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09-22-10: John Fowles Grows 'The Tree'

Wild in Life and Mind

"Several times while reading this book-length essay on human perceptions of the natural world," writes Barry Lopez in his introduction to John Fowles' 'The Tree' (Ecco / HarperCollins ; September 28, 2010 ; $13.99), "I had to get up and walk away from it. Its thought was as stimulating as I could understand."

I know exactly what Lopez means. It certainly happened to me when I sat down to read Fowles' written meditation. And I think that phrase "written meditation" means something different in this case than it usually does, because Fowles' essay helps us understand a meditative state while inducing one itself. Here's a book that will literally change your brain for better. It's an anti-virus program for any mind.

Fowles' work is so far reaching and important that it is hard to believe that it is only the 30th anniversary of this book. The author of such classics as 'The Collector' and 'The Magus' has a stature that makes him seem of another age. A 1980 first publication seems positively modern.

But then, Fowles' work here is of the timeless variety, and perhaps it will always seem modern. In recounting his childhood, Fowles taps into universal perceptions of order and disorder — and the value of each.

Fowles did not live a rural life. He was brought up in "a semi-detached in a 1920's suburb at them mouth of the Thames, some forty miles from London." And like many children of the suburbs, his first experience of trees was that of those in his own back yard. His father kept apple and pear trees in the back yard in an obsessively pruned portion of the yard. They won prizes and his father knew his trees well; the day the pears or apples were perfectly ripe, the day to pick them and the day to eat them.

That confining vision was a contrast to what Fowles experienced in the forests of Devon. There, he found, "the pleasures of discovery, and in particular of isolated discovery." The contrast is clear and strong, expressed with a natural eloquence that we are given to understand results from that experience.

At 91 pages, 'The Tree' is a perfect one-sitting reading experience that rewards multiple readings. Fowles' language is elegant and eloquent as he describes the woods and wild places of his in terms of their effect on his creativity. The ability to explore is a crucial part of the creative process, and it can best be and created strengthened in childhood. If you read or write, then 'The Tree' will give you an additional toolkit with which to understand both how to do what you do and why to do what you do as well.

HarperCollins have done themselves and their readers a favor with 'The Tree.' Knowing it is a book you will want to keep, they've packaged it beautifully, printed it generously. The result is a book that is worth keeping, for reading and for loaning to those you know also read or write, or both. This is a book that is rather difficult to describe, as portions are memoir, others natural history, and the results are deliberately wide-ranging. Here is a book that will literally change your mind for the better.

09-21-10: James Robert Smith Hunts 'The Flock'

Smarter Than a Monster

You can count on Nietzsche to get to the heart of the matter.

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

But the problem with most books involving monsters is that they take their cues not from Nietzsche, but from Peter Benchley and 'Jaws.' The monsters therein kill out of instinct — not intelligence. Instinctual killers are indeed dangerous, but intelligent killers are on an entirely different plane.

When you have to worry about your monster out-thinking you, bigger guns won't help. And, as fictional characters, they're a lot more interesting.

For a great case-in-point, readers need look no father than 'The Flock' (Forge / Tor ; November 2010 ; $15.99) by James Robert Smith. First released by the prestigious and clearly intelligent independent publisher Five Star Press back in 2006, 'The Flock' posits that a race of large flightless birds has managed to survive in the wilds of the Florida savannahs by virtue of their intelligence, which makes them far more deadly than your average killing machines. But when they get into the cross-hairs of a Disneyesque corporation that wants their real-estate, they finally find themselves with a foe worthy of their mettle.

'The Flock' is more than anything else, a smart thriller, and it displays this by making the monsters characters, as well as making some of the humans monsters. It's an interesting switch, and Smith plays it well. By giving his monsters a degree of intelligence and civilization, he has a chance to create conflicts between monsters as well as between the varying factions of humans. With all these angles to attack, 'The Flock' has plenty of opportunities to create believable characters and entertaining suspense.

The basics of 'The Flock' are not unexpected. There are some nasty, deadly critters in an unpopulated part of Florida, and some nasty, deadly humans who want to populate their land. There are some decent-hearted humans who begin to twig to the monsters' existence, and a bunch of well-armed, unintelligent humans who see themselves as the ultimate killers. Put them all in the same acreage, and let the slaughter unfold.

The Five Star Publications cover;
click to enlarge
What makes 'The Flock' a real hoot to read are the details of how these creatures could have survived, what they are, and in particular, the monster version of politics. It's quite possible that our elections and international relations would be really different if humans had talons with which they could gut one another in a heartbeat. For those who think that The Flock sounds a tad outlandish, look up the cassowary, a native of New Zealand that grows up to six feet high, can run up to 31 mph and has a five-inch dagger-like claw that rural legends suggest can quickly gut an unwary human. Smith's Flock can do quite a bit more than the cassowary, because they have that most useful of predatory appendages — an intelligent mind.

Smith sets up conflicts within The Flock as well as between the humans and The Flock and then lets them play out in the tall grasses of the savannahs. He knows how to orchestrate a scene of action, and he knows how to create humans who are heroic enough to the wrong thing in order to get the right result. All the expected themes get their spotlight; ecology versus economy, the problems of testosterone drive-aggression, selfishness versus the good of the group — and that spotlight generally involves an entertainingly described killing of one thing or another.

Like most thrillers, Smith's novel relies on a series of third-person narratives to tell the story. But unlike most thrillers, a good percentage of Smith's narrators are not human. Better still is the fact that the protagonists of the novel are not just humans, and that the monsters in this novel belong to both The Flock, and ostensibly, to the human race. Perhaps we need to re-think just what it means to be human.

09-20-10: John Brandon Drives Through 'Citrus County'

Swamp Gothic

There are places in this country where the landscape hurts your mind. Featureless, filthy, scrub forests, aging strip malls and busted houses dot the landscape. The roads are bad if they exist at all. The people who live here lead a hardscrabble life, barely making ends meet. Crime is petty. Families are splintered by economic forces they cannot comprehend. Hope is a four-letter word.

Welcome to Citrus County, Florida. Shelby is a smarter-than-average middle-school student, who at least knows there are better places than the one she lives in. After her mother died, Shelby's father brought Shelby and her little sister Kaley to what seems to be a place the Apocalypse forgot. Shelby's got an eye for Toby who's smart, but inclined to be deliberately evil. Both of them have Mr. Hibma for a class that consists of time-wasting presentations and random lectures. Of late, Toby has decided that he will be evil.

'Citrus County' (McSweeney's ; July 6, 2010 ; $22) by John Brandon, is stripped to the bone. In prose so sparse it feels as if each word were carved from hard, dark wood, Brandon pulls the reader into world where even boredom has no direction. The difference between death and a dead end is difficult to detect. Yet there are lives to be lived here.

Brandon's prose may be spare and laconic, but it is not without poetry and pace. 'Citrus County' looks like a middle-school book, and may be just as easy to read but for the intense and adult nature of the narrative. With easy, short sentences and a keen eye for the absurd, Brandon turns a story of feckless teenagers and their under-inspired teacher something hypnotic and powerfully affecting. There's a loping rhythm to the language that helps immerse readers in these three characters and dark, disturbing, but satisfying story.

In any novel told in the third person, readers will find themselves at the mercy of the characters who experience that story. The three primary characters of 'Citrus County' are all equally compelling and unlike any you've met. Shelby is the closest to familiar, a precocious young girl who is too smart for her surroundings, and imbued with a combination of good will and good sense. She emails her aunt in Iceland, who has a tidy success as an online personality, does reasonably well in school and seems likely to escape Citrus County. Toby lives with his Uncle Neal, a disturbed loner who spends his time growing hemlock and inhaling the fumes, but Toby sees himself as destined for bigger things — evil. Both them take note of and are noticed by Mr. Hibma, a disaffected teacher who avoids his colleagues and even teaching itself. Instead he fills his classroom time with random lectures and requests that the students make presentations. Unmoored from the desire to be a good teacher, he finds himself contemplating being a bad person.

Brandon's carefully burnished prose spins these three characters quite swiftly into a very bad place. Toby makes a very bad decision, Shelby finds her family and her life torn apart, and Mr. Hibma contemplates a plan even more unpromising than Toby's. Brandon is extremely clever as he tells his tale. 'Citrus County' is in some ways a novel of omission, as Brandon avoids every cliché scene you might expect to find. In doing so, he can keep his laconic, low-key approach while ratcheting up the suspense. There are thrills to be found here, and true terror. They're effectively and believably run through the sensibilities of the two young protagonists. Decisions are made and cannot be unmade, and the consequences can be life-changing — or life-ending.

But 'Citrus County' is not simply dark, it's also very funny. Mr. Hibma may be one of the best teacher characters you'll ever have the pleasure of reading about. His doubts and insecurities, his half-decisions and raw antipathy for hall-monitors and ass-kissers are a wonderful foil to his own dark decisions. He's practically forced to do his job, and one of the joys of this novel is to see his reluctant success, even as he's planning his own undoing.

Brandon's novel travels to a lot of very dark places and lot of very funny places as well. It's remarkably entertaining even as it unfolds in a very bleak and unpleasant American landscape. For all the tension and suspense, readers get real, enjoyable characters swirling down into an abyss that would not bother to look back at those who stare into it. This abyss just waits to suck everyone down. In this regard, Brandon's plot shines, as Shelby, Toby and Mr. Hibma manage to find a very satisfyingly realistic resolution. While all our lives may be swirling down into an abyss, in 'Citrus County,' readers have the unique chance to enter a maelstrom that funnels down not to despair, but in the end, to life, rich, raw unexpected life.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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