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)

 

On Ron Rash’s “Serena”

17 Feb

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

I can already feel it: 2015 is the year of the bear attacks and wilderness novels. Less than a month ago, I posted the review of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and in a short while I will be posting the review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. 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.

It’s 1929. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Americans everywhere find themselves jobless and destitute. George Pemberton and his newly acquired wife and business partner Serena take full advantage of a desperate workforce in their logging empire in the mountains of North Carolina. The terrain is treacherous, and if the falling trees or mishandled logging tools doesn’t kill man, then the rattlers or the cougars will. And if the rattler and cougars don’t kill a man, then a vengeful, cold-hearted employer will. Serena and her husband rule their domain with an iron fist. Any and all betrayal is met with instant, lethal retribution. The only thing that equals Serena’s hate for betrayal is her derision for incompetence, but she has met her match with George Pemberton.

Logs and loggers (Photo by "paukrus")

Urban Outfitters made the whole lumberjack look cute again, but there was nothing cute about the constant peril under which loggers lived. A slip of the hand here, a falling branch there could mean a lost limb or lost eye or lost life in this lethal world. (Photo by “paukrus”)

One thing is certain upon Serena’s arrival at the logging camp, having recently married Pemberton and come down by train from the upper echelons of Boston’s high society, and that is Serena’s utter capability, her stark difference from the bodiced, high-heeled, prim wives of Pemberton’s partners. Serena steps off the train in pants and boots. When Pemberton is met with a disgruntled logger whose teenage daughter Pemberton knocked up months before, Serena cooly orders her husband to off the man with her wedding present: a one-handled steel knife. It turns out watching Pemberton kill a man is a huge turn-on for Serena, and the couple begin their married life with a long bout of passionate, if a little psychopathic, sex. The honeymoon carries on for months as the couple plots their way to world domination, one logging tract at a time, but trouble begins when politicians enter the scene on their campaign to create the first national parks of the country. Betrayal is the name of the game, but it turns out Serena–aside from activities like taming Mongolian eagles and supervising logging sites–makes a hobby of dealing with traitors. The honeymoon ends the only way honeymoons can: in a wake of the blood and bodies of your enemies. That is how honeymoons end, right?

In the backdrop to the “Serena and George Show” are several minor characters, but none more important than a motley group of loggers that makes frequent appearances to comment on the changes in the logging camp and the changes in their employers. The men–Snipes, Stewart, Ross, and Preacher McIntyre–make spirited attempts at intellectual or philosophical debates to cast light on main events. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Or maybe, more fittingly, it’s like Tucker & Dale vs. Philosophy, which I would watch in a heartbeat, by the way. As interesting an idea as they are–blue collar men in stark contrast to the educated, powerful Pembertons–the chorus of men seem to confuse the themes Rash presents rather than inform them.

I couldn’t help but admire Serena’s unflinching brutality. She isn’t wanton with her power or violence. Instead, she acts with a singular goal in mind and never waivers. Serena is as logical and scientific as a thunderstorm, and, like with most natural disasters, is impossible to turn away from. Rash explores aspects of Serena’s personality at great length, but it was as if he couldn’t decide if Serena is evil she breaks the laws of nature or understandable, good even, because she adheres to the laws of nature. In several passages, Serena is criticized by the chorus of peons for wearing pants, not riding horses with a side saddle, and for training her Mongolian eagle to hunt down all the rattlesnakes in the woods, making the work environment safer for the loggers. “You’re disturbing the natural order of things is what you’re doing,” one logger says.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers. (Photo by “cesareb“)

In another passage, Serena is one of “nature’s paradoxes,” and is compared to a tiger and the black widow spider for being both beautiful and “the most injurious.” Serena is one of the most capable people any of the men of Pemberton Lumber had ever known. She is strikingly beautiful because of her competence and confidence, but several people, including Sheriff McDowell and the doctor who made these comparisons, begin to recognize the threat lying just underneath Serena’s poised surface.

 “Serena’s beauty was like certain laws of math and physics, fixed and immutable. She walks in beauty.”

The foil to Serena’s hardness, her personality like a force of nature, is the impregnated teenage girl whose father was slain by Pemberton at the beginning of the story. Rachel gives birth to Pemberton’s bastard son and raises him alone while tending to the property left to her by her father. Young, motherly, sensitive Rachel is Serena’s antithesis. Serena–whose opportunity to bear children (obviously, the most “natural” act a woman could perform) passes her by, whose only offspring will be the animal familiars she consorts with–sets out to destroy the mother and child who threaten her dominion. I still have reservations about Serena’s treatment as the unnatural, sexual yet genderless, psycho woman, because this story should be more than a cautionary tale against marrying the “crazy bitch.” Told from another angle, this novel tells the tale of a competent, ambitious business person in a ruthless landscape, and Serena is someone to be admired–from a distance, naturally. But I think Rash missed a few opportunities to forge a fantastic, lasting antagonist (or protagonist, you might view her), and, in the end, finds a resolution that tempers the wild, adventurous story line rather than affirming it.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn't last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn’t last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

I’m interested to see how Jennifer Lawrence uses her angel face in this role as a ruthless, lethal business person. Serena is the more ambitious version of Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Even more intriguing is Bradley Cooper playing the brutish, capable, yet utterly smitten George Pemberton. I watched him play the puppy dog-eyed bff in Alias, so I know he can do it, and I guess Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook was too good to pass up again. They are equally messed up in Serena, but in an extraordinarily different way. The casting choices should be interesting to watch when the film adaptation by Danish director Susanna Bier is released on February 26.

Read It: Serena is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that gives the reader a view of a dismal time in the United States. The research Ron Rash executed to make this novel authentic had to have been extensive, and because of it, the story is immersive. The descriptions of the destructiveness of human nature and the constant threat of a lethal, angry natural world are captivating backdrops to an interesting story line, and I got chills reading Serena’s increasing violence and insatiable hunger for power.

Don’t Read It: If you’re in the least bit squeamish, steer clear of Serena. Aside from straight up people murdering other people, the novel is filled with the deaths of other animals. Whether an eagle is preying on–in gratuitous, excruciating detail–snakes in the underbrush or the Pembertons go hunting for deer, the blood doesn’t stop flooding in. This is not to mention the natural brutality of the profession of logging, where the smallest slip could mean the death or maiming of a fellow logger, so in case you didn’t get it the first time around, this book is about killing and death and violence.

Similar Books: The one book that comes instantly to mind is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, if you haven’t read it, also features a married couple desperate for each other in a bizarro love-hate-lust-more-hate relationship. If you haven’t already read Flynn’s blockbuster novel or seen the film adaptation, get ‘er done, at least before Flynn’s novel Dark Places hits the big screen with its film adaptation later this year.

On Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man”

10 Feb

The First Bad Man: A Novel [2015] by Miranda July

The First Bad Man: A Novel [2015] by Miranda July

We might not all have a Sherlockian mind palace to which we retreat at will, but we all have head space that no other person could possibly understand: it’s as fluid as a dream and ruled by personal systems beyond any external logic or comprehension, and no one writes about that head space quite like Miranda July. In her debut novel The First Bad Man, July takes us into the obsessive head space of Cheryl Glickman, a solitary middle-aged woman who is put upon by sudden and intense human interaction.

Cheryl bumbles through her professional life at the self-defense center in a series of awkward social interactions. She is painfully considerate and yet socially unaware. At home, Cheryl lives in strict, finely tuned system she developed over the years that eliminates any excess energy or materialism, leaving her to live like some kind of lazy Desert Father. Her hobbies consist of pining after Philip, an older board member of her company, tending her psychosomatic throat ailment, and staring into the eyes of infant children to find out if they have a metaphysical connection with each other. When she is volunteered to host–indefinitely–the adult daughter of her two employers, Cheryl’s carefully balanced world is tipped end over end, and she is forced to either run away, cope, or take control.

Self-defense (Photo by Michael Newhouse)

Self-defense (Photo by Michael Newhouse)

Clee, the unwelcome guest, is Cheryl’s exact counterpart: lazily excessive, young, inconsiderate, and sexually irresistible to men and women alike. The two figuratively collide in the orderly setting of Cheryl’s home as their two opposing lifestyles come in contact with each other. As tension builds, the two literally collide in a physical fight. A single incident of Clee bullying Cheryl into submission in her own home becomes a nightly ritual of all-out brawling, like a private, two-person fight club. When Cheryl sees herself through Philip’s eyes, she sees herself as a “delicate” woman, set in her life of lonely tradition and coping mechanisms. Through Clee’s eyes, Cheryl becomes something entirely different: a fighter, someone willing to defend her life and her place in the world with her fists and teeth. The two women bring out in each other their basest human instincts, and they begin to bond. When they begin to bond, their brawling evolves into reenactments of Cheryl’s self-defense class scenarios, a sophisticated and violent interpretive dance.

Through Cheryl and Clee’s phsyical battles, July creates a ridiculous language, a form of communication that Cheryl may have imagined entirely on her own. It’s Cheryl’s voice that guides us through the developing narrative of her relationship to her housemate, but we begin to understand this new kind of intimacy through Clee and Cheryl’s increasingly erotic fights. The author somehow excels at telling a story from deep within someone else’s psyche. It’s like retelling a dream to a crowd of strangers and, not only making it entertaining, but making all the personal symbolism of your dream relatable. July’s protagonist is laughably quirky when she enters the scene–when she tells readers about her connection to a spiritual being named Kubelko Bondy who somehow continues to be reborn in other people’s children, or when she describes in excruciating detail her system of peeing in jars when she’s too sad to walk to the bathroom–but becomes more human and more like the reader as the pages roll past.

I realize this may become a trend: taking photos of my book with my coffee. Get used to it, folks.

I realize this may become a trend: taking photos of my book with my coffee on my lunch break. Get used to it, folks.

Miranda July’s novels, much like her films, will never reach a large or mainstream audience, but she will earn the steadfast respect and love from a very specific niche readership. For me, July has already earned it. Strange as the premise and protagonist of TFBM might be, July’s novel is something I had never read before: forthcoming, but not overwhelming, in its quirkiness, with a powerful yet humorous pose. The premise of the self-defense reenactments combines July’s comedic sense with her background of performance art. In film, music videos, sculptures, and online sites, the author-artist is consistent in her tone and personality. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out July’s TFBM online store for evidence.

Miranda July is unapologetic, entirely original, and not likely to disappear from every single one of the art scenes you can think of. As captivating as her performance art and films can be, though, I hope she continues this fascinating trek through the literary world with more novels like The First Bad Man.

“It sort of worked. It wasn’t like saying abracadabra to make a rabbit disappear, poof. It was like saying abracadabra billions of times, saying it for years until the rabbit had completely decomposed and been absorbed into the earth, poof.”

Read It: Read it because you’re curious about new novelists hitting the scene. Read it because you finished every single Haruki Murakami book published in English to date, and now you need someone else to obsess over. Read it because you’re a weirdo, like Miranda July’s protagonist Cheryl, and think you have a metaphysical connection to psychic babies. Read it because if you don’t, you may miss out on the fascinating writer everyone will be talking about and her refreshingly weird novel.

Don’t Read It: You may feel more than a little uncomfortable with scenes in TFBM. A large portion of this short novel describes awkward violence and the awkward sex, and who’s to say which will make you more uncomfortable, the awkwardness or the content? In any case, many readers will be turned off by the gratuity of the novel. Those who are comfortable with or entirely desensitized to this kind of gratuity may not appreciate July’s bizarre sense of humor. It’s a pick-your-poison kind of situation.

