Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Good Books With Bad Weather

Thursday, Jan. 9 — Sitting at home this past Monday, on one of those ultra-rare occasions when weather closed our stores, I couldn't help thinking about growing up in the Keweenaw Peninsula. We must have been in a near constant "polar vortex" for three or four months every year without knowing it. We just called it winter. Here's what we're reading:

The Kept - James Scott.
The turn of the twentieth century in snowy upstate New York is the harsh background for this novel of darkness and beauty. A young boy watches from the barn as his father and siblings are murdered by strangers on their remote wilderness farm. When his mother returns from her distant midwife duties, there's a shocking turn of events, followed by a journey of revenge through an unforgiving land populated with equally unforgiving people. What could have been a straightforward adventure tale in a less imaginative writer's hands becomes a thrilling psychological puzzle as bits and pieces of the mother's past are revealed. The 12-year-old boy, Caleb, is an especially finely crafted character; completely believable as the world he knew is destroyed and replaced with one of disturbing and unwelcome surprises.

The Wind is Not a River - Brian Payton.
A little history lesson is in order - during World War II, there was a place where American soil was occupied by the Japanese army for a time - the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. The locals were either held prisoner or sent to Hokkaido, which was much closer to the islands than was the Alaskan mainland. Our government was very interested in keeping the invasion under wraps for morale purposes and, despite the fact that it took bloody fighting to reclaim the territory, maintained that secrecy for many years.

John Easley is a reporter who's discovered what's happening and wants to write about it, even after having been kicked out of Alaska by the military. His surreptitious journey to one of the islands ends with the plane he's riding in being shot down. He and one other survivor try to stay alive in a forbidding and inhospitable environment, while avoiding the occupying Japanese force. At the same time, his young wife manages to make her way from Seattle to the islands in a desperate attempt to uncover any news about her husband, from military personnel who are unwilling to help. An impressive combination of adventure that'll keep you awake at night and a love story of great depth and nuance.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I
- Richard Ned Lebow.
The author uses the term "contrafactual" to describe this completely fascinating book, and I was pleased to add the word to my vocabulary. AFFL! is a "what-if" version of world history, one in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria isn't assassinated in Serbia, thereby not setting the gears in motion that lead to World War I. The list of likely results is long - no World War II or Holocaust, advances in science and medicine delayed without wartime pushes, the United States becoming a world financial power but never rising to superpower status, the non-birth of the state of Israel, the American civil rights movement stalled for several years, etc. - and the author's imaginative powers and deep historical scholarship allow him to explore many scenarios that retain the feel of the logical and possible. There's no right or wrong in his speculation, of course, but there's a great deal of fascinating food for thought.

Eleven and a half months of reading still lie ahead of us in 2014! Any thoughts on how many books you'd like to read this year? Do you have a goal in mind? Did you reach last year's?

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.