargains and stop the usual cheating of the braves. Eventually, when the cavalry attacks the Cheyenne, mistakenly thinking they’re Crazy Horse’s Sioux, May is killed. An impressive historical, terse, convincing, and affecting.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney
From Bookmarks Magazine
Long-listed for the Orange Prize and winner of the Costa Award (formerly Britain’s Whitbread Award), Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney’s first novel, has garnered acclaim in Europe and the United States. A screenwriter, Penney casts the harsh Canadian landscape in vivid, cinematic hues while portraying a small society born of isolation, corporate greed, and an unforgiving environment. Although a murder mystery with many plot twists, the novel most successfully reveals complex human desires, motivations, and relationships. Some critics faulted Penney’s “noble savage” stereotypes, cliched dialogue, and unremarkable ending. However, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes, “Sometimes the journey is just more interesting than the destination.”

More on “One Thousand White Women” from Barnes and Noble. This site contains several readers’ reviews, which are very mixed from those seeing it as a fascinating picture of life in the West among American Indians to others finding the book cliched and cartoonish.

THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (Simon & Schuster, $25),  Marilyn Stasio, New York Times. 

This first novel that won the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Award for Stef Penney, initially presents itself as a claustrophobic 19th-century murder mystery, set in the dead of winter and confined to Dove River, an isolated European settlement on the edge of the Canadian frontier. Or so it seems when Penney’s narrator, Mrs. Ross, one of the settlement’s hardy pioneers, discovers the scalped corpse of a local fur trader. But when her 17-year-old son, Francis, disappears on the same day, the novel abandons its whodunit component and expands into a more ambitious form. Once Mrs. Ross strikes out in search of her son, “The Tenderness of Wolves” becomes a wilderness adventure with heavy doses of romance and native history, handled in a graceful, almost delicate, style, but strangely devoid of the thrills you’d expect in such a savage place.

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Quinoa Casserole

Quinoa was a primary staple of the ancient Incas.  It's high in fiber, a good source of iron and has all eight essential amino acids.  I made it into a casserole to serve to my book club.  They wanted the recipe, so here it is.

Quinoa was a primary staple of the ancient Incas. It's high in fiber, a good source of iron and has all eight essential amino acids. I made it into a casserole to serve to my book club. They wanted the recipe, so here it is.

Food is an essential part of book club.  The food is always fabulous, and if the members don’t prepare all of the food, they know where to go and what to buy or if they don’t cook which restaurant to suggest to “make a great dinner happen,” as Chris says.

I don’t have a lot of fabulous recipes to share, but the members asked for this one. 

To serve eight to ten people, prepare whole grain quinoa (keen-wa) according to the directions, so that you have about eight cups of cooked quinoa.  Mix in four tablespoons of chopped fresh basil.  I also added some snipped fresh rosemary and bronze fennel, because I had it in the garden. I mixed in a teaspoon of garlic salt. You could probably add fresh chopped garlic, but don’t add garlic salt, just plain salt to taste.

Saute four chopped green peppers and two cups of chopped button mushrooms in butter or olive oil.  (I used butter because I had just seen “Julie and Julia,” the movie about Julia Child, and I had butter on the brain.)  Add the sauteed vegetables to the cooked quinoa in a 4-quart casserole dish.  Mix in six ounces of grated parmesan and eight ounces of an Italian cheese ensemble, such as Mozzarella and Romano cheese.  You can probably get away with less cheese.  I made up this recipe so I used the cheese to bind the quinoa, and didn’t know how much it would need.  It held together well.   I used green peppers, because that’s what I harvested from my garden. I also sliced four fresh green beans (my total harvest) and cooked those with the quinoa.  You could add a lot of different types of vegetables.Quinoa Bag.

Bake for 30 minutes for half an hour, although since everything is cooked, you don’t really need to bake it that long. It depends on how crusty you want the casserole to be. It was delicious.  I usually only cook vegetarian food, so this will be added to my repertoire.

Click hereto learn more about quinoa.

Oh, by the way, the books were good, too!

“The Good Thief” by Hannah Tinti and “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

One of our two books for June 2009 was “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.  The riots over the election results keeping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power were happening as we read this book. The passage quoted below from the book struck me as particularly enlightening about Iranian culture.

When reading this book, I thought time and time again of the repression and brutality of George Orwell’s “1984” against anyone who differed from those in power, and that power was maintained by violence and murder.  The revolution was a popular movement against the western-backed Shah, but soon it lead to repression of many of the people who supported it.  Women were greatly and still are suppressed, which is detailed in the book.

I’ve included a news story at the bottom of the post.  It describes funeral and mourning events that were repeated regularly.  People would be killed at these events, and then more mourning demonstrations would be staged to mourn those people. Even more deaths would occur. More funeral demonstrations. More deaths. And so on.

From “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, copyright 2003, The Gatsby section, Chapter 3.

In this section, Ayatollah Taleghani, a young, very popular, important and also controversial figures of the Iranian Revolution has died.

“Today is the day of mourning! Taleghani has gone to heaven today.” 

Over the next two decades, this particular chant would be used for many others, a symptom of the symbiosis between the revolution’s founders and death.  That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning; it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt.  There was a wild, sexually flavored frenzy in the air.  Later, when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth.

Additionally, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a new appreciation and a fresh perspective on books I have read, such as “Lolita,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Great Gatsby.”   Cathy

  Wikipedia Description of the Iranian Revolution.

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI (April 15, 2003)

“READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN”

A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

347 pages. Random House. $23.95.

Azar Nafisi’s remarkable new book, ”Reading Lolita in Tehran,” is a memoir of the author’s life in Iran from the late 70’s to the late 90’s, but it is also many other things.

It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Ms. Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, held a reading group at her house for seven of her former students. In the past, she and her students at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University had been attacked by the authorities for many offenses: for not wearing the veil, for not wearing it properly, for refusing to espouse a hard-line ideological stance, for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction. While the members of the group, who came from different religious and political backgrounds, were initially shy about sharing their views and experiences, they gradually came to see their weekly meetings as a kind of sanctuary, as a place where they might share confidences both literary and personal.

Though this might sound to the American reader like some kind of Oprah Winfrey tea party, it quickly becomes clear that for these Iranian women, who had so little freedom in their daily lives, the group provided a rare opportunity to converse freely, to talk and laugh about their relationships with men and to refract their own daily hardships through the prism of classic works of literature.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the works of Nabokov, most notably ”Invitation to a Beheading,” with its lonely, imaginative hero whose originality sets him apart in a society ”where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law,” and ”Lolita,” which Ms. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about ”the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Her students’ identification with this Russian émigré’s works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his themes, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life. ”His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet,” she writes. ”They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty.”

She and her students find an analogy between Gatsby’s thwarted efforts to repeat the past and the Iranian revolution, ”which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream,” and they discuss the Jamesian heroines Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper as women who ”both defy the conventions of their time,” who ”both refuse to be dictated to.”

As for Jane Austen’s characters, Ms. Nafisi writes: ”Austen’s protagonists are private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world.”

Ms. Nafisi and her students themselves discovered — often after being warned, arrested or in some cases beaten and jailed — that there were no boundaries between the public and the private in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the government and its morality police told people what they could read, what they could wear, how they should behave. ”The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies,” Ms. Nafisi writes.

”Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.” She adds that being accused of being Westernized in Iran in the 1980’s could result in years in jail, even execution.

Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Ms. Nafisi writes of living in ”two different time zones simultaneously.” She had grown up in a prominent family (her father had been mayor of Tehran; her mother was one of the first six women elected to Parliament, in 1963), she had been educated in Switzerland and England, and she had lived in the United States. She returned to Iran in the late 1970’s, just as the revolution was cresting, and by the time her daughter was born several years later, ”the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time”: the age of marriage was lowered to 9, adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and ”women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men.”

Unlike her generation, Ms. Nafisi says, her students did not have a past to compare with the present. ”Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.”

In these pages, Ms. Nafisi, who had been part of the Iranian student movement in her youth, describes watching the revolution gather speed and run amok, and she blames ”the Iranian people and the intellectual elites” for ”helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime.” She describes the purging of faculty members and students at universities and her own realization in the spring of 1981 that she had become irrelevant as a teacher.

Why did Ms. Nafisi stay in Tehran for another decade and a half? In part it was her devotion to her native country, her family and friends; in part it was the devotion of her husband, Bijan Naderi, ”to the idea of home.” In time many of her students also left, one going so far as to have herself smuggled out of the country overland through Turkey. Others stayed on in Iran and became teachers themselves. In this resonant and deeply affecting memoir, Ms. Nafisi pays tribute to all their lives and to the books that sustained them during some of the darkest days of the Iranian cultural revolution

 

Hundreds of Thousands Demonstrate in Iran; Mourn Dead
 
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press Writers Ali Akbar Dareini And Nasser Karimi, Associated Press Writers  June 18, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran – Hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing black and carrying candles filled the streets of Tehran again Thursday, joining opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn demonstrators killed in clashes over Iran‘s disputed election.

The massive protest openly defied orders from Iran’s supreme leader, despite a government attempt to placate Mousavi and his supporters by inviting the reformist, and two other candidates who ran against hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a meeting with the country’s main electoral authority.

Many in the huge crowd carried black candles and lit them as night fell. Others wore green wristbands and carried flowers in mourning as they filed into Imam Khomenei Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said.

Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television designed for foreigners, estimated the crowd at hundreds of thousands and said the people listened to a brief address from Mousavi, who called for calm and self-restraint.

A Mousavi Web site said that the crowed exceeded 1 million.

Independent witnesses said that, based on previous demonstrations at the site, the size of the crowd appeared to be in the hundreds of thousands. Foreign news organizations are barred from reporting on Tehran’s streets.

The demonstrators had marched silently until they arrived at the square, where some chanted “Death to the dictator!” one witness said. Press TV showed protesters making V-for-victory gestures and holding pictures of Mousavi and signs that say “Where’s our Vote?”

A participant told The Associated Press by telephone that the rally stretched for more than three miles (5 kilometers) through downtown Tehran from the square.

Photos posted online showed Mousavi talking through a portable loudspeaker, dressed in a black suit and dark blue shirt as he raised a hand to address the massive crowd. The participant confirmed the authenticity of the images.

He described watching “a sea of people” march across a bridge in a constant stream for three hours.

“I remember one old man talking about how the will of the people has started and no one can stop it,” he added.

The participant and the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

On their way home, some demonstrators held a candlelit gathering in front of Tehran University, where Mousavi supporters have accused pro-government militia of attacking students in dormitories.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands turned out in a huge procession that recalled the scale of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

After dark Thursday — as they have done on other nights this week — people went to their roofs and chanted, “Mir Hossein!” in support of Mousavi, and “God is great!”

Ahmadinejad released a largely conciliatory recorded statement on state TV, distancing himself from his past criticism of protesters, whom he has compared to angry soccer fans and “dust.”

“I only addressed those who made riot, set fires and attacked people,” the statement said. “Every single Iranian is valuable. The government is at everyone’s service. We like everyone.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged the people to pursue their allegations of election fraud within the limits of the cleric-led system. Mousavi and his followers have rejected compromise and pressed their demands for a new vote, flouting the will of a man endowed with virtually limitless powers under Iran’s constitution.

Trying again to satisfy the protesters’ demands, the main electoral authority invited Mousavi and two other candidates who opposed Ahmadinejad to a meeting. Iran‘s al-Alam Arabic television channel said the three candidates would meet with the Guardian Council on Saturday.

The unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Khamenei has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.

Mousavi, who has said he won the election, says the Guardian Council supports Ahmadinejad and has demanded an independent investigation, as well as a new election.

The council’s spokesman, Abbasali Khadkhodaei, said Thursday that it received a total of 646 complaints from the three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

The council provided few other details, but the large number of complaints raised the possibility that even a limited recount could turn into a far larger and messier exercise than the government desires.

The regime has blocked communication channels, such as Web sites and mobile phone networks, to make it more difficult for Mousavi supporters to organize protests. The mobile phone network in Tehran appeared to go down at the start of Thursday’s demonstration, as it has intermittently since shortly after the election results were announced. Text messaging has been blocked almost constantly since Friday.

There have been widespread accusations of nighttime attacks on Mousavi supporters by pro-government militiamen, and protesters attacked a militia building after one rally, but both sides have been restrained, with uniformed police and other security forces standing by as protesters march calmly.

Monday’s massive gathering was followed by three days of marches along main Tehran avenues, presenting one of the gravest threats to Iran‘s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged out of the Islamic revolution that brought down Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are defended by Iran’s most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the escalating crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues.

The wild card is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts — a cleric-run body that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran’s supreme leader. Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s successor, and the assembly has never used its power to remove Iran’s highest authority.

Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani’s support or if they have held talks.

But Iranian TV has shown pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying pictures of Khomeini.

A group of hard-line students rallied outside the Tehran prosecutor’s office Thursday, accusing Rafsanjani’s daughter and his son, Mahdi, of treason, state radio reported.

Protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in anger toward Iran’s non-elected theocracy would sharply change the stakes and become a showdown over the foundation of Iran’s system of rule — the almost unlimited authority of the clerics at the top.

The Iranian government directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for “intolerable” interference. The report, on Press TV, cited no evidence.

“Despite wide coverage of unrest, foreign media have not been able to provide any evidence on a single violation in the election process,” state radio said.

State TV on Thursday broadcast the purported confession of a man accused of conspiring with U.S. forces in Iraq to bomb targets inside the country.

U.S. officials shrugged off the allegation of interference. President Barack Obama said he shared the world’s “deep concerns” but it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.”

The two countries severed diplomatic relations after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution.

The government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Many other sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, were unusually slow and rarely connect.

Mousavi has condemned the blocking of Web sites, saying the government did not tolerate the voice of the opposition.

In a statement, Google Inc.’s video-sharing site, YouTube, reiterated that its guidelines do allow clips depicting violence in Iran because of their journalistic merit. YouTube generally bans clips with graphic or gratuitous violence, but has made exceptions for video with educational, documentary of scientific value.

“The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see,” the company said. “Given the critical role these videos are playing in reporting this story to the world, we are doing our best to leave as many of them up as we can.”

Iranian Press TV said Khamenei would lead the weekly prayers ceremony on Friday. There was no immediate word whether Ahmadinejad would attend, but attends the service whenever Khamenei gives it. Al-Alam said the three presidential candidates also confirmed they would attend.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

In February, our book club read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland).  Everyone decided that it was “just what we needed.”  We usually read literary works — national book award winners, etc.  But sometimes you just need to read a mystery.  And this is a smart mystery.  We admired the writing, the subject matter and the setting in Sweden as well as the suspense.  It’s a book you can’t put down.  It wasn’t the prefect book, employing some cliched situations, and it certainly wasn’t uplifting, but we couldn’t wait to find out what happened next anyway. We also can’t wait for Larsson’s next two books. Sadly, these two books will also be his last, because he died in 2004.  (Below is a review from the New York Times.)

Here’s what Chris wrote:  I really did like it.  It kept me engrossed; sadism is not, however, something I enjoy reading about.  I hated the ending but it made great sense and any other would have been hokey.  I thought the relationships were well done, especially for a detective/suspense novel.  I’d bought that book for Bill as one of top 100 (crime/suspense) novels I researched on the web and knew he liked that author….he’s reading it now, too late, every night…..

Judy reported: In fact, I’ve recommended “Dragon” to several people, including our librarian. It should delight computer nerds. In fact, I found a news report that detailed a similiar action recently. And it’s well written. I found the cadence particularly interesting and concluded it must be a “Swedish thing”.
On another matter I have just read a fascinating paperback which is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and immediately following I read the screenplay for the movie. Since I have NOT seen the movie the juxtaposition is particularly interesting because the two are so different in tone and content. I  heartily advise reading this book front to back—-not two separate stories weeks or years apart. It shows so graphically what happens when a book or story becomes a movie and, moreover, why some changes are necessary for commercial success. Even to Fitzgerald!                                                                                                                               
Cheers—–

 

 

New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani, published September 30, 2008.

Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a huge best seller in the author’s native Sweden, and a sensation in France, Germany and the Netherlands too.

It’s Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists — Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo — who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion.

Mr. Larsson — who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel and two companion volumes — was himself a journalist and a magazine editor, and his knowledge of this world enables him to do a credible job of recounting Blomkvist’s efforts to investigate the two biggest stories of his career: corruption, embezzlement and money laundering on the part of a big-shot Swedish industrialist, and the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet, who seemingly vanished without a trace during a family reunion.

At the same time, Mr. Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When it comes to explaining the mystery behind Harriet’s disappearance and the big reveal about her family’s secret, however, Mr. Larsson stumbles badly, resorting to every bad cliché from every bad serial-killer movie ever shown on late night TV — a pity since he’s done such a credible job of showing how Blomkvist has been piecing together clues from police files, interviews and old photographs. It’s as if the author had shown us how an intricate jigsaw puzzle had been put together — from border outlines and chunks of the picture, down to the last few missing pieces — only to pull back at the end to show us that the completed puzzle depicts not an interesting photograph or painting, but a garish slasher cartoon.

Blomkvist, we learn, is a disgraced reporter, who — for reasons that become clear only later — has just lost a criminal libel case brought by a Swedish tycoon named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist’s magazine is now teetering toward financial ruin, even as Blomkvist himself is pondering how to pay his legal bills.

In steps another prominent industrialist named Henrik Vanger, who makes Blomkvist an offer he can’t refuse: investigate the decades-old case of Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared one autumn day in the 1960s; in return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist handsomely, and he will also provide Blomkvist with some revealing information about Wennerström, who got his start with Vanger’s company many years ago.

Harriet’s disappearance is a variation on one of those locked-room puzzles constructed by mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers. The teenager was last seen on the small island that the Vanger clan calls home one September afternoon in 1966; a spectacular accident involving an oil truck had closed the one bridge to the island for 24 hours, and when family members noticed her absence the following morning, search parties looked for her everywhere: going through every building, chimney and well, scouring every field and cliff, dragging all the spots where she might have drowned.

Vanger is convinced that Harriet was murdered, and that her murderer has been taunting him ever since. Each year, on his birthday, he has received in the mail a pressed flower in a picture frame, the same gift Harriet gave him when she was a child; the flowers always arrive in padded envelopes with no return address.

After studying the available evidence and meeting many members of the Vanger family (many of whom seem to harbor ancient grievances against one another), Blomkvist manages to turn up three new pieces to the Harriet puzzle. To put them together, he enlists the help of Salander, a freelance investigator for a security firm who once investigated Blomkvist himself. Salander, a wraith-thin waif with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners attitude and history of anti-social behavior, seems less like a conventional detective than like a loaded gun, waiting to go off. She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed — picture Angelina Jolie teamed up with a young Robert Redford — but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel, particularly as Mr. Larsson loses control of his messy, increasingly implausible plot.

In fact, it’s clear as the story progresses that Mr. Larsson has no idea how to create a credible villain, for the two people most responsible for Harriet’s disappearance turn out to be patched-together bad guys with none of the malevolent originality of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter or the manipulative perversion of Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct.”

It’s the detectives who are the stars of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and the reader can only hope that Salander and Blomkvist put in return appearances in the two other novels Mr. Larsson completed before his death.

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Book Club List for 2008

american-lightning Every year, Linda compiles a list of the books we’ve read in the previous year, in case our memories and notes are faulty when someone asks, “What have you been reading lately?”

In alphabetical order: (Reviews and descriptions are from various sources.)

