Monthly Archives: May 2012

Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson

I have gone back and forth on Erik Larson. I mean, I loved Devil in the White City, found In the Garden of Beasts captivating but not quite as much of a page-turner, and haven’t yet gotten through the Crippen/Marconi book.

But Isaac’s Storm….Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read a third of before I could even think about putting it down. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read instead of gaming. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I devoured.

One of the things that Erik Larson does very, very well is parallel stories. Devil in the White City paralleled the building of the White City (and the careers/lives of those involved) with the life of H.H. Holmes. Isaac’s Storm parallels the life and career of Isaac Cline – tangled up with the history of the Weather Service – with the hurricane of 1900. All the different variables are there – the belief that a hurricane would never come through the Gulf, the insistence that predicting a hurricane would cause panic, the actual meteorological factors. What’s absolutely fantastic is the way that he uses the storm as a character without ever anthropomorphising it. Every few chapters track the storm on its progress through the Atlantic, past ships and islands – but it’s never treated as a being, it’s never humanised.

It was a devastating storm, the deadliest storm in American history. No one in Galveston knew that it was coming; no one knew to prepare. Petty jealousies and pride, plus lack of knowledge, kept anyone from reading the signs correctly. That was, in retrospect, one of the most frustrating things – the Cubans, for example, knew that it was a strong hurricane, and predicted that it would head to Texas, but the US Weather Service refused to acknowledge their warnings, because why would people who’ve lived in the path of tropical storms for their entire existence know anything about tropical storms?

The only thing that was teased and not carried through was the relationship between Joseph and Isaac Cline. They were, at the time of the hurricane, fairly close and living together. Within a few years, though, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence, or that they’d ever been brothers. What happened between them?  Larson never tells us. He hints at it, he references the estrangement, but he never goes into details. He may not have them – but if he doesn’t, it’s not quite fair that he teases it so much throughout.

But that’s the only fault I have to find with it. It got me interested in meteorology again, at least for the time I was reading. It got me interested in Texas history, in weather history, in disaster history. I was absolutely captivated throughout.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Uncategorized

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is another book that I learned about from the Tournament of Books. I may have to go back to the Tournament recaps now that I’ve actually read the book, and see how much I agree or disagree with their comments.

Swamplandia! is also one of the books nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, when no prize was ultimately awarded. I will admit, I have no desire to read David Foster Wallace’s book and I don’t know much about Train Dreams, the other finalist. In my mind, Swamplandia!, being the book that I’d heard of, is the de facto winner. This makes me even more curious about the Pulitzer decision – whether they couldn’t come to a consensus or whether they thought none of the finalists were worthy.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to be captivated by the language (I was) and transported to another world adjacent to this one (I was, mostly). I wanted to be so in tune with the characters that I was startled to find myself when I looked out of the book (….a bit). I got all those things….mostly. And it’s that mostly that makes this book less than perfect.

Oh, the language is amazing. It’s colourful and evocative without being overdescriptive. It put me in the Florida swamps and gave me its history, especially with the Army Corps of Engineers, so very clearly. I could see Swamplandia! and its dinginess and its desperation (I’ve been to the Black Hills….)

And for most of the novel, I was transported to another world adjacent to this one. But then, about three-quarters of the way through the book, what had started off as an almost Orpheus-like journey becomes just another childhood trauma story. Which disappointed me, somewhat. I was anticipating an Underworld, a struggle to recover Osceola, an amorphous but real presence, a parallel with the World of Darkness. Instead I got a well-written but tawdry attack that shifted Ava’s goal from rescue to escape.

And the ending itself was a bit too coincidence-driven for me. Kiwi JUST HAPPENS to be taking his flying test over that particular swamp, where Osceola JUST HAPPENS to spot him, and it all JUST HAPPENS to be in the same area around the same time that Ava JUST HAPPENS to get rescued.  Actually, Ava’s rescue is the most realistic of any of that – it was as close to a Chekov’s Gun as you’re going to find in something like this. (Mama Weeds, on the other hand, totally thrown in at the last minute. Not as cool as I think she was intended to be.)

There were a lot of emotional moments that I wish had been explored more. I thought Kiwi’s reactions to seeing his father again were well-done, but there was no follow-up – things just swept straight into the ending. Ava shifts so rapidly from being concerned for her sister to being concerned for herself that neither is ever really resolved. And Osceola herself is never resolved – how does her experience in the swamp change her, if it does at all?

I really loved this book – right up until the end, when I only liked it. The language is fantastic, and is probably why it got a Pulitzer nod. But the shift at the end is too great – it falls apart right when you want everything to come together.

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Filed under General Fiction

Mini Operas Script Competition – Waiting Doubts

I imagine two parallel scenes. She is in her living room, He is in a travel waiting room (airport, train station, doesn’t matter). They may explore their respective halves of the stage, coming together for the duets.

SHE

How do I phrase it?

How do I say

That I do want to meet him?

…Just not today.

I need time to get used

To having him here,

To making a space,

To handling my fear.

HE

How can I phrase it?

Everything that I say

Will just come out rubbish.

I’ll wait one more day.

I need time to decide

Just what I should do.

How much I should tell her,

How much of it’s true.

SHE

I’ll see him next week.

HE

I’ll see her in June.

SHE and HE

I’ll see him/her eventually –

But just not too soon

HE

The texts and the phone calls,

They bring her so close.

Our words come together,

But how can we know?

I’ll write down the words

That tell how I feel,

Then send them away

To make them more real.

SHE

The texts and the phone calls

Can complete my day,

But when they are over,

Well, what’s left to say?

I write down the words,

They finish my thoughts

I can feel his eyes reading,

Untangling the knots.

SHE and HE

If only I’d know

Just how it would be.

If only I’d trust

That he/she really loves me.

SHE

He could be everything

That I’m meant to want.

To fill the hole in my life

That other girls flaunt.

HE

She could be everything

That I’m supposed to need.

I know she’s my partner

Through the letters I read.

SHE

But there’s something still stops me

From letting him in

From getting so close

That he’s under my skin.

HE

But there’s something I wonder,

Something I don’t know.

When I finally meet her –

Will my feelings show?

SHE

I’ll be ready soon,

I know that I will.

HE

I’ll just keep on writing

And calling, until…

SHE

I’ll see him next week.

HE

I’ll see her in June.

SHE and HE

I’ll see him/her eventually –

But just not too soon.

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Leen Times, by A.R. Dance

I am a bad, bad Nottingham devotee. I didn’t know that the Leen was a tributary of the Trent until I picked up this book and then Wiki-ed “Leen”. I know that the Fleet ran/runs underneath London, but I didn’t know what rivers and canals helped establish my home.

I also don’t know the entire history of the gentry and landowners around here, apart from a bit about Wollaton Hall and the Castle. But luckily there is a book like Leen Times (and its precursor, Narrow Marsh) which provides a highly readable background to early 19th century Nottingham, with a bit of plot thrown in against the slightly cardboard characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It wasn’t “good”, but it wasn’t that bad, and I liked it. I thought Narrow Marsh had more dramatic tension – the plot was clearer and the villain was less cardboard-cut-out – but I wasn’t reading it for the plot, really. I was reading it for the references to places I know, for the evocation of being where I am but not when I am, for picturing Nottingham and Beeston and Chilwell before they became almost one entity.

And that’s what I got. The main characters wandering through the streets and highways on their way to Beeston and Chilwell, stopping at some points that still exist today (and some that don’t). They talk about the Reform Act riots that happened in Wollaton Park – that was the topic of the last performance tour at the Galleries of Justice that I went on. They witness the burning of the Beeston Silk Mill and hear about the burning of Nottingham Castle.

It also made me wonder about the history of some things – like the Hallams. The greengrocer in Beeston is called “Hallam’s” – is that a connection to the Hallam who was manager of the Chilwell manor, or the Hallams of Hallams Lane? Was the Duke of Newcastle oppressive, or was he just conservative and uninterested? How long did it take to get Beeston’s silk mill running again, and how does the silk trade reflect in how Beeston is now?

But, like I say, the writing wasn’t great. There was more than one moment that could have used an editor, either to say “This is really obvious” or “This is unnecessary.” (A particularly egregious sentence pointed out the irony of the hero having gone down the same path as the villain, several years before. But the villain is unaware of the fact that it’s the same path! Look at the irony!) And I do think that the story itself, such as it was, suffered from having the same villain as the first book. The “revenge” storyline was weak and the villain became a little bit one-dimensional and insane because of it. I think if the main conflict storyline had been more interwoven with the railroad storyline – for example, have a villain be a canal rival who wants to stop railroad development, or even something more on the modern side where people don’t want to see their land going for a railroad – it could have been a stronger book.

As research goes, though, it’s clearly a labour of love, and evocative enough. People outside the Nottingham area aren’t going to be able to find it, I don’t think – but then they might not care about the background as much as I do.

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The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

I ran across this book as part of the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I really enjoy following their tournament every spring, but since I’m not in the US, March Madness sometimes sneaks up on me. This year I was lucky in that Wil Wheaton, who I follow consistently online, was one of the first-round judges, so I knew exactly when it started. His round was this book against State of Wonder.

He really didn’t like State of Wonder. I can understand why, of course, and he was right that he’s not the target audience for it. He also really, really loved this book. So I thought, “okay, that’s one recommendation right there…..if I run across it, maybe I’ll give it a try.” It ended up winning the Tournament, and then I saw that it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and then it was on sale at Waterstones. It was inevitable.

It’s a Western, in setting and tone, but like the best books do, it doesn’t limit itself to the themes of its genre. It’s about two brothers, gunslingers, on a job to kill a prospector in California. It’s about the demands of loyalty to family and to employer and to morality. It’s about recognising the social structures of the time and your part in creating or maintaining them. And it’s about the discovery that what you’ve done all your life isn’t what you want to be.

Where it particularly excels is in the actual language. Westerns for decades have had a particular voice – a weird combination of completely simple and completely high-flown. It’s hard to maintain without seeming foolish, but deWitt pulls it off. Eli isn’t the most intelligent or educated man, but he’s not stupid, and he’s well-meaning. He recognises the way the world works, and his part in the badness of it, and does what he can to make amends. He can never do a lot, but he does what he can, and he tries to temper Charlie’s excesses as much as he can.

It’s an incredible journey, not just geographically, but emotionally as Eli finds their way of life more and more untenable, while Charlie continues to find exhilaration in the extremes. Ultimately, they completely change places, with Eli becoming the leader and Charlie sinking into submission.

It’s not a book for everyone (what book is?) but it’s fast, and clear, and intriguing. Read the judges’ analyses on Tournament of Books, and then decide for yourself.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries