This is an elegant look at plant and animal evolution--and climate and tectonic change--through the lens of one of the most biologically diverse regio...moreThis is an elegant look at plant and animal evolution--and climate and tectonic change--through the lens of one of the most biologically diverse regions on the face of the earth. I especially enjoyed learning about different ways that species evolve--through natural selection, but also preadaptation, symbiosis, and neoteny. Wallace has interesting and persuasive things to say about the "myth" of evolution and how it compares as a worldview. Certainly informative and intellectually engaging, this book is also playful, literary, imaginative, and challenging. (less)
After reading When the Killing's Done and a handful of various other stories by T.C. Boyle, I'd pegged him as a Jonathan Franzen-type: whip smart, in...moreAfter reading When the Killing's Done and a handful of various other stories by T.C. Boyle, I'd pegged him as a Jonathan Franzen-type: whip smart, invested in current events, darkly humorous, satirical, and all too ready to lord it over and roast his characters any chance he gets--in short, the type of writer who exhausts and ultimately irritates me. But this novel, San Miguel, "makes an ass[of]u[and]me." In it Boyle displays the nuance, empathy, and craft of some of the best Western writers: Stegner, Doig, Woiwode, Houston.
Set on San Miguel Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara, the story centers on two families--one in the late 1800s, the other during the Great Depression and WWII--who take charge of the isolated, weather-beaten island's sheep business. The narratives are filtered through the women: sickly Marantha and her daughter, Edith, feel stereotypically, hopelessly exiled; Elise, on the other hand, happily sheds her high society albeit spinster life for a "simpler," down-to-basics existence. (In case it isn't predictably obvious, the men are happy as clams in this rough-and-tumble, work-sunup-to-sundown life.)
More would spoil the carefully wrought plot; suffice it to say that life on the island exaggerates the best and worst of its inhabitants, and it triangulates--and complicates--all human relationships on its shores. The novel is terribly poignant, and I was deeply impressed by it. Oh, and it's based on true stories--very cool.(less)
I know I probably won't remember it in several months, but I found this novel delightfully engaging. The narrator, a teenager and native Angeleno, rec...moreI know I probably won't remember it in several months, but I found this novel delightfully engaging. The narrator, a teenager and native Angeleno, recalls his parents' divorce and fall from Hollywood fame. He listens sympathetically to his mother's soliloquies about her imagined sufferings and ridiculous love affairs, and he plays along with his father's mania for Navy-style order and delusions of grandeur. The sense of humor is wry and irresistible as the narrator flits between affection and mockery. And how can you resist this first paragraph?:
I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon's son, and I was baptized by the Archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe. I was the darling of the ranch, pleasing everyone. One day I was sunning myself in the patio, lying out on the yellow and blue tiles, contemplating the geraniums and sniffing the hot, clean air. A bee came up and stung me on my bare fanny. They response to my screams was wonderful. Servants everywhere, my mother giving orders. Don Enrique applied an old Indian remedy and my father took me down to the beach house to let the salt water do its work. Oh what a world it was! Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine?
What a pleasant surprise! This collection of cleverly interrelated and kaleidoscopic stories, which moves backwards (from the 1980s SF Bay Area punk s...moreWhat a pleasant surprise! This collection of cleverly interrelated and kaleidoscopic stories, which moves backwards (from the 1980s SF Bay Area punk scene) and forwards (to a brilliantly imagined futuristic Manhattan!) in time, is surprisingly inventive, effective, and affecting. There is craft and skill in Egan's choices of what to tell and what to leave to your imagination. Most of the stories (and characters) center around music--musicians, young punk rockers, a recording executive, his assistant, her children, etc.--with attendant themes of talent (and fading talent), nostalgia, and the fiercely personal relationships to music that often enrich or reveal unspoken interpersonal connections. Everything from adolescent death crushes to failing marriages to touching and difficult parent-child relationships is covered, too.
These types of novels have high annoyance potential for me, as I often become distraught at abrupt POV shifts and experimental, fractured narratives, but I was like butter (eww?) in Egan's capable hands. Each new character in the relentless parade of new characters was as well-formed and intriguing as the last. The Alison Blake chapter (second-to-last), told entirely in Power Point-like slides, is brilliant and surprisingly moving.
