The Time of No Time
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover, $24. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, is both a departure and a coming home. Strictly speaking, The Road is a novella, its slim frame inflated by frequent section breaks (a McCarthy first), as if the book itself is pausing for breath. Absent are the author’s trademark paragraph-length sentences. Absent are masterful descriptions of men at work — on horseback, by riverboat, always moving — that only Melville can equal. But also missing is the coldness of the McCarthy narrator, who can sound like he’s dictating from miles above. What we find in The Road is a totally unexpected tenderness, an emotional current that brightens this horrifying vision of post-apocalyptic America.
The Road takes place several years after a global catastrophe. The nature of the event is only hinted at, but several allusions indicate it was nuclear. In the aftermath, almost everything burned. Ash blots out the sun. Animals are just a memory. Shoes are almost as important as food. Everything not burned is grey or opaque. Through this devastation walk a man and his young son. They are walking south to the sea, as much for something to hope for as for the promise of warmer weather. Along the way they are beset by freezing weather and starless nights, not to mention death squads, the cannibalistic road agents who patrol the highways.
What elevates this tale of survival to an instant classic is the subtle evolution of the father’s relationship to his son. Initially, the father’s perseverance seems steadfast and morally sound. (Many, including the boy’s mother, committed suicide.) But the pressure of caring for and protecting the boy warps the father’s ability to see goodness in others. To the father, everyone is an enemy. To the boy, who radiates kindness and compassion, people are defined in this dying world by their treatment of others, making the boy a living rebuke of his father. Increasingly desperate, the father makes a series of terrible decisions. What we witness is a slow transfer of moral authority in one of the harshest environments ever evoked in literature. Leave it to McCarthy to explore love in what is essentially hell on earth.
The novel bears more than a passing resemblance to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to which The Road might be called a darker cousin. Both books, arriving late in the authors’ careers, are relatively brief but flawlessly executed. Both achieve the allegorical quality of a fable by using mythic structures to breathtaking effect. Although short, both books are fuller expressions of the author’s genius than the longer, more elaborate works that preceded them. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that like The Old Man and the Sea, The Road will be judged a separate and intact masterpiece, while at the same time a perfect extension of an enduring literary legacy. — Jason Blair
The Truth Will Out
Brookland by Emily Barton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Hardcover, $25. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
Emily Barton’s Brookland, a long, gloriously intelligent novel, illuminates the early days of this country’s life. At the heart of the novel lies the story of Prudence Winship, whose aspirations and failings we hear as she writes letters to her daughter and whose story parallels the rise both of New York and the country. Prue opens the letters with her story of being a young girl in the days just before the Revolutionary War, desperately wanting to take up gin-making with her father Matthias. The Winships live in Brookland, across the East River from Manhattan. When Prue’s mother Roxane becomes pregnant, Prue fears her sibling will steal attention. She silently curses the child and blames herself when baby Pearl is born without the ability to speak. Her mother’s servant, Johanna, also blames Prue, who prefers to keep her guilt secret at all costs.
But Prue grows up close to Pearl, closer than she is to the younger Temperance, and she also grows up to take over the distillery from her father. So she is granted one of her wishes, but another desire drives her: She wants to span the East River with a bridge. A young woman in the early 19th century, even one who owns and runs a business, would not be allowed to build a bridge, obviously. Yet with the help of Pearl, Tem and Prue’s husband Ben, the bridge must rise — and with it, long-buried emotions that lead to much loss. This rich, well-researched and finely wrought book with its mix of gorgeous language and multilayered plot contains far more than a short review can express, partially because plot details obscure its larger ambitions. The book grants more than a nod to The Scarlet Letter and also thoroughly unsettles the idea that the northern states were somehow innocent of slavery; Winship Daughters Gin, like everything else in New York, depends on the labor of slaves. One of the best books of the year, this daring and wide-ranging novel spares no character the complications, dangers and strife inherent to human lives. — Suzi Steffen
Stumbling Towards Adulthood
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Random House, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
After traversing the world with Ghostwritten and the Booker Prize finalist Cloud Atlas (and exploring Japan in the also-Booker-shortlisted number9dream), English novelist David Mitchell has headed home with Black Swan Green, which takes a 13-year-old English lad named Jason Taylor as its stammering, thoughtful, hyperobservant protagonist. The prose pyrotechnics that made Cloud Atlas such a stellar piece of work, crossing genres and decades, are here brought to bear on smaller concerns: girls, belonging, parental dramas, the difficulties of claiming all pieces of one’s self in the face of mockery and derision.
Jason is a quiet, ordinary boy, if one who sends poems to the parish magazine under the name Eliot Bolivar (thus earning him the attention of one Madame Crommelynck, a name familiar to Mitchell readers). His story is broken into 13 chapters over the course of an early-1980s year, each chapter very nearly a self-contained tale of its own. Jason’s narration is slangy, colloquial, occasionally (though enjoyably) confusing to those who didn’t grow up in the English countryside (what exactly are rhubarb and custards?), but his use of language, the way he wrestles with words when his stammer limits his vocabulary, or observes the outdoors on a lazy day (“A vaportrail gashed the sky. But the sky healed itself. Without fuss.”) switches instantly between lyrical and awkward, mirroring the divide between Jason’s rather eloquent interior and his public difficulties. Jason’s existence in Black Swan Green is vividly imagined, from the conversations of his parents to the antics of a local “gang” of slightly less well-behaved kids, and Mitchell paints a multi-faceted portrait. Partly, it’s hard not to assume, it’s a picture of the writer as a young man, but it’s also a crisp, detailed adventure through a precisely depicted moment in time. The rich, recognizable life of Jason Taylor — and the lush writing of his creator — is a wonder. — Molly Templeton
Heartbreaking? Yes. Genius? Getting There.
What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s, 2006. Hardcover, $26.
Those accustomed to Dave Eggers’ particular brand of cute post-modernism are in for a surprise. Absent are the tricks of his trade: the blank pages, the extended annotations, the clever tropes. This time his typical gamut of literary devices would only serve as a distraction to the raw emotion, lurid violence and true urgency of his story.
What is the What is a semi-fictional biography of one of the 17,000 “Lost Boys” displaced from Southern Sudan. Through years of conversation and interviews, Eggers approximates the life story of Valentino Achak Deng. His account traces the 1,000-mile trek across the war-ravaged country, through 13 years in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps and eventually to a less-than-ideal tenure in the U.S.
During interactions in his new hometown of Atlanta — including one where he lies bound and gagged on the floor of his apartment — Valentino imagines narrating his experiences to those he meets. He reasons, “You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I have seen.”
As the book progresses and he describes that suffering — watching as his friends are murdered, eaten by lions or dying of starvation; seeing his village burned to the ground; living for over a decade with no knowledge of his family — it’s difficult to disagree with him.
Still, this book is not merely a call for outrage and pity, or a reminder of the tragedy of the world. It is the story of Valentino, not just the unfortunate events of his life, but his thoughts, reflections, feelings, love, insecurities and frustrations. The real strength of Eggers’ writing, his uncanny proficiency for first-person voice, allows What is the What to be at the same time a terrible picture of African genocide and an exploration of humanity in the midst of it. — Tony Perez
Castles on Sand
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover, $25. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2006. SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2006 MAN BOOKER PRIZE.
There can be something clichéd, even uninspired, about writers writing about writers, but in this tragicomic novel about three 30-year-old New Yorkers teetering on the tightrope between failure and success, Claire Messud makes it work.
The story takes place in New York City in the months before and just after September 11, 2001. The three main characters are all ambitious, aspiring media stars — Danielle Minkoff is a TV producer, Julius Clarke an out-of-work reviewer and Marina Thwaite a hopeful author, living at home while struggling to finish her book about how parents dress their children. Also central to the story are Marina’s famous father, journalist Murray Thwaite (called “the country’s liberal conscience”); smarmy Australian magazine founder Ludovic Seeley, who seeks to knock the elder Thwaite off his pedestal; and Murray’s nephew “Bootie” Tubb, an awkward 19-year-old college dropout with a nascent sardonic intelligence. The six come together in an incendiary tangle that erodes the sand beneath their castles.