  • Almost Moon (Alice Sebold) Explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, wives and lovers, the meaning of devotion, and the fine line between love and hate.
  • American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century (Howard Blum) The October 1910 bombing of the offices of the Los Angeles Times, which killed 21 people, seemed to portend that the vicious battle between capital and labor would escalate into the United States’ second civil war. Howard Blum, bestselling author and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, examines the crime and its aftermath from the perspective of three legendary men of the period, each of whom would “permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture.” The first, detective William Burns, led a painstaking investigation that revealed a conspiracy by the Iron Workers Union to set off bombs around the country — the Times was targeted for its fierce anti-labor campaign. The second, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, reluctantly agreed to represent the defendants despite his belief that an acquittal would be impossible; in the low point of a distinguished career, Darrow, seen passing money to an associate who then bribed a juror, was subsequently tried for jury tampering. The third, director D. W. Griffith, had no real connection to the case, but Blum argues that his epic Birth of a Nation was informed by the events in L.A. While he doesn’t provide ample evidence for that assertion, Griffith’s inclusion still seems somehow fitting: Blum’s true-crime drama plays out like an old movie, complete with complex heroes, mustachioed villains, and lusty dames. It doesn’t always read like history, but it is great fun nonetheless. –Barbara Spindel
  • Candy Girl (Diablo Cody) Why would a healthy, college-educated young woman start stripping for a living, when she could work in a nice, clean office?
  • Desert of the Heart (Jane Rule) is a 1964 lesbian-themed novel, which was adapted into the 1985 film, “Desert Hearts.”
  • The Double Bind (Chris Bohjalian)  The idea of the invented self hovers over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.   Jay Gatsby, we remember, begins an unpromising life as James Gatz and is murdered for a crime he does not commit. Bohjalian, too, is interested in the gray area between hope and delusion, in how people are shaped by the events of their lives and the efforts they make to hold the self inviolable against fate and harm. As Nick Carraway concludes, the past is powerfully present in the future, and Laurel’s investigations into Bobbie Crocker’s life lead her inevitably into her own history. Some readers may reach the end and feel blindsided rather than enlightened, but The Double Bind describes just how circuitous that inescapable journey can be. 
  • Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott) The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton.
  • Glass Castle (Jeannette walls) A nonfiction story in which Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows) This books, told in letters, is the story of an English author living in the shadow of World War II—and embarking on a writing project that will dramatically change hguernsey-societyer life. Unfolding in a series of letters, this enchanting novel introduces readers to the indomitable Juliet Ashton. Through Juliet’s correspondence with her publisher, best friend, and an absorbing cast of characters, readers discover that despite the personal losses she suffered in the Blitz, and author tours sometimes marked by mishaps, nothing can quell her enthusiasm for the written word. One day, she begins a different sort of correspondence, responding to a man who found her name on the flyleaf of a cherished secondhand book. He tells her that his name is Dawsey Adams, a native resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s remarkable circle of friends, courageous men and women who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a cover to protect them from the Germans. With their appetite for good books, and their determination to honor the island’s haunting recent history, this is a community that opens Juliet’s heart and mind in ways she could never have imagined.
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates)  In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger’s daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very “American”—triumph. “You are born here, they will not hurt you”—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.   In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.
  • The House on Fortune Street (Margot Livesey) The book opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.
  • Last night at the Lobster (Stewart O’Nan) Explores how the closing of one chain restaurant profoundly affects many lives.
  • The Little Book ( Selden Edwards) First-time novelist Selden Edwards here conjures up a light fable about the birth of modernism — a frothy bit of time-travel that makes literal Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. In this case, we’re given to understand that Edwards’s all-American hero, Frank Standish Burden III, and his father, Frank II, were able to change the course of modern history and culture by traveling back to Vienna during its golden age. With cameos by Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a host of Viennese luminaries, Edwards compounds his historical conceit by comparing the radical politics and artistic tumult of the fin de siècle to America in the ’60s. Frank III, known to friends as “Wheeler” for his devastating baseball pitch, shows up Zelig-like at all sorts of crucial moments in his own time as well. A hip refusenik in the Bartleby tradition, he walks off the mound at the Harvard-Yale game — one pitch shy of a perfect game; and off the stage at Altamont — he’s also a kick-ass rocker who learned his licks from Buddy Holly himself. But Wheeler, “a stranger in a strange land” wherever he is, rises to greater challenges when he wakes up one day in the past — a past inhabited also by members of his own Boston Brahmin family, who figure greatly into the future of politics and culture. The plot twists can be dizzying, with some weird suggestions of incest, but Edwards’s mythic quest and liberal notions will delight fans of Jack Finney and John Irving. His New Age-y ideas about a “symmetric reality,” “state of flow,” and “life force” serve him well for this improbable romp through time. –Thomas DePietro
  • Martin Dressler (Stephen Milhouse) Martin Dressler is a turn of the last century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father’s cigar store, but creates a much bigger empire.
  • Out Stealing Horses (Per Peterson) Trond Sander, a man nearing 70, dwelling in self-imposed exile at the eastern edge of Norway in a primitive cabin, deals with his complicated past.the-little-book
  • Song Yet Sung (James McBride) Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and deceit.
  • On Chesil Beach  (Ian McEwan) The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented violinist. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed her and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged from an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward’s native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervour of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy and sensitive Florence – and having his affections returned with equal intensity – has utterly changed his life.Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness, the confidence and the freedom to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself.From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears shape the rest of their lives,  the novel shows us how the entire course of a life can be changed – by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy’s epic journey into the wild.Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle’s once-peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires, spectacularly. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer, and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs, turn Edgar ever homeward.Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes – the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain – create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.ghostwalk
  • The Story of Lucy Gault (William Trevor)is set in provincial Ireland in the early 1920s at the height of the civil turmoil and anti-English violence.  Everhard Gault, a retired Anglo-Irish army captain married to an Englishwoman, shoots and wounds one of  the boys who has come in the night to set their house on fire.This act sets in motion a chain of events that has serious consequences for the Gault family.  Convinced that their attackers will return, Everard and Heloise plan to leave Ireland. Their daughter Lucy, heartbroken at the idea, runs away.  When some of her clothes are found by the sea shore, her parents assume she has drowned.  In their grief, they decide to travel, losing touch entirely with Ireland.They are unaware that Lucy didn’t die, but has lived out the years waiting for their return, unable to forgive herself for her recklessness.
  •  Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)   Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.
  • Thunderstruck (Erik Larson)   Larson’s new suspense-spiked history links Guglielmo Marconi, a developer of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopathic doctor in turn-of-the-last-century London. While Larson tells their stories side by side, most listeners will struggle to find a reason for connecting the two men other than that both lived around the same time. Only near the end does the logic behind the intertwining of the stories become apparent and the tale gain speed. At this point, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard sets out after Crippen on a transatlantic chase, spurred by the suspicion that he committed a gruesome murder. Larson’s account of the iconoclastic Marconi’s quest to prove his new technology is less than engaging and Crippen’s life before the manhunt was tame. Without a very compelling cast to entertain during Larson’s slow, careful buildup, many listeners may not make it to the breathless final third of the book when it finally come alive.

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“Shadow Country,” book for January 2009

Published: April 27, 2008 in the New York Times

In 1898, 42-year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in 1910, the historical Watson has obsessed Peter Matthiessen for three decades. Between 1990 and 1999, the novels that grew out of that obsession — “Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone” — were first published. In his author’s note to “Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend,” Matthiessen says his initial manuscript ran to more than 1,500 pages, which he was persuaded to trim and split into three books. “Shadow Country” is not a restoration of the original version but a substantial revision and the kind of rendering done in slaughterhouses, a reduction of the trilogy’s 1,300-plus pages to a more easily consumed 900 or so.

“Shadow Country” has three “books” that roughly correspond to the separate novels. Book I begins with a third-person description of Watson’s death and proceeds to the testimony of 12 first-person narrators, many of whom return several times. Except for Watson’s daughter Carrie, who writes a diary, they seem to be reciting their colloquial, digressive and sometimes unreliable memories for an oral historian. Most of these highly engaging tale-tellers are friends, employees, neighbors and relatives who knew Watson from the year — 1894 — when he first came to the region of Florida called the Ten Thousand Islands. They admire his gentlemanly manners and good looks, his hard and innovative work raising a sugar plantation from land that was little more than a mound of shells. They are also taken with his wit. He “looked and acted,” declares a woman named Mamie Smallwood, “like our idea of a hero.” But even his closest acquaintances fear Watson, sometimes for the qualities they admire, more often for his temper, his drinking and his ever present pistol.

Not long after Watson brings his wife and children to their new home at Chatham Bend, the community hears the Belle Starr story. Watson enjoys employing his reputation as a “desperado” to intimidate anyone he considers a competitor, but when a young couple squatting on his land are murdered, Watson’s history (or legend) works against him. The only suspect, he must flee his plantation, returning just for quick visits until, seven years later, he shows up with a new wife and children. Once again his past shadows him: while away from the Everglades, he beat a murder charge through the intervention of powerful friends. Now some relatives and friends shun him. Neighbors move away. Then three of his employees, one a woman, are found dead. Watson can’t prove his innocence, and when he aims his shotgun on his accusers they put 33 slugs into the man some call “bloody Watson.”

While providing smooth segues between speakers to form an essentially linear account of Watson’s rise and fall, Matthiessen uses his multiple narrators to create tantalizing ambiguities, not so much about the justice of Watson’s death or even about the facts of his life but about the contradictory attitudes of the poor “crackers” and mixed-bloods who called him “Emperor Watson.” Mamie Smallwood and her husband argue about Watson’s true nature; Mamie’s three brothers have shifting views of the enigmatic stranger. Add the Harden family and Watson’s relatives, along with the sheriff supposedly investigating him, and Matthiessen’s presentation of conflicting race, class, clan and personal loyalties is masterly.

With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South “Absalom, Absalom!,” possibly even an hommage. Like Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, Watson is a red-haired, grand-planning outlander who creates a plantation from nothing, then carelessly destroys it and at least one of his sons. From boyhood, Watson carried around a history of ancient Greece. In Book I, the far-flung shadow of hubris is revealed by a chorus of individual voices. To the tragic dignity of Faulkner’s novel, Matthiessen adds the ironic indignity of seeing Emperor Watson’s body buried and his life recounted by the laboring folk that he, like Sutpen, dominated.

Matthiessen cut about a hundred pages from “Killing Mister Watson,” some of them unnecessary fake news items. “Lost Man’s River” has been reduced by 300 pages, many of them first-person narrations, so Book II of “Shadow Country” is much more conventionally plotted — the story of Lucius Watson’s obsessive quest for the truth about his father. A Ph.D. in history who travels the South in the late 1920s doing archival research and conducting interviews, Lucius joins up with his long-lost half brother, Rob. These two resemble the Harvard boys, Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, who try to put together the Sutpen puzzle. Lucius manages to get answers to some questions: Did Watson kill those two squatters? Did he murder black cane cutters he couldn’t pay? Was Watson shot first (and appropriately) by the mulatto Henry Short? When Matthiessen occasionally allows Lucius to “record” the old folks, Book II has the down-home authority and vernacular appeal of Book I. But too often this third-person narrative of the educated Lucius’ search for his father reads like the educated author’s research for his book.

At the end of Book II, Lucius breaks free from his past and his biographical project. But Matthiessen does not. In Book III he burrows farther back by imagining Watson’s own account of his whole life, which runs about the same number of pages as “Bone by Bone.” Because Watson narrates right up to the moment of his death and because he reads or refers to poems he was unlikely to have known, this final book feels like a literary contrivance. Since his “autobiography” isn’t a deposition — or any other kind of document — that Watson could use to deceive an audience, we can presumably trust his account of the facts, if not his interpretations and rationalizations. We learn that Watson was severely beaten as a boy and thinks he suffered brain damage because he has, you see, this split personality: Edgar, the family man, and Jack, the raging killer. It’s hard to know if it’s Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it’s a diminishment.

For readers who want all the earlier dots connected, the chronological back story offered by Book III — with its Reconstruction youth, Western adventures and North Florida misadventures — will be a welcome resolution. But as in Book II, Matthiessen often includes history lessons, presumably from research, that neither Watson the man nor Watson the fictional character would have needed to provide. And Matthiessen’s dead man talking sounds, unfortunately, like the sententious and oblivious Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner knew better than to let Sutpen tell almost half of “Absalom, Absalom!,” but that’s the share Watson gets in “Shadow Country.”

Watson lived in a massive swamp bordered by numerous islands. “Killing Mister Watson” and “Lost Man’s River” were appropriately tangled archipelagoes of fact-based storytelling. By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but “Shadow Country” as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows.

 

Tom LeClair has just finished the third novel in a trilogy. The first two are “Passing Off” and “Passing On.”

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