Similar Books: I don’t know of any authors quite like Miranda July. Her dry and off-kilter humor and her disturbingly relatable caste set her apart from her contemporary author-peers. I would say the closest contemporary author to July’s style is surrealist author Haruki Murakami, only instead of Murakami’s talking cats there are July’s telepathic babies, and instead of jazz and spaghetti, there’s Gregorian chants and kale scrambles. Check out Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart, or 1Q84. For another fun tale of misguided, delusional protagonists, though, check out John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

Miranda July at Neumo's in Seattle (Photo credit: Paul Gibson)

Miranda July at Neumo’s in Seattle (Photo credit: Paul Gibson)

On Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”

3 Feb

Midnight's Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Not only did Salman Rushdie’s luminary novel Midnight’s Children win the Man Booker Prize, but it won the Best of the Booker Prize. It’s the Bookerest of Booker Prize-Winners. It’s the  Über Booker. And if that alone is not enough to compel you to read this, then you’re hopeless. Midnight’s Children tells the epic tale of a family intertwined with the fates of India and Pakistan: two nations struggling for independence from years of colonialism. In Rushdie’s unique style of magical realism, and contextualized in an historically tumultuous era, Saleem Sinai discovers his midnight birth–the exact time at which India declared its independence from Britain–imbued on him supernatural abilities and an inexplicable connection to the fate of his nation. The novel is at once bizarre, hilarious, and heartbreakingly real.

“Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it any less real.”

Saleem Sinai is living out his life in a pickle factory. He believes he is “falling apart” slowly through growing cracks in his body, and he has to be tended to by a thick-armed assistant named Padma. With death near, Saleem must write his story and, with loyal Padma at his feet, his only audience member, he begins to tell the complicated story of his family beginning with his grandfather Aadam Aziz. Aadam embodies the start of things: he brings back Western medicine to his small Kashmiri village, and so begins the massive shifts of a colonized nation to modern independence. He falls in love with the beautiful Naseem who, at first, only allows the young doctor to treat her multitude of ailments through a hole in a white sheet held aloft by her muscular bodyguards. Aadam woos her and begins a cycle of change as the political climate of India becomes increasingly restless. India, under the thumb of Great Britain, is straining at her bonds.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India's independence and the formation of Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan. (Photo credit “yes yes hi”)

Padma, and probably the 98% of Midnight’s Children‘s readership, is impatient for the point at which Saleem enters his own story, but he’s still interested in giving the important back story to the events leading up to his birth and the simultaneous birth of an independent India. Aadam Aziz and his wife Naseem give birth to five children: three girls and two boys. Naseem, soon dubbed with the ominous title Reverend Mother, keeps her home with a rigorous and religious hand. In this house, silence and starvation are forms of punishment. Young Mumtaz Aziz, the middle daughter, finds her escape through a young businessman Ahmed Sinai. She changes her name to Amina Sinai, severing her ties to her past, and the story moves one generation closer to Saleem’s entrance. Saleem’s parents move into the home of a departing British colonialist William Methwold, who sells his house for dirt cheap on the one condition that the new owners change nothing about the house for two months: neither re-papering the walls, nor discarding a hairbrush. The new Indian owners must retain every last British belonging in the house, leaving no room for their own lives. The metaphor is strong with this one.

(Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Saleem grows up in a villa whose legacy belongs to its former British owners. The imprint of the former colonialists is strong and unavoidable throughout his childhood. (Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Then, the moment we have all been waiting for–patient Padma included–arrives. Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight, the exact moment India’s independence is declared. In the same hour, one thousand other infants are also born, and all are imbued with magical abilities and fates intertwined with that of their mother nation, the newborn India. It doesn’t take long for Saleem to realize his power: he can read the thoughts of everyone around him, and ties the Midnight Children together through telepathy. Others can fly, change gender, teleport, or kill people with their knees. The children are spread across the country, spread across socio-economic barriers and tribes, but Saleem brings them together in a journey to understanding their potential. A year later, Saleem’s younger sister arrives. Her rambunctiousness, her untamed spirit, and her strange compulsion for destructive behavior (like burning people’s shoes) earns her the nickname “the Brass Monkey.” For a few dozen blissful pages, Saleem is a boy and the Brass Monkey is a girl, and their childhoods are filled with childlike events. For the two siblings and their cohorts, growing up in the tumult of their struggling new nation is an adventure, but in young adulthood and as the unrest between Muslim and Hindu intensifies, the two begin to involve themselves more actively in their fates.

“From ayah to Widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.”

Saleem finds himself enlisted in Pakistan’s army, fighting against his fellow Midnight Children and against the country bound to his life. The story begins to come full circle when Saleem’s sister Jamila “the Brass Monkey” Singer involves herself by performing from behind a perforated white sheet, making her audience and all of Pakistan fall in love with little bits of her at a time. It is the sign that Saleem’s tale is about to turn back on itself, the entire narrative a massive palindrome that is fated to reoccur for a 1,001 generations of knees and nose and nose and knees. Saleem, embodiment of India, does everything cyclically and backwards: he “gives birth” to many parents as they give new births to him, create new identities and new childhoods; he overturns the power of the colonialist to the colony, from government to its people.

In a stroke of fate, I read the Pioneer Cafe chapter at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess working in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

In a stroke of fate, I read the chapter “At the Pioneer Cafe” at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess the fact that I work in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

Rushdie uses words to demonstrate the reflective nature of his narrative. He flips words around (“Knees and nose and nose and knees” or “son and brother … brother and son“) in a way that lyrically reminds readers of this constant mirroring. This author doesn’t just create images with his words; his very words are themselves the images. At every moment, Rushdie amazes me with his attention to detail and devotion to the story. From his sing-song waywardness that reads more like a oral retelling to his meticulousness attention to the placement of every phrase, adjective, and ellipses to his tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, Salman Rushdie is undeniably a literary genius.

“That’s how it was; there can be no retreat from the truth. I shall just have to shoulder the burden of the doubter’s disbelief.”

Rushdie changed the way the history of India’s independence was perceived by tying its story to that of a human being. The link of fates made young Saleem Sinai’s life more magical and more wildly dangerous, and it made India’s history less chaotic, more human, and, through Saleem’s narration, readers get to understand the story through the biased and loving eyes of India itself, of a man whose every joy and sorrow was India’s joy and sorrow. And when I say, “sorrow,” I mean it. Despite the moments of levity and glimpses of Rushdie’s enlightened wordplay, this is a story of the pain of existence and the unavoidable loss that comes with gaining freedom.

Read It: Midnight’s Children is on every respectable book list of modern literature, and I read it to mark it off one such list, but it’s worth reading for anyone interested in the historical fiction genre, in the cultures of India and Pakistan, or in the style of magical realism. Rushdie is a top-rated name in magical realism and, while MC is relatively grounded compared to others like Haroun and the Sea of Stories, you will get your fix with the story of Saleem Sinai and his family drama.

Don’t Read It: Between the narrator and the story the narrator tells, Midnight’s Children can be a little confusing. Salman Rushdie’s writing style requires no small measure of attention as he guides readers through the fragmented, repressed thoughts of his characters, and a casual audience may find the layered narrative frustratingly broken. You might be as frustrated as Saleem Sinai’s audience of one, Padma, as she waits impatiently for Saleem to get to the point of his story. You’ll have to be patient for over 500 pages, and for some, it won’t be worth the wait.

Similar Books: Rushdie spends more time telling stories about stories in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is much shorter and lighthearted than Midnight’s Children. For another beautifully written story of India, though, read the Man Booker Prize-winner The God of Small Things by the god-like Arundhati Roy. Just make sure you bring your box of Kleenex to catch all the feelings.

On Lorrie Moore’s “Bark”

27 Jan

I used to enjoy short fiction a lot. I respect those who can write it, and I respect those who read it with any kind of frequency, because the form lends itself to a kind of sadomasochism that I just don’t see in other formats: each short story carries in it all the gravity and pain of a novel but in a shorter space. It’s like fitting all the punches of a twelve-round boxing match into three rounds. I feel winded and bruised after reading the eight dour short stories in Lorrie Moore’s most recent collection Bark, and I may need more than ice to soothe my battered soul. (I’m thinking a nice fluffy young adult novel, or maybe a Dr. Seuss book.)

If anything, Moore is consistent. The stories in Bark tell tales of departures: spouses leaving spouses, people dying and leaving behind unimaginable voids in their surviving friends, more spouses leaving spouses. Moore seems to return again and again to the concept of loss, and sometimes to the deathly frightening idea of loss, which can be worse than the real deal. Before you go thinking Moore is just a butt-load of bitterness and depression (that’s only half the butt-load), it’s worth noting that she writes about all this loss with a self-deprecating wit that strongly reminds of Nora Ephron. Each of these stories could be Nora Ephron short films, you know, just without the happy endings.

