zone one (spoiler alert)

Zone One (2011) is the only zombie novel I’ve read, so I can’t tell you how it stacks up with others in the genre. I can tell you how it compares to other Colson Whitehead books, since I’ve written about a few here. In that category, it is enjoyable, with typically fine prose and smart-ass introspection aplenty. The scenario is as plausible as most of his are and the pacing fast without feeling at all rushed. The lasting image I carry from the reading is of any remaining humans surviving by passing as zombies; they are doomed to be the only thinking and feeling creatures among millions of thoughtless and soulless virus vectors. Either Whitehead is deeply, crushingly lonely or he had a long relationship, which he thought was forever, end badly before he finished the writing.

beautiful souls

In the prologue to Beautiful Souls (2012), journalist and author, Eyal Press, asks why some people — faced with a law, a culture, a group of people, a boss, or other significant pressure to do something they believe is wrong — say no. He writes, “It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why women and men sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.” This led me to think that Press would answer this question; and to some extent he does, but I found the answer unsatisfying.

In thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told stories Press describes people who risked their lives and livelihoods for something in which they believe. One is a Swiss policeman breaking the law by allowing Jewish refugees into his country in 1938. Another, a Serb in 1991 identifying Croats as Serbs to save their lives. There’s a member of the Israeli special forces publicly refusing to serve in the occupied West Bank and a securities trader blowing the whistle on her company’s Ponzi scheme. And many more.

All of these can be seen as heroes, but part of Press’s point is that they don’t see themselves as heroes; instead, they are people who did what they thought was right at the time. Most agonized about it for days, weeks, or months. All of them paid steep prices for their acts. They were fired from their jobs, branded traitors, and lost friends. For some in their societies, the retaliation is revenge. But even people who think they did the right thing by refusing or whistleblowing feel uncomfortable around them because they show everyone else to be moral cowards. They are pariahs.

Trying to find a common cause for their courage is difficult, but they do share a seemingly naïve belief in the myths their society tells about itself. They have bitten off the stories of the moral structure of their society so thoroughly that they can’t believe they’re not true. And when they are first presented with evidence that the fantasy taught by their grade schools and governments and corporations is false, they ignore it and act as though the evidence is a strange exception rather than the rule that more cynical parties claim. They believe in and care about their societies so much that they are willing to risk everything to protect them. As Press points out, conformists (despite being framed as caring more about their group than themselves) usually benefit individually by not sticking out. Nonconformists (individualists, the story often goes, who don’t care as much about the group) are the ones who actually give greater benefit to their society as a whole by pointing out problems and ways to fix them. And they pay for it.

Nevertheless, to a person, even though they now have what I would call more realistic pictures of their societies, they say they would do it again. Press’s ultimate answer for why is a relatively old saw: they wanted to look themselves in the mirror every morning without shame. For me, looking for something more powerful in a world that I often find dishearteningly unethical and amoral, that wasn’t enough. I was hoping for something that, as a mentor of young people, I could teach and that would make a difference. I suppose my own naiveté shows in that hope.

what it is like to go to war

Maybe it’s guy thing, but for as long as I’ve been old enough to think about it I’ve wondered how I would react to fighting in a war. The chaos and horror of the thing overwhelms – but is it, like many fears, worse in my mind than in reality? Or, is real combat even worse than I could imagine?

If I’m lucky, I will never know for sure. My sense from reading Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War is that for soldiers war is both less fearsome and more horrible than one imagines. From Marlantes, I learned that there are many moments of mundane ordinariness. There are also moments of abject fear. There are moments of just doing what you have to do for your fellow fighters and yourself. And for some there are moments of enjoying the power of death.

Throughout it all, according to Marlantes, the soldier has no illusion that he or she is safe from death. “Some random projectile can kill you no matter how good a soldier you are. . . . In a combat situation you wake up from sleep instantly aware that this could be the last time you awake, simultaneously grateful you’re alive and scared shitless because you are still in the same situation.”

Writing careful, thoughtful prose, Marlantes tries “come to terms with [his] own experience of combat.” He does not like war, but he admires the “noble warrior” and argues that, “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.” Whether you believe him or not, there is no doubt that when soldiers go to war, they come back changed. If you want to understand a little about that change and how we could help them come back from it, this book is for you.

ready player one

Ernest Cline’s his first novel, Ready Player One, feels a lot like someone trying to justify a decade – namely the 1980s – or more spent watching a lot of television and movies, listening to music, and, most of all, playing video games.

Now, I remember a lot of trivial facts. Knowing the meaning of words like “fortnight” and “synecdoche” or remembering the names of characters in novels like Middlemarch has sometimes earned me dork status; it’s possibly the product of spending the first 30 years or so of my life reading more than my share of novels. And as a teenager during at least the first half of the 80s, many of Cline’s references are familiar – think D&D, Family Ties, Galaga, Blade Runner, etc. However, Cline far surpasses me, displaying a knowledge of the 80s that suggests he never leaves the couch.

Cline marshals this minutia to write a future dominated by a virtual reality universe created by a now-dead, semi-reclusive genius who willed control of that universe to the person who can find three hidden eggs. Guarded by riddles, locked gates, and 80s-centric tests, the story focuses on the efforts of a few ultra-geeky, utterly obsessed young people searching for the eggs. For the youth, the internet is an escape from the oppressive poverty and pollution that comprises their real world lives. They also hope to win the online contest and claim the very real reward.

This conflict between the real and the virtual is at the core of the book. And, while Cline tries to conclude that the real world and the real relationships we make with one another are ultimately better and more important than anything we can have online, the fact that knowledge of and success in the virtual might enable success in the real gives contradictory evidence. He says one thing, but the story sends a different message.

a bushel’s worth: an ecobiography

Personal, political, social, artistic, practical – it’s all in farming. And since farming is at the center of A Bushel’s Worth (2013), those adjectives also describe the book. But it’s also the love story of its author, Kayann Short, with the land of her grandparents’ farms and with her own farm – Stonebridge Farm – and the man with whom she works it. By turns poetic and discursive, the book is one part family history, one part land use policy discussion, two parts community supported farm operating manual, and three parts history of Stonebridge farm. To call it memoir seems shallow and unworthy of what Short has created.

But then, I don’t generally enjoy memoirs. To put all my cards on the table, I probably would not have read the book except that I have known Short for 25 years. And I love Stonebridge Farm as much as much or more than I love any other place.

So, for me, A Bushel’s Worth is familiar and friendly, evoking days of working together; of getting up at six to weed and water for a couple hours before breakfast; of heading back out to stake tomato plants or harvest garlic till lunch; of tackling a project – mending a roof or digging a water tank into the ground or building a new goat pen – in the afternoon; of smack-talking card games after dinner. The writing captures Stonebridge life so powerfully that it brought tears to my eyes for the first 20 or 30 pages, till I was able to manage the emotional impact.

Statements like, “Now John and I are the ones who watch the sunsets and seasons pass so that those we love have a farm to come home to” speak directly to me. I count myself lucky to love and be loved by the people at Stonebridge. And when Short writes, “I’ll walk out with you” to gather spinach for dinner or flowers for the table, I see Kayann and John walking side by side as the light gets lower and the heat of the day eases off.

Other passages are less emotionally loaded, but still beautiful: “In winter, we think in black and white, shadows and light, the contrasts stark against a graying sky as fresh snow hoods the upper sides of the tree limbs, white flocking on dark branches.” And the sections on Short’s connections to her family history – though less compelling for me – provide, like all historical context, deeper understanding and bigger significance for our present understanding.

One of the important and persistent themes of A Bushel’s Worth is that when one works in community with people and the earth, the earth gives back aplenty. Similarly, this book has given me a new appreciation of history and biography as a gift to those who have contributed to a community – thanks, Kayann.

kraken

It took me a long time to read Kraken (China Miéville, 2011), because I never got invested in the main characters and because it’s just too slow. Don’t get me wrong — Miéville’s writing has all it’s usual clever, creative, phantasmagorical force and the idea for a plot, though somewhat farcical, is enough of a mystery to hold me. The evil characters — including a sentient tattoo and a pair of horrifyingly effective assassins — are satisfying. The size of the magical vision (even the ocean has a personae in this book) is impressive. And, still, the book never came together to make me care very much about what happened next.

I enjoyed the first five Miéville novels I read (one of which I wrote about here). I’ll read another, but I hope the next one is easier to finish.

three stations

The seventh installment in the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith is tighter and more succinct than ever. With a characteristic eye for dark details, the novel winds its way around the titular three train stations in Moscow, Renko trying to solve a murder while his 15-year old, know-it-all charge helps a girl search for her lost baby. Renko is almost as wrecked as the cars he drives. His reputation in the police is suspect, but his nose for a dirty trail of corruption, deceit, and murder is still keen.

Three Stations feels smaller than the sprawling novels Cruz Smith wrote early in the series, but this does not make it lesser. Instead it feels more concentrated; a story about a week in Renko’s life instead of a month or a year. It’s the work of a mature writer at the top of his observational and prosaic powers, able to say as much or more with less.

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