Hawaii

Prior to downloading this audiobook, I had never read any James Michener novels. After looking at the audiobook’s length, I understood why — 52 flippin’ hours, my friends. If reading a good book is like eating a delicious meal, then reading Michener at times feels like being in an eating contest against a food disposal. Can this story end, so I can do something else with my life? Fortunately I still have a lengthy commute to work, and Hawaii kept me company for a good three months.

The novel consists of six enormous chapters, each focusing on a different historical era. The novel is most famous for its third chapter, a quasi-biographical history of Hawaii’s first missionary families. The missionary legacy in these islands is an embarrassing disgrace; they attempted to eradicate native Hawaiian language and culture, with an arrogant zeal that can only be described as genocidal. And when their toxic ideology and diseases nearly wiped out the native people, the missionaries’ descendants then plundered the wealth of the islands. In Michener’s novel, the missionary families are appropriately monstrous, yet still have qualities of intelligence and compassion (for individual Hawaiians, not the general native population) that make them fully human characters. Historians should pull no punches with the missionaries, but novelists need to make even their worst characters interesting to the reader, and in this regard, Michener’s novel succeeds greatly.

However, that third chapter wasn’t the most interesting for me. I actually preferred the second chapter, a mythological tale of Hawaii’s discovery by explorers from Bora Bora. I’ve read several explanations of how Polynesians were able to find the islands, and I still find it incomprehensible. Yes, they navigated by stars, and followed bird flights — but the distance (2600 nautical miles) is enormous even by today’s standards. How the Polynesians from a millennium and a half ago were able to cover this distance, with their technology, has to be one of the great accomplishments in human history. Michener’s narrative captures the difficulty of this task, and the author also pulls off the difficult task of showing the Bora Borans as primitive yet complex and intriguing characters.

The chapters that followed the third weren’t as interesting to me, but that might say more about my waning attention than it does about the strength of the narrative — the fact that I didn’t abandon the novel is testament to its continued strength. Overall, I though Michener’s “Hawaii” was too ambitious in its scope (was it really necessary to start the novel at the dawn of time?), but the storytelling is strong enough to carry the reader along for the lengthy ride. I’m not sure when I’d pick up another Michener novel again… if I begin a cross-country tour, perhaps.

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Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

Concise might be the most significant word in this book’s title. Anyone looking for a detailed history of Israel will surely be disappointed by Daniel Gordis’ history; monumental events are summarized in a few pages of text (the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, for example, is reviewed in all of eight pages). At times, the almost casual handling of history feels similar to writing about the American Revolutionary War in a haiku.

To his credit, the author begins by admitting he is more interested in telling a story about Israel in the century after the Balfour Declaration than he is on analyzing historical details. And as a story, his book works very well — the narrative is fast-paced, the writing engaging, and the author allows the astounding history of this nation to speak for itself.

No single book about Israel could adequately represent all sides of the many controversies that have surrounded the country even before it was founded. Once again to his credit, Gordis openly admits his perspective — he views Israel as an imperfect but in the end honest and self-reflective nation, plagued by a seemingly endless struggle against its disingenuous and dangerous neighbors. In his Acknowledgments (well worth reading), the author states that many of his peer reviewers told him he had “given Israel a ‘pass’ in areas where much sterner critique was in order;” I’m no expert on this subject, but I agree with this sentiment. If you’re comfortable with a moderate yet partisan Israeli perspective, you’ll find Gordis’ book very readable — but if you’re looking for insights into the Palestinian or Arab perspectives, and particularly if you’ll be upset at their absence, you might want to look elsewhere.

The Handmaid’s Tale

After a lackluster 1990 film adaptation, this 1985 novel appeared destined for the backroom shelves of the dystopian literary canon. Then a certain someone got himself elected president, and with him came a second-in-command with social and cultural beliefs even more extreme than his boss. Hulu’s television series, already in development at the time of the 2016 election, seemed less an homage to a literary classic than a warning shout to America.

But in addition to its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be recognized for its literary qualities. Offred is an engaging narrator, and the theocratic dictatorship in which she lives is fascinating in its brutal orderliness. It’s not a world we’d ever want, but could certainly become ours if we don’t fight against the darker impulses of our society.

The audiobook performance by Claire Danes is very good; Danes gives Offred a complex voice, one aware of the outrages performed against her but also proud of her own petty indiscretions. The novel’s epilogue is included, and in a wise decision is performed by actors other than Danes. Also included is an brief and informative commentary by Margaret Atwood, as well as a concluding academic essay which is unfortunately the driest and least interesting part of the entire audiobook.

Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life

Sometimes it pays to stick with a book even when it turns you off at the beginning.

The opening paragraph of Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction concludes with a metaphor I found entirely self-indulgent, and as the first chapter continued I read many claims that seemed overly simplistic (“We’re limited by our point of view” — yes, and we’re also enabled by it), over the top (“The hardest part of writing creative nonfiction is that you’re stuck with what really happened” — reality is an opportunity, not a prison!), and just plain wrong (“when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie” — anyone who struggles with the truth shouldn’t be writing anything other than political speeches). If I hadn’t purchased the book as part of an online class, I might very well have stopped reading after the first chapter.

Fortunately, subsequent chapters are less egregious, and Gerard has a number of insights into the craft of non-fiction which I found very helpful. I especially like his claim that every story has both an apparent subject (such as the sport of fencing) and a deeper, more meaningful subject (the impact that fencing has on the lives of its competitors). Gerard encourages writers to discover what is meaningful to them, and allow those passions to direct their choice in both apparent and deeper subjects. His advice on interviewing, research, and outlining are also valuable.

Journalists probably won’t like this book, as it contains numerous criticisms (most of which I found appropriate) of mainstream reporting. But writers who believe in the aesthetic qualities of non-fiction writing will appreciate this practical guide to the genre — despite its less than inspiring opening chapter.

King of the Holly Hop

Some words of advice to all private investigators, especially the fictional ones: don’t go to any of your high school reunions, because if you do, somebody’s gonna get themselves killed.

Milan Jacovich arrives at his class’ 40th, and one of his fellow alumni has a drink thrown in his face, walks out to his car, and catches a bullet with his noggin. Advice for reunion attendees: if a private eye shows up, don’t wander off by yourself. Especially if you’re carrying emotional baggage from your high school years.

Hired by the lead suspect in the case to clear his name, Milan interviews many of his classmates, and discovers some ugly scar tissue over adolescent wounds. The lead suspect, for one, had been humiliated during the Holly Hop, a school dance held just before Christmas his senior year; he confronts the cause of his embarrassment at the reunion, and when that man winds up dead minutes later, suspicion rightly falls on him.

“King of the Holly Hop” falls within a series of Milan Jacovich mystery novels written by Les Roberts. I haven’t read any other books in the series, but I didn’t feel at a disadvantage for entering this series without a previous introduction. There isn’t as much action as you’d find in most other mysteries, but Roberts’ characters are complex and engaging. If you like the mystery/crime genre, you’ll appreciate this novel’s craftsmanship, and if you’re just looking for an entertaining read, you’ll find more than enough satisfaction.

Closing Time

It’s 2018, and it’s time.

Time to follow through on an ambition I’ve held since the time I started my professional career almost thirty years ago: to stop working jobs I have to do, and do the work I want to do.

It won’t be easy, because for all the banality of my current profession, it does have its comforts. Several months ago, I realized that three decades of routine had conditioned me to avoid risk. I was going to need some help in order to make the transition to my new career.

It was around that time when I downloaded Your Guide to Calling It Quits, a short book that can be started and finished in the same evening. The author (Kelly Gurnett, who writes and blogs under the name Cordelia) begins with a brief autobiography, which read much like my own experience: “I woke up every morning absolutely dreading the day ahead of me.”

(Honestly, every morning is a bit of a stretch, but there have been far too many dread-full waking hours of late.)

The book didn’t answer all of my questions, but it contained enough insights to be truly inspirational. I particularly appreciated Cordelia’s statement that quitting has to be a positive action.

You can’t quit because you’re fed up with what you’re doing. A response rooted in despair or frustration is likely to lead to an equally negative situation.

You need to quit in order to do what you want to be doing. In other words, you need something to quit for. As I like to say, you need to run towards where you want to be, not away from where you are now.

Precisely because it is so short, “Your Guide to Calling it Quits” is a wonderful little gift for anyone contemplating a major career change. (Ironically, the author’s blog has not been updated in close to a year; has Cordelia quit quitting?) I’ve enjoyed revisiting the book lately and letting myself be inspired by its pithy advice.

I’m going to need that inspiration in the coming year, because this transition ain’t gonna be easy. Indeed, every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.

Tweety & the Monkey Man

For most people, stopping a murderous man-ape would be enough challenge for one day. But Jess Friedman, Monster Hunter Mom and protagonist of “Tweety & the Monkey Man”, must also endure the killer stares of disapproving mothers, sadistic personal trainers, and self-righteous daycare providers.

The novella, the first of a series set in the same fictive universe as Eric Asher’s Bubba The Monster Hunter, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and enjoyable work of urban horror fantasy. Blackrose’s attempts at humor can be a little forced at times — there is a reference to the famous “failure to communicate” line from “Cool Hand Luke” which seems entirely out of place for a mid-thirties woman in 2017 — but the overall quality of her writing more than compensates for her occasional faults.

Like all the books in the Bubba universe, “Tweety & the Monkey Man” is published by Falstaff Books, an independent fantasy/sci-fi press from North Carolina. The book shows all the qualities of professional editing — the tone is consistent, the cover design is subtle but appealing, and each of the secondary characters is given an opportunity to shine. More than a few typos slipped through the cracks, and I do wish the editorial staff had talked the author out of that “Cool Hand Luke” reference, but their efforts certainly give this book a polished appearance.

We’re All Going to Die, So Let’s Go Fishing

It’s perhaps unwise, and certainly ungenerous, to let the wisenheimer in me create the title of this post. Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel deserves its standing as a classic of apocalyptic fiction, because it presents an incredibly depressing topic in a manner that’s compelling and unforgettable. It begins just after a global nuclear war has devastated the northern part of the planet. In southern Australia, a handful of survivors hope to avoid the southern spread of radioactive fallout, and make contact with anyone above the equator. Yet with the advance of each page, hope is eliminated like autumn leaves falling to the ground. There is nobody left to receive the messages sent from Australia; the radiation retains its lethal potency as it makes its unstoppable descent. “On the Beach” is one of the few literary works where it’s best to know how it will end before you begin reading, because that ending — the extermination of humanity, as well as most other life on Earth — is overwhelming to contemplate.

And yet, while I appreciate the novel’s ability to keep me engaged with its characters, I can’t help being amused by their unwavering serenity. Maybe I’ve seen too many Mad Max movies, and been conditioned to believe civilization is just a catastrophe away from collapsing into anarchy and brutality. By comparison, the stoicism with which the characters in “On the Beach” meet their doom seems quaint, antiquated. Their actions seem impossibly naive; one character decides to enroll in secretarial school, another finishes working on his sports car, and as the government announces that suicide pills will be distributed free of charge (how charmingly magnanimous), one couple decides to, yes, go on a fishing trip. (They worry that their fishing may disrupt the breeding cycle of the fish, an incredibly odd thought for people who know that everything’s going to be dead within a few weeks.)

But maybe it’s that impossible serenity that explains this novel’s continued appeal. We probably believe that we should respond to Armageddon with such tranquility, even if we can’t actually see ourselves acting that way if our end does come. And that is why, despite having the most depressing of all outcomes, and despite the irresistable temptation to have some fun with its outdated sentimentallity,  “On the Beach” nevertheless remains an inspirational novel.

I Am Legend

After finishing the excellent Station Eleven a few months ago, I was inspired to read other works of apocalyptic fiction. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” may not have been the first “killer virus” novel, but it’s influence on the genre cannot be disputed, and seemed a good place to start.

Like many classic science-fiction novels of its time, “I Am Legned” attempts to provide a scientific explanation for a supernatural phenomenon. The vampires who ravish the United States are infected by a bacteria, and it’s the task of the protagonist, Richard Neville, to find a cure. The epidemiology of the plague is interesting, although how it turns its victims into full-blown Gothic bloodsuckers seems a bit of a stretch.

But it’s not the science that makes this novel appealing. Neville, who believes he might be the only human immune to the bacteria, mostly succeeds in his nightly battles against the vampires, but fares far worse against his crushing isolation.  Read as a character study of a man losing a war against loneliness, “I Am Legend” continues its appeal well over fifty years after its publication.

I Will Find You

If I have to go to prison, I will miss you. And when I get out, I will find you.

Those are the final words spoken to Joanna Connors by the man who had just brutally raped her. Twenty years after the attack, Connors realized she had never fully recovered from the assault, and began writing “I Will Find You” (2016) in order to understand what forces led to the violent collision between her and her attacker.

The description of the rape in the second chapter is probably the most courageous writing I’ve ever read. Connors recounts the attack in almost clinical terms, neither sanitizing nor over-dramatizing what happens to her. She even spices her narrative with dark humor in a manner that seems bizarrely appropriate. It is a tough read; I can’t imagine anyone surviving such an attack without losing their mind. But in order to understand her struggles in the coming decades, we need to see this attack in all its brutality.

As she describes the research she conducted years later on her attacker’s background, Connors touches on a number of hot-button social issues — the wording and application of rape laws, the racial divide between black and white Americans, the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. The author’s handling of any of these issues would be worthy of analysis, but what I want to focus on for this review are her comments on the practice of journalism. When she begins to interview her assailant’s family, Connors provides a half-true statement of her intention. Her explanation is reasonable — who would want to speak to someone who says “Can I ask you some questions about your brother, who raped me?” — and one can see why lying about herself was the quickest way to get to the truth. To her credit, Connors sees why tactics such as hers, while perhaps necessary in her profession, are what lead to the negative impression most Americans have of the news media.

“I Will Find You” is a thoughtful, meticulous, and well-crafted narrative. It is a difficult subject to read about, but at a time when the leader of our country brags about sexual assault, we need to pay attention to the voices of the victims.