Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We Live in Water

This terrific collection of short stories by Jess Walter is a virtuoso performance by one of my favorite authors. The stories range from the touching quest of a homeless man to buy a birthday present for his son in "Anything Helps" to a Cloud Atlas-like future world in "Don't Eat Cat."

Most are set in the Pacific Northwest where Walter, a native of Spokane, lives, and they feature normal men and women -- mostly white, mostly poor -- who live there. Walter's characters drive vehicles they need to park on a hill in order to start and a disturbing number have amputations from diabetes. The protagonists are flawed, often deeply so, and there's a fair amount of murder and mayhem.

But these characters generally are trying to carve out some bit of integrity in their lives, whether it's a father who puts himself in harm's way to make sure his little boy makes it home safely or a mechanic who stands up to a boss who systematically cheats a senile customer. They are not perfect, but they are trying to be better. In many of the stories, it's the responsibility of parenthood, the desire for their children to do well and be safe -- even if the parent has screwed up his own life -- that motivates them.

All of this told in an array of voices that once again matches the virtuosity of David Mitchell, with a comfortable American twist. Walter reminds me most of early Don De Lillo, with the same wry, post-modernist view of the world. It's a perfect book for serial reading, following on the short story collections of Hemingway and Maugham.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Odds Against Tomorrow

It's not often that I just go read a book after reading the review, but the NY Times Book Review's article on Nathaniel Rich's new novel struck the right chord. The book is witty, laugh-out-loud funny and satirical but the humor does not completely mask the hard edge.

Mitchell Zukor is obsessed with catastrophe and channels his affinity for it into a lucrative career as a futurist, forecasting scenarios for corporate clients. While many of these people seem to view his advice as simple catharsis -- by imagining the worst, they somehow avoid it -- Mitchell never forgets that he is talking about a possible reality and never really relaxes.

The hook used by the Times reviewer is that the catastrophe that plays out is one all too realistic after Hurricane Sandy led to widespread flooding in Manhattan. Once the tidal surge covers most of Manhattan in water, it is like Sandy meets Katrina, and Mitchell's trip in a canoe is reminiscent of Zeitoun's real-life meanderings through a flooded New Orleans.

I'm a big fan of catastrophe films. It's embarrassing how many times I've watched Dante's Peak, Volcano, Contagion, Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, 2012 and so on. And yet, Mitchell's encounter with this all-too-imaginable catastrophe is not science fiction or fantasy but a drama about how we cope with existential fear in our fragile environment.

Rich is screamingly funny in articulating these fears -- from the consequences of climate change, to nuclear and terrorist threats, up to asteroids hitting the earth. The week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the day the Times reports that a Midwest scarred by drought is now covered with floodwaters makes them seem anything but remote.

Rich is a post-modernist writer in the vein of Don DeLillo and Jess Walter -- sardonic, cynical, but deep down idealistic about human nature. Mitchell remains sympathetic even in the disturbing end of the book when, having survived this catastrophe, he accepts the consequences of what this means for how he lives his life.

There are two women in Mitchell's life -- the mystical Elsa and the pragmatic Jane. He is subservient first to one and then to the other, breaking free only after he has had to make his choices about dealing with catastrophe and mastering his fear. At least, we presume he has mastered it, because his life is changed and he is for once truly independent.

Mitchell's parents and his FutureWorld employer offer humorous sidelights, but it is Jane -- ambitious, bright, sexy, vulnerable -- who brings what passes for normalcy in our society into conflict with Mitchell's own quest. He deals with Jane's various temptations even as he seeks answers to Elsa's mysterious exile in a survivalist farm and her own way of dealing with a mortally dangerous heart condition.

This is an imaginative, ultra-timely, idiosyncratic portrayal of the dark side of our modern world -- the fears we try to keep at bay but which are never far away.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Panda's Thumb

I was glad when somebody in my new book group suggested this collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould as our selection for April. It had been sitting on my shelf (shelves, really, since it moved with me several times) for a good 30 years.

I'm glad I finally got to read (most of) it, but I understand now why it sat on my shelf for so long. Gould is an entertaining writer, witty and widely read. But these are unredacted columns he published on a monthly basis in the 1970s. This means the essays are pointed and informative, but also somewhat repetitive and shallow, and by now out of date.

As I said during our discussion of the book, what struck me most was how his openness to the facts of science challenges the reader to face up to legacy notions of creationism, intelligent design, and progress. Gould's full-blooded Darwinism leaves no room for a divine plan or a special place for mankind in creation. Even his concession that our cultural evolution is "Lamarckian" in nature -- we are able to pass on acquired attributes -- begs the question of how much progress mankind has actually made. There may be a way to reconcile this science to faith, but that's not my challenge and I'm not sure how it would be done.

I didn't get through all the essays, but I think the book served its purpose for me after the several I did read -- it opened my eyes to looking at the fact of the world we live in, the scale of time that it's in and the perspective on life that it brings. At one point, Gould observes that a mite who has impregnated his sisters before birth and dies a few brief moments after birth has made the same contribution to carrying on his species as Abraham and all his decades. Funny, true, but a pointed reminder that life is so much more than our biological function.

I have two or three other books by Gould sitting on my shelf, but I have the feeling that the window of opportunity for me to read them and get something from them has passed. I was not as enthralled by the science and scientific method on display here as some of the other members of the book group. I don't think that reading some more old columns with variations on the theme would enrich my life significantly, at least not in comparison to the pleasure or learning from alternative choices. So I may finally be able to pack these natural history books up to give away.

I also have several books by David Quammen. It's clear that the idea of natural history -- a holdover from my dinosaur phase? -- intrigued me. Quammen wrote the lead review in last Sunday's NYTBR, a history of the discovery of gorillas. I'll have a go at one of those to see how I like that author before packing them up, too.