Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nonfiction Animal Books: Soldier Bear, The Elephant Whisperer, The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

"A giant Pacific octopus - the largest of the world's 250 or so octopus species - can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male's three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific octopus has 1,600 of them. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, an octopus can take the opportunity to escape..." 
The Japanese word for octopus is tako which means the first time I ate octopus I thought I had ordered a taco. Beware of homophones! I didn't know too much about octopuses (or octopods - never octopi) before I read this book. I knew they're really smart and can get into and out of crazy complicated spaces, I knew they have three hearts, I knew they're good at predicting World Cup winners. 300 pages of Montgomery's amazing non-fiction book (written for an adult audience but appropriate and appealing for young adults) and I am now much more knowledgeable and a little obsessed. To be clear, I spent an entire day researching how to have a pet octopus and was a little devastated to discover that the black telescope goldfish I named 'tako' in high school is the closest I will ever have to owning my own tako. 

This book is part non-fiction information about octopods, part philosophical wonderings about consciousness, part memoir about Montgomery's personal life. I find all three of these genre appealing, and I am now completely in love with octopuses, so this will surely be one of my favorite books of the year. 

Montgomery gains access to the behind-the-scenes area of the New England Aquarium, allowing her to meet and befriend the different octopods that call that space their home. I found the information fascinating, but someone who already loves octopuses might find it a bit remedial. She is even allowed to touch the octopuses, and these descriptions were some of my favorite in the book. 
"I stroked [the octopus's] head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me. Clearly, each of us wanted the other's company, just as human friends are excited to reunite with each other. With each touch and each taste, we seemed to reiterate, almost like a mantra: 'It's you! It's you! It's you!'"
Montgomery includes the other New England Aquarium volunteers and employees in her narrative, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about their personal lives and how they ended up with their arms stuck in a very cold tank letting an octopus use her suckers to taste them. The only part of the book I didn't love was Montgomery getting her SCUBA certification to join research expeditions to study octopuses in the wild. I had already read details about that research in the excellent picture book The Octopus Scientists (also by Montgomery), so that was a little redundant since I read both in the same week. 


Last week I found myself at the Aquarium of the Pacific and I spotted a gorgeous giant Pacific octopus in a tank in front of a line. 'Of course a person would want to wait in line to stare at this majestic creature,' I thought, and dutifully waited in line with all the 10 year olds. I stood off to the side of the tank so the littlies would be able to see and just sighed and marveled at this incredible being. She turned white and striped, changed her texture from smooth to spiky, and her color undulated between bright red and dark red. She moved around her tank, and I watched her for about 15 minutes until she tucked herself into a corner to hide. 

When I finally let my thoughts disentangle from her tentacles, I realized that the line was not for the octopus tank at all, but for a petting tank. The octopus was the opening act, the preshow. I felt miffed on behalf of the cephalopod - no sea star can compete with the soul of an octopus. 


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The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

"She got straight to the point...would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephants?...
'They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants.'
'As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, she's also learnt how to unlatch gates with her tusks and the owners aren't too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don't take them, they will be shot.'"





Lawrence Anthony, like Sy Montgomery, is not a scientist by trade. He does, however, run a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa (the kind of reserve where you take pictures as souvenirs - not heads). He is a wild animal lover who truly believes that animals should be wild in their natural habitat with as little human interference as possible. When presented with a free herd of 9 elephants that included babies, (well, free except for transportation, adding a giant electric fence around the whole reserve, chopping down all trees near the fence so they can't be used to take down the fence, creating a holding area that is elephant proof and also electrified, getting all these structures approved by the powers that be, and of course, feeding the elephants while they were in their elephant proof holding area which involved Anthony at one side of the area and another ranger at the other side as they alternated distracting the herd and pushing up to 2,000 pounds of alfalfa through the fence - other than that they were totally free!), Anthony couldn't resist saving them from certain deaths.

Incorporating a herd of elephants is very very complicated because elephants are giant and destructive and this particular group was pretty angry at the world. Their first night on the reserve, they break out of their elephant proof holding area, out of the electric reserve fence, and go on the run. Several days of helicopter chases later, they're back on the reserve but even more dangerous because now they know they can escape. Anthony wrestles terribly with how to keep the elephants and keep them safe (as soon as they're outside of the reserve, they're a danger to people and villages, and poachers can legally kill them).
"Then in a flash came the answer. I decided there and then that contrary to all advice, I would go and live with the herd. I knew the experts would throw up their hands in horror as we had been repeatedly instructed that to keep them feral, human contact...must be kept to the barest minimum. But this herd had already had too much human contact of the very worst kind, and their rehabilitation, if such a thing was even possible at all, called for uncommon measures...I would remain outside the [structure], of course, but I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them, but most importantly, be with them day and night."
Here begins the story of the elephant whisperer desperately trying to figure out how to balance saving the herd with keeping them wild. The story of the elephants is the main narrative that runs throughout this thick book, and it is certainly what readers will expect and want, but the subnarratives and anecdotes that don't involve the elephants are just as interesting and entertaining. Cowriter Graham Spence has done an excellent job interweaving stories about running the reserve, anecdotes about funny or dangerous animal encounters, and the politics between the white reserve owner Lawrence Anthony and the Zulu tribes and clans as they attempt to co-create an even larger game reserve that involves lands owned by many different people.

