Thursday, September 25, 2008

APPALOOSA by Robert B. Parker

I don't often read westerns, but I wanted to read Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa before seeing the movie. Parker may not be Larry McMurtry, but he knows how to spin a good yarn about the wild west. I especially loved the dialog; it sounded like Sam Elliott doing a Coors commercial. Everett Hitch, the charismatic narrator, and the vocabulary-challenged Virgil Cole are gunslinging lawmen-for-hire. They come to Appaloosa to arrest Russell Bragg, who has recently murdered the town's marshal and one of his deputies. Cole is the man in charge, and Hitch hitches his wagon to Cole's, so to speak. No self-respecting western would be complete without a woman to stir things up, and Allie French does just that, earning her keep at the local hotel with less-than-stellar piano playing. There's a scene where the three main characters ride out to look at a herd of horses, led by an appaloosa stallion, who fights off a chestnut stallion to protect his brood. This scene plays out among the humans in the end, though not exactly in the way you might expect. I can't wait to see the movie, and I'll be putting the sequel, Resolution, on my reading list.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


As Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals opens, Alice Winston is twelve years old, her shop class partner Polly has died, her teenage sister has run off and married a rodeo rider, and her mother has rarely gotten out of bed since Alice was an infant. This is a hard-luck coming-of-age story set on a struggling horse farm in the desert west. Like the horses it glorifies, the book starts off at a walk, then develops into a trot, then a canter, and then a full gallop. In fact, it doesn't really hit its stride until about two-thirds of the way through. Also, I think that even the most tragic story requires a little bit of humor, and my only other complaint about this book is that it has no humor whatsoever. On the plus side, the characters are very real, although no one is particularly loveable. Alice herself is so embarrassed by her family that she tells innumerable bold-faced lies, inventing lofty professions for her father and brother-in-law, hoping to raise her own status with school friends and a teacher that she phones every night. Eventually, Alice comes to learn that almost everyone is flawed, even those who seem to have a perfect life and those whom she admires most. One of my favorite bits of irony is that, although not the horsewoman her sister was, Alice rides Darling for a blue ribbon in the reining class, after chastising her father for foolishly buying the mare in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I needed a small paperback to take on a weekend hiking trip, and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers fit the bill. Frankie is a 12-year-old in the 1940's who is extremely naïve by today's standards, thinking that she can join her brother and his bride on their honeymoon after the wedding. This fantasy is the focal point of the story, as it represents an opportunity for Frankie to escape her friendless, motherless life. Frankie's maid Berenice tries to alter Frankie's expectations for the outcome of the wedding in as compassionate a manner as possible, without being condescending, but to no avail. Frankie innocently imagines a future of exotic travels with the newlyweds and bestows on herself a level of pseudo-sophistication, renaming herself F. Jasmine in Part 2 of the book. (She is Frances in Part 3.) In her attempt to appear more worldly, Frankie attracts the attention of a drunken soldier and foolishly places herself in a dangerous position. I found this novel much more enjoyable than The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This book is almost humorous, in an embarrassing coming-of-age sort of way. My favorite paragraph is in the first few pages where the author describes a biscuit man (like a gingerbread man from biscuit dough) that has been taken from the oven. The biscuit man's features have all run together as it baked and expanded. Perhaps this is a metaphor for gaining maturity and leaving childhood quirks behind. Or perhaps it's just a dandy piece of writing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

FIELDWORK by Mischa Berlinski

Although Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork loses steam near the end, it is still a fascinating read. Martiya van der Leun is an American cultural anthropologist in Thailand studying the Dyalo people. Parallel to her story is the saga of the Walker family of missionaries and their quest to convert the Dyalo to Christianity. Oddly enough, the story of the Walkers is the more captivating, spanning multiple generations of enthusiastic evangelists. By Martiya's own admission, daily living in a pre-literate society is tedious and uninspiring—not the fulfilling experience that she expected "fieldwork" to be. From the beginning, the novel presents us with a mystery. Martiya, convicted of the murder of David Walker, has committed suicide in prison. The narrator, a free-lance writer in Thailand, whose name is the author's, researches the events that led to the murder by interviewing the Walker family, as well as Martiya's associates and friends in both the U.S. and Thailand. Especially interesting is the victim himself, who finds his calling during his stint as a Dead Head.