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Monday, June 1, 2015

DEATH AND THE PENGUIN and PENGUIN LOST by Andrey Kurkov


Death and the Penguin is an odd tale, told well. Viktor, like everyone else in post-Soviet Kiev, is doing what he can and must to keep going on. Viktor owns little more than a typewriter, but when the local zoo, low on funds, has to get rid of animals, Viktor and Misha become roommates. Misha is a penguin.

Misha is not an overly cute or anthropomorphized penguin. He doesn't solve crimes or engage in witty dialog. In Antarctica he'd be perfectly normal, he's odd only because he is living in an apartment in Kiev. Responsible for Misha's well-being, Viktor turned from failed novel writing to something shorter that the local paper might publish, something that might make a bit of money, at least enough to buy fish for Misha.

Viktor's writing gambit is successful when it leads to some steady work, he's given the job of writing obelisks, obituaries of people of varying degrees of prominence. These people aren't dead yet, Viktor's work is for the files, for use at a later date. But when those people start dying shortly with a disturbing frequency, Viktor begins to wonder if he's writing obelisks or death warrants. More questions arise when a local mobster, also named Misha, decides that a penguin is an ideal guest for a funeral.

Andrey Kurkov tells his tale quickly, with short chapters and spare, almost poetic prose. The mystery is far more than a simple who-done-it, this is a world where Viktor's editor explains "your interest lies in not asking questions." He adds "The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."

Like Viktor, the reader spends most of Death and the Penguin wondering what the hell is going on. Like life itself, the big question of "why?" must be asked.

I try in my reviews not to tell too much, the telling is the job of the book and my job is to tell you if the book is worthwhile. I will say only this, the ending of Death and the Penguin is pretty much perfect and the book is a complete little gem.

There is a sequel, Penquin Lost, and it's just as good as the first. Where Death and the Penguin takes place entirely in Kiev, Penquin Lost occupies a larger stage and the big question is not so much "why?" as "how?" In Death and the Penguin, we want Viktor to know. In Penquin Lost, we want him to win.

Kurkov's Penguin books provide a fascinating look at what remains when much is taken away. They are absurd but so is life and at the core they are true and good. When the zoo goes broke, you take the penguin home. Because you can, because you must. In the end, saving the penguin saves the man.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac: A Novel by Sharma Shields


The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac opens in 1943 when nine-year-old Eli Robuck is abandoned by his mother who willing walks out of his life and into the woods with "Mr. Krantz",  a giant, hairy stranger who may or may not be Sasquatch. From this haunting scene the novel builds in a series of scenes, like faded snapshots in an old album, to tell the story of Eli's lifelong obsession.

Sharma Shields paces her story perfectly, each chapter could easily stand on its own as a short story, but each also adds to a greater understanding not only of Eli but the lives of those around him. Eli, his family, and their various monsters are all fascinating. Shields writes so strongly we can not doubt the conviction of her characters, but she writes of things so strange we find ourselves doubting our own understanding of a world we thought we knew.

There are more monsters than a single hairy beast contained in these pages and a merging of the familiar and the strange that is reminiscent of the best writing of Ray Bradbury. Shields can, in a single sentence, widen the world and invite the reader in. Near the end of the novel, she opens a chapter focused on one of Eli's daughters:

"On the way to one of her three weekly therapy appointments, Ginger hit a unicorn with her car."

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is a dark story made of stories, of monsters sighted in dim light and never forgotten. It is a walk in the dark woods that does not promise a safe return but perhaps something better and more valuable, an understanding of our own, often beastly nature.

Monday, April 27, 2015

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler


We are all completely beside ourselves is a novel of profound empathy. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, a woman who begins her story in the middle. Any reader who has glanced at the book jacket or browsed a review on Amazon will know that this is a story of a chimp and a human raised as siblings but Rosemary spends 76 delightful pages dancing around the simian identity of her sister. This is not an annoying literary stunt, it's a completely honest way to tell the tale. If you were to meet Rosemary in real life the first thing out of her mouth would not be the words "my sister is a chimpanzee."

Rosemary begins her story when she's in college in California. She's tried and somewhat succeeded in leaving her family and many of her memories back in Indiana when she meets Harlow Fielding, a young woman who literally crashes into the story swearing and smashing dishes. She has her reasons. Forty minutes later Rosemary and Harlow are tucked into the back of a Yolo County police car, headed for jail. Harlow introduces herself, "So glad you decided to come with. I'm Harlow Fielding. Drama department." Indeed.

Rosemary's voice is a compelling one and her story, which grows to reveal her father, mother, brother and yes, her sister who is a chimpanzee, is as fascinating and true as life itself. Which is to say that it is funny and sad and foolish and wise, often at the same time.

Karen Joy Fowler writes with great empathy. Minor characters prove to be less minor than they appeared at first glance. Fowler's characters, be they human, simian, family, friend or foe, are complex. Rosemary remembers, but doubts her memories.

This is a story of a loving family and ways that love can go awry and ways that broken things may in time be mended. It's a story of how a quest for knowledge can lead us to places we don't expect and how our past choices make us what we are today. It is the story of what we think we have to lock away and what we ultimately have to free.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

ANTHILL: A Novel by E. O. Wilson


ANTHILL is a remarkable novel. Harvard professor E. O. Wilson has spent his life in science, devoting much of his work to the study of ants, but being a good scientist doesn't necessarily make a person a good novelist or storyteller. But in ANTHILL Wilson tells a warm, detailed, compelling story, proving conclusively that a scientist's eye and a poet's voice can coexist in a single body. Wilson's scientific attention to detail informs this story, giving it unexpected depth and wisdom but it is character and conflict that keep the reader eagerly turning pages.

The story is that of a boy, Raff Cody, who grows to be a man. Raff's parents are from two slightly different worlds, his mother comes from an old-money, rich-historied southern family, while Raff's dad is a good old southern boy whose dreams are satisfied with a good truck and beer money for Friday nights. Raff finds a refuge from the tensions in his small town Alabama home in the woods of Nokobee County a place he grows to love.

ANTHILL is broad in scope. Time brings changes to the Nokobee woods. Raff grows from an inquisitive kid, to a student of nature, to a mature defender of nature. Raff's struggles and growth are fascinating to follow and contemplate, particularly how his ultimate approach to conflict is informed by his studies of the ants.

And make no mistake, Wilson packs a wealth of nature knowledge into this novel. The reader can't help but learn and be charmed by small details of small creatures but it's the larger echoes, the way all lives, big and small, intersect that makes Raff Cody's story come to life.

E. O. Wilson's novel uses the lives of ants and men to help us make sense of the rich and fragile world we both inhabit. He reveals a world worth fighting for and creatures, both human and insect, whose lives are in the balance. I learned a lot about ants from this book, but more importantly, I learned about people, conflict and myself. And I got to read a terrific story along the way.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Monkey's Wrench by Primo Levi


The Monkey's Wrench is a slim, wise novel. Primo Levi begins with the simplest of circumstances, two men in a remote location who pass the time by recounting tales of past jobs, and, in a totally appropriate, workman-like manner, constructs a tale made of tales, a meditation on the nature of work and the nature of man. Most of the stories are told by Libertine Faussone, a rigger who has build towers, derricks and bridges all over the world. Faussone's stories are fascinating, sometimes funny, and always worthwhile. They contain a weary wisdom, an appreciation for the many small things that ultimately make big things succeed or fail. The second man in this tale, the writer-chemist narrator who spends much of the novel listening, eventually tells his own tale, of how he rigs molecules and words.

This is a book for anyone who has ever taken pride in a job well done, marvelled at the work of a craftsman, or wondered about the ways of the world. This book contains cautions, tales of monkeys wrenching in imitation of men's expertise with disastrous results, but there are celebrations as well. Our understanding is seldom as great as we think but even when we fail to build the bridge we build something better from the twisted girders. We build the knowledge necessary to do better the next time. We become smarter monkeys with better wrenches. And our best wrenches are words, wise words told in fine tales, packaged expertly in fine books such as this one.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Summer of Love, A Time Travel by Lisa Mason


Summer of Love, A Time Travel is a fine story. Lisa Mason takes three interesting characters, a time traveller from a future 500 years hence, a 14-year-old midwestern runaway flower child, and hip shopkeeper and places them all in the fascinating place and time that was San Francisco's Summer of Love, 1967.

Mason has certainly done her homework. You can almost smell the pot and patchouli, see the painted faces and hear the sounds of Janis and the Grateful Dead as Chi, Starbright and Ruby fight to hold on to what really matters at a time when everything seems possible and even the smallest things can have huge consequences.

The time travel plot is nicely (if a bit predictably) done and the glimpses from Chi's future world are fascinating, frightening and ultimately hopeful. Starbright is 100 percent convincing as a confused, loyal, idealistic, moody teenager who really could hold the key to what is to come. And Ruby Maverick, the shopkeeper who reluctantly gives the two young strangers shelter and strength in a strange and wondrous time is strong and smart and the kind of friend you'd want holding your hand or watching your back when the trip starts going strange.

Summer of Love, A Time Travel is not a rose-colored look backwards. It's is a kaleidoscopic look at a time of both darkness and light, of confusion and clarity. It's scary and beautiful, a strange trip where maybe all you need is a little love and some flowers in your hair.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Golden Road and Beyond: A Grateful Dead Primer


I've been a Deadhead for about four decades now. It was a cassette of American Beauty that turned me on to Jerry and the gang. I know that they're not everybody's cup of tea, and that's alright, but I do want to put my own life as a counter-example to those folks who contend you've got to be chemically altered somehow to enjoy the music of the Dead. I'm about as sober as they come (no moral judging, it's just my nature) and I totally dig their country, bluesy, poetic jams. I think, ironically, it's because the Dead are ultimately just so damn life affirming.

Last week on Amazon I stumbled onto this fine Kindle book called The Grateful Dead and Beyond: A Grateful Dead Primer. I didn't need priming, but the book was free and it turns out it's a good little history of the Dead together with a nice discography. Written by Dennis McNally, the Dead's longtime publicist, there are some good stories about the circumstances behind the band, their songs and the legendary tours. I learned stuff I didn't know, learned more about things I'd heard about and generally enjoyed every page.

If you aren't a Deadhead, don't start with this book. Start with their music and you can start pretty much anywhere. Tons of their stuff is publicly available (the Dead are big on that, another thing I love about them). I'll include a few links to some fun Youtube videos and what I think are their best albums.

Keep on truckin'.