Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: "Countdown City" by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City (2013)
Ben H. Winters (1976)

2013 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first book, The Last Policeman.  So, if you haven't read that first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]

Countdown City, the second novel in Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy, begins some three months after the first book ends, and only two and a half months before the day an asteroid is predicted to slam into the Earth with what are expected to be devastating consequences. Late in the first book, The Last Policeman (my review here), Detective Hank Palace lost his job on the police force, as government functions federalized and retrenched to focus exclusively on maintaining order; with the apocalypse imminent, criminal investigation is viewed by the authorities as having little value or purpose. For Palace, however, becoming a detective was his life-long dream, and as society collapses around him, continuing his work remains his way of dealing with the crushing reality of the looming asteroid impact.

The sequel opens with Palace taking notes as a woman who years earlier had been his and his sister’s babysitter describes the sudden disappearance of her husband, a former state police officer. With so many people leaving their families to pursue private bucket lists in the waning days of civilization, Palace initially pushes back on taking the case, skeptical that he can accomplish much. Eventually, however, she prevails upon him to search for her husband, and Palace --- reluctant to leave her with no hope --- agrees to give it a shot.

What follows, as in the first book, is a wild ride of miss-direction and complication, all spiced by the continuing and rapid disintegration of both civil and political administration, as well as peoples’ moral and social behavior. Though Palace encounters some kindred spirits --- individuals diligently going about their work as if the end of civilization was not a scant few months away, most people he meets exhibit motivations and behaviors clearly perverted by the coming apocalypse. Some focus solely on their own personal desires, others join up with one of a variety of religious and survivalist cults that have sprung up, and a few, like his own sister --- in a plot development begun in the first book, join groups that believe that a giant conspiracy lies behind government inaction against the approaching asteroid.

The whodunit aspect of the novel stands on its own as a great story, but what really makes this story (and the first book in the trilogy) shine is the pre-apocalyptic, dystopian twist that colors every step of Palace’s investigation: every conversation, every action and reaction of the people he meets. Most apocalyptic novels seem eager to get to the post-apocalyptic future, and build their stories around what that world might look like; The Last Policeman series, by contrast, explores deeply and seriously the psychological and social impacts of the collapse inevitably accompanying pre-apocalyptic end-times.

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I’m looking forward to reading --- and reviewing here --- the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, soon.

It occurs to me that the psychological tension of The Last Policeman trilogy bears interesting parallels to Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (my review here). Though Shute’s novel opens after a catastrophic nuclear war has utterly destroyed the North Hemisphere, it is set on the South coast of Australia, and the characters of his story initially believe they’ve been spared the worst. Gradually, however, they come to realize that the deadly radiation is drifting southward on the trade winds, and they recognize that their end --- their apocalypse --- is imminent, and unavoidable. As does Winters, though without the detective story, Shute examines a population experiencing and attempting to come to grips with the growing awareness that civilization, and probably humanity as a whole, is living in its final days. And, as in Winters’ story, some face the end-times by carrying on with what they see as their duty --- unchanged by the new reality, while others come undone in the face of the crushing finality advancing toward them.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Review: "Miller's Valley" by Anna Quindlen

Miller’s Valley (2016)
Anna Quindlen (1953)

271 pages

It's a wiggly word, "progress": a two-lane gravel road turned into four lanes paved that makes life a noisy misery for the people with houses there, a cornfield turned into a strip mall with a  hair salon, a supermarket, and a car wash.  Corn's better than a car wash.  We washed our own cars with a garden hose until our kids got old enough to do it for us. (5)
Over a period of decades the families of a tiny farming community in a secluded Appalachian valley of central Pennsylvania find themselves increasingly at the mercy of floodwaters in Anna Quindlen’s engaging novel Miller’s Valley. But despite requiring sump pumps that over the years come to be running nearly continuously, and enduring rain storms that sometimes lift the water level to their front steps, the townspeople long balk at and obstruct government representatives who frequent their town ever more often with proposals to buy out homes so that the area can be turned into a reservoir. Their families have lived in the valley for many generations, and they are loathe to give up their homesteads and their way of life.

The Millers, living on farmland that’s been in the family for some 200 years, give the valley, and the novel, its name. The story follows the life of Mary Margret Miller, Mimi, a young girl on the verge of adolescence in the mid-1960’s when talk of converting the valley into a reservoir begins in earnest. Her oldest brother already married and living near his job in Philadelphia, Mimi lives a bucolic life with her parents and her second, teenage brother, Tommy. The tranquil isolation of the valley has lent Mimi and her family, as well as their neighbors in the community, a sense of enduring permanence --- but this cherished stability begins to dissolve in the face of the reality of the steadily rising water table, as well as the dramatic social and political changes of the 1960’s.

For many years, the troubling inundation of water seems to be only another element of the natural world that can be, simply must be, accommodated; the water may win some battles, but with hard work and ingenuity the families expect to win the war. The increasingly invasive presence of the outside world, on the other hand, proves more ineluctable for the valley’s residents. The persistent and ever increasing pressure exerted by visiting government officials to convince families to sell their homes and relocate so that the reservoir can be created, serves as Mimi’s initial glimpse into the power of outside forces to penetrate into the heart of the isolated valley, and thereby affect her life as well as that of her family and neighbors. And while the government threatens to impose this radical change on the valley at some uncertain point in the future, the Vietnam War leaves its mark quickly and harshly, a dramatic reminder that the valley is no longer the quiet and secluded home it once was.  As Mimi passes through high school these outside forces compel her to begin thinking more intently and broadly about her own future, to reassess her relationship to the disappearing valley of her childhood.

An aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed was the wonderful job Quindlen has done in creating the language and mannerisms of her characters. I grew up in a small town only a few hundred miles west of the central Pennsylvanian setting of the story, and though my hometown was less isolated than the fictional Miller’s valley, I was immediately transported back to the social environment of my youth by both the phrases the characters used, as well as the often curt and clipped, if still friendly, ways in which they interacted with one another.

Another more widespread characteristic associated with small towns also plays a role in Quindlen’s story: carefully hidden secrets, motivations and fears that can seethe just below the surface both within and between families. For the residents of Miller’s valley these become ever more difficult to hide in the face of the upheavals caused by the rising tide of both water and modernity, as young and old find their lives and friendships upended. Though some become nostalgic for the valley’s earlier isolated innocence, others find an opportunity to break free of smothering, small-town frictions and expectations.

Ultimately, Miller’s Valley is a powerful coming of age story, as Mimi, her family, and the community around them grapple with a dramatically and rapidly changing world.  As Mimi observes at a critical moment in her own life, one which offers radically different choices for her future : "I just sat there, amazed at the way the whole world had just tilted while we were sitting at the table." (202)

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Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Review: "For a Little While" by Rick Bass

For a Little While (2016)
Rick Bass (1958)

471 pages
But other nights the storms would wash through quickly, windy drenching downpours that soaked us, and it was fun to sit on the rocks and let the storm hit us and beat against us. The nights were always warm, though cooler after those rains, and the smells were so sharp as to make us imagine that something new was out there, something happening that had never happened to anyone before. (31)
The deep and powerful connection between people and the natural world animates the 25 short stories by Rick Bass collected in For a Little While. Whether a pristine wilderness in north-west Montana or a refinery-polluted river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, nature plays an indispensable role in his characters’ lives, grounding their thoughts and actions in something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Reading these empathetic and affecting stories reminds us to cherish the wonder and grandeur of the world, when we might otherwise pass through unawares, lost in our quotidian concerns.

As in his earlier collection, The Sky, the Stars and the Wilderness, (my review here) the rhythms of nature seem to guide Bass’ writing in these stories, with a meditative, almost reverent pace giving way to occasional moments of intensity and clarity for his characters. And the nature they encounter is not some simplified, picture-book ideal to be looked at from afar; rather, its true beauty reveals itself as one engages with it, enters into it with a spirit that seeks out its mysteries. It can be dangerous --- making one pay for ignorance of its ways, inattentiveness to its signs or just plain bad luck --- but if open and sensitive to its rhythms, Bass’s stories show how nature can also complement and deepen a person’s life in myriad ways.

The story In Ruth’s Country, from which comes the quote that opens this review, takes place in the open, desert scrubland around Moab, Utah, where a boy and his uncle herd cattle for a living. Unlike the majority of the town, the two are not Mormons, and when the boy develops a bit of a crush on a Mormon girl, he knows to be wary of crossing the strict defined, if unspoken, cultural rules that exist between the Mormons and the rest of the townspeople. One day the girl approaches him, however, and the two wander repeatedly into the vast, anonymous countryside, as they experiment with and in their new relationship. But the non-denominational power and beauty they experience in the nature they explore can only mask for a time the complexities of the human world against which they are pulling. Just as the cattle from different owners mingle together in the unfenced countryside before their masters periodically rounded them up into their respective herds, Ruth and the boy find it difficult to completely break free of the ties of their respective worlds.

The wonderful and moving story Her First Elk tells of “a young woman, just out of college --- her beloved father already three years in the grave.” (270) As the story opens, the young woman climbs up into the wooded mountains of western Montana in the pre-dawn. Her father had loved hunting, and she follows in his steps, seeking through this activity that he loved a connection to the father she misses so dearly. After she takes down a huge elk in the opening glory of the morning dawn, the implications and consequences of that one shot resonate forward, and eventually leading her to recognize a vast interconnectedness, between people and with nature, that has arisen from that one shot. Ultimately she discovers an even deeper connection to her father than she had expected or even hoped to find.

Though the woman in Her First Elk --- or at least her namesake --- appears in a subsequent story, the characters otherwise vary broadly from one story to the next, from high school students finding beauty in an industrial wasteland, to a dog trainer lost in the far northern wilderness of Canada; from loggers who love their work despite a stream of injuries, to residents of a decaying town who live in the nostalgia of their town’s past glories from a time before the Mississippi River suddenly one night shifted farther west. All of these characters share an intimate connection to the world they pass through, a recognition --- sometime only subconsciously --- of both its visceral wonder and its fundamental connection to their lives.

Bass does without sudden wild twists or dramatic deaths in his stories. Instead, this is writing to savor and delight in, writing that serves as an inspiration to get out and take a slow stroll through the woods or even just one’s local neighborhood. A reminder to not just pass through the world, but to observe its ways, and relish them; to recognize, in fact, our wondrous ability to do so, for, to recall Wordsworth
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Read quotes from Rick Bass' writings here.

My review of an earlier collection of short stories from Rick Bass, The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, is here.

Used as a story preface in The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, find a beautiful quote from John Graves reproduced here here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf