Summer Reading: for remote places

summer readin 1When the cable and satellite fail, what to read?

No it’s not hurricane season or even ice storm season and my bills are being paid on time. To get into this situation, I had to find myself a fairly remote mountain village with no AT&T service and a hotel room with no internet and an analogue television set without even bunny ears. If that sounds like heaven to you, leave a message and I’ll tell you where to find it. But you may have the same problem at a summer cottage.

My packing was sudden and fast, most of it done by others. I did manage to grab 4 books from the unread pile in my den. When they ran out, I found myself momentarily in Los Angeles where I bought 3 more from the mystery section at Barnes and Noble. Then I discovered the Kern County Library in Frazier Park just down the mountain, which has lots of hard cover Elizabeth George and P.D. James mysteries. A friend sent me 2 books from iTunes and this led me to go down to Santa Clarita to buy a mini iPad.

Here’s what desperation has led me to read.

Two books by Gillian Flynn who wrote the best seller Gone Girl and which I will eventually buy for the iPad. I read Sharp Objects first. Camille Preaker, girl reporter, is sent by her boss at a minor Chicago paper to investigate the murders of two preteen girls in her home town, Wind Gap, Missouri. The boss thinks this is just the ticket to get her back on her feet after a stay in a psych hospital. Camille is not so sure since budget limits mean she has to stay with her mother whose first question is ‘When are you leaving?’ Flynn’s female protagonists tend to be strange. Camille is not encouraged to have sharp objects in her possession. Momma locks the knives up at night. Camille is given to long sleeved tops and pants. If that seems strange, the condition of the young girl’s bodies is odder still.

In Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, the protagonist is Libby Day, 4ft 8in., one of two survivors of her family’s massacre. The other one, her older brother has been in prison for years for the murders of his mother and two sisters. Libby is non-functional, but she has survived for years on the outpouring of sympathy and cash from the public. Now she’s older, other younger pathetic victims are getting the cash and Libby is reduced to having to earn something. She does so by answering a request from a murder club that wants to have the brother exonerated. Since 7 yr-old Libby was the chief witness against him, it is a hard if necessary job to accept. It is doubtful that you will be able to guess who is to blame or why the brother is content to be in jail. But maybe you’re more observant than me.

Nicci French’s (Nicci Gerrrard and Sean French) novel Blue Monday is A Frieda Klein mystery, Frieda being a psychologist working in London. She finds herself treating a man who longs for a red-headed son, he himself being of that colouring. Then a child like that is kidnapped. Should she report this to the police? The kidnapping has striking similarities to the kidnapping of a 5 yr-old girl 20 years ago. But why would the kidnapper wait so long to strike again. And is the patient living two lives, unable in either to remember the other. Frieda teams up with DCI Karlsson in an attempt to rescue both victims.

The last of the 4 books, I brought from home was a Christmas gift, Denise Mina’s Field of Blood. Hinging on the murder of a 3 yr-old by a couple of 11 yr-olds, this was not a book I would have chosen to read, but it was all I had. Paddy Meehan really is a girl reporter, barely 18, from an Irish Catholic family settled in Glasgow. There’s enough ethnic strife to make an interesting book all by itself. Really Paddy, who bears the name of a notorious traitor, is a copy ‘boy” in the early 1980’s, not an easy role in a newsroom full of leering, hardened, alcoholic, male journalists. She sets out to the prove that the children are not solely responsible, and this leads her into the investigation of a much older child murder as well. Young as she is, Paddy has her own idea  of how she wants to live. Her family is strict Catholic, but Paddy can’t see the point. After being shunned by her family, she skips one Sunday. The next Sunday, she gives in to her mother’s pleas: the adult children go to please mother, mother goes to please father and father goes as a role model for his children.

In Los Angeles two weeks after I arrived, I bought Donna Leon’s Willful Behavior, Lee Child’s Tripwire and Elizabeth George’s In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner.

Donna Leon is an American writer living in Venice and writing short mystery novels set there primarily and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a man who is very fond of his professor wife’s cooking three times a day and possibly a glass of something after his mid-morning espresso. In Willful Behavior, his wife who teaches 19th century English literature, especially Henry James, to a roomful of uncomprehending louts, asks him to help a student clear her deceased grandfather’s name. Next thing, the poor girl is dead and Brunetti is caught up in historical crimes: trafficking in Jewish-owned art during the war. A friend of mine had a great idea, write a cook book featuring recipes for the meals Brunetti eats. Too late. Someone already did. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7233570-brunetti-s-cookbook

I thought I had read all the Lee Child books, featuring tough guy Jack Reacher, but I was wrong. Tripwire is the second Reacher thriller. The retired army major has earned commendations and medals in the Military Police, but he spends his retirement travelling by bus or hitch-hiking across the U.S., sleeping in cheap motels, his only possession the clothes on his back and a folding toothbrush. Trouble finds him easily. This time he is digging swimming pools in the Florida keys when a private investigator comes to find him and ends up murdered. Reacher travels to NYC to find out why. There Hook Hobie, a disfigured vet with a hook for a hand, waits warily for his tripwires, one in Hawaii and one in Vietnam to warn him to shut down his scam and leave town. But there’s this one last score….. This adventure takes Reacher back to a woman that he first fell in love with 15 years when she was 15. Now he can finally admit that to her. Or can he?

Elizabeth’s George’s In Search of a Proper Sinner was well underway when I left it in my grandson’s home. I frantically texted -using a borrowed Verizon phone. The reply was, “Is there anything unusual you want me to do with it?” It arrived back up the mountain a few days ago, but since I haven’t finished it, I will write about it and George’s novel Deception on His Mind in a 2nd summer reading post. Coming soon. I will also describe another early Lee Child novel, Running Blind.

Here we are my reading companion and I in yesteryear. (Not.)  Just when I think the Lee Child books is too hardcore, I discover she can’t put it down. That was no lady. That was a reader.

summer reading 2

Jack Reacher Reaches Virginia: Never Go Back

Last year I posed the burning question -Will Jack Reacher ever get to Virginia? http://115journals.com/2012/11/04/jack-reacher-will-lee-child-let-him-get-to-virginia/ I can now answer that question. Yes.

It’s true that three of Lee Child’s Reacher novels – 61 Hours, Worth Dying For and A Wanted Man, describing his circuitous journey through South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, actually took only a matter of days Reacher time, but  it took several years in publishing time and, despite the thrills, seemed endless. In Never Go Back, he actually arrives there.

The novel begins: “Eventually they put Reacher in a car and drove him to a motel a mile away where the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before.” The shower would be strangled, the towels thin, the television small and old. In short, he lives in such rooms. As faithful readers know he is in constant motion, travelling by bus and hitched rides across the United States. Earlier I called him a wandering Taoist, unattached to any notion of home. http://115journals.com/2012/06/08/jack-reacher-wandering-taoist/

Shortly after, he is dumped at the cheap motel, a plain dark sedan pulls up and two heavies attempt to persuade him to leave town. “They couldn’t find you before. They won’t find you now. The army doesn’t use skip tracers. And no skip tracer could find you anyway. Not the way you seem to live.” Now here’s a quandary. The guys in the first car have ordered him to stay. But of course, Reacher isn’t about to follow orders any more. He does follow his own rules one of which is “Get your retaliation in first” and soon there are dents to prove it. Such is his welcome to Virginia.

Why was he so intent on getting there? He was following the siren call of a woman’s voice. Not just any woman’s voice, but the competent, risk-taking woman’s voice that has helped him in his travels from South Dakota. His goal is the HQ of 110th MP Special Unit in Rock Creek, a place he knows well since he was its first commanding officer before he quit on principle in 1997, just short of being laterally transferred to the end of the earth. He announces that he is there to see the current CO, Susan Turner and sets the wheels in motion the mayhem that follows.

Turns out that Reacher is still a wanted man: he is wanted for the murder of a gunrunner in Los Angeles 15 years ago and for skipping out on a pregnant lover in Korea, who is now living in a car with her daughter and wants support. Fortunately, the litigant has the wisdom to be living in a car in L.A.

As for Susan Turner, she has vanished from sight and when Reacher tracks her down in a detention facility almost as secret as Gauntanamo, she has left word she doesn’t want to see him. That only encourages him of course.

Turns out her charges are even more serious.

Reacher doesn’t get a glimpse of Susan Turner until a quarter of the way through the book. “She was an inch or two above medium height. She was small-boned and slender, with dark hair pulled back, and tanned skin and deep brown eyes.” He concludes she was well worth the trip. Furthermore she can take care of herself.

It is not brawn but ingenuity that enables them to go on the lam with no papers of their own and a “borrowed” $30. They head for Los Angeles in an attempt to sort out Reacher’s problems before they tackle Turner’s. As they sort his out, they speculate about why they are being targeted and who has the power to pull such strings.

One of the delights of the story is the “daughter”, a 15 year-old who seems as if she should be Reacher’s child. She already has powers of observation well beyond the FBI agents, the Army MPs and the heavies who follow in Reacher’s wake.

The good news is that Reacher’s face doesn’t take on any more damage, but it’s not news at all that he ends up waiting for a bus.

(I read this book on my KIndle.)

Jack Reacher: a long way from Virginia

Will Jack Reacher ever get to Virginia? That’s the burning question.

Lee Child’s novel 61 Hours (March, 2010) opens with Reacher being involved in a bus accident in the middle of a South Dakota winter. Reacher, a former major in the military police, has, as I pointed out in my post “Jack Reacher, Wandering Taoist” no home and travels constantly across the United States, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush. His theory is that buying new clothes every fourth day is way cheaper than a mortgage and laundry facilities.) He either hitches rides or takes a bus.

He sets off at the end of 61 Hours, having managed to figure out the truth about what was down there in that strict time frame. Of course, he did, although you might, like me, have entertained the idea that he had vanished in the final mayhem. You could have guessed he would uncover the truth, so it isn’t exactly a spoiler. How could he not? He’s Jack Reacher huge of body and mind, expert in hand to hand combat and pretty good with a rifle. Why is he bound for Virginia? A woman’s voice is luring him there, the voice of a woman major, the voice that helped him through.

Worth Dying For (October 2010) finds Reacher in the corn country of Nebraska, a day or so later, having hitched a ride and ended up in a kind of feudal kingdom where most people keep their heads down and try not to remember the child who vanished many years ago. Reacher gets hooked once again and stays to help the woman who has the courage to stand up against the local oppressor.

The Affair (September 2011) doesn’t advance the journey to Virginia because it is a flashback to Reacher’s adventures in 1997.

But this fall, along came A Wanted Man, which finds Reacher still in wintry Nebraska with the broken nose he got the day before, but it was worth it presumably, since it was Worth Dying For. Given that he has taped his nose up with silver duct tape, it is surprising that he managed to get a ride, but now he’s dropped off at a cloverleaf. He waits there in the bitter cold as car after car slows, takes a look at his size and his smashed-up face and speeds away. Finally, he tears off the duct tape and after 93 bitterly cold minutes gets picked up by a car with three people, wearing identical, ill-fitting blue shirts and claiming to be business cohorts returning from a conference. Reacher thinks things are not as they seem. He is right.

Jack Batten in his review in the Toronto Star, Sunday November 5, 2012, says “What follows adds up to the most satisfying of all 17 thrillers in the series. The secret to its superiority is a matter of pace. The unfolding of events nudges along at just the right pace -deep into the book – things speed up as Reacher pulls toward an authentically gripping climax.”

Reacher makes it into Kansas at one point, but then has to back track to where he first caught the ride. By now his nose is beginning to heal and in the end, he is back at the side of the road, looking for a lift to a bus station where he can get a bus for VIrginia. And no that woman there has not aged greatly – it’s only been a few days in Reacher time.

Just as addendum: Lee Child was in my town and in answer to a question, saw nothing wrong with Tom Cruise playing Reacher in the movie, One Shot. Dismayed listeners cited height. Didn’t seem to bother Lee Child that Cruise, who is shorter than most of his wives, should play 6 ft. 5 in. Jack. Well, fine, but I will watch that movie only if it is the last one on earth and I need the distraction.

Jack Reacher -Wandering Taoist

In my last post “How I developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading, I mentioned that I was hooked on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, to my dismay. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found a justification: Jack Reacher is a wandering taoist.

