Tuesday, January 17, 2017

BITTER IS THE WIND, love and loss and what life can and cannot do to you

Rare Bird Books

$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bitter Is The Wind is a coming of age novel that traces the lives of George Johnson, Jr. and his father from the rural blue collar landscape of upstate New York in the 1970s to the halls of Wharton Business School and the heights of Wall Street. After a family tragedy strengthens their familial bond, the Johnsons contend with assembly line monotony, unfulfilled dreams of baseball stardom, and they learn what it means to be tempted, trapped, jailed and ignored by a seemingly uncaring God.

First-time novelist Jim McDermott opens a window on the American working class and its aching desire for financial security, recognition, and respect. His characters confront a modern world with limited possibilities, ambiguous mores, and authorities who seem devoted to keeping the brightest and most talented members of the underclass on the other side of town. Bitter Is The Wind deconstructs the American dream.


My Review: Any book that leads off with the main character remembering the Miracle Mets winning the World Series in 1969 is a shoo-in for my deep affection.

Following the George Johnsons from lows to lowers to heights unimaginable at the beginning is a heady experience. The father fails the son...in both their eyes...but for wildly different reasons. I have a shit relationship with my own father, still living for some unknown but unnecessary reason; George Junior comes to realize how much he owes his father, and how much his father loves him. Bile rose in my throat at that: Sheer tortured jealousy that someone dared to have a father whose love was real, and whom they could offer love to! How cruel to be deprived of any bond of love or respect or even tolerance from or towards my own father.

So already we know McDermott's the real deal. His story is set against the same time as my own life has been lived, and it was very much like revisiting that historical moment when men like George Senior were learning just how hard the system they believed in was fucking them. I don't come from a working-class background, but I can tell you that's how the story was playing out on TV from the Nixon Recession of 1969-1971 to the Oil Embargo of 1973-1974 to the Hostage Crisis and Oil Shock of 1979...through the horrors of the Reagan years...it felt as bleak and as hopeless as McDermott has his characters feel:
George Sr visited later that night. He sat on the sidewalk near the gasoline pumps. He opened a can of Shop-Rite cola and watched his sixteen-year-old son work. Selling gasoline instead of rabbits. Cleaning up after customers instead of rabbits. Wearing a collared Texaco shirt with his name on it instead of a tee shirt. He took a swig from the can and set it on the sidewalk. "Kid forced me out of the rabbit business," he muttered.

A Cadillac approached from the Taconic and stopped in front of the pumps. George Sr stood up and chucked his soda can into the metal trash container. He waved goodbye to his son and walked toward his pickup. "Unemployment's over 9 percent and he's responsible for a whole business," he said to himself.
How proud a man feels when his child, his son, does well! That's doing well, see: Waiting on a guy in a Cadillac as the one running the gas station, not working with rabbits at a lab. That's bleak...but the kid's got a job, the dad's got a job, and they're doing better than millions of others. (Then and now.)

A stupid mistake, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, could have cost George Jr his entire future. It was the Just Say No era, after all, and a drug bust isn't a great thing to have on a resume. But George Jr climbs over the obstacle, by gawd, and he gets himself into Wharton...that's one hell of an achievement...and he gets himself a really good job by the time Reagan's second administration is getting underway. He's Made It. And making it feels...

...about like not making feels. Not great. Not awful. Just not the high of highs you're expecting after the build-up and the work you've had to do. It's great not to have to clean rabbit cages, goodness knows. But...Peggy Lee said it best...Is That All There Is? If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing.

But life doesn't have any interest in you or your needs. Life gets going and then you're halfway done! Keep dancing...keep dancing...keep dancing....

But there are moments when you get to decide whether you're ready for the Final Disappointment:
"George, I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. You're going to LA. It's part of the job. You're well paid."

George circled around the coffee table, stopping in front of [his boss]. "Nope." George's eyes narrowed. "I'm not going."

"What?" [his boss] asked, raising his hand.

"You heard me. Go find somebody else. I quit."

George spun around on his freshly polished shoes. He walked to his office, picked up his jacket, and left the building. On the way back to the subway, he handed the disabled Vietnam veteran a five dollar bill.
And so the boy who made good makes good at last. He learns slowly, this one, but learn he does and he decides he's ready to keep dancing. This time, though, it will be his own tune.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I've read too many books to believe what I'm told. #ReadingIsResistance

It’s 2017…do you know where your values are? Mine, on this Martin Luther King, Junior, Day are aligned with Dr. King’s as outlined in the "I have a dream" speech. You can find it on YouTube if you've never seen it.

On Friday the 20th, a new administration will formally begin. For many of us this is a tragedy out of Greek drama. It seems to many of us that the gods must be angry with us, have decided to punish us by having the least qualified, most appalling kind of human being sworn in as the leader of our country despite the fact he’ll be in violation of the Constitution he’ll be swearing to uphold from the instant he swears the oath. See the Emoluments Clause for just one, but a very powerful one, of the reasons for this. I don’t know what will happen after this act of treason takes place, but in my fantasies, a bolt of lightning will fry the slab of bacon with his hand on the Bible and the lie on his lips before the oath can be completed. A boy can dream.

In an earlier post, I outlined my purpose for this year of change: I want to bring the act of resistance to kakistocracy, to scumbagarchy, to the ascendance of the very worst that our beautiful, powerful, gigantically capable country can offer, right down to your head. No one can tell you what to read. No one can tell you how to feel about what you read. No one can (yet) tell you what books, magazines, newspapers, you can own, subscribe to, read on your various electronic devices. The very act of reading is resistance to the authoritarian…and soon to be, in my worried opinion, totalitarian…chants of the opinion influencers sent forth like the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys in an ever-stronger assault on your independence of thought.

Reading cannot be controlled in the way that watching can be. The act prevents it. Reading is direct communication between a writer and a reader, unmediated by manipulative images or voiceovers, undistracted by advertising messages or unrelated messages in “crawls” across part of the visual field. There is a reason our elites have done their most strenuous best to make reading unpopular: Whatever the message of the author, the reader receives it whole and entire. Many are not able to perceive the didactic purpose of the writer, others misinterpret the message, some simply disagree with what the author is saying. (My Goodreads reviews of the bullshit written by Ann Coulter and the homophobe Orson Scott Card are examples of the latter.) None of this changes the unsafe truth that, once eyeballs receive and brain interprets the written word, the outside world cannot erase and can only in a limited way amend the author’s ideas in the reader’s head.

There is a very, very good reason that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were of great concern to the Founding Fathers. There is a reason that no license to own and operate a printing press has ever been required in the US. To redress the error of “allowing freedom of the press” (take a moment to unpack that…freedom allowed? how is that meant to work, if it’s allowed it can be disallowed and therefore is not freedom…this same headscratching tautology applies to “granting rights”), the Powers That Be determined that broadcasting would be licensed (“to prevent chaos” since there would be no stopping use of any channel by anyone and that would be bad, wouldn’t it) and regulated and controlled. For more than fifty years, those controls required broadcasters to perform civic duties, which led to “Meet the Press” and its ilk; but the Reagan Administration lifted those requirements among a host of others and the snakepit of cable news channels spewing unfair and imbalanced vitriolic lies took less than a decade to form. No licensing agency can enforce standards that aren’t defined, as the standards for news once were. And thus was the liberal majority of the bygone era betrayed by their ideological enemies who came into power at last in the 1980s.

The Great Satan shown in the act of sucking the life from the USA

The “vast right-wing conspiracy” as Mrs. Clinton so honestly, but ineptly, named them got the bit in their teeth and began to trample the truth under the cloven hooves of pundits, commentators, talk show hosts “independent” of that new shibboleth, “the Liberal Media.” (What Liberal Media? is an instructive analysis of what actually happened. I recommend it whole-heartedly.) Public trust in the institution Constitutionally protected from legal and official restraint plummeted as the endless lying bullshit flew at them from every direction. The onslaught was coordinated, as the perspective of hindsight demonstrates with blinding clarity. And it was unstoppable because it was not from any official source; it was not a conspiracy because it is not illegal to organize a campaign of words that is not criminal in its nature; and it was, therefore, wildly successful. A knife was applied to the throats of opposing pundits, very frequently academics and intellectuals, as the eternal US suspicion of intellectuals was fanned to a white heat and the efficacy of public education was pumped full of hot air to delegitimize academia and therefore academics daring to speak against the unfolding authoritarian dumbing-down of a population primed to find fault with a system stacked, blatantly and undisguisably, against them. A bit of distraction, a lot of misinformation, titanic waves of misdirection funded by people with oceans of money and rip-currents of purpose, and one dupe to lead them all: Here we are.

The Guiltiest of the Guilty Parties in the long national nightmare that will be the new administration

It felt to me, as I watched this debacle unfold before my disbelieving eyes, hopeless and unstoppable. It has proven to be unstoppable. Nothing is hopeless. Hope is internal. Hope is generated from within, not received from without. That simple truth saved my sanity in the aftermath of the first Russian candidate for the US presidency becoming the president elect.
Hope comes from within; words come from without. How can reading grow hope? The only place you can ever put your money that no one can take it away from you is inside your head. Education, formal or not, happens when you read. Whatever you choose to read, two things are inherent in the act: You are the sole actor, yours is the choice that can’t be compelled, yours the ideas that come from reading the words. Any words. Novels, plays, encyclopedias, comic books, biographies, essays, magazines, websites, satires. It does not matter. YOU selected the reading material. YOU read it. YOU grew your own thoughts inside your own head after reading it.


