Book bits

Three books about Sputnik, a review of 'Pontoon' by Garrison Keillor, areader recommendations.


By Garrison Keillor

In his first Lake Wobegon novel in six years, Garrison Keillor manages to light on the least romantic form of water transport: the pontoon boat.

Two of those water waddlers figure prominently in the funeral and the wedding that have the good people of Lake Wobegon agog. No word from the Norwegian bachelor farmers, but everyone else in town is reeling from news about the loss of Evelyn Peterson, the lovely, stalwart spirit whose life story buoys the novel.

"Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that," Pontoon begins, before ensconcing Evelyn comfortably in the afterlife (which looks a lot like her grandparents' farm).

Her middle-aged daughter Barbara ("somewhat tightly wound, not the person you'd choose for the job of finding dead people") finds her mother's body as well as her last request: that her ashes be placed in a bowling ball and launched from on high into the lake.

Barbara's college-age son, Kyle, is determined to honor his grandmother's wishes via his parasail and one of the aforementioned pontoon boats.

Meanwhile, Barbara, a cafeteria worker with a crème de cacao problem, is busy grappling with the revelation that for the past 12 years, her divorced mother had reunited with the love of her life: Raoul Olson, better known as Minnesota children's TV staple, Yonny Yonson of the Yungle.

Growing up, Barbara had watched the "Scandihoovian Tarzan" cavort in his leopard-skin long underwear, and the revelation is taking her some time to absorb.

Meanwhile, Lake Wobegon's former black sheep, Debbie Detmer, has at last returned home after having made a bundle in California as an aromatherapy veterinarian. She's planned an elaborate commitment ceremony with her commitment-phobic boyfriend, involving 100 pounds of French cheese, some oversize duck decoys, and the second pontoon boat.

The plot of "Pontoon" doesn't bear squinting at too closely. But it's an amiable, meandering tale that pauses frequently to reflect or chuckle ruefully.

The real belly laughs come at the end, when Evelyn's funeral and the remains of Debbie's wedding collide with a fishing dog, 24 visiting Danish priests, and a skydiving Elvis.

"Prairie Home Companion" fans will have this one snapped up faster than you can say "lutefisk."

– Yvonne Zipp

Three books about Sputnik

It was 50 years ago next month that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I – an achievement that profoundly shocked Americans. In Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Shaped the Space Race, Matthew Brzezinski, former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, does a terrific job of telling the story of the US-USSR space race in a style that manages to be both thoroughly informative and unfailingly gripping.

A Ball, A Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 – The Space Race Begins by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D'Antonio focuses on the American side of the story. D'Antonio (author of "Atomic Harvest" and "Hershey") skillfully captures both the energy and the urgency of the US drive toward space. His narrative is further enlivened by firsthand accounts from US citizens recalling their excitement during those heady days.

British comics creator Nick Abadzis has published a poignant tribute to the sometimes forgotten canine hero of the space race. In the form of a graphic novel, Laika tells the story of the mixed breed dog launched into space – where she perished within hours – in Sputnik II. Abadzis cleverly mixes fact and fiction in telling Laika's story, but animal lovers beware: This story is a painful one.

– Marjorie Kehe

Readers' picks

I've just finished Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel follows an extended family in Biafra during the 1960s, including the Biafran war of 1967-1970. It is a beautifully written book, and the reader quickly becomes involved in the lives of the different looking twin sisters and their mates.– John C. Deppman, Pebble Beach, Calif.

I am fascinated by The Gospel of Mary of Magdala by Karen King. This is a translation of a 2nd century "new gospel" and King's scholarly, thought-provoking, and tradition-challenging discussion of what it means for Christianity's understanding of itself, and of so-called heretics. – Claire Fisher, Park Ridge, Ill.

Brutality on Trial by E. Kay Gibson is a fascinating read. It's the most complete story possible of tragic events that took place at sea and in faraway ports almost a century ago.– Ted Gardner, Cincinnati

The Feasting Season by Nancy Coons is an engaging story about an American expatriate writer living in rural France with her English husband. Her acceptance of a travel-book writing assignment leads to adventurous excursions (historical and culinary).– Bill Hill, Tampa, Fla.

A Memory for Wonders by Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard is a true story which gives a captivating and breathtakingly vivid account of life in Algeria and Morocco.– Lynda Newman, Aptos, Calif.

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman is loaded with ideas that at first blush may seem counterintuitive (how can mess be good)? But it's also one of those rare books that makes you look at the world differently. And it's just a fun read. – Ralph Weisheit, Normal, Ill.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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