Peschak is a conservation photographer with decades of dive experience and a particular interest in sharks. He's also responsible for one of the mostPeschak is a conservation photographer with decades of dive experience and a particular interest in sharks. He's also responsible for one of the most iconic shark photos going, which is on the cover of this book. That photo shows a great white shark dwarfing a man in a yellow kayak--but it delivers less a sense of threat than of curiosity and unlikely juxtaposition. It's an image that provokes the viewer to think twice about the iconic dark shape in the water...which is exactly what Peschak wants.
This is a coffee-table book, probably of interest more for its large and striking images than for its more limited text. And the images are something. Peschak manages to make sharks--not the most expressive animals--seem serene, curious, even playful. He largely refrains from focusing on gaping jaws, and when he shoots a dorsal fin cutting the water it looks beautiful rather than ominous. That's a major accomplishment, given how programmed we are to think of sharks as nothing but marine buzz saws.
The bloodiest, most carnage-filled photos in this book all feature sharks as the victims. Peschak goes into some detail on the multi-million dollar shark-finning industry, as well as the longline and gill net fishing industries, which claim huge numbers of sharks, rays, dolphins, turtles, and other animals as bycatch. He points to recent research on the consequences of eliminating some species of sharks from their ecosystems.
For instance, a 2007 study reviewed 35 years of longline catches of large predatory sharks off the east coast of the United States, and found precipitous declines in many species. Cownose rays, a key prey item for the sharks, flourished as a result. The rays then exhausted the bay scallop population, which caused a collapse of the North Carolina scallop fishery. Aspects of the study are disputed, but other research on, for instance, the collapse of coral reefs when sharks are removed as predators of algae-grazing fish, is hard to ignore.
Fortunately, many countries have realized that sharks are worth more alive than dead. A single great white or tiger shark can draw millions of dollars to a small shark-tourism economy over the course of its life...while it may only bring $50 to the fisherman who kills and fins it. As a result, official shark sanctuaries have been implemented in the water around countries like Palau, Bahamas, Micronesia, the Cook and Marshall Islands, and so on. These countries control disproportionate ocean acreage to their small size, so as of 2013 a total of five million square miles is now considered shark sanctuary. The trouble, of course, is patrolling the water and enforcing the policies.
There's much more here of interest here--details about sharks' incredible migratory patterns; the logistics of tagging them; and the ethics of "provisioned" shark tourism (i.e. chumming water with blood and fish entrails to draw sharks for tourists to photograph.) Peschak is not a brilliant writer but his prose is serviceable enough and he clearly knows (and cares about) his subject.
I admit I got this book because sharks have always given me a frisson of fear and excitement, not to say mortal terror. I cut my teeth (no pun intended) on Jaws, and while I know that Peter Benchley later expressed regret for the harm that his book and Spielberg's movie did to sharks, I've never met a shark book that didn't to some extent play to that fear. Peschak's book is different. He doesn't discount our fear of sharks, or the seriousness of the few attacks they commit. But he's also in love with sharks and their underwater world, and by the end of the book I was seeing things at least a little through his eyes....more
This one is newly out (I think) from NYRB, a series that always catches my eye because it (re)publishes so many great titles. I grabbed it from DieselThis one is newly out (I think) from NYRB, a series that always catches my eye because it (re)publishes so many great titles. I grabbed it from Diesel in Malibu at the same time as Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone--so without meaning to, a double dose of Germanic horror. This one is an older tale--Gotthelf died in 1854--but maybe it just goes to show that the German/Swiss countryside has always been a pretty horrifying place.
This is half a morality tale, half a parable about social justice, with a skosh of literary realism thrown in for spice. The downtrodden serfs of a particular fiefdom are ordered by their lord to perform an impossible task: uproot and transplant a hundred live, full-grown beech trees to his estate within a month. If they fail, he'll beat/murder/drive them from their land. Bad times.
An eerie green-clothed man comes to their rescue, offering to do the work...in exchange for 1 (one) unbaptized baby. Conundrum ensues. At last a fearless woman makes a bargain with him and he kisses her on the cheek to seal the deal. The trees are planted, the village survives. Her plan is to cheat him of the baby, since she knows no children will be born in the village for a long time.
Of course, it gangs agley. You can't cheat the devil (or the green man) and before long the woman's cheek is showing a tiny black spot that burns like fire... The longer the devil goes without his due, the larger the spot grows, until at last it becomes, yeah, a big black spider that bursts out of her face along with all its thousands of teeny black crawling offspring.
OH MY GOD.
The spiders disperse and start killing all the livestock, destroying the village livelihood...but that's just getting started. Before long the woman herself has been subsumed by a new black spot in her face that turns her entirely into a spider. The spider then stalks the village, turning up on people's feet and hands and faces when they least expect it, like a slasher villain popping up in garages and basements. Whatever it touches blackens and blisters, and the person dies of its poison shortly afterward. Even the village priest, when he does battle to save a child's soul, is killed (heroically) by touching the spider's bristly legs.
So basically, your cheerful horror story/morality tale. WITH GIANT SPIDERS.
The spider is seriously horrific--the way that people go to great lengths to avoid it, fleeing the village and climbing trees, then looking down to see it sitting on their foot, the skin starting to blacken...yikes. It's as unsettling as any modern horror movie, where the killer can be anywhere and there's really no escape.
At last someone gets the idea to plug the spider up in a hole carved in a wooden window frame. There it stays, the wood blackened but holding, until future generations are stupid enough to forget the old ways and set it free again.
The bottom line here seems to be: fear God and be virtuous, or a giant fricking spider will explode out of your face and kill everyone you care about.
They should film this one, and show it every year at Christmas....more
This book...this book. What to say about this book?
It has an excellent cover design, with a sly lamination on the front that you may not notice at fiThis book...this book. What to say about this book?
It has an excellent cover design, with a sly lamination on the front that you may not notice at first. (The text reads, "If you tell on me you're dead," which is pretty par for the course here.) It's a quick read--I pretty much knocked it out in the air between LA and PDX. It is also goddamn DARK.
The back jacket compares this book to Shirley Jackson and to Stephen King's "Children of the Corn" story. I can't see much similarity except for the first-person child narrators, and the creepiness. Kiesbye's four protagonists tell their stories in alternating chapters and points of view, with threads traveling back and forth between. The structure may be clever, but the plot is so unremittingly bleak that after just a few chapters I found myself resigned to the rape, abuse, and/or murder of every secondary character I encountered.
Some readers may find this an interesting exploration of childhood sociopathy, or the mundane evil bred in isolated and ignorant communities. (The rural German village of Hemmersmoor is no Avonlea.) And some folks may be satisfied with the strains of the supernatural that run through the stories--although it's never totally clear to me whether the hoofed man is really a devil, and whether the abusive father literally dies of drink after his son tricks him into taking a forbidden glass of wine on Christmas Eve. The writing is certainly assured, and the overall strangeness of the voice--its detachedness and illusion of normalcy--is captivating, in its way.
But overall I couldn't make the pieces fit together. I don't always need to like my characters, but I do tend to want access to them. I'm not particularly interested in sociopathy for its own sake, or for the sake of grotesquery. I couldn't cobble the multiple chapters, and the interweaving stories told by the children as they were growing up, into any larger whole. The story frame, in which the characters gather as old men and women for the funeral of one of their number, didn't offer me any insight or closure. And the near-final chapter--in which one of the characters discovers that their small, timeless village was just a few miles from a concentration camp, and that his father and probably most of the men in the village knew about it and served it in various ways--felt worse than hollow.
That chapter...oh boy. I'm going to rant a bit, because I think it's important.
The chapter felt like a cop-out and a cheap appropriation of genocide for narrative resonance. I couldn't find any other indication in the book that the stories took place around WWII. There was no mention of fathers called to war, of the Nazis coming to power, of propaganda or the war effort, of anything that would contextualize the discovery of the barracks at the end of the book. I understand that this is probably intentional--that Hemmersmoor is meant to be a lost and timeless place where superstition and perhaps the supernatural hold sway long after they may have fallen away in other places.
But I have both logical and narrative problems with the final reveal. At least one adult character in the book leaves Hemmersmoor, travels the world extensively, and returns. Even if we take Hemmersmoor as hermetically sealed, it seems impossible that a person could leave during or soon after the war, and return without trailing any whiff of a global conflict. For that matter, the town is small and rural but it must have some contact with outsiders. There's mention of Groß Ostensen, a larger town nearby, and a rail line that connects Hemmersmoor to the rest of the world (and to the concentration camp, it turns out.) WWII was a global conflict with Germany at its center. No matter how remote Hemmersmoor might be, it's impossible to believe that the children in the book could have grown to adulthood without ever being touched, in any way, by the events around them. (And if I'm misunderstanding this cloudy timeline, if they grew up significantly after the war, then the backwardness and remoteness of the peasant village seems even less believable and the book overall feels more like a scam, withholding essential information in order to achieve an effect.)
Even if I agree to hand-wave the logical, I can't get past the narrative problems with using the concentration camp as Kiesbye does. Maybe Kiesbye's point is that the children are indeed touched by the events of the war--but rather than show this as such, he instead translates it into the acts of sociopathy, sadism, and backward ignorance in their stories. Or maybe his point is that Germany has a metaphorical rotten core, like the murderous children in this book. I thought we'd grown past that notion by now, but if we have to explore if I'd rather do it via the film The White Ribbon. That movie is disturbing and excellent and deeply ambiguous, but it clearly situates its sequence of horrible small-town events between 1913 and WWII, rather than leaving things coyly open. It's also aptly described by IMDB as depicting "the evolution of a microcosm of a proto-fascist society." At the movie's unsettling ending, that's clearly where things in the sunny wheat fields of rural Germany are heading.
Kiesbye's book doesn't feel concerned with fascism, or with any political ideology. Instead, it seems interested in the inhumane acts of which even children are capable, spiced with some supernatural hand-waving. This is a big--maybe the biggest--reason why the reveal of the concentration camp feels callow to me. This is not, at its heart, a book about the war, fascism, or genocide. It's a book about inhuman acts that chooses at the last minute to drape itself over one of the world's most immensely horrible events, perhaps to equate the two or perhaps to point out that evil lurks in the hearts of all.
It's too little, too late. In a book full of deeply unpleasant scenes and revelations, the one that left the worst taste in my mouth was the discovery of the camp. It felt trite, shallow, and desperately lazy--like a grab for last-minute relevance to pull the rest of the book together in some recognizable shape. I would have liked it better, and thought it more honest, if it had done almost anything else....more
I loved The Shining, book and movie both. Early notices about this sequel made me wary--little Danny Torrance turns out to be an alcoholic? There's aI loved The Shining, book and movie both. Early notices about this sequel made me wary--little Danny Torrance turns out to be an alcoholic? There's a psychic cat? Steam, now?--but I dove in anyway. Or at least, I got hold of a copy and then King's writing dragged me in as it always does. Man can write a story.
Good news is: there's not really a psychic cat. And Dan Torrance, while he feels a bit similar to many of King's other hard-luck, try-hard protagonists, is likable and engaging. For those who felt depressed at the thought of little Danny on the booze (i.e. me) it may help to know that he bottoms out fairly early, finds AA, and rights his life, more or less.
On the downside, there are parts of the book that didn't work as well for me. The villains--a gaggle of paunchy old folks in RVs who call themselves the True Knot and who suck immortality-granting "steam" from telepathic children by torturing and killing them--are...okay, I guess. I appreciate the originality in this setup, but it doesn't exactly tap into a pure archetypal fear, a la the Randall Flagg or even Carrie or Cujo. The True Knot has the grinning ghastliness that so often characterize King's villains, and I guess they're in the same family tree as the great American horror, the freeway-traveling serial killer. But the mechanism of what they do is so specific and weird, it's more interesting than frightening. As villains, they feel a little strained.
The book is 500+ pages--a walk in the park for King--but it still seems to gloss over some things that could use more time. Dan Torrance, of course, isn't too startled to learn about "steam," the psychic or life force that feeds the True Knot and also causes what he knows as "the shining" in certain special people. But there are other people in the story--the parents of Abra, a young girl threatened by the Knot--as well as some of Dan's friends who join in her defense, who seem like they should fumble the ball a bit more. King's story is single-minded, and that's a good thing when you have to get through that many pages--it's worth it to just let go and let God, as the AA people say. But the book suffers from a feeling of hand-wavy hastiness, a sense that we're-headed-this-way-just-get-on-board-and-ride that left me a little flat. Murderous immortal RV people? Psychic life force? Radio-wave telepathic conversations? The regular joes in this book protest, but not too much.
Overall, this book felt like what it is: a sequel published 36 years after its antecedent. The world has changed a lot since a white-knuckle alcoholic writer toted his family to the remote Overlook Hotel. King isn't the hungry upstart he was back in 1977, and some of his edges seem to have softened since then. He's always been a warm, humanist writer--he puts his characters through hell, but first he writes them as real, recognizable people. That's still true. He's also still a master of tension and suspense. Even knowing where things were headed, following the clues and crumbs King dropped along the way, I was still locked in tight for the ride. But I never really doubted that things would turn out okay, in a general sense.
I don't remember feeling that way when I read It or Cujo or God forbid The Stand. If I recall correctly, some (a lot) of the heroes in those books didn't come out okay in the end. It's a hard old world, as King never fails to remind us. Part of the horror of it is that terrible, fatal things can happen to good, innocent people, and he's rarely shied away from showing that. In this one, I never really felt like that was true, and it made me both happy and sad. There was a certain satisfaction in achieving a relatively easy victory over the powers of darkness...and at the same time, I felt nostalgia for the horrors of The Overlook, which were simple and awful and somehow more real....more
The premise here is simple, at least in its broad outlines: a boy goes missing, a girl has to go find him. It's refreshing that in this case it's theThe premise here is simple, at least in its broad outlines: a boy goes missing, a girl has to go find him. It's refreshing that in this case it's the girl who rescues the boy, and that there are few overtones of obligatory-feeling romance between the two. And there are also some truly creepy descriptions that I wish had been developed into fuller scenes. But on the whole this book felt rushed to me, its characters thin and its plot confusing. (Full disclosure: I read an ARC, so some of these issues may have been resolved in the final version.)
Victoria and Lawrence live in Belleville, a pretty, perfect, wealthy small town. Victoria is always top of the class, has no time for friends, hates anything out of place or ugly, and freely dispenses criticism where it isn't asked for. She adopts Lawrence as a pet project, aiming to change him from a shy music prodigy into a more user-friendly and popular kid. They're still developing a grudging friendship when Lawrence disappears. His parents, sporting newly fixed grins and wolfish eyes, say that he's gone to visit his grandmother. Victoria isn't so sure.
Her investigations lead her (surprise surprise) to the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, the orphanage down the street. (Are there any good stories about orphanages? At all?) Mrs. Cavendish and Mr. Alice run the place, and it's pretty clear from the get-go that something weird is up with them. The descriptions of Mr. Alice, who serves as gardener and general dogsbody, are wonderfully horrible. He's white and puffy, and seems always about to burst out of his own skin, like a semi-rotten zombie. Mrs. Cavendish is a little harder to pin down. Legrand trades heavily on stock descriptions of evil masterminds as cloyingly, deceptively sweet--until their sadism outs. At times Cavendish seems to whipsaw so quickly between charming and monstrous that she loses cohesion.
Overall, Cavendish felt formulaic and perfunctory to me, and I never really grasped why she was so evil, or why her evilness took the particular form that it does. I wanted at least one or two scenes that would dig beneath her facade and explain her to me a bit. Why does she run the orphanage? Why is she so fixated on the children? Where did she even come from? It's all left frustratingly vague.
The book is a quick read but it could have been shorter. There are a few too many scenes spent recapping information that we already know (Lawrence is missing, adults don't seem to be acting right, Victoria is ambivalent about breaking rules to find out what's really happening.) The tension could be more artfully handled as well. Time after time, Cavendish has the opportunity to finish Victoria off but doesn't do it, for reasons unknown. I never felt that Victoria was truly in danger, because she seemed unreasonably fearless and able to avoid harm despite what should have been insurmountable odds against her.
My biggest frustration, though, was with sentence-level descriptions. Apart from a few real zingers--adults smiling artificially, as if pins had been inserted into the corners of their mouths and were pulling them back and up, ugh, wow--many of the descriptions here are vague and unclear. When things really heat up in the Home, Victoria encounters the terrors of the parlor and the hanger...but the descriptions of them are so unclear that I never really felt like I understood what was going on. Even in the book's climactic scenes, I found myself skimming because I couldn't see the scenes being described. I finished without really knowing what had happened, or caring enough to go back and parse it out.
This is a debut novel, and it's by a librarian, so it has two strokes in its favor in my book. I appreciated its strong female protagonist and the way it (mostly) edged around a heteronormative romance. I know that Legrand has another book out already, and a third in the works. I wish her all kinds of success, but I also hope she slows down a bit. I want to enjoy her scenes and sentences as much as her ideas.
ETA with spoilers: There are some pretty disturbing scenes of child abuse in this book, including corporal punishment, kidnapping, abandonment, force-feeding, and implied (but not shown) murder & cannibalism. So basically, your standard Grimm's fairy tale. Probably not for the faint of heart. Or anyone with a bug phobia....more
I wanted this book to be better than it was. The subject matter--two teenaged girls in love in Tehran--is interesting, and there are some wonderful deI wanted this book to be better than it was. The subject matter--two teenaged girls in love in Tehran--is interesting, and there are some wonderful details. I was tempted to add my "horror" tag to this one, because sweet molasses, it's no joke living under a repressive religious regime. If The Handmaid's Tale gave you the willies (and it should have) then dwelling for a bit on the realities of a culture that insists on covering women from head to toe, and likes to stone gay people to death, will really curl your hair.
So it's a shame that this book isn't better written. It's short but it should be shorter--too many pages are given over to reminders that homosexuality is illegal (in case you've forgotten about that, since the last sentence) and to pointless back-and-forth between the protagonist and her girlfriend. The relationship between the girls should be complex and multi-leveled--our protagonist Sahar is poorer, plumper, and smarter than her beloved Nasrin, who treats her at times like a faithful dog and at other times like her best beloved. But it falls flat because the book straps on a passel of clichés and skims along the surface of things, telling us that Sahar "tries not to drool" when Nasrin looks beautiful, that she knows Nasrin is shallow but just can't help loving her, that Sahar's heart is breaking, and so on. It's here that the book could spend more time, going into the idiosyncratic details of their relationship and life together. Instead, it jogs along at a brisk clip and we have to take Sahar's word for the emotional underpinnings.
There are some great details, especially for a reader like me, who isn't familiar at all with this world. When Sahar gets into a physical fight with another woman in a restaurant, the male bouncers who rush over are prohibited to touch them because they're women, so they end up "like limping penguins," trying to get between the women with their chests puffed out and their hands behind their backs. When Sahar falls in with her crafty gay cousin Ali's friends, she discovers a world of government-sponsored transsexuals. Apparently the Iranian government will help pay for sexual reassignment surgery, because there's nothing in the Koran that says it's a sin. This has pros and cons--for true transsexuals, there's some measure of social support. Some gays, though, are forced to have the surgery in order to make them fit the social mold. A gay man is forced to become MTF so that his relationship with another man will be (more) socially acceptable. Needless to say, the process destroys him.
Overall, this is a story about a tumultuous passage for Nasrin and Sahar--but it's not the end of the road. After Nasrin is married off to her respectable, hunky doctor husband and Sahar continues on to university, the same questions remain. Nasrin may find some happiness in her family, but her life will be circumscribed and she'll never be her true self. Sahar's path is more open, but when she meets another girl in university who shows interest in her, and considers whether she's attracted in return...what then? If she lives in Iran, she can never be in an open relationship with another woman. The penalties for discovery are mortal. There's some suggestion that she may go to Istanbul, where Ali has moved after his (predictable) beating at the hands of the police. But her aging father lives in Tehran and Sahar herself feels strongly Iranian. It's unclear whether she'll be able to extricate herself from her toxic country in order to have a full life--and if she does, how safe she will be in Istanbul or wherever she goes next.
Sobering stuff, and I wish I could say it was more artfully told. I think this is the author's first novel, so she may be back with another effort. (Please: more scene, less summary!) Whatever technical flaws this book has, it has heart. And that's really the important thing. Technical stuff you can learn, with a good editor and some hard work. Heart just has to happen.
Aliens make first contact, but they leave without ever communicating with humans. All that we have to show for the event is a few Landing Zones, spotsAliens make first contact, but they leave without ever communicating with humans. All that we have to show for the event is a few Landing Zones, spots on the earth where aliens touched down and scattered some trash before leaving again. The Zones are eerie, murderous places full of incomprehensible errors in physics and strange detritus. They're strictly controlled, except for the so-called "stalkers" who sneak in to steal alien technology for sale on the black market.
The world of the book is bleak, inventive, terse, original, and very Russian. Our protagonist, Red Schuhart, is a hard-bitten, hard-drinking survivor who can't bear to leave the Zone but also can't make peace with its exactions. He despairs of the other men who follow him into the Zone in search of money or knowledge, and he's usually right to. Most of them end up dead--victims of the Zone's mysterious gravity traps, traveling fires, invisible meat grinders, and other delights. The longer Red survives, the less of him there is to grapple with the final artifact in the book's ambiguous conclusion.
Soviet censors complained about this book's bleakness and violence, and the vulgarity and coarseness of its characters. The road to publication was complex and frustrating, but after Andrei Tarkovsky made his 1979 film Stalker, this became the best-known of the Strugatsky brothers' novels, at least outside of Russia. Chicago Review Press reissued it in 2012 with a new foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky. And io9.com says, "If you're going to read just one Soviet-era Russian science fiction novel, it should be Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's dark, ambiguous Roadside Picnic." This plus Solaris constitutes my entire Soviet SF lexicon so far, but I'm interested to read more....more
Well-written stories with a wry sense of humor. But if I never read another story about a young woman tumbling for her much older professor, and how tWell-written stories with a wry sense of humor. But if I never read another story about a young woman tumbling for her much older professor, and how that relationship surprisingly doesn't work out very well, that will be okay. (It's still a good story.)...more