Saving Paradise

Mike Bond’s 2012 novel takes place in the Hawaiian islands, and moves at a fast pace from the first page, when a corpse drifts in to the Oahu surf. At times the pace seems a little too fast; the first-person narrator, a professional surfer and Special Forces veteran named Pono Hawkins, hops between islands with the ease of a superhero.

Hawkins is a passionate defender of Hawaii’s natural beauty, and expresses justifiable outrage over America’s treatment of the land and its people. There is a wholly appropriate disdain for the missionaries who “civilized” the Hawaiians that was sorely lacking in the James Michener and Sarah Vowell books about the state.

The plot revolves around an alternative energy project called Big Wind, which was also the name of an actual proposed project in Hawaii from the early years of this decade. Big Wind would have installed hundreds of windmills on the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and provided power to Oahu (the state’s most populous island, home to Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) through an underseas cable. This absurd idea was eventually abandoned after citizens rallied against it, and “Saving Paradise” adds sinister elements to its version of Big Wind, making it a viper’s nest of criminal business and political corruption.

And while it’s always dangerous to assign authorial intention to a work of fiction (back in my graduate student days this was called the “intentional fallacy”), there’s more than enough circumstantial evidence to suggest “Saving Paradise” is partly a personal diatribe against wind power. Enter Mike Bond windmills in a search engine, and one of the first links will be to the author’s blog, where he claims wind power actually increases fossil fuel usage, has devastating ecological impacts, and are only touted as “green” projects by politicians bought off by multinational corporations. Bond’s arguments rely more on invective and innuendo than on data — in the unlikely event of his reading this review, he’ll likely respond that my last statement shows how I’ve been brainwashed by the corporate media — and their appearance in in this novel represent an unfortunate and unnecessary distraction. Hawkins’ struggle against corruption and intimidation would have been just as poignant if the author had chosen to, quite literally, battle windmills.

Yet the novel’s positive qualities outweigh flaws such as its ending, which comes out of nowhere, as if the author was facing an inflexible word count limit. Pono Hawkins is an engaging guide to Hawaii, and his humanity and innate goodness make the reader hope for his success. His personal relationships are a mess, but he treats his male allies and his female love interests with equal respect. And the action is brisk, as stated previously, and the writing polished and highly descriptive. Overall, “Saving Paradise” is a good thriller which can be enjoyed by any fan of the genre, so long as that fan doesn’t take the author’s overt agenda against wind power too seriously.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Anyone reading a Raymond Carver story should be required to say “the end” at the conclusion. So little happens in his stories — plot summaries read like satires (the titular story of this collection could read, “four people talk around a dinner table while getting drunk on gin”) — and their climaxes so unspectacular, to give a listener a strong cue that the tale has ended. In addition to not featuring any exploding helicopters, Carver’s short fiction violates several established conventions. Many characters do not have names; hardly any backstory is revealed; very little is shown, and even less is told.

But partly because they are so sparse, Carver’s short stories are some of the most emotionally powerful I’ve ever read. I don’t intend to imitate his style, but it has inspired me to trust that, with words, sometimes less is more.

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, the first story in the volume, is a great example of his work. An unnamed man puts the entire contents of his house onto his driveway; some of the possessions had been on “her side” of the bedroom, although no information about “her” is provided. The man leaves to pick up food at a store, and a young couple, referred to as a boy and a girl (the boy does have a name, although you have to be paying attention to catch it), drive past the house and, believing a yard sale is in progress, stop to investigate. The man returns, and after agreeing to sell many items for bargain-basement prices, puts on a record (the setting is late 1970s) and invites the couple to dance. Weeks later, the girl grapples with understanding the man’s motivation. The End.

We simply can’t understand the man, because we are told so little about him. But when he puts on the record and asks the boy and girl to dance, we can sense this is somehow important to him, that’s he’s doing more than trying to offload the record player. Maybe the couple reminds him of the early days of his marriage, and he wants to draw out those memories; maybe the man wants the couple to connect in a way he wasn’t able with his wife; maybe he wants one last joyful moment before abandoning his home. It’s a poignant scene, memorable not for its details (since there are none) but for the way it shows a man searching for kindness as he struggles with some misfortune.

