Book Review: Part-Time Indian Creates Full-Time Concerns

One thing you can count on, and that is if a book is banned or in any way censored I’m going to read it. So it should come as no surprise that I have always wanted to read the young adult novel The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This weekend I finally got around to it (and no, it was a coincidence that I read it during a holiday wherein Americans celebrate a fake feast with a people against whom it committed genocide).

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most banned books in America. According to Wikipedia, among the book’s controversial themes “include cultural insensitivity, provocative and explicit language, scenes that are sexually explicit or anti-family, anti-Christian content, alcoholism, and depictions of bullying and violence, among others.” Despite these concerns, the book was well received by critics and won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Add to the mix that author Alexie was caught up in the #MeToo movement over the last year, with a reported 10 women having gone public with sexual harassment allegations against the author who later made a public apology for his “poor decisions.” This certainly complicates things and opens the whole “can you love the art while despising the artist” argument. I’ll nip that question in the bud right away by saying I can generally separate the two, enjoying the work while simultaneously condemning the artist. I loved  The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I also enjoyed Smoke Signals, the film adaptation of his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 

I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story, and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great one. The novel is semi-autobiographical and concerns a nerdy Native American teenager (Arnold “Junior” Spirit) who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State but because he longs for a better education and an escape from constant ridicule by his native schoolmates he decides to transfer to the nearby off-reservation white school. For this he is ostracized by his native community but also finds it difficult (at first) to fit in at the all-white school. In a great bit of true comic irony, the Reardon mascot is the Indian, so Junior says he is one of only “two” Indians at the school.

Alexie does a wonderful job in the novel addressing native themes with openness and honesty. Alcoholism and poverty are ever present, as are racism and Native American stereotypes. The white kids don’t know what to make of Junior, and truthfully Junior isn’t sure what to make of them. The unwritten rules of the reservation don’t seem to apply in the white school so Junior’s sense of equilibrium is thrown off. Back on the reservation he is treated like a traitor for leaving, yet Junior wants to hold on to his native roots not abandon them. 

Ultimately the novel is a story of personal growth for all involved. I’m not giving anything away by reporting that all of the characters learn valuable lessons about life. But more importantly, it is the reader that learns the most. Alexie doesn’t pull any punches as he discusses life on the reservation for his friends and family. Living on the reservation offers little in the way of prosperity for its inhabitants, with poverty and alcoholism — and as a result, death — an ever-present feature. Readers, and young readers especially, need to understand the plight of Native Americans in our country so we can hopefully learn from our mistakes and move the country forward with more justice. Not that we’ve done a good job to date, but I suspect the more young people learn about this situation the better chances we have for a egalitarian future.

One thing I loved about the novel is that Alexie doesn’t try to teach the lessons of the story by sugar-coating the truth. Too often young adult novels don’t speak the language of teens, and ironically it is exactly this fact that causes the book to continually be banned. Junior is real because he is based on Alexie, but mostly because he talks and acts like a real 14-year-old kid. He is crude and sexually explicit. He talks about boners and masturbation and he and his friends use inappropriate terms to refer to each other’s masculinity. Should we ban the book because he uses a bad word? Of course there are no bad words, only bad intentions. Using the word “faggot” to dis your friends is something that teen boys do (and yes, they shouldn’t) but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate reality into a novel. Junior is a flawed character as we all are, but he’s a realistic character. I wonder if some of the same politically correct people who want to ban this book for its use of gay slurs decried the banning of Tom Sawyer for it’s use of the “n” word? Art needs to be real to be effective.

The best way to learn from Alexie’s book is to read it and discuss it, not to ban it. If I were assigning this book in a class you bet I’d have a class discussion about the use of derogatory terms for gays — that’s called teaching. I’d also have a discussion about why Reardon High School should change its mascot (yes, it is really still the school’s mascot). And why poverty is rampant on reservations. And why alcoholism is so prevalent among Native Americans. And why young Native Americans are torn between two worlds. Discussing questions like these is what’s missing from American schools and why we are still so divided as a country.

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fun read with a lesson for everyone. I don’t typically read young adult novels, though like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak it’s definitely suitable for adults as well as teens. And also like The Book Thief, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is apparently being made into a movie with Hugh Jackman among others  signed on as a producer. I’m looking forward to seeing the story on the big screen.

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Book Review: The Water Knife

lakemead

Spoiler Alert: this review is part book review and part political rant about climate change!

I love a good dystopian story. We’re binge-watching The Man in the High Castle right now and we have “enjoyed” The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. But the Allies didn’t lose WWII and while misogyny is experiencing a comeback in these highly charged political times, I really don’t see either of those scenarios taking place anytime soon. Dystopian stories are supposed to be warnings or lessons about what might have been or could be. Dystopia is fine as long as it’s a vision of an extreme and unlikely world. This is the reason The Water Knife is such a terrifying novel — not only is the nightmare scenario of the novel possible, but we’re also actually pretty close to it becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The world in The Water Knife is disturbing and it takes place in the city I call home. Yep, like it or not, Phoenix is ground zero in a world where water is scarce. Hey, it’s a desert after all and as many people have noted, it’s a monument to man’s arrogance.

The Water Knife is a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in the near future, where climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. Phoenix has become a wasteland of abandoned suburban homes and a weigh station of sorts for climate refugees from Texas and other states who are hoping to find a new life in Los Angeles or San Diego or Las Vegas, where water rights have provided enough for American refugees to live more comfortably. But California and Southern Nevada have closed off their borders to stem the tide of climate refugees and Phoenix has in effect returned to its lawless, cowboy Western roots. Oh, and the American abandonment of Texas and Arizona along with other drought-ravaged states has enabled the region to become a haven for drug cartels who have long ago taken over Mexico and now moved in to run the former American territories and serve as “coyotes” that provide passage across the border. Add to this the “oasis” buildings built by the Chinese to house political and corporate bigwigs and workers which tower over the poor residents of Phoenix who now live in shanty towns built up around pay-for-water wells. Don’t worry though, Phoenicians can get some drinking water by peeing into a “ClearSac” which can provide a little “clean” water. So, it’s not all bad.

The Phoenix in The Water Knife is pretty awful. Think Mad Max meets Waterworld. But is it really far-fetched, or are we truly headed toward this future?

Let’s put aside climate change and its causes for argument’s sake. What do we know about water in Phoenix? The Colorado River typically accounts for nearly half of the city’s water supply. The water in the Colorado River comes from snowmelt in Colorado, and a huge portion of that water sits in Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border and Lake Havasu on the California/Arizona border.  More than 30 million Americans across seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — rely on this water for survival. Yes, survival.

Now here’s something I learned in the novel. The water rights for the Colorado River are not equal. The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two areas, the upper division (comprising Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower division (Nevada, Arizona, and California). The states in the upper basin have higher priority to this water than the states in the lower division. That’s not too bad as long as there’s enough water for everyone. Ah, but there’s the rub my parched friends.

In the past 13 years, Colorado’s snow has been melting at a faster rate, vanishing earlier and earlier each year. Lake Mead, which reached its highest point ever in 1983 at  1,225.44 feet, today — Saturday, October 27, 2018 — Lake Mead sits at 1,078.84 feet.

So what? If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. What’s “too low”? If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled. Wait, what? That’s like three feet from today’s levels. Yep, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last month that there’s a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face cutoffs. If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water.

The same U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in August 2018 that it predicts Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently wrote: “Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.”

It’s not like nobody has been talking about this, or that the media has dropped the ball. Just last month Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic wrote an opinion piece with the headline: A Water Shortage is in Arizona’s Future, Like it or Not.

The Water Knife is a cautionary tale told with a big slice of reality. Which is why I think it’s terrifying. I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not Chicken Little. I mean, the sky may actually be falling. But will things get as bad as Bacigalupi would have us believe? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re far off. You can choose to believe we’ll come up with some kind of magic pill to keep us from heading over the falls, but given the current political climate and our inability to agree on even the basic fundamentals of how a society should run, what makes you think we’ll be civil to each other when the water starts to dry up?

It’s a fact that Las Vegas has water rights over Arizona. And California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, has far more power than Arizona and its tap into the Colorado River is above Arizona’s. Somebody is going to lose this battle and Phoenix is not in a good position to win.

9780385352871_custom-b9151d61a5c6869bf30190fa56d69a11c7c8bcd9-s400-c85Bacigalupi’s vision is dark. In the novel, the powers that be in Southern Nevada and California do whatever it takes to keep their communities from drying up. They protect the water with troops and drones. They protect their borders. They make deals with shady characters from cartels to the Chinese. They cheat and steal. They kill. They ruthlessly cut off water from one community to save another. People a lot smarter than I believe future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water.

The Water Knife is fiction, but it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Especially if the reader, like me, lives in a city of almost two million people in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on Earth in which most of its water gets delivered via a single canal that stretches 336 miles from Lake Havasu to Central Arizona.

In the novel, the Central Arizona Project canal has already been compromised. But it really wouldn’t even matter if there’s very little water in the lower division anyway. And say what you will about climate change, facts are facts and when it comes to the Colorado snowpack the proof is in the runoff. The shit is already hitting the fan and it’s probably only going to get worse — and there’s not much we can do about it.

Given all that, the Phoenix of The Water Knife may be inevitable. My son thinks we should get out of Dodge now before things start to get ugly. He makes a compelling argument. At best, we have a few years until by law we have to start rationing. After that, with no solution in sight, people and businesses will start to leave. Who is going to buy your house? Why would a company relocate to Phoenix? Seriously, before we run out of water to drink it’s more likely our economy will tank. Maybe we should sell our house now and move to a more climate change friendly environment (Portland anyone?).

With all that as the backdrop, I still have to say The Water Knife is a great novel. The characters are believable and several are downright relatable. Lucy is a tough journalist trying to tell the story of what Phoenix has become without getting herself killed by the cartels or the powerful people fighting over water rights. Angel is a former criminal turned “water knife” who does the heavy-handed bidding of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its ruthless leader who will literally do anything to keep Las Vegas from going dry — including killing and stealing. Maria is a refugee from Texas trying to survive in the Valley of the Sun by doing whatever it takes, including selling her body for a hot shower and enough money for a little water to drink. The lives of these three characters, each with their own motivations, collide around a long-lost document that could change the water rights of the Southwest forever.

I admit, despite the overall theme of the novel, it was fun to see Phoenix woven into the story like a main character. Bacigalupi certainly did his homework about Phoenix and its water history. Central Arizona Project, Phoenix suburbs like Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, even the Target on Elliott Road just south of Guadalupe turns up in the story. It was easy to imagine several of the scenes taking place in Gilbert or Ahwatukee.

Another interesting “character” that shows up in the novel is Marc Reisner’s  1993 nonfiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s book is read a lot in academic circles, and it takes a historical approach to understand how cities came to be built in the Arizona desert in the first place and why maybe, just maybe, they were doomed from the start because the water was never going to last forever. I haven’t read Cadillac Desert, and frankly, I’m afraid to now, but I will definitely get to it once I get over my anxiety after reading The Water Knife.

One thing I will say: I’m never going to take water for granted again!

Further reading:

The cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates for consumers

Arizona cancels water meeting amid difficult negotiations on Colorado River deal

Cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates

Phoenix Prepares For The Worst Amid Looming Colorado River Shortage

Colorado River Drought Cuts in Arizona Would Be More Severe Than Expected

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

9780399590504_custom-e037ecf3180a26cdc3475e88f65cb5d2eb5a0a1f-s400-c85One of the reasons I joined a book club earlier this year was because I tend to read the same kinds of books (literary fiction or science/social/political narrative nonfiction) and I thought it would be great to open myself up to new books. While I certainly haven’t loved or even liked some of the books chosen by my peers, it’s always a good idea to open your mind. This month my book club read Educated: A Memoir and frankly I never would have read this book had it not been selected by a member of my book club. And that would have been a shame because this was a wonderful memoir.

Tara Westover’s story is remarkable and so well written. I’ve read my share of books and seen movies about people who have overcome great odds in life (Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken comes to mind), but few have come from such an unassuming and surprising protagonist. In this case, the narrator in question is a young woman who grew up isolated from mainstream society in the Idaho mountains. Tara Westover’s parents raised her on the family homestead with no formal schooling, no visits to doctors, no significant interaction with the world outside her home or the nearby small town made up of mostly members of the LDS church. To say she led an isolated life is an understatement — something she reiterated in a TV interview I watched online after finishing this book by sharing that when she arrived at Brigham Young University at age 17 she thought Europe was a country and she hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. She’d also never seen a doctor, wasn’t immunized and didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine years old.

But hers is a story of survival more than isolation. Her father was a survivalist who didn’t trust the government or modern medicine. He was a religious zealot who ruled his family with an iron fist and treated his children as employees at his only means of income, his scrap metal business and junkyard. Westover’s mother was an herbalist, who treated any medical condition with homegrown “tinctures” and salves. She was an untrained midwife who delivered children across the community and frankly it’s amazing she didn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone. She “survived” a terrible car accident that probably caused a brain injury. She treated one son’s terrible burns from a fire with home remedies and “healed” her husband’s life-threatening explosion injuries with the same salves and herbs. And despite being a strong-willed woman, she deferred to her powerful husband at every turn.

Westover was also physically and emotionally abused by one of her older brothers, and her recollections of these incidents were heartbreaking. In fact, when she discovered her older sister had also been mercilessly abused by the same sibling and the two sisters decided to confront their parents about the attacks, her sister’s eventual decision to back off the claims led to Westover’s near-complete estrangement from her parents and several siblings that still remains. Her mother agreed to back the girls, but also eventually changed sides and demured to the patriarch of the family.

All of this abuse is the backdrop for a remarkable journey into mainstream society for Westover that began with the encouragement of one older brother to try to go to college despite never having set foot in a formal classroom and having been “homeschooled” with very little beyond religion. Westover purchased a few books and taught herself enough algebra and grammar to get a good enough score on the ACT to get admitted to BYU and that launched a career in academia that eventually led to degrees from BYU, Harvard and ultimately a Ph.D. from Cambridge. That is quite a feat for someone who didn’t go to a proper school until she was 17.

Early in the book, Westover wrote that her memoir was not a story about Mormonism. I heard her say in an interview she wanted to nip that narrative in the bud and that she has no hard feelings about the religion in which she was brought up. That said, she recently wrote that she is no longer a member of the LDS church and describes herself as agnostic. This is important to the underlying theme of her story, and given my personal feelings about religion, this is the point in the review where you might expect me to rail on the LDS church and religion in general. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to rail on ignorance because that is what truly is at the heart of Westover’s upbringing and the reason why I think her scholarly attainments are notable.

Westover’s father was indeed a religious fanatic and that played a significant role in her life up until she left for college. Her mother also put religion before knowledge. It is that lack of knowledge that led to her unique childhood. No school because they feared knowledge. No doctors because they feared science. No birth certificates because they feared the government. Which came first for the Westover clan — religion or ignorance? I think for the Westover’s it was ignorance. And fear. And a little psychological dysfunction. Val (or Gene as she called her father in the book) was and is a classic paranoid schizophrenic who used religious text to justify what he didn’t understand. Even Westover herself said she didn’t think her father meant any harm, but rather he didn’t know any better. And that right there is the trouble with America in 2018.

Ignorance leads to hate. Ignorance leads to anti-science. Ignorance leads to misogyny. Ignorance leads to fear of the other. Ignorance leads to voting for Donald Trump.

Val Westover isn’t that unique. His views are extreme, but he’s not that different from people who don’t “believe” in climate change, or who think Mexicans are rapists and murderers so we need to build a wall to protect ourselves. Tara Westover’s story is extreme, but she’s not that far off from a child who is raised in a household that doesn’t trust the New York Times because their parents claim it’s fake news. There are a lot of Tara Westovers in America in 2018. Ignorance is the enemy.

Tara Westover overcame ignorance out of sheer will. She is a survivor in the sense that she transcended the ignorance that she was force-fed. She will break the cycle going forward and raise educated children. She should be celebrated for this and her book is a good reminder that we have a long way to go in America.

And that’s how you turn a book about a survivalist family in the hills of Idaho into an anti-Trump diatribe. 🙂

The Mysteries of Life in the Moonglow

MoonglowWhen I graduated from college in 1988 I imagined one day I’d be a successful novelist. I was an avid reader of literary fiction, devouring the novels of great American writers like John Updike, Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Around the same time I stumbled upon a novel by an unknown author named Michael Chabon who had just published what I later learned was his master’s thesis work from UC-Irvine. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a coming of age novel and I was coming of age. It hit me like a ton of bricks — how could a 25 year old kid from UC-Irvine of all places write such a masterful work of modern fiction. I was inspired enough to look into MFA programs and even applied to Chapman College in Orange County. If Chabon could do it even though he wasn’t some East Coast literary snob why couldn’t I? By the way, I later learned UC-Irvine has an exceptional MFA program that only admitted 13 fiction students each year.

I ended up taking some graduate-level English classes at San Jose State, after all it was in my backyard and it too produced a tremendous literary talent in Amy Tan. But ultimately I wasn’t ready for graduate school (I ended up earning an MA in English many years later from Northern Arizona University) and went to work as a technical editor instead. And while my literary dreams never fully went away, I still haven’t written a novel. I think part of the reason is because I know in my heart I could never be as good as Michael Chabon, who went on to write some of the best American novels ever including one of my all-time favorite novels, Wonder Boys, as well as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for which he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As an aside, Wonder Boys is one of the few novels I can think of in which the movie version is almost as good as the book (Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand are great, not to mention Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes in supporting roles).

Flash forward to today and Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, is one of the best-selling books of the year. I just finished it, and it is undoubtedly his best work since the mid-90s. Moonglow is a unique work of “fiction” in that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Chabon has stated the novel is based on the true experiences of his grandfather, but he took many liberties to shape the story. Either way, it’s a beautiful tribute to his family’s legacy. The narrator of Moonglow is a writer named Michael Chabon, who over the course of the book tells the story of his grandfather’s life as he sits on his deathbed relaying his complicated past to his grandson Mike for the first time. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say Chabon’s grandfather was a remarkable man who married a complex woman. Like a lot of Chabon’s work, the story touches on Jewish identity, World War II, the Holocaust, and family dynamics. It also bounces back and forth between the the early days of his grandfather’s life and the later days, providing a complete picture of the man over the course of a lifetime. The fact that the reader really has no way of knowing which parts of the story are fact and which are embellishments only adds to the intrigue. And as always, Chabon’s writing is brilliant. His style is modern and the story has just enough detail to give the reader a sense of being in the moment, whether that is behind enemy lines in Germany during World War II or in an active adult community in Florida.

Moonglow is quite a tribute to Chabon’s grandfather. It makes me sad that I didn’t ask my grandparents more about their lives before they died. I know very little about my paternal grandfather (who died when I was very young) other than the fact that he owned shoe stores in Brooklyn. My maternal grandfather died suddenly around the time I graduated from college, and I only know a little about his life — he served in the Navy Reserves during World War II and when he married my grandmother he was cut off by his Orthodox Jewish family because my grandmother wasn’t Jewish enough. I imagine there was quite a story there, but I didn’t think to ask. I think that’s one of the reasons Moonglow is so touching. While Chabon’s grandfather was slowly dying from cancer he spent time with him and heard his stories. It’s a wonderful legacy for his grandfather and his entire family as the stories are now available for people to read for all time. In a way, Moonglow immortalizes his grandfather and that is a tremendous gift to his grandfather, his family, and the book’s readers.

As for my own literary dreams, there’s always hope. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45. Frank McCourt wasn’t published until he was 64! I don’t know if I have a novel in me, but if I write one that’s even half as good as anything Michael Chabon has ever written it’ll be a personal triumph.

Why I Loved a 736 Page Novel About Trees

barkskinsI love novels that span generations and tell stories of families, dysfunctional and otherwise. Some of my all-time favorite books are epic tales of families told over hundreds of years, like Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Jess Walters’ “Beautiful Ruins,” and  Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.” It should come as no surprise then that I was eager to read “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx’s saga of two 17th century immigrants to New France and the generations they spawned over the course of the following 300 plus years. Yep, I was worked up about a 736 page story about loggers!

It’s probably worth noting that Annie Proulx is one of the world’s best writers and the esteemed author of my favorite novel — “The Shipping News.” So I was certainly predisposed to enjoy “Barkskins”, despite its density. And truthfully, “Barkskins” is not for everyone. Some of the reader reviews I read on the Interwebs suggested the book was incredibly boring and long-winded and many readers put it down (or threw it away) after the first few chapters. Others, however, raved about the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet and their descendants. I couldn’t put it down.

It’s pretty easy for my family to know when I’m enjoying a book — whenever they look over at me lounging on the sofa, my head will be buried in my tablet. This was definitely the case with “Barkskins,” which I devoured over the course of a week or so. I originally borrowed it from the library’s digital collection, but after a week I went ahead and purchased it so I could take my time and fold into the story with no concern about it expiring. Plus, $14.99 is a small price to pay for a novel that will stay with me for so long.

“Barkskins” is brilliant on several levels. First, Proulx is such a gorgeous writer her words flow like a river through a forest (see what I did there?). The story itself though is what makes this novel so absorbing. Proulx uses the history of the Sel family and the Duquet family to show the dichotomy of fortune in the new world. Both families are tied to the great forests of the American-Canadian northeast, but while one builds a tremendous fortune from logging the other suffers through generations of poverty and misery at the hands of the very same trees. At the same time, “Barkskins” is a story about the new world itself, how it literally grew out of the trees and how the growth of the new world used and displaced the vast forests. And Proulx gives us yet another layer of intrigue in the stories of how the Europeans came to the new world and ruthlessly savaged its native peoples for generations (and in many ways still does today).

Yet while we follow the stories of the Sels and the Duquets, we also learn the true value of the forests. The novel has an environmental message at its heart, one that Proulx builds toward as the novel progresses. The reader comes to understand the great power of the forest, to build houses and cities, to build countries, to build (and destroy families) but perhaps at the cost of the health of the very same land and perhaps the entire planet. Proulx thankfully doesn’t preach about our destruction of the forest, but she does lead us to the conclusion that we are at a crossroads. I for one am very pessimistic about the future of the planet, especially given the state of world politics, but Proulx leaves us with a glimpse of a path toward environmental salvation. There are ways to repopulate the forests, but it’s definitely more difficult to rebuild what was so easy to tear down.

Annie Proulx most definitely has a place among my favorite authors, and “Barkskins” is a majestic narrative that may go down as her opus (she is 80 years old after all so this may be her last novel). For me it had everything — it spanned centuries, had rich and memorable characters, and it had a message of the impermanence of life that resonated tremendously with me.

Completely by coincidence, the next book in my queue is “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. I didn’t plan to read back-to-back stories about trees, but I’ll take it as a sign that I need to step up my environmental activism.

The Dilemma of Pete Rose

PeteRoseI’m just about finished with my Spring ’15 baseball read, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. Here are my conclusions:

  1. Pete Rose is one of the greatest baseball players of all-time and his on-the-field performance is worthy of being recognized in the Hall of Fame. This is indisputable.
  2. Pete Rose bet on baseball and on the Reds while he managed the team. This much he admitted. Because of this he was placed on baseball’s permanent ineligible list.
  3. In 1991, the Hall of Fame voted formally to exclude individuals on the permanently ineligible list from being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Rose is the only living member of the ineligible list.
  4. Pete Rose is an asshole. He cheated on his wives. He wasn’t a good father. He gambled. He was arrogant. He hung out with some rough people.
  5. There are worse guys in the Hall of Fame. Drug addicts. Gamblers. Racists. Cheaters.
  6. There is no proof that Rose ever cheated in a game as a player or manager. There is no proof he made any managerial decisions based on his bets. It’s hard to imagine though that it didn’t play into his decisions in some way, even if only subconsciously.
  7. Tons of cheaters are at least eligible to be voted on for the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Rafael Palmeiro. Barry Bonds. Etc. It is unlikely that they will ever get enough votes to get in, but they are eligible.
  8. Anyone who has bet on baseball should not be allowed to be around the game to any significant extent. By this I mean manage, coach, scout, etc. I have no issue with a guy like Pete Rose attending games in the stands or even being honored on the field. He has been, at least twice, since being placed on the ineligible list. Apparently the baseball gods think it’s better for an admitted cheater to coach, but not a gambler (see Mark McGwire). Steroids and gambling both mess with the integrity of the game and should be treated equally, don’t you think? As for Rose, there is no proof he ever bet against his own team and frankly it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do so. Which is worse? Betting on your team to win, or pumping yourself full of performance enhancing drugs to get an edge?
  9. Pete Rose should have his day in the court of public opinion. By this I mean let the writers vote on his induction to the Hall of Fame. That seems fair. He may not get in, but I bet he’ll get a lot more votes than McGwire and Bonds.

I was fortunate to grow up during a time when Pete Rose played baseball. I hated Pete Rose, but not because he was an asshole — I hated him because he was on the other team and he could beat you single-handedly. He was without question one of the toughest competitors I ever saw play the game. Pete Rose holds something like 17 major league baseball records, including most career hits (4,256) and most games played (3,562). His on-the-field performance was the stuff that legends are made of. He won three World Series titles, one World Series MVP and appeared in 17 all-star games. He was the NL MVP and Rookie of the Year. Nobody ever played the game with more intensity.

Yes, Pete Rose bet on baseball. And like I said, he shouldn’t be allowed to manage, coach or otherwise interact with young players because he is in fact a bad influence. But he deserves to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot and let the voters have the opportunity to vote for him, just like the steroid guys and just like Gaylord Perry (who admitted to cheating his whole career). Rose didn’t cheat, so what he did on the field has integrity.

It’s an easy fix. It can be done without removing him from the ineligible list. All that has to be done is the Hall of Fame must remove the 1991 language about ineligible players not being eligible for the Hall of Fame. After all, they added it to keep Pete Rose out of the Hall and they can delete it to let him have his day in the court of public opinion.

Oh, and for the record, if I had a vote for the Hall of Fame he’d be a yes.

 

Len’s Favorite Books of 2013

jess-walter

It’s really difficult to compile a list of the top books in a given year because like a lot of people I tend to read books based on their position on my “to read” list rather than by chronology. Some books sit on my list for a while before I pick them up to read, while others come out and immediately get elevated to the top spot. It’s not at all scientific – it’s quite random and based on mood. One thing that I did do this year without straying is read fiction and listen to non-fiction. I’m not sure why I did it – but for some strange reason I decided to listen to audio versions of non-fiction this year and read (eBook or paper) novels. So, here are the five best novels and five best works of non-fiction I read/heard this year:

Fiction

  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’d go as far as to say Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I’ve read in many years. I’m a sucker for novels that span generations and this tale takes the reader back and forth between the 1950s and present day and of course brings everything together at the end. A wonderfully crafted book that is funny, romantic,  adventurous and loosely tied to real events.  Like a lot of readers this was my first Jess Walter novel and I can’t wait to delve deeper into his  canon.

  • Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair (2013).  More than two decades in the making, the second novel from Charles McNair was worth the wait. Pickett’s Charge is a crazy, odd, funny and downright surreal romp through the Alabama countryside with one of the most interesting characters you’ll ever want to meet. I’m proud to call Charles a friend and absolutely loved this crazy novel.

  • Back to Blood  by Tom Wolfe (2012). Back to Blood is not on par with Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, but it is a great read with wonderful characters and a sarcastic wit. I love Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood simply confirmed this for me. Wolfe fans old and new will love it

  • The Lowland  by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read all of her books, and I have to say I think The Lowland is her best yet. One of the things I like best about reading fiction is that you get to see life through the perspective of diverse people. Lahiri brings her readers into the world of Indian-Americans and that is a unique experience for a white dude like me. On top of that she is such a beautiful and fluid writer that she is a pleasure to read.

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore  by Robin Sloan (2012). Mr. Penumbra was a very enjoyable novel with a great plot and modern writing full of fun tech and geek references. I figured I’d like a novel that took place in a bookstore, especially one with a special secret that gives it a sort of DaVinci Code appeal. I also loved how Sloan brings in Google to play off the ancient intrigue of the secret society looking for clues to immortality.

