Sunday, August 28, 2016

61 Books: #40

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–39 are below this post.

40. Phil Klay, Redeployment (2016) (8/28/16)
A killer book of twelve short stories, each one spot on. All are told in the first person, but the narrator is different in each, ranging from Marines newly home after a seven-month deployment to men on the ground in the war zone—but not always in the thick of the action. There's a chaplain, an adjutant (desk jockey), a Foreign Service Officer who ends up getting tasked with teaching Iraqi kids baseball thanks to political machinations back home. There's a Coptic Arab vet trying to explain what it was like to be a Marine in Iraq to a newly converted African-American Muslim at Swarthmore College. There is plenty of anger, confusion, and helplessness, as well as striving to connect, to understand.

I flagged so many passages for their vividness or wisdom or grit or vulnerability, for their ability to explain situations or states of mind or the sheer insanity of war so very well, and I could have flagged many more. Much of what makes the book so compelling is the dialogue. The writing is exceptional.

Like this, an extended sample:

So here's an experience. Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear. In a city there's a million places they can kill you from. It freaks you out at first. But you go through like you were trained, and it works.
     In Wilmington, you don't have a squad, you don't have a battle buddy, you don't even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it's not there. You're safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it's not.
     Instead, you're stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don't want to open it again.
     Outside, there're people walking around by the windows like it's no big deal. People who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died. People who've spent their whole lives at white.
     They'll never get even close to orange. You can't, until the first time you're in a firefight, or the first time an IED goes off that you missed, and you realize that everybody's life, everybody's, depends on you not fucking up. And you depend on them.
     Some guys go straight to red. They stay like that for a while and then they crash, go down past white, down to whatever is lower than 'I don't fucking care if I die.' Most everybody else stays orange, all the time.
     Here's what orange is. You don't see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It's hard to even remember exactly what that felt like. I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment, too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months.
     So that's orange. And then you go shopping in Wilmington, unarmed, and you think you can get back down to white? It'll be a long fucking time before you get down to white.
The stories are peppered with acronyms that generally aren't translated: some of them—IED, LT, PFC, HQ—we all know, but then there's EFPs, EOD tech, CAT team, BCT, JSS, SITREP, CACO, POG, CERP, HEAT trainer, MARPATs, etc., etc. At first I wanted to know what they meant, but eventually they were just part of the landscape, of the experience of being a grunt, and it was only the story that mattered.

Another narrator explains, "There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can't quite see. Either way, it's the same story." It may be the same story, but Klay manages to spin it a dozen ways, bringing out complexity, humor, irony, anguish, and seeking at every turn.

No wonder this book won the National Book Award. Fully deserved.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

61 Books: #39

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–38 are below this post.

39. Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (2015) (8/24/16)
I did not intend to read this book, which was compared with Gone Girl—which I did not care for. Gone Girl was clever, sure, and the mystery was compelling enough, with plenty of twists and turns. But the characters! Nothing likable about a single one of them. And the ending was decidedly distasteful, creepy.

But then I saw that The Girl on the Train was on President Obama's summer reading list, and I thought, "He's a smart man. If this appeals to him, I guess I'll give it a shot."

I should have listened to my first instincts.

Apparently I'm not a fan of the unreliable narrator genre. If that's a genre.

The story is simple: a girl on a train likes to watch a particular house along the railway, makes up stories about its occupants. Soon, one of the occupants is reported missing. Turns out the girl on the train used to live down the street. Turns out . . . well, all sorts of truths are revealed, and conclusions leapt at, as the girl inserts herself into the situation. 

Here again, there were some twists, and I liked the way Hawkins played with time and multiple narrators. And fortunately the ending wasn't creepy. But I didn't care about or for any of the characters. Moreover, the notion of lodging unreliability in drunkenness, cheating, and pathological lying—well, that's just plain lazy. At least in Gone Girl the unreliable narrator was wily crazy.

I did read this book compulsively, page-turner like: hoping for redemption more than because I was interested in the resolution, which didn't surprise me. At all. Also to get it over with, so I can move on to a book I feel is worth my time. (Halfway through is too far along to abandon a book.)

I wonder if Mr. Obama will make it all the way through? And whether he will enjoy it. I hope so. I wouldn't want to think he's wasting his time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

61 Books: #38

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–37 are below this post.

38. Craig Childs, The Desert Cries: A Season of Flash Floods in a Dry Land (2002) (8/23/16)
This slim, elegant book is both harrowing and exquisite. Craig Childs, conducting research into the dynamics of flash floods in American deserts for his master's degree, visits five places that over the course of one season in 1997 saw tragic devastation, including on three of those occasions loss of life—and in the two instances where no one died, it was as if by a miracle.

