November 2008

Hilo Farmer's Market
Photo of Hilo Farmer’s Market by FeliciaElena used under a Creative Commons license.

Donigan Merritt, The Common Bond (Other Press, 2008).
As this novel starts, Morgan Cary, a haole raised in Hawai’i and for years a Kona fisherman, has returned to Hilo on the big island from California following the death of his wife, Victoria, in which he was complicit. Cary hits new lows, drinking whiskey to cope, or avoid coping, and then he meets Ben Kamikani, a fisherman who can use another hand, and who offers Cary a chance to start back.  Things sagged (for me, at least) when Merritt rewinds the clock to tell the story of Victoria’s childhood in Iowa and the couple’s marriage in California, but then he brings the reader back to Hilo.  The novel is at its strongest in Hawai’i, depicting the lives of Kona and Hilo fishermen whom most tourists will never know.

Merritt has a blog, and in the comments below he points out that he has posted pictures relevant to the Hawai’i portions of the novel. You can read Chapter 2 at Bit O’Lit. Cherie Parker was disappointed by the ending, though she toned down the objection here. Marilyn Dalrymple says readers will become hypnotically involved with the characters. Dee interviewed Merritt for Merritt panned the D.C. arts scene in the Washington City Paper.

Buy it at

A View of Delft
Image used under a Creative Commons license.

Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft (Henry Holt, 2001).
Not all that much is known about Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter. Compared to some of his contemporaries, Vermeer produced little — only thirty-five of his paintings survive, and only a handful of others are believed to have been lost — but his work has an arresting serenity. Bailey, often a writer for The New Yorker, gathers what little can be said definitively about Vermeer, and supplements it with plenty of context about Delft and Holland of his time, as well as helpful treatments of his works. (Several are reproduced in color plates; others are in black and white.)

Here is Google Book Search. Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) reviews it quite favorably. Sanford Schwartz (The New York Review of Books) calls it a model biography in many ways. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a lovely and succinct introduction to the painter’s work. Quillhill enjoyed it. Ann Limpert (Entertainment Weekly), not so much. Harry Maurer (Business Week) says Bailey does a dandy job of sneaking up on Vermeer by portraying Delft. Delft resident Babak Fakhamzadeh appreciated Bailey’s description of Delft. Sue Hubbard (The Independent) says Bailey constructs a vivid portrait of the city in which Vermeer worked and lived. Maggie Gee (New Statesman) says Bailey is best when he is most concrete. This website has all sorts of neat Vermeer/Delft stuff. Here is more on Vermeer’s Delft today. Images of Vermeer’s paintings can be seen here.

Buy it at

Photo of Steele County, North Dakota, by D. Bjorn used under a Creative Commons license.

Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves (Harper, 2008).
In 1911, a family of white farmers in North Dakota is killed, all but a baby girl; a lynch mob blames three local Indians and hangs them.  Erdrich’s novel tells the intertwined stories of many of the descendants of the Indians and whites living in the (fictional) town of Pluto and on the nearby Chippewa reservation.

Here is Erdrich’s Wikipedia bio. Here’s an excerpt. Erdrich’s story, “The Plague of Days,” adapted into a chapter in the book, was published in The New Yorker. John Freeman (The Independent) profiled Erdrich. Claire Messud (The New York Review of Books) writes that Erdrich’s ability to bring disparate stories to life is a symphonic achievement. Brigitte Frase (The Los Angeles Times) says Erdrich composes complex symphonies filled with a complex wisdom. Laura Feigel (The Observer) says Erdrich’s North Dakota has hallucinogenic domesticity. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) likens Erdrich to Faulkner, in which she is hardly alone. Jenny Shank (Rocky Mountain News) says every character has a trove of stories. Matt Buckingham (Willamette Weekly) calls it a masterful performance. Donna Seaman (Chicago Tribune) says once all become clear, readers will want to start from the beginning again. Ron Charles (The Washington Post) says Erdrich’s sprawling cast becomes a living demonstration of the repercussions of cruelty. Ann Harleman (Boston Globe) thinks you’ll read this book for its stories. Yvonne Zipp (Christian Science Monitor) liked fitting each segment into the underlying puzzle. In Erdrich’s North Dakota, Richard Wakefield (Seattle Times) writes, the past remains utterly present. Carol Memmett (USA Today) says Erdrich’s stories share the sensibility of oral traditions of past centuries. Peter Makuck (Raleigh News & Observer) says the novel is about how the past haunts the present. Bruce Barcott (The New York Times) calls it a gorgeous and opaque portrait of a community strangled by its own history. Wendy L. Smith (San Diego Union-Tribune) says Erdrich fuses beauty with pain. Mary Whipple says it’s a triumph. Pam describes it as haunting. J.A. (Barcelona Review) was sad when it ended. Sue Bond (The Courier-Mail) says the novel is a cycle of time and storytelling. Jonathan Bergey (Keyhole Magazine) liked it less than most reviewers. Joan Frank (San Francisco Chronicle) says it’s equal parts serendipity and inevitability. Jennifer calls it a magnificent read. Jeff Baker was humbled. Maira liked it enough to pass it on to friends. Philippa Thomas calls it compelling, mesmerising and visceral. Listen to Erdrich’s appearance on NPR’s On Point. Here’s a podcast of Erdrich’s appearance on KQED’s Forum. Liane Hansen spoke to Erdrich on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Or listen to Erdrich read here.

Buy it at