Protective exterior (Photo credit: "zoomyboy.com")

Fact: The outer bark of a tree is called the rhytidome. Fact: The main ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid, comes from poplar and willow bark. Fact: The word “bark” in connection to trees predates other uses and comes from the Old Norse word brokr, which probably referred to birch trees. (Photo credit: “zoomyboy.com”)

In the first story “Debarking,” a recently divorced father navigates the new-found bitterness of single life with the backdrop of the first Gulf War. A friend sets Ira up with another divorcee, a pediatrician who is alarmingly intimate with her teenage son. Ira fights for a place in his girlfriend’s life and mourns the loss of something that was never his to begin with. The following story title “Juniper Tree” tells a the story of a woman’s lost battle with cancer and the friends who seem to be haunted by her spirit who remains attached to her house and erratically tended garden.

By the fourth story, “Foes,” Moore’s humorous side comes out. A liberal older writer attends a fundraising event in Washington and is seated next to a young, Republican investor. The context is brimming with potential humor, but Moore is subtle; she uses little inside jokes, like writing in the passive voice to “obscure blame.” I imagine Moore writing these stories and chortling to herself with little jarring shakes of her belly. The longest story of the book is her best. “Wings” follows a middle-aged woman as she sets aside her dreams of “making it” as a musician. Instead, she befriends an elderly–and absurdly wealthy–widower, and her life seems to take on new potential. As the elderly man becomes physically and emotionally dependent on her, our narrator’s motives become hazier. The final short stories of the collection, especially the last story “Thank You for Having Me,” are more poignant and lighthearted, so at least I wasn’t left with the bitter taste of loss and separation in my mouth.

"Quote" (Photo credit: "FoundryParkInn")

In “Paper Losses,” a couple on the verge of divorce goes on one last vacation. “As each one lost its heat she could no longer feel it even there on her back, and then its removal was like a discovery that it had been there all along: how strange to forget and feel it only then, at the end ….” (Photo credit: “FoundryParkInn”)

Moore delivers humor in each of her stories with a light touch–sometimes too light. Oftentimes her dark humor is obscured by themes that are repetitive and blunt as a hammer, and even in an eight-story collection, repetitive hammers can make a short book feel like a tome. I know many readers will feel bogged down by the end of Bark, especially if they (like I) tried to read it in a single sitting. I’m not sure what Lorrie Moore has been doing since the publication of her last short story collection, but I’m going to venture a guess and say she broke up and/or divorced a bunch of people. It just seems to me that these days mainstream books tell stories of new love, and literary books tell of love’s death, and Bark is a really, really literary book.

“You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.”

Read It: Do you like short stories? Specifically in collections? If the answer is, “Why, yes. Yes I do,” then read Lorrie Moore’s Bark. As one of the leading American short fiction writers of our time, Moore is worth picking up. A word of advice for this, and any, collection, don’t read it in one sitting. After finishing a story, set the book down before beginning the next one. These stories shouldn’t be read like chapters in a novel.

Don’t Read It: Steer clear if you just battled your way through a messy divorce or breakup, because Bark might pitch you over the edge. Despite the occasional quips and black comedy, this collection isn’t a happy one. You might try something on the lighter side or maybe try hitting up the nearest bar instead, both of which will probably be more uplifting than several of the stories here.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s shorty story Silver Water would be a great place to start after reading Bark. Bloom’s ability to use humor to punctuate rather than diffuse an intense story is one of the skills of hers, and of Moore’s, that I love. Also make sure to check out any films written and/or directed by Nora Ephron for witty dialogue and similar content to Bark‘s.

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.

 

On Michael Punke’s “The Revenant”

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

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

There are inspirational books that make you marvel at the perseverance of the human spirit, the resourcefulness of our minds, the strength within all of us that drives us to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds–books that fill you with the warm, fuzzy satisfaction of belonging to a truly dominant and admirable species. And then there are books that remind you that you will never be as badass as that guy. Not ever. 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. In late summer of 1822, Hugh Glass joined a company of Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers in their pioneering journey up the Grand River. Together, the trappers hoped to make their way to Fort Union before the snows set in and, along the way, pick up plews of beaver fur while evading attacks from the hostile Arikara tribe. Easier said than done.

On September 1, 1822, Hugh Glass scouted ahead of the trapping party and finds a campsite by the river. He is ready to take his German-made, silver-trimmed Anstadt rifle to hunt for dinner when he sees two grizzly cubs trundling up to him. We could all learn a thing or two from this scene: “trundling grizzly cubs” is equivalent to “you’re screwed,” because where there are grizzly cubs there are grizzly moms.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there's that.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there’s that.

I’ll leave the grizzly details (sorry, I had to) to Punke’s novel, but I’m sure you get the picture of how this turns out. Mauled and a whisper away from death, Glass isn’t given a chance by his comrades. His captain leaves behind two trappers to do him the honors of burying him after he dies, while the others keep to their course. The two scallywags who volunteer to stay behind with the ailing Glass feel the impending threat of the Arikara. While Glass looks helplessly on, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald take Glass’s supplies, his knife, and his coveted Anstadt rifle, and they leave him to die. Only, Glass doesn’t die.

In truth, The Revenant is the tragic romance of a man whose most precious loved one is stolen by another man. Punke sets up the love story himself: “Glass’s rifle was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.” Aside from the care Glass gives it, the Anstadt is also the envy of all the trappers. He’s got the biggest, baddest gun of all the men in the crew–the gun that’s going to get all the ladies. So it’s no wonder that Fitzgerald jacks it when he gets the chance, and it’s no wonder Glass traverses hell and high water to get it back. The film adaptation ought to be called Taken 4:The Revenant. Glass’s very particular set of skills is what gets him through hundreds of miles of hostile frontier country to save his only love from the clutches of a perverse, amoral kidnapper.

I mean, who wouldn't cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

I mean, who wouldn’t cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

Teasing aside, Punke is careful (or perhaps he’s just oblivious) not to make this a tale of manliness–a self-stroking, exhibitionist’s tale of old school masculinity or a pining for a long-gone era of true American machismo. A story like this could easily swing from super badass to super sleazy in a few clacks on the keyboard. Props go to Punke for resisting. Likewise, the story could also have easily fallen into the tired trenches of white American apologetics when Punke depicts Glass’s interactions with local tribes. The author steers clear and focuses on the story at hand.

Punke’s writing style makes The Revenant an easy novel to consume. The prose is neither lyrical nor didactic, humorous nor academic. In a way, the novel reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article: events and name-dropping dot the book like landmarks on the way toward a destination, and no reader would be able to get themselves lost along the way. Readers are just along for the wild ride that is this mountain man’s insanely eventful life, and nothing stands in their way to enjoying the second-hand satisfaction of Hugh Glass’s survival and quest to get back what’s his.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy's John Fitzgerald in the upcoming film adaptation.

Ladies and gentlemen, gird your loins, because Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald in a battle of the beards in the upcoming film adaptation.

Read It: Readers who enjoy historical fiction and historical non-fiction will dig it. The Revenant is filled with dates, landmarks, and references to minor historical figures. The book reads quickly because of the utter lack of art and artifice in its prose, which some will see as a virtue, and which certainly makes the novel accessible to most.

Don’t Read It: Since this novel is based on true events and is written by an author who writes nonfiction, don’t read The Revenant if you’re not a fan of histories. You may be looking for character development or quirky little literary devices or carefully constructed plot points, but you won’t find them here. This is a novel that takes its cues from real historical events and doesn’t stray far from the trodden path. Punke doesn’t let his imagination much of a lead.

Similar Books: The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which looks like it will also get the silver screen treatment with a 2015 adaptation starring the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch and Sienna Miller, tells a similarly improbable story of Col. Percy Fawcett, the last Victorian explorer, who disappears in the Amazonian jungle in the attempt to find the real El Dorado. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, and Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is written in the same novelistic style as Punke’s The Revenant, and the film adaptation might star Leonardo DiCaprio, to boot.

Michael Punke--Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador--is pretty badass himself.

Michael Punke–Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador–is pretty badass himself.

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