The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin

The Tales of the City saga draws to a close in this novel, in which our titular 90-something heroinemadrigal explores her present and her Depression-era coming of age – a past that she experienced as a teenage boy.

Anna Madrigal has been the matriarch of 28 Barbary Lane since the 1970s, when her (now) far-flung clan began to coalesce.  Some of them still reside in San Fransisco, and soon come calling when Anna gets premonitions of death and feels the need to address past issues.  She’ll have to do some traveling, though – to her hometown of Winnemucca, Nevada, where Anna grew up as the child of a brothel’s madam, and then abruptly ran away at the age of sixteen.

Her former tenant Brian and his newlywed buxom wife Wren gladly come and drive Anna to Nevada – everyone else they are close to is heading in that direction, albeit to Burning Man, a yearly outdoor festival where creativity reins supreme and spontaneity rules the game – and the endless sand plays a major part.

Our friends do make it to Winnemucca.  Anna finds out more than she expected, and gains a real sense of resolution.  She, Brian, and Wren also have enough time to make the detour to Burning Man, where lots of surprises are in store.

When reading this book, it helps if you’re a Tales of the City fan and knowledgable of the back stories on the characters.  I read the first four books years ago, so had some inklings as to what was going on.  The Days of Anna Madrigal continues on the themes of the previous books, addressing gender issues with witty yet naughty repartee.  Long live the spirit of Mrs. Madrigal!

(William Hicks, Information Services)