Reading Future, Reading Past = Present Sanity

I see what’s happening here. Life leaving me breathless these days. Brain pummeled by to-do lists, expectations, worries, excitements, anticipations. Book Launch approaches. I can think only in short bursts. My writing languishes, suffers, as creative energy is siphoned off for other uses.

 

My body doesn’t know good stress from bad, it just knows this heightened state of awareness, the light switch on, constantly, like some sort of prison torture.

 

I can take only so much “on” before I need silence, solitude, dusk to replenish and restore. These short days and long nights are a balm to my psyche. The darkness gives me a place to hide. And solace is found in books. I tear through the pages; my level of stress measured in the number of “The Ends” I reach each month.

 

Two distinctly different reads from my current word binge stand out, books I must share with you. Debut novelists, each, (though Claire Vaye Watkins’s short story collection Battleborn met with great acclaim upon publication in 2012). One writes of near-future southern California, the other of an ill-fated 18th century sea voyage, both astonishing for their imagination and fearlessness, the strength and brilliance of their prose.

 

I’ve got to get back to my to-do list, but know that each velvety-black evening, each silent, wet dawn, I am readingreadingreading, refueling my heart and mind with words, as my own build, readying themselves to be written.

 

Gold Fame CitrusGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity. Ciaran Carson, “Fear” 1948

 

In Claire Vaye Watkins’s searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It is blistering hot, white, shifting, a thing massive and predatory, greedy and indiscriminate. It is the desert, created by draining the West of its water, by wringing the climate dry. Fear has a name. It is the Amargosa Dune Sea.

 

Set in a future close enough to see if we shade our eyes and squint, Gold Fame Citrus presents a California annihilated by drought. A massive, moving sand dune is eating up mountain ranges, obliterating cities, and creating refugees known as Mojavs, a dystopian society that recalls the Okies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Watkins lists Tim Egan’s phenomenal The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl in her acknowledgments and parallels the desperation and isolation of that time with one of her own keen and savage imagination.

 

Luz was a child star, born into drought just as science began to give up on cure or prevention, and a desiccated society turned toward the mystic and the weird. Luz was to be the hope disaster couldn’t defeat. The government made her a poster child for the new future, until the posters faded and shriveled in the relentless sun. Now Luz squats in the abandoned home of a movie star in a “laurelless” canyon, drinking ration cola while her boyfriend Ray writes lists in his diary that read like poetry and tries to keep them alive. Luz and Ray can’t seem to muster the energy to flee to the cool, green, moist Pacific Northwest, or join the multitudes heading over the Dune, toward cities in the East. It’s not that easy: even if you survive the desert crossing, Mojavs aren’t welcome anywhere, states are building barriers to wall themselves in. And then there is Ray’s past—a barbed-wire fence too tall and entangled to surmount.

 

They aren’t alone in the desert: there are others, outcasts who’ve come together in survivalist colonies, living blackmarket lives. Luz and Ray rescue a little girl, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child”, from one such group, in a scene of an overnight rave party that is grotesque and haunting, like a Cormac McCarthy nightmare of the Old West.

 

The theft of this child, Ig, and fear that they will be pursued, propels Luz and Ray out of their sun-scorched inertia and sets them on the road, seeking a way out of the desert. But of course, the Desert will not let them go that easily. Luz and Ig end up alone, dying of thirst and heatstroke. Watkins’s vision of mercy is also a prison, with convicted survivors sharpening blades of power on a whetstones of control.

 

This is a novel of passion and fierce love; it is cruel and brilliant, shocking and tender, created with an imagination as boundless as the desert. In contrast to the parched environment, Watkins’s prose is lush and vivid, leading you, bewitched, through a shimmering mirage of hope.

 

~~~

 

LandfallsLandfalls by Naomi J. Williams

 

So recently set adrift by two novels with multiple points-of-view, each chapter taking me through my paces with a new voice, each novel leaving me parched for emotional resonance as though I were desperate sailor drinking sea water, I thought, ‘No, not again,” when I embarked upon this voyage with Naomi J. Williams and her debut Landfalls.

 

Okay, I’ll stop with the silly seafaring metaphors.

 

But I won’t stop raving about this unputdownable tour de force, crashingly good, tsunami of a novel.

 

Williams offers a kaleidoscopic view of the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition of 1785-89, which saw two frigates filled with over two hundred men attempt a circumnavigation of the globe for the glory of science, human endurance, and the maritime prowess of France. With each chapter the kaleidoscope shifts, offering a different perspective—from seaman to scientist, Tlingit child to French castaway.

 

Several of the chapters were published as short stories and in many ways this novel is a collection of individual works, as Williams leaps nimbly from voice, perspective, and style. Yet with each landfall, the threads of characters’ lives are woven through the narrative, connecting each part to all those which precede it, and the underlying tension of a well-paced thriller holds you fast. The author frames a daring, complicated structure and shores it up, page after page, with a gripping, marvelously inventive, and historically solid story.

 

The scope of Williams’s research is breathtaking yet, like modern masters of the form Mary Doria Russell, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, you are drawn naturally, unresistingly into a distant era by flesh-and-blood characters. Heartstrings are pulled in the opening pages and are never released, until the gasping end. There is humor and irony, violence and tragedy, longing and despair. I greedily devoured the pages of a dreamlike obsession with a child bride at a Chilean outpost, gasped at the crystalline and savage beauty of Alaska, burned with anger over sadistic priests on the California coast, mourned love found and lost during the heartbreaking Siberian journey of a translator and his devoted bodyguard. The scope of history and setting, of character and voice and emotion, is nothing short of astonishing.

 

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

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Book Review: Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Look. I don’t live in a vacuum. I know this is one of the most talked about books of the summer. Big displays in bookstores, frequent author appearances on my favorite public radio station cultural programming, reviews in my newspapers and journals of choice (that I didn’t read – by the way – so I wouldn’t spoil my experience). So hard I did try to consider this book on its own merits, without expectations. But I’m human. Given the hype, I’m gonna hope for a miracle.

Okay, maybe not a miracle. But something really extraordinary. Which this isn’t. I’m so confused.

In case you DO live in a vacuum, The Age of Miracles, the debut of novelist Karen Thompson Walker, is set in suburban California right about now. The earth’s rotation is inexplicably slowing, leading to hours of night, hours of bright day, throwing the universe out of temporal, circadian, climactic whack. Gravity is affected, birds cannot fly, fish cannot swim. Crops fail, cults flourish, communities collapse. But soccer practice goes on.

It’s a brilliant premise and Thompson Walker does a superb job of presenting this disaster and its unfolding consequences without miring the book in scientific explanations. I don’t need to know why the slowing is happening; I’m ready to believe that our destruction of the planet can extend into our solar system. I am, therefore, disappointed by the author’s heavy-handed foreshadowing. Frequent sentences with “It was the last time we…” or “We never…again…” steal the immediacy of the disaster.

Now that I’ve read several published reviews, let me dispel the widespread notion this story is told from the point of view of an 11-year old narrator, Julia. No. It isn’t. It’s told by 20-something Julia, looking back on the first year when the earth’s rotation decelerated. Which changes everything this book is suggested to be – a coming of age story, a unique perspective of a girl as the world begins a slow collapse around her. That misperception is not the author’s fault. But by choosing to tell the story from many years’ distance, Karen Thompson Walker does present the reader with an unreliable narrator. Are we expected to trust Julia’s memory of how her limited community – her neighborhood, her school, her family – reacted to “the slowing”? Even more to the point, because this is a book far more concerned with human nature than its sci-fi premise would suggest, are we to trust older Julia’s recounting of the relationships as she observed and participated in them? Had the author truly wanted us to live in Julia’s moment, she would have let the little girl speak in her own voice, not via the sophisticated redaction presented by her adult self.

I can’t quite figure out if this is meant to be Young Adult fiction. If 11-year old Julia were truly the narrator, I’d say a definitive “Yes”. But Julia’s voice and her perceptions don’t ring true in so young a girl. Given her neighborhood, her home life – it doesn’t compute that she was as worldly-wise as her 20-something self portrays her. Yet, the emotional dimensions of this novel are too simplistic for adult literary fiction. It’s all so muddled.

There is some extraordinary writing here.

Chapter One, Page 1

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big- rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.

I mean, Holy Cow. But this promises a tension and a sense of dread that aren’t sustained. There are too many parts that drone and drag, as minutes are added to the Earth’s rotation and Julia’s mother adds jars of peanut butter to the stash under the bed.

In the end, this is good entertainment. I can give it a pretty solid (how’s that for waffling?) three stars, because I am taken by the dystopian rendering of a world grinding to a halt. But the characters feel dim and insubstantial to me, like memories of a summer fling.

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