Monday, October 1, 2007

Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is the author of two mysteries, On Edge (2002) and In the Wind (coming out next spring).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been doing a lot of armchair traveling lately. Yesterday I finished reading Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, a fascinating account of the work of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and an energetic, engaging combination of anthropologist, physician, and activist. His work in Haiti, Peru, Russia, the wilds of Boston, and now Africa, is a model of "do the right thing first, consider whether it's practical later (if at all)." This book has been frequently chosen as a "reading in common" book for college campuses, and Kidder was on our campus yesterday to talk about Farmer and his work. He's a wonderful writer, and the book is an absorbing read -- largely because Kidder's skeptical authorial presence works so well against Farmer's eccentric energy.

My customary choice in reading is crime fiction. A novel that impressed me deeply is David Corbett's Blood of Paradise. Though I read it this past summer, it stays with me for some of the same reasons that Kidder's book will. Set in El Salvador, this book follows a young and naive American as he provides "executive security" for a corporate hydrologist who is just realizing his science will be misused in the name of profits. The bodyguard, who has fallen in love with the battle-scarred country, has been haunted by shame after his father, a corrupt police officer, committed suicide. In a confused move of atonement he falls in with one of his father's crooked colleagues in what becomes an ethical train wreck. Through this richly realized character and his moral dilemma, we glimpse the web of lies and duplicity that tie the US and El Salvador together. Though Corbett's story is subtle and well-tempered, the informative afterword is scorching with anger -- and no wonder.

Martin Cruz Smith has been interpreting from the Russian since his 1983 novel, Gorky Park. In Stalin's Ghost, his hero Arkady Renko is caught between old and new as Stalin begins to appear in the Moscow subway, waving genially to passengers who are nostalgic for a simpler (if mythical) time. An American marketing firm is on hand to film well-rehearsed "spontaneous" demonstrations honoring Stalin's memory, and authorities are embarrassed. Renko learns the marketing firm is working for a hero of the Chechen war who is launching a nationalistic party in a nearby city, one that has been bypassed by flash and dazzle of the New Russia, a sort of ghost town haunted by the past that citizens are literally unearthing. Rich with irony and bemused fondness for all that is broken and threadbare, this crime novel is a genuine tour de force.

Another recent read that I found exhilarating is Flight by Sherman Alexie. Its fifteen-year-old narrator has a wonderful voice: funny, wounded, angry. He runs away one in a series of foster homes, is befriended by a nihilistic kid who calls himself Justice, and is persuaded to take out his anger by randomly shooting people in a bank, ensuring his own violent death. But something strange happens: the boy begins to tumble through identities, seeing pieces of the past through the eyes of others. Each of these fragments of story reveals something about the complexity of justice and the ends of violence. It's short and fast-paced, vividly imagined and compulsively readable. The absurdly optimistic ending is an excellent reward for the alienated kids who might read this book and find a friend.
About Barbara Fister, from her website:
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, I've lived in Kentucky, Texas, the Middle East, North Africa, and on the coast of Maine. Now I live in rural Minnesota, where I work as an academic librarian. I've recently published an article about my favorite online mystery discussion group, analyzed crime fiction and the marketplace of fear in Clues: A Journal of Detection, and spoken at a librarians' conference in Canada about how much libraries have in common with Chaos Theory. This may suggest that I have wide-ranging curiosity -- or that I have trouble staying focused. Either way, I'm having fun.
--Marshal Zeringue