Nov 22, 2015

The Jesus Cow, by Michael Perry

Funny and biting, Perry's "The Jesus Cow" is everything I wanted it to be. When one of Harley's cows gives birth to a calf with the unmistakable face of Jesus Christ in black and white fur on its side, Harley knows that nothing good will come of it. His little mid-Western hometown, Swivel, is economically depressed, and so is he: should he follow his instinct and get rid of the calf as soon as possible, or listen to his best (and only) friend Billy, who wants Harley to monetize the crap out of it?

Perry's send up of religion, capitalism, and small-town politics is done just right. There's nuance to even the most caricatured personality. The money-hungry financial bulldog, Klute, is also a lonely middle-aged man on the brink of ruin; the town nut, snobbish academician Carolyn, is finding that all the brains in the world can't beat having a good friend; and Harley himself is the very picture of the stoic, farm-raised "Scandihoovian", but he'd really like a little poetry and art in his life. There are hilarious moments and touching moments, and even as he skewers the evangelical American, Perry injects a stunning humanity into the most ridiculous of situations. This is a wonderful, page-turning read.

Nov 18, 2015

The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea

The two novels by Urrea that I've read were both incredible; his writing is simple yet lyrical, almost prose poetry and weighted delicately with meaning. But Urrea is actually most known for his journalistic nonfiction, and this decade-old tale of illegal immigration is my first foray with him into that genre. I was delighted to find that his writing is exactly as I remembered; it still holds poetry despite its factual basis. Even the description of the body's journey from health to heat death holds a singular allure. That Urrea's subject matter is so tragic makes his language all the more plaintive.

In mid-May of 2001, a large group of Mexican men, mostly from the state of Veracruz, attempted to illegally enter the United States through the desert of Arizona, known as Desolation. Walkers, as they are called (along with other less savory euphemisms), are lead by Coyotes, guides who travel with them into Arizona then go back to Mexico to await assignment to another group. Though Mendez, this particular group's guide, had done so several times before, this time he got lost. Then he got even more lost. It doesn't take long for Desolation to kill you. When even nighttime temperatures hover in the 90s, the sun quickly bakes the moisture out of you and your body soon ceases to function. Twenty-six men entered the U.S. - only twelve made it out of the desert alive, including Mendez but not his two associates. Walkers usually die in twos or threes, making this an unusually large mortality.

Urrea doesn't point fingers or lay blame. The walkers' stories are sometimes wildly different from each others', but since heat causes hallucinations, who can tell which stories are more accurate? Mendez tells his own story, of course, one of innocence and helpfulness, but he suddenly changed his plea to guilty on the day of his sentencing and got jail time instead of the death sentence; he refused to correspond with Urrea at all.

The most interesting part of this book, for me, was Urrea's description of the Border Patrol. The book is ten years out of date, and much has happened regarding immigration control since its publication, so I have no idea how accurate this portrayal remains. But it struck me nonetheless: the BP isn't really there to keep people out - it's there to make sure the people who do come in don't die. Yes, they arrest most walkers and send them all back, but their main concern when finding any is to see to their health. After the Yuma 14 (as the media called the episode), the BP designed and erected a series of towers along the Devil's Highway, the most traveled and deadliest stretch of desert in Desolation. There are signs in English, Spanish, and pictures warning walkers of the danger they are in and presenting them with a big red button. When pressed, this button instantly summons the Border Patrol, who are there in no more than an hour. These towers have already saved lives. And the BP members pay for them OUT OF THEIR OWN POCKETS. I've no doubt things have changed since then, but I cannot help but be moved by these people doing a thankless job who do so mainly to save other people's lives.

I already respected Urrea as a writer of great beauty and subtle humor. Now I know that he couples his wonderful language skills with a powerful journalistic sense for his nonfiction, and will continue reading his work, both fiction and nonfiction, as often as possible.

Nov 11, 2015

Winter, by Marissa Meyer

This, the final installment of the Young Adult science fiction/fairy tale series, the Lunar Chronicles, is a romping good time. Romance! Action! Villains! Redemption! "Winter" is everything you want it to be, fun to the core and full of the requisite twists and turns, with a great happy ending. Strong female characters (on both sides of the good/evil spectrum) nonetheless have very real emotions and weaknesses. You can be brave and shy at the same time, crazy and courageous, determined and unsure. This is a fabulous series for any teen who isn't ready for more serious science fiction, particularly girls, and for those who enjoy the recent takes on age-old fairy tales. I look forward to recommending this series for a long time to come.

Nov 5, 2015

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

First published in 1955, this American classic is often included on lists of the funniest books of all time, and it holds such resonance that the title is a firm member of our lexicon. And while it certainly is very funny, it is also not an easy read. "Catch-22" is absurdist satire and mostly nonsensical. As such, what little plot there is can only be followed by careful reading, making it a little slow going. It is exceedingly smart, and its groundbreaking satire continues to inspire comedy to this day. The movie Dr. Strangelove especially comes to mind.

The main character, as much as there is one, is Yossarian, an American bombardier of Assyrian descent stuck in a regiment in Italy run by all manner of incompetent officers. Of particular concern to Yossarian is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the maximum number of missions needed to finish one's tour of duty and be sent back home. By the time Yossarian hits 40, it's 45. When he hits 45, it's 50. And so on. One can hardly blame Yossarian for feeling that everyone, friends and enemies alike, are trying to murder him. There's the flak in the sky, the Colonel on the ground, and the sullen, violent whores of Rome who have a penchant for hitting him over the head and with whom he falls in love constantly. Most of the men surrounding Yossarian get a few chapters themselves, none less ridiculous than the others.

What's incredible about "Catch-22" is its sharp, quick brilliance. It's hard to describe humor like this, nor is it easy to understand, for that matter. There's probably plenty of people for whom it flies right over their head, or they simply don't have the patience to buckle into it and get the full weight of absurdity. And then there are the moments of horror - Snowden's bloody, cold death in the plane; Yossarian's nighttime walk through Rome that reveals the myriad ways in which the strong take advantage of and abuse the weak; the unfeeling manipulation of a sensitive man by a narcissistic one - that are written so expertly but so suddenly that you don't even realize you've left the realm of satire and are now neck-deep in a condemnation of war and the men who seek self-aggrandizement from it. This is a masterful book, well-deserving of the term "classic," and I encourage all readers to take the dive into "Catch-22" with Yossarian.