Messud’s keen attention to superficial details — interior design, fashion, body types — is very New York, and at times strikes this Oregonian as rather shallow. But as Messud moves deeper into the narrative, she reveals this to be an intentional shallowness, a satire of the petty concerns that so often dominate the thoughts of professed Deep Thinkers. Danielle, for example, wants to make a TV documentary about reparations for Aborigines, but ends up planning a series on liposuction gone wrong. Marina hopes her book will show the world that she’s a genius, but she siphons her best passages from the manipulative Ludovic. Murray deceives both his fans and his family while preaching societal morals. And Bootie, chubby and smeary behind his glasses, seems to be the only character who sees this farce for what it is.
This is a masterfully woven story about privilege, loneliness and the panicked pursuit of success characteristic of 30-year-old urbanites who feel their potential fading. Messud’s fourth novel raises questions faced by every X-Y generation American: What are our dreams? Whose ambitions do they spring from? And what are we willing to sacrifice in their pursuit? — Kera Abraham
About Two Boys
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. Nan A. Talese, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95.
“Don’t call me a fairy,” begins Keith Donohue’s first novel. “We don’t like to be called fairies anymore.” At first, the voice sounds petulant, but as the young changeling who’s about to become a boy named Henry Day continues, it becomes clear he’s just telling things like they are — for the little bit of time they remain clear to him.
The Stolen Child is actually the tale of two stolen children: Aniday, the changeling who was Henry Day before the tribe of ageless children in the woods took him, and Henry Day, who takes the boy’s place. It’s a tricky thing, becoming a boy; it requires patience and dedicated observation. It’s even trickier when, as happens to Henry, decades-old memories keep surfacing, shaking up the life he’s slowly piecing together. In the woods, the changelings christen the new member of their band Aniday, and he too has to put together a self, one made up of hard-held memories and strange new experiences.
Donohue tell the stories of Henry Day and Aniday in alternating chapters of clear, clean prose that falters only in that the two boys’ voices are a touch too similar. Shifting, subtle and gentle, Donohue’s debut is a fairy tale for grownups, for all that its protagonists begin as children. (“I would not want to be a child again, for a child exists in uncertainty and danger,” says Henry, summing up one theme of the story.) His exploration of identity, of who we are and who we might or could have been, is facilitated by the unfussy language, and by the sharp eyes of the growing boy who was a changeling and the changeling whose chance of being a boy again grows smaller and smaller. — Molly Templeton
After This by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Hardcover, $24. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
A circular novel that begins and ends in church — under circumstances that couldn’t be more different — After This is the story of the Keane family from WWII until the 1970s. Not that Alice McDermott would mention a date or someone’s age. Spare and deceptively simple, her novels use pinpoint descriptions of attitudes and fashions to evoke a particular milieu. Her work, while characterized by omission, relies on the subtle, shimmering details of everyday experience. McDermott is working with full confidence in After This, even if the results are somewhat mixed.
After This follows the slowly expanding Keane family, with Mary Keane nobly perched at the center. Mary is the type of mother who’s pious but wants to be noticed for it. Her husband John is steady but stubborn and uninspiring. Their children are archetypes of sibling differences: Mike is the rebel, Jacob is obedient, Annie is liberated and Clare is cloistered. McDermott lays out a sort of Big Bang theory of families circa 1945: Sparked by mutual interest, two people agree to join forces, inevitably generating a series of children that grow up and eventually scatter. It’s as much about avoiding loneliness as finding love. But McDermott’s concern is the aftermath. What happens as the universe cools? What is left after separation?
After This is told chronologically but discontinuously, similar to a scrapbook. Characters come forward, occupy the stage, then recede. Even in the hands of a substantial writer like McDermott, the action feels a little breezy for this scope: Instead of one summer, as in Charming Billy, After This spans several decades.
Quietly, even brilliantly observant, McDermott has been working toward a novel of this reach since her first book, 1982’s A Bigamist’s Daughter. After This is a worthy but imperfect addition to her work. Only McDermott could describe how windy days make it harder to breathe or how women sense “accomplishment” in tall men. Only McDermott could compare rustling leaves to the sound of pouring water. But while After This is lovely and poetic, at times I wanted a more connected narrative. Less sweep, if you will, and more story. — Jason Blair
Smoke, Ash, Fire and Fish
The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover. $22. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
Various fish are caught, cooked, clubbed, shot, accosted, talked to, refrigerated or pondered in all but one of the stories in The Dead Fish Museum, Charles D’Ambrosio’s first collection of fiction since 1996’s The Point. In fact, the eight stories D’Ambrosio dishes up in Dead Fish are so thoroughly connected by their metonymies of smoke, ash, fire and fish that it is best to read them as a whole.
From “The High Divide,” about an orphaned boy coming to see himself in contrast to his best friend and his father on a camping trip, to the spoiled child-turned-fortysomething’s attempt at transcendent purgatory in “The Bone Game,” Dead Fish traces characters — typically introverted males with parents who either died young or went mad — who have a whole world in front of them, a world that doesn’t make sense or mean anything.
At times D’Ambrosio lays the existential anomie on a bit thick, crafting settings so drab they are either metaphorical (a beaten down, drafty house in “Blessing”) or rich with indifference (as in the Michigan backwoods setting for “Up North”) that to call Dead Fish mournful would be an understatement.
The final story, “The Bone Game,” sums up the philosophical shadings of the previous stories in one soul-draining night at the northwestern tip of Washington. Kype, like many of the characters in Dead Fish, may be just a hair away from a nervous breakdown, as someone who “was still hearing the story, a steady somewhat distant drone of words, like the sound of an alarm in another room that’s heard from inside a dream,” but knows he’ll go down fighting. Kype, like these stories, takes a wallop to the backside of the head and keeps on walloping. — Chuck Adams
A Southie at War
Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R. Benn. Soho Press, 2006. Hardcover, $23.
The title sounds like a boys’ serial book, circa 1946 or even earlier, but this mystery is no book for youngsters. The twists, turns and ultimately the harsh truths of military strategy create a narrative that moves with full-bodied certainty on the well-worn terrain of WWII. The titular character doesn’t want to participate in the war; he’s a not-too-bright guy who would rather patrol the streets of Boston and work his way into being a good, solid detective, but it’s 1942, and even his I.R.A.-connected family can’t keep him at home when the government calls him to do his duty. So they do the next-best thing: They get him assigned to what they think will be a cushy job working for his Uncle Ike. Except his Uncle Ike, as you might imagine, is kind of in charge of the U.S. Army European Theatre of Operations, and Billy soon finds out that he’s in a pickle.
Part of the pickle comes from the Norwegians. Don’t know much about Norway and WWII? You will by the middle of this book, in which a seeming suicide and some missing gold go hand in hand with German sympathizers and murderous Allies. Not as introspective as one of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries about WWI, not as convoluted as a John le Carré work of spycraft, Billy Boyle nevertheless manages to cover wide swaths of emotional terrain while serving up witty remarks and adventure the entire time. I look forward to Billy’s continued service with Uncle Ike. — Suzi Steffen
Through the Woods
Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip. Ace Books, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95.
Last year, prolific Oregon writer Patricia A. McKillip published Od Magic, a lovely fantasy about earth magic and the freedom to be — or become — who you are. This year, with Solstice Wood, a standalone companion to Winter Rose, she returns to the woods and streams of upstate New York and to a multi-generational story told in a handful of clear, thoughtful voices.
Sylvia Lynn, a thirtyish bookseller, is drawn back to her family home, Lynn Hall, when her grandfather dies. Her grandmother, Iris, has much to tell Syl, not least that the younger Lynn has inherited the family home and the strange responsibilities that come with it. As Syl reluctantly becomes aware of the true nature of her family, her own unusual heritage and the nature of the work of the town’s monthly sewing circle, the boundaries between her world and the world of the fey folk in the surrounding woods blur and twist. Changelings appear, children and adults get lost and secrets unravel as Syl pieces together her history and that of the Lynns.
