book beginnings on Friday: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

dark towerCan you believe it? I’m finally getting around to book 7! I’m so excited! It’s hard to fathom, I know, but I recently came to a break in my reading-for-review schedule and found the time to pick up this behemoth, at 800+ pages, which will finish the Dark Tower series. It begins:

Pere Don Callahan had once been the Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map. He didn’t much care. Concepts such as reality had ceased to matter to him.

And let me tell you, it begins with a bang. These next few pages are action-packed. Hooray for King! I’m glad to be back…

And for those of you who recognized the King self-reference there (no hard thing, as Salem’s Lot is the title of another of his books), you might be interested to note this one just a few pages later.

[A certain item] tumbled to the red rug, bounced beneath one of the tables, and there (like a certain paper boat some of you may remember) passes out of this tale forever.

Yep, I’m in the club on this one now!

Maximum Shelf author interview: John Vaillant

Following yesterday’s review of The Jaguar’s Children, here’s John Viallant: Looking at the World Differently.


John Vaillant’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar’s Children is his first novel.

vaillantIs Hector’s story based on a specific true account? Where did you get the idea?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn’t found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, “Agua por Uso Humano,” “water for human use,” and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published fiction. What led you here from your past work in nonfiction?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place–Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related, that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn’t fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn’t want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling, and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together, and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat a departure from writing you’ve done about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I’m really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don’t usually get to hear, so that’s in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it’s not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part–I’m really curious and I want to see what that world is like, I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they’re tigers or conservationists, or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that’s where the most dynamic tension is. It’s a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it’s human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it’s certainly not intentional; it’s just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with any work in mind, a book or a story?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn’t have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That’s the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I’ve done have really come unannounced. It wasn’t a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they’ve all come to me and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector’s perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations my father’s family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids’ houses, including my father’s, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that’s when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we’d meet people who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it’s the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It’s a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there’s something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He’s very smart, but he just doesn’t understand the system well enough to know even how the money’s being made. And that’s how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.–they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well–or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It’s a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn’t be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes–it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices… really was new to me. You’re not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn’t about that. It’s really about being a young person in a very troubled–some could argue broken–society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he’s made of. He’s extraordinary in some ways, but he’s not superhuman. It’s amazing what people survive. It’s amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it’s a crucible for him, and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible–it’s part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story.


This interview originally ran on November 5, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 5, 2014.


jaguar
The Jaguar’s Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 – 08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance–I am Hector –Cesar’s friend–It’s an emergency now for Cesar–Are you in el norte? I think we are also–Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita–Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming–We need water and a doctor–And a torch for cutting metal

The sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers–now prisoners–have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector’s discovery of Cesar’s hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn’t know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar’s. The Jaguar’s Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar’s friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants’ suffering is a large part of the novel’s significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector’s life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant’s masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant’s writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector’s voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector’s is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen–does happen–is part of its import.

The Jaguar’s Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar’s survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector’s account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay.


Rating: 9 capfuls.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vaillant.

Teaser Tuesdays: You’re Not Lost If You Can Still See the Truck by Bill Heavey

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

not lost

Bill Heavey has written for Field & Stream for a number of years; this is the third collection of his work (from F&S and elsewhere). He is a funny man. Hunting and fishing are not hobbies of mine, but this does not disqualify me from enjoying his work.

Every year, in celebration of the return of spring and fishing, I try to have at least one colossally stupid experience involving a canoe. Some people might call it a jinx, but I prefer to think of it as an involuntary tradition. All it takes to have a near-death experience in a small boat is to put aside common sense for a few moments. After that, everything takes care of itself.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for self-deprecation – and all the better in such a macho setting as this. Good stuff.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

vocabulary lessons: Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


grizzlyUnsurprisingly, Peacock taught me a number of new words in this book, generally of the technical & outdoors variety.

“…grizzlies can walk lightly over a thin crust, distributing their weight evenly on their plantigrade feet…” plantigrade: “walking on the sole with the heel touching the ground.” Which makes sense, as Peacock later writes: “I squatted and traced the outline of the grizzly’s rear foot in the crusted mud. How humanlike it was.”

“Not a single tree decorated the lacustrine benches.” lacustrine: “of, relating to, formed in, living in, or growing in lakes.” A parallel to ‘riparian’, then?

“I dropped down to explore the little mountain, half evenly timbered, half steaming rhyolite and broken andesite.” rhyolite: “a very acid volcanic rock that is the lava form of granite”; and andesite: “an extrusive usually dark grayish rock consisting essentially of oligoclase or feldspar.”

“We passed two tiny azure tarns beginning to melt in the weak spring sunlight…” or “I wondered if anyone had ever visited those four lonely tarns.” tarn: “a small steep-banked mountain lake or pool.”

“High above, I saw the broad wings that had startled the bovid…” bovid: ” any of a family (Bovidae) of ruminants that have hollow unbranched permanently attached horns present in usually both sexes and that include antelopes, oxen, sheep, and goats.” I knew ‘bovine’, of course, but was thrown to see ‘bovid’ (here, referring to a mountain goat); I thought bovine meant cows, specifically. I guess this word is a little more inclusive.

“A spine of dolomite ran off the range of peaks and continued down the mountain as a bedrock ridge.” dolomite: “a mineral CaMg(CO3)2 consisting of a calcium magnesium carbonate found in crystals and in extensive beds as a compact limestone.”

“We set up our tent, locating it out of the wind on the carpet of Carex.” Carex: “a vast genus of almost 2,000 species[2] of grassy plants in the family Cyperaceae, commonly known as sedges.”

“On an island to the south, melanism has prevailed in a species of jackrabbit living among gray andesites and scabrous vegetation.” melanism: “an increased amount of black or nearly black pigmentation (as of skin, feathers, or hair) of an individual or kind of organism.”

“Grunion appear on the beaches of the northern Gulf from February to April after the big tides of the full moon.” grunion: “a silverside (Leuresthes tenuis) of the California coast notable for the regularity with which it comes inshore to spawn at nearly full moon.” Okay, but what is a silverside?? The “Concise Encyclopedia” entry, a little further down the same page, is more helpful: “Edible Pacific fish (Leuresthes tenuis) found along the western coast of the U.S. In the warm months, it lays its eggs in beach sand during a full or new moon when the tide cycle is at its peak. The young hatch and enter the ocean on the next spring tide, two weeks later. Grunion reach a length of about 8 in. (20 cm).”


What have you learned in your reading recently?

book beginnings on Friday: The Killdeer and Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

killdeer

Michael Cotter was always a storyteller; but he didn’t get to grow fully into that role from the beginning.

“Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” That was my most dreaded message from my dad. Our farm was a livestock farm and it was pretty labor intensive in the early years.

Happily for his readers, he did get around to it, however. I’m really enjoying this collection. The title story “The Killdeer” comes especially recommended.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness by Doug Peacock

I have a confession to make: I have been reading quickly lately. I’m busy – buying one house and selling another, getting rid of most of our furniture and one car, arranging to ship the other, planning a cross-country move and a goodbye party, and honoring social commitments with lots of friends because I don’t want to miss a chance. I’ve quit my full-time job, and now my employment consists of writing book reviews (and any additional editing work I can get). I’m reading with the finish line in mind: finish this book, write it up, start the next. One a day, ideally; and often it is that quick. I’m not unhappy with my output, and I love to read books and learn new things, and the more the better. But at some point I can’t take it all in…

And then there’s that one book that just forces me to slow down. This week, it was Doug Peacock’s searing, precise, deeply felt writing in Grizzly Years.

grizzly

After Vietnam, I caught myself saluting birds and tipping my watch cap to sunsets. I talked a lot when no one was around, especially to bears.

