Thursday, March 31, 2011

Strike Dog (A Woods Cop Mystery), by Joseph Heywood

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 392 pages
• Publisher: The Lyons Press, 2008
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 1599213648
• ISBN-13: 978-1599213644

Fifth in the Woods Cop Mystery series, Strike Dog is another engrossing murder mystery by Michigan author, Joseph Heywood. Heywood, in fact, lives in the very same town that I do, and spends a great deal of time himself in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as I do, so that was my initial hook into reading his novels. Once I became acquainted with sharp-minded and equally sharp-tongued conservation officer (CO) Grady Service, however, I was hooked for reasons of good reading.

Strike Dog is probably my favorite in the series thus far. When Heywood writes love stories, as he does here and there throughout the series, I tend to lose interest—his female characters lean toward “hot and tough” female stereotype, a bit too over the top—but when his sensual encounters stay in the background, as they do here, I enjoy the action and the skillful writing.

The storyline of this book is built upon what first appears to be an accident, but soon becomes clearly a murder of Service’s love, Maridly Nantz (hot and tough female CO) and his son, Walter. It appears the two veered off the road and hit a tree, but Service knows better. Nantz was an expert pilot, he keeps saying to anyone who will listen, meaning that she knew how to respond under stress and in whatever circumstance.

What ensues is an investigation that at first seems independent of the car accident, but eventually ties into it. Service is pulled into working with the FBI to solve a series of gruesome murders of conservation officers in and outside of Michigan. It gives Heywood a chance to shine at what he writes best—rich descriptions of the northern wilderness with a bevy of colorful characters and a buildup of suspense as clues slowly come together toward a conclusion.

Grady Service is a woods cop that the reader will enjoy learning about and following on his treks through the woods. I’ve enjoyed watching him take on more and more character throughout the series—a tough guy with a keen mind, a sharp wit, and a deep sense of integrity. The characters that show up in this and previous books, such as the eccentric villain Limpy Allerdyce, are also a treat.

In fact, it’s a treat just to see what character name Heywood will come up with next—one more unusual than the other. Fiannula, Rud Hud, Tatie Monica, Treebone, Shamekia Cilyopus-Woofswshecom just to start on the roster. One senses the author having a bit of fun, with the occasional jab at a real-life politician (Dubya in this book) at their expense. Dialogue sparkles, dialect adds sense of place, and the action takes few breaks.

“Service drove back to the encampment near the crime scene, hoping Shamekia would come up with some answers. Had the feds missed something? This was more than possible, he knew; the Bureau was the same outfit that knew some jerkwads from the Middle East were taking flight lessons with more interest in takeoffs than in landings, and did nothing about it. Shit happened in bureaucracyland; investigators blinded themselves with their own assumptions, and it didn’t hurt to question everything, even with an agency with more assets than God.”

By now, I’m in for the long haul, ever on the lookout for the next in the series, less for the reveal of the solved criminal case as the journey of getting there, U.P. style.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pacietības Mērs (The Limit of Patience) by Lelde Stumbre

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Publisher: Lauku Avīzes, 2006
• Paperback, 191 pages
• Language: Latvian
• ISBN: 9984-542-59-9

What a treat, on my last birthday, to receive a book from Latvia from a good friend. My first language, after all, is Latvian—the only language spoken in my childhood home. I learned to read in Latvian two years before I mastered reading in English at the ripe age of five, so whenever I have a chance to return to the literature of my roots, I am most pleased to do so.

As soon as I began reading, I fell deep into a world with which, for better or for worse, I could identify. The surroundings are the Latvian countryside—a gently rolling, green land of forest and lakes, juxtaposed against the city, where a full half of the country’s population resides, the Baltic country’s capitol of Rīga.

The main protagonist of the novel is Anna, a single mother with a teen daughter and a set of twin boys. She has recently moved from Rīga to the countryside, a city woman accustomed to city ways, but now enchanted with the country life and determined to learn how to create a comfortable home within it. If she did not move there of her volition—the move was instigated by her “other half”—then she is committed to make the best of it.

While initially it seems that Anna may have an invisible husband, Edvards, the father of her children, it is soon revealed that she is not actually married to him at all. The two had lived together for a while in Rīga, but then lived apart, and yet still continued to relate to each other as husband and wife, if in separate households. If that may seem a bit odd, having spent some time in Latvia myself, I realize that the Soviet years (which, thankfully, ended in 1991) wreaked havoc on relationships and lifestyles. Married couples sometimes lived apart, divorced couples sometimes lived together, and a number of other strange arrangements could be found as housing was at a premium, and often unavailable. One held onto an apartment or a house at any cost and in spite of any personal inconvenience. Strange bedfellows were common.

In this case, however, it is Anna’s ambiguity about her relationship with Edvards that is the cause of these on-again, off-again living arrangements. Her limit of patience seems boundless. Edvards, who works with the national opera, appears and disappears, strolling in and out of her life and the lives of their children, at unpredictable whim. Between visits, he leaves his family completely stranded and with no means of communicating with him. (Other women? Take a guess.)

Why would Anna put up with this abusive behavior? But of course: because she loves him. Because hope springs eternal. Because love is blind and sometimes love is stupid. Haven’t we all been there? Hopefully only in our adolescence, but too many adult women get duped into wearing such blinders with their adored men. We see what we want to see, we rationalize and we excuse, we pardon and we forgive, only to be taken for granted yet again. Anna is the perfect embodiment of the abused woman syndrome.

Edvards calls her his angel. Typical of emotional and psychological abusers, he appears clueless as to the cruelty of his own behavior, and he sincerely seems to love (in his own way) Anna and his children. Charming, intelligent, articulate, smooth as silk, he whisks onto the scene with gifts and cheer, his every appearance an instant holiday. Again and again, Anna is swept off her feet, and just so her children are, too.

Anna’s country neighbors are baffled by what they see happening next door. Why would this pretty young woman put up with a man who treats her this way? Relationships develop between Anna and the local rich businesswoman, Arta, and a complex and troubled relationship with Arta’s husband, Jānis. Melānija and Osis are the neighbors who have big hearts, offer much help, but struggle with their own troubles with Osis’ alcoholism.

We see Anna’s inability to hold boundaries with her neighbor Jānis, too, as the man early presents himself as a second villain in the story, taunting her about her disappearing husband, offering himself as a substitute bedmate, enraged when she refuses. When he eventually forces himself upon her, however, Anna once again turns angelic, forgiving even rape. Indeed, there are such moments that the reader would like to slam her up against the wall and slap some sense into her … but such is the typical psyche and profile of the abused woman. Her martyrdom seems never-ending.

Anna seems spineless around men, but she is strong when it comes to taking care of her household. We see the first flare of real fire in her when Edvards slights their daughter. It is one thing to take the abuse herself, quite another when it is heaped on her child. Little by little, over the course of one year of passing seasons, we see her gain knowledge in how to run a country household, but also how to hold her own in her relationships.

Anna does, at long last, find the limit of her patience, even as she leaves a toe dipped in abusive waters. One suspects she hasn’t yet fully learned to take care of herself, but, well, hope springs eternal that someday she will.

Lelde Stumbre is well-known in Latvia as a playwright, and has worked as such for more than three decades. This is her first venture into novel writing. There is a sense of the theatrical in this debut novel, almost as if one can see the stage lighting shift across the faces of the characters, but all in all, she has had a successful crossing over into light if not quite literary fiction. Pacietības Mērs was a quick and enjoyable read, presumably intended to be “light reading” (albeit on the very heavy topic of emotionally abusive relationships) as part of the “Lata Romans” series.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·        Hardcover: 320 pages
·        Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (July 5, 2011)
·        Price: $25.95
·        ISBN-10: 0393079899
·        ISBN-13: 978-0393079890

Reading a Bonnie Jo Campbell book is like sitting down for a cuppa, or a cold one, with your very best gal pal. You can let loose and relax, kick your shoes off, loosen your girdle, because she does, her story does, the way it weaves in and around you and floats you along, easy, easy. Just like a river. No pretenses. Nearly effortless. No masks required, because Campbell will see through them, or, more accurately, doesn’t seem to have a clue that masks exist. She is what she is, and her books reflect that authenticity. Maybe no one has convinced Campbell that some in the harried human race believe masks are required gear for survival.
Not in Campbell’s world. She is the rare blend of a literary talent with a knack for telling a good tale. While there are plenty of one, and quite a few of the other, a solid blend of the two is a rarity. We begin to float down her Once Upon a River, rocked by waves without ever being jerked around, not even at the sound of a gunshot.
Campbell’s novel tells the story of Margo Crane, a sixteen-year-old girl, beautiful without knowing it, or caring one way or another. Margo has grown up in Michigan country, not far from the Kalamazoo River on a smaller river called the Stark. “The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.”
This is a girl who handles a gun like an extension of her own body. She idolizes Annie Oakley. She lives with her father in the back country, her mother abandoned her years ago, and she is nowhere more at peace than when she is drifting on the river, watching painted turtles or catching fish or counting herons. She knows how to skin a rabbit and she shoots to kill when she sees game.
A reoccurring theme in Campbell’s books is the woman wounded by life and by men, as a result tough and wise and independent—a survivor. Margo Crane joins that line-up. She isn’t educated in academics, but she knows how to maneuver through life like a river, and little scares her. Like many young girls, she almost doesn’t get it when she is raped by an uncle—was it her fault somehow? It is unclear to her when to defend herself, but when defending someone she loves, the line of fire is very clear. More than once, more than twice, she must shoot with that uncanny ability she has to hit an acorn across a field to save the innocent from the brutality of a man gone wild.   
“She studied the railroad-tie fence post from its base to its top, as it rose to about her own height. She studied the green fruit with the burr acorn on top. Beyond it was the smooth expanse of river. She wrapped the sling around her left hand and elbow and pushed against it. When she nestled the stock in her shoulder and pressed her cheek against it, her stance and grip were solid. The Indian disappeared, and she was alone with her gun and her target. She looked through her sights … for Margo there usually came an instant like now when she felt solidly rooted to the planet. Without a conscious decision to do so, she smoothly pressed the trigger straight back and held it there as the rifle sent the bullet down the barrel on its way to the acorn.” (Page 213)
Margo’s  journey floats her down that river by ripple effect from her actions, a stream carrying her along, but it is the stops she makes along the way that bring in the conflicts of the story. Tossed out of life as she knows it when her father dies, in part due to her sharp shot, she searches for the mother who abandoned her. She finds her, if not quite what she is looking for, but finds also mutations of love, mutations of hatred, and sometimes the two intertwined.  
An inescapable lesson for a pretty woman is to always watch for the man who will hurt her, as nearly all of them do—even the ones who seem to care about her. Rape is always a threat, and sometimes more than just a threat. She is conflicted in how to handle an unwanted pregnancy, thinking she wants one kind of resolution while moving almost unwillingly toward another.
The real love of Margo’s life, alongside the river, turns out to be Smoke—a man too old to be a threat or even a caretaker, but someone who allows her to become one. With his crass manner, not unlike her own, he teaches her to allow for gentler moments. Each of them have a battle to wage in their lives, although each to a different end. Yet that is how a river moves between its banks: living and dying intertwined, youth and old age, the gentle moment leaning against the instant of brutality, moving along in the direction life navigates you, but occasionally managing to paddle to shore, until you are pushed into the rapids again.
Campbell understands that the world is generally made to fit one kind of person—the kind that does not exist anywhere but in the hopeful mind. All the rest of us just have to make do. Her characters are those who do not fit but eventually surprise with how exceptionally well they make do.
Once Upon a River continues Campbell’s literary journey, easing along in irresistible flow. We can’t help but be carried along. Emerging from these waters, we feel refreshed, if a little wiser, if a little more sure about fitting in with a world of misfits. We all are one. Campbell makes that feel like the best way to be, if not the only way to survive.
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of two short story collections, Women & Other Animals (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999; Simon & Schuster, 2003) and American Salvage (Wayne State University Press, 2009; W.W. Norton, 2009) and the novel Q Road (Scribner, 2003). American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has won a Pushcart Prize and the Eudora Welty Prize. Her stories, essays and poetry have appeared in many publications, including The Smoking Poet. She was born and lives now in Kalamazoo, Michigan.