This is one of the few books I've read recently that is not young adult and not for any classes. When I picked it out at the airport, I felt like I was giving myself the gift of a good book, and luckily it lived up to that idea expectation perfectly. I also really really really want to go to the Thula Thula reserve where you can stay for 9 all-inclusive nights for under $2000 USD (airfare not included).

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Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak illustrated by Philip Hopman

" 'You bad bear, what have you been up to now? And what on earth are all of those things doing on your head? What do you think you are? A clothesline?' The bear put his paws back over his eyes and started rocking slowly backward and forward. The unsuspecting bear had wandered into the women's quarters...'Hello,' [the woman] said to him, in a friendlier voice. 'Aren't you a funny bear!' 'Nice to meet you,' the second soldier said. 'I'm Stanislav, that's Peter, my best friend and the bear's master. And the bear? Well, he's Private Voytek - and it's about tie we started chaining him up.' "



This book tells the true story of Private Voytek, a bear and a member of the 2nd Polish Corps during WWII. A group of Polish soldiers find a boy carrying a baby bear in a sack in Iran. They trade a few things for the bear and find themselves in various hijinks which include the repeated scene of the group of soldiers going to a new place or being under a new command and having to explain, justify, beg, and plead to keep the bear. The soldier's menagerie grows until at one point they are begging an officer to let them take a Voytek, a monkey, a dalmation, a mutt, a parrot, and pigs on a ship as they get transported from the Middle East to Italy. While the story is interesting and provides a good introduction to WWII, the audience is hard to determine.

At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
Less than a hundred pages later, the Polish soldiers share the traumatic horrible things they've witnessed:
"Do you know what it feels like to see two boys standing there and then getting blown to pieces the next second with bits of them hanging from the trees?" ... Then Peter said, "I saw a boot a while ago and it still had a chunk of someone's leg in it." ... "And do you know what I saw the other day?" Pavel said. "A dead soldier with a cigarette in his mouth. And it was still lit. He was lying on his side, like he was having a nap, but there was a fresh bullet in his head." 
Most of the book seems like it's written for grades 3-6, but that scene (which is definitely the most graphic in the novel) would make me a little uncomfortable sharing it with the younger crowd. Overall, the book was okay or a little less than okay. I know part of my disappointment is because I don't usually read books for this age range (I enjoy picture books and books for grade 6+ but I do not and have never wanted to work with elementary school kids), but I think another part is because I had just read two really great non-fiction books about animals that I was mentally comparing it to. There's no information about bears in general, bear life, or why this bear was so tame when pet bears are generally a really bad idea - we don't even find out what kind of bear it is until the very end. Private Voytek is an interesting anecdote that kept soldiers' morale up in horrific circumstances, but I would have been satisfied with a single podcast or a long news article about him.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult.  Flesh will burn, photos will burn, and memory, what is that?  The imperfect ramblings of fools who will not need to see the need to forget.  And if we can't dispose of it we can alter it.  The dead don't shout.  There is a certain seductiveness about what is dead.  It will retain all those admirable qualities of life with none of that tiresome messiness associated with live things.  Crap and complaints and the need for affection.  You can auction it, museum it, collect it.  It's much safer to be a collector of curious, because if you are curious, you have to sit and sit and see what happens.  You have to wait on the beach until it gets cold, and you have to invest in a glass-bottomed boat, which is more expensive than a fishing rod, and puts you in the path of the elements.  The curious are always in some danger.  If you are curious you might never come home, like all the men who now live with mermaids at the bottom of the sea.

I am giving up the 11th grade next year and going back to teaching the 10th.  That means goodbye, American Lit, goodbye Invisible Man and The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby.  Our 10th grade curriculum is much more eclectic--I can't say I'm looking forward to re-reading The Odyssey, but it'll be nice to come back to The Metamorphosis again.  We're also probably the only school in the country that teaches Jeanette Winterson's coming-of-age gay novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

When I read it last, I dreaded it because I really hated Winterson's novel Sexing the Cherry.  I was surprised to find that Oranges wasn't bad, and on this second reading (really more of a fourth, considering I read it along with two sections of the tenth grade in 2013) I was surprised to find that I genuinely liked it.  Without Sexing the Cherry darkening the corner of my vision, I was able to enjoy the humor that pervades the novel.  Most of it is mildly at the expense of Winterson's Charismatic Pentecostal upbringing:

I felt a bit awkward so I went to the Sunday School Room.  There was some Fuzzy Felt to make Bible scenes with, and I was just beginning to enjoy a rewrite of Daniel in the lions' den when Pastor Finch appeared.  I put my hands into my pockets and looked at the lino.

'Little girl,' he began, then he caught sight of the Fuzzy Felt.

'What's that?'

'Daniel,' I answered.

'But that's not right,' he said, aghast.  'Don't you know that Daniel escaped?  In your picture the lions are swallowing him.'

'I'm sorry,' I replied, putting on my best, blessed face.  'I wanted to do Jonah and the whale, but they don't do whales in Fuzzy Felt.  I'm pretending those lions are whales.'

'You said it was Daniel.'  He was suspicious.

He smiled.  'Let's put it right, shall we?'  And he carefully rearranged the lions in one corner, and in Daniel in the other.  'What about Nebuchadnezzar?  He started to root through the Fuzzy Felt, looking for a king.

'Hopeless,' I thought, Susan Green was sick on the tableau of the three Wise Man at Christmas, and you only get three kings to a box.

I left him to it.  When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I'd seen Pastor Finch.

'He's in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,' I replied.

'Don't be fanciful, Jeanette,' said the voice.

That's funny.  On another level, you might read it as a statement on the restrictiveness of Jeanette's upbringing, and her mother's religion.  And you wouldn't be wrong.  But you might also read it as part of a kunstlerroman, a novel about the development of an artist, and consider the way that Jeanette plays loosely with the structures of Biblical narrative, but doesn't abandon them.

The problem I had teaching this novel, and the problem I anticipate having once again, is that students are happy to sit at the first few levels.  Representation of gay characters is important, and I'm glad we teach this book.  But to some extent, it can be calcifying--instead of encouraging our students to push the limits of their thinking, it can encourage them to confirm the things they already think and believe.  I don't particularly care what my students think about religion.  But I hope that I can get them to see how even the chapters are named after books of the Bible, and that Jeanette uses the religious stories and structures to help understand her life even long after she has been chased out of the church for being gay.  That's what makes Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit so powerfully tragic, but it's difficult to appreciate if you have never felt the need for a religious community in the first place.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank



Both Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot and Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home are coming of age novels that follow women as they find their place in the world. Bank's novel does so over a 25 year span while Brunt follows her protagonist over the course of a very tumultuous few months, but both women emerge, like all protagonists, as new, more complete humans.

By late August, I’m on my second sublet, and I’ve been working as a copywriter long enough to know I’m not good at it. I seem to be reliving the life I had when I was twenty-two, but I’m about to run twenty-eight, which feels like the opposite of twenty-two.

The Wonder Spot was a fun, quick read. Each chapter puts us inside Sophie Applebaum's head a different stage of her life, starting with a Bat Mitzvah ("When I pulled [my mother's] wrist over to look at her watch and made a face that signified, I'm dying, she posed her mouth in a smile. Then she held my hand as though we were in love") and ending at party in Brooklyn in Sophie's 40s ("I tell him that a party in Brooklyn is a commitment. It takes effort. It's like a wedding: You can't just drop by."). The chapters in between are full of Sophie's attempts to find a man and a job, and packed with a cast of characters befitting a quirky rom com set in New York City.

The book had more of an edge than your average beach read romance; Sophie is smarter, funnier, and more sarcastic than your everyday heroine. Her sense of frustration with the world around her and her observations on life, first as a teenager and later as an adult, are cutting and astute: "Like most adults, my mother seemed to believe that a nearby birth date was kids required for instant friendship. I told her I hoped she got to sit with the other forty-one- and forty-two-year-olds."

There aren't any groundbreaking thoughts or hugely moving moments in the book, but it was just what I needed at the end of the school year when my brain was totally fried. It was smart enough to not feel too much like a guilty pleasure, but easy enough not to take too much work.

It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn't be a mother and it was likely you wouldn't become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You'd become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you'd have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.

I love the opening sentences of novels, and for some reason I especially love the first sentences of dark coming of age novels. The opening of Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding is one of my all time favorites, but the start of Tell the Wolves I'm Home is pretty damn good too: "My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying." From there, Brunt takes us through six months in the life of June Elbus, a delightfully strange and impressively insightful 15 year old. We follow June as she wrestles with the death of her uncle (whom she loved so much she worries that she may have been in love with), her estrangement from her gorgeous, talented sister, and a new taboo friendship with her uncle's lover whom her family blames for her uncle's death. 

June is by far the best part of the novel. She is is sad and lonely and odd--she spends hours wandering through the woods behind her high school pretending to be in the middle ages--and just off enough to make you frustrated with her from time to time and keep things interesting. I usually don't have patience for characters who wallow, but Brunt manages to make June grow just enough through her grief that her process is both believable and heartening. The lessons June learns throughout are tinged with enough sadness that it never feels saccharine or trite.

Often books centered around grieving can stagnate, the primary movement is internal, so there isn't space for too much action elsewhere. Brunt, however, keeps things moving; June builds new relationships, solves mysteries, and works to fit her new sense of the world into her pre-existing sense of her family. The book, like June, is constantly moving forward (or trying and sometimes failing to). There isn't just one central problem of grief to be resolved, but many interconnected problems; you care enough about June and about everyone else to care how they work out. 

Maybe the most interesting relationship in the book is between June and her overachieving sister, Greta. Greta comes across as truly horrid at the start. In one opening scene, she threatens to make June kiss their uncle (who has AIDS and whom June secretly may have feelings for) by dangling mistletoe above them, and she continues to terrorize June about her feelings for their uncle, even after his death. Then, as the story progresses, we see flashes of humanity and weakness from her, and June is left to reconcile her childhood memories of their close, loving relationship with the mess they have now. Greta is a little bit of a caricature of the hyper successful older sister, but the interactions between them feel real and genuinely painful. It also doesn't come to a neat, perfect conclusion, which I appreciate. 

I couldn't put this one down. It's sad and riveting and full of characters that are satisfyingly imperfect. The realizations June comes to feel real and relatable, and they give you hope for yourself, no matter how screwed up you feel at the time. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

He himself, Sam, had had the pleasure of being a father, five times already, and imagine the joy when he found that at one birth he had twins!  He could never have it enough.  Each time, he explained to Naden, he felt an immense pride, a belief in a limitless future, in an unfolding universe, a hope for the proliferating human race in that shadow of dust, and infinitesimal corner of dimensionless space, even so.

Oh, man.  Some books are just sui generis--completely in their own category, impossible to ever reproduce, even by the same author.  I can't imagine even Christina Stead writing another book like The Man Who Loved Children.  How could she?  The family that she writes about--a fictionalized version of her own, you're horrified to find out--is so unique and irreproducible that it can only exist once.  It's like Tolstoy's thesis that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," expounded on for 500 pages.

The title character is Sam Pollitt, a low-level bureaucrat in the Fisheries Department of some division of the federal government.  Sam is a classic early-20th century Progressive Rationalist, full of far-flung ideas about the future and mankind, a patronizing attitude toward foreign races and a keenness for eugenics.  Sam loves children, especially his own, and sees them as an extension of his own fine feelings about humanity.  He has a private language with them, a mish-mash of pet names and baby-talk:

'Bring up your tea, Looloo-girl: I'm sick, hot head, nedache [headache]; dot pagans in my stumjack [got pains in my stomach]: want my little fambly around me this morning.  We'll have a corroboree afterwards when I get better.  Mother will make the porridge.'  He was begging her, yearning after her.

This stuff is hard to read, even when Stead gives bracketed translations; but it seems true to life.  All books teach you how to read them, but The Man Who Loved Children requires you to study really hard.  ("Corroboree," by the way, gives away the Australian Stead's scrupulous Americanizing of her own father.)  Sam's child-language, and his childish behavior--indifference toward money, even when it's short, his selfishness and laziness--drive his wife Henrietta to madness.  He calls hims "Sam-the-Bold," she calls him "The Great-I-Am."  For most of the book, they are not on speaking terms, except to shout and claw at each other violently:

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncollectible round its edge, the thousand storms of her confined life would rise up before here, thinner illusions on the steam.  She did not laugh at the words 'a storm in a teacup.'  Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman's life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress: all the civil war of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened, at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

And if these two powerful characters weren't enough, Stead adds a third in the child Louisa, or Louie, Sam's daughter from a previous marriage.  Louie is a dark and troubled genius, literary where her father is scientific, gloomy where her father is sanguine, and sensitive to the dismay of others, like Henrietta, when Sam blithely ignores them.

Sam's love for his children is really a kind of narcissism.  He loves them to the extent that they are reflections of himself, and when they fail to live up to his fantastic ideals his fine feeling turn to cruelty.  This happens over and over, in scenes that are funny, grotesque, and vivid.  Louie writes a play in a made-up language called Tragos: Herpes Rom (Tragedy: The Snake-Man) and has the children perform it for her father, with the aid of a translation.  ("Did Euripides write in English?" she asks).  The play is about a father who wants to hug his daughter, but she feels threatened by his constrictor-like embrace, and refuses.  Louie wants desperately to show her father how he mistreats her, and with the play Stead shows cannily how we crave the approval of our parents even as we want to overthrow them.  But Sam cannot hear this, he only sees feminine silliness: "I did not expect you to be so silly," he says, "you were the child of a great love... I never heard so much idiotic drivel in my born days.  Go and put your fat head under the shower."  When another of his sons complains that the smell of the fish they have been boiling for oil is making him sick, Sam forces him to carry the fish's rotting remains to the shed piece-by-piece while he vomits over and over again.

The novel has the downward-hurtling trajectory of a great tragedy.  Halfway through the book, scandal forces Sam out of his job at the Fisheries Department, and he refuses to recognize evil by responding to the accusations.  His idealism forces them into a rundown shack in Annapolis, where they live in increasing squalor and tension.  Henrietta is forced to steal money from her own children to make ends meet, while Sam prattles about the nobility of poverty, until his own petty wants are not addressed:

Sam flushed with anger.  'Why aren't there any bananas?  I don't ask for much.  I work to make the Home Beautiful for one and all, and I don't even get bananas.  Everyone knows I like bananas.  If your mother won't get them, why don't some of you?  Why doesn't anyone think of poor little Dad?'  He continued, looking in a most pathetic way round, at the abashed children, 'It isn't much.  I give you kids a house and a wonderful playground of nature and fish and marlin and everything, and I can't even get a little banana.  And bananas are very healthy.  Who here likes bananas?'

Such selfishness is hard to believe.  And yet, Stead makes us believe it: Sam, Henny, and Louisa are each in their own way fully bizarre, but they are believable in every respect.  Making the absurd seem plausible is one of a writer's great achievements, I think.  At the same time, Sam is not wholly unsympathetic: perhaps he cannot help his ignorance, can never see that his daughter hates him and his household is falling apart; maybe his own private idealistic universe is just too powerful.

