LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

Book v. Big Screen: “Serena”

14 Mar

I try to temper my judgement of film adaptations of novels. I don’t think Peter Jackson ruined The Fellowship of the Ring because he omitted Tom Bombadil. I didn’t stop watching HBO’s Game of Thrones because they changed Jeyne Westerling’s name to Talisa Maegyr (I mean, who wouldn’t want a more exotic name if they had the chance?). But there are some media adaptations that go too far, take too many liberties, and ruin a decent story with seemingly whimsical artistic decisions. Guess which kind of adaptation Susanna Bier’s Serena is?

The film Serena tells the story of a newly wed couple, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), who carve out a living as lumber barons in the Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression. Logging in 1929 isn’t the easiest or safest profession, and the Pembertons are constantly surrounded by the violence of their jobs and their surroundings. Serena and George’s love is as volatile as the setting. Serena’s jealousy is awakened when she watches her husband’s affection for his bastard son grow, and George’s murderous nature is awakened when he is betrayed by his business partner. Things can only end badly.

Don't be fooled by the peaceful vistas. The Smoky Mountains in this story are filled with danger and death. (Photo from "coloneljohnbritt")

Don’t be fooled by the peaceful vistas. The Smoky Mountains in this story are filled with danger and death. (Photo from “coloneljohnbritt“)

Things are just as grim in Ron Rash’s novel of the same name, and when I read it earlier this year, I didn’t care for it much. I found the symbolism heavy-handed and yet oftentimes contrary. But watching this film adaptation fail beyond measure definitely engendered more respect for the novel, which is a pure work of art comparatively. The book’s George Pemberton is a two-dimensional tool ripe for manipulation, and his devotion to his wife is obsessive, blind, and forged in fire. Rachel, the mother of George’s illegitimate son, is a primary character. Though young, she is resourceful and wisely harbors no resentment toward the Pembertons. Her goal is the survival of her son. Serena herself is driven by the need to fulfill her ultimate goal to raze Brazil’s rain forests to the ground, and lets nothing, not even her slathering husband, stand in her way from it.

The film’s George Pemberton is nearly respectable. He is remorseful at his own violent nature, and seems to steel himself against Serena’s manipulative nature almost immediately. Rachel doesn’t even receive a name until the final third of the film, referred to instead as “the girl,” and spends her only screen time casting challenging glances at her rival Serena. Our leading lady is hindered by Bier’s attempt to make her softer, more human. Failing this miserably, Bier only succeeds at creating a jealous, pining weakling. In essence, Bier’s adaptation took several complete characters and flattened them into cliches. But the greatest travesty of the film’s long list of travesties is stealing Serena’s agency. Gone is the woman who orchestrates the establishment of an empire, leaving behind her a wake of bodies. Gone is the woman who reaches for her prize with dry eyes and an iron fist. All of Serena’s ruthlessness, bloodthirstiness, and ambition are sacrificed for Bier’s love story, and believe me, Ron Rash’s Serena is not a love story.

In addition to the detrimental and arbitrary deviations from Rash’s book, the film is poorly made. Serena might have been on par with Gone Girl with its unflinching gratuity and wild-eyed blonde protagonist, and I wish with a decent portion of my heart that Bier had pulled it off. Choppy transitions lead us from wide shots to close-ups of half of Lawrence’s face or to sudden sex scenes that, without any context or build-up, feel pornographic in the worst way. (“Hey, I’m here to deliver a pizza.” BAM! Sex scene.) It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through a movie that was either overedited to oblivion or edited by some film school intern. Whether or not you harbor resentments for the poor adaptation of a decent novel, you won’t be able to suffer through a viewing of Serena because it is a simply, utterly, painfully bad movie.

Book or Big Screen: Book, book, book, book. There is no question here–only an answer. The book is the answer. Just read the book and, if you really feel strongly about it, picture Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in bed together, but try and avoid the film altogether.

Readers, Beware: The film is going to disappoint you, especially if you read Rash’s Serena recently, as I did. Fundamental changes were made to both the story line and the characters. The changes were neither to enhance the transition of the story from page to screen nor to improve on the failings of the book. I can only theorize that the changes were made in an attempt to test the viewing public on whether or not they actually read the book, or if any movie-goers still retained the ability to see the bad film-making behind the veil of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s awkward on-screen chemistry.

