Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flight Behavior: Marriage, Monarchs and a Changing Climate

Humans are the only animal that can use logic, but that doesn't mean we're always logical. Nor does it mean that we'll always be convinced by reason, or when presented with overwhelming factual evidence.

Yes, the back drop for Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Flight Behavior is climate change. But the novel also examines how poor choices in our personal lives can become victims of their own logic -- that how things are is how they'll be, and they can't be changed. In both cases, though, we do have the power to combat the inertia of entrenched beliefs -- it just takes some courage, discipline and a hell of a lot of hard work.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a married mother of two living on a farm in Eastern Tennessee with her husband Cub. And she's about to throw away her good name on an affair. But as she treks into the woods to the spot for her illicit rendezvous, she witnesses the side of a mountain as if it were a "lake of fire." What she's seeing is actually a huge swarm of monarch butterflies, who have taken a wrong turn (much like Dellarobia with her hasty marriage) on their way to their usual winter home in Mexico, and alighted on this mountain in Tennessee.

Soon, folks from all over the world begin descending upon this small, quiet, conservative Tennessee town to witness what some consider a miracle and what most consider to be a terrifying effect of climate change -- including the handsome, enigmatic Dr. Ovid Bryan, who takes up residence in a trailer on Cub and Dellarobia's farm to study the monarchs.

Throughout the novel, as Dellarobia becomes more involved in studying the butterflies (she gets a job helping Dr. Bryan with his research), and challenging her own beliefs -- both in terms of her conservative, religious values, and also her marriage to her husband, a shotgun affair when they were still in high school because Dellarobia was pregnant -- she begins to wonder what it might take to change her station in life. Is it possible? Is it realistic?

My favorite part of this novel was Dellarobia. I really, really liked her, and I was on her side from beginning to end -- rooting for her to figure that ineffable "it" out. She's plucky and smart, and increasingly determined to change for the better.

But overall, as someone who has studied and written frequently (in my real-world job) about climate change, I wish I'd liked this novel more than I did. It tends to get a little bogged down often with long descriptions of things like sheep husbandry and butterfly science. (Kingsolver is a trained biologist, and that's fairly evident here.) And there's a strange, not-critical-to-plot twist near the end that felt kind of unwarranted and unnecessary and left me wondering about the choice to include it.

The parts of the novel that some readers have found preachy -- about why people seem only to listen to and read media that props up their already-established-and-never-to-be-challenged beliefs, and why climate change seems to have become one of those things, despite the fact that it's not a political argument, but is a scientific near-certainty -- are the parts I actually found most interesting. (Kingsolver doesn't spend a lot of time on the evidence for climate change -- she assumes that you already know this, and also that you're a rational person, and understand that climate change is real. She's not trying to convince readers. She's more interested in the "psychology" of climate deniers, and how they try to recruit others to their fold.)

If you're in to biology and/or the politics of climate change, as well as a good, down-home story about the politics of marriage, you'll definitely find something to like here. I give it 3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bond Girl: Adventures on Wall Street

Alex Garrett is young, cute, and seemingly in way over her head in the cut-throat, spectacularly excessive, old-boys-club world of Wall Street. The questions in Erin Duffy's debut novel, Bond Girl, then: Will "the Business" break her, or will she tough it out, maintain her morals, and rise to the top (even as the markets are melting down)? Or will she let the misogynistic jerks (especially the older married guy who keeps texting her) beat her down?

The atmosphere on Alex's bond-trading floor is not unlike that of a frat house -- the team plays ridiculous pranks on each other, completes "feats of strength" (one fellow earns a $28,000 pot for eating one of everything in the vending machine), give each other silly nicknames (Alex's is "Girlie"), and treat the newbies like crap. At one point, as a punishment for being late one day, Alex has to drive to Brooklyn to pick up a 50-pound wheel of parmesan cheese. Another newbie, a would-be hot-shot Princeton grad, thinks he's advancing quickly when the other traders let him help out on a trade for Cox Communications. They make him yell across the trading floor "I'm a large buyer of Cox." He doesn't get why that's funny, or that he's being pranked.

And while that's all fun and games, the real thrust of this novel is how difficult it is for a woman on Wall Street. Alex begins dating a guy from her company, and he's cute and romantic and nice to her when they're together, but for some reason, he never answers his phone on weekends -- which should be an enormous red flag, but Alex enjoys their time together, and doesn't want to be "that girl" by making a big deal of it. And then there's Rick, the head of a hedge fun, and a major client -- who immediately sees Alex as a potential conquest. He rigs situations to be alone with her, constantly asks her out for drinks at hotels, and texts her creepy messages at all hours of the night. Alex just grins and bears it, and chalks it up as part of the job.

Overall, Bond Girl is a quick, fun read that gives a glimpse into the excesses and absurdities of Wall Street. Yes, it is on the "chick-lit" side (as you can probably tell by the cover), so there's lots of spa-ing and gossiping with friends over margaritas and thinking about how it "takes pain to beautiful." But if you're a dude, it's a good look behind the curtain, per se, to see how the other half thinks. (That's the real reason I read it -- it came up as available on my library holds list right before Christmas, and I figured it'd be a good mindless distraction between presents and egg nog.) It's light and breezy, and a good read for when you just want to turn your brain off and be entertained.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Yellow Birds: On The Psychology of War

It's a mercy Kevin Powers' Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds is not longer than its scant 225 pages. That's not because it's dull or slow or poorly written. No, it's a good thing it's not longer because it's often hard to read and draining — it deals with the psychology of soldiers at war, and that's a tricky thing. Had this novel been longer, it could've felt long-winded and easily lost its way, like soldiers in the dark.

But as is, it's a chilling illustration of how shattering war can be for kids in their late teens and early 20s. No one is adequately equipped for the psychological toll of war, but especially not kids. So one of their coping mechanisms is to turn the terrible to mundane. After watching an old woman get shot, and a young girl trying to drag her from the road, our narrator, 21-year-old Private Bartle muses: “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed…We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

Chapters alternate between war scenes in Iraq (it's 2004, and the soldiers are fighting in and around the small fictional city Al Tafar) and post-war Bartle, who has returned to his hometown of Richmond, Va., and trying to comprehend the war. Before shipping out, Bartle promises a young private's (named Murphy) mother that he'll watch over him, and deliver him back safely — of course, an impossible promise. Murphy is an 18-year-old country boy, who doesn't quite understand what he's getting himself into. And as the effects of the war break him down, Bartle's promise becomes increasingly difficult.

Where this novel really succeeds — and why it was a finalist for the National Book Award, no doubt — is in diving into how these characters rationalize the war; how they come up with psychological justifications to help them deal with the stress. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Bartle explains that he and Murphy assume that anyone who is going to die is, essentially, predestined to die. So there's no use worrying — if there's a bullet with your name on it, there's nothing you can do.

The novel also succeeds because of its poetry — Powers writes with power and grace, simultaneously; each page, practically, includes a way of describing something that makes it as clear as if Powers had plopped what he's describing down in front of you. (Example: "When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling.") And there's even a few pages of stream-of-consciousness — another example of how the stress of the war wreaks havoc on these characters' psyche.

This certainly isn't your typical war novel — you don't often hear war novels described as "inexplicably beautiful," as Ann Patchett does on one of the cover blurbs. But it is all the things that make up a good war novel, specifically, but just a good novel in general. Definitely recommended!

Friday, December 14, 2012

How I Learned To Love Books

“I recall with utter clarity the first great shock of my life.”
And I recall with utter clarity, when as a lad of 15 or so, I read that line for the first time. It’s the opening line from Leon Uris’ novel Trinity – the first novel I remember really, really loving, that gave me that indescribable “good book butterflies” feeling in my gut. I understood this book. It’s the first book with which I had a dialogue. And it’s the first book that wouldn’t let go of me weeks, months, years after I’d finished it.

As I wrote the “How I Learned To Read” post a few weeks ago, I started thinking about things — like reading Trinity — that not only taught me how to read, but showed me just how much I loved books–watershed moments that showed me that books were an inextricable part of my life, and always would be. I’m not talking about obvious things – like an English degree, or my parents reading to me as a child, or telling friends I was sick or broke so I could stay in and read (though all those are important). I’m talking about things that you only realize later, things that seemed relatively run-of-the-mill at the time. I came up with two more.

The first happened on June 2, 2001. I had graduated from college the previous year, and was living at home with my parents, a situation I wasn’t entirely excited about. I was reading John Updike’s Rabbit Run, and really loving it. Suddenly, I realized that of all the hundreds of books I’d read since I learned to read, I only remembered a few of them in any detail (Trinity being one of them). So I started a reading journal. Every time I finish a book, I wait until the next day (you know, to let it “sink in” a bit) and then spend 30 minutes or so writing about the book. This list (that nobody has ever seen but me) is now approximately 475 single-spaced typed pages. And I’ve done this for every book I’ve ever read since then. I haven’t missed a single one. So thinking back to that summer night when I started the reading journal… I must’ve understood something about myself then – that I wanted to remember these things I loved so much – like photographs from a honeymoon, or a voicemail from a friends saved over the years.

The second happened a few summers ago. On a vacation to New York City, my girlfriend and I were sitting on a bench in Central Park, when I glanced to my left, and was stunned to spot novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on the bench right next to ours. I had just picked up her new novel 36 Arguments For The Existence of God, but I hadn’t read it yet. I started poking my girlfriend on the shoulder and whispering, “That’s a famous writer! I just bought her book!” “Go talk to her,” she suggested. Me: “Oh, God no — I don’t want to be that guy. I’d just make an ass of myself.”

I know writers are just people like you and me, but what I realized is that I idolize writers. The reason is almost too obvious to warrant mention: It’s because novelists do something I’ve only dreamed about doing. They’re the paragons of a craft that is quite possibly the most important (non-breathing) thing in my life. And this is what made me realize how much I truly loved books. Indeed, I loved books enough that I could put a person most people have never heard of on the same pedestal others put LeBron James or George Clooney or Bruce Springsteen.

In total, what I’ve come to realize is that I love reading much more than just as a hobby — something to pass the evening hours — but as something I almost literally couldn’t be without. What I’ve learned in reflecting on these things is about the intensity of the devotion more so than the devotion itself.

Now I won’t tell you a revisionist story about how I went home after that NYC vacation, and started my own novel immediately, or that I knew on that June day in 2001 that this reading journal would be the catalyst to a life-long devotion to books. All I can tell you is that thinking about them is incredibly rejuvenating!

I now know that books are a cornerstone of the model of myself that consists of all the non-negotiable pieces of who I am. Should I ever lose my way — hey, midlife is approaching, and we all know that that is often a time of crisis — I can rest assured I’ll always have books to keep me on course.

(This post originally appeared earlier this week on Book Riot.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tender Bar: Bad Title, Great Book

Do you know why I'm one of the last dozen or so people on Earth who hasn't read J.R. Moehringer delightful memoir, The Tender Bar? Simple: Its title. Yes, I get the turn-of-phrase, and even the possible double-meaning of "tender." And yes, it's sort of clever (in a not-really-clever sort of way). But it's just so preciously cutesy. I always rolled my eyes when I saw it in a used bookstore, and never even considered picking it up — even though I know millions of readers have loved it.

With the publication of Moehringer's first novel last fall — titled Sutton, about a bank robber, and a book I'm chomping at the bit to get to — I decided to finally grow up a bit, conquer my silly hang-up, and read. (Besides, I LOVED Moehringer's work on Andre Agassi's autobiography Open, as much for the story — and I'm a huge tennis fan — as the writing.)

I'm glad I did — The Tender Bar is a fantastic read.  It's funny. It's touching. And, yes, gosh darn it, it's tender. But you know this, already.

And most of you probably know the story, too. But if not, here's the deal: It's the mid-1970s, and Moehringer is growing up without his father, living in a house with more people than a house rightfully should hold, on Long Island. He idolizes his Uncle Charlie and Charlie's buddies, who spend their days hungover and their nights creating the next day's hangover at the bar down the street — for better or worse, they're the male influences in his life. Charlie's awesome — he's a booze hound gambler, but he loves words. Charlie's grandfather is less awesome — he's mean to his wife, and is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but he also loves words. And so J.R. learns to love words, too.

Then the story shifts to a coming-of-age-type thing — Moehringer and his mother move to Arizona, where he meets a couple of oddball bookstore owners, who show him how to read deeply. He gets in to Yale, but feels like he doesn't belong. Still, he meets Sidney — a rich girl, who he loves desperately, but who breaks his heart (when she cheats on him), but then loves again, but then decides to ditch (a decision made at the bar, incidentally) for his own mental health. He starts his career at the NY Times, and continues to visit the bar night nightly, soaking up the barroom wisdom.

Throughout it all, J.R. struggles with his identity — does he want to be known as a person raised in a bar, and now spends his adult free time in a bar? How is bar wisdom and etiquette applicable to the real world? How does he separate himself from his father, who has constantly left his hard-working mother in the lurch? And will his own inherited love of words pay off? 

There are few parts of the story that sort of smack of revisionist history — you know, events Moehringer claims to recognize as turning points at the time they were happening, which is convenient for the story. Maybe that game of catch he had with his younger cousin (e.g.) really was a pivot for his life, but in reality, we rarely do understand moments like that at time they're happening. Then again, most memoirs are at least a tad revisionist, aren't they? But overall, it's a great story, told in prose so smooth and clean, it practically slides off the page. I give it four stars and highly recommend it, if you're one of the few who hasn't yet picked it up.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Finishing East of Eden

It's crazy, I know - but I'd never read John Steinbeck. Not once. Not in high school, nor in any literature survey in college (how is that possible?!), nor in 10+ years of post-college reading. So it wasn't without a touch of trepidation that I finally picked up East of Eden — the motivation came partially from the fact that it had recently shown up on Book Riot's Readers' 50 Favorites list, and several people whose opinions I respect had helped put it there.

It's magnificent. Fast at times, brooding at others. I learned. I laughed. I got a bit emotional, too. It's really just about everything you'd want from a novel — no wonder it's a freakin' classic (says Captain Obvious).

Beyond the obvious (the creative re-tellings of the Cain and Abel story; the Hebrew word Timshel — which is Adam's last word, and which means "thou mayest": the core idea of the novel, that we can choose to reject bad and be good, or we can choose not to; and the wonderful descriptions of the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck's beloved home), there are two things I'll remember most about his book:

1) Steinbeck's quotability. Over the course of reading this book, I tweeted a good half-a-dozen passages from the book, and marked about two dozen more. Here are a few of my favorites:
"A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar — if he is financially fortunate."
"No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel it is true and true of us." -- Lee, one of my favorite characters (see below).
"Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners." (This seems to me about as clear a statement of Steinbeck's personal philosophy as you could gain from this novel.) 

2) The characters Samuel Hamilton and the Chinese servant Lee — two of the wisest, noblest, most dignified characters in any literature I've ever read. The two recognize each other as kindred spirits early in the novel — and become fast friends. Throughout the novel, they guide the other characters, helping them to choose good instead of bad. Samuel and Lee both guide Adam out of his malaise after Cathy shoots him (Samuel punching him around is one of the great scenes in the novel), and it's Lee who constantly guides Caleb through his moral dilemmas and attempts to be good, because, as Lee says, "The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears." Indeed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Office Girl: A Chicago Love Story

It's February, 1999, and here we are, in snowy, freezing Chicago. Odile is 23. She's dropped out of art school and is aimless. She fears she's never done anything interesting. Jack is 25. He's an art school graduate, recently divorced, and is also aimless. The two meet at a menial second-shift office job.

That's the basic framework of Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel Office Girl. But Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel is awesome; it's one of my favorites of the year, in fact. It's a book that resonated with me — it gave me that indescribable "good book chill" feeling when I finished. And I haven't been able to shake it.

The idea here is that Odile wants to start her own art movement, and recruits Jack to help her. Odile is against "everything popular. Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that's supposed to be a commodity." So she wants to make art that is surprising, because "people in this city...nothing surprises them anymore. When you live here, there's just too much going on around you, so you don't see any of it. It's hard to get people's attention."

So, they do things like ride an elevator in a downtown building wearing ski masks and holding a giant bouquet of silver balloons. Or wearing sheets with eye holes (as ghosts) on a city bus. They just want to create art that's "a moment" — that someone might remember. Jack is also working on an art project — he records sound of anything he thinks is interesting or beautiful while riding his bike around the city — a girl crying at a bus stop, or steam from a sewer, or total silence. It's similar to the guy from American Beauty, who records mundane things he finds beautiful. Jack's goal is to create a city of sounds — and when he shows Odile, she absolutely loves it.

But the idea of the art is secondary to the notion that these two people are just trying to find their ways in the world, and see in each other kindred spirits and journey-mates. They spend a lot of time riding their bicycles around the city at night, through the snow, confiding in each other, and telling each other secrets they've never told anyone else. And they try to decide what the future might hold — to move forward or to keep spinning their wheels. 

Again, I loved this book. It's 295 pages, but really much shorter (because of page breaks, and some cool art work and photos included in the pages, as well) — I read it in two sittings. No, this novel doesn't really break any new ground in terms of theme or plot, and yes, it could be argued that it feels a bit slight. But to me, neither of those mattered. These characters and the setting (dark, brooding Chicago — the streets, the buildings, the cold, snowy nights) got their claws into me, and haven't yet let go. Highly, highly recommended — especially if you love Chicago, especially if you were in your early 20s in the late 90s, and especially if you've ever felt a bit adrift. Five stars.