The Tanana Valley State Fair (Faster than a speeding pullet is this year’s pun) started Friday night and we went on Saturday. For me, the Fair is actually more of an “event,” than something I really enjoy. It marks the beginning of our descent into winter and usually also coincides with the rainy season (August) in Fairbanks. I do like the food (grilled corn on the cob, deep fried halibut are my favorites), it’s fun to wander around and see what our community looks like, and sometimes I discover something new like the hardwood charcoal supplier operating out of his garage in North Pole. The reason I don’t entirely enjoy the Fair is that I don’t like crowds. I’m nervous in groups larger than a few people, and at the Fair I really have to concentrate to keep from being overwhelmed by all the people and what they’re all doing. When we got home on Saturday night, I was exhausted.
What does this have to do with Marc Haddon’s debut novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? The main character is autistic, and in addition to several strange quirks like refusing to eat yellow or brown foods, he is easily overwhelmed by people because he can’t comprehend their emotions or perspective. At one point in the book he’s in a train station, and is unable to read any of the signs because he’s so overwhelmed. It’s a strange, and compelling, voice to narrate a story, and it was easy for me to sympathize with him because of my own introversion.
The book is narrated in his voice, with language like this (from page 56):
Then Ivor did a poo and Mrs. Alexander picked it up with her hand inside a little plastic bag and then she turned the plastic bag inside out and tied a knot int the top so the poo was all sealed up and she didn’t touch the poo with her hands.
There are cool mathematical digressions showing how his deeper understanding of mathematics helps him navigate the minefield of the world he is largely closed off from. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the solution to the Monty Hall Problem.)
It’s a very effective book that shows a little of what it might be like to see the world in a completely different way, as well as how difficult it is to be a parent to a child like that. The first amazon customer review is written by an autistic: “As an autistic, I have a special interest in reading works that feature autistic main characters, partly to see how neurotypical people thing our brains work, but partly just for the joy I feel when someone ‘gets it right.’ Mark Haddon absolutely ‘got it right’ in this book.” It would be hard to give the book higher praise than that.
Absurdistan is the story of grossly overweight Misha Vainberg, aka “Snack Daddy,” the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. It’s basically a love story: Misha is trying to emigrate to the United States to be with his New York girlfriend, which he met while attending Accidental College in the U.S., but because his father killed an American in Russia, the State Department won’t give Misha a visa. Stuck in St. Leninsburg, he travels to Absurdistan, a small oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea where he hopes to get a Belgian visa that will allow him to escape Russia. Unfortunately, soon after he arrives, civil war erupts between the Sevo and Svanï ethnic groups (whose main dispute is over the slant of Christ’s footrest on the cross) as Absurdistan tries to stay on the global media’s radar long enough for the U.S. and it’s military contractors to show up. If you can’t tell from that description, the book is a hilarious satire of world politics and the excesses of American capitalism (and it’s grotesque relationship with the American government).
It’s been a very busy month, and even though I really enjoyed this book, it took a long time to finish it. Jamestown is a reworking of the story of the Jamestown Colony, told primarily from the perspectives of Johnny Rolfe and Pocahontas (who married in real life, back in 1614), but at some point in the post-apocalyptic future when Virginia represents the wild unknown and the boroughs of New York City are at war. Instead of European colonists travelling by ship to Jamestown in 1607, it’s colonists from the Manhattan Company travelling by bus. The “natives” they encounter aren’t really Native Americans, but are the warring clans of people left in the area after the cataclysm struck, including the Powhatan tribe.
The first and last sections of the book alternate between the voice of Pocahontas, a very horny 19–year girl, and Johnny Rolfe, who as we know from history, will fall in love with her. The middle part also includes chapters told by many of the other major and minor players in this, and the historical story. This is fiction, so Sharpe doesn’t stick too close to the facts, but the broad strokes seem to follow what I know of the actual events.
In addition to being a surprisingly touching love story, the book is extremely funny and deadly serious at the same time. Because of the humor, the undercurrent of violence, struggle, and loss seems underplayed until you realize how much of it there really was. I can only imagine what the Michael Bay or Mel Gibson version of the book would look like. I think that one of the points Sharpe is making here is that even as safe and secure our world seems right now, the distance between the world of 2007 and 1607 is much, much smaller than 400 years would suggest. Here’s Jack Smith, returning to the colony after a month, with a bunch of corn from Powhatan’s tribe. Pages 177-178:
By the way, that’s the core of what they have that we want: untainted food, real food that comes from things that walk on two or four legs or swim in the sea or fly or grow from the ground, real fucking food, it’s genius, worth killing and dying for, the staff of life, make a note of it, you peacenik dimwits.
Or Johnny Rolfe, from page 59:
To consider the imagination it took to invent the automatic assault rifle is not a happy or controllable activity. I wish I hadn’t started to think or talk about it or its user or its maker or its effects. I wish I hadn’t seen its effects, or known of its existence, or been born into a world in which people use, make, think, or are shot by automatic assault rifles.
Later in the book Johhny Rolfe IMs Pocahontas (the intersection of certain bits of modern technology in the book with the effectual return to the fifteenth century is brilliant) the following explanation for human survival. Page 207:
A guy observes a lot of the ideas his fellow humans come up with and act on and he despairs; he wonders how the human race survives; evidently not by the frequency of consistency of its good ideas. I believe survival is predicated on unrelenting will plus aggression plus, of course, how very pleasurable God made fucking…
There’s a lot more to think about and enjoy in the book, so head over to Soft Skull Press and pick it up. It’s also been chosen as the Summer 2007 Read This! pick on the litblog co-op. It should be a good discussion.
jumping cat, from the 17dots blog
I just can’t get enough of this image from the 17dots eMusic blog. The post it comes from relates to an interview with Britt Daniel about Spoon’s new album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. So I’m not sure what a jumping cat has to do with it. But everything about the photo is awesome. The way the jumping cat is slightly pudgy; that all four legs are completely outstretched; the other cat sitting on the floor looking stunned; the paw-shadow on the cabinet from the camera flash. And best of all is the expression on the cat’s face, mouth open, eyes sparkling. Every time I look at it, I can’t help but smile.
It’s just the thing when it’s raining outside, the tensions of buying and selling a home are starting to wear thin, and you’re not getting enough quality sleep.
Or maybe that’s just me…
Yesterday we dragged the Volaré to it’s final resting place at the Steese Area Volunteer fire station. They’ll use it to practice vehicle extractions and then send it to the landfill.
I got it for $300 in 1992 when I lived in Portland, Oregon and trusted it enough to drive up to Fairbanks in it. It had 175,000 miles on it when I got it, and the brakes and cooling system needed a lot of work before it was even safe to drive. Over the years I drove it, I replaced almost every part in the engine and power train, finally giving up in 2000 when the transmission died. It has 227,574.9 miles on it and made it through seven Fairbanks winters.
I’ve gotten rid of vehicles before and I never minded seeing them go, but I feel some regret giving up on the Volaré. It was easy to work on, inexpensive to repair, very simple to figure out what was wrong with it, and it was surprisingly fun to drive. Driving down the road looking out over that giant hood felt safe, and the little turn signal indicator lights at the corners of the hood were great. But it got terrible gas mileage, the heater barely worked, the windows iced up in the winter, it required a replacement carburetor every couple years, and I had to put tire chains on to get up and down the hills in winter.
I know it doesn’t look like much, but it got me a long way for very little money, and even though I’m glad it’s not in my yard anymore, I can’t help wishing I could drive it one more time.