Non-Fiction

  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Like so many stories I read I began listening to Wild on audio with few pretensions. I have read my share of “lost and found” stories, and I generally like them which was one reason I purchased Wild in the first place. What I loved so much about Wild was Strayed’s honesty. She bares her soul in this book and you can’t help but respect the hell out of her for it. I love that as a woman alone in the wilderness she shared her innermost thoughts about what she saw and most importantly who she met.
  • Who I Am by Pete Townshend (2012). Excellent autobiography! Townshend was honest, open and interesting. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who and rock & roll in general.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013). Roach takes listeners on a strange and sometimes gross journey down the alimentary canal, discussing the human digestive system from top to…er…bottom. Classic interviews with scientists and researchers who study things like the influence of the sense of smell on eating habits, understanding how stomach acid works from stories about animals and even one human who had a hole in their bodies so researchers could watch how acid dissolves food, and one about doctors who have seemingly cured recurring c-diff infections by transplanting another persons shit into the patient’s colon.
  • How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (2012). They say when the student is ready the teacher appears, and such was the case this summer with this great little instruction book. I was inspired by Krznaric as well as those he discusses in the book and I’m fairly certain this book helped me feel comfortable about my decision to leave my job in San Diego and move to Phoenix without a job. It also made my decision to go to work for a nonprofit much easier. If you are at all uncertain about the path of your career, read this little book and do the exercises to find out what motivates you and how to find work that aligns.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006). I picked up this monster after having seen the film Lincoln last year — the film was based on a portion of the book. DKG leaves no stone unturned in this wonderful tale of how Lincoln convinced congress to support him with the emancipation proclamation. It’s really a story of political genius as much as the story of Lincoln’s life and presidency. At more than 32 hours it is not for the faint of heart though. But once I committed I had to see it through to the conclusion, just as Lincoln did when he decided to make a mark on the world with his presidency. Amazing detail that tells the story of perhaps the most crucial period of our democracy.

As always, for reviews of every book I read and to see what’s on my “to read” list feel free to friend me on Goodreads.

Extremely Amazing and Incredibly Gifted

Earlier this week in my movie discussion group on Facebook we were asked what the best acting performance by an actor under 13 is that we’ve seen. Those mentioned included some wonderful performances including Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Natalie Portman in The Professional, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and even Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam. I added Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. But that all changed for me today — I saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and witnessed a performance for the ages by 13-year-old Thomas Horn…in his first ever acting role…ever…not even a commercial or a school play. Simply amazing.

Yes, the subject matter of the film is difficult and heart-breaking. It’s the story of a boy who loses his father on 911 and who goes on a quest to find the lock to a key that he believes his father meant for him to find. When the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer came out in 2005 many people thought it was too soon for a 911 themed novel. Some are even questioning whether we are ready for it 10 years later. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a true story, it simply uses 911 as a backdrop for a powerful story of love and heartbreak. I’m sure there are people who were in New York on 911 who won’t see this film because it still hits too close to home, and I respect that, but they are going to miss one of the finest acting performances ever by an actor of any age.

I read the novel in 2007 and was a little disappointed quite honestly, most likely because I was so blown away be JSF’s first novel (Everything is Illuminated) that the follow up was sure to disappoint. I liked the novel, but didn’t love it and now I can say this is one of the rare occasions for me when I liked the film version better than the book. Rare indeed. The film is superb and I would certainly consider it among the best films of 2011. It’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off of Thomas Horn.

Horn has a very interesting life story himself. He was “discovered” when he was on Jeopardy during kid’s week and won $31,000. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close director Stephen Daldry ( The Reader, Billy Elliot, The Hours) had been looking at literally hundreds of kids for the part and when he saw Horn on Jeopardy he knew he found his Oskar Schell. The role called for a special kid, one who was quirky, maybe even borderline Asperger’s. I don’t know how much like Oskar Thomas is in real life, but he hit the role dead on. If you know any kids with Asperger’s or similar issues you know they are often brilliant, precocious and moody as hell. Horn gave us all of those moments in the film, some of which were so expressive they seemed real. The scene in which he has a mental breakdown was heart-wrenching yet so powerful that he should be nominated for an Oscar based on the one scene alone. I will say, if young Horn is not nominated for a best actor Oscar there is no point in watching the Academy Awards this year because they will be a fraud. The kid stole a film from two Academy Award winners (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) and Academy Award nominated actor Max Von Sydow. If George Clooney is the front runner for The Descendants (in which Clooney was very, very good) then Horn is a shoe in!

 

Middlesex it Ain’t

It has to be tough as an author to write another novel after publishing one of the best reviewed and most awarded novels of our time. I feel for Jeffrey Eugenides. His 2003 masterpiece Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, was named the best book of the year by The Los Angeles Times, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was an Oprah selection, and, frankly, is one of my favorite novels ever. No wonder it took eight years to follow-up with the much-anticipated The Marriage Plot.

The book was destined to be a let down, and I’m sorry to say it is indeed just an average novel. I enjoyed The Marriage Plot, but it wasn’t great. The novel is set in the early 80s at Brown University where Eugenides himself went to college. In fact, one of the lead characters (Mitchell Grammaticus) was of Greek descent and hailed from Michigan (like Eugenides) so one can’t help but wonder how much of Mitchell is based on the author. The story is a sort of collegiate love triangle between Mitchell, the brilliant but manic Leonard Bankhead and the beautiful Madeleine Hanna. Both Mitchell and Leonard vie for Madeleine’s heart but Madeleine is drawn to Leonard. The story takes some twists and turns, but ultimately the relationships between these characters are doomed. I suppose it should come as no surprise to Eugenides’ fans that happy endings are hard to come by in The Marriage Plot given his first novel (The Virgin Suicides) was about a group of young sisters who one-by-one kill themselves. And of course Middlesex is centered around a person born into a body with both male and female junk. Eugenides is certainly no typical romantic.

The Marriage Plot is also the title of Madeleine’s senior thesis, which we can assume from her studies and love for Victorian-era literature means she is a romantic. Unfortunately for her, Leonard is not and even if Mitchell was he doesn’t do it for her the way the brooding and tortured Leonard does. My trouble with story is I didn’t know who to root for. I disliked both Leonard and Mitchell, and truthfully Madeleine struck me as a drama queen herself. With nobody to cheer on, I lost interest in the love triangle and instead spent my mental energy on the subplots of Leonard’s mania and Mitchell’s religious quest across Europe. From that angle the story is definitely a coming-of-age novel and without giving anything away all three characters do grow throughout the story and eventually “find” themselves (at least we know Madeleine and Mitchell do since Eugenides kind of leaves Leonard’s issues hanging in the wind).

The Marriage Plot is getting pretty good literary reviews, including one from The New York Times and others from NPR and The Los Angeles Times. And Eugenides has already cemented himself among the best of his generation along with the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Again, I liked The Marriage Plot but didn’t love it.

Magical Realism on the Shores of Japan

I don’t tend to give out five-star ratings very lightly; in fact, the only book I’ve read this year that was worthy of five stars was Cloud Atlas. Until now. This morning I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long, long time. 460 pages hasn’t gone by so fast in a while! Murakami’s novel came out in 2002 in Japan but was released in the U.S. in English a few years later. I had heard of the book, and the author, but I hadn’t read it nor anything by Murakami. I guess I had some preconceived notion based on stereotype that Japanese novels were always about World War II or Geisha girls and what not, but of course like any cliché that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant novel that crosses multiple genres and takes the reader on a strange journey that would make Franz Kafka himself proud.

The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to escape his father, a famous sculptor and possibly a mad cat-killing psycho. The other protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old man who lost most of his intelligence after a strange flash in the sky during World War II and who as a result can talk to cats and make it rain fish. The two are connected but never meet, and in the spirit of the magical realism of the novel may in fact be the same person! Nakata is also on a journey, having killed Kafka’s father (maybe, or perhaps it was Kafka acting through Nakata). Kafka ends up in a quiet beach town where he may or may not have discovered his mother and sister, both of whom abandoned him and his father when Kafka was four. Nakata is not so much running from the murder charges as much as he’s running toward an event that may set him free from his chains and potentially shed light on Kafka’s life story. Along the way we meet strange characters like a pimp dressed up like Colonel Sanders, a pair of Japanese soldiers from World War II who have not aged and who guard the entrance to a magical place that may be the gateway to heaven (or hell), and a transgender librarian who helps Kafka discover his place in the world. Oh yeah, Kafka may also be sleeping with his mother and gets a hand job from a teenage girl who may be his sister. Can you see why Kafka on the Shore has been compared to a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel?

Murakami’s novel is certainly Kafkaesque, but it’s also tender and funny and inspiring. Both Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata are honorable and empathetic characters who as a reader you can’t help but root for. Kafka has clearly had a troubled childhood and his father didn’t help matters. When he runs away from home he is searching for himself as well as his mother and sister and like any coming of age story the trials he goes through, both mental and physical, shape his future in a positive way. Nakata is a tragic character because he is dumb and lives on a “sub city” from the “Governor” as he says. But he’s also a strong character because he is unselfish and good (he kills the mysterious cat killer only to save the lives of other cats he has befriended and because the man encourages him to kill him). But for me it’s the magical realism that makes the story so amazing. The reader never really knows what is real and what is not in the story. Some of the characters and events may or may not be what they appear to be, and may even be figments of Kafka’s imagination. These mysteries do not ultimately reveal themselves but rather the reader is left to ponder them at the conclusion of the book. In fact, after the novel was published Murakami put up a website for readers to ask questions and it received more than 8,000!

Kafka on the Shore is the kind of novel that reaffirms why I love reading so much. I literally couldn’t put down my Nook and several times fell asleep on the sofa reading because I didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like magical realism, and even if you have no idea what magical realism is this novel is a great introduction to it. As for me, expect to  see a whole bunch of Murakami books added to my “to-read” list.