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The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

October 16, 2017

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I first read this, McCarthy’s first novel, in 2014. In the spring I joined the Cormac McCarthy Society and have been reading quite a bit of literary analysis of his work. Though most of the academic work focuses on his later novels, it was enough to pique my interest in this novel again. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965, which is hard to imagine. It won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel. McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, was published in 2006 and won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction. Both are, in very different ways, about man’s assault on the natural world.

The plot is the braided path of three men living in the mountains of Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up. They are all connected by a murder, though none of them realizes it.

On second reading, a few more of the details of man’s encroachment on nature stood out. I’d read one essay completely about the significance of the tank on the mountainside, so that definitely carried more meaning. Once a theme is pointed out to you, small details will emerge everywhere, which makes the re-reading full of small delights.

I also like to think I caught a little more of the wry humor on my second pass, enjoyed the eccentricities of the characters a little more. Like when Uncle Ownby, the mountain hermit, is visited by the well-meaning welfare agent. The agent says they have overlooked Ownby for some time, that he might be entitled to some assistance. To which Ownby, as independent a man as there ever could be, says he didn’t guess so. “I’m what you might call brushy-bound.”

As always, I enjoyed the vivid metaphors: “…a small stream looping placidly over shallow sands stippled with dace shadows, the six-pointed stars of skating waterspiders drifting like bright frail medusas.”

McCarthy’s description of the land is as good in his Western novels, but different in that the novels of Texas and beyond are vast in their descriptions, open and wide. Here we find gnarled brambles of prose, and even the simplest sentences contain clues of man bent by nature: “East of Knoxville Tennessee the mountains start. Small ridge and spines of the folded Appalachians that contort the ongoing roads to their liking.”

Then there is the odd mythology of the region, the quirky mountain religion that lies somewhere between superstition and folklore. Ownby describes without a hint of incredulity that when someone dies, their soul might sometimes take up residence in a cat “for a spell.” But, he assures his listener, the person in question died many more than seven years ago, so he’s not worried about him still being around.

But in the whole book, I have one favorite passage. A magnificent description of a local watering hole:

At that time there was a place in the gap of the mountain called the Green Fly Inn. It was box-shaped with a high front and a tin roof sloping rearward and was built on a scaffolding of poles over a sheer drop, the front door giving directly onto the road. One corner was nailed to a pine tree that rose towering out of the hollow­­—a hollow that on windy nights acted as a flue, funneling the updrafts from the valley through the mountain gap. On such nights the inn-goers trod floors that waltzed drunkenly beneath them, surged and buckled with huge groans. At times the whole building would career madly to one side as though headlong into collapse. The drinkers would pause, liquid tilting in their glasses, the structure would shudder violently, a broom would fall, a bottle, and the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again. Remarks alluding to the eccentricities of the inn were made only outside the building. To them the inn was animate as any ship to her crew and it bred an atmosphere such as few could boast, a solidarity due largely to its very precariousness. The swaying, the incessant small cries of tortured wood, created an illusion entirely nautical, so that after a violent wrench you might half expect to see a bearded mate swing through a hatch in the ceiling to report all rigging secure.

Could there be a more textured description of a place? How long did it take McCarthy to craft a paragraph so fine? It is only outdone by the description of the incident where the Green Fly Inn does finally give way. But to enjoy that, you’ll have to read the book.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

October 13, 2017

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When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she made a rule—although it was dystopian speculative fiction, she would not include futuristic gadgets, no robots. And every oppressive law, every atrocity, had to be something that had happened at some point in the history of the world. “If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real,” she said in a New York Times interview. This eliminates the ability of the reader to dismiss the book as mere fabrication. There is no “that would never happen,” because it all, incredibly, has happened.

The book imagines a post-coup United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a puritanical theocracy in which an entire caste of women is relegated to the role of concubines (the handmaids). Because the environment has grown toxic, fertility rates have declined sharply, so the handmaids are believed necessary and a luxury for the elite.

The main character, Offred (“Of Fred,” as she is owned by a man named Fred), is our vehicle through this horrific world. It’s through her eyes that we witness atrocities common in her society, like the abortion doctors hanging after a public execution.

Some of it feels a little forced, despite the “everything happened” rule, but the real brilliance of the novel is the revelation that the story we’re reading has been discovered and is being dissected by anthropologists far in the future. It is jarring, but places the story in a historical context alongside The Diary of Anne Frank. And after being emotionally invested in the story, intimate with the characters, the cold distance of future historians is disturbing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak but very good read. It deserves to be included on the list of best speculative fiction.

The M Train by Patti Smith

October 10, 2017

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“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” a cowboy writer tells Patti Smith in a dream. But she makes it seem easy, to write about whatever topic is at hand. And I will read it, even if she’s just describing the way the steam floats off her coffee on an overcast autumn day.

While Smith’s Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Maplethorpe, has more focus, I love the whimsical meandering of this book. It’s not exactly a memoir, more just a collection of thoughts.

Smith shifts from hilarious observation to aching melancholy to beautiful description with ease, every random thought held together by her undeniable skill with the language and penchant for astute observation, her ability to conjure the meaningful from the mundane.

A woman is sitting next to her arguing on the phone about a tracking number for a lost FedEx package. Smith quips, “If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found face-up in the snow with the objects from her purse arranged about her, a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

While traveling, she finds a bronze bust of Nikola Tesla, “the patron saint of alternating current.” Smith then notices a ConEd truck parked within eyesight. “’No respect,’ I thought.”

She displays the quirkiness of a lovable old aunt. She doesn’t wear seatbelt on plane, doesn’t like to use the automatic check-in.

She travels all over, visiting coffee shops and friends and hotels. She writes in coffee shops.

She bums around Mexico. Berlin. Greenwich. She does readings and performs. She still does interesting work of all kinds—she takes us with her on assignment to Iceland where she photographs a chess table where Fischer played Boris Spassky.

I loved reading about her reading, particularly when her book list overlapped with mine—Henning Mankel, Murakami, a fascination with Roberto Bolaño’s dark epic, 2666.

Smith’s house house survives Hurricane Sandy, but she sees her neighborhood strewn about. Her heart aches at the devastation.

But of all the fantastic passages, I found this one simple, lament about the change in her own life to be lovely and profound:

I have lived in my own book, one I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall into the sea, and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty—Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons, doves returning to nest on our balcony, our daughter Jessie standing before me stretching out her arms. “Oh mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.”

We want the things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children, hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me. Weeping from a bad dream. “Please, stay forever,” I say to things I know.  “Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

October 10, 2017

 

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Some novels feel like they were written with a movie in mind because they are sparse and visual, little more than a screenplay with scene direction. I always feel a little slighted by those novels, maybe because the author shifts the burden of imagining onto the reader, gives the plot but no meat on the bones. But there are also novels that feel like movies because they are so sensual, so textured, so rich that the imagery is as vivid as the cinema. That’s how Manhattan Beach feels.

In an interview with The New York Times book review podcast, Egan says she was influenced heavily by noir films. You can feel that—the danger than lingers in the shadows just off-screen. But you can also feel the incredible amount of research she did on New York during World War II. I loved the details of the world, particularly the nuanced language of the time. And from the opening scene, where the three main characters—Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie and his associate Dexter Styles meet on the beach in 1934—you can feel Egan’s skills as a painter of worlds. The cold of the air, the crunch of the sand, the taste of the salt in the air—it is all palpable and transportive.

The story jumps ahead a decade from there, as the lives of the three characters diverge and intertwine with a Dickensian sense of fate. Anna works at the Naval yards, one of the first female divers to repair and salvage ships (of the 70,000 who worked the Brooklyn Navy Yard, only 5,000 were women and a woman diver was virtually unheard of). Styles is one-foot-in, one-foot out of the equivalent of a middle management position in organized crime. And Eddie’s life takes a number of turns that I won’t give away.

Egan walks the line between the familiar (gangster, Boardwalk Empire-style tropes) and the surprising. Many people have noted this is a departure from Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, a riskier, more inventive novel formalistically. I will admit, I’ve had Goon Squad on my shelf for years but haven’t read it yet. So for me, this was just a very readable book with solid storytelling, deep characters and delightful craft.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

October 6, 2017

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In 1995, a poll showed that 1 in 4 Americans didn’t know that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs in Japan. Is this astonishing ignorance? Is it willful that we do not tell the story enough? Americans do not, for the most part, like to confront our national sins. Was it justified to kill over 74,000 people, most of them civilians, in Nagasaki, three days after we killed another 70,000+ at Hiroshima? The post-war estimates by the U.S. concluded that millions of lives—American and Japanese—were saved by short-cutting an end to the war and avoiding a land invasion. It is grim math.

What Susan Southard does in Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War is turn those numbers into people. She gives us a ground-level account of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki, through the eyes of six survivors, or hibakusha (Southard’s structure mirrors the 1946 John Hersey book, Hiroshima, a portrait of six survivors of the first atomic bomb). She weaves three equally compelling threads. The first recounts the horrors of the bombing. The second deals with post-war life in Nagasaki, including the rebuilding, emotional recovery and the struggles of the hibakusha. And the third investigates the struggle to control the narrative of the bombing.

Nagasaki was a back-up target. On August 9, 1945, Kokura, the initial target city, was blanketed in fog. When the bomb named “Fat Man” detonated a third of a mile above the Urakami River Valley, a “super-brilliant flash lit up the sky,” visible from a naval hospital ten miles away. The blast was equal to the power of 21,000 tons of TNT. It’s a strange though common way to describe a bomb blast—who knows what even one ton of TNT would be like? Who can imagine what it feels like to feel temperatures over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than at the center of the sun? The nuclear reaction created a shockwave that traveled faster than the speed of sound, a ball of super-hot ionized gas, and an electromagnetic blast and a fireball 750 feet wide.

“Human and animal flesh and organs were immediately vaporized. The vertical blast pressure crushed much of the valley as the cloud raised to two miles. Horizontal blast winds tore through the valley at 2.5 times the speed of a level 5 hurricane, destroying buildings, plants and animals and instantly killing thousands of men, women and children. People jumped from the upper-floor windows of collapsing buildings—hospitals, an elementary school. The heat melted iron. Flash burns burned skin away and flying glass and other debris ripped through bodies like millions of bullets fired in every direction instantaneously as far as eleven miles away. Tens of thousands of people—the ones who were not killed instantly—were irradiated at higher levels than anyone ever before.”

Yoshida Katsuji was more than a mile from the blast. It threw him 130 feet into a rice paddy. Another of the hibakusha interviewed was trapped when his Mitsubishi plant collapsed. A journalist aboard the American plane that had dropped the bomb described the mushrooming cloud as “a living thing. A new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.” One of the pilots described it as “a picture of hell.”

Indeed, the aftermath was apocalyptic. One image still sticks with me: “A bewildered woman carrying a bucket holding the severed head of her young daughter.” Nobody knew what had been unleashed upon them. For days, communication was nonexistent. The bodies of the dead were buried fast with no time for identification.

Japan surrendered after Nagasaki. But the pain for the people of Nagasaki was far from over. They had thousands of decaying corpses. Sickness. Malnutrition. Starvation. A lack of water. People searched for missing family members. Homes were gone. Schools, stores, whole neighborhoods.

Americans soldiers arrived post-bombing to find a Japanese holocaust. A community trying to rebuild, and in the rebuilding discovering who had died because those people were just no longer there. At one elementary school, of the thirty students and teachers, four survived.

The personal stories of the hibakusha are heartbreaking. As if the bombing wasn’t enough, they were treated as outcasts by much of Japanese society. Many were ashamed to tell their stories or embarrassed by their scars. But the rebuilding of Nagasaki also contains stories of human resilience, of perseverance and of a society insisting on resuming the things that made it a community—learning, working, religious practice. The scars were deep but the spirit was strong.

The third part of the book—which deals with the attempt of both governments to control the narrative of the bombing—is in some ways the most disturbing. Specifically, it examines the argument the U.S. used to justify the bomb’s use, the attempt to cover up the dangerous effects of the radiation and the long-term struggle over the story of Nagasaki.

By 1945, before the use of the atomic bombs, Allied fire-bombings had destroyed all or part of sixty-four Japanese cities. Two-thirds of Japanese believed they were losing the war. Still, Japanese Emperor Hirohito refused to give up the fight. To Americans, it seemed clear that the only thing that would force a surrender was an all-out land invasion of Japan. Avoiding a protracted land invasion would become the central justification for the bombings. After the war, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson estimated that the atomic bombings saved a million American lives and as many as ten million Japanese. Southard is skeptical of the estimate, pointing out several mistakes in the Stinson’s math. Regardless, wars are unpredictable, and most wars go longer and cost more lives than predicted by bureaucrats. Who can say what a land invasion of Japan would actually have cost?

In regards to the post-war narrative, the U.S. lived up to the adage that history is written by the victors. When the foreign media picked up reports of a wave of sickness in the areas of the bombings, the U.S. denied it as sheer propaganda.

“U.S. scientists and military leaders’ lack of knowledge and grossly miscalculated assumptions, combined with their desire to safeguard the United States’ reputation, led to passionate repudiation of Japanese claims of the effects of radiation on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the weeks and months after the bombings.”

The Japanese media was censored, including reporting anything about the effects of the radiation from the bombs. Without permission, the United States collected specimens of Japanese victims to study the effects of the bomb, with the intent of protecting Americans in the case of an atomic attack (while continually denying the presence of dangerous radiation in Japan). Reels of post-bomb Nagasaki were seized by the U.S. government and stored away until many decade later.

The use of the atomic bombs is still a sensitive issue. Were they necessary? In particular, was Nagasaki necessary? In the eyes of some Americans, they were just putting an emphatic end to what Pearl Harbor started. And to some, even questioning the bombings is a sacrilege. In the 1990s, when the Smithsonian planned to open an exhibit on the bombings, including the stories and photos of victims, a group of senators protested, claiming that any deviation from the official narrative was an “erosion of the truth.” Ted Stevens of Alabama characterized the exhibit as “A view of events that is contrary to the memory of those who lived through the war.”

In response, Nagasaki’s mayor apologized for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and its invasion of numerous Asian nations, but stated angrily: “Do you tell me that because of this aggression and these atrocities committed by the Japanese, there is no need to reflect upon the fact that an unprecedented weapon of mass destruction was used on a community of non-combatants?”

It’s a sensitive subject, and likely will be for decades still. It’s understandable that anyone impacted by Pearl Harbor or World War II might be resistant to portraying the Japanese as “victims.” They were the enemy in a war that had become total. But it’s something we have to face if we’re to try to claim any moral status as a country. The fact is that while other countries have committed atrocities, we are the only country to ever use nuclear weapons in wartime. We can’t hide behind our status as victors. We can’t insist the facts aren’t what they are. We can make a case for how right our actions were, but we can’t hide from history.

 

Dan Carlin discusses the topic in episode #59 (“Destroyer of Worlds”) of his excellent podcast, Hardcore History. And for the story of the Manhattan Project and the strategy of our nuclear arsenal during the Cold War, check out Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon.

Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young

August 18, 2017

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At the beginning of the summer, we moved back to California from Texas, into a nook of the Santa Cruz Mountains south of Los Gatos. The area has a wild history, inhabited for a long time by various tribes of Native Americans, explored by the Spanish, then by a host of adventurous folks looking to make a life homesteading, logging, mining or farming.

This book is a collection of news stories that originally appeared in The San Jose Mercury Herald in 1934. Young published the full collection in 1979 with some updates, and his daughter republished them in 2002.

The Santa Cruz mountain region is known for its shifting earth—Loma Prieta, the mountain named for the fault line upon which it sits, looms about six miles to our east. But this book deals more with the shifting of the local populations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The region provides a natural (but not easy) passageway from San Jose to Santa Cruz. As modes of transportation evolved, the area was knitted with a network of hunting trails, then logging roads, wagon-worn dirt roads, railways, then eventually highways. Small towns popped up throughout the mountains, but as routes detoured or disappeared altogether, many towns declined and disappeared as fast as they came. Some exist on the map only in the names of roads or, in some cases, as the names of the reservoirs that now cover them entirely.