Viewers, Beware: The book might scar you, if you were expecting the little torrid romance you saw in the film. Ron Rash’s Serena is the story of two alpha personalities with the ambitions of conquerors who are prepared to go to any lengths to establish their empire. It is a drama set in a context of constant death as these loggers try to decimate nature and nature tries to decimate the men right back.

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

On Tom Cooper’s “The Marauders”

3 Mar

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

If there’s one place in the United States that inspires images of shrouded mystery and magical kingdoms, it’s the bayou. Maybe it’s the French and Creole cultural background, so spicy and foreign, so different from the Anglo-Germanic traditions elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it’s the setting itself: hoary trees, prehistoric predators, covered and joined with water. Thanks to the magical realism of films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hallucinatory elements of films like In the Electric Mist (not the best example, I admit, but I have an old man crush on Tommy Lee Jones), my perception of bayou stories is eternally skewed toward the mythical and darkly romantic. Tom Cooper’s debut novel about a hodgepodge of men in post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana extracts the romantic and leaves the myth and the darkness. The Marauders speaks of good things to come from new author Cooper.

The Marauders sets its stage several years after the BP oil spill disaster at Deepwater Horizon, and describes the lasting effects the spill inflicts on the resident shrimpers of Jeanette, Louisiana. Cooper manages to scale the unfathomable disaster down to something more understandable and human by following the course of five stories: teenage Wes Trench and his quest for his father’s approval as a man and a next-gen Jeanette shrimper; Brady Grimes, the BP yes-man knocking on doors, heckling Jeanette’s residents into settling on a measly sum for their ruined lives; Gus Lindquist, a one-armed shrimper with dreams of finding the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure of Spanish dubloons; the Toup twins, who would do anything to protect their hidden island farm of marijuana; and Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty criminals on the verge of the biggest break of their lives. It’s a small sampling of life in a hurricane-torn, oil-slicked bayou, and Cooper adds enough spice to make the novel a decently tasty morsel.

Bayou (Photo from "Xavier Lambrecht")

Bayou” is Louisiana French from the Choctaw word “bayuk,” meaning “small stream.” Talk about lost in translation. (Photo from “Xavier Lambrecht“)

The separate story lines tell the same narrative: a man struggles against his ties to his homeland. These men are fixtures of Barataria or they dream of escaping its narrow lifestyle. They return home full of bitterness and loathing or they learn to respect a dying way of life and embrace its tradition. Cooper’s description of the landscape is sparse but vivid leaves readers with the sharp impression of scents and moist heat. His attentiveness to character description instills a little less confidence, though, and I found it difficult to consider the Toup twins as anything more than a couple of floppy, cliché villains–two-dimensional and easy to hate. Wes Trench is similarly flat in the opposite polar end of the balance between Good and Evil. He’s all hard work and youthful earnestness. I wanted to punch him in the face.

Cooper is strongest in the chapters following our one-armed shrimper and treasure-seeker Lindquist. Lindquist miraculously reaches his middle ages, despite his painkiller addiction and an obsession that drives away his wife and daughter and threatens to sink his business. When the starved, oil-covered shrimp are few and far between, Lindquist religiously scans the muddy banks of the Barataria with his metal detector searching for the buried treasure of notorious Gulf pirate Jean Lafitte. In his spare time, Lindquist researches his library of maps and old myths, pouring his time and his soul into the hunt of the pirate’s missing Spanish dubloons. The town both ridicules him for his obsession and respects him for his faithfulness. Fueled by his feverish pipe dream of pirate treasure, Lindquist is the heart of the Barataria. The man throws everything away–his health, his family, his livelihood–for a single belief, a hope that no one else seems to understand but everyone takes comfort in.

“No, he wasn’t wrong. Lindquist knew it in his blood. He knew it with providential certainty, the same way a dowser knew there was water in the ground, the same way a diviner knew a ghost was in the room. And as long as he kept searching, as long as he kept digging holes in the ground, he’d never be wrong.”

Oiled bird (Photo from "Marine Photobank")

An ocean bird suffers from an oil spill. The adverse effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are still felt today by the Gulf wildlife and its human dependents. (Photo from “Marine Photobank“)

The Lindquist story line alone would make The Marauders an entertaining novel at the very least, and I would have enjoyed an entire novel about him and his pitiable, yet somehow respectable, obsession. The other characters seem to all fall short in comparison, but the greatest travesty is the novel’s utter lack of diversity. In the Deep South, where society is a great stew of hybrid cultures, languages, tastes, and customs, The Marauders is astoundingly white and male. Not only are the main story lines boringly similar to each other, but the other non-white or female characters are so wan and weak they could be figments of your imagination. Of the three or so female characters with speaking lines, one is dead, one is dying, and none of them exceed a stereotypical understanding of “woman as understood by a man”: the perfect, idolized mother lost in Katrina; the mother dying of cancer; a bitter ex-spouse. I’m not saying every book has to have a balanced cast of men and women. I’m just saying that the women included here are not real women. Even more appalling is the lack of any character who isn’t white. An off-handed mention of some Vietnamese fishers doesn’t count in my book, and the lack of any mention of Black Americans and Black Southern culture all points to apparent Cooper’s tunnel vision.

Read It: Do you feel like kicking back with a cold brew and a relaxing, but entertaining read that won’t force you into the hard labor of thinking? The Marauders is the book for you. With its bold, easy symbolism and swift currents of plot, readers won’t need to exercise their grey cells to uncover the mystery of Barataria Bay, and I say this as a compliment. The novel is totally accessible and enjoyable as fun, light read.

Don’t Read It: The Marauders is a debut novel, and it reads like a debut novel. Cooper still needs to flesh out his two-dimensional characters, get some meat on them to make their stories not only unique but worthwhile. This might not be the book for you if you aren’t willing to be a little forgiving of those first-novel kinks.

Similar Books: Tom Cooper’s novel reminded me more of a couple of films than of books: In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Sarsgaard–as surreal and hallucinatory as Gus Lindquist’s story of pirate treasure–and The Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring Quvenzhané Wallis–a wild ride of magical realism and Southern character sketches. A book with similar tone and attentiveness to geographical subcultures is Jessie van Eerden’s Glorybound, another first novel, this time following several characters in a West Virginia coal mining town.

On Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea”

24 Feb

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature.

Everyone has heard of Moby-Dick. Whether or not everyone has attempted to read Herman Melville’s 700-page book is another matter, but the story of the ship-killing white whale and the Ahab, captain of the Pequod, maddened by his hunt for revenge is as well-known in American lore as George Washington and the cherry tree or Rosa Parks at the front of a Montgomery bus. Few people, though, know about the story that inspired Melville’s literary classic. The story of the Nantucket ship Essex, its destruction at the proverbial hands of a whale, and the struggle for survival of its sailors is told at length in Philbrick’s book, mostly through the two pointedly differing memoirs of the ship’s first mate Owen Chase and the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.

Philbrick builds the context of our main cast through lengthy descriptions of Nantucket’s singular culture and history. An island off the south coast of Cape Cod and east of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is geographically isolated and therefore culturally detached from the mainland, and from early on in the history of its of white settlers, developed its living on a foundation of whaling.

The island of Nantucket didn't need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

The island of Nantucket didn’t need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

In the 19th Century, Nantucket’s “living” became an empire in the whaling industry–a veritable force of nature–that put all other whaling towns to shame through a combination of Quaker-based business sense and Spartan-like cultural indoctrination that idolized its whalers above all other professions. A famous Nantucket drinking toast tells all there is about the place of whaling in daily life:

“Death to the living, long life to the killers, success to sailors’ wives, and greasy luck to sailors.”

Not only does the toast speak to the bravado of the sailing profession but also to the conflict that lived within each Nantucketer, especially those of the Quaker religion. Philbrick subtly sets the stage for a whole story about paradoxes: the Quakers’ religion versus their livelihoods (“pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires”), and the predatory role of the whalers in stark relief against their utter helplessness at the hands of heartless sea.

When the Essex left Nantucket in 1820, no one was expecting a Disney cruise with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, but the sailors expected a normal, if rigorous, voyage out into the whaling grounds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ship, though, was under command of an easygoing, new captain and therefore crewed by the leftover sailors more experienced and entitled captains didn’t want, and from the outset, the Essex found itself under duress, whether from fluke weather or poor leadership or the combination thereof. Life on a whaleship was nothing close to easy, and the sailors who crewed such a ship put their lives at risk on a regular basis, but the Essex, at the hands of its rookie captain, seemed doomed from the start. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, the 240-ton ship fell victim to the very animal on which it was built to prey: a male sperm whale. A single act by this bull whale–colliding head first into the Essex and sinking it–shook the whalers to their collective core, not only because it left them stranded in a handful of smaller vessels in the middle of the ocean, but also because it was a reversal in nature: in one haunting moment, the prey becomes hunter, and the men of the Essex become helpless victims at the cold hands of nature.

Cutting in (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from "Curious Expeditions")

Several decades after the Essex occurrence, whalers are here seen “cutting in.” Whale ships were floating factories, always on the move to find their next victims, on which the valuable blubber and spermaceti were rendered. (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from “Curious Expeditions”)

In Philbrick’s methodical, nearly scientific tone, he recounts the events after the Essex collapses into so much flotsam. Twenty men in three boats and enough provisions for 60 days set sail for land. The men attempt to stay together against all odds, finding comfort in the company of other human bodies in the horrific vastness of the sea–suddenly much vaster without the shelter of their well-provisioned whaleship. Eventually, though, the ships are separated, and each lonely island of men is on their own with dwindling supplies of bread and water and no GPS to guide them toward safety. The paths they take and the methods they use to survive fall under Philbrick’s careful, balanced scrutiny, but the direction of this story of harrowing survival can only end in one way. It’s inevitable. There’s a reason Philbrick titled it a tragedy, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from one of the greatest and most universal of taboos: cannibalism. All I have to say is make sure you’re not sitting down to a dinner of rare steak while you’re reading this, because you might need to go vegetarian for a while.

Listening to ItHotS on audio book felt a little like listening to a long Radiolab episode. Philbrick makes a commendable effort to integrate the story line of the Essex‘s crew members and their survival story with interesting factoids on the toll of starvation on the human body, or the customs of islanders in the region of ocean through which the Nantucketers sailed, or the speculation of “what could have been” if only one pivotal choice or another had been made.

Later this year, when the Ron Howard film adaptation is released, we will see how much of this graphic and tragic story is shown on screen. Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex story seems to do justice to a history where so much detail may have been lost, edited, or redacted, but he continued throughout the book to ask questions and pry at the story’s chinks and holes. Undoubtedly, with blockbuster names like Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy on the marquee, the film version of In the Heart of the Sea will be much more valiant and much less grotesque.

Read It: In the Heart of the Sea combines the most entertaining elements of Nantucket whalers’ contextual history, the documented events from Essex‘s sailors, and speculation. The book still doesn’t include the artistry of a novel, but most readers will be caught up in this thrilling plot to notice. Readers interested in this era of American history will be totally engrossed and, since the story of the Essex is at heart the story of the human will to survive and the transformation of “civilized” people in the face of an indifferent Nature, most anyone will find something to love in this tale.

Don’t Read It: You should know to steer clear if you’re not a fan of nonfiction or of history books, but you may not know that ItHotS is no jolly cruise or an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The story itself is brutal and Philbrick doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the graphic detail involved with the sailors’ methods of survival. The prospect of a slow, painful death by starvation and exposure does frightening things to the human body and the human moral code. This book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Similar Books: I feel like I recommend this book a lot, and that may be due to my limited list of nonfiction books under my reading belt, but it could also be due to the fact that it’s an awesome book, but David Grann’s The Lost City of Z is a great example of an adventurous nonfiction book that unfolds the mystery of a city of gold and the myth of a legendary explorer. It is a little heavier on the anthropology, and it won’t leave you with Philbrick’s sense of closure. The Revenant by Michael Punke is a novel but is based heavily on actual events. In this story of survival, Hugh Glass survives the impossible in a battle that pitches a fragile human against the ferocity of the American frontier.

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

 

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