When the novel comes to its expected tragic and and grisly end, it seems almost too commonplace.  The Man Who Loved Children is so bizarre, so awful, so fantastical, that there is a double sadness in the ordinariness of its tragic climax.

The Man Who Loved Children is one of those books that was a financial and critical failure when it came out, only to have its reputation resurrected by a single fan, in this case, the poet Randall Jarrell, although Jonathan Franzen has also written about his love for the novel.  In his introduction, Jarrell compares it to Moby Dick, another novel that was unloved at its publication.  And there's something Moby Dick-esque in the fullness and variability of Stead's prose, though that's not the way that Jarrell meant it.  In truth, I can think of very few people that I would recommend this to.  It requires a lot of patience and thick nerves.  The kind of reader who complains about characters not being "relatable" should steer clear.  But for a certain kind of person, this is an unforgettable book.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

You gulp down the usual thin soup, spitting the claws out into your palm, and start thinking, looking at the feeble, bluish flame of the candle, listening to the scuttering and scurrying under the floor, the crackle in the stove, the wail just outside the window, begging to me let in; something white, heavy, cold, unseen.  You suddenly imagine your izba far off and tiny, like you're looking down at it from a treetop, and you imagine the whole town from a far, like it was dropped in a snowdrift, and the empty fields around, where the blizzard ranges in white columns like someone being dragged under the arms with his head arched back.  You imagine the northern forests, deserted, dark, impassable; the branches rock in the northern trees, and on the branches, swaying up and down, is the invisible Slynx--it kneads its paws, stretches its neck, presses its invisible ears back against its flat, invisible head, and it cries a hungry cry, and reaches, reaches for the hearth, for the warm blood pounding in people's necks: SSSLYYYNNXXX!

Benedikt lives in a town that used to be Moscow, centuries after The Blast, an apocalyptic event that killed many and left most others with bizarre Consequences: the ability to breath fire, or cockscombs over the eyelids, or a tail, like Benedikt.  Those who have it worst are the four-legged Degenerators who are hooked up to sleds and used by the mighty Murzas to travel around.  Benedikt, being a simple peasant, survives on the mice he finds in his humble izba and has a modest job recording the works of their fearless leader, Fyodor Kuzmich.  He scrupulously avoids the woods, where the terrifying worm-like Slynx prowls.

It's not a bad life.  But Benedikt begins to suspect that the voluminous poetry and prose supposedly written by Fyodor Kuzmich may not be his own work at all.  A pair of Oldeners--immortals who were alive before The Blast--commission him to create a wooden sculpture they call "the pushkin," hinting at a rich literary legacy that precedes even Kuzmich.  When he marries the beautiful Olenka, her father, the head of a thought-police like organization called the Saniturions, introduces him to an immense library of books.

The structure of The Slynx seems at first to play along familiar lines.  We expect that Benedikt's newfound passion for books will lead him to a larger wisdom, and perhaps give him the courage to overthrow the reign of Fyodor Kuzmich.  And that happens, sort of.  ("Why, why are you ousting meeee?" whines the dwarf Kuzmich.  "You're not nice!")  But Tolstaya cynically suggests that bibliophilia and high culture don't necessarily translate into wisdom or empathy.  ("I see you love culture," says Benedikt's father-in-law as he finds him reading a book.  "I adore culture," Benedikt replies.)  Benedikt is as happy reading The Plague of Domestic Animals: Fleas and Ticks as he is reading Pushkin, and he assumes from the tatteredness of his copy of Chekhov that the playwright was a sloppy, careless man.

One of the funniest bits in the novel is a long catalog of books, organized by Benedikt, who has no conception of an ordered alphabet.  He groups The Red and the Black with Baa Baa Black Sheep, Appleton with Bacon and Cooke, Beerbohm with Drinkwater and Dryden, Coffin with Dyer.  Marinetti--the Ideologist of Fascism is grouped with Marinating and Pickling.  Anais Nin is grouped with Mutant Ninja Turtles Return.

Tolstaya's vision of the future is frightening, funny, a little silly and gross.  It's also perfectly realized.  But far from being a warning, like 1984 or Brave New World, Tolstaya equivocates over the qualities of the Dark Age future and the enlightened past.  Benedikt's Oldener friends cherish a relic they've found, which turns out to be instructions for a meat grinder:

The wheel has been reinvented, the yoke is returning to use, and the solar clock as well!  We will soon learn to fire pottery!  Isn't that correct, friends?  The time of the meat grinder will come.  Though at present it may seem as mysterious as the secrets of the pyramids--we don't even know if they still stand, by the way--as incomprehensible to the mind as the canals of the planet Mars--the hour will come, friends, when it will start working!

But while they dream of "the time of the meat grinder," the local peasants are using the pushkin to hang their laundry.  The Slynx itself becomes a symbol of the inescapable meanness and emptiness of humanity, which frequently fails to be softened or ennobled by literature or tradition.  It's a cynical book, I think, more cynical than even Orwell was.  But it's a hell of a lot funnier.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Summer.  The speedboat was serious.  The young tycoon was serious about it, as he was serious about his factories, his wife, his children, his parties, his work, his art collection, his resort.  The little group had just had lunch, at sea, aboard the tycoon's larger boat, a schooner.  The speedboat, designed for him the year before, had just arrived that day.  The tycoon asked who would like to join him for a spin to test it.  The young American wife from Malibu, who had been overexcited about everything since dawn, said she would adore to go.  Her husband, halfway through his coffee still, declined.  The young Italian couple, having a serious speedboat of their own, went to compare.  In starting off, the boat seemed like any other, only in every way--the flat, hard seats, the austere lines--more spare.  And then, at speed, the boat, at its own angle to the sea, began to hit each wave with flat, hard, jarring thuds, like the heel of a hand against a tabletop.  As it slammed along, the Italians sat, ever more low and loose, on their hard seats, while the American lady, in her eagerness, began to bounce with anticipation over every little wave.  The boat scudded hard; she exaggerated every happy bounce.  Until she broke her back.

Why is this anecdote so central to this book, more or less a collection of anecdotes, that it provides the title: Speedboat?  It is certainly typical of the book's style.  There are characters, only tangentially connected to the narrator, who appear only to tell this specific story.  It is brief, minimalist, and the twist of shocking and violent.  It's wry and ironical.  The miniature stories that make up Speedboat come quickly, with their own hard thuds.  Is that what life is, a series of anecdotes lived out at breakneck speed?

There is a narrative arc to Speedboat which takes us through the story of the narrator, a New York journalist named Jen Fain, as she passes through assignments, apartments, groups of friends, boyfriends.  But this narrative arc seems less important than the small, crystalline stories that gather around it, many of which have little or nothing to do with Jen herself.  You might say the book itself is journalistic, in function and in style.

I loved Speedboat.  I dog-eared almost every other page.  Some of the stories are just funny:

In a public school in a run-down section of Brooklyn, Mrs. Cavell, under a grant for special projects, was conducting her kindergarten civics class.  "What are you?" she would say to her little people, right after the bell each weekday morning.  "I'm free," they learned to say, as one.  On a particularly cold, bleak morning of midwinter, Mrs. Cavell tried a variation.  "Today, we are going to say it in our individual voices," she said.  "When I call on you , I want you to stand and say it proudly.  All right.  Jefferson Adams, what are you?"  Jefferson Adams got it.  "I'm free," he replied.  "Right.  What are you, Franklin Atell?"  "I'm free," Franklin Atell said.  Mary Lou Jones had to me asked to speak up, but then she said it frimly, "I'm free."  Up and down the rows of carved and gum-stuck desks in the pre-school classroom, the words rang out, but Mrs. Cavell, a good soul, who had taught for thirty years in Brooklyn, saw a look of somehow disquieting revolution on Billy Martin's face.  "What are you, Billy Martin?" Mrs. Cavell asked.  "I am four," he said.

Others seem powerfully true:

Last week, I went to a dinner party on Park Avenue.  After 1 a.m., something called the Alive or Dead Game was being played.  Someone would mention an old character from Tammany or Hollywood.  "Dead," "Dead," "Dead," everyone would guess.  "No, no.  Alive.  I saw him walking down the street just yesterday," or "Yes.  Dead.  I read a little obituary notice about him last year."  One of the little truths people can subtly enrage or reassure with is who--when you have looked away a month, a year--is still around.

I love this oblique meditation on what I understand as the moneyed class in NYC:

The camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great difficulty, through the eye of the needle.  The Apollo flight, the four-minute mile, Venus in Scorpio, human records on land and at sea-- these had been events of enormous importance.  But the camel, practicing in near obscurity for almost two thousand years, was passing through.  First the velvety nose, then rest.  Not many were aware.  But if hte lead camel and then perhaps the entire caravan could make it, the thread, the living thread of camels, would exist, could not be lost.  No one could lose the thread.  The prospects of the rich would be enhanced.  "Ortega tells us that the business of philosophy," the professor was telling his class of indifferent freshmen, "is to crack open metaphors which are dead."

Sometimes Adler tosses up a stark and affecting image:

Sometimes a stupid child would tie a firecracker to a crayfish or a frog just once, and light the fuse.  Or give a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.

And I can't tell you how much I love this description of television commercials, the last sentence of which I am officially inducting into the Great Sentence Hall of Fame:

A lady lifted the lid of her toilet tank and found a small yachtsman, on the deck of his boat, in the bowl.  They spoke of detergents.  A man with fixed dentures bit into an apple.  A lady in crisis of choice phoned her friend from a market and settled for milk of magnesia.  A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.

Speedboat is one of those books where I find myself not having much to say, preferring just to show you my favorite bits and get out of its way.  These little stories never really cohere into anything, but they give a unified impression, true perhaps to the frenetic pace of life in the city--instantly recognizable to me, even forty years after the book's publication--and the dizzying speed of the passage of life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Old-fashioned shrinks are out of style and generally out of work.  We, who like our mentor Dr. Freud believe there is a psyche, that it is born to trouble as the sparks fly up, that one gets at it, the root of trouble, the soul's own secret, by venturing into the heart of darkness, which is to say, by talking and listening, mostly listening, to another troubled human for months, years--we have been superseded by brain engineers, neuropharmacologists, chemists of the synapses.  And why not?  If one can prescribe a chemical and overnight turn a haunted soul into a bustling little body, why take on such a quixotic quest as pursuing the secret of one's very self?

Walker Percy is one of the last authors I ever expected to turn to science fiction, if that's what it is.  And to be sure, for the most part, the Louisiana of The Thanatos Syndrome resembles that of The Moviegoer: lovingly rendered, at times both exotic and banal, as full of country clubs as it is swamps.  But Percy infrequently reminds us that this world is not our own.  There are the qualitarian centers, for example, that engage in euthanasia for the very old and the very young, if they are disabled or unfit.  The modern psychopharmaceutical industry of The Thanatos Syndrome is much like ours, though it cast its shadows just a little longer.

Tom More, the "failed but not unhappy" therapist who is the novel's protagonist (and the protagonist of Percy's previous novel Love in the Ruins--why do I keep accidentally picking up his sequels?) is a traditional doctor in world that no longer seems to have a place for them.  But in his practice he begins to notice what others have not: that the people of Feliciana Parish are acting strangely.  They are taciturn, obedient, less troubled, but computer-like.  Ask them where St. Louis is, and they might tell you that it is 600 miles north of New Orleans.  And the women, for some reason, keep coming on to Dr. More by turning around and presenting their butts.

With the help of his sexy cousin (I know) Lucy Lipscomb, an epidemiologist, Tom unravels a conspiracy, concocted by his hospital associates, to flood the water supply with "heavy sodium," which reduces people to a more primitive psychological state.  The benefits are manifold: lower crime, lower drug use, fewer unplanned pregnancies.  Okay, so that last one comes about because women no longer menstruate, instead going into heat once a month like a farm animal.  But it's hard to argue with results.  But even the well-meaning conspirators are unaware that their solution is being used at the local boarding school to stupefy children, making them more amenable to sexual abuse.

The details of the child abuse Tom and Lucy uncover are as detailed as they are grotesque.  They are a reminder that The Thanatos Syndrome is more serious than a pulpy Dean Koontz novel, which the plot at times resembles.  Like The Moviegoer and The Second Coming, the novel alerts us to the importance of human psychological fragility.  Anger, hatred, lust, anxiety, and the other spiritual beasts the heavy sodium is meant to eliminate are as much a part of what it means to be human as our better angels.  A long interlude, in which a minor character talks about his experience with the Hitler Youth in Germany, reminds us that our best intentions can lead to our most monstrous actions, a criticism which is pointed directly at the Ritalin- and Prozac-hawkers of the 20th century.

The Thanatos Syndrome is tonally bizarre.  The minor characters never quite come into their own, and the sexual relationship between Tom and Lucy seems as contrived as the romances in more commercially contrived conspiracy novels.  It doesn't quite work as pulp, and it doesn't quite work as a Percy novel.  But, like its protagonist, it's happy despite, or perhaps because of its failures:

What is failure?  Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time.  Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print.  But in the movies they don't show the failures.  What you see are the takes that work.  So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way.  It looks as if real failure is unspeakable.  TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories.  Because that is not the way life is.  Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.  Life doesn't have to stop with failure.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


These people slumped on their distracted circuits, looking this way and that, never in front as if to avoid the eyes of all the ghosts, the dead ones who had built their town. Colored labor had erected every house on the par, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends. 
The conceit of Colson Whitehead's novel is that the Underground Railroad was not a metaphor but an actual railroad built underground. Actual steam engines barrel down narrow tunnels and stop under the homes of sympathetic whites. Cora, the protagonist, escapes the plantation were she was born and navigates the South on the railroad's various spurs. The South Whitehead has created is a haunting and bizarre variation on reality. South Carolina, for example, initially seems like the promised land for freed salves, until Cora discovers the dark motivation behind their warm welcome. North Carolina's streets are lined with hanging bodies--the state has virtually eradicated black men and women of any variety. Whitehead flips the narrative of pre-Civil War America on its head: his version of each state's treatment of blacks offers a metaphor for the atrocities of slavery and racism in America while the metaphorical Railroad has become real. 

This book was, predictably, difficult to read. Rape, brutal beatings, hangings, and endless abuse are all documented in graphic detail. Metaphor may play a central role in the book, but literal violence also runs throughout. Where other novels documenting and critiquing slavery gloss over the more horrific qualities of racism, Whitehead does not spare his reader any detail. The vividness of the violence makes the book hard to read, but never feels gratuitous. 

The novel isn't quite as relentlessly depressing as it sounds. Cora experiences a series of victories (some tiny, some massive), and, at one point finds herself on a farm in Indiana filled with free black men and women that offers the kind of community, friendship, and romance for Cora that you spend the novel wishing she could have. 

The Underground Railroad offers up an appropriately brutal critique, not just of slavery, but of the state of racism in America today. The graphic violence makes it hard to recommend to everyone, but it's a book everyone should read. It's hard to get through, but that's kind of the point. 

