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Motorman by David Ohle

February 21, 2018

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I need to do a better job of tracking where some of my books come from. This one has been on my shelf for a while, and I have no idea if it was a reco from a friend or came from a review. If a reco, I’d love to go back to the person and ask why the heck they recommended it.

“The only virtue of this absolutely atrocious book is its brevity,” Kirkus Review wrote of Motorman when the book was released in 1972.

I won’t be so harsh. It’s an interesting read, though it oozes post-60s experimental fiction, like maybe it felt like there wasn’t anywhere else in the real world to go, so the author drops us into a surrealist, post-apocalyptic dreamscape that maybe made some sense to him when he scribbled this down. There were likely drugs involved. In the introduction, its suggested that Ohle was just transcribing Bukowski’s dreams. I don’t like this book enough to think about whether or not that’s a joke.

This is a kind of sci-fi noir. Moldenke, a man who has been rebuilt after an injury in the military, runs on four sheep hearts and is missing an eye. He is after two men—Burnheart and Eagleman. Eagleman, best we can tell, is a kind of mad scientist, responsible for at least one of the several moons that now circle the earth.

I won’t go on, but to say that it’s not a completely unenjoyable read. It moves along, there’s some good imagery, and the world is an intriguing, if demented, vision of the future, where fluids and organic matter play as big a role as technology. This book lies somewhere between Bukowski’s Pulp and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, neither of which I cared for either.

 

 

 

 

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Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

February 11, 2018

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John Darnielle is also a singer-songwriter who goes by The Mountain Goats. This, his debut novel, caught my attention when it came out in 2014 because I’m a fan of his music. But the reviews were great as well (as is the name, as is the cover). With all this, I finally got around to listening to the audiobook, read by Darnielle. It doesn’t disappoint, and I ended up finishing the full audiobook in two days.

Through chronological jumps, Darnielle reveals the story of Sean Perkins, inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game based on a post-apocalyptic world imagined by Perkins. Players correspond with him through the mail, playing god to his world as the players send their moves and he responds with the consequences of those moves. In addition to their correspondence about the game, players often disclose personal details about their lives. Sean detects in them kindred spirits, nerds and outcasts looking for escape and adventure. But as they play, the escape offered by the game becomes too real for some. One player, frightened by his obsession with the game, uses his move to commit suicide with his character. And two other players begin acting out their player’s move in real life.

We also learn that Sean has been terribly disfigured in a shooting, though Darnielle unveils the exact circumstances of the shooting slowly throughout the story. Sean’s recovery, his interactions with his caretakers and the reactions of people he encounters create a major thread of the narrative.

Wolf in White Van explores some of the same themes of Darnielle’s music—teenage loneliness, nerdy pursuits of 1980s and pre-internet 1990s, obscure pop culture references. Like millions of teenagers, Sean is socially awkward and emotionally distant from his parents. With Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has created a world that is familiar but wildly inventive, dark with dreamlike imagery but sensitive and poignant. I was expecting the book to be pretty good, but was blown away.

Anyone who loved Ernest Kline’s 2011 Ready Player One will likely appreciate Wolf in White Van. And I enjoyed hearing Darnielle’s reading of it. He has a dry, Demitri Martin-esque delivery that complements the story well.

Bonus: The Mountain Goats, “Love, Love, Love”

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

February 11, 2018

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Steve Martin’s autobiography of his life from childhood through his successful stand-up career is charming, insightful, at times sad and, not surprisingly, hilarious. He nostalgically walks us through his childhood jobs—selling programs at Disneyland, working in the magic shop, his early stage shows and comedy gigs—all which had a big influence on his later showbiz career. The autobiography is focused—most everything is part of the story of his career. But it is also very personal. Martin reveals that his father, a failed actor who was sometimes physically abusive and mostly emotionally abusive, impacted his entire career. Even at its height, the elder Martin refused to give Steve credit for making it big. When Steve first appeared on Saturday Night Live, his father panned the performance in a review in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president.

Otherwise, it is a fun and fantastic ride Martin takes us on. For readers, such as myself who know Martin more for his movies than his standup, it’s interesting to see how groundbreaking his act truly was and what created his desire to do something different than other comedians of the time. From a creative point of view, it is awesome to see how varied his inspiration was. He was a philosophy major for a time, an avid art collector, and very much influenced by the avant-garde art scene of the late ‘60s. In one part, he describes how he wrote a bit based on some logic puzzles he’d read in a textbook written by Lewis Carroll. There are also moments of insight when he interacts with other celebrities, such as the time Johnny Carson tells him during a commercial break, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” Martin says that that’s been true, and recalls using his childhood rope tricks in the movie Three Amigos!