Since I’m overly fond of superhero movies, I have to mention Carver’s role in Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays an actor made rich and famous for performing as the superhero Birdman on film. (Birdman does not exist as a character, but Keaton did appear as Batman in two films.) To demonstrate his legitimate acting talent, Keaton’s character produces a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is the perfect contrast, the sizzle and excess of the superhero genre against Carver’s minimalism, and if that is the closest this master of the short story ever gets to appearing in a blockbuster, I’ll be fine with that.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Praising a novel nearly two decades after it won a Pulitzer Prize feels a bit irrelevant, like applauding with mittens after twenty thousand pairs of fleshy hands have ceased clapping. But since any review says as much about the writer as is does about the subject, let me declare, by way of explaining why I find Michael Chabon’s 2001 novel so exceptional, the type of fiction I aspire to in my own writing.

The novel is set during the late 1930s and early 1950s, almost entirely in New York city with a brief interlude in the most unlikely of World War II battlefields, and follows the careers of three comic book professionals in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As an avid fan of the medium, I’ve always been uncomfortable with using precious metals to describe the various eras of comic book, as it proposes a hierarchy that in many ways isn’t justified. For all their innovation, the comics in the Golden Age were far inferior, in both their writing and artwork, to their Silver and Bronze age descendants. Yet the Golden Age was a time when comic book sales and their cultural impact (wonderfully depicted in David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague) were at a height they would never reach again, even in today’s world of blockbuster superhero movie franchises. To his credit, Chabon hails the achievement of the era while acknowledging its inferior quality, writing comic books of this time were “like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory… larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.”

The scope of the novel is ambitious, dealing with the immigrant experience of 1930s America, the global fight against fascism, and the crushing social conformity in post-war America. These large experiences are told through three main characters: Joe Kavalier, Sam Klayman, and Rosa Parks, who forms one of the oddest yet entirely believable love triangles in literature. Joe is the illustrator and Sammy the writer for the Escapist, a superhero who is part Superman, part Houdini. (The book cover image at the top of this post shows the Escapist socking the jaw of Hitler).

Chabon’s writing is excellent. What I like best are his paragraphs, which are long and meandering, sometimes containing a long passage of exposition between two lines of dialog — were I to attempt imitating this style, I’d need a much longer interruption than this (with several more variants in punctuation) — that somehow maintains grammatical cohesion. He has some great metaphors as well, such as “her eyes the pale gray of rainwater pooled in a dish left on the window ledge.”

I’ll conclude with a juicy quote from one of the minor characters, an editor named George Deasey, who subtly attempts to convince Joe and Sam to be more ambitious in their licensing negotiations for the Escapist:

“There is only one sure means in life,” Deasey said, “of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. Ad that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.”

Deasey represents the cynicism which both Joe and Sammy attempt to overcome through their work in the comics. Although not entirely successful in their quest, their journey makes for a memorable adventure.

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

Benjamin Percy was the keynote speaker at a literary conference I recently attended. I generally dislike these opening addresses, and fully expected him to deliver yet another self-congratulatory homily, followed by a desultory reading and a perfunctory exhortation to “believe in your writing.” Yet immediately after being introduced, Percy pulled out a dry-erase marker, went over to a white board, and launched into an informative and engaging discussion of the craft of writing fiction — creating engaging characters, building suspense, the strategic placement of scenes, alternating between action and moments of repose. After compiling seven pages of notes over the next hour, I bought his book with the enthusiasm of a Marvel fan on opening night of an Avengers film.

I won’t reveal the advice offered in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, partly out of fear the author would hunt me down if I did (while affable and inviting, Percy can be physically imposing — broad shouldered and deep voiced, he seems capable of sprouting fangs or claws at any moment). I do feel safe in revealing his central theme, introduced in the opening essay and expanded upon in the following fourteen: the accepted distinction between literary fiction (think Antioch Review) and genre fiction (think Fantasy and Science Fiction) is arbitrary, and writers wholly committed to either category suffer from not adopting the best practices from the other. “Literary writers tend to overdo thoughtfulness,” he writes, “just as many genre writers tend to neglect interiority in favor of action.” Percy, who has published in both literary magazines and comic books, advocates eliminating this distinction, and combining “the careful carpentry of storytelling” with page-turning excitement that makes the reader want to know what happens next.

In his description of the worst qualities of literary fiction — elaborate prose, abstract ideas, and lengthy dialogue leading to underwhelming epiphanies — I recognized a lot of the problems I’ve been seeing in my own writing. To put it bluntly: Nothing happens. My characters talk (a lot, and to be fair to myself I’ve been commended for my conversations), but they live in a world where inertia is as common as air. Having recognized this problem, I’m contemplating (there I go again with the thinking) following the advice of what Percy calls The Exploding Helicopter Clause: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter [or similar spectacular event or character], an editor will not publish it.” As authorial recommendations goes, this sounds both reasonable and a heckuva lot of fun.

