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Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Tale of Two Books

Now that self-publishing is as easy as cracking nuts, everybody and his brother and his psychoanalyst can be a published author. That leaves the 127 of us English speakers who do not have published books with only one thing to do: become book reviewers. With that thought in mind, I have turned my attention to the masterful works of two local authors, whose books I stumbled across while discovering I was one of the 127.

The first is a book by former local columnist and legislator extraordinaire, Mike Doogan. I enjoyed Mike's articles in the Anchorage Daily News so much that I read them, and as for his being a member of the State House, well! I am in awe of legislators, whose life I imagine as one big meeting. Having run screaming from class meetings in 4th grade, I am totally impressed by those who willingly endure the torture of endless yapping and yacking and yada yada yada for the betterment of you and me. God bless you, Mike, and your kind.

So when I saw him sitting there at his table in Barnes & Noble, I just had to purchase his first novel, Lost Angel, which he duly autographed for me -- an authograph that I shall cherish and which I intend to include in my will.

I started in on the book that evening with high expectations. Over the next few days it went down fairly well in small portions -- until I got to page 78. I appear to be trapped on page 78. I have read and reread that page five or six times, without being able to be done with it. It is not that I can’t get into the scene, it’s that I can’t get out. My credulity is sorely taxed and I find myself helplessly staring at the printed word, wondering "Why?". Why would any woman be attracted to an alcoholic middle-aged ex-con with lots of emotional baggage who lives in a cardboard-walled walk-up in the seen-better-days neighborhood of Fairview? Six to one he has a beer gut.

In my line of business, I happen to meet lots of middle-aged alcoholic ex-cons without a steady job or a retirement plan. Never once has my heart gone pitter-patter, not even back in my pitter-pattering days.

I just don't get it. Which is maybe why I can't finish detective novels, which seem to run to protagonists with liver-damage and tobacco-stained fingertips and scars across their cheeks, men who are irresistible to every woman in their path -- especially the straight and narrow paths, like that of the woman on page 78, apparently a devout member of the religious commune at Rejoice, Alaska.

That may be the problem. Maybe you have to be a woman on the straight and narrow to understand, a sorority from which I am sadly excluded. I extrapolate from this the conclusion that women who live in religious communes or sit in the front rows at Sunday services or brush their teeth after every meal will adore this book. People who adore Mike Doogan will adore this book. People who are snowed in at remote cabins for three or four months without television or internet will adore this book. And when they’re done reading it they can use it for kindling or to stove up the cracks between the logs. It’s definitely a niche book.

To these audiences, I recommend it highly.

As to the rest of you, it’s an open question. I will give it the good old college try again this evening, see if I can get past page 78, and -- if successful -- report back to those of you still stuck on the other side.

If I never make it to the far end, it is to be taken as no responsibility of the author's. The number of things I have finished in my life can be counted on my fingers and toes. I have a very short attention span. The Salvation Army bin is littered with prematurely abandoned books that were once tenderly tucked into Borders or Title Wave tagged bags and carried hopefully home, lovingly cradled in my arms.

It's not you, Mike. It's me. I'm not good enough for this book.

The other book, For What He Could Become -- also a first -- was penned by a recent acquaintance of mine, Jim Misko. I purchased the book as a gesture of solidarity, but I had low expectations of it. Jim, after all, is a realtor, and everyone knows realtors can't write -- they just fill in the blanks.

Three days later, I finally put the book down. I had taken it with me everywhere: to bed, into the loo, to the bank so I could read while standing in line, to my last CLE where I concealed it behind the handout as I read (a trick I learned in ninth grade algebra).

In the course of those days, I burned a batch of cookies, spaced a dentist appointment, and almost fell down an escalator opening when I was walking with my nose between the pages.

Good work, Jim!

The tension in this book is impeccable. Never so lax I wanted to quit reading, never so intense that I skipped to the end to find out what happened.

Both books are set in Alaska, but while Mike's story exploits the Alaskan mystique, Jim's adds to it. His prose is as spare and powerful as the tundra on a winter day. Somehow Jim has managed to write an entire book without adjectives, and write it convincingly. As his protagonist Bill wanders away from Alaska, the characters seem to become more two-dimensional, less individualistic, as if that part of Bill's life is dreamlike, unreal, until he returns to the local color.

I like to think that this is a style that portends something uniquely Alaskan (although Jim's second book, which I have not read, is set outside Alaska).

I have my own idea of what happened to the protagonist, Bill, after the book ends; Jim, when I explained it to him, disagreed with me, but, after spending three-hundred and some pages with the man, I know Bill -- better than I know Jim. And I like Bill the better for his flaws and his destiny, that the beauty of the human soul lies not in its backdrop, but in its its moments of transcendence.

There are a number of small grammatical and sequencing errors in the book, which will certainly be corrected in the second printing, and therefore enhance the value of this first edition. I would suggest snapping up a copy, having it autographed, and putting it away for a generation until you can have it auctioned at Christy's of London for a couple hundred thousand.

The only thing I really disliked about this book was the title, which I'm sure will also be corrected in the second edition.

If you've taken the time to thoroughly explore this site, which I'm sure you have, you may notice that Jim Misko was the first to leave me a complimentary comment. This might suggest that my review is not entirely objective. I wish it to be known, however, that I advised Jim of my high opinion of his book long before he left that comment, and he did not know I intended to review the book here. My praise cannot be purchased.

I can't vouch for his, though. Jim, if you're wondering about your pay-off, the check's in the mail.

1 comment:

Jim Misko said...

Hmmm. Thank you, Stephanie. I appreciate your review of my novel FOR WHAT HE COULD BECOME. The title comes from the quote at the front of the book. I like it. Editor didn't like it. I won. THE MOST EXPENSIVE MISTRESS IN JEFFERSON COUNTY is out here and there but with a publication date of 2.15.08. I'll send you a copy. May it go well with you. Jim