My favorite part of the book, however, is the turning point of his career, when he really finds his groove. He’s at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, playing for a crowd of about 100 in a room with a small stage. At the end of the show, the audience sticks around, but there are no wings to the stage for Martin to exit, so he has to just tell them the show is over, which they think is a joke. When he gets off the stage and walks out of the room and out of the building, they think it’s still part of the show and follow him. So he takes them across campus, where they come upon an empty swimming pool. Martin tells everyone to get in. They do. He then proceeds to possibly invent crowd surfing, right there on the spot.

Ten years later, he is playing to crowds of 19,000. He talks about the crush of fame and the paradox of being as famous and lonely as he has ever been. He acknowledges that yes, celebrities want celebrity when it is convenient and anonymity when it is not. But in the end, you empathize and understand why, in 1981, he walked off the stand-up stage and never returned.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

February 10, 2018

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This is a western about Captain Jefferson Kyle, an old war vet in the post-Civil War American west, who makes a living traveling town to town, reading from various newspapers to the locals. On his travels, he comes across a young girl, Johanna, who has recently been rescued by the U.S. Army from the Kiowa. She has been living with the tribe for four years, ever since they massacred her family and kidnapped her. Captain Kyle is paid $50 for the service of returning her to her relatives in San Antonio. She speaks no English and knows nothing about how to navigate the “civilized” world.

The Captain’s occupation and the subject of a white child kidnapped and raised by natives—apparently more common than one would think—are both interesting elements. But overall this is a pretty straightforward western, with solid writing, but clear good guys and bad guys and a predictable plot.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

February 1, 2018

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There are animals that sit near humans on the evolutionary tree—apes and such—that are also relatively smart. The octopus, on the other hand, sits on a very distant branch of the evolutionary tree. That’s obvious from a quick glance. You have to go way back to find a common ancestor. Yet the octopus has a mind that, like ours, is incredibly well developed. In a way, the octopus is the closest thing we have to a sentient alien creature. And studying their minds gives us insight into how all minds developed, including ours.

Consciousness is the awareness of one’s own existence. Fish in a tank do not realize they’re in a tank. Octopuses, on the other hand, understand this and more. They understand their relationship to other creatures and can study and learn through observation. Octopuses can recognize individual humans. They will wait until the lab technician has her back turned before trying to escape. They have been known to turn off lightbulbs, to intentionally plug pump intakes to flood the lab and other fun pranks.

This book is fascinating. Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science and scuba diver, covers the octopus and other cephalopods (squid and cuddlefish), both in lab settings and in natural, first-person observation of a rare octopus colony in Australia. But he then expands to larger topics of evolution and the nature of consciousness. The book is loaded with interesting trivia about other smart animals, like certain jays that hide food in dozens of locations and remember not only where they hid the food, but what they hid where. It covers many of the mysteries of the animal kingdom (like how does an octopus that changes its color for camouflage “see” behind itself to so perfectly match its background?).

I really enjoyed this book—much more so than I’d originally expected (despite the good reviews). It reminded me of Alison Gopnick’s The Scientist in the Crib, which examines the mind by studying babies. But I have to say, octopuses are way more interesting than babies.

The Stranger In the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

January 28, 2018

 

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In 1986, at age 20, Christopher Knight parked his car at the side of the road in rural Maine and walked off into the woods. He lived there alone for 27 years. In that time, he spoke one word—“hi”— to another human, a passing hiker.

In 2013, Knight was arrested while breaking into a kitchen at a camp for boys. He was returned to civilization. “Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid,” Finkel muses. As far as we know, Knight spent more time alone than anyone else in the history of the world.

After his arrest, Knight’s story caught Finkel’s eye and he reached out to Knight with letters, eventually interviews. Here, he attempts to illuminate Knight’s mysterious character. He examines the history of hermits and the notion of solitude. In a world where few people go more than a few hours without interacting with others, what would make one want to be alone for so long, and what does it take to bear that kind of loneliness? What does it do to a person?

Knight had a camp, tucked in a dense stand of trees behind some large glacial boulders. Amazingly, he was within walking distance of cabins and vacation homes around North Pond in central Maine. But his camp was so well hidden that other than the hiker, he only had one other encounter, this one with a fisherman to whom he said nothing.

During his time in the woods, he committed over 1000 burglaries of nearby homes, pilfering them for food and supplies. Although nobody knew who was doing it, people began to refer to him as the “North Pond Hermit.” Some of the residents left food out for him (though he never took any). Others, not surprisingly, found the notion of a strange man living in the woods and randomly breaking into homes to be terrifying. Knight was upset when he found out that his crimes caused people fear, though it should have been obvious. Still, he meant no harm to anyone.

When I was young, I was enchanted by The Boxcar Children. Like most boys, I built forts in the woods, had fantasies of living a self-reliant life. Maybe we all have a little of that in us—a romantic notion of escaping the hustle of everyday life and living off the grid. Of course, very few of us actually do it. Certainly not for a quarter century.

“The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself,” Finkel says. Knight’s vocal chords atrophied from lack of use. He had trouble speaking, but in slow, stunted sentences he describes how the dividing line between himself and the forest dissolved, how he fell into a kind of communion with nature. He decries elements of society, finds it ironic that spending your life working in a cubicle, trading your time and stress for money is considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods, observing the trees is considered disturbed. That said, to the key question of why he did what he did, Knight seemed to find it as puzzling as everyone else. He’d obviously given it much thought but all he could say about it was, “It’s a mystery.”

What I loved about this book were the angles Finkel came at it, trying to solve that basic riddle of why. He looked at the great writers on solitude—writers like Annie Dillard, Michael de Montaigne, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton (who beautifully wrote, “Nothing can be expressed about solitude that has not been better expressed by sound of the wind in the pine trees.”). He looks at other similar cases, such as Christopher McCandless, who disappeared into the Alaskan bush as told in Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild.

Finkel examines the neuroscience of silence, of what it does to the mind, to the senses. He looks at Knight’s family and considers Asperger Syndrome and other medical conditions as possible explanations. And he considers the history of solitude, from its religious significance—Jesus in the wilderness, Buddha under the tree—to the more trivial. (In 18th Century England, it became fashionable for wealthy land owners to have a hermit on their estate. Ornamental hermits, they were called. Wanted ads appeared everywhere. The contracts were typically for seven years, the pay was good and included a meal a day. Hundreds of hermits were hired.)

But what I found most interesting was Knight’s complicated character. It’s hard to say what he meant by his act of departure. Was it an act of protest? A mental glitch? A moment of enlightenment? He criticizes society’s need for stuff, the need to mesmerize ourselves with our screens. Yet he lived off society. He wasn’t living off the land unless you count vacation homes as part of the land. He stole food, radios, batteries and other supplies, so it’s difficult to concede him any moral high ground or hold him up as some example of a principled life. He just was. Alone. Without need for justification. How many of us do the things we do because of the pressures and expectations of society? Cut the connection to those pressures and what happens? Does one lose purpose? Find nirvana? It’s an important question, and though Knight shows no investment in the answer, he is a fascinating human experiment. And it makes for a fantastic book.

Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 26, 2018

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In July, Mark Bowden published a terrifying article in The Atlantic about our options with North Korea (none of them are good). This was long before our President started tweeting like an insecure tenth-grader about the size of his button, and before senators started rattling their sabers, some of them genuinely seeming to delight in the thought of incinerating North Korea in a war, despite the fact that a best-case scenario involves the deaths of millions of North and South Koreans.

I thought maybe I should learn something about the people we may very soon be lobbing missiles at. I heard Barbara Demick when she was a guest on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, and although this book is from 2009, it is still relevant as a look at the hermit kingdom and its citizens.

Most of what we see of North Korea in the media is footage of its chubby leader or the pageantry of its military parades. It’s a country that has increasingly walled itself off from the outside world since its creation after WWII. The three successive members of the Kim family have become increasingly paranoid of outside influence. Their blend of totalitarianism, pseudo-religion and cult of personality, mixed with the country’s isolationism has turned North Korea into a cult.

Demick gives us a look inside the cult, and the picture is bleak. Under Kim Jong Il in the ’90s and 2000s, the country collapsed into poverty and famine. The country was depleted of resources. It’s estimated that as many as three million starved to death, and the stories Demick tells are heartbreaking. The agriculture, already on the decline, was decimated by mismanagement. The power grid went down. People stole food to survive. They stripped the useless copper wires from the walls to sell for food. They killed animals for food. There were rumors of cannibalism, of adults who kidnapped children to butcher for food.

North Korea has always been cloaked in misinformation—the only permitted TV’s and radios were preset to receive only official government channels. Many North Koreans believe there is a better life outside of the country, though many still believe the official propaganda, which blames the outside world, particularly the U.S., for the miserable conditions. Some attempt to escape. Some do. But it is a great risk to do so—many who make it out are never able to contact their families. Some who do escape to South Korea or China and are captured or returned to the North. It is not a good fate that awaits them in the prisons.

The hope for average North Koreans is not war. The long but best shot may be that technology will eventually help information overwhelm the walls. That North Koreans will see the outside world, the possibilities, and somehow in their weakened state, will revolt and topple the communist government. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, but until then North Korea is a country frozen in time, a suspended state of hell, and its people are its prisoners.