If, at any point in your life, you were ever part of some music scene, I think this novel will have added dimension for you. (less)
A dynamic and inspiring look at the (in)famous (depending on where your own interests lie) crusading conservationist David Brower. My first McPhee, hi...moreA dynamic and inspiring look at the (in)famous (depending on where your own interests lie) crusading conservationist David Brower. My first McPhee, highly recommended.(less)
Elegant, engaging, and frankly enraging exploration of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. "[I]f forced to identify one overreaching reason for the dam's ex...moreElegant, engaging, and frankly enraging exploration of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. "[I]f forced to identify one overreaching reason for the dam's existence, it was a failure of the democratic process or, perhaps more accurately, the bias of the democratic process toward San Francisco's power and wealth."
(Could ya make the print any smaller, Oxford UP? Sheesh.)
(Also, while I'm in my tsk-tsk mode, who the hell wrote the above summary copy? "In the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, the city of San Francisco desperately needed reliable supplies of water and electricity." One of the points of this book is that this statement is simply not true. SF cultivated this perception in order to get what it wanted. No amount of reservoirs or municipal control could have prevented the damage done to water infrastructure during the earthquake.)(less)
Boyle is a helluva writer, I'll say that. I'd only read shorter pieces by him, so I was excited to delve into a novel-length work. The first third to...moreBoyle is a helluva writer, I'll say that. I'd only read shorter pieces by him, so I was excited to delve into a novel-length work. The first third to half of this novel was riveting. Two islands off the coast of Santa Barbara are targeted by the Park service for restoration, which includes eradicating non-native rats on one island and feral pigs on another. Park biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is fanatical, dedicated, and self-righteous about the ethics of this course of action: it's regrettable, but it must be done to save the unique and endangered native species on the islands. All of the studies clearly show that the birds, the foxes, the native flora--none will last the decade (perhaps sooner) if we don't act now.
Enter Dave LaJoy: middle-aged, dread-sporting local businessman with staggering anger management issues. Founder of FPA ("For the Protection of Animals"), his stance is to let nature take its course: the rats and the pigs have been there for hundreds of years, and the Park just now decides that their removal is urgent?! This reeks of a fad, a cause celebre: of course their own numbers support their expensive solutions! The Park's methods are inhumane (slow-acting poison for the rats and two bullets apiece for the pigs) and their agenda is mind-blowingly arrogant: who are we to play God?
This set-up is intensely thought-provoking and ethically challenging. To what extent are humans responsible for extinctions as a result of species they introduced? To what extent is it feasible and desirable to restore environments to pre-contact conditions? How and to what extent do you "protect" a landscape from "invasive" species? Take each stance to their logical extremes, and you'll start getting uncomfortable fast: humans have (Biblically-sanctioned!) dominion over the Earth and are here to do what we please without reference to our effects--or, side with the restoration native species fanatics and suddenly you're creeping awfully close to chilling notions of eugenics and racial purity. Even the term "invasive" is suspect, as though some rat were conscious of "invading" a landscape: it assigns an agency and intent that exists only in our minds via our own associations with the word "invader."
But, back to the book! If Boyle nudges readers in a direction, I missed the exit sign. Both sides have their merits and logic. And both characters are intensely unlikable by about halfway through the novel, and neither seems to grow or give much ground. The plot also founders at this point; I cared less and less about the fate of the pigs and cute wittle native foxes on Santa Cruz Island. Perhaps the message is that both extremes are undesirable, but that's a bitter pill to swallow when you've got half a novel left to read and your sympathies are no longer engaged. I'm overstating my case: there are funny, shocking, and intelligent moments throughout, but the book lost momentum for me at its mid-way point.
There are two back-to-back chapters that were interesting to me around this point, but while they glimpsed growth for the characters, the promise wasn't fulfilled. Alma runs over a squirrel and witnesses the creature's very real suffering; it's a small leap from the suffering of an individual squirrel to the suffering of the poisoned rats and gunned down pigs. Dave meanwhile is confronted with a ruined lawn as a result of raccoons, testing his determination to love all creatures great and small. Throughout the book, what is happening in Alma's life resonates with what is happening in Dave's (and vice versa): in many ways, they are more alike than different, as self-righteous extremists usually are. Both are very California types: talk about an invading "species"!
Boyle is an unmistakably intelligent writer, and I will be reading more of his work. This one didn't quite do it for me, but it got me thinking in ways that no other novel I've read in recent history has.
P.S. I received a galley copy of this novel from the publisher via Goodreads' First Reads program. Thanks, Goodreads and Viking!(less)
First off, let's dispense with the idea that this is a contemporary Sense and Sensibility: it's about two sisters and their love lives, but that's th...moreFirst off, let's dispense with the idea that this is a contemporary Sense and Sensibility: it's about two sisters and their love lives, but that's the extent of it. Sister the elder is Emily, who is involved with Jonathan and the world of high-tech boom and busts. Throw in a 9/11-plot twist, and you've got a pretty lackluster modern romance, replete with cell phones and cringe-worthy metaphors (I was trying to find the one that really sent me over the edge, something awful about downloading love to the hard drive of the heart--it's probably best that I can't locate it). Blah.
