Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Great Texas Novel: Philipp Meyer's The Son

I can't think of any book that could be called the "Great American Novel." The U.S. is so big, it's easier to find "Great Novels" state by state. For Texas, we have a strong nominee in Philipp Meyer's recently-released novel The Son:
In 1859, Eli McCullough, the 13-year-old son of Texas pioneers, is captured in a brutal Comanche raid on his family's homestead. First taken as a slave along with his less intrepid brother, Eli assimilates himself into Comanche culture, learning their arts of riding, hunting, and total warfare. When the tribe succumbs to waves of disease and settlers, Eli's only option is a return to Texas, where his acquired thirsts for freedom and self-determination set a course for his family's inexorable rise through the industries of cattle and oil. The Son is Philipp Meyer's epic tale of more than 150 years of money, family, and power, told through the memories of three unforgettable narrators: Eli, now 100 and known simply as "the Colonel"; Eli's son Peter, called "the great disappointment" for his failure to meet the family’s vision of itself; and Eli's great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne, who struggles to maintain the McCullough empire in the economic frontier of modern Texas.
Cattle, oil, and their environmental costs are big themes in the book. So perhaps a fitting news story is this May 17th article from CNN, "Texas sues BP, Halliburton, others over oil spill:"
Texas on Friday became the latest state to sue BP, Halliburton and others tied to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, alleging the parties "engaged in willful and wanton misconduct" and seeking penalties and damages "to the fullest extent allowed by law." The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, more than three years after one of the worst oil spills in American history.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bookin' it Across the USA

Road trip!  Can I go coast-to-coast on Newsworthy Novels recommendations?

We can start way up in Alaska, dog-sledding across the vast, snowy frontier (The Iditarod & Henry's Murder on the Iditarod Trail)...

...Then we'll head across Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north that has somehow turned into the world neighborhood's crack-den of dirty politics.  Hi, Rob Ford!  Anyway, moving on ... (Canadian Politics & Fallis' The Best Laid Plans)...

...moving on South, we'll check in with the Border Patrol (and dodge the drug-smugglers) as we cross over into Washington State (The Border Patrol, the US-Canadian Border, & Lynch's Border Songs) ...

...make our way through lush, green Oregon and Northern California (Marijuana in the US & Boyle’s Budding Prospects )...

...until we reach Southern California, with TC Boyle's classic about Mexican immigrants (U.S. Immigration Reform & Boyle's Tortilla Curtain )...

...then we can "drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas" for a little Hunter S. Thompson action (Las Vegas' Fall/Rise & Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas )...

For Texas, I haven't read The Son by Philipp Meyer, but I hear it's excellent and it sounds like the Great Texas Novel may have finally arrived...

Moving on, we'll head north through the Great Plains and the Native American Reservations... ( North Dakota's Tribes & Erdrich's The Round House)

...through Iowa with its presidential caucuses... Sex Scandal Rebounds & Klein's Primary Colors

...maybe stopping by at a baseball game at one of Wisconsin's universities... College Baseball & Harbach's The Art of Fielding 

...until we make our way to Chicago and the meat-packing plants... British Horsemeat Scandal & Sinclair's The Jungle 

...and we can stop by Detroit... Detroit & Eugenides' Middlesex

...before we head east, through West Virginia with its coal mines... West Virginia Coal Mining, Mountaintop Removal, & Pancake's Strange as This Weather Has Been ...

..and maybe we'll drop into DC for some politicking... April 27th White House Correspondents' Dinner & Tanabe's The List

Then it's off to New York to hit Wall Street... Bond Traders & Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities ...

...and up to the Athens of America to see how things are going for med school grads... Medical School & Shem's House of God...

...and finally, we'll end our trip up in the Northeast with those Ivy League kids and their crazy neo-Grecian/satanic rituals!  University Scandals & Tartt's The Secret History


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rabbit Hunting & Adams' Watership Down

It's not often that I side with gun-toting psychopaths, but I'll make an exception for Mr. Rodney Wold of Kentucky. Here is yesterday's Daily Mail article about him, "Man threatens his neighbor with an AK-47 in a dispute over rabbits:"
A 64-year-old man brandishing an AK47 assault rifle allegedly threatened his neighbor after spotting him trying to scare rabbits away from his garden.
Rodney Wold, from Louisville, shouted from his porch: "If you want to hunt something, hunt men," according to police.
The dispute on Thursday started when Wold's neighbor was using an air rifle to scare rabbits away from his back garden. When Wold saw the neighbor, he allegedly fetched the AK47 from his house and appeared on his porch moments later, brandishing it.
"He loaded the magazine with, I believe it was, 19 rounds and went back outside and pointed it at his neighbor," police spokesman Carey Klain said.
Sounds like excellent material for the next Steven Seagal movie! Anyway, for a novel that will help you see the world from rabbits' perspective (and maybe even see Mr. Wold as a hero), try Richard Adams' Watership Down:
Richard Adams's bunny-centric epic...follows a warren of Berkshire rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home by a land developer. As they search for a safe haven, skirting danger at every turn, we become acquainted with the band and its compelling culture and mythos.
Adams has crafted a touching, involving world in the dirt and scrub of the English countryside, complete with its own folk history and language (the book comes with a "lapine" glossary, a guide to rabbitese).  As much about freedom, ethics, and human nature as it is about a bunch of bunnies looking for a warm hidey-hole and some mates...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Earth-Bound Asteroids & Winters' The Last Policeman

Back in February I posted about the meteor that injured hundred in Russia ("Impact Events & Lucifer's Hammer") and matched it with Lucifer's Hammer, a novel that speculated about what would happen to society after a cataclysmic impact event.