You recall that I was impressed by Peacock’s Walking It Off. And I recently enjoyed Great Bear Wild; which pushed me to finally pick up Grizzly Years, which has been waiting patiently on my shelf ever since Walking It Off more than two years ago now. As I neared the end of this outstanding read, a beautiful short chapter about the Sea of Cortés makes me want to move straight on to Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, which I have owned for a year or more but sits unread. (Actually, it’s packed now, so it will wait.) And that’s how my reading path develops, sometimes.

But what about the book itself? It has many things in common with Walking It Off, which was written and published later but actually feels like a fine book to read in preparation for Grizzly Years. Like that later book, this one studies the interplay between war and wilderness, and I was again struck by what I would have thought would be the unlikely duality there; I guess I thought war was inimical to nature, through it’s destructive power; but Peacock repeatedly and convincingly likens his combat experience to his behaviors in grizzly habitat.

After Vietnam, he was too upset by the “real world” or what he calls (with perhaps a nod to Huck Finn) Syphilization. As Peacock says best himself:

Vietnam gave us a useful pessimism, a pragmatic irreverence I can wear comfortably down any bear trail. No one can ever show me a photo of a mutilated body or dead child again and tell me it is the way of the world. I can’t live in that world, but I do want to live. If this is a wound, it doesn’t want mending.

I was surprised to learn that his local “rough” bar on the edge of the wilderness is mostly populated by Vietnam vets.

They were friends, naturally, as this particular drinking establishment was largely avoided by company loggers, grizzly bear poachers, and higher ranking officials of the Department of Interior.

He tells us that those vets naturally moved toward the edges of Syphilization, the wildest country they could find. In this chapter, Peacock approaches Abbey’s tone of humor, but then gets serious again quickly. He’s a serious guy.

I’m afraid I am implying that the book is largely about war and its personal aftermath, though, which is incorrect. As its title indicates, it’s really about grizzly bears. Peacock spent a few decades traveling seasonally to visit with the same bears year after year, observing where they bed down and den and eat and mate, learning their habits and finding in respect for their wildness some peace for himself. These are not tame bears, and he doesn’t live peacefully side by side them – he has to be careful, because these are true, wild grizzlies. But he knows well enough how to do that, how to live nearby for days or weeks without dying (although he comes close a few times).

Much of the book is grizzly sighting after grizzly sighting; but it doesn’t get old. Every time it’s exciting and beautiful and tinged with danger (which contributes that humility he needs), and the scenery varies, as Peacock travels from his fire lookout in the Montana high country, to what he calls the Grizzly Hilton (also Montana, a pocket of habitat where he consistently sees the best bears), to Yellowstone, the Madison River to fly fish, the Sonoran desert, then to seek out the last Mexican grizzly in the Sierra Madre. (Maybe next year he’ll try the north country again, Yukon or Alaska.) He subsidizes his sparse lifestyle with a little money earned for photographs and film of grizzlies, a commercialism he is ambivalent about. When traveling in the backcountry, he lives off granola, protein powder and (like the bears) huckleberries; but in his lookout cabin, he cooks chanterelle mushroom bisque and cracks open fine Bordeaux wines. Peacock is well named: he is a colorful character, but has none of the strutting associated with the peacock. Abbey is less present here than in Walking It Off, which is fine because Peacock doesn’t need him. I may have gotten here by way of Abbey, but Peacock is a very, very fine writer without help of his friend’s celebrity. In the same style that I appreciated in Fire Season, Peacock intersperses his personal narratives of grizzlies and war with explorations of the history of grizzlies, their place in native cultures, and Syphilization’s damage upon them. He exhorts us gently and briefly in support of preserving a little habitat to let these creatures live. But mostly it’s just simple, beautiful description of his grizzly years.

Beautiful writing, thought-provoking and poignant and important, a fine work of natural observation and consideration of people and grizzlies, war and wilderness: Grizzly Years is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the most important I could recommend to you.


Rating: 10 yearlings.
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