Sister the younger is Berkeley student Jess, and her story is much sweeter. Food and cooking are the central metaphors for her romance--far better material for the language d'amour. Her character sometimes reads like the creation of a male author (so quirky! so absent-minded! so trusting! so unconsciously beautiful!), but I could mostly overlook that.
The moment in the novel when you first encounter the astounding cookbook collection referred to in the title is simply magical--I wouldn't have missed that. Altogether an engaging but lop-sided read. (less)
Two things tie together the various stories woven throughout this novel, organized in dated chapters (from Spanish contact to 2009): the setting (the...moreTwo things tie together the various stories woven throughout this novel, organized in dated chapters (from Spanish contact to 2009): the setting (the Mojave) and unexplained phenomena (possibly involving extraterrestrials). Kunzru's capacious frame allows him to explore many facets of the Mojave: Native Americans and their stories/myths, cults, the huge military presence, UFO sightings, drugs, prospectors, and the general assemblage of nutcases, damaged souls, and visionaries seeking refuge at the fringes of civilization. I was taken in by each story and dazzled by Kunzru's prose. However, though I did come to care for some of the characters, the novel was more pyrotechnical than cumulative, and it's sure to fade quickly from my emotion-driven memory. (less)
Like many Bay Area denizens, I am fascinated and repulsed by Southern California, so a collection like this has a powerful draw. I almost put it down...moreLike many Bay Area denizens, I am fascinated and repulsed by Southern California, so a collection like this has a powerful draw. I almost put it down after the first story, which was unremarkable; it was the author's eloquent contributions to several of my favorite lit blogs that made me reconsider, and I'm glad I stuck with it.
Drift is a series of interconnected short stories about the underbelly of Newport Beach, one of the wealthiest communities in California (seen The O.C.?). As the volume progresses, the fleeting intersections between stories become lucid and charged. I recommend reading this book in as few sittings as possible: the most satisfying examples of this are subtle (there are also a few instances that are overdone). Patterson really hits her stride with her Rosie stories, which form the core of the collection. Rosie is a thoughtful and troubled adolescent who feels like an outcast in shallow Newport Beach. Patterson's choice to organize the stories out of chronological sequence is inspired.
A word of caution: this collection is dramatically uneven. "Henry's House" is an example of a story that seems overwrought. "John Wayne Loves Grandma Dot," on the other hand, soars. The latter is a heartrending and lovely story, full of magic and soul. John Wayne, a mentally impaired skateboarder and friend of Rosie's, squats in the upstairs apartment of Rosie's Grandpa and Grandma Dot (the apartment is untouched since their son's long-ago departure). The story charts the relationship, never face-to-face but nonetheless fraught with tenderness, between bighearted stoner John Wayne and carping boozer Grandma Dot.
There are several diamond-in-the-rough moments like this, and these make the read worthwhile. I hope Patterson continues to write about Southern California. (less)
A neurotic scholar eavesdrops on the therapy sessions of a young adopted woman in search of her birth mother in 1970s San Francisco. The voyeuristic f...moreA neurotic scholar eavesdrops on the therapy sessions of a young adopted woman in search of her birth mother in 1970s San Francisco. The voyeuristic framing device breathes new life into the Holocaust novel--yes, the unnamed patient's search takes her back to WWII Germany and "present day" Israel--and makes for some breathtaking suspense in parts. But the other seventy percent of the time it is coy, a tedious interruption. The disgraced professor's anxieties (view spoiler)[never go anywhere, never culminate in anything, though they (hide spoiler)] do perhaps contribute to the frenetic atmosphere of the milieu, which comprises the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Zodiac Killer, the last gasps of the Vietnam War, and a booming emerging gay scene. Absorbing, but at base a clever repackaging of a familiar story, unmoving in this incarnation.(less)
I had high expectations for this one. But, overall: brilliantly creative conceit; uneven, at times disappointing, writing. On the physical side of thi...moreI had high expectations for this one. But, overall: brilliantly creative conceit; uneven, at times disappointing, writing. On the physical side of things, the beautiful maps constantly fell into the no-man's-land of the gutter (not good for an "atlas"); nice trim, paper, and design, though.(less)