It was reading # 156 in Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao:Daily Meditations* the one for June 5th that clued me in to what I should have realized before.  (* Available at Amazon.com)

Inseparable: The trunk is hollow,/But the branches live./The void is fundamental,/But the ten thousand things are diverse./ Therefore wanderers free themselves of cares/And follow Tao in great delight.

In the ensuing explanation, Deng tells us that we can know all of Tao’s manifestation by travelling through the world. All experience is the experience of Tao. Those who follow it, divest themselves of ego and ambition and follow its flow throughout the land, moving from place to place as they sense the direction of its vital flow. “These wanderers have glimpsed the void that is in them and in all things. They delight in life but never see more than the void.”

As a volunteer, I once took a phone call from a very serious young man who wanted me to tell him what Taoism was. I replied civilly, I hope, that to answer would take longer than the average phone call and, besides, it was beyond me. Short answer -Tao is the stuff of life, the energy that animates it. Taoists believe in the supremacy of nature and the necessity of living by its laws, in particular the cycles of change. They understand that whatever is full and rich will decline in time and whatever is empty and poor will rise in turn. Taoists don’t talk about God in spite of reverence. Should they search for God, they would look, not in a book, but within.

I would say they are practical and work things out as they go along rather than adhering to doctrine. This story illustrates that: a Buddhist, a Confucian and A Taoist were meditating when mosquitoes began buzzing around their ears. The Buddhist let a mosquito bite him without protest. The Confucian slapped and killed his mosquito. The Taoist waved his mosquito away. When that didn’t work, he moved to another room. When the mosquito followed him there, he killed it. Taoists  prefer not to interfere unnecessarily but act instinctively when necessary.

It seems to me that many people are Taoists at heart, although they never identify as such. Joseph Campbell, for example, warned against being co-opted by the system. Systems prevent us from personal assessment and self-determination. They also enable us to succeed in our careers, attain wealth and social standing. Opting out has rather the reverse effect.

The fictional Jack Reacher attained the rank of major as U.S. military police officer. Then in 1997, he left that system over a moral disagreement, just short of being deployed to outer Thule or its equivalent. His pension is paid into a D.C. bank and accessed on the road. He doesn’t own a car, drives badly and flies only when he can’t take a bus or hitchhike, across the Atlantic, for example. He travels the United States according to whim, once deciding to follow a diagonal line from the north east to San Diego. He carries no baggage, except that folding toothbrush, I mentioned last time. When his clothes need washing, he buys new, cheap, sturdy shirts, pants etc. and throws the old ones away. he reckons that when you factor in the cost of a washing machine, dryer and the dwelling to contain them, not to mention the soap, he still comes out ahead. Nevertheless, he is a clean person, showering thoroughly in the cheap motels he chooses, although when he still wore his Class A’s complete with Purple Heart and Silver Star, he was not above cadging first class digs at the army’s expense.

Wherever he goes- Mississippi, Kansas, Colorado, he finds trouble or it finds him. Often all he does is step down from his ride, when the locals take agin him and try to run him out of town. Usually it is a very small town with its own ingrained and deeply corrupt system. But at 6’5″ and 250 lbs. and with some serious brawling smarts, the system’s minions don’t have much success throwing him out. Pretty soon, he has identified the nature of the corruption and its victims. He believes as he was taught that the best fight is no fight at all, but when a fight is necessary, he strikes first and dirty. In The Affair, he chides the rednecks who take him on for bringing only 6 men and takes them down readily. And they aren’t even the real enemy, just wrong-headed and misinformed.

I gave up watching boxing when I was 20 and now it just makes me think ‘concussion’, but Lee Child’s fight descriptions are choreography on paper. I would love to know how he knows all this stuff. Does he practise it the way I practise tai chi?

Jack Reacher can be counted on to right some wrongs before he blows out of town and to  leave behind more wisdom than he found there, that is for those who survive. The guiltiest may meet sudden ‘accidental’ ends, which cause Reacher neither remorse nor even a backward glance. He bids goodbye to his latest woman just as readily.

Now the purists among you may object that he also has sex on a regular basis. I counter, never indiscriminately and always on the basis of respect and affection as well as healthy desire. Besides Taoists are not purists. If they claim to be, that’s your first clue.

Jack Reacher looks into the void. The void looks back. That’s okay with him.