Saturday, April 26, 2014

World War Z

This "oral history" by Max Brooks is surprisingly funny. I say surprisingly because it is after all about a post-apocalyptic war against zombies and the movie ostensibly based on the book was an earnest thriller. The book, however, is an at times brilliant satire, parodying everyone from the military to politicians to journalists.

Zombies have become an acceptable metaphor for any kind of catastrophe, whether terrorists or pandemics or natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. The satire here is in the response to the catastrophe. There are the military who recount how ridiculous it was to stage a battle with zombies using the high-tech weaponry stockpiled so expensively. What they really needed was a medieval halberd to slice through the brains of the undead. There was the White House aide who explained why they had to keep the news of a zombie virus outbreak from the public because it would alarm them and distract them from the other political objectives the White House had in mind.

There were a host of other voices recorded in a faux-interview deadpan modeled on Studs Terkel's oral history of World War 2. The threat has been, mostly, overcome, and the interviews trace its rise and fall in more or less chronological order. I may have missed something, but I saw no trace of the movie plot and the supposed antidote discovered by Brad Pitt.

I'm in a bit of a zombie period, having binge-watched "The Walking Dead" ahead of the recent season finale (and, I'll confess, re-watching some episodes now). There is a comforting predictability about the threat from a zombie. They drag their feet, they moan, they have on clear goal in mind, and they are relatively easily dispatched if you have a halberd-like instrument at hand. They do, of course, nonetheless manage to claim a certain number of victims, usually when they come in such numbers that they overwhelm their prey.

My theory about the current enthusiasm for zombies is that they are metaphor for Alzheimer's, the bane of the boomers. Particularly in "The Walking Dead," there are characters who have trouble accepting that these reanimated corpses aren't still somehow the people they once loved. The fact is, of course, that those people are gone. In much the same way, the frightening reality of Alzheimer's is that the personalities we loved and who loved us are also gone, really gone, and aren't coming back.

The other factor is that there is no nuance in the zombie threat. They want to tear you to shreds and eat you, period. There's no room for temporizing or pretending there is any solution to the threat except eliminating it, though part of the satire in Brooks' book is the difficulty people have in accepting that at the beginning.

In any case, there is no horror in World War Z. There is some gore, the occasional poignant moment. But the no-nonsense narrative style succeeds best when seen as a take-off on our own often pretentious and ineffectual response to threats.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Farm Dies Once a Year

Here is my review from Washington Independent Review of Books:

If you’ve ever shopped at a farmer’s market, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve never shopped at one, this account of life on a fruit and vegetable farm in Pennsylvania will make you want to try it. And if you regularly shop at the New Morning Farmmarket in Washington, D.C. — as I have for the past several years — Crawford’s intensely personal memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is a must-read.

Four decades ago, Crawford’s parents started New Morning Farm, and although the name came from a Bob Dylan album, the farm was not some hippy-ish return to nature. From the beginning, the project entailed the hard work and heartbreak that goes with working the land. Crawford’s father abandoned law school in the 1970s to take up farming, and over the years, his father turned New Morning Farm into a successful business that grosses half a million dollars a year — though after paying for wages, seed, equipment, and maintenance, the net proceeds make for a modest income.

At 31, Crawford, dissatisfied with his work at a museum in Cambridge, Mass., and the lack of direction in his life, returned to his family’s farm during the summer season. He joined the staff of apprentices in taking care of the myriad tasks on the farm: planting, trimming, staking, and harvesting the strawberries, squash, lettuce, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, and other crops. With vivid language, Crawford describes this work as hot, buggy, and dirty, stretching into 13- and 14-hour days at the height of the season. Unlike his previous job at the museum, where he worked on projects that “had a checklist, a clear set of milestones,” farming allowed him to immerse himself “in the summer, a wide, warm ocean with no shore in sight and no landmarks to swim toward.”

But A Farm Dies Once a Year is about more than vegetables or farming. It is about fathers and sons, childhood and trauma, roots and ambitions. It is about self-discovery and self-fulfillment — those elusive goals that may be permanently beyond our reach.

Much of the book deals with Crawford’s father, a man he clearly admires and respects despite being keenly aware of his father’s flaws — notably the emotional distance that his all-consuming passion for making a go of the farm sometimes created. When Crawford returned to the farm, he attempted to construct a primitive shelter for himself and his girlfriend, and his father pointed out that the posts for the platform weren’t “true,” so the whole structure would wobble and collapse. “Finding these kinds of mistakes was my father’s specialty,” Crawford mused in one of his many riffs on his father. His father’s business for 40 years required “tempering his enthusiasms with an obsessive attention to detail”: “He looked over a freshly plowed field and saw where the drainage would be bad, examined a truckload of ripe peaches and picked out the first ones to rot, looked at a new puppy and saw the dead chickens it would eventually drag into the yard.”

Crawford also returned to the farm to find out more about a dramatic incident that had marked his childhood — the murder of his father’s close friend who also had left the city to take up farming. The killing capped a banal argument over barking dogs that annoyed the horses of an alcoholic neighbor, who, Crawford concluded, harbored a deeper resentment of city folks invading the countryside. This violent act left Crawford insecure and worried about his parents’ safety.

Crawford’s fears resurfaced the summer he returned. He and his father had a tense encounter with some locals as his father showed him around the farm his father owned before New Morning. After the murder of his father’s friend, Crawford became aware that even minor tensions have the potential to explode in violence, and his unease about the murder prompted him to visit the murdered man’s farm and even to seek out his daughter in Maine. Dealing with this trauma was one facet of Crawford’s coming to terms with his roots.

A Farm Dies Once a Year reaches a climax (of sorts) when the author describes his trip to Washington, D.C., for the Saturday morning market in a schoolyard in Cleveland Park, the culmination of the week of farming and harvesting. His rendition of his father’s patter as he roamed around the market, touting this kohlrabi, that batch of corn, these green beans at the peak of perfection, is so spot-on that it vouches for the accuracy of all his other observations.

It is in fact the vividness and economy of the author’s narration — his attention to detail in a language that is lean and colorful — that makes this book, along with the subject itself, such compelling reading. Often earnest, A Farm Dies Once a Year is punctuated with a wry humor directed sometimes at Crawford, sometimes at his parents or others, but always good-natured.

Crawford makes it clear from the outset that he never saw farming as his life, and none of his epiphanies over the summer change his mind. Nonetheless, watching the apprentices’ late afternoon activities at the end of the summer, he vividly describes the tug this place has for him: “I suddenly wanted to find my mother and father and tell them that I loved them. I wanted to stay there forever in the hollow, closed off from the world, in the shelter I’d built, with a table and a chair, a bed and full bookshelf. I wanted my grave dug under the black walnut, with Sarah’s there beside it, our children to plant a forsythia there that would bloom in the spring, the first yellow flowers of March. I wanted our bones to molder and the stone to grow dim, the rain to seep into the box and the tree roots to grow down through it, and someday the creek to rise and wash us all away.”

But the antics of the apprentices in the barnyard break the spell of that moment, and Crawford acknowledges that the farm will not last forever. Eventually, Crawford leaves the farm, moves to San Francisco, and gets a job in a natural food store that specializes in produce, which, he notes, is much easier than working in the fields.

Crawford does not belabor the title of his memoir. Even though his return to the farm gave him some insight about himself, it did not resolve his questions about the direction of his life However, he leaves us with the implication that knowing ourselves, like life on the farm, is not a one-time event, but a succession of seasons, each with its own harvest.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt's long and compelling novel is a joy to read. While it appears at times to be a Dickensian romp through quirky characters and picaresque events, in the end it is a philosophical morality tale, articulating as well as anything else I've read what life is all about.

The plot has holes. Big one: After opening in the present day, most of the book is a long flashback to more than a decade before, and yet there are cellphones then, too, and texting, which would mean the "present" is in the future, because texting didn't exist 11 or 12 years ago. Small one: Theo despaired when told by the consulate in Amsterdam it would take 10 days to get a replacement passport, whereas these can be had in an afternoon.

In the meantime, though, there are so many delicious scenes of wonderfully observed detail. The writing, even a critical reviewer in the Washington Independent Review of Books conceded, is superb. As I wrote in a blog post in WIRoB: "For me, that superb writing, which seems to offer a surprise on every page, is what makes the book so compelling. There are flaws in the plot, in the characterization, and there is a whole lot of suspension of disbelief called for — it is, in part, a fantasy, really. But for some of us, it is the glittery prose itself that is the reward. Tartt’s ever-so-precise diction recalls Flaubert’s never-ending search for “le mot juste” — just the right word. It is not only because the book is 700+ pages long, but that every page is like a polished diamond of language that you can understand why it took 10 years to write."

I am not as enamored of Boris as some readers. He is the "bad boy" that women in particular seem sympathetic to. Theo's life could have taken a completely different course if he had never met Boris, so in a sense, this is really Boris's story. But in the author's hands, this is Theo's life and it is the life that he draws his very moving conclusions about in the last pages. Life is random, out of our control. It is an illusion that we have choices, beyond what we make of the life fate hands us.

There are other characters, all of them vivid, but none of them achieving the depth of these two. Hobie, Andy, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Theo's father. The two characters who die in the explosion, Theo's mother and Welty, are present long beyond their death.

The metaphor of the painting is effective as a symbol of Theo's life -- both the painting itself, cast among the waves of chance to survive, and the subject of the painting, that poor little chained bird. I personally found Theo, and particularly his drug use, often distasteful, yet he retained my sympathy. His hopeless love for Pippa is so much like Pip's love for Estella, and his great expectations are equally illusory. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a lovely read and a moving story.