I really, really enjoyed this novel and can easily recommend it. You can check out the long version or stay here for a shorter one.
A Friend of the Ea...moreI really, really enjoyed this novel and can easily recommend it. You can check out the long version or stay here for a shorter one.
A Friend of the Earth is quite different from many environmentally- or eco-based novels I've read. While some of the normal dystopian scenarios are in place, and the author in his own way lets his readers know that there is little to no hope for the future, it also makes you laugh as Mr. Boyle puts irony ahead of heavy-handedness or preaching -- since, as the main character notes, it's much too late for that.
It's 2025, and Tyrone (Ty) Tierwater works as the caretaker of a private collection of animals. Ty, in his 70s, has a good gig working for a millionaire pop star who's been trying to save some of the last critically-endangered animals before they're gone for good. As a result of global warming and the collapse of the biosphere, these days, floods, rain, heat and nightmarish winds are the norm. Ty lives a simple life, taking care of the animals and then going out for the occasional drink of sake, but that all changes when one day, without warning, his ex-wife Andrea shows up with news that a writer is interested in penning the story of their daughter Sierra. But it's not the only reason she's there -- she has plans to restart Earth Forever!, the environmental-activism group they were part of in the past, "for the survivors." Andrea's return is what prompts the story of Ty's former days as a monkeywrenching member of the group, complete with berets, raised fists and acts of ecotage, at a time when "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people." As the narrative goes back in time, it reveals not only the motivations behind Ty's actions (which may not be quite what you'd expect), but also how eventually he came to sacrifice much more than he bargained for in the process of doing his part in saving the planet. It's a wonderful book, much less heavy-handed than I expected from its beginning.
One of the messages to be found here is that we're all involved in a paradoxical relationship with our planet's future: progress gives us the little gadgets and gizmoes we love and demand, but at the same time our consumer habits are partially to blame for the planet's woes; we also care about what happens to the environment, but at the same time few people these days are going to go live completely off the grid in total tune with nature. It's all about compromise. These points are illustrated amply and ironically throughout this novel, which I only put down reluctantly when forced by outside circumstances to do so.
It's pleasantly way better than what I first expected after reading the cover blurb, and while it tended to receive lower star ratings from most reviewers, I recommend it highly. I think it hit me long after I'd put down the book just how cool it really is. (less)
Actually, I read this as part of a self-oriented challenge to read a few of the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" list; like the ones I've cho...moreActually, I read this as part of a self-oriented challenge to read a few of the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" list; like the ones I've chosen so far it turned out to be a fine novel, one with more than a lot of relevance to our modern world considering it was written in the 1920s.
George F. Babbitt is a real estate agent in Zenith, a Midwestern city of of "towers of steel and cement and limestone" where the population has grown to "practically 362,000." While anyone visiting its business center would be hard pressed to distinguish it from other major cities, George finds every inch of it "individual and stirring." He is married, has two children, and is above all wrapped up in his community standing. He belongs to a number of civic organizations, most prominently, the Zenith Boosters’ Club, where his like-minded, middle-class associates bow to the gods of business, money and progress and work to keep out any elements that they believe might possibly upset their collective and lucrative apple carts.
George lives in a modern house with the latest technologies, belongs to a church, plays golf, and his opinions are shaped by the institutions and people with whom he associates and his political party. Underneath his public persona, however, he's starting to think that perhaps there's something missing, that he's not "entirely satisfied." George has an ongoing and secret dream fantasy of a "fairy child" who will help him to escape to places “more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea,” but the dreams are short lived; when daybreak comes it's back to more practical things. One of his old college buds and best friend, Paul Riesling, dreamed of becoming a concert violinist, but he too has jettisoned his dreams and has become a member of Zenith's middle-class business community. Unlike Babbitt, however, he is not afraid to confide his personal dissatisfaction: he's bored, his wife Zilla is a constant nag who makes him unhappy enough to have affairs, and he has come to the realization that in the business world, "all we do is cut each other's throats and make the public pay for it." Paul is the only one of Babbitt's associates that recognizes the need for responsibility -- something that Babbitt and his other cronies don't get. When Paul's problems with Zilla come to a head and he literally can no longer take it, he snaps -- and his actions and their consequences send Babbitt into introspective mode where he comes to realize that his way of life has been "incredibly mechanical:"
"Mechanical business -- a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion -- a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships -- back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness."
prodding George into full-on rebellion.
I won't say any more -- the novel is an excellent piece of satire on conformity and middle-class culture, business or otherwise. It is set in a time when unions, Socialism and any other form of organization among workers constituted a perceived threat to the American way of life; a time when the "American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers." As Lewis remarks on an organization called the Good Citizens' League, the members of this group believed that
"the working-classes must be kept in their place ... that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary."
There is also a very purposeful delineation of class in this novel, and Lewis has a way of juxtaposing one against the other in well-crafted scenes. The above-mentioned tedious minutiae which I wanted to end while my head was pounding with the flu also has a purpose that is not readily apparent, but which gains in importance over the course of the novel. Obviously there's much more to it, and there are some hefty critiques and reviews to be found where perhaps more can be gleaned.
It is rather difficult to read, I suspect, under the best of conditions, so if you are contemplating it as a choice from the 1001 books you must read, my advice is not to give up. The book is constructed as a series of events and vignettes that eventually all come together in an ending which was not so predictable yet powerful, at least for me. Recommended -- but take your time with it. (less)
Most definitely a no-miss book, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930s. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is short (only 127 pages) but incred...moreMost definitely a no-miss book, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930s. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is short (only 127 pages) but incredibly powerful, examining not only how much pain or humiliation a person can withstand in his or her own fight for survival or that of others, but it also looks at the utter hopelessness for some in life's unending dance toward the American dream. Stay here for the shorter review, or click here for a longer one.
Robert and Gloria, two young people who have wandered to Los Angeles in as yet unfulfilled hopes about breaking into the movie biz, meet by chance and strike up a conversation. It isn't long until Gloria tells Robert about an upcoming dance marathon that promises free food, a place to sleep and a $1,000 prize -- but the big draw for Gloria is that the marathons are often attended by directors and producers who just might have a part for you in an upcoming movie. Robert is reluctant but gives in, and the two become one of 144 couples hoping to win; half of the dancers have "made a business of going in marathon dances from all over the country;" the rest were just ordinary people hoping for that one shot at success in what will ultimately become a monumental test of endurance and a desperate fight for survival.
Dancing or staying on one's feet for 1 hour and 50 minutes, with 10-minute breaks before the next round begins is tough enough, but McCoy reminds us that what is a life-and-death struggle for some is merely entertainment or business for others. When the audience isn't large or famous enough, the dancers are put through an especially grueling "novelty" each night called the derby, a 15 minute race where the couples go around a painted oval on the floor, with the woman holding on to a belt specially designed to keep the couple together, a feat designed to bring in more watchers, which means more money to the promoters. The last couple to finish is disqualified, so the derby becomes a painful race to stay ahead. (Oh, the symbolism abounds in this novel and it's simply amazing!) People begin to stumble or fall, and the others have no choice but to step over the broken bodies and broken dreams to not be last. The promoters are especially hopeful that the show will bring in "that Hollywood bunch," and as the contest becomes more painful and competitive, the promoters up the ante with cheap stunts like an arranged marriage that will yield the couple $100 -- entirely sponsored, of course and "in line with the management's policy to give you nothing but high class entertainment." But at the heart of this story is Gloria, with her defeatist outlook which manifests itself in ongoing death wishes for herself throughout the novel. She's a misfit, and having tried and failed so many times, she just doesn't care any longer, she's hopeless in the true meaning of the word, tired of the idea that "the big break is always coming tomorrow," and "sick of doing the same thing over and over again." She's ready to "get off this merry-go-round...through with the whole stinking thing." And after the dance is over, what is there for her to look forward to? The marathon truly is Gloria's life encapsulated in a matter of days and hours.
I could seriously go on and on about this book because the 127 pages is just filled with amazing though stark-in-style writing and wonderful symbolism that doesn't bog a casual reader like myself down into frustration. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is a magnificent novel that snapshots a period of time in a meaningful although bleak manner, creating a microcosm of America with hope and hopelessness right at the center of life in a most miserable era, but also carrying a great deal of modern relevance. Definitely recommended. (less)
I really, really liked this novel. Didn't love it, but considering it's one of the few novels coming out of the Iraqi war, you have to give the author...moreI really, really liked this novel. Didn't love it, but considering it's one of the few novels coming out of the Iraqi war, you have to give the author a great deal of credit for capturing (even fictionally) the troubled psyche of his main character.
From its powerful first sentence, "The war tried to kill us in the spring" to the last harrowing page of this novel, Kevin Powers offers his readers haunting images of the war in Iraq. The battles, however, don't stop for army Private John Bartle just because he leaves Iraq; they continue long after his return home, where reminders of loss and of his wartime trauma are everywhere. Spanning a six-year period of time, moving back and forth between Iraq and the US (with a brief stint in Germany), the frame for this story is built on a promise Bartle made to the mother of a friend and fellow soldier named Daniel Murphy, that he'd bring him back home to her. Even though he outwardly assures his sergeant that the promise wasn't a "big deal," and that "he was just trying to make her feel better," inwardly, Bartle takes it very seriously. Reflecting back on not only his Iraq experience but what happened to him afterward, Bartle's story unfolds little by little, growing darker at each step.
What Bartle experiences in his slice of the Iraqi war remains with him as he returns home -- and here is the crux of this novel -- the lesser-known story of all wars, that of the survivors and their difficulty settling back down to a "normal" civilian life once they've made it home.
Powers excels in detailing the psychological tolls of war. He's been to Iraq, so he would know about the randomness and unpredictability of daily life, the missions where the same ground is being taken and retaken, the contemptuous commanders who wish them well and in the same breath remind them that they won't all be coming back, the constant lack of sleep, the pleasure of oblivion in a bottle of Wild Horse whiskey. Bartle lives all of this experience, and can't wait to get home, but even there, his struggles continue as he tries to find some measure of peace in a place where even the noise of a train can be a frightening reminder, in a place where he finds he has become unmoored, set adrift.
Placing the reader into Bartle's troubled and very frail but altogether human psyche right away is a great move on the author's part, offering a keen sense of immediacy to the reader as the story unfolds. Bartle's emotions become our emotions at some level, especially in his powerful stream-of-consciousness outpourings and his honesty, which at times just cuts through you like a knife. His darkness is something we want him to escape but at the same time it is so acute that we can't help but to want to explore it further. Powers' beautiful language often heightens these feelings, although truthfully, it often edges close to overpowering what's going on with the characters. There are several places you want to engage more with Bartle's troubled soul less than you want to focus on the author's writing.
I am absolutely fascinated with war fiction, and I'm happy to see novels starting to come out of the Iraqi war experience. If you're looking for an answer to the question of "what's it like over there?" well, you'll find some measure of the experience in The Yellow Birds, but even as the author takes his readers onto the rooftops and into the streets of Al Tafar and into the darkness hiding the unknown, he takes more of a minimal approach to the actual fighting, concentrating more on trauma -- both during and after the war. Sometimes the language is overpowering and cluttered, as if Powers is just dying to give his work more of a poetic flavor, and you end up focusing on the language rather than what he's trying to convey underneath it. However, for the most part, The Yellow Birds is a well-written journey through one man's mind as he tries to battle his ghosts and find the will to continue. Recommended. (less)
In a word: amazing. You'll find a long review here; below is a much abridged version.
Khosi Saqr is the half-Egyptian son of Akram and Amy. Amy comes f...moreIn a word: amazing. You'll find a long review here; below is a much abridged version.
Khosi Saqr is the half-Egyptian son of Akram and Amy. Amy comes from the family of Butte's "copper king" William Andrews Clark. Copper was the basis of the family money, but also the root of the family's ongoing curse. His mom suffers from Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder that makes it impossible for her to absorb copper. She's on a number of medications which she sometimes forgets to take, making her son feel unable to leave her alone, and her emotional life is for Khosi one of life's great mysteries. His dad left when Khosi was very young, leaving Amy with gambling debts, a three year old boy "copper as a penny," and "his country's food" which he'd taught Amy to cook. Amy and Khosi live in a house he lovingly names "Loving Shambles," so called because it leans to one side, threatening to fall in. All of the turmoil and disorder in Khosi's life has led him to develop a case of OCD, which manifests itself in various ways, including the way he orders his books, having to arrange the bed covers at certain angles, and opening his bedroom door twice waiting to leave the room before his mental "all clear" signal goes off. Khosi works at the Copper King Mansion, now a museum, formerly the home of his great-great grandfather; it's a place that offers him an outlet for his "legendary" need for order. It's also a "part of his psyche," and a large part of who he is.
It isn't long until Khosi's well-ordered life moves into chaos and crisis; after giving it some thought Khosi decides that it's time that he reconnects with himself, part of which is his long-absent father. Like Evel Knievel, Khosi becomes a daredevil, taking a monumental jump in deciding to fly to Cairo. His trip will bring with it many surprises and discoveries, including a ghost who finds him in a confessional of a Coptic Christian church (there is an explanation for this later), being accused of antiquities theft, a run in with some shady characters, and a family he never knew he had. For someone whose life revolves around order, Cairo proves to be something way beyond challenging.
Evel Knievel Days not only charts Khosi's course in his efforts at reconnection; a long stream of history flows through this book as well as a crash course in different elements of Egyptian culture, none the least of which has to do with food, which serves as a "bridge to the past," but even more so to one's traditional roots. Food is family, family is love and food and family have the power to heal.
Evel Knievel Days is one of the coolest books I've read this year and the more I think about it, the more I realize just how very much I enjoyed it. It's funny in a touching sort of way; the characters are outstanding and I am in total awe at the author's ability to create such colorful yet realistic people. And I'm not just talking about the primary characters, either. Every character has a purpose; every character has a life. And as much as I loved the story and the array of people in this book, it's really Mr. Toutonghi's writing style that brings this book alive. He does extremely clever things in this book that I loved, unique touches that add life to Khosi's story and make it pop off the page.
There was only one spot I felt was kind of slow going in the book, and that is toward the end and takes place in a hospital room, but otherwise, Evel Knievel Days just sings. I highly, highly recommend this novel -- I normally shy away from family stories but this one is outstanding. (less)
On the shorter end of things, this book is simply stellar. Absolutely. It is not a thriller, nor is...moreIf you want the long review, you can click here.
On the shorter end of things, this book is simply stellar. Absolutely. It is not a thriller, nor is it a novel of crime fiction, so don't even go there in your thinking or you'll end up being disappointed like so many readers who thought this book was something it's not. It's more a book about lines and borders crossed, about boundaries, about family, about how certain things in our lives direct us in ways we may never have considered, about trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of those events. It's about accepting life on life's terms. If you were expecting some fast-paced action, you're not going to get it here. If you're expecting a downright wonderful read, that's something you'll definitely find.
Although I'm not one to read books because they're trendy or just because they show up on the New York Times bestseller lists, and although normally I'm drawn to books that most people would never read, after seeing the blurb on the inside dustjacket cover of this book, I knew I had to have it. The first words are what got me: "First, I'll tell about the robbery that our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." I thought, well, if this character is going to take me into his confidence enough to tell me about these things that he and his twin sister went through, why shouldn't I sit down, grab a cup of coffee and listen to him? This may sound a little bit stupid, but the entire time I was reading this book, it seemed as though I was actually hearing this man's voice talking to me. I can't say that I've ever had this experience with a novel before -- that's how captivating this entire story was for me.
The writing is amazing, and I was totally lost in this book for the few hours it took me to finish it. I highly recommend it. (less)