Now there's going to be another large rock flying near Earth (not hitting us, thankfully!), and I have a recommendation for a novel that looks at how we would react before a world-ending impact event, if we knew that impact was coming and that there was nothing we could do about it.

Here's Friday's LA Times article "Dark, massive asteroid to fly by Earth on May 31:"
It's 1.7 miles long. Its surface is covered in a sticky black substance similar to the gunk at the bottom of a barbecue. If it impacted Earth it would probably result in global extinction. Good thing it is just making a flyby.
Asteroid 1998 QE2 will make its closest pass to Earth on May 31 at 1:59 p.m. PDT.
Scientists are not sure where this unusually large space rock, which was discovered 15 years ago, originated from. But the mysterious sooty substance on its surface could indicate it may be the result of a comet that flew too close to the sun...
For a novel about Earth-bound asteroids, try The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters:
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares...
As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

Bipolar Disorder, Possible Flu Link, & Garey's Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See

(Previous bipolar disorder posts: Bipolar Disorder & Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, New Bipolar Disorder Treatment & Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook.)

Here's last week's New York Times article "Flu in Pregnancy Is Linked to Bipolar Disorder:"
Flu infection during pregnancy may increase the risk for bipolar disorder in the child, according to a new report...
From 1959 through 1966, researchers recruited more than 19,000 pregnant women enrolled in a large health insurance program in California, collecting data on influenza infection from just before conception until delivery.
Using various techniques, they tracked down cases of bipolar disorder among the offspring from 1981 to 2010 and found 92 cases of documented illness and 722 matched controls, a sample size the authors acknowledge is not large.
After controlling for maternal age, race, educational level, gestational age at birth and maternal psychiatric disorders, they found that people whose mothers had the flu during pregnancy had quadruple the risk for bipolar disorder as adults.
For a novel about bipolar disorder, try Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey:
Debut novelist Juliann Garey channels movie studio exec Greyson Todd’s spiral into madness with the intimacy of memoir. Punctuated by electroshock treatments that dampen Greyson's extremes at the expense of his sense of self, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See maps his memories before and since his mother’s death threw his mind for a perpetual loop.
Greyson's roaring mania has an upside: It spawns a lust for risks that reward him richly in Hollywood. But as the highs give way to immobilizing lows that become impossible to hide, he leaves his wife and daughter and disappears into the Israeli outback, then Nairobi, Bangkok, and eventually New York, where everyone is “impatient and irritable and agitated,” so he fits right in.
Deep cash reserves allow Greyson to indulge the urges brought on by full-blown bipolar disorder for a good decade before he lands in a psych ward, and his exploits take on spectacularly lavish, absurd proportions, but you’ll laugh through gritted teeth. And though you may not ever like him, you’ll know his pain well enough to be grateful for every grain of sanity he regains.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Obesity & Attenberg's The Middlesteins

From last week's BBC article "Rise in obesity poses dementia time bomb:"
Ever-growing waistlines could result in a big increase in the number of people who develop dementia in the future, researchers have warned...
Nobody knows exactly what causes dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, but body weight appears to be a risk factor. One study of 8,500 Swedish twins showed that those with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30, who are classified as obese, were almost four times as likely to develop dementia as those with a normal BMI.
For a novel about obesity, try Attenberg's The Middlesteins:
For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food--thinking about it, eating it--and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.
When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle-- a whippet thin perfectionist-- is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party.
Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too? With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.
If you'd prefer a young-adult novel, you might like Blubber by Judy Blume:
Sometimes a writer will make a character fat as a political tool, in order to convey their own intended message, be it one of size acceptance, tolerance, or other. This seems most prevalent, logically, in children's books - Judy Blume's Blubber is the strongest example that comes to mind.
Written realistically from the point of view of an average-sized, ordinary child named Jill, Blubber tells the story of the merciless, constant taunting of Jill's obese classmate, Linda. Jill struggles to reconcile her own feelings of guilt and her need to not be cruel with her fear of falling victim to the same cruelty as her overweight peer.
This is one of the few children's books I can think of that deals honestly with the kind of bullying fat (and other noticeably 'different') kids are subject to, and its brutality. Blume makes her point, without coming off as preachy or judgmental or bonking the reader over the head with obvious, overblown clearcut endings.
(The review above is from the excellent essay "The Skinny on Fat in Fiction.")

Germans in the Old West & Hershon's The German Bride

From Wednesday's BBC article "German dialect in Texas is one of a kind, and dying out:"
The first German settlers arrived in Texas over 150 years ago and successfully passed on their native language throughout the generations - until now.
German was the main language used in schools, churches and businesses around the hill country between Austin and San Antonio. But two world wars and the resulting drop in the standing of German meant that the fifth and sixth generation of immigrants did not pass it on to their children.
For a novel about German immigrants in the Old West, try The German Bride by Joanna Hershon:
Hershon's third novel...is a stylish account of a German Jewish young woman's often brutal odyssey to the post–Civil War American Southwest. After a family tragedy in Berlin, Eva Frank flees in shame and guilt to Santa Fe with her new husband, Abraham Shein. Abraham and his older brother, Meyer, are successful dry goods merchants, and once Eva and Abraham arrive in Santa Fe, Eva's narrative becomes a fish-out-of-water story as the promises Abraham made to her fail to materialize. Abraham, an abusive philanderer with a gambling addiction, wants a child, and Eva wants Abraham to build them a proper house. Eva—hoarding her dowry—begins scheming ways to abandon Santa Fe and establish a better life in San Francisco, but fleeing from unstable Abraham is a dangerous proposition.