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.

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.

The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (audio)

starryI love-love-loved Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, so I was easily sold on the idea of this, her second novel, on audiobook. Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman who fled a troubled marriage when she took her three children with her to Europe to pursue her studies in the arts. There, Fanny met a young Scotsman, a sickly lawyer with a passion for writing rather than the law. This man, 10 years her junior, is Robert Louis Stevenson. He is attracted to her first; her reciprocation comes a little later; but they end up in a passionate love affair, complicated by her married-with-children status and his family’s disapproval (of his writing, as well as of Fanny as an adulterer and an American). She goes back to California; he follows her; she eventually divorces, and they marry. Fanny and Louis (as he is called) live in a wide variety of locations all over the world, as he battles persistent health problems and writes such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As Loving Frank touched on the life of the more-famous Frank Lloyd Wright while focusing on his longtime mistress Mamah Borthwick, so does this story cover Stevenson by covering his wife. Fanny is brave, and strong-willed, and protective of her own, but also strong-tempered. She is creative, and sees herself as an artist in her own right – a painter, a writer – but is overshadowed by Louis. His health is best when at sea, while she gets deathly seasick as soon as she steps aboard. Their romance, their shared life, is deeply felt, ardent, and loving, but also rocky; both are passionate people with strong personalities, and they have their troubles.

This novel was not the overwhelming success for me that Loving Frank was, although I certainly enjoyed it. Both books are novels, works of fiction, but also shed a great deal of light on the real lives of men (and women) I didn’t know much about. As I’ve discussed before, fiction is not the most reliable source of knowledge, but I know more now than I did, and I won’t go writing any nonfiction monographs based off this reading (in other words, good enough). More, I enjoyed getting to know both strong women, Mamah and Fanny. However… Under the Wide and Starry Sky slowed down for me considerably in the middle. This might be partly my fault. Due to my own life’s events, I slowed way down in my listening patterns; maybe I was too far away from regular “reading” to appreciate the rhythm of Horan’s writing. But I think more objectively that the story of Louis and Fanny was faster-paced and more engaging early on, during their courtship and the grand achievement of their marriage, and later on, as they battled some significant late-life challenges, than it was in the middle when they bickered with friends and set up a few different homesteads. Also, I think Mamah got the spotlight of Loving Frank much more decisively, where Louis was a stronger costar in Under the… Sky. This is a loss from the feminist perspective (that I suspect Horan was pursuing, and that is part of her books’ attraction), of giving the women behind these men a little of the focus and attention they deserve. On the other hand, Stevenson himself was a great character to get to know (and I loved the Scottish accent as performed by Kirsten Potter), so that if you were not concerned about the feminist angle, you might be happy to have more Louis and less Fanny. Frankly, she was a little less likeable to me.

Although it lacked the magic sparkle that made Loving Frank a near-perfect achievement in my book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky was enjoyable, and I will miss Fanny and Louis in my life. For historical fiction about the strong women behind their better-known strong men, I continue to recommend Nancy Horan. And Potter’s narration was nuanced, had personality, and improved the experience.


Rating: 7 cacao seeds.

All the Wrong Places by Philip Connors

Two disclosures on this one: I read an advanced reader’s copy; and I consider the author a friend.


wrong placesFrom the author of Fire Season which I loved so much (first-ever 10 out of 10 here at pagesofjulia) comes a newer and even more personal story. Connors’s first book was about life as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness; we learned a great deal about the author himself, including some of the demons he’s fought in his life; but we also learned a lot about federal fire management (historical and present), the flora, fauna and atmosphere of the Gila, and what it’s like to balance the isolation involved in a profession I’d never heard of before, a profession “in its twilight.” It was both a deeply personal book, and a book about the world.

By contrast, All the Wrong Places is a singularly personal story. As briefly mentioned in Fire Season, Connors had a younger brother named Dan, who killed himself when they were both in their early twenties. Connors has written about this event and its aftermath in a few articles since; and now, in book-length form. I can only imagine it was difficult, writing a book about long-term pain.

This story follows Connors from the University of Montana, where he was enrolled at the time of the suicide, through his years working in New York for the Wall Street Journal (which considering his politics is a serious conflict in itself); his experience there during the events of September 11; and his path to becoming a fire lookout. The essence of the book, the questions it asks and tries to answer, are why? and how do I deal with this; who am I to become in this aftermath? He tries to investigate his brother’s death, his decision and final moments; but more than that question, All the Wrong Places considers what Connors will be in his own life, how this effects him, how to deal & recover. It would be too pat for Connors to put a full stop to that questioning, but he does come to some place of …if not conclusion, maybe a degree of acceptance. If not redemption, peace.

Connors’s writing has many strengths, but in this case, the greatest may be his ability to be sometimes, astonishingly, funny even while handling this shocking pain and terrible tragedy. He remains lyrical in the oddest, or most difficult, circumstances. In studying the collected notes of a man obsessed with MacDonald’s, who’d visited over 1,000 of them and scrupulously recorded their nuances:

Their banal repetition had a strange poetry to it, a kind of Whitmanesque list-making for the end of the millennium; in almost every instance he’d noted what he’d eaten, and the thought of all those empty calories, millions and millions of them, staggered me.

This poetic description of the absurd and vaguely ghastly, in itself, is oddly satisfying. There’s something intriguing going on there.

In other words, his writing is as fine as ever, humorous and thoughtful and touching, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed his voice, which is thoroughly recognizable and comforting.

But less comforting, again, is the subject matter at hand, so painful, and so personal. It’s astounding to think about baring oneself to this extent to anyone willing to buy a book at a bookstore. I consider Phil Connors a friend: after I loved his first book he wrote to me, we corresponded a bit, and then Husband and I got to meet him in person too. I thought I knew him moderately well, but learned so much more in this book. I wonder how that colors my reaction; it’s closer to home this way. The pain of others can be paralyzing; and frankly it’s easier with a degree of remove, as in my former job at a cancer hospital, where my library patrons were held at a professional distance (even though we talked about some pretty personal stuff). I want to compliment Connors’s “bravery” in telling this story, but that feels too simplistic (and I bet he’d brush off the compliment). I’m getting less eloquent here, I know. Thank you, Phil, for sharing your story. I found it riveting, I’m so glad you’re okay, and even though this may not have been your goal, I think it might help some other people.


Rating: 9 faxes.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book, which is subject to changes before publication. All the Wrong Places will be published in February 2015.

Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

One woman’s exhilarating experience in a strange extreme sport.

off course

Erin Beresini was a committed Ironman triathlete and endurance athlete facing overtraining injuries and burnout when she first heard about obstacle course racing (OCR). How silly, she thinks, and how divergent from her past efforts–perhaps just the thing to make new friends, find new motivation and relieve her overstressed muscles by working new ones. From her first mud run she is hooked, and gratifyingly exhausted. She jumps feet first into this bizarre new scene, undertaking a journey that culminates in racing the OCR world’s first marathon-length event, the Spartan Ultra Beast. In Off Course, she documents her labors.

Throughout Beresini’s often-funny personal story, she interjects details of the history and quirks of this recent trend in amateur athleticism. Characterized by mud, fire, ice and blood–and often involving broken bones, electric shocks, sadistic beatings and barbed wire–OCR strikes many as an insane way to chase fun and fitness. As it happens, millions have signed up for these events in recent years, in the United States and around the world. The sport draws “regimented military types and anti-organized sports rebels,” and shares a fan base with CrossFit and endurance athletics. Beresini also scrutinizes the compelling personalities (and controversies) behind the sport’s two main powerhouses, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, as well as a handful of their participants. As weird as this tale is, it will appeal to both fans of sports narratives and readers who appreciate offbeat obsessions.


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 burpees.

Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig

A familiar, but not unoriginal, expansion on a beloved character from a classic American epic.

ruth

In Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People) tells the full story of Scarlett’s beloved nursemaid. He begins in France with Miss Solange, a wealthy heiress who travels to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There she takes in a local child to be part servant, part daughter, and names her Ruth, then moves to Savannah. Switching focus to Ruth, McCaig details her eventual brief marriage to a free man in Charleston, years of tragedy and rebellion, and her return to Savannah.

Though McCaig does touch a bit on Scarlett’s well-known story, the bulk of the narrative is focused on Ruth’s early life: the voyage to the U.S., her transition to adulthood, her loves and losses, and the moment she deliberately gives up her name and identity in favor of a new moniker: Mammy. Miss Solange has a daughter, Ellen, who in turn gives birth to the memorable Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Where Scarlett is petulant, Mammy is resilient. Through decades of love, death and betrayal, she consciously puts on a smile. She is cursed to foresee the ugly futures of those she cares for, but, as she repeats to herself, it is not for mammies to speak all that they see.

McCaig echoes the saucy, tongue-in-cheek tone of Mitchell’s classic. Mammy’s story is complex, and she commands respect. Lovers of Gone with the Wind will be the most obvious fans of Ruth’s Journey, but it stands on its own merits as a sweeping epic of time, place and history, thoroughly worthy of its inspiration.


(Final comment: Those readers who were concerned with the racial insensitivity of Mitchell’s original will not find any clear redemption or compensation here; but McCaig’s treatment is respectful and nuanced, certainly no worse and arguably slightly better than the classic in this regard.)


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 husbands.

The Brewer’s Tale by William Bostwick

The influence of beer in history, and the more and less delicious forms it’s taken along the way.

brewers tale

In The Brewer’s Tale, homebrewer William Bostwick (Beer Craft) examines beer in history and the history in beer, brewing as he goes.

Bostwick follows the progression of human history, starting with primitive Mesopotamian bread and its immediate companion (rudimentary ale) and moving through the early European shamans who used beer (sometimes laced with hallucinogens) in their practices to the monks whose influence persists in abbey and Trappist ales. He visits the farmer who brewed with his leftover produce, and members of the London working class who passionately consumed the porters that were named after them. With each stop on this tour, Bostwick gives equal play to the past and to characters who maintain or rejuvenate these historic styles. He also attempts his own brews, with mixed results. Through grogs and meads; farmhouse ales like lambics, sours and saisons; porters, stouts and pales; and finally light (and lite) lagers, The Brewer’s Tale reminds us that beer is not only the stuff of frat parties or snifter-poured snobbery; it can be experimental, fresh and fun, and has always been at the heart of the human experience.

Bostwick runs a little heavy on symbolism, but his subject is heady and intoxicating, so why not the metaphor as well? The initiate will be well served, but even a well-read beer geek can be excited anew by these reflections, and the homebrewer may well be inspired to fresh projects. The Brewer’s Tale is history, a joyful celebration and a call to appetizing action in an easygoing, conversational tone.


This review originally ran in the October 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 caves.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 380 other followers

%d bloggers like this: