Monday, April 23, 2012

There is No Dog

Who doesn't love the idea of God just wandering around every day among us? . Meg Rosoff's book There is No Dog is designated a YA novel and the God portrayed here is a malodorous, lazy late adolescent named Bob who won control of this world through his mother's poker game. His assistant--the also-ran for control of this earth--admits Bob has had flashes of brilliance in some of his creations. Mr B marvels that the same God who leaves his dirty clothes in a moldering heap by the side of the bed could have created golden eagles and elephants and butterflies. Such moments of transcendent inspiration! Other creatures fill him with admiration as well--heavy loping striped tigers and graceful long-necked swans, creaking as they fly,. Ludicrous pincushion porcupines. The problem, as Mr B sees it--somewhat resentful that he wasn't considered good enough for the role of God all by himself--is that Bob loses interest easily. He's distracted, gets bored, can't be bothered, or he falls in lust with some human girl and, incidentally, unleashes cataclysmic weather events.

This particular  predicament is how the book opens. Bob has become infatuated by Lucy, a local 21 year old intern at the zoo. He realizes, dimly, that he can't appear as a burning bush, or in full angelic attire, but he's flummoxed how to proceed. Mr B is being less helpful than ever, partly because he's planning his escape to another world as soon as he can. After all, he's spent eons cleaning up after Bob and he's tired of it. This world is a mess, getting messier as Bob chases Lucy--the town is practically underwater already.  Bob's mother is even less help as she's too busy getting drunk and playing poker against Emoto Hed, a god whose presence becomes  a devastating absence, a malignant Hed-shaped void sucking all light and heat into its core. No, Bob is on his own. He even loses his one-of-a-kind pet, an Eck, an odd penguiny sort of creature with the long elegant nose of an anteater, beady eyes, and soft gray fur.

Will Bob have his way with Lucy? Will Eck be eaten by Emoto Hed, as threatened? Will the world fall apart under the strain of a hormonal God, or will Mr B pull his dignity together and stick around to solve once and for all the Bob problem. Rosoff certainly has fun with her premise and it works, mostly. There are, indeed, flashes of brilliance, but it's a little hard to have to come face-to-face with a fairly unlikeable God, and I was left not too invested in anyone.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Brothers K

For the first third of David James Duncan's gigantic, 650 page book, I was in love. I could not get enough of The Brothers K and I don't even like baseball which features prominently in this book. Still, it's about baseball the way Friday Night Lights was about football. Really, the story is about the Chance family and their collective and separate journeys through the 20 ugly years that start in the late 50s. I say ugly because, remember that the bulk of this period involves the Vietnam War. I also say ugly because, hey, it includes the 1970s.

Papa Toe Chance (though he gets this nickname late in life when, yes, his mangled thumb is replaced by his big toe in what must have been cutting edge surgery back then) is a pitching wonder. Life has intervened (even before the mangled thumb) and he has a growing family, an adored religious zealot for a wife, and fading dreams of pitching. Drink is more appealing to him, though the Seventh Day Adventist spirit in the house often precludes that option.

The religion is tough to take, perhaps tougher than the baseball jargon. Sure, I glided over a few descriptions of long innings, but I devoured young Kincaid's description of two announcers and their patter. "Call us Diz and Pee, for short!" Enthuses the more entertaining of the two. Poor Pee Wee Reese has to play straight man to this guy, but it makes for entertaining exchanges. Kincaid says, "[Dizzy] tells you things you hadn't notice, and things that have nothing to do with what's happening, and he gets mad at umps, makes fun of bad plays and players, calls errors 'eras' and basemen 'sackers,' tells lies, brags, invents fake statistics to win arguments, and generally grates on Pee Wee's nerves till you feel you're really living through a flesh-and-blood ballgame instead of sitting in your house staring at a box."

That kind of patter might make even me pay attention to a game. The problem with this particular game is that it's taking place on the Adventists' sabbath day and Kincaid and his father--he of the still-mangled thumb-- are breaking all sorts of rules set by their mother. Laura is so devout (and devoted to Elder Babcock) that it eventually causes a rift in the family, with the non-believer children doomed to hell in her mind (and therefore no longer destined to be under her earthly care) and the three who still believe. The father gets a pass. Sure, later--at the very end, we find out the source of Laura Chance's blind, determined devotion to her faith. Though it falls a little flat and comes a little late, it all makes sense in the end, and this is after the most devout and kind and thoughtful of her children has been mangled by the Vietnam War, abandoned by his church, and cast out for his very beliefs.

The rescue of Irwin from the clutches of those who thought they could best help him could have been a joke. Picture the scene: A motley assortment of Chance family members, Adventists, including a visiting Korean elder, and some hangers-on arriving at a military psych ward in a couple of Winnebagoes. Throw in a dash of the terrible fashions of the 1970s and Duncan could have just made fun of everyone and called it a day. Instead, the scene becomes quite moving and heals a rift among believers and non-believers, drinkers and academics, baseball-lovers and those who have abandoned the sport, draft dodgers and those damaged more directly by war. Those who want to sing Adventist songs and those who want to storm the place to rescue the lost son. This episode is what won me back. Zealotry of any kind--religious, political, academic, spiritual, is never the answer, Duncan seems to say, but family is. Family matters and never mind how crazy that family turns out to be, you shouldn't let go. Even if it takes 650 pages to sort out what the heck is going on in the Chance family. As one brother's political college paper column is called, "Give Chance a Peace." Give this book a go, just be ready to commit yourself.

*You do not have to have intimate knowledge of either The Brothers Karamazov or Russian literature in general, but it might add a level of enjoyment or understanding.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Ice Balloon

I don't want to give it away, but the fact that we aren't all enjoying hot air balloon rides to visit Santa kind of hints at how S.A. Andree's 1897 attempt to fly over the North Pole went. If you are into the sort of literature that deals with stupid people behaving badly in cold places (or, behaving heroically in cold places) then Alec Wilkinson's book, The Ice Balloon, is for you. I happen to be someone whose heart quickens to a subtitle like S.A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, and I couldn't wait to read about this Norwegian who planned down to the most bizarre minutiae how to take two companions and be the first to fly over the North Pole. It being 1897, a hot air balloon made perfect sense. What could go wrong?

He was such a thinker--and by this I mean just a bit obsessive--that Andree even thought through how to cook food mid-flight in a balloon filled with extremely flammable gas. To heat water and cook, Andree had a stove...that could be lowered from the basket until it hung about twenty five feet beneath it. It was lit from the basket through a tube. A mirror placed by the stove allowed someone in the basket to see if the flame had lit. Blowing down a second tube put it out. An engineering marvel? No doubt. Practical? Hmm, not sure how good the food was, but they didn't die of starvation.

And yes, I don't give much away by saying they don't make it. The mystery of what happened to this visionary--dour and possessed--took 30 years to discover, but Wilkinson leads us to it gradually, and thrillingly, by way of a few other expeditions north. Some more horrific than others, and none terribly successful (in this book). My favorite is the experience of an American named George Tyson who signs up on an expedition only to find himself the leader of a mad scramble to safety. The ship he's on gets stuck in the ice and it's thought to be leaking. In a panic, the crew starts throwing stuff overboard and Tyson finds himself on the ice with a bunch of unknown others trying to reorganize when suddenly the ship breaks free and sails off in the dark without them. By the time there is light, the sad little ice floe crew can see the ship merrily chugging around the bend of land.

Suddenly Tyson becomes the de facto commander of a surly crew of German-speakers, women and children belonging to the expeditions Eskimo hunters, and the only one without a gun. Their tale of escape from the predicament is so unbelievable that many actually didn't believe them. It makes for great reading.

George Tyson was no scholar and his story is compelling because it is so amazing. Andree, on the other hand, is a scholar and kept meticulous journals--albeit not as emotionally detailed as one might like. The notes on his remarkable journey provide great insight into his daring dream. This was a man determined to succeed in the name of science and to prove his vision that sledging to the poles was never going to work. It is auspicious that the final words he was heard to speak were, "What was that?" as his balloon struck something leaving its mooring. And still, he sailed off, apparently happy, into the crystalline air of the northern regions.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

No Way Down. Life and Death on K2

This was a quick read (snow days help) so I barely had to time to extract promises from my sons that they would never climb in the Himalayas before I was done reading Graham Bowley's journalistic account of a 2008 ascent of K2. The 2008 ascent was marred by over-crowding (much more like what Everest suffers in general) and a long-stable serac that decides it's time to let go, completely indifferent to the fact that some 20 people are still above its tilting overhang.

Unlike the 1996 disaster on Everest, natural and unpredictable events help cause the tragedy of 11 deaths on K2. Yes, like the Everest event, people summitted too late. Yes, there was crowding and a lack of coordination, but the weather turned on Everest and most climbers knew that it would. In the K2 case, the glacier moved, tumbling skyscraper-sized chunks of ice down on both climbers and, more urgently, on the equipment--the lines, the snow markers--that would have helped them get down in the dark.

Unlike John Krakauer who so excellently reported the Everest tragedy, Graham Bowley is not a climber. He's a journalist who has little-to-no interest in mountaineering. In some ways the book suffers from his lack of first-hand experience (not with the tragedy itself, but with what it's like being atop the tallest places on earth). While Krakauer could make you feel exactly what is going on with your body as you become oxygen-deprived in the so-called Death Zone, and how that affects your life-and-death judgement, Bowley can only report. At times his subjects seem indifferent to what is unfolding around them and where Krakauer made me understand this as a normal reaction to high altitude, Bowley made me think slightly less of his characters.

On the other hand, Bowley was perhaps the perfect writer to bring together all the accounts of what happened over that weekend in August 2008. He did extensive interviews and right up front warns that "the accounts were contradicting one another and it was clear that memory had been affected by the pulverizing experience of high altitude, the violence of the climbers' ordeals and, in a few instances, possibly by self-serving claims of glory, blame, and guilt." Still, the journalist takes over and the accounts are laid out matter-of-factly (that's not to say they are dull. They aren't. They're each and all gripping accounts of life and death above 26,000 ft). It's only in the epilogue that Bowley admits to some controversy among accounts--who was to blame for mistakes made, who helped whom, who was affected most by altitude sickness... By then, it doesn't matter. When you've read about finding three Koreans dangling upside down, overnight, and about having to make the agonizing decision to stop and help or to save yourself; when you've read about a body falling in front of you with no scream or shout and having to sort through your muddled mind to remember whose suit was that color; when you, the reader, know that the character you admire most will either die or lose all his toes, it's hard to place blame or care about egos. These are all amazing men and women and, unlike the Everest tragedy, the mistakes seem minor. Unfortunately, any poor decision, however minor, can be fatal in the Death Zone.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The House of Silk

Officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle Estate, comes a new Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz (Alex Rider mysteries, Foyle's War, Collison). In The House of Silk, Horowitz captures both the spirit and the times of the original books. This one is old-fashioned without being old. The mystery is perhaps a bit more, um--let's say modern--than anything the old Sherlock might have been involved with, but the characters are believably re-created here, including an almost useless Watson as sidekick. He's so marginalized that at one point, they consult another doctor for an opinion. I could only imagine Doctor Watson, leaning over the body, saying What am I, chopped liver? But of course, he wouldn't say that. In fact, he demurs another time when asked about the possible slow poisoning of a woman, by saying, I should warn you, I'm only a general practitioner and my experience is limited...Oh, Watson. Is this why Sherlock keeps you around?

Horowitz even manages to touch on the odd and rumored relationship between the two men, without, mind you, making anything explicit. There's nothing sexual between the two, but there's something more than friendship. Though Watson is happily married, he's also more than happy when his wife goes to Scotland to catch typhoid fever (being only a generalist, he misses this detail) so he can hang out with his old buddy. They don't talk about Mrs. Watson, and when a criminal mastermind asks Watson to swear on something that he won't reveal what he's learned, Watson offers his marriage.

Mysterious man: Not good enough.
Watson: On my friendship with Holmes
Mysterious man: Now we understand each other.

All in good fun. I know Watson is our way into the brilliant mind of the great detective. Horowitz treats his brilliance admirably. There's a trick to writing about a brilliant person without seeming gimmicky or cocky and I think Horowitz succeeds. Also, this being a mystery, it deserves careful reading because everything, down to the odd placement of a fountain, seems like it might be a clue. Red herrings abound, as they should, and the solution is satisfying enough to reflect the time period. People are killed, people escape spectacularly from prison, nothing is romanticized about the harsh life of a street urchin, and Sherlock never resorts to his cocaine habit. You just have to put up with Watson being a little dim.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Call

The book: The Call, by Yannick Murphy.
The reAction: Excellent.
What I was thinking as I read it: I thought Yannick was a man. I wonder where in Vermont this takes place?
Why I'm writing like this: the book is set up this way.

The Call is from the point of view of a veterinarian--preferably large animals, though he'll put down a cat if you appeal to his conscience. Each section begins with the word "Call" and then a brief description of where he's off to. The subcategories are usually "action" ,"result", "what I say", "what I was thinking." Occasionally Murphy lets us in on what other people are saying on or after these calls. This may seem like a schtick that could get old, but it doesn't. It also could make you think the book's just about a middle-aged family man going about his days--and it sort of is--but there are a couple of mysteries and a near-tragedy.

For one, the doctor's son is in a hunting accident and two, he has repeated, somewhat humorous encounters with what might be a drone from the nearby air force base or might just be a spacecraft. Both his efforts to find the wayward hunter who shot his son and to get to the bottom of the spacecraft mystery are greeted with typical Yankee terseness because of course he asks his neighbors about both. When he's not driving owners and their sheep to the doctor (or tricking his wife into doing this), or dealing with a collicking horse, or putting down a recalcitrant horse that refuses to face the way it's owner thinks it should and ends up toppling into its grave on top of the thoughtful owner, the doctor is swimming, pondering life, trying to keep his family safe and together, and hoping for the blessing of a life well spent. It is only when a new visitor shows up that the good doctor finds his real calling (yes, pun intended). The story doesn't really take a turn with the appearance of the stranger, but the doctor's character is reinforced.

The writing is believably sparse, but thoughtful, humorous, and surprisingly descriptive for such a limited format. Here's a typical example (if any of the book can be called typical):

Call: castrate draft horse
Action: Pulled out emasculators, castrated draft horse.
Result: Draft horse bled buckets...Owner said she had never seen so much blood. It's okay, he's got a lot of blood, I said. She nodded. She braided the fringe on her poncho, watching the blood.
Thoughts on the drive home: What's the point of a poncho if it doesn't cover your arms?
What he wife cooked for dinner: Nut loaf.
What I ate for dinner: Not nut loaf.

This is a quick, engaging read and I'm sorry I ever thought Yannick was a man. That would be underselling how well the author gets inside her main character.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Not Much Just Chillin'

Possibly the best line in this book about "the hidden lives of middle schoolers" is: "Somebody stole my agenda," they tell [the principal] when they lose it, as if this is an item with potential black-market value." This so captures the self-centered yet disorganized culture of middle school, complete with the paranoia that everyone is out to get them and that they are not responsible for anything that goes astray or wrong. Not much just chillin', Linda Perlstein's study of a particular middle school in Maryland during these early aughts, is not for the fainthearted. In fact, it might not even be for the parents of a middle school student (too stressful!) but it definitely helps for teachers to read it. Some of the lessons to be drawn, as she follows a handful of kids through the year, are obvious (disorganization, peer pressure, hormone freak-outs), but others are more unexpected. We see how the curriculum itself does a disservice to the kids it is meant to reach. This is only becoming more so, with the pressure from above for a school to do well on standardized tests. Middle school kids are naturally curious about the world around them, but usually only as it specifically relates to them. Yet, the curriculum and the short day leave little time for exploration and everyone--teachers, kids, administrators--feel ragged as a result. They feel like they're always playing catch-up or pushing along, even while aware that some are missing the lessons.

In this book, the events of September 11, 2001 leave the teachers unsure how best to handle the day. Many of their students have parents who work in or near the Pentagon, but they are, after all, middle schoolers, somewhere caught between babies and adults. Such an extreme example of the delicate balance faced each day by educators served as a reminder that emotion--usually overdone or seemingly inappropriate to the moment--is forever at the forefront of a kid between the ages of 11 and 14. It was fascinating and disturbing to see how the kids handled the filtering news of that day.

Not that the whole book is despairing, or even vaguely of the "what the heck do we do with these crazy kids" type. These kids were perhaps chosen for their potential, as if Perlstein could see that they would grow up and be stronger people. In spite of the chaos of their home lives or their hormones, these were not all lost kids and it was reassuring to glimpse the future adult in the growing pains these kids go through every day.

Some of the slights they deal with or the academic struggles are painful to read, but there's hope--there's hope that they get from their families, their dedicated teachers, and even the very peers who can't help but torment each other. The only really heartbreaking moment comes from Eric, the bright boy with the most dysfunctional home life, who admits to being too lazy to try for the GT classes he's offered (GT here is translated as gifted and talented, but from what I could tell, it was more of an honors track than truly for the gifted). He's one who's perpetually "just chillin'" though he doesn't feel that he is. When his grades begin to plummet, he says he doesn't care because he knows what he's capable of, it's just that he hates school. He feels like he should be judged on the work he could do, not on whether or not he uses pen to do his homework (which isn't allowed). At one point, when he's fooling around in class and missing the directions, he says to the kid next to him: "I could be in GT." I found that incredibly depressing. The self-delusion is complete at this point and adult readers (and probably all of his classmates) see it for exactly that. It's a depressing fall for a kid with such potential, though Perlstein makes sure to cheer up her readers with an epilogue.

All in all, not much just chillin' is a fascinating, easy to read portrait of a suburban middle school with a healthy cross-section of class and race. While it's short on answers or technical explanations, it is a great reminder of how wonderful this age can be as kids throw off their babyhood to explore their future selves.