Lake & Island Notes                                                    April 2014

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Featured Title

Cover Her Face 

by P.D. James

Some time ago in these notes we featured P.D. James’ then newish book Death Comes to Pemberley, her imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice. As is well known, when we speak of P.D. James we are actually talking about Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, the 93-year-old Dean of British crime novelists. What we didn’t note at the time is that at the core of her body of work are her fourteen mysteries featuring Adam Dalgliesh the investigator and poet of New Scotland Yard. Cover Her Face, published in 1962, was the first of these. The victim is an unwed teenaged mother confined to a refuge for delinquent girls. She has been on loan to Mrs. Eleanor Maxie at Martingale, a medieval manor house in Essex. Not your average parlour maid, Sally Jupp, announces her betrothal to the family’s eldest son to the horror of an assembled cast of characters. The following morning she is found strangled in her bed. Whodunit? All are suspects with the motive, opportunity and means. A quaint and charming read!

Featured Title

The Sugar Season

by Douglas Whynott

Last year we snow-shoed into Rick & Janet Dale’s Highland Valley sugar bush.  With us was, Donatus, out stalwart guide from Tanzania. He was as game in the snowy northwoods as we were on his turf in the Ngorogoro Crater.
Here, Douglas Whynott asks us to picture a team of horses pulling a wooden wagon on skids through the snowy woods hauling buckets of maple sap to the sugar shack to be boiled into syrup. Empty replacement bags hang from the spigots tapped into the trees that make up the sugar bush. This late winter/early spring ritual is a part of the agricultural lore in our neck of the woods as well as that of Vermont and New Hampshire.  It is New England that Whynott covers in this exploration of the maple syrup process.

In The Sugar Season, Whynott, who teaches writing at Emerson College and lives in Langdon, NH, offers us a wide-ranging look inside the maple syrup business, from the ground level of small and large New England producers right on up the supply chain to buyers and distributors who package the product for supermarket shelves around the world. Whynott’s engaging book offers a skillful and fascinating peek behind the curtain of one of the region’s oldest and most beloved traditional industries.

Featured Title

Up At Butternut Lake
by Mary McNear

It’s been ten years since Allie Beckett crossed the threshold of her family cabin at Butternut Lake, Minnesota. Now, newly widowed after the death of her husband in Afghanistan, she’s returned with her five-year-old son. There, she reconnects with the friends she had in childhood-best girlfriend Jax, now married with three kids and one on the way, and Caroline, owner of the local coffee shop. What Allie doesn’t count on is a newcomer to Butternut Lake, Walker Ford.

Up at Butternut Lake follows these four unforgettable characters across a single summer as they struggle with love, loss, and what it means to take risks, confront fears, and embrace life, in all of its excitement and unpredictability. Allie Beckett could never have imagined when she ran away from her old life that she was running into a whole new life, up at the lake...
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From time to time small literary sub-genres bubble up and take the stage for a bit. A couple of those are on the scene at the present time – one arises among young novelists of the African diaspora who have relocated to Europe and the Americas; the other is a potpourri of styles (poetry, novel, memoir, short story) emerging from soldiers back from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
These young African immigrants have succeeded at the highest levels – graduates of the Sorbonne, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Columbia; Man Booker finalists; MacArthur Fellows. Their voices are unique and compelling; telling us as much about ourselves as about themselves and their African roots. They include No Violet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe with We Need New Names; Teju Cole of Nigeria with Every Day Is for the Thief; Helen Oyeyeni also of Nigeria with Boy, Snow, Bird; Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone with Radiance of Tomorrow;  Dinaw Mengestu of Ethiopia with All Our Names; Taiye Selasi of Ghana with Ghana Must Go; and Sami Tchak of Togo with Filles de Mexico.  These are but a few and the list could go on a long, long way.  Be clear, these are not quaint ethnic books, but powerful, contemporary works of a profoundly serious strain. These writers left home.

Each generation of soldiers has produced its own literature and mythology of the wars it has fought. In our generation it was the veterans of Vietnam; Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, Michael Herr, Bao Ninh and many others. Now it is those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The writing conveys the pathos and irony of war and already stands up to its predecessors. Again, the list could go on and on, but worthy of mention are Kevin Powers with The Yellow Birds; Kayla Williams with Love My Rifle More Than You; Brian Turner with My Life as a Foreign Country; David Finkel with Thank You for Your Service; David Abrams with Fobbit; Benjamin Busch with Dust to Dust, and Phil Klay with his recent Redeployment. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this group is how they deal with what happens when they return. These writers came home.

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What we're reading...

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Gabrielle Zevin

Open the doors at bookseller AJ Fikry’s Island Books (where “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.") and find tragedy, comedy, romance, mystery, and more. Open this book and find an affectionate portrait of a curmudgeonly bookseller who faces loss through literature, with surprising results. While it may be simply written, and unlikely to dramatically change lives, we fell in love with these characters and their stories.

This book seems to have been written for those who truly love bookstores - those who spend time haunting the aisles of small independent bookstores wherever they can be found. Each chapter is named after a story that Fikry himself quickly reviews or summarizes. And so we get snippets from Roald Dahl, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and J.D. Salinger. More than tributes, these brief passages provide Fikry an opportunity to philosophize on how his worldview is similar to or different from the story in question, and they frame each portion of the book very well.

We might also note that we may have loved this book simply because it is a small bookstore in a small town, with characters to whom can easily relate. Zevin has identified the day-to-day operations of a bookstore beautifully - even if it is describing the oh-so-exciting task of breaking down boxes after a delivery!

Flash Boys

by Michael Lewis

Imagine if you had electronic gear on which a share of stock could experience about 500 quote changes and about 150 trades in a millisecond – that’s one 1000th of a second!  A really quick blink of an eye takes a leisurely 100 milliseconds. Well, you could probably make a little money! Wall Street’s so-called “high-frequency traders” did just that – in the billions of dollars a year at a fraction of a penny at a time. As with most of the rest of Wall Street these days they did it not to channel capital to productive enterprise, but rather to line their pockets and burnish the machismo of their arrested development. Michael Lewis’ fascinating story of how a group of “rogue” Wall Street good guys out-gamed the gamers is as exciting as the best whodunit. They uncovered the predatory strategies – especially electronic front-running, rebate arbitrage, and slow-market arbitrage – and blocked each one. Oddly enough, they did it by slowing things down! Not being entirely selfless do-gooders, they have created their own transparent exchange – IEX – and have already left exchanges like AMEX in the dust. Great story, great characters!

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty

We’re not great fans of the term “income inequality” as it relates to the growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. It has a connotation that the goal maybe ought to be “income equality.” Of course, that’s nonsense. Rather we worry about the growing “concentration of economic power” and its reverberations in the market, in politics, and in the commonweal (i.e. the health, safety and happiness of all the people of a community or a nation).  Thomas Piketty is deeply interested in this problem. A product of the elite Ecole normale superieure, a professor at the Ecole d'économie de Paris, and a member of the prestigious École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Piketty is a French intellectual to the core and an economist’s economist. His data, which cover twenty industrialized countries and range back into the 18th century, reveal that the principal driver of concentrated wealth is the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth. His analysis shows that the result is extreme inequality and that its consequences lead to social discontent and the undermining of democratic values. His prescription: a global tax on wealth and steep progressive tax rates on the highest incomes. Not surprisingly, Forbes has called him a “Darwinian Shill” and the 1% is racing to discredit him. Hmmmmmm…?  Maybe he’s onto something!
Can't and Won't
by Lydia Davis

Speaking of P.D. James, we note that she has quoted E. M. Forster’s famous dictum that,” ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story.”  The short stories of Lydia Davis push that point to the hilt. Her new volume Can’t and Won’t takes its title from one of the stories.  We quote it in its entirety: 
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can't and won't.

Huh?  Others are shorter yet. For example, this one entitled Certain Knowledge from Herodotus comes from her earlier volume The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis:

These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:
Hmmmmm? So, what is it about her work that has warranted both the 2013 Man Booker International Prize and a MacArthur grant? That she married Paul Auster? That she divorced Paul Auster? Maybe it’s that as Dana Goodyear writes in a recent New Yorker, “…that taken together, her work – cerebral, witty, well-built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small – had heft."  Or maybe as Jonathan Franzen has said, “She is the shorter Proust among us.”

Calling all writers...

While there are certainly plenty of things to keep you busy while visiting our area during the summer months, why not take a break and learn more about the craft of writing? We are excited to be working a bit more closely with the Madeline Island School of the Arts - a premier art and craft school located on a uniquely restored Wisconsin dairy farm on Madeline Island.

MISA offers a variety of classes on writing fiction, memoir, self-publishing, and other subjects as well. We have a hard time thinking of a better place to learn more about writing than the peaceful environs of Madeline Island.

In addition to their extensive writing courses, MISA offers a variety of other arts courses including painting, photography, fiber arts, yoga, and more. We just hope that we will find the time to enjoy one or two of these courses ourselves someday!


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