Stories of the homesteaders who came into the area in the early 1800s read like tall tales. One of the most famous, Mountain Charley, had part of his skull caved in by a grizzly. The doctor pounded a plate out of Mexican nickels and nailed it to Charley’s head. Another Charley—Silent Charley—was one of the greatest stagecoach drivers anyone had ever seen. It wasn’t discovered until his death that he was actually a she—also the first known woman to have voted in a U.S. general election (as a man, in 1868). There are many stories of property disputes, the most colorful of which ended after an armed standoff with one of the parties hacking a corner off the other party’s house, which he claimed came over his property line, so that he could build a fence.

Our property is spotted with redwood stumps, and a couple weeks ago I came across the remains of an old mill on the creek near our house. Both are reminders that 150 years ago, the mountains were alive with loggers, felling giant trees and then lugging them by ox to the mills, sending down the flumes to the Pacific and eventually up the coast to San Francisco.

From the late 1800s to the 1920s, the area was a popular vacation destination, train cars full of tourists arriving from San Francisco every weekend. The mountains were spotted with various resorts, picnic spots, wineries, and an artist’s commune. More than one religious cult sprang up. But as automobiles came into fashion, San Franciscans looked further out to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for their leisure. Logging fell off as an industry. The railroad was no longer profitable and was replaced by roadways, eventually Highway 17. Still more towns disappeared.

This book may be of little interest to anyone who doesn’t live in the area, but I found it fascinating. It certainly gave me a lot to explore, a few clues as to the history of the land we live on,* and a handful of entertaining stories and trivia about the area.


*After a little additional research, I believe our land is part of what is known as the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish empire extended from South and Central America far north into what was then called Alta California, which included all of present-day California and several other western states. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish explorer, led a land expedition through present-day California to the site of what would become San Jose and San Francisco. A member of his party was Joaquin Isidro Castro.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, Alta California was won with it. And as a part of a large land grant, the great grandchildren of Joaquin Castro each received land. One of those was Maria Martina Castro, who had been born in the colonial town of Villa de Branciforte near Santa Cruz. She and her husband, an opportunistic Irish sailor Michael Lodge, received a 1,668-acre grant called Rancho Soquel. The grant included present-day Soquel, part of Capitola and land to the east. In 1844, Martina, likely at the urging of her husband, complained that cattle from her brother’s ranch to the south were crowding into her ranch and applied for a second grant. This one was a mere 32,702 acres and extended well into the mountains. The governor granted her the massive extension—the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

When the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War four years later, Alto California was ceded to the U.S. But the U.S. Land Commission confirmed the land grants. In the years that followed, the land was divided amongst Martina’s children, several of them with the surname Lodge. Whether our area, Redwood Lodge, is named for the people or because there was once a lodge there (vacation destination or lumberjack barracks seem equally likely) is unclear. But as best I can tell, we live on a very small part of the 1844 Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

March 11, 2017

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This book was recommended to me by my friend Tim. I was surprised not by how much I liked this book, but how much I ended up loving the main character, Ove (pronounced oh-vuh). The way Fredrik manipulates the reader in his development of the main character is masterful. And if “manipulates” sounds too negative, then maybe “reveals” is a better word. Ove is doled out in a way that repeatedly makes the reader feel we know him, only to have that concept of Ove challenged every time new information comes to light.

On the surface, Ove is a curmudgeon. A stubborn, cranky old man who’s rude to his neighbors and obsessed with meaningless rules. But as we get to know Ove, we learn that he’s also a man struggling with loss. Whether intentional or not, the fact that Ove’s name is one letter away from both LOVE and OVER seems significant.

We also learn through flashbacks that Ove is not as selfish as we might have made him out to be. He is just more a man of action—willing to play the role of the hero, albeit reluctantly (or so he would have you think).

“Charming” is a word that comes to mind with this novel, but that feels too shallow. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Ove, and I actually felt a little guilty for judging him early on in the novel. By the end, one has completely reconsidered who Ove is, because we know why he is.

The humor of Ove’s character reminded me of J Robert Lennon’s protagonist in The Mailman (an excellent novel), though in the end there is more redemption for Ove. He is also a more heartbreaking character and, perhaps because of that, will stick with the reader long after they’ve finished the novel.