(This book doesn't come out until September...you'll have to wait until then for your dose of metaphorical reality). 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier


I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.

I first read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca when I was in middle school. I remember enjoying it at the time, but upon re-reading it as an adult, I wonder how much of the book I really understood at thirteen. On the surface, Rebecca is part gothic romance and part mystery, but it delves a little deeper than either of those genres usually allows. Our unnamed narrator meets the dashing widow Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo; the narrator is there as a "companion" for a wealthy American--a job that seems to entail eating meals with the old woman and taking her verbal abuse in stride--and de Winter is vacationing, seemingly to recover from the recent loss of his wife. On their last day in Monte Carlo together, Maxim unexpectedly proposes and the narrator is snatched out of a depressing life of service and thrown into the deep end of running Manderly, a large British estate in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim's dead wife. 

Rebecca, though dead, is a brighter, more vivid character for most of the novel than the narrator. Not only is Rebecca named and the narrator anonymous (we know only that her name is "very lovely and unusual"), but Rebecca's possessions fill Manderly, her style and opinions are referred to constantly. The narrator (and the reader) are constantly reminded of her poise, her beauty, her impeccable taste. This helps set up the tension and suspense, but it also makes the narrator that much more human. She spends the whole novel competing with a ghost, judging herself against her and worrying about how others are judging her. While I think I enjoyed the tension more when I first read it, I really appreciated the neurotic insecurities this time around. Rebecca provides a nice metaphor for the prototypical woman we all fall short of, and I felt for the narrator as she worked through the mess she got herself into. 

The gothic creepiness of the book is also really fun. Everything from the setting to the structure builds the sense of horror, and the descriptions and pacing are almost cinematic. The book opens with an extra gothic description of Manderly from a dream:
At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. 
Nature is constantly creeping into the edges of this novel, and du Maurier uses it effectively to build suspense and tension; scenes that would otherwise be bucolic and peaceful always have a detail that's just a little bit off--a color that's a little too rich, a scent that's a little too overpowering. 

The novel moves at a brisk clip with some easily navigable flashbacks and some Nancy Drewesque chapter endings that kept me hooked. The mystery of Rebecca's death takes most of the novel to resolve itself (no spoilers...but you definitely don't see it coming), but even more engaging were the narrator's foibles (some darker than others) as she tries to assume her role as head of Manderly. Watching her simultaneously try to take Rebecca's place and figure out what happened to Rebecca is totally riveting. When the book ended I wanted more!

Overall, Rebecca is a great read. The suspense and the mystery are enough in and of themselves, but the narrator provides a character who is flawed and interesting enough to keep you invested and put a little more meat on the story than I usually expect from murder mysteries. 




Monday, June 6, 2016

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey

Or maybe this half-finished story was fiction and only the details bore a resemblance to their family. For all Raquel knew, her mother's drafts always broke off this way at a difficult moments until her mother figured out what she wanted to do next. In the restaurant scene, just when it seemed as though the woman and her husband were about to have it out with each other, the woman would flee into some surreal description of the fish on her plate winking up at her with its oly eye, or of the man seated at the next table reading a yellowed newspaper from seventy-three years ago. Or her mother would simply write CHECK ON THIS, as if the date of the newspaper or the kind of fish staring up at the woman from her plate mattered tremendously. 

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey is the story of Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda and her sudden disappearance. In the first few pages of the novel, Yagoda climbs into a tree with a cigar and a suitcase and then disappears. The rest of the novel follows her translator and two children as they try to track down Yagoda ahead of some terrifying loan sharks.

I had high hopes for this one. The beginning is just odd enough that I thought it might go down a super weird magical realism path and delight me with its oddness, but it didn't quite deliver. The plot takes some odd turns, but mostly just normal mystery novel turns...not Gabriel Garcia Marquez turns, which was what I was hoping for. 

Emma, the translator and protagonist, is a little too desperate to be likeable. She leaves chilly Pittsburgh (and her job teaching "Portuguese to Spanish speakers" to apathetic undergrads, a crazed fiance who forces her on daily pre-dawn runs, and seemingly no friends or interests) for Brazil unannounced, and spends much of the chase seducing or being seduced by Yagoda's son, Marcus. Her seeming obsession with Yagoda (who she refers to almost exclusively as "her author"), borders on the crazy, but not quite crazy enough to make her interesting crazy.

There are some stylistic quirks that Novey pulls off well--chapters separated by little meditations on single words, sections of Yagoda's final, unpublished, and unpublishable novel--and the ways in which she draws attention to diction and language made the prose engaging, but I often found myself enjoying individual sentences more than I was enjoying the book as a whole. There were other jumps in narration that worked less well: increasingly frantic emails from Emma's fiance, excerpts from a radio host's monologues, and some bad poetry.  She also doesn't separate out characters' speech with quotation marks, which I realize is a socially acceptable thing to do, but it drives me crazy. 

I didn't love this one. It was trying to be too many things at once, and as result didn't do any of them well. It's fast paced and exciting--you do want to find out what happens to Yagoda--but all the different voices and little sidenotes left me frustrated.