The five chapters are written in pairings: a description by Craig of his visit to the place, after the flood; and an account of what happened, based on interviews with survivors and rescuers. In both cases, his language brings to life the unimaginable.

"Seeing a flash flood catches God red-handed," he writes in the prologue. "A flood constitutes an act of such creation and destruction, of such raw energy, that you cannot avert your eyes. Some people travel the globe to witness solar eclipses or volcanic eruptions or the migration of millions of birds to a single waterway. They hope for the same thing I want when I chase floods—to accompany an event that is flawless, humbling, and eternal. Born in the dry country of central Arizona, my love is for water. The stroke of a desert flood across a once-dry floor enslaves my eyes."

The five places he visits are a storm drain running under Douglas, Arizona, where a flash flood took the lives of eight illegal immigrants on August 6, 1997; the Mojave Desert in western Arizona, where on August 9 a raging torrent undermined a railway bridge, causing a transcontinental passenger train to derail (no one was killed); Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon, where on August 10 a "cowboy" helicopter pilot flew down the canyon ahead of the flood warning hikers (no one was killed); Antelope Canyon, northern Arizona (eleven people, mostly European tourists, killed on August 12); and Phantom Canyon, Grand Canyon (two hikers killed, September 11).

His physical descriptions are lyrical and evocative, of the places both in stillness and ravaged by angry waters. Here he is flying over the landscape where the train had derailed: "The mountains below are studded with fins and sharp spines. There is no sign of humanity, no place for dirt roads or buildings. In fact, I have the impression that a human would be swallowed up just by trying to walk around down there. The jumbled topography goes on for nearly a hundred miles with crooks and stabs reaching up for the plane. Yet there is a constant glimmer of sensuality secluded deep within each range. Floods have left hundreds of wandering canyons that slice like sinuous ribbons into the ground. From up here, the canyons look elaborate, richly decorating the senseless chaos of stone. The mountains are male, the canyons female. And the floods are rare and genderless."

And then there's this, from the Antelope Canyon chapter, part two: "They all stop when they hear it. They do not breathe at the crescendo, as the ground shudders like hoof beats. The moment is as still from thought as possible. A blunt mass of dark water surges into view. It splits around the ladders above them. Streams of water and foam cut through the metal steps into the air. Tangled inside this water is the Frenchman, struggling to breathe, to get out. His face spears through the water, screaming. Bowled over, he tries to keep his ground. He can't. The vision is terrifying. They watch him as he is thrown unwittingly toward them."

This alternation of quiet observation and urgent narration is effective and forceful. And despite the occasional horror of a flash flood, Childs would not want it any other way. "I sometimes think that, in the perfect Eden, there are no floods. In Utopia, a person never dies fighting beneath muddy waves. Then I am glad to not live in such barren places as these. Floods belong to a fertile and dynamic land. We cannot control elements of danger, magnificence, and prowess in the world. To wish them away or to tear them into survivable pieces is to wish for a less genuine Earth."

61 Books: #37

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–36 are below this post.

37. BK Loren, Theft (2012) (8/22/16)
I had the good fortune of taking a writing class with BK not long ago, and in it she referred to her wonderful novel Theft and talked about some of the things she'd done formally with it. That got me curious to reread it—this time as a writer as much as a reader.

The story involves a sister and brother pair, Willa and Zeb, and a handful of other characters: it has a very small cast, almost like a play. Much of it is told from Willa's point of view, in the first person; everyone else's story is told in the third person. The basic plot swings back and forth in time between Willa and Zeb as teenagers, and Willa twenty-odd years later, now a wilderness tracker and endangered-wolf relocator, being called in to track down her long-estranged fugitive brother.

But that's just the plot. The beauty of this book is in the characterization, the psychology, the emotional depths. As BK instructed in her class, chronology is less important in a story than motivation. Or as the originators of South Park put it in a recent interview, you don't want "And then," you want "And so" or "But."

There is much talk of wildness in this novel, and of belonging; of doing what's right versus doing what you have no control over; of yearning, surrender, and loss. BK has a delicious way of evoking interiority. As here: "I stand stiff and strong, nothing showing, no fear when you look at me, but there's a bird trapped in my body. I can feel it fluttering in my chest, batting crazy against the walls of my ribcage, caught in too small a space."

Or here: "What he felt first was harder than he imagined it would be: the letting go. If life had ever made sense, it would have been a slow and steady letting go from beginning to end. But it was the opposite of that. It was a constant piling on, a weave of love that knitted its way more permanently into him daily. The absurdity of it had drained him and confused him—this intense love he'd been born with living side by side with the fact that no connection ever satisfied him. If he'd sometimes avoided connection, it had been because he craved it so much, and it was never enough."

But it's not all internal. There's glorious description of people and land as well. "And right now he had a narrow open road stretched out before him, and some cold brews sitting in the Coleman cooler waiting for him in the back of the truck, and there was nothing like an extra-hot autumn day in the high desert, the last days of summer perched on the promise of winter—nothing like a day like that to make a man feel like he just might live forever."

And finally, there are the wolves, who thread through the book and give it energy. "What they have become to me—I can't put my finger on it," says Willa. "They are every strand I have ever lived all woven into one long braid of time. They are, like Raymond says, a connection to a past that goes beyond my own past. They are wild, and they are completely dependent on us, on our every decision. The only truth they know is hunger; their only right or wrong is survival; their only belief is the day as it comes to them. It's not how I want to live. But I need them to live that way, to remind me that everything beyond is gravy."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

61 Books: #36

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–35 are below this post.

36. Mary Roach, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013) (8/2/16)
Mary Roach is a delight! Smart, sassy, a master of the language, and interested in everything and anything—the weirder the better.

Unfortunately, I "read" most of this book while driving. The narrator was excellent and I was able to pay pretty good attention, but I am far more distractable with an audiobook than with a paper one. I had reached the last chapter when I pulled into my drive after a fourteen-hour trip, and decided to check the book out from the library to finish up. So glad I did: every page had some treat of wording or analogy or observation. I may have to go back and read Gulp the old-fashioned way. Even the illustrations that accompany each chapter are unmissable.

The subject matter here is "feeding, and even more so its unsavory correlates." The chapter titles themselves are great:
  • Nose Job: Tasting has little to do with taste (and so much about our sense of smell)
  • I'll Have the Putrescine: Your pet is not like you (on developing food that drives dogs and cats wild)
  • Liver and Opinions: We we eat what we eat and despise the rest (our aversion to organ meats)
  • The Longest Meal: Can thorough chewing lower the national debt? (extreme mastication—does it release more nutrients?)
  • Hard to Stomach: The acid relationship of William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin (on how our stomach digests food)
  • Spit Gets a Polish: Someone ought to bottle the stuff (the wonders of saliva)
  • A Bolus of Cherries: Life at the oral processing lab (the neuromusculature of chewing and swallowing)
  • Big Gulp: How to survive being swallowed alive (on Jonas and the whale, and constrictor snakes)
  • Dinner's Revenge: Can the eaten eat back? (back to digestion)
  • Stuffed: The science of eating yourself to death ("A healthy stomach will up and empty itself well before it reaches the breaking point. Unless for some reason it can't.")
  • Up Theirs: The alimentary canal as criminal accomplice (smuggling contraband into prison)
  • Inflammable You: Fun with hydrogen and methane (yes, farts, and also belches)
  • Dead Man's Bloat: And other diverting tales from the history of flatulence research 
  • Smelling a Rat: Does noxious flatus do more than clear a room? ("The simplest strategy for bouts of noxious flatus is to not care. Or perhaps to take the advice of a gastroenterologist I know: get a dog. (To blame.)")
  • Eating Backward: Is the digestive tract a two-way street? (autocoprophagia: something you owners of pet rats, and certain dogs, may be familiar with)
  • I'm All Stopped Up: Elvis Presley's megacolon, and other ruminations on death by constipation 
  • The Ick Factor: We can cure you, but there's just one thing (fecal transplants) 
Fascinating, no? Truly, it is! Roach has entertaining conversations with engaging scientists as she seeks to understand better just what goes on inside our bodies.

Here are a couple of passages, chosen at random, to get at her wonderful style:

"The most effective agent of dietary change is the adulated eater—the king who embraces whelks, the revolutionary hero with a passion for skewered hearts. . . . For organ meats today, that person has been taking the form of celebrity chefs at high-profile eateries. . . . On the Iron Chef episode 'Battle Offal,' judges swooned over raw heart tartar, lamb's liver truffles, tripe, sweetbreads, and gizzard. If things go as they usually go, hearts and sweetbreads might start to show up on home dinner tables in five or ten years." (from "Liver and Opinions")

"DePeters took some photographs of me with my right arm in 101.5. The cow appears unmoved. I look like I've seen God. I was in all the way to my armpit and still could not reach the bottom of the rumen. I could feel strong, steady squeezes and movements, almost more industrial than biological. I felt like I'd stuck my arm into a fermentation vat with an automated mixing paddle at the bottom, and I basically had." (from "Dinner's Revenge")

And so forth. Roach is a colorful writer with a colorful imagination, and by reading her books (I've also read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which was equally entertaining), you learn. Boy, do you learn: all sorts of stuff you never imagined. That's my idea of time well spent.