- Chris Adrian. 2006. The Children’s Hospital. McSweeney’s. 615 pp.
- Richard Powers. 1995. Galatea 2.2. Perennial. 329 pp.
- Kahled Hosseini. 2003. The Kite Runner. Bloomsbury. 324 pp.
- Javier Marías. 1972. Voyage Along the Horizon. Believer Books. 250 pp.
- Yannick Murphy. 2006. Here They Come. McSweeney’s. 250 pp.
- Dustin Long. 2006. Icelander. McSweeney’s. 249 pp.
- Michael Pollan. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin. 450 pp.
- J. Anthony Lukas. 1997. Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. Simon & Schuster. 880 pp.
- Chris Adrian. 2006. The Children’s Hospital. McSweeney’s. 615 pp.
- A. L. Kennedy. 2004. Paradise. Knopf. 304 pp.
- Jim Crace. 1999. Being Dead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 192 pp.
- Dustin Long. 2006. Icelander. McSweeney’s. 249 pp.
Big Trouble is a huge, sprawling story, principally devoted to the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Stuenenberg in 1905 and the ensuing capture and trial of three of big labor’s most important leaders. I say principally because Lukas ranges all over the map, extensively considering each player in the drama, as well as significant coverage of people only tangentially related to the case (like pitcher Walter Johnson, who Clarence Darrow probably saw pitch in Caldwell while he was in town defending Haywood). The huge scope of the book, makes it a much richer history than just a detailing of the case, and the book really brings you into what was a critical time for labor and industry in American history.
A quick summary of the story appears on page 375:
Colorado’s mine owners hoped to rid themselves forever of these apostles of disorder. Their message to their counterparts in Idaho was blunt: Here are the bodies, here is the money, please kill them for us.
That may sound pretty ridiculous to us in 2007, but at the turn of the twentieth century, labor relations, especially in the Wild West were very unformed. Business owners rode roughshod over the workers, and the federal and state governments were always willing to step in against the workers. More often than not, federal troops showed up and arrested everyone present, men and women alike, and held them without charge for as long as they liked. There are interesting parallels with our current obsession with terrorism, as the labor leaders (and owners) sometimes employed terrorist tactics to strike back. The current detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA smuggling enemy combatants overseas to be tortured and murdered, and the Republican politics of fear are all in evidence at the turn of the century in the West.
The book is great at recalling that time in our history. For example, in the courtroom in Idaho, Ethel Barrymore (grand-aunt to Drew Barrymore) attends one day of the trial and comments about how everyone in the courtroom was “chewing gum.” Actually, everyone was chewing tobacco and the courtroom was filled with spittoons for the men to spit into. Guns were everywhere, as were the Pinkertons who ran the entire investigation and had infiltrated Darrow’s defense team. It was a different world, and Lukas really brings it to life.
It’s been several weeks since I finished this book, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s a great book; very enjoyable, and at the same time, filled with ideas about spirituality, the end of the world, and hope for the future. What surprised me most about the book was that it was both fantastical and spiritual at the same time, and each of those things individually will sometimes doom a book for me. When I was younger, I read everything Stephen King wrote, and I always enjoyed the more realistic books a lot more than the ones requiring too much suspension of disbelief. But even with all the plot twists, bizarre developments, and religion in it, I loved The Children's Hospital.
There’s a great review of the book at The Quarterly Conversation that I wish I’d read more carefully before reading the book. I generally avoid spoilers, but in this case, I think I might have gotten more out of the book if I’d been thinking about the things the review brought up. So, if you're willing, think about this stuff if you pick up the book.
Among other things the review mentions, consider:
- Nine floors of the hospital: nine rings of hell / nine months of pregnancy
- Children inherit the earth
- Hospital: care without caring, like the earth that was flooded
- Why did each of the major “Thing”-s happen? Was someone to blame?
The Children’s Hospital is one of those rare books that is so filled with ideas presented but not spelled out so that multiple readings and multiple readers can really bring a lot to thing about and discuss. It’d be a great book for a book group.
An enjoyable read, especially after The Children’s Hospital. It’s sort of like a fictionalized version of Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story; it's got lots of drinking, and a love story but it’s the sort of dysfunctional love story that only a pair of alcoholics (see Charles Bukowski) could have. What Kennedy brings to the book is the ironic, completely un-apologetic main character of the story.
For example, page 71-72:
Being me is a job---is labour so time-consuming and expensive that I have to have a second job just to support it. So that I can drink, I have to get drink and that isn’t something people give away and then there’s the drink that I need because I have drunk and the other drink I have to keep around because, sooner or later, I will drink it. That’s a full-time occupation: that’s like being a miner, or a nurse.
Being Dead goes back and forth in time from the murder of the two main characters in the story, brutally killed on the beach in a romantic moment trying to relive a bit of their past. Having read Mary Roach’s Stiff much of the process a corpse goes through after death was familiar to me, but the book put a more human face on it. I’ve read reviews that suggest the book is romantic, but I really didn’t see it. Instead of romance, I’d say this book offers realism; the reality of death and what it does to those who die and those who survive, as well as the reality of a long marriage between two people. A quick, enjoyable read. He’s got a post-apocalyptic novel coming out in May, which looks interesting. “Less crushing than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and less over-the-top than Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown,” says Publisher’s Weekly about the new book.
Great book, highly entertaining detective story mixed with post-modern metafiction. I wrote about this book when I finished it a couple weeks ago. This, and The Children’s Hospital are the clear winners for this month. Both excellent books, one serious, one funny, but both very rich and rewarding.
Michael Pollan was interviewed for the April 2007 issue of The Believer magazine. I've been a fan of his writing since The Botany of Desire, and although I haven't gotten around to reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, from reading the interview, I'm sure I'll like it.
You know, compared to the early 1960s, the percentage of our income that goes to food has fallen from 18 percent to less than 10 percent today. We're paying less for food than anyone on Earth, anyone in the history of our planet, in fact. But in that same period, the percentage of our national income that goes to health care has risen from 5 percent to 16 percent today. Some of that increase, not all of it, is the result of eating terrible, cheap food. If we spent a few more percentage points of income on food, we could surely spend a few percentage points less on health care. What I'm suggesting is that spending more on food, as a society, will not end up costing us more overall.
Last night I finished Icelander, Dustin Long's debut novel published by McSweeney's Rectangulars imprint. I'm not sure exactly what “Rectangulars” is supposed to be, but it's a beautifully produced book. The pages are thick, sewn into the binding, and the cover art is quite striking. I also have Yannick Murphy's Here They Come which also has the Rectangulars sticker on it and it looks to be of equal quality. I commented about this in my post about What Is the What in March, but I'll say it again: it's nice to see a publisher that's taking the time to produce a high quality hardcover for $22, rather than a paperback in hard covers.
But, enough about the physical object. The book is a hilarious detective story that takes place in a fictional city in Upstate New Uruk and involves literary forgeries, the origins of Hamlet, Norse mythology, conversations in mead halls and bars, swordplay in steam tunnels, and an underground fox warrior clan known as the Refurserkir. I really enjoyed the book, more than any book I've read in quite some time. I've read a lot of great fiction and non-fiction in the last few months, but this one was a great mix of fun and intellect. Dustin Long commented on the book in an interview:
I want to be an entertaining writer. But I also want to be a serious writer. I don't think these desires are incompatible. I hope I managed not to be tedious in the more literary aspects and not to fall into egocentric navel-gazing in the more “personal drama” based portions of the story, but whatever success I had was largely instinctual.
He certainly succeeded. The book contains several sections, with different narrators, and the whole thing is “edited” by another character (possibly one of the characters in the narrative, it's not clear after a single reading) who inserts footnotes questioning the accuracy of parts of the story. So it's another example of post-modern metafiction, but rather than being to smart for it's own good, or bogging down in the “meta-” aspects of the form, it moves smoothly through the story.
It's also a very intellectual book that rewards careful reading. Here's an example from page 145, narrated by a jealous husband while his wife manages the construction of her Two-Story House (another play on words):
On the upper level, Jon Ymirson—bare-chested in the unseasonal humidity of late March—swings a hammer, driving nails into wood, affixing one plank to another. Jack stud, king stud. He is constructing the frame of what will become a doorway.
If you're familiar with construction you know that jack studs are the members that support the door or window header and the king studs are boards that sit next to the jack studs and reach all the way from the floor to the ceiling. But the section also works as commentary by a jealous husband about Jon as a stud—shirtless and manly. The book is filled with clever plays on words and ideas like this one.
The following comes from The Millions blog about David Halberstam's passing (two of his best know works are The Best and the Brightest about the war in Vietnam, and Summer of ’49 about the 1949 pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees). I think it's a great commentary on why people watch and enjoy sports.
There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines that scream death and destruction in favor of the sports section and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.
Check out the FedEx tracking image above. We paid extra for two-day shipping, but I guess two actually means four when shipping to Alaska. The funny part is that the package went from China to Anchorage (less than a two hours by air from Fairbanks), but instead of being delivered on the 21st, it went all the way to Indianapolis, and then back (!) to Anchorage for delivery in Fairbanks today. Cost: three days and an additional 7,528 miles traveled.