McKillip is too skilled a writer to allow her work to be overburdened with morals and messages, but it’s hard not to see certain threads as timely. Under the cover of this gentle, enticing tale is a current of acceptance and understanding, of willingness to live side by side with the unknown. But it’s with a gentle hand that McKillip weaves together the notions of acceptance of the other and acceptance of the darker, more dangerous parts of the self. Though it’s not her strongest or most enchanting book, Solstice Wood is a satsfying story for a damp winter night. — Molly Templeton
A Right Funny Dick
City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate. Riverhead, 2006. Paperback, $14.
You may think you know London from reading Helen Fielding, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and Ian McEwan; or maybe Monica Ali’s Brick Lane or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is more your style. In either case, you need to rush out immediately and pick up Patrick Neate’s brilliant City of Tiny Lights, a moving, hilarious, fast-paced, intense half-thriller half-character-study of the city and its inhabitants. Tommy Akhtar, a bumbling, Indian-by-way-of-Uganda, middle-aged private eye with a stash of alcohol, cigarettes and regret, finds himself in the middle of several mysteries whose plots tie in all too clearly with recent events in Londinium.
The characters, from melanie.com to the young, disaffected-but-sweet boy recruited by Tommy and possibly those more nefarious, will have you laughing and gasping. Tommy’s self-loathing combines with a healthy skepticism about everyone else; he’s a weary, witty, worn-down and down-on-his-luck guy who always knows the smartest noirish thing to say. For instance, Tommy at a pub: “The décor was brown, the lighting murky; the gents’ stank of warm beer and the saloon stank of warm piss: it was a typical coppers’ hangout.” Beneath all of the surface commentary runs a serious thread about loss of civil liberties, racial profiling and racism in the UK. But don’t let that stop you from snagging a copy for every Anglophile you know. The prescience of this novel, published in the UK in 2004, won’t be lost on anyone who follows the news, and those who love the sprawling city on the Thames will appreciate another scene, filled with mordant humor and emotionally stunning moments, from the checkerboard panorama of this huge, ancient metropolis. — Suzi Steffen
Death, Be Not So Longwinded
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover, $16.95.
Who’s telling the story in The Book Thief? It’s not the thief, a girl named Liesel — or perhaps it is, for she is telling her story to someone (something) that ends all narration: Death. Though it’s not new to read a book written by the personification of death, the length and scope of Markus Zusak’s ambitious novel, its feints toward postmodernism and its intricate narrative combine to make this an important contribution to fiction about WWII and the Holocaust. Though intellectual, the climax has a Jonathan Safran Foer-type weight and emotional release.
Liesel Meminger’s story begins and ends with death, and that’s no spoiler; the end of the book is foreshadowed from early on, as Death the narrator discusses why he is so drawn to the young girl. She’s a German girl, a sort of orphan of a Communist father, living in a working-class town close to Munich, where bombing runs and food rationing have a massive impact. Time switches and telescopes often in the book; Death seems to be writing from some much later time, even the early 21st century, but Liesel’s tale contains freshness and immediacy. Those who have read Ursula Hegi’s Stones From the River will recognize that any WWII novel about non-Jewish German civilians must, at some point, deal with questions of culpability: How does the protagonist deal with Nazi attitudes towards Jews? In books like The Book Thief, we know which characters to like because of their clear morality, a morality we assume that we share, thanks to the virtues of hindsight. But bad things happen to people Liesel loves, and bad things happen to people Liesel hates. That’s one of Death’s little lessons: Bombs don’t care who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” Still, someone must survive — lucky or damned — to tell the story. The Book Thief, an ambitious and bold attempt to address war’s impact on civilians and deal with a massively shameful time of the 20th century, succeeds in informing and moving a receptive audience. — Suzi Steffen
Push Me Pull You
Half Life by Shelley Jackson. HarperCollins, 2006. Hardcover. $24.95.
Shelley Jackson’s Half Life takes place in a post-atomic age of hybrid children spawned from the darkness of an intoxicated nation. It stars Nora and Blanche, who share a body but not a head. They are Siamese twins, or, in the politically correct world of Jackson’s San Francisco, they prefer to be called twofers. (Twofer culture could easily be read as gay culture, black culture or feminine culture.)
The novel satirically picks at the moral issues implicated in a dual-brain, one-body creature. For example, how does a twofer avoid incest when engaging in sex? Should twofers be given two passports, two seats on a plane, two votes? Should one body and one brain define a person?
Nora, the narrator, describes the experience of a twofer by asking, “Singletons, have you never felt such violent indecision that you stopped in your tracks looking one way and then the other, not so much standing still as suspended between equal and opposite forces? That is the condition we woke into every morning.” Nora and Blanche are the Jekyll and Hyde of Jackson’s alternate reality, pushed and pulled to the brink of madness.
To make matters worse, Blanche has been in a deep sleep for the past twenty years, but still wakes at inopportune moments to throw objects across the room (all of which is blamed on Nora). So Nora, distressed, attempts to abort Blanche at a secret clinic in England.
The societal circus that slants for and against these types of operations is a scathing satire on the abortion question. Lost in the fray of Jackson’s overreaching novel is Nora’s personal struggle with Blanche — which is ultimately a personal dialogue with her body. Is Blanche still alive? Does she want out, too? What is at stake when half of you isn’t you anymore? — Chuck Adams
Trying Not to Drown
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami. Harvest Books, 2006. Paperback, $13. FINALIST, 2006 OREGON BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION.
Last fall, when Hope and Dangerous Pursuits came out in hardcover, the literary blog world chattered. The book was written by Portland literary blogger Laila Lalami (her blog is Moorishgirl, www.lailalalami.com/blog).
How many books have you read lately about Moroccan immigrants to Spain? Yeah, that’s what I thought, and Spain, with an immigration rate far, far higher than that of the supposedly immigrant-overwhelmed U.S., doesn’t have a whole lot of fiction about the Moroccan immigrant experience either. Lalami’s well-written debut novel should start a cascade of other books about this massive movement of humanity.
The book begins as a crowd of 30 Morroccan immigrants desperately try to keep their wits about them on a raft in the Strait of Gibraltar, headed for a desired future in Spain. The raft, like so many other conveyances of desperate immigrants, doesn’t quite stand up to its function. Four of the survivors are the main focus of the rest of book: Faten, a devout young woman who would like to pursue more education but can’t afford to; Halima, a woman with children who’s trying to get away from her abusive husband; Aziz Ammor, who hopes to find work and fund his wife; and Murad, the most clearly drawn of the four, a college-educated, sensitive and smart man who can only find work taking tourists on Paul Bowles tours. What happens to them after the Guardia Civil finds them washed up on the shores of Spain? A story familiar to those who read about Latin American immigrants to the U.S. becomes a keen lament for an ancient, revered civilization that, thanks to colonialism and economic imperialism, can’t provide for its citizens. Murad, especially, will linger in the minds of educated Americans long after they finish this short, potent, beautifully written work. — Suzi Steffen
The Permanent Period
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover, $26.95. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2006.
Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, the third novel in his Frank Bascomb trilogy, is hardly a departure from his earlier work. This is by no means a bad thing. Like The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), Ford’s latest explores the emotional tension and middle-age angst of its narrator through his musings, observations and sometimes rambling anecdotes regarding New Jersey realty.
Picking up 12 years after Independence Day left off, Ford rejoins Frank in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, with a backdrop of the 2000 election debacle where presidential hopes — and ballot chads — hang in the balance. Frank has reached what he describes as “the permanent period” of his life, a time no longer dedicated to “becoming,” but simply to “being.” But being isn’t easy for Frank; he has recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer (surprisingly a catalyst for humor in the book), and his second wife has run off with her ex-husband, whom they had assumed was dead.
While the action of the story includes several striking moments of violence, the heart of the novel lies in the constantly developing — though at times regressing — character of Frank Bascomb. His earnest efforts to live in the present moment are undercut by his inability to cope with his son’s death, an event that has plagued him for two decades.
The Lay of The Land succeeds, certainly owing to Ford’s wit and mastery of prose, in allowing the reader to be so acutely entwined in Frank’s consciousness and so deeply caught up in his circumstances that we revel in his successes and in those moments of heartbreak come to understand what he does: that “happy, as my poor father used to say, is a lot of hooey. Happy is a circus clown, a sitcom, a greeting card. Life, though, life’s about something sterner. But also something better.” — Tony Perez
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Riverhead Books, 2006. Paperback, $15. SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2006 MAN BOOKER PRIZE.
Waters’ evocative novel of WWII London might seem to cover familiar terrain, but with every detail of the lives of her characters, Waters paints a picture of London life we don’t often get to see. Each of her main characters — Duncan, Duncan’s sister Vi, Vi’s coworker Helen and Helen’s ex-girlfriend Kay — inhabits a small world, a world of restricted choices and loneliness, a world where wartime choices resonate for years. The novel begins in 1947 and progresses back to 1941, a rather odd choice but an interesting one, forcing readers to re-evaluate the choices and actions of the characters in the first section of the novel after reading the final bit.
Most English-language readers have a variety of books, movies and images of London during the Blitz filling our heads. Yet how many people know that women headed night watch ambulances during the bombings? Unable to go into air raid shelters, they waited for the bombs to drop and sped out to find survivors. Kay, a wealthy and quite butch lesbian, enjoys her duties as part of the night watch and finds herself at loose ends after the war. Helen, now working an office job and living with a beautiful and rather famous writer, feels class distinctions and jealousy limiting her love for her partner, and Vi, who met her married lover when he was a soldier during the war, longs for some sort of resolution to her plight. Duncan was a young man too in love to resist his best friend’s morbid ideas about war resistance. Duncan’s story might be one of the bleakest, but every piece of this carefully constructed tale unwinds with resigned acknowledgement that humans find relationships (and destroy them) even in the most dire of circumstances. — Suzi Steffen
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Viking, 2006. Hardcover, $25.95. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2006.
“Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it,” begins the dramatically named Blue van Meer, the young protagonist of Marisha Pessl’s engaging, engrossing debut. Blue’s dad, as we quickly learn, is a super-père of sorts, the subject of Blue’s deepest admiration and an itinerant professor who educates the hyperliterate Blue as they drift from town to town. When the drifting comes to a stop in Stockton, N.C., for Blue’s senior year in high school, Blue is drawn (somewhat forcefully) into a new group of friends, one headed by the charismatic presence of the school’s unconventional film teacher, Hannah Schneider.
It’s a strange year for Blue, encompassing tricky friendships, drama, drinking, snooping, dating, disappearances, death, ostracism and life-changing upheaval. In tone, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has something in common with Daniel Handler’s underappreciated The Basic Eight, though Handler’s book is darker and Pessl’s much more of a mystery — and more ambitious. Special Topics is broken into three parts; each part’s chapters are named for classic works and, as far as this reader can tell, written with something in common with those classics (in “Pygmalion,” naturally, Blue gets a makeover). It’s a flashy structure, but it works frightfully well. The “final exam” at the end is less satisfying, but Special Topics couldn’t have ended in an ordinary fashion. Through the changeable, uncertain lives of teenagers, the enviably talented Pessl explores the foibles of adults who are not what they seem — not as strong, not as wise, not as reliable. But she does this while traipsing smartly and irreverently through the fields of the Western canon, turning everything from Shakespeare to Kesey into a chapter in Blue’s remarkable life. With visual aids, a perfectly calibrated dose of irony and a dry, sharp-eyed sense of humor, Pessl’s stellar novel is a tough one to put down. — Molly Templeton
Self-Evident Truths, Betrayed
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. One: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2006. Hardcover, $17.99. WINNER, 2006 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE.
Tobin Anderson crafts his books with an eye to the meaning of language; his disturbing Feed (2002) mirrors the language of youth today and turns it, frighteningly, into parental-speak (it also contains a superb first sentence: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”). He also revels in placing his characters in situations that are fraught with moral complications, as in Feed and Thirst, his debut novel, in which a young boy faces his genetic destiny as a vampire. But Pox Party trumps his other novels in complexity, character development and the moral rigor required of those reading the book.
At the beginning, Octavian’s life seems wonderful, if a bit constrained; he’s a pet, educated in Greek and Latin, who learns the violin and wears beautiful clothing made especially for him. Yes, he does appear to have a lot of teachers or masters, but his mother, whom he describes as a princess, lives with him and provides him with warmth. Oddities creep in: He’s made to weigh his feces and record the differences in weight between the food he eats and the food he eliminates. Soon enough, he discovers that he and his mother are no different from the slaves who serve them, and when funding dries up for the quasi-scientific experiments being conducted upon him, he must deal with his place within the horrors of his time.
Set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Pox Party is told in Octavian’s voice (as he later writes a journal) and in the voice of a white soldier fighting for the fledgling country, writing letters home to his sister. Anderson’s carefully written language flowers fully in both sections. The changes in Octavian’s voice and the horror of what happens to his mother and to him creates a work of exquisite power and moral compass. What some humans do when they assume absolute rule collides with Octavian’s thrust toward personhood, and the complicated results of the pox party (yes, an historical phenomenon that is as real as the experiments conducted on Octavian) lead to an agonizing read. The language and craft might distance some readers from the plot, but both the intellectually and the emotionally engaged reader will leave the book saddened, stunned and wishing volume two were available now. — Suzi Steffen
Portrait of Secrets Past
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Hardcover, $19.95. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
Fun Home should hands-down win a major award this year. But what would it be? Graphic novels haven’t quite caught on with award-givers even though this one, with its smart weave of the visual and verbal, its intertextuality and its beautifully rendered story of secrets, lies and unbearable connections, ranks with the highest-quality memoirs, like Mary Karr’s The Liars Club or Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father. (For that matter, memoirs don’t habitually win major literary prizes; perhaps selection committees find footnotes more compelling than memory.)
Like Craig Thompson’s searing and vulnerable Blankets (2003), Fun Home explores the intimate connections between imagery and the written word, using its grey washes and blue undertones to convey the childhood world of Bechdel’s memory. Bechdel builds her story with subtle art, in some cases mixing hand-inked reproductions of photos, panels of other people’s memories, scenes from movies and pieces of reproduced handwriting. The “fun home” of the title refers to Bechdel’s childhood house, a rotting Victorian restored in loving, obsessive detail by her funeral director father. He’s also an English teacher fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust, a fairly abusive parent, a distant husband and a man who loves having young men helping out around the house. Any hints about what his family secret might be?
Well, moving on: Bechdel goes through what she calls an obsessive-compulsive year in her prepubescence, and as she recovers, her father starts seeing a psychiatrist. “I’m bad, not good like you,” he tells her, in a heartbreaking scene. But the teenage Bechdel knows that while she might not be “bad,” she’s very different from her peers. Soon enough, her life and her dad’s secret collide. This intensely moving, delicately brilliant book, its literary and film referents serving not as shorthand but as support, deserves a large and loyal readership. — Suzi Steffen
Once Upon a Time
Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham with various illustrators. Vertigo, 2006. Hardcover, $19.99.
If you haven’t heard of Fables, Bill Willingham’s Eisner Award-winning comic book series, never fear: this fall’s addition to the line, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, takes place “at least a century” before the previously published books, making it a perfect — and perfectly gorgeous — starting point. The Fables series imagines the stories you haven’t heard about the characters everyone knows: Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Old King Cole. Driven from their enchanted homelands by an enemy known only as The Adversary, the Fables make their new home in a secret corner of New York City (those who can’t pass for human live upstate, on The Farm).
But that’s now; 1001 Nights of Snowfall is then. The book wraps a handful of old tales in new skins, like that of Bigby the wolf, and takes a few happily ever afters to unhappy conclusions, as in “A Frog’s Eye View,” illustrated in beautiful greenish sepia by James Jean. The stories are framed within a Scheherazade device that puts Fable leader Snow White in the palace of a sultan with whom she seeks an alliance. Misled into thinking she’s going to speak to him of politics, not be his bride for the night and his victim in the morning, Snow postpones her death night after night with stories of the Fables. Each story has a different illustrator; some of the most striking work is done by Jean, Esao Andrews and Tara McPherson, whose Snow White and Rose Red sport pincurls and sharp, hipster bangs. McPherson’s panels have a surreal simplicity that perfectly suits the Fables world, in which two sisters looking for shelter come across an old woman who, in story-within-a-story “The Witch’s Tale,” reveals herself as the witch in all the old stories. But even she deserves help fleeing The Adversary. Willingham’s origin stories don’t have quite the narrative tension of the first few Fables volumes, but his strange, familiar world remains irresistibly imagined. — Molly Templeton
An Unfulfilled Life
Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon Books, 2006. Hardcover, $16.95.
