The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

true deceiverKatri Kling and her brother Mats are pariahs of a sort in their village.  He is considered simple and says very little – she says what she thinks, and is fearfully candid about the pettiness of others.  Some of the townspeople, wary of Katri’s sharp tongue and unusual looks, think of her as a witch.  Others have a passing respect of her honesty.  And Mats, in his understated manners, makes his own way, doing odd jobs, particularly at the boathouse.

In an attempt to better their situation, Katri sets her sights on Anna Aemelin, the town’s wealthiest inhabitant, a renowned children’s book illustrator who is reclusive and knows the town’s shopkeeper only by phone calls.

Katri ingratiates herself into Anna’s good graces and her home (a much better place than the attic above the shop) and through hard persuasion is able to control Anna’s finances.  At first, this is of benefit to Anna – she is well-off but woefully unaware of how to focus the use of her money.  Katri is calculating enough to pull this off for a while, if only to give her and Mats a leg up.  It’s not a bad tradeoff for Anna, at least initially.  She gets some needed house repairs done, courtesy of Mats, and due to Katri’s diligence, some hard negotiating with her publishers.

Idyllic as this arrangement seems, it’s not too long before the two women come at odds with each other, and find each other’s vulnerabilities.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The True Deceiver.  It’s a quick read (the book clocks in at about 180 pages), and the book evokes the harshness of winter in a small town quite nicely (the author is Finnish, the book originally published in 1982, so get your Scandinavian bearings here).  The ending was not completely clear to me – was it a triumph of will for shut-in Anna, a self-realization of denials?  Was it Katri’s win of sorts, in that she secures shelter and something else very hard to acquire for her brother, at the cost of a personal loss of companion?

I’d better mention the dog, a German Shepherd type who is a constant fixture in the story, but evolves as the women’s relationship evolves.

There’s a distinct fairytale quality about the book.  Maybe it is the eeriness of the never ending winter, or the abruptness of the narrative, or the very oddity of Katri herself.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Welcome to the wild fictional world of fermented foods, brought to you by the author ofsourdough Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Lois Clary, newly graduated from college and working a humdrum coding job in Michigan, gets a shot at employment at General Dexterity, an emerging tech company in San Francisco bent on creating the next new thing in automation.

Her “dream” job leaves Lois with zero free time and her nutritive tastes are limited – that is, until she begins ordering from an obscure neighborhood restaurant, and discovers the joys of homemade sourdough bread and a pungent soup.  This happy arrangement is not meant to last – the brothers that run the restaurant have to exit the country abruptly.  They leave Lois, their “number one eater”, in charge of their precious crock of sourdough starter.

Lois now has a new calling that has nothing to do with programming and everything to do with the fine arts of fermentation and baking.  She makes her first tentative loaves, gets better, wins over the chef at the work cafeteria with her bread, and makes inroads into getting a place at one of the city’s markets.  All the while, she notices that the starter is not something ordinary.

Lois lands a spot at the Marrow Fair, a new-ish market located at, or should we say below, a deserted military airstrip next to Oakland.  Denizens of the Marrow explore technology as it relates to the culinary, and Lois manages to fit in just fine – especially after she gets a refurbished robot arm from General Dexterity and slowly programs it to handle the intricacies of bread making.

Bigger forces take an interest in the starter, and what started out for Lois as a small but successful bread baking business becomes something scarier.

Sourdough succeeds as a fantastical jab at corporate greed and emerging food technologies, and as an exploration into foodie culture.  The book will give you a new appreciation for any type of fermented foods (think bread/beer/cheese/vinegar/ pickles/etc.)

I kind of wonder if the character of Charlotte Clingstone is loosely based on Alice Waters (hah!)

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Radio Free Vermont : A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben

radio free vermontIt’s a new era, a new administration, with a cultural mentality where big is better and corporate sameness the norm.  All these factors drive Vern Barclay to distraction.

For many years, Vern has been a radio news personality in his corner of Vermont, extolling the unique qualities that have made his native state what it is.  Local breweries and dairies?  He’s all about them.  New Walmarts and Starbucks?  Not so much.

Dismayed by climate change and the state of the union, not to mention cuts in funding and the aforementioned other problems of today’s society, Vern goes “underground”, working with young computer whiz Perry Alterson to broadcast his views and occasionally, stage certain “mishaps” that others might interpret as crimes.  Ultimately, Vern’s message is for Vermont to secede from the United States.

The powers that be think they are on to Vern, but, helped by Perry and a few other colorful misfits (including a former Olympic biathlon champion), Vern manages to elude the authorities and create more mayhem – maybe more so than he had intended.

Radio Free Vermont is a light-hearted romp that takes on big business, environmental issues, and blustering government officials alike.  The character of Vern Barclay strikes me as a Garrison Keillor type, a droll commentator who oversees the happenings of a place that he loves very much, and a proponent of the “good old days” who is hip enough to accept local artisanal butter but not watery corporate beer.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

This book took awhile to catch on for me.  I started it at least three or four times, and thea place called winter beginning didn’t grab me.  Just needed to get through the first twenty pages – and I’m now glad that I read the book.

Harry Cane is a privileged and shy Englishman who marries well, has a child – and then is forced to leave his life of leisure for the prairies of Saskatchewan after having an illicit affair with a man.

On Harry’s ship journey to Canada, he encounters a number of privileged dandies who approach their homesteading futures as a lark in the country.  He also meets the notorious Troels Munck, a deal maker and lecherous soul whose destiny becomes bound up with Harry’s.

Harry, green as he is to farm work, approaches it wisely with foresight.  He spends a year laboring on the farm of Munck’s brother-in-law, and then gets his own quarter section through some under-the-table conniving from Munck.

Through the back-breaking work of making his own home, Harry finds a type of redemption not found in the upper class circles of his previous life.  To be sure, he misses his family sorely.  But the wide open spaces of western Canada and their rhythms of life become his life, far more deeply than his previous experiences.  Harry also finds love of a sort, but the threat of war beyond his small community soon tears at anything he holds dear.

The storyline is not entirely linear, and I think this was a stumbling block for me.  The book begins with Harry in some kind of wretched asylum – apparently he has either committed some type of crime or experienced a horrific act.  He is then transferred into a gentler, albeit experimental facility.

As you keep reading, the institutional chapters, presented almost as flashbacks, are instead more present-day to the time of the book’s ending.

A Place Called Winter is a historical novel that covers many things – the social mores of Edwardian England, homesteading in Canada, World War I, racism, gay and lesbian/gender issues, etc.  I wound up enjoying it very much, and got very emotionally involved with the characters.

As I mentioned, the book began slowly, but keep with it; A Place Called Winter proved to be a rewarding read.  This situation reminds me of another book from twenty years ago that also started out slowly but turned out to be one of my favorite books – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

name of the windKote is an innkeeper in a rural village where mostly nothing happens and news of the world comes from bigger places.  He has his regulars, a loyal assistant named Bast, and the quiet respect of the townspeople, even though he is relatively new to the area.

Kote also has a past that he’d rather keep hidden, which he does, up until unearthly things begin happening, and a stranger known as the Chronicler arrives, wanting to know more of Kote’s background.

Kote is actually Kvothe, a figure of legend.  Born within a troupe of wandering performers called the Edema Ruh, Kvothe proves to be a quick study of song and stage practice that his parents teach him – actually, he’s a quick study of practically anything, be it languages or more esoteric arts.

When Abenthy, a self-professed arcanist, begins to travel with Kvothe’s troupe, the young boy makes fast friends with him, and learns far more than he’d have dreamed from Abenthy.  Abenthy also raises Kvothe’s awareness of the University, and the possibilities of the knowledge he could acquire from studying there.

Abenthy eventually settles down and leaves the troupe, and tragedy hits, in the form of demonic beings known as the Chandrian, who kill all of the troupe except Kvothe.  In a daze of mourning, he makes it to the insanely big city of Tarbean, where he lives by his wits, until by luck and sheer chutzpah, Kvothe makes it to the University and begins his work in earnest.

Now, if only he could stay out of trouble…

A gradual hero of sorts, Kvothe becomes a master of public perception, while he scandalizes the masters of the University, makes enemies (and sometimes some powerful ones), secures a coveted musician’s rating in the nearby town, and gets the girl (or not).

The Name of the Wind is a sprawling yarn of a vaguely medieval world where magic of a sort is real and legends grow more fanciful  with each telling.  You probably won’t finish it quickly (the book clocks in at 660-some pages) but be prepared for quite a journey.  There’s some slogs in places here, but for the most part, I felt The Name of the Wind to be worth my while.

The Wise Man’s Fear is book two, if you want more.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Gone Feral : Tracking My Dad through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

After being estranged from her father for years, the author reassesses both her parentsgone feral and their roles they have played in her life as she reconnects with her father.

Carpenter’s parents lived the back-to-the-land lifestyle early on.  She and her older sister were born in the early 1970s, and spent their early childhood on a rural spread of land outside of Orofino, Idaho.  The idealism wore thin for their mother after a time, and she eventually moved her kids to Washington State for a more stable livelihood.

Solitary by nature, Carpenter’s father George continued to make a marginal living for himself on the same piece of land.  He would keep up with his ex-wife and daughters sporadically via phone calls and emails through the years.  Residents of the area knew his eccentric routines.

George goes missing for a longer period of time than usual, and when he turns up again, the author sees this as an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with her dad.  Reunions with him, however, tend to be brief, disturbing and scattershot, and Carpenter begins to fear for his sanity (and consider her own) as she goes about linking her father’s past with her continuing life story.

Gone Feral explores fringe lifestyles (urban farms, communal homesteading) and how family ties never completely disappear.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain by Don Waters

saints of rattlesnake mountainFaith and Catholicism are major themes in this group of stories largely set in the American Southwest, although I don’t think you have to be a Catholic to appreciate the writing.  The characters in this collection are not what I would call mainstream – Waters tells of prisoners, middle-aged surfers, terminally ill expats, and others, some on a search for meaning, and on occasion, on the run from reality.

In the title story, Emmett is a “trustee” – a prisoner who is allowed out of the cell block to do hazardous herding work, in this case corralling a group of wild Mustang horses.  The wide open-ness of his surroundings and his limited freedom bother Emmett almost as much as confinement and eventual taming bother the horses.  In “Day of the Dead,” our terminally ill protagonist heads to Ciudad Juarez for a suicide pact with a priest, and finds that he’s not quite ready to watch someone else die.  In “Full of Days,” an anti-abortionist in Las Vegas wants to save the word according to an inspired sign he’s created, but finds that successes aren’t ever guaranteed.  And in “Last Rites,” a poor kid finds salvation of a sort from skateboarding and altar boy duties with his well-off best friend.

And there’s much more.

None of the stories here are “easy”.  Death, risk, and occasionally disfigurement all play parts in Waters’ world of fiction.  I found it hard to find any of these a feel-good story.  What you will find in The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain is lyrical writing about the underbelly of life in the Southwest – the author provides gritty but accessible voices to other worlds beyond the tourist havens and the casinos.

(William Hicks, Information Services)