Book Reviews, May 2007

It’s book review week here at LitKicks (and to those who’ve sent me stuff, I can only say that I’ll do my best to get to yours. I am beyond the point where I can review every book I receive, though I wish I could). Here are some notable finds from this month’s stack, and there’s more on the way tomorrow.

1. Boomsday by Christopher Buckley.

A fiery young blonde blogger in Washington DC (who seems to most resemble not the restrained Ana Marie Cox but rather one of the passionate progressives at Firedoglake) joins forces with an impulsive rich-kid Congressman to choreograph a social-security revolt of the young against the old. I like Buckley’s eagerness to tackle all comers with this book. He’s clearly got an appetite for a fight, and he body-slams as many modern political targets as he can with this rollicking tale.

But the plot has to really click to carry a satire like this, and Buckley’s execution is only middling good. I have to disagree with anybody who compared this book to Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House (which dealt with a similar death-to-the elderly theme), because Buckley shows none of Vonnegut’s anarchic creativity. He creates likable characters, and he certainly has no problem coming up with snappy dialogue. But the snappiness gets to seeming forced, and it’s bizarre that when Buckley finally comes up with a truly good joke (involving the phrase “the earth moved” to describe a quasi-romantic encounter in a mine field) he then uses the same joke again thirty pages later. That’s a foul in the hardcover-books game, Buckley.

Another complaint: this story is about a blogger, but Buckley clearly doesn’t know much about the technology behind blogging (nor do his editors at Twelve). If a novelist in 1910 wrote about a Model-T Ford munching oats from a trough, that would be about as accurate as some of Buckley’s descriptions of how the internet works. For just one example of many: you can’t “delete yourself” from Google. Though certainly many have tried.

2. Eyes of the Forest by Vivian Demuth

This novel from the small Smoky Peace Press offers an appealing insider’s view of a fascinating counterculture that has provided an alternative lifestyle for a small number of individuals: the community of solitary fire-tower watchers who guard the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierras and, in Demuth’s book, the boreal mountains of Canada.

This was also the milieu of two superb Jack Kerouac novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels (several Beat writers, including Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, were fire-tower watchers). Kerouac’s lookout-tower prose was filled with agony, addiction and ecstatic spiritual yearning, which can make for some powerful writing, but Kerouac’s approach doesn’t really capture the simple happiness this profession can bring, or the camaraderie (and conflict, and romance) various tower-watchers, park rangers, rescue personnel and other lovers of nature develop with each other in their long seasons among the trees and lakes and trails. This is a fun, people-filled story that will appeal to anyone who’s ever lived out in the mountains, and to anyone who’s wondered what it would be like.

3. Captain of the Sleepers by Marya Montero

This compact epic, translated by Edith Grossman, works as both psychosexual fiction and entertaining suspense. It takes place on an island near Puerto Rico, and is narrated by a child raised among gun-runners locked in vast adult intrigues that eventually involve dead bodies, airplanes, weapons, bawdy maid’s daughters and a lot of different people getting it on in different places in various positions.

What makes it so edifying is Montero’s rich voice, and her emotionally expressive characters. Here’s the 80-year-old title character pleading for his life with the now-grown narrator, who wants to kill him to avenge his father:

I am a man of few words. You must know that better than anyone. As a young man, I rarely worried about misunderstandings; things happened, sometimes they happened to me, and it never occurred to me to give any explanation. It wasn’t pride, Andres, but a lack of time, or of compassion for myself. In the end, I discovered there were fragments of my life — especially everything from that time in my life — that were left hanging like little animals rotting in full view of everyone..

4. real.m by Alfaro

Inside a quiet-looking black-on-white perfect-bound poetry chapbook is a near riot of metafictional phenomenology regarding the existence and presence of the book itself. For instance, the front cover contains a poem called “Front Cover Art”. There’s a long, very long single angry sentence threading like a subterranean worm through other pieces, many of which are labeled “haikus”. Here’s what one poem tells us:

Life is
A Beautiful book
A Sad song
Or a brilliant movie
And it only needs
To be transcribed
Onto paper
Into Sound
Or on film
And then
It will be saved

I like the blunt simplicity of this quizzical poetry book, as well as the elegance of its physical design.

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