Marjane Satrapi’s familial line includes Nasser-al-Din Shah, her great-great-grandfather and Shah of Iran from 1848 to 1896. Satrapi grew up in a liberal family in Tehran until 1983, when at the age of 14 she was sent to Vienna to escape the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Now an award-winning illustrator and best-selling author, Satrapi shared the story of her childhood in her autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2. She’s written children’s books and introduced readers to her family’s bawdy female side in Embroideries, a graphic novel revealing how the womenfolk really felt about sex and gender roles.
This time, Satrapi invites us to Tehran circa 1958, into the life of her great-uncle, Nasser Ali Khan. Though a revered musician, Khan earns little money and contributes almost nothing to the household or care of the children. His wife grows resentful, and one day in a rage she breaks Khan’s beloved tar. After a fruitless search to replace his prized instrument with one of equal quality, he takes to his bed, reliving a lifetime of experiences through dreams, visions and visits from family members trying to snap him out of his funk. Eight days later, he is dead. Satrapi’s imaginative retelling of his last hours has her great-uncle lusting after a hallucination of Sophia Loren and conversing with the Angel of Death. Over the course of eight chapters we view the continuum of Nasser Ali Khan’s life, from his childhood to his children’s futures, along the way discovering what, to him, makes life worth living.
Satrapi’s images are starkly drawn in black and white, almost like block prints. With few embellishments she reveals complex emotions and rich personal history, weaving her family’s multigenerational experiences into the political backdrop of a beloved homeland in turmoil. My only complaint is that the slim volume ends just as I was wanting more. Given Satrapi’s unfailing imagination and seemingly endless family inspiration, there’s surely more to come. — Vanessa Salvia
Lost But Not Lonely
Lost Girls by Alan Moore, illustrated by Melinda Gebbie. Top Shelf Productions, 2006. Hardcover, $75.
Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell) is lauded as the greatest living comic book writer, a Shakespeare of the graphic novel. Your high school English teacher might think that’s like saying he’s CEO of a hot dog cart, but Moore’s fans take him seriously, counting the days between infrequent releases, work that elevates superheroes and science fiction to the rarified level of high literature.
Moore’s thrust with the newly released Lost Girls, a 15-year collaboration with his partner (creative and romantic), artist Melinda Gebbie, is to elevate pornography in a similar fashion. Three women meet at an Austrian hotel on the eve of WWI and learn they have more in common than restlessness and sexual frustration. For these women are grown-up fantasy heroines Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from Through the Looking-Glass. The three become friends and quickly lovers, crafting private interpretations of their fantastic pasts, in which farmhouse-relocating twisters, flights over pirate-infested islands and tumbles down the occasional rabbit hole represent erotic adventures.
Lost Girls is not for kids; besides its adult content, the beast weighs in at over 300 pages. The plotline is more sexual than sexy — incest, rape, bestiality and underage sex all figure prominently — but utilizing the shared narrative universe concept Moore perfected in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the creators craft an understated comment on art, life and war at the turn of the 20th century, woven within the overt storyline of their protagonists’ escapades.
Mixed critical reaction to such themes is inevitable, mirrored by the project’s frequent legal red flags. Portland-based publisher Top Shelf Productions held its collective breath as the book squeaked through Canadian customs, and rights issues have arisen surrounding the Peter Pan characters. For all its problematic content, however, Moore and Gebbie’s new book is a compelling and unsettling masterwork. — Aaron Ragan-Fore
What’s Coming to Dinner?
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. The Penguin Press, 2006. Hardcover, $26.95. A NEW YORK TIMES BEST BOOK OF 2006.
In 400-odd pages of extensively researched, friendly, funny prose, New York Times Magazine writer Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) will turn your food world upside down. Or perhaps he won’t; in this area, plenty of people are exceedingly well-informed about eating locally and organically. But even for those familiar with the farmers’ world, Pollan’s book is an impressively enjoyable trip through four variations on the American food chain.
He begins with large-scale industrial food production, trying to trace one bushel of corn from its start in an Iowa field to its likely end, in one form or another, in a fast food meal. Corn’s ubiquitousness is fascinating and horrifying; Pollan can’t get access to the massive companies which turn the innocuous plant into chemicals and additives, but he writes about corn’s central place in our diets and the diet of many of the animals we eat as informedly as possible.
From industrial feedlots, where cows are forced to eat grain though their stomachs are designed to digest grasses, Pollan ventures a step smaller, into “industrial organic” growing and farming, the staples of stores like Whole Foods. What he uncovers here is likely to upset those who hoped to believe that when we bought that free range chicken, it was a chicken that had actually been outdoors at some point in its short life. Likely as not, it wasn’t, and Pollan deftly explains why. The most uplifting section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the time Pollan spends on the small-scale, natural, organic farm of Joel Salatin. The author spends a week learning the ways of the farm and coming to understand how the healthiest process is not found raising a single crop, but raising animals and plants together, letting one’s natural processes assist the others. The author and the farmer are aware that this is unlikely to happen on a large scale, but simply by telling the story of how it works, they lend weight to the argument for CSAs and for knowing where your food comes from — which, in essence, is the crux of Pollan’s book. In the fourth section, he traces the food path back to its beginning: He hunts, gathers, grows and forages for a complete meal, killing a pig, harvesting mushrooms, even baking bread with the help of the yeast that live in the air.
After each exploration of a food system, Pollan sits down to a meal made with meats and plants grown through that system — and it’s no surprise to read that the foods that take the shortest path to the table taste the best. Pollan’s book may inspire you to be more careful about what you select for each meal. It’s not simply what he learns that has such an impact but the humorous, personal way in which he writes. Pollan went in to this massive project with some ideas about what he’d learn, but things suprise him along the way — and the reader shares in the joy, the pleasure and the education. We are what we eat, certainly; perhaps we are what we read, as well. And The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one hell of a read. — Molly Templeton
Burying the Hatchet
Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Hardcover, $27. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
Terri Jentz’s transcontinental bike trek doesn’t bode well for Oregon tourism. Potential visitors, however much they enjoy her descriptions of our state’s natural beauty, will have second thoughts as Jentz and her college roommate are deliberately run over by a truck and then hacked to the brink of death by a sociopath with an axe.
Like many books in its genre, Strange Piece of Paradise recounts a vicious attack and seeks to investigate the circumstances and emotional traumas behind it. Rarely, however, does the victim of so brutal a crime live to be the one to investigate it.
For 15 years after the 1977 attack, Jentz lived in denial, assuring herself that the anonymous assailant had no power over her. Eventually, she came to realize that in order to truly come to terms with the physical and emotional scars, she needed to put a face to the cowboy abdomen that loomed over her that night.
Her inquiries reveal a probable suspect (an understatement) and uncover an embarrassingly sloppy job on the part of Oregon law enforcement. Though Jentz’s search is for a specific perpetrator, the most compelling thread of the book is the realization that this brutality could happen anywhere. A librarian Jentz meets during her research explains why the story is so powerful and why it still stuck out in her mind after 15 years: “It was the randomness of the event, the violence of [it]. The fact that it made me, as a woman, feel vulnerable.”
At times the prose seems a bit overwrought — with so sensational an event, it seems that plain, simple language would be more powerful — but one gets the feeling that like her investigation, writing this book was part of her healing. If the occasional flowery metaphor comes with that territory, who am I to complain? — Tony Perez
Fire. Smokey. Now.
Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy edited by George Wuerthner. Foundation for Deep Ecology by arrangement with Island Press, 2006. Paperback, $45. Also available: the smaller Wildfire Reader, with no photos, $27.50.
Reader advisory: This hefty, beautifully illustrated book — about as wide as a 25-year-old Doug fir stump — is likely to piss off the following: timber companies, loggers, Forest Service firefighters, the Oregon Board of Forestry, OSU College of Forestry administrators, herbicide companies, Columbia Helicopters and everyone else invested in the Old Forestry view that people should “manage” nature’s wild forces in order to serve humanity’s material needs.
In that line of thinking, wildfire is bad; it steals valuable timber that could have been logged and converted into useful things like paper and houses. Thus the development of a “fire-military-industrial” complex linking the Forest Service to industry and siphoning billions of tax dollars to fight fires on public lands.
Today, ecologists recognize that fire suppression does incalculable damage to forests that have evolved with wildfire, hijacking their natural processes and helping turn them, slowly but surely, into tree farms. Which, not incidentally, is convenient for timber companies hankering to log in public forests, and for land grant universities such as OSU that get a cut of the timber revenue.
In Wildfire, a project of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, more than 25 fire ecology experts — including Eugene’s Timothy Ingalsbee — propose that wildfires are good, and that people’s attempts to control them ultimately backfire. “While this book is about fire policy and fire ecology, it is also a discussion of a much larger philosophical debate over the ultimate role and influence humans should have on natural landscapes,” editor George Wuerthner states in the introduction.
EW was privy to an email string between Big Timber allies reacting to this book. “Makes a feller retch,” former OSU forestry professor Mike Newton wrote. “These guys have money,” replied Bob Zybach of Oregon Websites and Watersheds, a timber think tank of sorts. “I plan to finger and smudge a copy in the bookstore, and then not buy it,” added Lebanon tree farmer Mike Dubrasich, who administers the right-wing forestry blog SOSForests.com.
Their reactions only confirm the deep schism in forestry circles over how to handle wildfire. Those who subscribe to the old utilitarian view are sure to hate Wildfire; those who are deep ecologists, or open to their ideas, are likely to find it a valuable reference. The photos are gorgeous, the writing passionate and the mission clear: Fire Smokey the Bear, and let the forests burn, baby. — Kera Abraham
Deeper Than the Media Spin
Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer. Times Books, 2006. Hardcover, $27.50.
In Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer takes the reader on a 110-year journey through the many times the U.S. actively worked to overthrow foreign governments, beginning with Hawaii in 1893 and closing with the latest round in Iraq. Compared to many recent political books, this one is straightforward, clearly outlining the historical facts as revealed through various documents without much editorializing. Kinzer’s style is neutral enough that my ultra-conservative family enjoyed reading it when I passed it on to them. (I thought they’d scream bloody liberals.)
Let me tell you that though I am not one who usually enjoys reading history (I struggled with the subject in school primarily due to my inability to stay awake when reading the text), I thoroughly enjoyed Overthrow. Kinzer’s written style is engaging and his book hard to put down. Divided into three sections, the book chronicles the shift in U.S. foreign policy as the social climate changed — from overt imperialistic moves to covert actions to the all-out invasions of recent history. He outlines the coups as the government and individuals planned them as well as the media spin on the same actions.
Each of the stories of intrigue, maneuvering and murder leads up to the moment of overthrow, of full engagement. He leaves the rest of the history of the wars, the aftermaths, the chaos that fills the vacuum of deposed leadership to other writers and other history books. Many of the stories from that point we already know. Only in his concluding chapter does Kinzer point out that “Most of these adventures have brought [Americans], and the nations whose histories they sought to change, far more pain than liberation.” — Paula Hoemann
Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast. Dutton, 2006. Hardcover, $25.95.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by starting with that quote from the last paragraph of Greg Palast’s latest book. Full of fascinating rants mixed with lots of information and quite all over the map, Armed Madhouse could make anyone despair of being any use at all in this modern version of democracy that we enjoy. Yet full disclosure is at the start and heart of any real democracy, and that’s what Palast aims for here. With a tabloid style, he parses the war on terror, big oil, peak oil, the new global order’s economics, election fraud, the class war and Katrina. It’s a wild ride through the mind and politics of Palast, supported by reams of research and documentation compiled by his staff. Thus something potentially dry becomes almost comedic, although definitely dark.
After 20 years as an investigator of corporate fraud and racketeering, Palast turned his skills to investigative journalism. However, given the corporate control of most media in the United States, he has found it hard to get his reports printed here. The BBC has no trouble with his content, however, and he has made England, where he is well respected, his home. Armed Madhouse, a lively compilation of stories the U.S. media skirted, is not only fun to read but will strip more veils than a belly dancer. — Paula Hoemann
Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis. Broadway Books, 2006. Paperback, $14.95.
No band deserves a written retrospective more than the Flaming Lips, and no writer deserves to write it more than Jim DeRogatis. They’re the perfect match; neither is in lock-step with popular taste, though each finds occasional, and deep, affection from the mainstream.
Staring at Sound is a story of the personalities behind the band. There are discussions of the music (DeRogatis is, after all, a music critic), but they’re anecdotes next to Wayne Coyne’s family drama of trust lost and regained. Coyne is the star here, both in the book and in the band. DeRogatis opens with Coyne’s father, the ever-trusting, bootstrap-lifting American, and his mother, who believes that anything worth achieving is gained through constant work. Together, they set Wayne and his brother Mark free to be the rock band they want to be.
Pausing Coyne’s story, the book turns to the band’s other founder, Michael Ivins. As a solid yet still supporting player in the band’s direction, Ivins gets his story told, then gets out of the spotlight. That is, he’s out until part of his story coincides with Coyne’s story. Same goes for the other members and former members. We read a page of their background, and then they enter Wayne’s World. Though this time travel can be confusing at some points (a chronology appendix would have been a nice addition), DeRogatis remembers often to remind the reader of his place in the band’s timeline.
It’s all terrific backstory, which is important for the Lips. Fans of their current rich, orchestral music can learn to appreciate the rough rock on which the band begun. Old fans who’ve dismissed their current work can gain appreciation for Coyne’s work ethic and his and Ivins’ vision for the next albums. — Jeffrey Stout
Putting Down Roots
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth L. Helphand. Trinity University Press, 2006. Hardcover, $34.95.
Finishing Kenny Helphand’s wonderful new book over the Thanksgiving holiday, an event all about home and plenty, was an odd experience. The people described in these pages are far from home, starving or both. Most also face mortal danger. Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the UO, vividly describes a landscape architecture from hell: the bizarre world of the trenches at the European Front in WWI, where exhausted soldiers mired in unspeakable horror spent time and effort to make gardens and restore the shattered land. It’s the details that are most touching: immaculate rows of celery, lovingly tended in the bottom of a trench; snowdrops growing in cartridge cases; soldiers begging for flower seeds in their letters home.
Why did they do it? Because, in a nutshell, gardens promise beauty where there is none, hope over despair and life in the face of death. There’s more to it, of course, and as the author digs down to examine how gardens do all that, he uncovers plenty of fascinating material. WWII ghetto gardens, not surprisingly, were largely concerned with food. Pathetically often they were also doomed to fail, but the very act of gardening was an act of resistance where no other was possible. It also provided a trace of cultural continuity, a reminder of a life free from deprivation and humiliation.
Purposeful, productive work can keep you sane. The therapeutic nature of the work of gardening emerges in the ghetto chapter and is enlarged on in the examination of POWs and wartime internees. For interned Japanese-Americans, for instance, camp life provided the time and opportunity to construct amazingly elaborate gardens in the bleakest places. They moved huge rocks and dug and transported full grown trees. Humans seem to have an innate affinity with the natural world; even a leaf in a glass or a distant view of something green can boost the spirits. To be able to connect with that world through one’s own labor and ingenuity is something worth living for. — Rachel Foster
Garden of Life
The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst. Beacon Press, 2006. Hardcover, $26.95.
“First you lose your costume. Then you lose your language. The last thing you lose is your food.” These words from a Polish-American vintner encapsulate the author’s argument that gardening — and food gardening in particular — can provide a way to preserve and connect with one’s cultural heritage.
The book opens with a riveting retelling of the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose trial and execution Klindienst calls one of the greatest betrayals of ethnic America in the 20th century. In a letter written shortly before his execution, Vanzetti gives a lyrical account of his father’s extensive food gardens in Italy. The letter’s energy, the author argues, suggests that the garden embodied for Vanzetti “a map to a moral universe … that transcends intolerance and injustice.”
