Thursday, July 21, 2016

EUPHORIA by Lily King (fic)

This is a lightly veiled fictionalized account of a period in the life of the social anthropologist, Margaret Mead who achieved early fame for her "Coming of Age in Samoa." Mead wrote the book in 1928 and was wildly acclaimed until the latter 20th century when her popularity flamed out.  Lily King, a superb writer, has chosen to base her novel on a 1933 study trip Mead took with her husband Riu Fortune up the Sepik River in New Guinia.  "Euphoria" was chosen one of the Times 10 best books of 2014 and also won the Kirkus Prize that year.

King's stand in for Mead is Nell Stone, who like Mead, is coming off great fame for a book called, "The Children of Kirakira."  Her husband Fen, a Hemingway type of macho guy, is jealous of her popularity and hungry for a find of his own.  They meet up with an old acquaintance, Andrew Bankson, at a Christmas party after a failed field study with another tribe the two were living among. Bankson is the narrator of the story, who falls in love with Nell.  He is conducting his own study of the Kirakira tribe. Bankson is an interesting character himself, having lost two brothers, one in WWI and the other, unlucky in love, committed a well-publicized suicide in Piccadilly Square in London.

Bankson finds Nell and Fen a tribe seven hours  up the river from his station where they take up residence with the Tam people.  It proves a convenient spot for the three anthropologists to occasionally meet and exchange observations.  Before long, Bankson who lived such an isolated life, falls for Nell, and the love triangle steams up just as the King's descriptions of the steamy hot jungle feel realistically dangerous.

Bankson's memories of this trip are combined with musings in a diary of Nell's he possesses.  Things seem to be going well for the three as they combine their findings.  They believe they are making a breakthrough in the understanding of all humans by the study of the Sepik River tribes, thus the euphoria of the title, (or perhaps, equally, the euphoria, of love and sex).  Before long, however, things go horribly wrong as Fen's need for recognition leads him to a disaster that affects them all.

While King pulls from an incident in Mead's life, the book ends very differently than Mead's own life.  There is a lovely last paragraph in the novel, that I won't quote as it might be a spoiler. King has a way of writing that creates a sense of being in the moment for the reader and its moody spell keeps one in thrall even after the last page is read.  I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all readers; it would make for a lively book group discussion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CITY ON FIRE by Garth Hallberg (fic)

"City on Fire" was met with great critical acclaim, and I raced to read it soon after it was published.  It is a massive book and was compared to a Dickens novel in several reviews.  I plunged into it with interest but about half way through I lost the fervor and only recently picked it up again to finish.  Hallberg is certainly a great talent and excellent writer.  At times the book seemed over-crafted, and there was so much going on with many characters and plot lines that I had to thumb back to refresh my memory.

Hallberg's city is the Manhattan of 1976 and "77 when all hell seems to have let loose.  He takes us to  the South Bronx, Hell's Kitchen, Alphbet City, and into the rich homes of the Upper East and West sides.  A murder in Central Park plays an important part in the plot.  Like the book, there was so very much going on in America's Bicentennial year that looking back one wonders how we ever got beyond it, and finally the great New York City blackout of '77 brings all the plot elements to a head, amidst rioting and an out of control fire.

Hallberg takes us back to a time without Internet or cell phones where life was fast moving, but unlike today, the characters could not be instantly connected, and the lack of communication reminds us how difficult it was for any one character or group to control events or plan outcomes.  The story centers around two generations, the older rich gentry of the city, personified by the patrician Hamilton-Sweeney family and the new wave punks, the "lost kids" followers of Nicky Chaos who ran an anarchist terrorist cell.  Bridging these two groups was William Stuart Althorp III, also known as Billy Three Sticks, who was a 33 year old heroin addict, heir of the Hamilton-Sweeney family; and, Samantha Cicciaro and Charlie Weisbarger, Long Island teens who are seduced by the city lights and disco night life.  These characters move back and forth throughout the story, as an aging detective and a journalist obsessed with the case, attempt to solve the murder. It comes as a surprise when the murderer is finally revealed.

The author who was not alive for these events does a good job of recreating the period and frantic chaos of the times.  While I respect his talent and writing, I did not enjoy the book as much as Rachel Kushner's "Flamethrowers" which covers the same period. I do recommend the the book, however, if you wish to be taken back to a confusing time before the city became what it is today, where wealthy foreigners are buying up property, and ordinary people have become tourists.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


This is a nice and easy summer read, bound to mainly appeal to sailors and wharf rats.  Lynch nails it with his knowledge of racing in Puget Sound with its quirky winds. He knows the lure of the beauty of older wooden boats and also the drawbacks of racing with larger fiberglass boats meant for cruising. He knows the thrill of being a kid in a Laser or graduating to a Star. Embedded in the sailboat vocabulary, is the story of Johannssens, a family obsessed with sailing and racing, three generations living under the same roof, with a heritage of naval architecture.

Josh, the narrator (named after Slocum, of course), loves old wooden boats and works in a boatyard, with no ambition beyond being around sailboats and water.  Father and Grandfather, known as the two Bobos, despite their constant bickering, see the expediency of building fast and lighter fiberglass boats.  The mother of the family lives in her own mathematical world, dreamy and somewhat spacey. The sister Ruby is an old soul, gifted in reading the wind and finding a breeze on the calmest of days.
Bernard, the older brother, is a hippie at heart and becomes involved in some shady pastimes.

The novel joins the family as they prepare in their individual ways, to do one last big, tough race. Here is where all their stories collide and bring the reader to the climax and bittersweet ending.

This is a novel sure to appeal to those who know boats, but it is not that technical so anyone can enjoy it on a breezy summer day.