All of my reviews for 2017 will be about the act of resistance. I read something. I chose it. I resisted the shouts and the screams and the distractions and I fed my head. I want you to do the same thing. I’ll tell you about the things I read and I hope you’ll want to read at least some of them. But even if you’re not interested in a single book that I review, I want you to realize something that applies to you as well as to me: If an old poor disabled guy who can’t march in protests, can’t go to meetings, can’t give to worthy causes, can resist the tsunami of terror, so can you. Read a book. Tell everyone you can reach what you read. Your very act of reading resists the drumbeat of dumbing-down, of getting inside your head by making so much noise that you can’t form a thought for yourself. Tell everyone you can reach, every time you can reach them, how you claimed your head for yourself and how they can too:


Sunday, January 15, 2017

AND AFTER MANY DAYS, debut Nigerian novelist tells personal/political tale of loss


Tim Duggan Books
$25 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: During the rainy season of 1995, in the bustling town of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, one family's life is disrupted by the sudden disappearance of seventeen-year-old Paul Utu, beloved brother and son. As they grapple with the sudden loss of their darling boy, they embark on a painful and moving journey of immense power which changes their lives forever and shatters the fragile ecosystem of their once ordered family. Ajie, the youngest sibling, is burdened with the guilt of having seen Paul last and convinced that his vanished brother was betrayed long ago. But his search for the truth uncovers hidden family secrets and reawakens old, long forgotten ghosts as rumours of police brutality, oil shortages, and frenzied student protests serve as a backdrop to his pursuit.

In a tale that moves seamlessly back and forth through time, Ajie relives a trip to the family's ancestral village where, together, he and his family listen to the myths of how their people settled there, while the villagers argue over the mysterious Company, who found oil on their land and will do anything to guarantee support. As the story builds towards its stunning conclusion, it becomes clear that only once past and present come to a crossroads will Ajie and his family finally find the answers they have been searching for.

And After Many Days introduces Ile's spellbinding ability to tightly weave together personal and political loss until, inevitably, the two threads become nearly indistinguishable. It is a masterful story of childhood, of the delicate, complex balance between the powerful and the powerless, and a searing portrait of a community as the old order gives way to the new.


My Review: This is a beautifully written novel. It is, if other commenters are to be believed, poorly or simply un-structured. I don't agree with this assessment. I see the author's structure as like that of life itself: Free-floating, connected and interconnected and bound tightly and tenuously, resembling nothing so much as a kaleidoscope. Structure and pattern are artifacts of observation. Hey, life is an emergent process of quantum energy. Or some such.

By setting the novel in 1995 Nigeria, the author enables the reader to participate viscerally in the rite of passage that is civil war. It is painful when viewed whole; it is mundane when lived through. Dinner is still cooked, even if it's over an open fire; bedtime still comes for all the young children, even if it's accompanied by gunshots and missing relatives. It was a crisis point for the anti-imperialism trying to stop the economic looting and environmental destruction of international oil companies that persist in Southern Nigeria to this day.

Children see this, like everything else, with pitiless clarity and unsparing judgment:
Things happen in clusters. They would remember it as the year the Mile Three ultramodern market burned down in the middle of the night… It was the year of the poor. Of rumors, radio announcements, student riots and sudden disappearances. It was also the year news reached them of their home village, Ogibah, that five young men had been shot dead by the square in broad daylight.
None of it makes sense or creates a pattern. Yet.

Family is completely unique in the eyes of each member. It's a funny (sense ha-ha, and sense hmmm) truth that the social group that forms each member's similar and different qualities, ideas, opinions is utterly unique and unknowable to each other member:
Before the beginning of his memory, which was to say from the beginning of this life, there had always been the three of them. Paul and Bibi were the first people he saw, the first he touched. Everything he resented and liked, everything he knew, thought and felt, his smile and the angry pounding in his veins were all from them, and now, for the first time, taking notice of this made him feel incredibly lonely. The sort of lonely feeling that Bibi would have been tempted to slap out of him. Just the kind of thing that would have made Paul look at him in his usual bemused way and say, 'My friend, what are you saying? Please be serious'. But he sensed it that night, it hung about the room, the feeling that things may not always be like this, that they would one day grow up and live across town from each other like Ma and her cousin Aunty Julie or even die like all of Bendic's siblings whom he hardly ever spoke of. Paul turned around in his bed, the distant drumming had stopped, and mumbled something in his sleep, and Ajie was sure he could hear Bibi softly breathing from the room next door.
How does a younger sibling explain this sense of the fragile reality of family and life to an older one already interested in bigger things, smaller in importance to you just now, but much more immediate and pressing to their eyes?

Paul is a fine young man. Paul is a good soul. Ajie, locked in mortal combat with his closer sibling Bibi, senses the gulf between himself and Paul as unbridgeable. Of course he sees it that way, childhood and adolescence are by definition this life's perspectiveless passages:
Now, this was what Ajie wanted, this way that Paul had of becoming something after he had read about it; this way he had of claiming things for himself. He had joined himself to a we, an us. A corrupt official had been exposed in the papers for misappropriating pension funds, and Paul was expressing betrayal, even anger, about it.

How do you make yourself do that? How do you learn how to work yourself up over something that's not directly your concern?
Poor Ajie, having a lifetime of living in a big brother's big shadow. And one just enough older to make a big difference in your world! How can he know that one fine day he too will understand and opine upon the matters of a world that, now anyway, is so much wider than your own as to be imperceptible to you?

But a sibling's world isn't the only one that a family has to contain. A mother's, a father's, existence is tied to the permanent creation of this temporary life. Structure exists because we summon it into being, and we do so with the materials we have, the ideas we grab from...anywhere, I suppose...and the living energy of the beings around us:
They have waited many years for an answer, and one has finally arrived, dry and diminished, resting inside the box before them, and not one of them in the room knows how to approach the coffin. Ajie feels it's his place to take the lead; he steps forward to the casket and opens it. When Ma draws close, he holds her hand while Bibi looks in from the other side of the casket. He holds Ma's hand tight but can still feel the tremor running through it. These bones formed inside her, Ajie thinks.
The surprise, for me at least, in the aging process...I'm older than most of the world's people will ever get to be...is how banal agony becomes. It is no less sharp or debilitating. It is simply part of the scenery, an item of furniture that serves no positive purpose but sits in exactly the place it is most likely to bark your shins or stub your toe. Of course Ma is in exquisite agony: She is looking at bones that grew inside her. Mothers...parents...are now in tears, in silent screams, in deepest possible denial. No one should know what their child's death looks like. It is asking too much of a human soul to bear this. But it happens every single minute of every single day that God sends.

Agnosticism is logic. Atheism is visceral certainty that no higher power could demand this of her creation.

This sentence sums up the only way many of us who have lost that deeply keep moving, breathing, functioning at whatever level we are able to summon:
The dead will not be consoled; neither will those who live in the skin of their dead.

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE FABRIC OF REALITY, twenty years on, presents the Multiverse argument clearly and concisely and still freshly

THE FABRIC OF REALITY: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications
David Deutsch

Penguin Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For David Deutsch, a young physicist of unusual originality, quantum theory contains our most fundamental knowledge of the physical world. Taken literally, it implies that there are many universes “parallel” to the one we see around us. This multiplicity of universes, according to Deutsch, turns out to be the key to achieving a new worldview, one which synthesizes the theories of evolution, computation, and knowledge with quantum physics. Considered jointly, these four strands of explanation reveal a unified fabric of reality that is both objective and comprehensible, the subject of this daring, challenging book.

The Fabric of Reality explains and connects many topics at the leading edge of current research and thinking, such as quantum computers (which work by effectively collaborating with their counterparts in other universes), the physics of time travel, the comprehensibility of nature and the physical limits of virtual reality, the significance of human life, and the ultimate fate of the universe. Here, for scientist and layperson alike, for philosopher, science-fiction reader, biologist, and computer expert, is a startlingly complete and rational synthesis of disciplines, and a new, optimistic message about existence.

My Review: I report that The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is simply wonderful. Clear, well-turned prose, ample illustrative examples of his points, and a beautifully thought-out explication of the bizarre nature of reality as explained in the far reaches of physics. The fact that Richard Dawkins is cited as an inspiration for Mr. Deutsch's work should forewarn the spiritual seekers in the audience to avoid this book at all costs. It takes a very clear stance against there being a supernatural agency in the workings of the Multiverse.

Instead, Deutsch says that the Multiverse is weird enough to contain answers to all questions couched in numinous terms and to explain all phenomena and experiences the species has filed in the "supernatural" bin. His arguments are presented without condescension or hectoring, which is a common failing in the prose that wishes to "debunk" the spiritual experience. He simply explains how the experiences fit into the framework of the Multiverse. From there, he says, it's up to you the reader.

THIS is an attitude I can endorse and enjoy. I dislike the spiritual imperialism that says, "My way is Right and all others are Wrong," and equally dislike the materialist dogma that "There IS no spiritual and those who imagine there is are deluded and foolish." (I reserve that dismissive and rejecting locution for religion, not the spiritual, as they are unrelated things.) I want the arguments presented and then leave it up to me to decide what to do with the information presented. Please don't do my thinking for me! And that, laddies and gentles all, is what I feel Mr. Deutsch makes an overall successful stab at NOT doing. He favors the material explanation, and makes no bones about it; but he is very reasonable and reasoned in his advocacy, not shrill or hectoring.

A well-done work of enduring value in the cultural conversation about the nature of reality as we find it. And for reasons that I can't understand, not a gigantic bestseller. I hope that will change....

Thursday, January 12, 2017

THE LOST CITY OF Z, 2009's terrific book looks like it's 2017's terrific film

THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann

$27.50 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century": What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world's largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle's The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilisation--which he dubbed Z--existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett's fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists & adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett's party & the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes or gone mad. As Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett's quest, & the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle's green hell. His quest for the truth & discoveries about Fawcett's fate & Z form the heart of this complexly enthralling narrative.

2017 Movie News: Go watch the trailer for this Amazon Studios film. I'll wait. Okay, now go read the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation. Won't take long.

Now. A four-plus star book review from me and a host of other sources, agreement among critics from Den of Geek all the way to The Nation, and a cast of pretty, pretty actors...plus the fact that it's an Amazon Studios original appearing hot on the heels of their Golden Globe-winning Manchester by the Sea, makes this a super-promising April 2017 must-see. Amazon might very well be Satan, I can't say I agree but there's a chorus of unhappy people from contractors to suppliers to anti-globalization zealots who say it is, but Satan's offering us a lot of really great inducements to forget his agenda. Amazon's Prime streaming service alone is worth the $100 a year it costs. I love that so much of Amazon Studios' output is book-based. Calculated or not, it's a great thing to see the filmed entertainment industry gain a player that mines the immense vein of unadapted written work instead of churning out sequels and comic book heroes and the occasional bland screensaver-level movie.

My Review: This excellent book is the exciting, unusual story of the last of the Victorian polymath explorers on his quest to prove the unthinkable: That the Amazon, that "false paradise", supported a major technologically advanced civilization before the Columbian Holocaust.

Percy Fawcett took his oldest son and his oldest son's best friend into the depths of Amazonia in 1925, to search for a place that the consensus of scientific wisdom of the time said could not exist. From that day to this, there has been no evidence of these three mens' existence. This by itself would provide the bones of a fascinating story. Why would a father risk his son's life in so unlikely a quest? Why bring the son's best friend? What the ruddy bleeding hell was a 58-year-old man THINKING to do this at all?!?

Percy Fawcett was supported by his wife, who was his son's mother, and the mother of the best friend, as well as the Royal Geographical Society. He was a veteran Amazonian explorer. His son was himself writ young. His son's friend, well, it's on such trips as this that a man uncovers his true self, and the best friend was...wanting.

The story of Percy's life, as Grann tells it, is interesting; the story of the exploration of the Amazon is interesting; the story of the many, many attempts to find the three disappeared explorers is not as interesting, but is very deftly compacted into a few passages.

The author's expedition to follow Percy Fawcett's footsteps is, blessedly, brief in the telling. Exactly long enough, in fact. What the author, a fat middle-aged shlub who writes for The New Yorker, discovers...should be front-page news.

Read this book. No evasive "maybes" no "I'll get around to it"s just go GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT. No one with an ounce of human curiosity can possibly regret reading The Lost City of Z.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, Cuban SF giant Yoss's hilarious, trenchant space opera

(translated by David Frye)
Restless Books
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: “Intergalactic space travel meets outrageous, biting satire in Super Extra Grande…. Its author [Yoss] is one of the most celebrated—and controversial—Cuban writers of science fiction…. Reminiscent of Douglas Adams—but even more so, the satire of Rabelais and Swift.” —The Washington Post

In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors—who also happen to be his competing love interests.

Funny, witty, raunchy, and irrepressibly vivacious, Super Extra Grande is a rare specimen in the richly parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction, and could only have been written by a Cuban heavy-metal rock star with a biology degree: the inimitable Yoss.

My Review: Page one, first paragraph:
"Boss Sangan, sludge al frente and a la derecha, ten centĂ­metros knee," Narbuck peevishly announces through my earbuds.

His voice reminds me unpleasantly of a screechy old machine in need of lube job. But that's not the worst of it. Worst is, he seems to go out of his way to mangle the grammar and syntax of the Spanglish language, stubbornly dropping prepositions and mutilating verbs like he's doing a bad impression of a native in a third-rate holoseries.
That's all you need to know to determine of this is a read for you. If this grates or fails to strike an agreeable note, go away now, because it's not gonna change and I like it, so I'll be quoting more of it.

Okay, all ashore who's goin' ashore? Bueno. Andemos al ruedo.

I'm tempted to make a stab at writing this review in Spanglish just because it would be fun and would make me feel all cool and stuff. Then I realized that old white men, even ones with a decent command of Spanish, don't get to have that kind of fun. Then I realized that showing off really is a major hoot and fuck all the haters. They're gonna hate anyway, so....

Nope. Can't. #ReadingIsResistance all right, but the thing I need to resist is being the center of attention when this book is rightfully the star of this show. Yoss wrote this story seven years ago and is probably hazy, after all this time and all his intervening books, on exactly what he wrote and why. What he wrote is a comedic space opera set in a future where the González Drive, invented by an Ecuadorian Catholic priest who won two Nobel Prizes—Physics, Mathematics—for it, gave humanity unfettered access to the galaxy. Once out there, humanity discovered that one species made it out before us, and then five more followed in short order because that's how probability would arrange it, all the technologically capable species figuring the solution to the problem of how to run away from home around the same time.

That's enough right there for me to fall in love. Then add in the copious word-play, the multilingual puns, the rampant sexism, the unambiguous human male bisexual experiences, the interspecies communication in Spanglish because it's so much easier than trying to teach dimwitted Earthlings any one of the other species' languages (not to mention the hydrogen-breathing species' telepathy, a whole different level of impossible to teach), the narrator named Jan Amos Sangan Dongo (hint: if you speak any Spanish at all, if you know any Cubans, wear a lifter's belt while reading this book or your diaphragm will hurt like sixty tomorrow). I read the book in one uproarious sitting. It's like the slightly high, vaguely tipsy conversation you had with your Hispanic crush-object back in college. (Y'all had one of those, right?)
First Premise: Garden planet with oxygen atmosphere, relatively nonaggressive fauna, and exuberant flora, third from a type G2 yellow dwarf star; that is, very similar to the humans' Sun. A tempting nugget for any colony scheme.

Second Premise: Planetary system on the border between the human and Cetian zones. Humans name the promising planet Canaan. Cetians call it Urgh-Yhaly-Mhan, which in the language of the Goddess means "we deserve this because we are who we are."

Third Premise: Both species are highly expansionistic and will not hesitate to turn to violence if they think it necessary to support and/or safeguard their interests.

Conclusion: To avoid sparking a large-scale armed conflict, in the years following the First Battle of Canaan (a minor skirmish that left thousands of casualties on both sides), neither race risks settling the tempting border world. They sign a solemn treaty sanctioning this unstable but reassuring equilibrium. A tiny joint garrison of troops from both species will oversee compliance.
Some points: First, the Cetians are not, as you're saying it in your head, SEE-shuns. They're SETTEE-uns, beings from a planet around Tau Ceti. Second, Jan Sangan (chuckle) is a biological veterinarian specializing in the biggest of the big creatures around the galaxy. He's almost eight feet tall and very strong. You gettin' the vibe for why this is Super Extra Grande? He's a graduate of the Anima Mundi (Animal Planet, get it?) University for Biological Sciences where he had to study logic, hence the syllogistic format. Up to speed? Okay:
First Premise: Far, far from Canaan, the grassland planet Olduvaila, a First Wave human colony world, has barely eight-tenths the gravity of Earth. Its inhabitants, descendants of the Maasai people, average seven feet in height as adults and specialize in cattle ranching.

Second Premise: Bwana, a gas giant approximately the size of Saturn and the fourth planet in the same system, passes near Olduvaila every fourteen years, and with each pass it overwhelms the colonial world's weaker gravity and captures a bit more of its atmosphere. This process has been going on for millions of years...but after two or three more passes, the declining density of the local atmosphere will leave it too thin for the humans and their herds to breathe. Already the air on Olduvaila is barely equivalent the atmosphere at an altitude of five thousand meters on Earth.

Third Premise: The Maasai, a cattle-herding African people from whom the human colonizers on Olduvaila are descended, have a strong warrior tradition and have never resigned themselves to being defeated by drought, famine, other natural disasters...or any enemy.

Conclusion: The warlike and desperate inhabitants of the dying planet Olduvaila are seeking another world where they can move. Urgently and en masse, no matter where it is and no matter whose bodies they have to step over to get there.
Some points: The wonderful planet name Canaan/"we deserve this because we are who we are" now meets the equally wonderful "Olduvai-la." The Maasai do indeed count the Olduvai Gorge in their territory. The Cradle of Humankind, Lucy's backyard. Planet Bwana, "master," is stealing the very air from the Africans. If there's a more amusing and apt way to handle an info-dump, I've yet to encounter it.

And on goes Yoss for four more syllogisms, outlining the course of a cracking good space opera replete with battleships and explosions and feats of derring-do! And not one bit of that happens! Well, there's a battleship, but it's the place where the telepathic hydrogen-breathing Juhungans have offered to host a diplomatic summit (shades of the Enterprise, eh what?) to avoid the looming interspecies war. Enter Jan Sangan (chuckle), Biological Veterinarian to the Super Extra Grande, because the negotiators are trapped on Brobdingnag (Swift is spinning about now) inside a two-hundred-kilometer living lake of protoplasm called Cosita. (The closest English equivalent I can come up with for this in its intended nickname use is the Southern American affectionate contronym "Little Bit.") Bonus: the negotiators are both former employees of his! Added extra bonus: they're both female and desirable! But wait, there's more: they're each in love with Jan Sangan (chuckle), quite famously and publicly, even though he fired them because he won't sleep with the help!

This kind of playful, gonzo storytelling always gets my vote for escapist reading. Yoss's jabs at the Arab-Israeli conflict, his not-very-veiled anti-imperialism, and his willingness to subvert every convention he can find even while embracing them is more than the sum of the parts. He makes it very clear that, bumbling fools though we be, humanity survives and thrives in all its messy, smelly, squabbly squalor because.

Yep. That period is exactly where I intended it to be. And the ending Yoss made for the story is exactly where he intended it to be. Resist cultural blindness, read a genre not your usual, like science fiction. Resist social conformism, read a Cuban rocker-cum-writer's book publicly, displaying the cover for all your fellow commuters to see and wonder about. Resist your natural urge towards despair as the world, as it ever does and ever will, descends into ever-deeper chaos: Yoss reminds us that humanity is a glorious, idiotic, hyperbolic mess.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS, an incredible story of failure and murder

THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS: Murder and Memory in an American City

$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbors felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer.

In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city’s Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often dismissed as monsters alien to humanity.

With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family’s neighbors and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.


My Review: There is absolutely nothing easy about this book, not the story, not the agonized survivors, not the innocent dead children, nothing. I read In Cold Blood many years ago, and was very deeply affected by the story. The amazing writing, the very best thing Truman Capote ever made, seems suspiciously good...like Harper Lee, his cousin and collaborator, was a very very significant part of its creation. Laura Tillman touches me in many of the same places that In Cold Blood did, but she had no Harper Lee to wave the magic wand of genius over the text.

The genesis of the book came when Tillman began her journalism career at The Brownsville Herald, the big English-language newspaper of the Rio Grande Valley. A murder such as the Rubio case doesn't happen that often in the rinky-dink precincts of that rathole. (I spent formative years forty or so miles away in Mercedes, Texas, a horrible little wide spot in the road that exemplifies what city people never see and avoid even hearing about if they can help it.) Tillman describes her fascination thus:
The Rubio story was also especially affecting because it concerned small children. It grabbed hold of the reporters during these newsroom conversations, the revelation of each detail making the case suddenly raw, fresh, intense. A father and a mother killing three young children—three babies!—with the crude weapon of kitchen knives. The bodies in trash bags, the heads in buckets of water, washed clean of blood. For not one but both parents to be involved in such a horror was stunning and inexplicable.
Nothing is inexplicable. We might not like the explanation. We might reject the explanation in disgust, horror, terror. But an explanation there always, always is.

A mentally ill, psychologically abused, sexually pimped out by his mother, young man of good looks and no significant intellectual capabilities, gets hooked on drugs...self-medicating, in my opinion...finds and clings to a balsa-wood raft in the form of a pretty, even less intelligent girl-child who was being abused by a variety of men in her life. Hey presto! Children arrive, work doesn't, help ain't, and huffing paint is the only road to some tiny moment of pleasure. A lifetime of psychological disturbances, seeing people not visible to others, obsessions and violence, just don't merit institutional help. Especially in a place like Texas, where Medicaid is out of reach to anyone not licking the asphalt in the hospital parking lot to avoid starvation. It is disgusting what is NOT done with the Federal dollars sent to help the citizens of the state.

At the moment of John Rubio's massive psychotic break, this is what he reports believing:
According to John, something told him that killing the children was imperative, that he was engaged in a battle of good and evil, and he was on the side of good. He said that he had long seen himself as exceptional, chosen by God for some purpose, and had dreams where he battled demons. Where those thoughts and the message to kill his children came from is debatable, but John said he believed at the time that it was divinely sent. Regardless of whether the culpable influence was psychosis or a spiritual force, there was no contradicting intervention at the final moment.
The source of Tillman's meditation is the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible. It is one of the more appalling, disgusting passages in a book chock-a-block with horrible bar bets (eg, Job's trials set on him by God to win a wager with Lucifer) and reprehensible narcissistic tantrums (eg, destroying the whole of the world in a flood because his itty fee-fees was hurted by...what, I can't remember, something like impiety?). John's religious mania had been life long, and somehow no one anywhere connected to this case sees or says they see the central and vile role that this God person and the stories told to impressionable children about him played in this nightmare crime.

A friend of Angela and John's explains the bitter, scalding, bone-rattling terror of desperation.
"But when a difficult time comes and nobody helps you, no one listens to you, they leave you alone...I don't know how to explain it...You go to your neighbor's house and ask if they could lend you three dollars to eat and they say they don't have it. You go to another [neighbor] and they don't have it, no one has it. You're frustrated and you have hungry children. And you kill them. That's how people think."

You cannot know the power of desperation, Felix was saying, until you experience it in its raw form. Desperation can fuel acts that would otherwise be incomprehensible. And if you've never been filled with that kind of quaking, hysterical desperation, you simply cannot fathom the way it can make you behave.
Yep, been there. Try living at the complete legal, social mercy of a screaming emotional volcano, abusive in inventive and creative ways, who makes up to you with sex. And I was her son. I have been down there. I understand John's insanity from the inside, though blessedly I'm smart and almost incredibly tough so I survived. Just. John had none of my strengths, poor lad, and he cracked wide open. What he did can't be fathomed by the normal mind. The key words there are "normal mind." He didn't have, and never had, one of those. The State of Texas, in its rednecked viciousness, condemned this poor, broken, horrible person to die. To do what? To solve what? In order to serve what noble legal principle? We already know the Christians who argue for the death penalty are merely emulating their vile petty god, so can safely be discounted as moral forces.

Angela was represented by a court-appointed lawyer whose unique perspective on the central facts of Angela's participation in the murders probably served her in great stead:
In May of 2008, five years after John and Angela were arrested, Gamez said he saw demons for the first time. "I didn't imagine it." Gamez had suffered a heart attack that left him legally dead for several minutes, and in a coma for six days after that. "There is no rational, logical medical explanation, other than the grace of coming back and giving me a second chance." To him, the demons are not a vague vision, but a specific memory.

"They were compelling to take me to hell. They were reaching out. They wanted me but they couldn't get me. The grace of God wouldn't let them get me, but they let me know they're there."

Gamez believed he'd been enlightened to another dimension.

"There is an inner being, soul, within us and wants to live and wants everlasting life. And it fears the abomination of everlasting darkness. I really appreciate, when I crossed over, my ranches meant noting, my property meant nothing. I'm left with nothing. Nothing was important. You speak, not with your mouth, but your mind. You have no physical form. And I can prove it because I was dead. And all that spirit of yours wants is to reach that light I couldn't reach."

His voice commanded the empty room, rough and croaking, pushing past my attempts to ask questions during the long pauses between phrases.

"So I cannot say that what she saw wasn't real," Gamez said. "I don't make that judgment anymore—if she's crazy or sick or mentally retarded—no, I know they're there, and they make people do very bad things. Evil things. Demons' purpose in life is for us—to compel us to do bad things. There is no love with these creatures."
Gamez's experience, judge its merits how you may, very likely informed Angela's fate. She will be eligible for parole in 2045.

The fate of the children I cannot bring myself to recount.
In John's version of events, he decapitated the children because they seemed to rise and revive after being choked and stabbed.
That is really all you need to know.

Laura Tillman backs up at the end of the book:
The building drew me in, but the real pull was not the structure, it was the questions. I thought after all this time they would be resolved. Instead, I find myself more unmoored than when I started. Yet that doesn't bother me: resolution doesn't seem to be the purpose of questions like these. They open journeys, within and without, daring us after each step to go still further.
And here is where that fifth star, wavering in and out, went out for the last time. It seems to me a...bloodless...response to this journey through a layer of society that one can not see, still less live within for any length of time, and emerge unchanged in profound and irreparable ways.

Reading is resistance...even to the internal prettying-up and makeover that we call "denial."