Klindienst visited and interviewed farmers and gardeners with roots all over the world. Among them are African-Americans in South Carolina, a Japanese-American berry farmer on Bainbridge Island, survivors of the Pol Pot regime and a Yankee farmer who returns seed of white Indian corn to tribes from which it was long ago taken, along with their land, by his own ancestors. These accounts are colorful, beautifully written and often deeply moving.
Like Defiant Gardens, this book is about oppressed and disadvantaged people finding comfort, purpose and dignity in gardening. The author’s attempt to tie their stories into a statement about ethnicity and the land seems a little forced at times. Far more compelling for me is the profound attachment these people feel for the soil and the self respect and community that grows from their contact with it. — Rachel Foster
Families Are Hell
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Hardcover, $22. A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2006.
The scene at the end of the first essay in Jonathan Franzen’s new collection, The Discomfort Zone, is the one you read aloud when someone asks, “What’s so great about Jonathan Franzen?”
He’s recounting a trip to Disneyworld that his middle class suburban parents forced him to go on when he was 15. He’s fought with his mother over clothes and she’s won, making him wear pleated shorts and a “Bing Crosbyish” sport shirt. In return, he’s refused to ride any rides or enjoy himself. His mother demands that the family ride something, so he chooses a merry-go-round. In a photograph of this, his mother captures his father with “a look of resignation that summarized his life.”
The last sentence of the essay is equally devastating: “And we were all equally sorry to be riding the merry-go-round, and we were all equally at a loss to explain what had happened to us.”
It’s essential Franzen. Few have written with such cringing eloquence about the complicated stew of feelings that result from the gap between who our parents want us to be and who we are. His popular novel The Corrections covered similar territory.
While there’s plenty of navel gazing in The Discomfort Zone and plenty of Franzen showing off how clever he is (one essay recounts the pranks he and his smart friends played on his high school faculty under the name DIOTI, an anagram for idiot), Franzen also has a natural curiosity that leads him to some interesting topics — from Charles Schultz and the evolution of “Peanuts” to the literature of Goethe. Franzen weaves these subplots into his own story, blurring the line between the personal and the expository like the master essayist he is.
The final essay is perhaps the best example of that seamlessness. In it, Franzen draws connections between his relationships with women, his yearning for children, global warming and his obsession with birdwatching. It ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note, leaving this reader wondering if Franzen might be writing about his own children next time. — Jamie Passaro
Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine edited by Lisa Jervis & Andi Zeisler. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Paperback, $16.
The following is what the founders of Bitch magazine would like you to know: 1. Feminism is not over. 2. The media lacks respect for women, queers and non-labeled persons (including any man who doesn’t fit the predetermined “breadwinner, stud and beefcake” category). 3. You can do something about it.
That’s the gist of the 58 essays in this anthology, released to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Bitch. Each is unapologetic as you’d expect from something with a name my mother would term “nasty.” The writers find a problem, and, well, bitch about it. The topics range from the light, such as the politics of restroom design, to the heavy, like a call for the end of the victimization of rape, um, “victims.”
Bitchfest isn’t simply feminist theory. It’s a cultural critique of everything pop. Instead of a discussion about abortion legislation, Bitch examines what sitcoms and family dramas reflect about abortion. Rather than the latest polls about women in the workplace, there are analyses of cleaning product commercials.
This method has its positives and its negatives. Since life imitates art as much as art imitates life, there’s a need for monitoring what art has to say about feminism. However, if you’re unaware of the film, song or show used as an example, the essay falls flat. For the media-savvy reader, it’s great fun and thoughtful reading. For the scholar without a television, it may as well be gibberish.
Overall, while this is the best of Bitch, it’s not as good as Bitch. Without brief articles and bits of celebration to round out the long essays, Bitchfest can be a bit of drudgery that the magazine never is. — Jeffrey Stout
The Levees of Our Naïveté
Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne. Random House, 2006. Hardcover, $25.95.
Maybe, like me, you’re fascinated by extreme weather, like a car wreck on the interstate that you just can’t avoid looking at. You know it’s horrible, yet the horror draws your eyes. Or perhaps what drove you to watch as Hurricane Katrina spun nearer to New Orleans was something much more personal: family in her way, friends at risk. Either way, most of us have seen what happened: the destruction of homes and neighborhoods, the stranded survivors, the appalling lack of services and supplies and the political finger pointing and finagling. So why read a book about it?
Breach of Faith takes the reader deeper than most of us experienced this event. For each aspect of his analysis, Jed Horne intertwines the private struggles of an individual or family with the bigger picture, diving into the personal lives of many New Orleans residents and recounting the leadup to Katrina’s landfall and the various ways each survivor came through — no one unscathed. With the clarity of hindsight, he puts much of the chaos of the aftermath into perspective, taking the reader through the labyrinth of politics, emergency services, grassroots responses and congressional inquiry as the events unfold.
Given this, Breach of Faith is a quick read, a real pleasure as far as literary style goes. But don’t get me wrong: This book will piss you off. It will frustrate you as you read of doctors prevented from providing CPR due to bureaucracy, and the twisted reasons rescuers with fleets of personal boats were held back from saving those stranded on rooftops. It will also inspire you as you meet everyday people from all over who rise to the overwhelming challenge before them and shine, saving neighbors and strangers.
Those are reasons to read this book. Add at least one more: Read it in case you still believe that, in a disaster, the cavalry will rush in and save your ass. — Paula Hoemann
The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis. Pantheon, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95.
In her fourth book, Northwestern University media studies professor Laura Kipnis (Against Love) takes on the transitory, conflicted position of women today — at least women who are straight, white and middle class or above, for the most part (Kipnis acknowledges that these women are her main subject). “What follows,” she writes in the preface, “is an updated topography of the female psyche, along with notes on the four primary regions I’ve encountered there.” If that sounds faintly dry, take another look at that title: The Female Thing. That sly, slangy use of the word “thing” is a clue: Kipnis is not your impenetrable, ivory-towered academic type. Her take on the matter of being a woman in the here and now is rooted in a down-to-earth, contradiction-welcoming feminism that doesn’t blush at much of anything, and her lively prose is fresh and accessible.
The Female Thing‘s four parts don’t always go the places you might expect. The heading “Envy” might call to mind issues of female jealousy and competition, but Kipnis looks instead at men and their “stuff” (salaries, rights) and at the self-help industry’s great quest to sell you things meant to fix imagined problems. But Kipnis holds women responsible for many of our own issues. In “Dirt,” she takes a new look at the housework divide, asking whether men really don’t do enough or if they just don’t do it the way women want them to. “I’m sort of contesting a smugness or complacency in the way that women have started thinking about themselves,” Kipnis said in a recent interview. She’s certainly anything but complacent. Sassy, whip-smart and thought-provoking, The Female Thing may make you take a hard look — though a hard look with a sense of humor — at some of your own deeply held ideas about what being a woman means these days. — Molly Templeton
A Call to Arms
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover, $16.95.
Following God’s example, Sam Harris gives his Christian readers an opportunity to exercise their free will by giving them a choice. “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t,” he writes. “Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false.”
In his provocative little book, Harris draws a line in the sand by writing a letter to two types of Christians. He confronts fundamentalists with centuries-old logical inconsistencies and he challenges liberal Christians to stop being “tolerant” of the fundamentalists. Liberals should take a stand against these logical inconsistencies and moral inadequacies known as apologetics — weak explanations for the illogic and immorality found in the Bible.
First, Harris attacks Islam in order to get Christians to sympathize with the idea of refuting the basic tenets of a religion. In so doing, he is able to get many Christians who think Islam is a threat to the world to understand what it means to oppose someone else’s religious viewpoint. But earlier, Harris points out that “every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. … Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity.”
Harris hopes some Christian readers will recognize their own fundamentalist extremists in this mirror — that anything they say about Islam applies to Christianity. Just as European secularists are reluctant to attack some excesses in Islam, so America’s liberal Christians avoid confrontation with their own fundamentalist brethren.
It’s a matter of life and death. Humans are capable of engaging in moral and intelligent behavior and can handle problems of human suffering through intellectual honesty and science. They can do it without religion because “the respect we accord religious faith” and the “flagrantly irrational” behavior that accompanies it “stand in the way.” — Gil Gaudia
It Is Brain Surgery
Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life On The Inside by Katrina Firlik. Random House, 2006. Hardcover, $24.95.
Dr. Katrina Firlik doesn’t divulge any tips on how to perform brain surgery; for that you must endure four years of medical school and seven years of training as she did. But Firlik, the first woman admitted to the prestigious neurosurgery residency program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, does explain why a person would want to crack open another person’s skull. Her surprisingly engaging narrative offers humorous (yes, really!) insight into the daily life of a neurosurgeon.
From the grisly to the mundane, Firlik draws us into an inexplicable journey through the human brain. Throughout the book, we are privy to some of the shocking “locker room” talk of Firlik’s cocky male colleagues. We meet some of her most memorable patients, like the young man with a new wife, newborn daughter and an incurable brain tumor whose diagnosis causes Firlik to break down in tears when delivering the news. We meet a carpenter with a barbed nail driven two inches into his left frontal lobe by a nail gun. He goes home within a day of surgery, but the seven-year old boy who develops bacterial meningitis because of an untreated ear infection isn’t so lucky. We feel firsthand Firlik’s fears and concerns as she works, alone in the ER for the first time, to save the life of an 18-year-old man injured in car accident.
A scant five percent of the 4,500 neurosurgeons in the U.S. are women, but Firlik doesn’t let gender get in the way of telling her story. She reveals that sometimes navigating the bedside manners of her pompous colleagues can be trickier than surgery itself, and by the end of the book we realize that neurosurgeons aren’t superheroes in lab coats, but regular people with their own stressful daily routines, albeit a bit more unusual than our own. — Vanessa Salvia
Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux. W.W. Norton, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95. WINNER, 2006 OREGON BOOK AWARD FOR POETRY.
In Dorianne Laux’s forthright, passionate first-person poem “Superglue,” her narrator observes her stuck-together fingers with a “blush of fear and the feeling of helpless infantile stupidity.” Tempering her predicament with comic relief, she explores the source of her bodily desire for “more double-ness.” She follows the golden thread to the provocative insight: “This is how I began inside my mother’s belly, before I divided toe from toe, bloomed into separation like a peach-colored rose.” Like many of Laux’s poems, sex is the subject.
Last week, Laux won the 2006 Oregon Book Award for Facts About the Moon, a new collection of 39 poems including “Superglue.” Laux said she didn’t know this poem about joining would become a sex poem. “I was surprised,” she said, “but as my [UO] poetry students know, “‘You can count on me.'”
Laux comes from a more liberated time, she said, a time when women were sexually open and willing to talk frankly about sex. “It’s important sex be spoken of as part of our lives,” she said, “so we have less to feel shamed about, fewer reasons to keep secrets.” The challenge is how to write about sex in a serious way that helps integrate it into our daily lives, she said. Laux’s plainsongs are antidotes to the sexcapades she called “the fodder of talk shows.”
I’ve long cherished Laux’s erotically toned poems for their sense that sex cannot be separated from the rest of life. And when Laux’s language is carnal, as in “Kissing Again,” no one gets it better: “…the luxuriant tonguing of another / spongy tongue, the deft flicking and feral sucking, / that prolonged lapping that makes a smooth stone / of the brain. …”
In praise of remembered young lovers whom she calls the “back-then boys” in “The Lost,” she writes: “I loved that they had their own private thoughts, thick / blue veins in their necks and cocks, branching veins / I traced up the backs of their calves, their hands / when they hung at their sides.”
“Poolhall”‘s undisguised sexiness is matched by the restraint of the men who are watching as “She leans over the felt, her pelvis / grazing the sheened maple rubbed / to a gloss by the musky oils / of men’s naked forearms …”
In “Vacation Sex,” Laux writes about a married couple on the road during a busy summer, who share “one long glorious night in a cabin tucked in the woods / where our crooning and whooping started the coyotes / singing.”
My favorite poem in this outstanding collection is modestly called “Face Poem.” It’s unlike any other love poem I have read; I am drawn by the imperfections of the lover’s face and his observer’s tender regard. You must read the entire poem to appreciate its alternating rhythms and intricate images in support of the beloved’s well-worn, working-man’s, deeply trusted face.
Barry Lopez hosted Literary Arts’ sold-out Oregon Book Awards event Dec. 1, commenting that he “drove here under the gibbous moon,” a veiled reference Laux said she later recognized to her book’s title. After Lopez introduced her, Laux described poetry as “the little genre with the big heart.” I think it is the poet whose heart overflows.— Lois Wadsworth
You’ve read Lewis, Lackey, McCaffrey, Pierce and Jacques, graduated to Rowling and then to Tolkien and Pullman, and you’re longing for more. More parallel worlds; more serious issues; more quests. How about parasitic vampires, magic that comes from running and can kill you or drive you crazy, an accomplished thief who falls for a very dangerous woman, uncontrollable demons and young ministers trying to stop Eastern European invasions of a vaguely Victorian London? Oh yeah, baby: It’s the EW young adult fantasy roundup.
What are recent trends in YA fantasy? Arthurian legends, of course, keep on coming; Elizabeth Wein’s series (Winter Prince, Coalition of Lions, Sunbird) moves in the world of imperial Ethiopia as well as Britain, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur series weaves legend with the Crusades for a unique blend. Speaking of the Crusades, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan books and K. M. Grant’s de Granville Trilogy mix religion, a bit of fantasy and heart-thumping historical adventure to create psychologically compelling characters. Also on the sort-of historical fantasy side is Megan Whalen Turner’s ancient Greece-ish King of Attolia, the third in a trilogy that began with the wonderful The Thief and continued with The Queen of Attolia. That trilogy vies for intensity and complexity with Jonathan Stroud’s Victorian London threesome: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye (one of the best alternate-history/magician fantasies ever written) and this year’s Ptolemy’s Gate. This trilogy, which should be cross-shelved in the adult section of the library (but isn’t; instead it’s bizarrely cross-shelved in children’s) deals incisively with class, betrayal and slavery alongside a mix of fast-paced adventure and acerbic comments from a footnote-writing demon. Can’t go wrong with Stroud.
And YA fantasy is blessed with the wonder-writing duo of Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld. Both of these superhero writers maintain witty, intelligent blogs (Larbalestier’s is www.justinelarbalestier.com/blog and Westerfeld’s is www.scottwesterfeld.com/blog) as they zip around the planet and pump out the books. Actually, Westerfeld is more like a conglomerate (though he’s only one person, or so Larbalestier claims), and I marvel at the punishing pace at which he pushes out trilogies and stand-alones. A Westerfeld beginner might start with the cool-making alterworld of So Yesterday and then get hooked on the foreseeable futuristic Uglies/Pretties/Specials tomes before perhaps hopscotching to the parasitic vampire adventure Peeps and its more-recent-but-not-as-interesting companion novel The Last Days. The most consistently fascinating group of books is the Midnighters trilogy, with more character development and more heart-pounding adventure than the others (though one Westerfeld fan at EW claims it’s “a little too WB-friendly,” which might be true in a Roswell sort of way).
Larbalestier produces at a saner rate (yes, that’s right; she hasn’t gotten shingles from writing as her husband did); her first trilogy, which began with 2005’s Magic or Madness, continued with Magic Lessons this year and concludes (maybe!) with next March’s Magic’s Child. This series, which bounces from NYC to Sydney with accompanying twists of slang, takes place in under a week. In that week, young people fall in love, get smacked around by golems, learn to control magic, drink too much, keep their energy away from bloodsucking grandparents, rescue crazy parents and oh, so much more. Even ignoring Diana Wynne-Jones’ latest Crestomanci book, Catherine Fisher’s The Oracle Prophecies trilogy, Edith Pattou’s massive East and too many others to mention, the world of young adult fantasy can provide many an imaginative treat this rainy winter. — Suzi Steffen