Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

This charming, accessible tribute to archeologists and their work will both entertain and educate a wide range of readers.

lives

Marilyn Johnson, who celebrated librarians in This Book Is Overdue! and obituary writers in The Dead Beat, here turns her attention to another underappreciated profession. She had long been captivated by the idea of digging in the dirt and bringing up treasure in the form of human history, and was awed by the men and women who do that work. Archeologists are plagued by low pay, scant job security and the pressures of a world that values many things–real estate, the pace of progress or simply the future over the past–more than it values potsherds and human remains. With Lives in Ruins, Johnson pays homage to and learns about these individuals and their often-dirty, often-uncomfortable, always-intriguing work.

In pursuit of archeology’s magic, romance, filth and smells, Johnson enrolls in several different field schools, working as an archeologist-in-training (with varying degrees of success). She attends conferences and travels to notable sites ranging from Peru’s famous Machu Picchu to the almost unknown, but historically indispensable, Fishkill Supply Depot in New York. She learns techniques and technologies, views artifacts and absorbs history, but her most important work comes when she meets archeologists. They are tough, intelligent, deeply committed people; they are “cultural chameleons” who work in dust and grit and heat and are also capable of attending formal affairs to advocate passionately for preservation. (One is a woman who cleans houses for the wealthy to support her nonprofit organization, and appears at fancy balls in the same upper-crust circles.) When archeologists and the U.S. military team up to defend cultural heritage from the violence of war, Johnson comments on the intersection of two “cautious, even paranoid professions.” She meets a young woman who sifted through New York City’s topsoil and sewage in the years after 9/11, and another who teaches forensic archeology using the carcasses of farm animals as stand-ins for human murder victims. She also investigates classical and prehistoric digs around the world.

Lives in Ruins will captivate a variety of readers: those who, like Johnson, dreamed of being archeologists; fans of history, anthropology or odd jobs; and people who respect the past and have an interest in preserving it. Johnson is merrily self-deprecating and funny in her anecdotes of the personalities she encounters, but also absolutely serious about the importance of their work. We are all the richer for Johnson’s eloquent ode to this dirty job.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sherds.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jonas Karlsson

Following yesterday’s review of The Room, here’s Jonas Karlsson: On Acting in Writing.


Jonas Karlsson writes plays and short fiction. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. In 2005, he made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction. He has published several short story collections; The Room is his first novel.

jonasThe Room is a short and apparently straightforward work, but takes us deeply inside the head of Björn, which is a strange place. How difficult is it to present such seeming simplicity?

Thank you! I’m glad to hear that. As an author, I believe it’s all about trying to get inside your main character’s head. If you’re close enough to the story, you’ll get an instinct for what is important and what isn’t. If I choose to describe the right details, it will give the reader a clear image–probably not exactly the same as mine, but one shaped by the reader’s own experiences.

Your background as an actor would imply that you haven’t spent a great deal of time in office settings, but this isn’t the first work of fiction you’ve set there. What experience are you drawing on?

That is correct–I’ve never worked in an office. But I’ve visited many offices and maybe I nurture a secret dream about working in a real open office landscape. I can tell you that the environment in the theater and movie business is more similar to offices than you could imagine. There are a lot of meetings, deals, hierarchies, informal decision paths, intrigues, jealousy–not to mention weirdos–there as well.

Did you intend this as another short story that got away from you, or did you set out to write a novel?

I actually never know how lengthy a story will be when I start writing. Most often I start with a situation or some dialogue that I think seems intriguing. Then I write on and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into nothing, other times it becomes a short story, and sometimes–pretty rarely–it turns into something as lengthy as this. It all depends on what I find along the way, and if I find it exciting to keep going. (I love this feeling of freedom in the writing process. It is like being a jazz musician and starting on a piece of music, and not knowing what will happen–all you can do is hang on.) The story about Björn was hard to let go.

Your decision to write in Björn’s own perspective or voice is a large part of what makes his story so creepy. How did you make that choice?

In the beginning, I only had the part where Björn finds a room. I put myself in his shoes and, as the character took shape, he became very special. When I had the whole story set in my mind, I actually tried to change it to third person because it was so hard to describe how the people around Björn reacted to him. But this proved not to be so easily done. I felt it was like exposing him: “Look here, what a crazy guy, and look at the weird stuff he does….” It became obvious that the story had to be experienced through Björn for it to work.

Besides, I think it’s very intriguing to gradually, over time, discover your narrator isn’t to be trusted.

What do you think makes Björn such a compelling protagonist?

I hope that I’ve given him depth, despite the many comic situations he finds himself in. I always try to imagine that I’m my main character–I have to think: Okay, if I was Björn, what have I done? Kind of like I do as an actor when I play a part.

How hard, or troubling, is it to write from inside a space of darkness or even mental illness?

Above all, it is very exciting. But I did have periods when I thought it was difficult and wondered if I was going to go mad, or if my readers would think that I had become weird and had all of those crazy ideas. At the same time, it is a wonderfully mind-blowing feeling to create and enter into the mind of such a special character. Again, it is similar to acting in that way.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Neil Smith into English? What does the process look like? Is there any sort of back-and-forth?

Neil is such a good translator, and I trust in his judgment 100%. We really just talked about the end, which is altered a bit from the original text. Otherwise I let him do his work, which he does so well.


This interview originally ran on November 10, 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 Room by Jonas Karlsson

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 10, 2014.


room
“The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once.”

From this skillfully subtle opening line, the titular room is spotlighted as the crux of a strange and surreal tale. The first-person narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room remains nameless for much of his story. He assures the reader that he has been given his new position working for the Authority because of the outstanding work done at his last post–as implied by his boss, “gesturing upwards with his hand to indicate my career trajectory.” This narrator, eventually identified as Björn, is a consummate bureaucrat and couldn’t be prouder of his efficiency. He sets himself a strict schedule: 55 minutes of work followed by five minutes of break time for coffee, toilet and sundry; if he needs the toilet sooner, he practices restraint.

Björn is odd from the first, but we take him at his word: he is good at his job, perhaps not well-liked by his fellows, but effective and ambitious. In this new post, he is determined to work his way to the top, and secretly exults in a future in which his boss Karl will acknowledge Björn’s prowess and grovel for his approval. Social awkwardness is his greatest challenge. His attempts to infiltrate the politics and society of his new office environment are clumsy; nonetheless, he endures the Christmas party. He’s unhappily positioned at the very center of the open-plan office space, with a boorish deskmate whose piles of paper threaten to encroach upon Björn’s territory.

On the other hand, there is the room. Björn discovers it by accident while looking for the toilet. It is a lovely space, a perfectly appointed, perfectly proportioned, old-fashioned, classy office. In his eyes, “The whole room breathed tradition…. Is this what monks feel like as they walk the corridors of their monasteries?” He catches sight of himself in the mirror, and is struck by how good he looks, despite not usually feeling that he is attractive, or even worrying about such things. His suit even fits better when he is in the room.

Björn begins visiting the room regularly, and a problem arises. His coworkers see him standing in a particular spot, along the hallway on the way to the toilets. He just stands there, entirely still and dead to the world, looking contented. This is unnerving. They don’t see the room; the room doesn’t exist on architectural plans or for anyone else; Björn concedes that, when he paces it off, no room should fit in that precise space. The other fourth-floor employees of the Authority gang up on him, enlisting the boss’s power against him, and he is instructed to never enter “the room” again, under any circumstances. But Björn knows that he is a worthy opponent for these small-brained incompetents. He takes on a protracted confrontation in which these conflicts only deepen.

Björn is an exemplary unreliable narrator. As in the best instances, the reader is left to put together fractured pieces of information shared along the way, and struggle to devise the truth of the room and Björn’s sanity. It’s tempting to flip back to earlier scenes and reconsider. Who is crazy here, Björn or his colleagues? Is he the last breath of reason in an insane world, or vice versa? Are we observing the workings of magic, fantasy, conspiracy or madness? Is this really modern Stockholm, or an Orwellian nightmare? The parallel realities experienced by Björn and his colleagues, and the high-strung nature of his interior drama, are sketched with exquisite subtlety in deceptively simple language, and Neil Smith’s translation from the Swedish is pitch perfect. The Room simultaneously approaches claustrophobia in its physical scope and achieves boundless significance.

There are several levels to the uncomfortable probing Karlsson undertakes throughout Björn’s odd tale. Clearly this is in part a critique of bureaucracy and office politics (is it really ideal to dispose of your problem employee by putting him to work restocking printer paper?), but Karlsson also sketches larger doubts about the subjectivity of reality, social graces and the importance of control over the different aspects of our lives.

Karlsson’s prose and the inventiveness of Björn’s surreal mental workings are often funny; indeed, the humor comes in moments of breathless surprise that amplify its effect. This story will, of course, strike comic chords with the cube-dwelling set. But the overall impact is also deeply thought-provoking and profoundly disquieting, and the combination of the banal and the absurd results in a striking and singular read.

The Room is a very slim book with a very large footprint, recalling Kafka and Beckett, and posing questions about the nature of truth as well as the value of defining one’s own work and life. As the reader interprets Björn’s world and social cues, doubts are cast on his belief in his own superiority. But the drama persists until the final, bizarre conclusion.


Rating: 8 fairy-lights.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Karlsson.

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch delves into a cold case–which might be his last–with an appealing new partner.

burning room

Michael Connelly’s 27th novel, The Burning Room, features the return of the much-loved, authority-averse LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, now in his final year with the Open-Unsolved Unit. As the senior detective in the unit, he has been paired with the youngest, freshest rookie: Lucia Soto, or “Lucky Lucy,” who has survived gunfights to become a Los Angeles hero but has zero experience solving homicides, fresh or cold. Their first case together is an apparently random 10-year-old shooting, whose victim has only recently died of his wound–unusually, a cold case with a warm body. Bosch’s concerns about his partner’s abilities are laid to rest quickly as he observes her work, but the case is increasingly fraught with political intrigue (and, as his fans know, politics are an especially difficult arena for Bosch). Complicating matters is an older cold case with personal ties for Soto. The latter connection is somewhat improbable, perhaps, but thrilling nonetheless.

Bosch is everything his fans have loved for decades: grouchy yet soft-hearted, an outstanding detective who can’t seem to get along with his superiors and a fine mentor to his new partner. Detective Soto is an intriguing new character in her own right, with a storied past that begs for further exploration. The satisfying, shocking denouement leaves Bosch’s future–and the continuation of the series–in question, although surely Connelly (The Gods of Guilt) will not disappoint the detective’s many fans just yet.


This review originally ran in the November 7, 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 paper clips.

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.

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.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: