Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review - The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Someone gave me The Dog Stars to read - not a book I would have chosen. But I'm glad I read it.
The fragmented sentences match the subject - a crippled world both strange and familiar, 9 years after a paired epidemic has wiped out most people, leaving the few survivors armed and hostile - and in unexpected partnerships.

Hig, a pilot and poet, widowed and numb, makes alliance with Bangley, a survivalist gun nut, at a rural airport on the plains of front-range Colorado. Hig in his 1956 Cessna surveys the surrounding area while Bangley makes their territory defensible. Their different skills form a bond that deepens as they save each other from marauders.

Heller doesn't dwell on the how or why of the diseases - flu and an AIDS-like blood disease - that swept the country. He turns more attention to land laid waste by its own malaise: global warming. Trout die off in creeks warmed by reduced snowpack and longer hotter summers; pine beetles run rampant, killing off forests; deer survive but there seem to be no elk. Songbirds have perished, though not birds of prey. But sprinkled in this tale of devastation is the author's deadpan humor:

"Why do I fly my eighty year old Cessna four seater?

Because the seats are side by side. So Jasper [his dog] can be my copilot. The real reason. The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen."

Bangley digs in but Hig is restless, hiking with Jasper on hunting and fishing trips into the nearby mountains and exploring aloft what lies within his plane's range. He makes his rounds: a semi full of cases of soda, to stock up; a Mennonite compound where everyone is weak from the blood disease but safe from raiders thanks to its contagion; another airfield, to obtain the additive that makes his aviation fuel viable.

The only electrical systems that work are solar-powered, but GPS also continues to function - the satellites are still signaling from geosynchronous orbit, and the instruments in his plane calibrate with them and provide true bearings. Hig's always on his radio, hoping to raise a signal, and one day he hears a crackle, the cut-off name of a western Colorado city. Someone is out there, a functioning airport or a pilot or maybe both. He blunts his curiosity for several years.

"Still I think of the pilot's voice. The competence and the yearning. To connect. I think I should have gone there. Pushed the fuel, backed off the throttle, flown slow, maybe eighteen square, picked my morning and gone. To see. What, I don't know. Still I don't come close. To going. Admit it: I was scared. Of finding the interrupted dead as I had and had and had again. Nothing but. And running out of fuel before I was even back to Seven Victor Two which is Paonia, the airstrip up high on the narrow flat butte like an aircraft carrier. Running out of fuel in the 'dobe flats east of Delta. Going down in the shadow of Grand Mesa."

Eventually he goes: it's too tantalizing. In a shoot-first world, Heller's quite realistic about how one assesses threats, communicates, survives. And maybe gains trust. He makes readers question our own resourcefulness, our will to live when all we love is gone. Well worth pondering.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review of Walter Mosley's Gone Fishin'

I read Gone Fishin' in about 3 hours last night. What Walter Mosley's tale lacks in length it more than compensates for in intensity. This 1997 novella follows young Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins and his best friend Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, on a quest. Mouse is engaged, but he and his EttaMae are stone broke. Mouse isn't willing to wed under those conditions, so he decides to visit his stepfather in the east Texas bayou to shake loose some of the old man's wealth. On the road from Houston in a borrowed car, they pick up a pair of teenage hitchhikers: a sexpot girl, Ernestine, and her jealous sullen boyfriend, Clifton, who may have killed a man in a bar fight.

Mouse, who uses any tools at hand to achieve his aims, sees possibilities in Clifton's anxiety to avoid the law. Exaggerating the danger the youth may be in, Mouse convinces the couple to accompany him and Easy. In the encounters that follow, we see Mouse's single-minded ruthlessness and Easy's illness (he comes down with the flu shortly after they arrive in the bayou, and spends most of the story in a weak and fevered haze, his revulsion at Mouse's methods intercut with memories of his own father, who to survive ran off from his family, never to reappear.). Mouse, it seems, has his own guilt to atone for, having pressed his mother to marry so he could have a daddy, then living in mutual loathing with the man she chose until her death. He blames his stepfather for her early demise, so when the old man will part with none of his money for Mouse's wedding, it's clear Reese is doomed.

The colorful cast of small-town and rural characters around Pariah, Texas is best explained by Sweet William, a blues musician:
"But you know folks is diff'rent from country than they is in the city.... In the city they all wear the same clothes and they get t'be like each other 'cause they live so close together. It's like trees; when they real close they all grow straight up to get they li'l bit'a sun. But out here you got room t'spread out. They ain't no two trees in a field look the same way. Maybe one is in the wind an' it grow on a slant or another one be next to a hill so one side is kinda shriveled from the afternoon shade."
Hence we have Mouse's near-feral stepfather Reese, living in the swamp with his dogs; Jo the witch; and her hunchback son Domaque who provides Mouse a voodoo doll to hex Reese. Domaque also studies with the white woman, Miss Dixon, who owns all the land under and around Pariah. Despite the segregationist code governing their interactions, Miss Dixon takes in Easy to convalesce, and at a suitable distance, coaches Domaque on Bible stories.

In under 160 pages Walter Mosley leads us into a dangerous world where a vivid cast work out their troubles, and brings us out with a sense of resolution if not relief. Mouse is every bit as amoral and heartless a friend as Easy let on early in the story, but Easy is transformed: his way out of this destructive life is literacy.

They're the sort of pair who ground a series: Mouse is trouble incarnate, and Easy his friend will have plenty of opportunities to get both of them out of fixes. A tale well-told, Mr. Mosley!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book  Review - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Why is this shelved in the Young Adult section? The Book Thief is a 550 page hammer. The protagonist being a girl does not make this a children's book.
Certainly War is Hell, and the Holocaust was Hell on Earth. There is no missing the point.
The narrator is Death - this is no spoiler: by page 15 it's obvious.
The hero is literacy.
Starting in 1939 we follow the life of a 9-year old girl who watches her little brother die on a train. As Liesel and her mother arrive at their destination, her mother sends her off to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich. Though they are Germans, Liesel's father was evidently a Communist - already she is an outsider. Fortunately, her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, are also outsiders, living in the poorest section of Molching.
Liesel is illiterate, a fact she tries to conceal at school. Hans Hubermann sits up with her at night, when nightmares of her brother's death prevent sleep, teaching her the alphabet, and to read. Her first book is The Grave Digger's Manual, which she seized at her brother's funeral. She and Hans read it together.

Even without the heavy-handed foreshadowing our narrator indulges in, we know what's coming:
In Germany from January 1939 through October 1943, we will be immersed in the solidification of Nazism and banishment of Jews;
Privations of wartime (scarcity of food, heating fuel, etc.);
Clashes between those who just want to live their lives and those who embrace Hitler's vision;
Men conscripted into the army while their families worry;
Proximity to Dachau;
Bombing raids.
In addition to these, we also see a girl growing up and battling her way to be the person she is: curious, tough, brave and resourceful. And literate. She forms a secret alliance with the forlorn wife of the mayor, who shares her library. She befriends a neighbor boy whose legendary feat, before her arrival, was to blacken his skin and race on the local track as Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy share many adventures, in the adversarial way of people who must maintain a certain emotional distance.
Eventually the Hubermanns harbor a Jew, the son of a fellow-soldier of Hans from WWI. Max and Liesel form a bond through words and images; it is her weather reports as much as anything that keep him alive during his months in their basement.
But the magic moments that make us smile are ground under the boot-heels of inevitability - the book goes on and on, long after we have begged for the mercy of an ending.
Sections are short and the words well-chosen, with frequent insertions by our narrator:
          "When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

*** A KEY WORD ***
Of course, she cannot read yet. Instead she recites a passage from The Grave Digger's Handbook, memorized from Hans Hubermann's voice reading it to her so many times.
Later she becomes an adept reader, and even a writer, but first she must be humiliated. This becomes a familiar pattern for the characters in The Book Thief: Hans cannot find work because he isn't a Nazi; Rudy and his friend Tommy are tormented by the Hitler Youth leader; the Jew Max staggers from one moment of suffering to the next; Rosa loses her clientele as a washerwoman, partly because money is tight but also because Hans is not a party member. And Liesel suffers for and with all of them.
It's a grim read.
It's 150-200 pages too long.
I have seen ugly fonts, but the page numbers in this book are beyond horrible.
Should you read it? 
It's a vivid means for contemplating war, and what it does to us all.
But if you've read Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman, or If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, I let you off the hook: you don't have to slog through The Book Thief.