Percy is a storyteller, not an academic, and true to his calling he weaves an engaging memoir through his essays. We learn a lot about Percy — his childhood fascination with genre and later respect for literature, a wonderful marriage, early struggles and eventual successes in his writing career, unintended lessons about writing learned from his in-laws, a mortifying illness of a son that lead Percy to dread watching Toy Story, a decrepit home he and his wife refurbished — revealed not in chronological order, each anecdote chosen to underscore the ideas of the current essay. Among the more interesting facts we learn is that as a teen, Percy conducted a ceremony which failed in its stated intent to turn him into a werewolf. My trepidation around him seems fully warranted.

I was impressed enough by Percy’s keynote speech to have him autograph the book I purchased. He signed it with advice I imagine he includes with all his signatures: “Go the distance,” the title of the his last essay and a reference to Rocky, a film that inspired him through his early days as a writer. Stallone’s plucky pugilist, waking before dawn to run and beating a speed bag until his knuckles bleed, succeeds in his goal to leave his bout with the heavyweight champion standing on his feet — going the distance — and Percy sees in him a model of tenacity for all novice writers in their struggle to rise to the top of the slush pile: “you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.” There could be no better end to Percy’s marvelous collection of essays than this eloquent metaphor based on a gritty work of pop culture.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a fire that’s actually pretty big — a concession, it seems, to the demand of contemporary literary agents and editors for a dramatic first sentence. But then, for the rest of Celeste Ng’s novel, nothing happens. There’s a lot of conversations, and people do things they probably shouldn’t and discover long-hidden secrets, but aside from a subplot that doesn’t involve the central characters, not one event occurs that would make the headlines of a community newspaper.

And yet, the novel is engrossing from cover to cover. The characters may lead mundane lives, but Ng makes them memorable. The novel focuses on the Richardson family; Elena and her husband Bill (who the narrator nearly always refers to as Mr. and Mrs. Richardson) are hard-working parents of four high school students, and own a townhouse they rent to an artist, Mia, and her own teenaged daughter. The Richardsons define success through their accomplishments — good paying jobs, athletic victories, admission to Ivy League colleges. Mia hardly fits in their world; her artistic instincts keep her moving throughout the country, never settling in any place any longer than a couple of years while working an assortment of menial jobs. Mia’s daughter becomes involved with each of the Richardson children, and neither family comes out of these meetings the better.

The novel takes place in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, but unlike another novel with a similar setting I recently reviewed, this is one where I actually cared about the characters. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are decent people who deserve better than what comes to them, and Mia is as engaging as she is enigmatic. It would be easy to portray the Richardson children as pampered and self-centered, and Mia’s child as a victim of her mother’s unconventional career, but Ng instead invests each of her characters with intelligence and empathy. It’s difficult to create an engaging tale around ordinary people who don’t do much, but Ng makes it work.

Hulu is producing an eight-episode adaptation of the novel, and episode one will likely begin with that spectacular fire. Here’s hoping the series has the same focus on characterization as its source.

Review: Five Rings

I have two requirements for sports books:

1. Tell me something I don’t know

2. Don’t tell me something I know is false

Neither rule sets the bar too high, but on both counts, Jerry Thorton’s history of the New England Patriots over the last two decades falls short. It’s really disappointing, as I hoped to pass the interminable wait for New England’s latest trip to the Super Bowl with an engaging read. The experience, however, was more like watching the Patriots waltz through a desultory November game against an opponent who had already packed it in for the year.

I found no information in this book that wasn’t either common knowledge among Patriots fans like myself, or could be discovered through a simple Google search. As far as I could tell, the author conducted no new interviews, did minimal additional research, and scanned a couple DVDs from his entertainment center to perform his “analysis” of key Patriots games. It’s a disappointing performance, the equivalent of a wide receiver jogging through his route, and particularly upsetting when you consider the opening scene: the author roaming through the White House as part of the media team covering the Patriots’ perfunctory presidential visit. (The support for The Fraud among the quarterback, coach, and owner of my favorite professional football team is at the top of my Things I Don’t Like To Talk About list.) I fully expected some revealing anecdote or observation — a funny offhand comment, an unusual portrait hanging in the hall perhaps — but, nah. To use yet another football analogy, the lack of any memorable information from the White House visit was like having your quarterback overthrow a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

Moving on to my second rule, I found a disturbing number of factual errors. To give one example, the author states that after the Patriots lost the 2017 AFC Championship game to Denver, Tom Brady’s playoff records against Peyton Manning fell to 2-2. Because I devote far too much of my memory to meaningless sports statistics (a malady I share with 95% of sports fans from the New England region), I know Brady and Manning have actually met five times in the playoffs, with three of those games won by (and I’m forcing myself to complete this sentence) Manning. Call them trivial errors, but for someone who claims to be a dutiful fan of the team, they’re just not excusable.

His dust-cover biography claims the author is a stand-up comic, so I was even more disappointed to discover very few laugh lines (although I must admit, “there are two things I know to be true: Witches don’t exist. But witch hunts always manage to find them” is as insightful as it is funny). It’s odd, because Thorton at times can be a clever writer, with a gift for metaphor; when describing Tom Brady’s cool response in a high-pressure situation, he writes: “his body language was that of a guy flipping through the channel guide looking to see what’s on.” I admire writing like this; I just wish there was more to admire about this book.

If you’re a Patriots fan with a short memory, you may find this review of the Patriots’ remarkable run (which could result in yet another championship later tonight) refreshing. But if you’re looking for more, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

I would gladly sacrifice certain non-essential parts of my anatomy in order to write as well as Sarah Vowell. “Gladly” is perhaps an overstatement, but if blood sacrifice did indeed have the power of conferring literary talent, I’d seriously consider which areas of my flesh I could do without.

Vowell’s 2011 book on Hawaiian history combines extensive research with Vowell’s characteristic snark. While some find her wit self-indulgent, I find her voice authentic and engaging. When writing about renowned Hawaiians such as historian and poet David Malo and the ill-fated Queen Liliuokalani, her tone is properly reverent; her sarcasm kicks in when addressing the outlandish beliefs and behavior of the New England missionaries who came the “save” the islands in the early 19th century. I especially enjoyed the analogy she used to describe the conflict between the missionaries and shore-leaving whalers who came in their wake: “Image if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Values Voter Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously — for forty years.”

Much like James Michener did in his epic novel, Vowell shows too much admiration for the pluck and erudition of the missionaries. (She shows an identical soft-spot for the Massachusetts Bay colonists in an earlier book of hers.) She is less forgiving in retelling the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, engineered largely by missionary descendants. In Vowell’s estimation, the 1896 annexation of Hawaii by America was criminally outrageous; only the most naive proponents of American imperialism could disagree.

At 230 paperback pages, “Unfamiliar Fishes” is hardly an exhaustive history, but for a book that’s more entertaining than educational it still provides valuable insight into this land, its people, and the haoles who stole it from them. It probably shouldn’t be the last book you read about Hawaii, but it definitely serves well as a first.

Review: The Devil’s Sword

Several years ago, my former fencing coach gave me his copy of this Douglas E. Richard’s 2009 novel; I could tell by his relieved expression that I was doing him a favor by accepting it. On returning home from practice, I promptly buried the book on my bookshelf, until I finally decided that if I was going to write a novel about fencing, I should probably be familiar with the fencing fiction that’s already out there.

Having completed the novel, I understand why my coach felt it was worthy enough to share, but not keep. The Devil’s Sword is a fast-paced novel, aimed at young readers (not young adult, by any means; the tone is closer to the early Harry Potter novels than The Hate U Give). While the novel is engaging and has some wonderful descriptions of youth fencing, there are several streeeeeeetcher moments, passages which seem too unrealistic even given its genre.

The principal character, Kevin, begins fencing at the age of 12 and finds a sport that provides him with both enjoyment and success. After two years of local competition in San Diego, Kevin travels with his father and two fencing friends to a regional tournament at a military base near Las Vegas. In my years in the sport, I’ve met a lot of young people like Kevin, and their enthusiasm is one of the reasons I find fencing so fascinating. Richards’ novel does an excellent job of describing the rules, training, and tournament structure of the sport, which is why I recommend it for any pre-teen interested in fencing.

Upon arrival at the tournament, Kevin and his companions become involved in a scheme to steal a powerful weapon from the United States government. This parallel plot was added to provide dramatic tension, and given the fantastical nature of youth fiction, a bit of the unbelievable should be tolerated. Yet the would-be thieves, international arms smugglers supposedly too clever and resourceful to be captured by any of the world’s governments, devise a weapon-stealing plan that can best be described as cockamamie, and their execution of that plan is so utterly inept it’s a wonder they haven’t already been caught by Barney Fife or Paul Blart.

A particularly bizarre scene occurs when the thieves, all of whom have military training, first encounter Kevin and his friends by charging into their room with their guns drawn. Kevin responds by thrusting his foil at the lead gunman, who is not only surprised but also disarmed, the foil injuring and nearly breaking his hand. A trained killer being caught off guard by a kid is hard to believe, but can still be accepted given the nature of this genre; using a lightweight weapon with no sharp edge and a flat point not much larger than a nail’s head — a weapon designed exclusively for sport, not combat — to stop a man wielding a gun is such a preposterous notion that its inclusion in this novel seems almost irresponsible. Public Service Announcement: Do not come to a gun fight with a fencing foil.

Fortunately, scenes such as these are eclipsed by the narrative of Kevin’s joyful discovery of the sport of fencing. I’m not sure keeping about keeping this novel on my bookshelf much longer, but I do know plenty of pre-teens at my fencing club who might enjoy giving it a read.

Review: The Children’s Blizzard

This image shows the front cover, which actually does have that cool ragged edge on the right

A book review seems like a great way to resume blogging regularly. At least it does now, so I’m going to write this before I change my mind.

The short prologue to David Laskin’s 2004 book sets the scene — on a January afternoon in 1888, a devastating and swift blizzard swept down the Dakota Territory and reached into the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Hundreds of people were killed, many of them children walking home from school, the latter toll giving name to this natural disaster.

These opening pages are followed by a lengthy account of the settlers who populated the upper Midwest in the wake of the post-Civil War Homestead Acts. The meteorological conditions that produced the blizzard are then described with the detail and rhetoric of a scientific report; similar attention is given to the weather forecasting system of the era, which was run largely by the federal government, prone to bureaucratic in-fighting and inefficiency, and failed to give timely warning of the January 1888 storm. The blizzard does not strike until nearly half-way through the book, and while these opening chapters are rich with information (learning about the Fenian Raids of the 1860s was fascinating, even though they had nothing to do with the book’s topic), the pace at times can be ponderous.

But Laskin’s prose picks up momentum when the blizzard sweeps down from the Canadian Rockies, and people literally start running for their lives. The tales of miraculous survival are riveting, and the largely imagined depictions of fatal last steps are given the appropriate amount of pathos. Among the memorable stories is that of eight-year-old Walter Allen, who was picked up along with his school mates by a rescue team at the blizzard’s outset; remembering a cherished bottle he had left behind, Walter ran back into the schoolhouse — and faced an impassible wall of cold wind and snow when he ran back outside. (Spoiler alert: hours later, Walter’s older brother joins a rescue team which somehow finds him.) Laskin’s attention to detail does not falter in this section, as he digresses (for brief moments only, fortunately) on topics such as rewarming shock, a condition that can kill survivors of hypothermia.

Laskin’s writing style is professional and direct, yet he has some memorable passages. He describes the cold air mass accompanying the blizzard as “a glacier of sluggish gas.” An extended explanation of extreme cold’s effect on the body is also noteworthy:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily… After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens… A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.

Quality writing such as this, combined with Laskin’s meticulous research, makes “The Children’s Blizzard” a solid work of non-fiction.

Review: All the Missing Girls

In literature, there’s a distinction between concept and gimmick. A concept is an overarching idea or structure that makes a novel unique and memorable, while a gimmick is a cheap hook designed to get the reader’s attention.

Megan Miranda’s 2016 novel has an intriguing structure — after the opening chapters sets the scene, introduces the characters, and presents the complication, the plot then progresses two weeks in reverse, each chapter devoted to the day before its previous. It’s a concept rooted in the philosophical belief, introduced in the novel by a quote from Kierkegaard: life must be understood backwards.

This concept only works if details are presented fairly — in other words, if a character uncovers information in day eight, that character should know that information three chapters earlier in day eleven. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work in the novel; too many times, I couldn’t help thinking if a character knew what we later learned she already knew, her later actions would be different. In other words, the structure of “All the Missing Girls” is more a gimmick than concept.

Which is unfortunate, because it is an engaging mystery, with characters who are likable because of their flaws. Nicolette, the first-person narrator, struggles to discover the fate of two missing friends while also coming to terms with her own past. The men in her life — her current boyfriend (Everett), former lover (Tyler), and brother (Daniel) — offer their assistance, yet also provide significant obstacles to her search. The author’s metaphors can be memorable at times (“People were like Russian nesting dolls — versions stacked inside the latest edition.”), and her suspenseful scenes are true page-turners. Miranda is a talented author, and I would definitely consider reading her subsequent novels.

I just wish “All the Missing Girls” had been told in a conventional format. Unfortunately, its gimmicky structure is a distraction.