Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading Notes - Lake Wobegon

I read a lot of detective fiction to relax. I also read science fiction & fantasy, literary novels, and non-fiction in copious quantities, but when I'm looking to just unwind and let my mind have a break, I usually reach for a crime novel. I favour cosies (ie low-gore, high-puzzle mysteries) and have an especial penchant for the Golden Age writers, particularly the four Grand Dames of Crime (Sayers, Marsh, Christie, and Allingham).

I also like well-written historical crime fiction, with a particular taste for the sub-genre that is Roman Empire-era crime. (A future Reading Notes will look at a very good childrens' / YA mystery series set in the Roman port of Ostia).

Because I do tend to reach for crime stories for pleasure without effort, it's always a nice surprise to find a book (or better yet, a series) that offers me the same mental escape without being blood-soaked (or at least lightly blood-besplattered, as most cosies are). So when I picked up Garrison Keillor's Pontoon for $5 at a book sale, having vaguely heard somewhere that the Lake Wobegon books were pretty good, I was very happy to find that it delivered in spades.

Lake Wobegon, for those unfamiliar, is a fictional town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor, who is radio announcer as well as an author, reads the "News from Lake Wobegon" on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, broadcast live every Saturday afternoon over Minnesota Public Radio and syndicated throughout the US. The popularity of the radio broadcasts gave birth to a number of spin-off books, of which Pontoon (2007) was the first of the most recent crop.

Although the style of the stories - I've also subsequently read Liberty, which was not, to my mind, quite as good as Pontoon, but still enjoyable - is different, the mood I took away from Lake Wobegon was very, very similar to the mood evoked by the TV show Northern Exposure, or James Herriot's veterinary series set in the Yorkshire Dales.

Granted, all of these series derive much of their interest, humour and engagement from the central conceit that could be loosely defined as "small-place-quirky-characters-doing-offbeat-things". Nonetheless, they all succeed in ways that a multitude of lesser works, hung on the same hook, do not.

I think this is down to a potent combination of evocation of place - Lake Wobegon, Cicely, and Darrowby are all real places in my mind's eye - and the fact that the characters that people them are not caricatures or ciphers, but multi-dimensional human beings. (I think Northern Exposure did veer dangerously close to cartooning some of its characters, but avoided it by a hair's breadth). Evelyn and Barbara, in particular, fairly leap out of the page in Pontoon. The plot is a little patchy at times and can feel a touch contrived - the coincidence of the Detmer pontoon wedding with Evelyn's bowling-ball lake internment seems just a bit forced - but the actual characters, and their inner lives, who drive the plot along never feel contrived or artificial, but rather like people who might meet one day (in the case of Evelyn, people you'd really like to meet).

I felt no burning urge to complete reading Pontoon - it didn't keep me from sleep or play or even other books, that I read interspersed with it - but it was a very, very enjoyable book to read, with a quiet underlying philosophy that crept up on me and left me quite uplifted at the end. Keillor's chief message in Pontoon seemed to me to be: Live your life; no matter how old you are or what you think the barriers are, just live and love. There are certainly worse messages, and I found this one gentle, appealing and welcome.

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