quarta-feira, 30 de setembro de 2009

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
Book Review

From Mike Sullivan, for About.com

The Bottom Line

Entertainment Weekly recently rated Mystic River one of the Top 5 books of the past 25 years. The Given Day could be considered even better in the next 25.

New York Times Bestselling author, Dennis Lehane, Boston writer of modern tragedies like River and Gone Baby, Gone, enters a new realm of literature with his first historical fiction, The Given Day. While the setting is 1918, the story writhes with a modern twist of emotion, fears and striving humanity.


  • Lehane talent for human characterization ignites again
  • The city of Boston before the Roaring 20s is a broiling urban jungle
  • Political schemes, foreign terrorists, city riots...Then is now.


  • Lehane modern tongue sometimes distracts from the story for a moment, rather than enhancing it.


  • 'The Given Day' by Dennis Lehane was released September 23, 2008.
  • Publisher: WilliamMorrow
  • 720 Pages

Guide Review - 'The Given Day' by Dennis Lehane - Book Review

Irish family heritage, African American trials, foreign socialist agendas, high society greed. Lehane reaches with a wild, yet controlled arm to capture the scope of his ambitious first historical fiction. Within this tale, he asks and shapes relevant questions: How well has America integrated? Is it truly the land of opportunity for all? Who protects the people? Is safety in a nation, a city, a union or in a family?

In The Given Day, Lehane focuses on two main characters in the midst of a city’s worth of relationships and connections. Luther Laurence is an African American blue-collar worker who leaves his wife and unborn child to find work in Boston after a murderous encounter with a drug dealer. Danny Coughlin is an Irish Boston police officer who joins a union as he sees department salaries and rights diminished even as the BPD tries to protect the city from the uprisings of foreign terrorists. When Luther’s and Danny’s worlds collide, they will fight to hold onto what they love even as the city around them grows in hate.

To give the reader a taste of what’s come, Lehane turns the introduction into a classic story within a story. The reader first encounters Luther in a surprise meeting with Babe Ruth on a baseball diamond, when two races on two teams play America’s pastime. By featuring Ruth at the beginning and returning to him throughout the novel, Lehane interweaves the larger than life legend, who broke through class barriers and instigated the nation’s greatest rivalry with his trade from the Red Sox to the Yankees, to solidify The Given Day as a story as intrinsic to America as baseball.


terça-feira, 29 de setembro de 2009

Off The Shelf: Marry a banker? Why? By Joanna Smith Rakoff

Off The Shelf: Marry a banker? Why?

A partnership of poets has always seemed right to her. The alternative would've been like something out of a Jay McInerney novel.

By Joanna Smith Rakoff

My husband, Evan, and I decided to get married during the summer of 1998, between the first and second years of our MFA program. At the time, I was working at a literary agency and had a chummy relationship with many of the clients. One by one, I began telling them -- with the earnest enthusiasm of a 26-year-old -- that I was engaged.
"Congratulations," they cheered. "That's so wonderful!" Until I got to the salty novelist who, in our phone conversations, had alternated between purist statements about art ("It's better to earn a living waiting tables than to rely on an advance. It corrupts the work") and bitter tirades about the state of contemporary publishing ("Editors don't really edit anymore").
"I'm getting married," I told him.
"Great," he said. "To whom?"
I explained that Evan was a fellow poet, and that I adored him. "A poet?" the writer asked. "You're marrying a poet? That's a huge mistake."
"Really?" I said, not sure if he was kidding.
"Of course," he shouted. "Two poets? Who's going to make the money? Who's going to put the food on the table?"
"Well --" I began, about to tell him that we were both employed.
"You marry a banker," he barked. "Then you can write, without worrying about money. You marry a poet, you're never going to write again."
This conversation, packaged as a tight anecdote, got me a lot of laughs over drinks. My friends were all would-be actors or filmmakers or painters or, of course, writers. The idea of marrying a banker was beyond comprehension. It was like something out of a Jay McInerney novel.
Within a year, however, the world changed, so that it rather resembled a Jay McInerney novel. Suddenly, it was cool to have money and to flaunt it. Our friends were, even more suddenly, finding jobs at dot-coms and start-ups, making previously unthinkable salaries. And there Evan and I were, living hand to mouth, writing poetry, which was starting to seem a foolish and even potentially embarrassing venture. New York was expensive and we had to work harder and harder simply to live. If we didn't exactly give up on poetry -- at least at first -- we found it more difficult to find the time to write it, ground down by the practicalities of daily life.
Around this time, perhaps two years into our marriage, we began to have The Argument: an ongoing battle about money, and who had more time to write. At any given moment, one of us was doing the bulk of the earning -- and working harder -- while the other was getting more writing done. That's how it seemed, anyway. But no matter what was going on, each of us thought the other was getting the better deal.
Over the years, The Argument has waxed and waned. There are months (years, even) when it vanishes completely, when we're both happily productive, furiously typing in our tiny offices at either side of the apartment, or when one is writing so well that the other becomes productive almost by osmosis.
But then something shifts -- anxiety about money -- and we lapse, again, into the familiar rhythms of The Argument. We seem unable to stop bickering, locked in a tussle for time -- or not just time, but relief from the drudgery of daily responsibility, from putting the kids to bed, paying the bills, putting dinner on the table.
It's at such times that I recall that long ago conversation. Marry a banker.
To be clear: I love Evan. I don't, for a second, wish I'd hitched myself to anyone else. But I have sometimes wondered -- particularly now that we have two children -- if having more money, and earning it in a way that has nothing to do with writing, wouldn't actually allow us more freedom as writers. Just like that curmudgeonly novelist told me all those years ago. And yet, whenever we're on the brink of making some huge practical change, I'm the one who pulls back, who says no. Why? Because I believe that what we do for money ultimately defines us, no matter how much we may resist.
Earlier this year, when our second child, Pearl, was just a few weeks old, I met a woman at our local coffee shop who was, like me, on the verge of publishing her first novel. As we parted, she asked what my husband did.
"He's a writer, too," I explained.
"Oh my God," she said. "Two writers in one house? How do you do it? I could never be married to a writer."
Before I could think better of it, I laughed and told her, "I can't imagine being married to anyone but a writer."
Just then, Evan walked in the door to take Pearl on a walk, so that I might finish an essay. I waved at him, feeling a strange, childish urge to tell this woman, this stranger, everything: all those nights that Evan patiently talked me through problems of plot and character; the week he started his novel, back when our son was an infant, and he couldn't sleep from excitement; the warm camaraderie of being in this project together, of having shared goals and dreams.
"You don't," I told her, "know what you're missing."
Neither do I, of course, but let's just say I'm OK with that.

Rakoff is the author of the novel "A Fortunate Age."


Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

The Nobel Prize-winner's 1980 novel, just translated into English, is a misguided exercise in myth-building that marginalizes the very people he seeks to elevate.

BOOK REVIEW By Ben Ehrenreich

Desert, A Novel by J.M.G. Le Clézio,

translated from the French by C. Dickson Verba Mundi/David R. Godine: 352 pp., $25.95

When Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, criticized the American literary establishment for its insularity last fall, I couldn't disagree with him. A small handful of non-Anglophone novelists do steal their way into stateside dinner-party conversation each year, but for the most part, we don't care much about what's written outside of the U.S. and Britain -- or South Africa if we're feeling worldly. Our own novels are arguably poorer for our failure to engage. But Engdahl made it hard to endorse his criticisms too warmly: He wasn't advocating cosmopolitanism, he was vying for the crown. "You can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States," he sniffed in an interview with the Associated Press, as if anyone had mentioned centers.
So it's no great surprise that the Swedes chose to give the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio -- a prolific French novelist who attempts in much of his work to give voice to the non-European "other" -- rather than to an actual non-European. For the record, the Swedes have awarded four of the 108 Nobels for literature to Asian writers and another four to Africans; two of whom were white South Africans. I am not arguing for a mandatory affirmative action policy in the distribution of international literary awards (though it couldn't hurt), but against an insidious variety of parochialism, the kind uninterested in all that lives outside the "center," unless, of course, it can be represented by a qualified ambassador.
Which brings us back to Le Clézio, whose 1980 novel "Desert" has just been released in English. The problem with "Desert" is not that its author is European or that he won the Nobel, but that it is a truly dreadful book, a dull and dimly plotted fable based in one of the West's oldest and most self-serving myths, that we are the locus of all corruption and that purity lies outside. What better escape from the beguiling demands of humanity than to strip another of all complexity and will?
Two story lines wind through the novel. One follows the young beauty Lalla Hawa, who flees an idyllicchildhood in contemporary coastal Morocco after her aunt decides to marry her off to a wealthy older man. The second is set at the beginning of the last century, when the European powers were still consolidating their hold on northern Africa. Following a young Berber boy named Nour who accompanies the doomed campaign of the historic rebel Sheik Ma al-Aïnine against the French, it is less a plot than a refrain, an unvaryingly hungry and thirsty march toward the inevitable. Ma al-Aïnine's ragged army is torn apart by French machine guns. Nour survives.
The names alone suggest that Le Clézio's protagonists are meant to function more as mythic forces than conventional characters. Nour is Arabic for "light." Lalla Hawa means "Lady Wind." And there is a lot of wind in "Desert." Landscape is important here, and the wind is as crucial to Le Clézio's desert as the sand or the sky or the sun. It stands in for the cold, mystic purity of the absolute and, occasionally, for the vengeful wrath of those dispossessed by colonialism: "Lalla thinks it's beautiful, as transparent as water, quick as lightning, and so powerful it could destroy all the cities in the world if it wanted to."
When the wind knocks down the tar paper shacks of the shantytown (called "the Project") in which she lives, the people don't mind having to rebuild their homes, but "laugh as they do it because they are so poor they aren't afraid of losing what they have. Maybe they're happy too, because after the storm the sky is even vaster, bluer, and the light even more lovely."
It's nice to think so. The poor, in Le Clézio's world, are happy with their lot, at least until they go to France. At home where they belong, they are unburdened by history and all the nagging anxiety of existence: "Days are the same every day, here in the Project, and sometimes you're not really sure what day you happen to be living. . . . As a matter of fact, no one really thinks about it here, no one really wonders who he is."
In the dunes outside of town, things are even better. "[H]ere, everything is pure." Lalla frolics in the desert with a young shepherd called the Hartani, a noble savage who speaks no human language but can commune with birds and rocks. In Le Clézio's metaphors he is more beast than boy, compared to a dog and generically described as "like an animal." (The legendary Ma al-Aïnine suffers a similar fate: His chanting sounds like "the distant bleating of a goat.") This is apparently meant as a compliment.
Like all Edens, Lalla and the Hartani's idyll is short-lived. A "wind of ill fortune" blows, provoking her aunt -- who, anomalously, is not so into being poor -- to consider foisting Lalla into matrimony. Instead, Lalla flees across the Mediterranean to Marseille. Strangely, her aunt has arrived before her and settled in as a cook in a hospital cafeteria. Lalla finds work cleaning hotel rooms in a boarding house for immigrants.
In Marseille, Le Clézio shifts from breathless adorations of nature to full Dickensian mode, though without a dram of Dickens' wit or delight in human eccentricity. The immigrant quarter is a dank, rat-infested slum. Its inhabitants are depicted as little more than wretched ghosts, perverted by the miasma of the city, stripped of all agency and capacity for self-reflection. "Death is upon them everywhere," Le Clézio writes, "it lives . . . in the rooms of the men, in the halls. They don't know it, they don't even have the slightest inkling."
Lalla befriends a beggar boy named Radicz, whose evil gypsy mother has sold him to the Fagin-like Lino. Radicz stares with "the eyes of animals," so we know he's OK. But he doesn't last long. Lalla, who at this point has been pregnant for at least a year (by the Hartani, we assume), is discovered by a photographer and becomes an internationally famous super-model. (Really.) An interviewer asks her where she's from. "The country I come from has no name," she says. " . . . It's in the place where there is nothing, where there is no one."
We in the West are trapped by language, Le Clézio implies. Salvation lies outside its snares: "Lalla knows that words don't really count. It's only what you mean deep-down inside." That line should rouse suspicions. Writers work in representation. We trade in words. A writer who disavows language but wants to hold on nonetheless to the possibility of meaning is hiding something. And a writer who represents whole cultures as blessedly outside the grasp of language and history is not giving them voice, but silencing them. His compassion is a mask for disdain.

Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors" and a fellow of the Horizon Institute.


A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

Disasters bring out an altruistic side of people, at least briefly, author says.

BOOK REVIEW By William Deverell

A Paradise Built in Hell - The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
by Rebecca Solnit
Viking: 354 pp., $27.95

The bad news is that more disasters are coming, arising from any number of sources: climate change, widespread infrastructural vulnerabilities, toxic threats brewed at cellular or weapons-grade levels, seismic or oceanic volatility, and so on and so on. Whatever their cause, disasters will be born of some mixture of human and natural action or inaction, lives will be irrevocably altered, and absurd numbers of people will die.
Yet Rebecca Solnit sees human possibilities inherent in the certainty of big trouble. In "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster," this writer of impressive versatility explores disasters and the goodness that can come to characterize them. A careful student of the sociology of catastrophe, Solnit argues that the human experience of disaster so alters convention that a different social milieu can emerge, if briefly, within them; one distinguished by altruism and the absence of social hierarchies. In contrast to the presuppositions of the powerful (and Hollywood), steadfast about the inevitability of anarchic mayhem and riot, Solnit makes a convincing case for the sheer dignity and decency of people coming together amid terror.
This is no easy task. How to tease out, much less emphasize, threads of hope or community from the shattered spaces and lives of calamity? How can supposedly redemptive, even joyful, qualities emerging amid horror be explored so as to not render the interpreter naive, callous or both?
Solnit is neither naive nor blind to the misery out of which she finds faith forged. In taut case studies of North American disasters that reach from Nova Scotia to Mexico City and from 1906 to 9/11, she blends reportage with research and folds in a kind of theological musing with political enthusiasm. The result is almost always captivating and compelling, not least because she is unusually gifted at mixing dispassionate narration with fervent, first-person experience.
The cataclysmic events make for gripping, if grim, reading. While referencing a litany of disasters across time and space, Solnit focuses on five: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, an explosion in a Nova Scotia harbor more than a decade later, the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina's 2005 assault on the Gulf Coast. The research is meticulous; where possible, the author has interviewed survivors or witnesses. Solnit's description of the older events is especially compelling as they are less well known and the accretion of a century's time makes them look, sound and feel more exotic once Solnit excavates and narrates them.
Take the case of the Mont Blanc, a cargo ship stuffed to the gunwales with munitions, which was rammed by another ship trying to pass it and then blew up in the Halifax harbor in the winter of 1917. There was nothing remotely ordinary about the event. Three decades had passed since the Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized after volcanic action detonated one of the most explosive events in Earth's history; now the Mont Blanc exploded in the largest man-made explosion prior to the advent of atomic bombs. People, houses, what was left of the ship: All flew crazily into the air, coming down in pieces of what once was whole. The shank of the ship's 1,000-pound anchor fell to Earth two miles away. The explosion's effect was veritably nuclear: An air burst and firestorm crushed and burned every building within a mile. The blast ripped the tightly cinched wintertime shoes and clothing from the living and the dead. Windows shattered 50 miles away. More than 1,500 died. Six times that many were injured.
The disaster spurred those victims able to respond into acts of amazing heroism and altruism (and helped launch modern disaster studies no sooner had the fire cooled). A railroad dispatcher, facing certain death, charged into a telegraph office to send an urgent warning to an incoming passenger train only minutes before the ship blew up. "Guess this will be my last message," he tapped out. "Goodbye boys." The train stopped in time, the ship exploded, the hero died.
The nobility of those who died in disasters catches Solnit's attention, as it should, for one of her major aims is to commemorate the mortal heroism inherent to cataclysmic events. But the living claim most of the consideration in this thought-provoking book.
As she takes us through the horrors of earthquake, fire, terrorist attack and hurricane, Solnit analyzes (and appropriately admires) the selfless acts of those thrown together by catastrophe. The prevalence of a kind of post-disaster elation is striking; Solnit argues that the feeling is more aptly characterized as "I'm so glad that we are alive" than "I'm so glad that I am alive." Such survival results in what we might call an instantaneous first-person-plural reflex and this recognition of a survivor community is in turn generative of remarkable acts of altruism; herein the "paradise" emerging from the "hell" of the book's title. Social alienation evaporates, if but for a time. (Solnit finds resilience expressed through dark humor. Her narration of the fatalistic comedy of San Franciscans of 1906 is a high point. My favorite example: the shack cafe sign urging passersby to "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.")
The practitioners of "disaster studies" -- a lively, if arcane, field that cuts across realms of scholarship, engineering and emergency preparedness -- have long suggested that widespread assumptions about chaos breaking loose amid disaster are largely wrong. Lawlessness is not absent from the confusion of catastrophe: People steal and loot and vandalize. But the scale is inevitably exaggerated in media and other accounts and, Solnit and others argue, thievery is often tied to survival. Much more prevalent (and far less recognized) is community reconstitution along axes of altruism and selflessness.
That this reordering may be viewed as threatening is not lost on Solnit. Her book is sharply condemnatory of what disaster theorists have come to call "elite panic." Fearing anarchy or reorganization (or merely seizing the chance to act with opportunistic cruelty as fires burn or the earth shakes), the powerful can strike out at the weak, the poor or merely the people en masse. Solnit's description of bestial Gen. Frederick Funston, energetically presiding over the military's homicidal show of force meted out to San Franciscans in 1906, is both narration and foreshadow. We've seen it before; we'll see it again.
Solnit writes that "elite panic" is also well served by the sheer elasticity of bureaucratic institutions. Bureaucracies abhor the chaos of disaster, whereas human actors can cut through the disorder either to act humanely or exert brutality. But, in the end, bureaucracy ever reasserts itself to erode both the very good and the very bad that disaster invites.
There's a hopeful, optimistic, even contagious quality to this superb book. Rebecca Solnit sees in the aftermath of disaster a meaningful, if fleeting, coming together; the challenge is how to create similar centripetal force in devastation's absence. For now, disasters seem part of the recipe, and finding and celebrating the human kinship expressed within them is but one step of a longer, harder journey.
At the same time, this is a rumination tinged with watchful anxiety, especially evident if we compare these disasters to one another.
Solnit's outrage at the murderousnessof Hurricane Katrina's vigilantes (individuals or small patrols who indiscriminately shot an unknown number of victims) and the racist cast to these episodes, carries with it several telling points. Might the Katrina experience reveal that the altruistic bonds within cataclysmic communities are less evident just when, as more disasters sit on the temporal horizon, we need them most? What of the even more worrisome erosion of community beyond the contingencies of disaster? Given the inexcusable inertia of appropriate institutions to bring Katrina's murderers to justice months and years later, what does this suggest about the flimsy ties binding us all in everyday life, when the earthquakes and the floods aren't bearing down?

Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and currently the Frederick W. Beinecke Senior Fellow in Western Americana at Yale.


Word Play: Awakenings by Sonja Bolle

Word Play: Awakenings
Encounters with dangerous horses, Al Capone and Destiny give young adult readers glimpses of the realities beyond childhood.

By Sonja Bolle

It's not quite fair that a novelist who has had such success in the adult world -- among many awards, Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres," her novel based on "King Lear" -- can shift gears apparently effortlessly and write for middle-schoolers. "The Georges and the Jewels" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.99, ages 10 and up) bears none of the signs of a literary writer slumming it for the kids -- no condescension, just the keen interest in what makes life tick that animates all of Smiley's fiction, but with a seventh-grade narrator. I have never admired her writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children. Abby's father is a dealer in horses, and the most valuable animals to him are the ones about which he can say: "A little girl can ride him." Abby is, therefore, an important part of the business, especially since Abby's older brother, Danny, left their California farm at a young age and is no longer on speaking terms with their inflexible father. Abby shows the horses to prospective buyers and keeps up much of the horses' training schedule. It's a busy life, what with seventh grade starting and all. "I've never heard anyone who had a single nice thing to say about seventh grade," Abby remarks. In the high-turnover horse-dealing business, it's important not to fall in love with the animals, so Abby's father names all the males "George" and all the females "Jewel" to discourage any attachment. But Abby privately has her own names for them, and although she is a horse-lover and an accomplished rider, "Ornery George" is the one horse she just can't bring herself to ride or love. He's one cranky beast, but he's so handsome that the temptation is great to increase his value by making him a horse that "a little girl can ride." There are many ways to train a horse, and Smiley presents several methods in the guise of different characters, from heavy-handed cowboy to restrained horse-whisperer. The training methods represent different kinds of power, which middle-school children, who are observing and testing the authority of parents and teachers, will easily distinguish. Abby's story expresses all the pains and pleasures of gaining a sense of mastery in a difficult sport, a pure and most exquisite form of independence for a child. For horse enthusiasts, the details of this book will ring true and perfect, but Smiley has such a succinct way of explaining technical things that no one will feel left out. Even if you've never touched a horse before, by the time you've read this book you'll know how to get a Thoroughbred to take his weight on three spindly legs and pick one foot up for you to clean. "The Georges and the Jewels" can easily take its place on the shelf along with the great horse stories of childhood: "Black Beauty," "The Black Stallion" and Marguerite Henry's books. Gennifer Choldenko's 2004 novel, " Al Capone Does My Shirts," was such a perfect book, it was hard to imagine a sequel. Set in the world of the families who lived and worked on Alcatraz Island when the notorious prison was functioning, the book introduced Moose Flanagan, his autistic sister Natalie, the irresistible and manipulative daughter of the warden, Piper, and a host of wonderfully drawn characters who made up a tight, insular community. Looming in the minds of Alcatraz residents and readers alike was the larger-than-life figure of Al Capone, the prison's most famous inmate and a surprising ally in Moose's family's search for an appropriate school for Natalie. In the climax of the first book, it appeared that Capone's shadowy power had moved mountains for Moose and left Moose in Capone's debt. Perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment of "Al Capone Shines My Shoes" (Dial: $16.99, ages 10 and up) is that Choldenko audaciously introduces us to the legendary Al Capone and gives him flesh and spirit of a very human kind. The underlying mystery of the second book is: Who are the real ruffians on Alcatraz -- the prisoners or the guards? Capone's gentlemanly qualities shine against the petty cruelty of his jailers, and seem to cast all the inmates in a more favorable light. Choldenko has not only extended her story in surprising ways, she has also deepened her level of inquiry. How do kids make smart decisions when they start to see the serious faults of the grown-ups around them? Who's trustworthy? It's not entirely clear to the reader what is going on in Mary E. Pearson's "The Miles Between" ( Henry Holt: $16.99, ages 14 and up), an odd and compelling novel. Is Destiny, our extremely guarded narrator, telling us the whole truth? Is it really just coincidence that she finds an empty car idling on her boarding-school lawn? Did she choose her three companions for a daringly truant road trip ? Are all these revealing conversations and weird coincidences really taking place, or are they imagined, a kind of wish fulfillment? And what about that disturbing explosion the kids seem to have ignored in the background? Pearson is making a name for herself with novels that blithely cross genre lines in pursuit of an interesting character's story; her previous book, "The Adoration of Jenna Fox," was a medical thriller and science-fiction tale raveled from one teenager's mysterious experience. What is clear in "The Miles Between" is that Destiny trusts no one. Shunted from boarding school to boarding school by absentee parents and a shadowy guardian figure, she has made a religion of never getting attached. When she finds herself becoming entangled, she has carefully developed strategies for getting herself expelled while maintaining a bead on her actual academic progress. Without revealing too much, let's say that things are definitely not what they seem in Destiny's world. The most reliable people and the least can easily change roles. And while Destiny is painfully honest with herself about many things, she also has very good reasons for lying -- to herself and others. It's rare that the reveal in such a novel pays off, but Pearson manages a magic trick by melding the fantastic and the prosaic in a character who turns out to be just another teenager trying to forge a path in a world not of her making.

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.


The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley

The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley

Theodore Roosevelt as a gun-toting St. Francis: A massive, masterful look at TR as environmental crusader and ultimate outdoorsman.

BOOK REVIEW By Christoph Irmscher

The Wilderness Warrior - Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
By Douglas Brinkley
Harper: 960 pp., $34.99

Reviewing several Roosevelt biographies in 1920, H.L. Mencken reported that he had found more "gush" than "sense." Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior," a novel attempt to tell Theodore Roosevelt's life not from the cradle to the grave but with a focus on his subject's environmental interests, walks a fine line between the two, giving us plenty of sense -- and good sense too -- along with the expected truckload of gush. Warts and all, Roosevelt is the very man we need today as the number of species in America continues to decline.
Many of Brinkley's more acid asides are directed against "left-leaning historians," apt to fault Roosevelt (don't ever call him "Teddy," by the way) for things he couldn't possibly have known or seen. Not so Brinkley, who wanted to write his book as Roosevelt would have written it himself -- in strong, taut masculine prose, resonating with the same fierce resolve as one of Roosevelt's executive orders: "I do so declare." And Brinkley wanted to make it a big book too -- a book so big, in fact, that if it were an animal Roosevelt probably would have tried to shoot it.
Brinkley's Roosevelt is P.T. Barnum, Walt Whitman and Captain Ahab all rolled into one, a powerful poseur who became so adept at playing his many roles (author, hunter, naturalist, policeman, president, provocateur) that it became impossible to tell the man from his larger-than-life masks. In Brinkley's pages, liberally sprinkled with exclamation points and trademark Rooseveltian phrases such as "bully" or "by Jove," a lost, somewhat troubling world comes alive again in which real men, full of "hearty cheer," "take a shine" to each other and, in the American wilderness, "bag" or "flush out" as many creatures as they can. Women make only cameo appearances here.
It is impossible to name all the species on which Roosevelt laid, to quote from a memorable Emily Dickinson poem, his "emphatic thumb," sometimes in the name of natural history but more frequently for his own personal pleasure -- as, Brinkley likes to say, a "tonic" for the soul. The dismal list of Roosevelt's victims includes prairie chickens, 300-pound bighorns, mangy coyotes and towering grizzly bears (no, the story of Roosevelt refusing to shoot a cute bear cub that his guide had lassoed for him is not true).
Roosevelt's appetite for crazy adventures was limitless, making him the father of the modern survival vacation. One wonders, though, what his wilderness guides really thought of him when, shivering under thin blankets in the cold September rain of the Badlands, they heard him exclaim: "But this is fun!" Shedding the limitations imposed on him at birth, this myopic, asthmatic Ivy League graduate and millionaire's son from Manhattan successfully transformed himself into the "cowboy President." Blazing a trail of destruction, first through his beloved Adirondacks and then through most of the Western landscape, Roosevelt, a chronic insomniac, realized only later that what he himself had actively helped decimate actually was worth preserving. That light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of male bonding, though it might have flickered unsteadily at times, guided our hero, especially after he assumed the presidency in 1901. A few years earlier, C. Hart Merriam of the Biological Survey named what he regarded a new species of elk, Cervus roosevelti, after him. The 800-pound Roosevelt elk was found mainly in the Olympic Mountains, and it is almost touching to see how invested Roosevelt became in this creature's welfare.
Brinkley's main ambition in this engrossing, compellingly written book is not to delve into the murky depths of Roosevelt's private obsessions. First and foremost, he wants to set his environmental record straight: Enter our first "green" president. Literary types such as Mark Twain (who thought that Roosevelt was a clown who had not matured beyond age 14) and Mencken (who compared him to a longshoreman who was eternally engaged in clearing out barrooms) got him all wrong. They never even noticed his conservationist work. And they jolly well should have. Roosevelt's presidency ended in 1909: By then, Roosevelt had expanded protected areas -- bird reservations, national forests and national monuments -- to a stunning 234 million acres.
But was the man with the masculine swagger and appalling displays of swashbuckling virility really so separate from the one who signed those national monuments into existence? Circumventing Congress and the ordinary rules of the debate, Roosevelt ruled by executive order. With "a stroke of the presidential pen" he created facts where others saw problems. "The Wilderness Warrior" raises some worrisome questions about the ability of social collectives to take effective action when and where it is urgently needed. As Mencken shrewdly observed, Roosevelt, who would rather camp out with his naturalist friends John Burroughs or John Muir than meet with members of Congress, didn't believe in democracy so much as he did in government. Essentially, the former police commissioner of New York never stopped being a policeman, appointing his own favorite outdoorsmen -- with such colorful names as Captain Jack "Catch 'em Alive" Abernathy -- to positions in federal law enforcement, tackling the loathsome poachers head on.
The names of Roosevelt's forests and parks cascade off the pages of Brinkley's book, one evocative name after another -- Luquillo National Forest in Puerto Rico, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Sullys Hill in North Dakota, Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Petrified Forest of Arizona, the Devils Tower in Wyoming, Pelican Island in Florida, the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska and, of course, Mt. Olympus in Washington, where Cervus roosevelti roamed free. Roosevelt also oversaw the reintroduction of the bison in the first federal game preserve he created, the Wichita Forest in Oklahoma. In March 1907, 15 terrified animals (seven bulls and eight cows), traveled from the Bronx National Zoo to the Wichita Mountains to be fruitful and multiply (they complied).
For me, though, one of the more indelible images left by Brinkley's book involves neither the Western prairies nor fierce predators. I'm thinking of the 100 squirrels that would line up, military fashion, on the White House lawn, waiting for the president to come out and feed them.

Irmscher is the editor of "John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings" and teaches 19th century American literature at Indiana University, Bloomington.


Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

An elusive songwriter meets an unlikely supporter.

BOOK REVIEW By Carolyn Kellogg

Juliet, Naked, A Novel by Nick Hornby Riverhead: 406 pp., $25.95

Tucker Crowe, the reclusive singer-songwriter of "Juliet, Naked," inspires a cadre of obsessive fans who parse his every lyric and musical move. He's like Bob Dylan, but not as genius, nor as prolific -- he dropped out of music decades ago, after a devastatingly brilliant heartbreak album. Which would make him more like Richard Thompson. Or maybe . . . .
This is just the kind of music trivia discussion you might expect in a Nick Hornby novel. But while there was a kind of giddy heroism to it in "High Fidelity," it now comes across as a slightly pathetic preoccupation.
That's because here it's seen through the eyes of Annie, thirtysomething and living in Gooleness, an uncool town on the north English coast. Duncan, her longtime partner and a college professor, is a Tucker Crowe fanatic, the leader of an international message board dedicated to the musician. That's just one of the things that's beginning to grate on Annie, who's starting to grow restless inside the safe choices she's made.
"We're here for such a short amount of time," Annie thinks while working at her job at a local museum. ". . . She would waste the next two hours, because she had to, and then she would never waste another second of however much time she had left to her. Unless somehow she ended up . . . doing this job for the rest of her working life, or watching 'EastEnders' on a wet Sunday, or reading anything that wasn't 'King Lear,' or painting her toenails, or taking more than a minute to choose something from a restaurant menu, or . . . . It was hopeless, life, really. It was set up all wrong."
Annie's midlife crisis runs parallel to Tucker Crowe's later one. Despite being notoriously reclusive, he's living relatively openly in small-town Pennsylvania. Tucker, like Annie, worries about lost time -- lost, in his case, to the wilds of bad behavior and its aftermath of self-pity. But he's been clean and together long enough to be a good father to the charming 6-year-old Jackson. If he's only an adequate husband to his youngish wife, he's doing better than his previous marital attempts -- there were many, often with children, rarely ending well.
Tucker has no interest in getting back in the spotlight, but he tends to go with the flow. When a buddy suggests releasing the acoustic demo tapes for his iconic album "Juliet" as "Juliet, Naked" he figures it can't hurt, and it might contribute a few bucks to the household.
An advance copy makes its way to Duncan, who should be among the first to hear the CD. Instead, Annie opens the package and, in what may be her first act of betrayal, listens to it before Duncan gets a chance.
Annie is not a Tucker Crowe obsessive, but she's become a demi-expert by affiliation. She's heard all the theories, listened to all Tucker's music, even taken an American pilgrimage that included a particularly significant Minneapolis rock club bathroom.
She is as surprised as anyone, then, at how much she cares about the new record. Not that she likes it -- she doesn't. But she's so annoyed by Duncan's rave review that, for the first time, she goes onto the message board to post a rebuttal.
And then she gets an e-mail from the silent-for-22-years Tucker Crowe.
Tucker and Annie's lives are destined to intertwine like the iPod headset on the book's cover, but not exactly as you'd expect. Having a few tangles makes the book interesting, but it's not propelled so much by plot as by character.
Annie's quick wit and changing hopes make her just as compelling as the rock star, whose kind, somewhat self-absorbed perspective seems eminently real. Duncan, who comprises the third narrative thread, is equally believable but less appealing; it's hard to like an obsessive geek whose girlfriend is losing patience.
It's easy to imagine all of them on screen; Hornby's novels often become movies. But the book reminds us that it's a book, first: It turns on an e-mail correspondence and concerns itself with how what we create can be read (and over-read), all in Hornby's swift, shiny, funny writing style.
And you might say that Tucker Crowe resembles a literary rock star -- Bucky Wunderlick, from Don DeLillo's "Great Jones Street," a few decades down the line -- that is, if you obsess about those kinds of things.

Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.


The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
This retelling of 'Oryx and Crake' -- from a female point of view -- is a slap-happy romp through the end times.

BOOK REVIEW By John Freeman

The Year of the Flood, A Novel by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 434 pp., $26.95

Lady Oracle has been quiet the last six years. Yes, there have been half a dozen books, an opera even. But no novels, and it is in her novels that Margaret Atwood spins the most arresting alternate mythologies to our hell-bent world. From 1972's "Surfacing," a virtuoso rewriting of the Demeter myth, to "The Handmaid's Tale," with its baroquely imagined future in which women are slaves, Atwood's best books are dream capsules in which greed, destructive anti-environmentalism, religious fundamentalism and the constant desire to subject the will of women combine into a proto-fascist force.

Because Atwood thinks deeply on these matters, her vision is often bleak. So it's a welcome surprise that her new novel, "The Year of the Flood," is a slap-happy romp through the end times. Stuffed with cornball hymns, genetic mutations worthy of Thomas Pynchon (such as the rakuunk, a combined skunk and raccoon) and a pharmaceutical company run amok, it reads like dystopia verging on satire. She may be imagining a world in flames, but she's doing it with a dark cackle.

The tone here couldn't be more different from that of "Oryx and Crake," the 2003 Man Booker finalist that this book rewrites and retells. That novel was the apocalypse done in dour tones and mythopoetic images, part Doris Lessing, part H.G. Wells. A new race of beings called the Crakes wanders a blasted moonscape, trying to decide whether it is worth rebooting the planet after it has been decimated by a brutally swift plague. The source of the holocaust was a pill called BlyssPluss, which didn't cause happiness, but rather death. Two characters, Jimmy the Snowman and Glenn, dominate the telling.

"The Year of the Flood" chronicles the same story from a female point of view. Again, two survivors, Toby and Ren, form the crux of the tale. Toby waits out the plague in a former spa, where plastic surgery was to mask her identity from a sadistic rapist. Ren, a sex worker, ducks the damage in an isolation room at Scales and Tails, a strip club where she wound up working because it had good health and dental benefits.

Jumping back and forth in time, Atwood evokes the women's jagged journey to this grim end. Their stories are parables of survival, in which the simple desire to subsist means going with the system, even when the system is designed to grind them up. At one point, Toby works at a fast food joint called SecretBurgers, which is rumored to use cat flesh and worse in its patties. When she is rescued from the work -- and her sexually abusive boss -- by a group of back-to-the-land radicals called God's Gardeners, it seems a reprieve, except that the Gardeners have equally damaging ideas of a woman's role in society.

Unlike "Oryx and Crake," which deliberately shaded away from specifics, "The Year of the Flood" is littered with clues, many quite amusing, about the seesaw between invention and perversion that led to the end of the world. As in all science fiction, part of the fun is seeing what could have worked and didn't. Junked-up solar cars litter the landscape, and pigs with human brains dig through rubbish. Other threads strike a deeper vein. Toby's memories of her mother's slow death from a disease most likely manufactured to help sell a pharmaceutical company's cure gives us a glimpse of a world in which profit has outstripped any desire for medicine to heal.

The greatest tinkering and mulching in Atwood's lost world involves belief systems. God's Gardeners read the Bible as an environmentalist tract, and Atwood splices the sermons of one of their prophets, Adam One, into her text, alongside hymns and other homilies. April Fools' Day and the story of the loaves and fishes, for instance, are combined into April Fish Day: "On April Fish Day, which originated in France, we make fun of one another by attaching a Fish of paper, or, in our case, a Fish of recycled cloth, to the back of another person and then crying out, April Fish!"

Juxtaposing this gobbledygook with the chronicles of Ren and Toby, Atwood creates the novel's spookiest effect. Here is a world in which the reigning mythologies aren't just wrong-headed but have absolutely nothing to do with the real lives of those living in their shadows. And the coming plague only serves to vivify the advocates of these beliefs.

Meanwhile, Ren and Toby suffer in silence, where pain is just pain, not prologue or premonition. It is a wonder that so many in this world and ours turn to pills to numb it. But as "The Year of the Flood" boldly shows, that has its perils too.

Freeman is acting editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of E-Mail," due out next month.


Amy Gerstler's message: Be not afraid by Dinah Lenney

Amy Gerstler's message: Be not afraid
The poet wishes more people would realize that her medium doesn't hurt. At all.

By Dinah Lenney

It's not unusual for Amy Gerstler to trip down the street from her house to mine bearing gifts: a ripe avocado, a jar of martini olives, an article of interest, a plastic Cupid the length of my thumbnail. Today, she meets me outside with a book she wants me to see -- John D'Agata's eclectic "The Lost Origins of the Essay" -- and, because I asked, a mock-up of the cover of her new collection of poetry, "Dearest Creature" (Penguin: 96 pp., $18 paper). The image, of a diorama created by local artist Marnie Weber, brings to mind one of those Hidden Pictures puzzles in Highlights magazine, where you're supposed to find the objects that don't belong. Here, though, every item seems to have its place, all of them whimsical, witty or heartbreaking -- reflecting the poems within.

"Dearest Creature" is a collection of conversations, letters and interviews in which unlikely people (and animals and plants) appear in unlikely places and spaces in time. It's the work of a poet of appetites, intellectual and otherwise, and not just because the poems reference food -- "broiled plover on toast," "buttermilk layercake," "popcorn balls" -- again and again.

When I wonder why food has such a presence in her work, she turns the question just a little: "You mean, why do I like it so much?" We're at Fix Coffee on Echo Park Avenue and she has ordered a shot of espresso in a tall cup. Now, she takes a carton of rice milk from her big black satchel and fills the cup to the top. The ideal life, she muses, would include reading, writing, cooking, playing with dogs. Then she reminds me that because she's not actually religious, food and its preparation are evidence of a kind of spirituality, having to do with the urge to nourish and connect. "All those herbs that grow in the ground," she says, "they're so beautiful. And chocolate -- who thought of chocolate? Who figured out what to do with that bean?"

These are the kinds of questions Gerstler thinks about, the kinds that inhabit her poems. Addressing a misunderstood child, she wonders, "[I]f our thoughts and feelings were soup or stew, would they taste / of bile when we're defeated and be flavored / faintly with grace on better days?" Of a "Dear Departed" friend, she asks, "Did earth melt you down and chug you / like fortified wine?"

Gerstler knew she was a poet in the third grade, she recalls, sitting at the counter behind the barrista, somehow cutting through the roar of the blender to be heard. "I wrote a poem about the hiccups," she says. And she recites:

Hiccups, hiccups, up they perk,

I would like to know where they lurk.

Her toothsome grin is its own reward; and her guffaw belies her stature -- slight -- and her usual manner, shy and self-deprecating. Partly it's the topic under discussion: writing, a subject she owns. But it's also her sense of humor, mixed with a kind of inner fierceness, a way of laying claim to her place in the world. I defy you to outrun this woman in an airport. I challenge you to interrupt her if she has a point to make. She'll take on a spider the size of Catalina, while I, twice as big, twice as loud, watch and cower from the corner of the room. She is tiny but intrepid; respectful but irreverent; infallibly polite and insatiably curious. Never mind when she wrote this first poem. It's her voice: funny, forthright, idiosyncratically preoccupied, true to the writer she is today.

Gerstler's late father was a high school principal; her mother, a lover of musical theater. She grew up in a house full of books and records, fell in love early with wordplay and rhyme: the wit of Cole Porter, the romance of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even so, her parents were a practical influence. Writing, according to her father, was a fine activity for the weekends, so she earned her bachelor's in psychology and planned for a career as a speech pathologist.

But it was in college also that she came under the influence of novelist and poet Dennis Cooper, who took a more uncompromising view toward the artist's life. He brought her to hear Robert Bly, who was obsessed at the time by preindustrial male bonding. Gerstler confides that she knew so little of the literary scene, she figured everybody wore tribal masks when they read poetry. Even so, she was hooked. She deferred her acceptance to graduate school to try writing for a year. And that was that. Her 1990 collection "Bitter Angel" won a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. "Dearest Creature" is her 13th book.

"Who do you write for?" I once asked her in an e-mail. She wrote back right away: ". . . with contemporary poetry having approximately as many fans outside the immediate field as there are devotees of undergoing knee surgery, any sentient breathing reader who's genuinely interested in poetry . . . not scared of it . . . seems a godsend. . . . Ideally, I'd love to write poems that intrigued humans across the board: literary folk and academics as well as . . . dog-walkers, doctors, plumbers, chefs, math professors, jugglers, etc. . . . "

Now, as she sips her coffee, I ask why she thinks people are afraid of poems.

She furrows her brow. "See, many people, including me, are afraid of looking or feeling stupid. It's OK not to understand particle physics. But poetry that's dense and complex and difficult to read? The threat is implicit: If you don't understand poetry, you don't have a beautiful soul." In high school, she remembers, "If you did something bad you had to memorize Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' " Poetry as punishment -- but she has a solution. "It should be taught chronologically backward," she says. Her idea is to introduce contemporary forms like rap and spoken word before "Beowulf" and Chaucer. In that way, we'd cultivate a palate for poetry.

Gerstler is devoted to the ancient texts, sparked by history and myth. "The human imagination," she insists, "can connect to practically anything." Even when it's tongue-in-cheek, her work resonates with urgency and longing. Two lines into the title poem of "Dearest Creature," the speaker asks: "Why don't you / write? Why make me beg? Are you even / reading these letters?" And then:

. . . that tussle

in the motel tub when I accidentally knocked

you unconscious? A minor concussion.

Surely you've forgiven me . . .

It's a love poem, of course: hilarious, but also touching, seductive, mysterious, surprising, entirely unsentimental -- much like Gerstler herself. "Don't forget humble," says her old friend Jim Krusoe, a writer and teacher. She is, he asserts, the humblest person he knows.

It was Krusoe who introduced me to Gerstler and her husband, writer Benjamin Weissman, more than a decade ago, alerting me to the fact that one of the best poets in the nation lived across the street. And it was Gerstler, Krusoe says, who helped him put certain kinds of pettiness into perspective. She once told him: "It's so impossible to write a good poem, it's all I can do to work as hard as I can to even come close." Her relentless focus doesn't leave time for professional jealousies and resentments.

"So are you ambitious then?" I ask. She doesn't hem and haw. Assuming the work represents the best part of herself, she believes, she's ambitious to do it well, to find the time to write, to push herself with every poem.

As for what this means, I keep thinking -- once we've tossed our crumpled napkins, gathered our things and are headed up the hill toward home -- of the speaker in her poem "Advice From a Caterpillar," which is pinned to the wall above my desk. "Molt. Rest. Molt again," she advises.

Self-reinvention is everything

Spin many nests . . .

But Gerstler has a simpler answer. She taps the cover of the book of essays she's still carrying. "I'm very interested in these," she says. "And I will always write poems."

Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."