I’ll admit it, I was looking for a quick read, and after resisting this book for months, I picked it up. As much as I love cats, I am not that much into cute, nor am I particularly sentimental, and I don’t like having my emotions manipulated. Just one look at the adorable cat on the cover told me it was going to be one of those slick, fairly superficial feel-good kind of books.
See what I mean? Just look at that cover. Look how that cat just looks right into your eyes. This book is going to suck you in.
This book was a surprise. Yes, it was touching. Yes, it was about a tiny little kitten who almost died, stuffed in a below freezing book-return box in an northern Iowa country library in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the year, and yes, he ends up living in the library for almost 20 years and brightening the life of the people who come into the library. Yes, Dewey is adorable, and funny, and loveable. Yes, the book is an easy read.
It is also, surprisingly, an uncomfortable read. It is not overly sentimentalized. It is also the story of a woman, Vicky Myron, who grew up on one of the northern Iowa farms, and she tells us about the quality of a life that is no longer available in America, how the safe, secure, intertwined family life of rural Iowa has greatly disappeared. The hard times we are working our way through in 2009 is an echo of hard times suffered in rural America, as small farms are gobbled up by the more efficient super-farms, owned by conglomerates, not by families.
She tells us about her physical struggles with a disastrous childbirth, and its two year aftermath, and she tells us about how her marriage to a lovable alcoholic died, almost without her being aware it was dying. She doesn’t spare herself, as she discusses her problems, as a single mother, on welfare, trying to get a college education and raising her daughter, who couldn’t wait to move away from her. She talks about her challenges remodeling an old cement reading library into a modern, airy information resources center serving the town and the surrounding community, at the same time she is working on her Masters in Library Science. She describes her challenges dealing with the town bureaucracy. It is not always comfortable, or feel-good reading. It takes the book out of the superficial, and gives you something to think about.
Intertwined in all of this is Dewey Readmore Books, the cat who comes to live in the Spencer, Iowa, library, and who is eventually featured on TV shows around the world. He responds to requests that he pose, that he perform, he seems to know who needs a little love and is quick to give it – he is a great main character. For me, some of it was also uncomfortable, kind of a stretch – like that the cat would be in the window waving to her every morning when she came to work. Well . . . maybe . . . I’ve almost always had cats in my life, and few have every shown such consistent loyalty. Cats are . . . well, cats. It’s the way God made them.
What I love is that this book is about libraries, and the amazing (mostly) women who run them. These librarians have had a huge influence on my life, and the life of AdventureMan, challenging us to explore outside our boundaries and supporting our aspirations, recommending new ideas and new ways of serving their communities. Librarians are part of the backbone of America.
I read this book in just a few hours. It just isn’t that complicated or challenging; it is an easy read. It has been a #1 New York Times bestseller, and copies of the book are still selling strongly. It currently ranks #105 in all time book sales on Amazon.com – can you imagine how many books that must be? The book is sweet, but #1? I can only imagine so many people are buying and reading it because it looks like 1) a Feel-Good book and 2) an easy read.
It almost always takes me a little while to get into Eliot Pattison’s books, and I can figure out why. He sets you down right in the middle of something going on, so you start off a little confused. You can read each of his Inspector Shan Tao Yun books as a stand-alone, but it helps to have read them in order – as I have.
Even though I have read them in order, I still find myself disoriented each time I start a new book. New names, a new situation, and it takes a few pages to get back in the rhythm of thinking about things in a new way. Within thirty pages, I am in a new world, and I am totally addicted. When I am reading one of the Inspector Shan Tao Yun books, I can hardly wait to get back to the book. My household chores suffer, my projects suffer – even AdventureMan suffers, as I seek to return to Tibet, the Tibetan Monks and the world of Chinese bureaucracy.
One of the things I love in this book – we saw a hint of it in the last book I reviewed, Bone Mountain – is that the worst of the bad characters can have a hint of humanity, and develop a full-blown redemption, as we are watching happen with the prison warden, Captain Tan. The process continues in Beautiful Ghosts. In this book, Pattison strikes several additional chords – he combines a good mystery with art, art thefts, public art and a little bit of history, a family reunion, father-son problems, and a lot of action. I’m a happy reader.
In Beautiful Ghosts, a murder happens, but it is hard to understand, at first, who was murdered, why the murder was committed, where the murder was committed as well as who committed the murder. One answer leads to another, and ultimately, to long buried treasures and long kept secrets.
A great tickle, for me, is that in this book Inspector Shan Tao Yun goes to my home town, Seattle, which he finds very strange, and grey and rainy. Pattison describes Chan’s bewilderment at how Americans live, and as Chan leaves Seattle, he comments on how he has not seen the sunshine in his entire time visiting there, working in co-ordination with an FBI office trying to track down some missing and stolen Tibetan art pieces, stolen from the hidden monasteries by corrupt Chinese bureaucrats.
Shan still stood, studying the strange buildings and the dozens of people who were wandering in and out of the open doorways off the huge main hall. There were shops, he realized, dozens of shops, two floors of shops. When he looked toward Corbett, the American was already ten feet in front of him. Shan followed slowly, puzzling over everything in his path. Adolescents walked by, engaged in casual conversation, seemingly relaxed despite the brass rings and balls that for some reason pierced their faces. He looked away, his face flushing, as he saw several women standing in a window clothed only in underwear. He saw more, nearly identical women, in another window adorned in sweaters and realized they were remarkably lifelike mannequins. One of the sweaters was marked at a few cents less than three hundred dollars, more than most Tibetans made in a year.
“Why did you bring me here?” Shan asked, as Crobett led him into a coffee shop and ordered drinks for both of them. “This place of merchants.”
“I thought you’d want to see America,” Corbett said with an odd, awkward grin, gesturing to a table, then sobored. “And this is where Abigail worked, before getting the governess job. People here knew her, told me stories about her, made her real for me.”
. . . .
Shan began to marvel at the rain itself. Beijing was a dry place, most of Tibet a near desert. He had not experienced so much rain since he was a boy, living near the sea. There were many qualities of American rain, and many types of rain clouds. One moment they were in a driving rain, like a storm, the next in a shower, the next in a drizzle that was little more than a thick fog. Once the water came down so violently, in such a sudden wind, that it struck at the car horizontally. . . .
You learn so much reading Eliot Pattison, more than I can absorb! There are detailed art works, there are geographic features, there are Buddhist customs, there are bureaucratic networks, there are mysteries of Chinese history and dynasties. There are tribal customs and learning to think like Tibetan monks.
Eliot Pattison is a gifted and poetic writer. If you like mysteries that turn out to be very complicated and which teach you a lot about a culture you have never experienced (or would like to learn more about) I would suggest you start at the beginning. These are the books about Inspector Chan in chronological order: