Sunday, April 3, 2016

Cluster Critiques

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

I think I officially fell in love with my high school sweetheart when he gave me a Beach Boys album for my 15th birthday. The Beach Boys’ Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl – these were the songs that defined my teen-dom. When they sang, “I wish they could all be California girls,” I wanted to be that blond-haired, deep-tanned beach-bunny. 

I daydreamed of a surfer’s life. But my first experience in the ocean was terrifying. It was too big, the water felt slimy, the salt stung my eyes and the powerful waves smashed me into the sand.  That was the end of my surfing dream.

In New York Times Thad Ziokowski's review of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, he says, "It came to seem that surfing, like some pagan mystery cult, might simply defy literary representation...” Ziokowski and I agree. In Barbarian Days, William Finnegan deciphers the code and reveals the mystery of surfing.

Finnegan’s accounts of growing up in the 1950-60s in Southern California and Hawaii, both of which afforded a serious addiction to surfing, and his sentimental remembrances of surfing friendships and near-death experiences are interesting and well written, but made less so when Finnegan stops talking about life and land, and starts talking about ocean and surf. For it is then his narrative become narcotic, transformative and transportive. Whether based in prodigious memory or vivid imagination, Finnegan’s precise surfboard-based narratives put us in his story. We study each surfing location, the beach access, the weather, the board we will ride that day, the color of the water and a thousand other details. Our shoulders ache from paddling, we sense the approaching perfect wave, take off, shifting our weight in minute nuances, and feel the spray of the curl on our face as we race through a tunnel of infinite shades of blue and green.  Barbarian Days is a nostalgic trip back to the surfing days I never lived, and I loved it. 

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts and a Silver Cross is dying of cancer in a nursing home. He’s also a man who has served 30 years in prison for raping, killing and then burning the body of a 14-year-old girl who lived next door to him.  And he claims he is innocent.

Joe Talbert is a 21-year-old, barely scraping by college student and bar bouncer with an alcoholic mother, a brother with Autism, and a class assignment to write a bio about an interesting person. And that’s where Carl and Joe’s lives intersect, which is fortunate for us because The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens (pictured) is a pretty darn good “who done it”!

The more Joe learns the more convinced he is that Carl Iverson is innocent. But is it just what he wants to believe because he likes Carl? Is that Carl’s special talent, getting people to trust him? Why is Joe so obsessed with Carl and the murder? Gaud knows he’s already got enough on his plate! His mother is spending his college fund on alcoholic binges and worthless boyfriends and can’t be relied on to take care of Joe’s brother with Autism.

Author Eskens builds believable and interesting if not likable characters that schlepp the story along in a well-paced and entertaining manner. As with any good mystery, we flip the pages of The Life We Bury, certain our suspicions and fears will be verified or disproved on the very next page. Then the story crescendos to a heart racing, satisfying ending.  So go ahead and buy this finalist for the 2015 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. You will enjoy it and you will enjoy sharing it with others.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I didn’t enjoy Missoula: Rape and the Justice System by Jon Krakauer (pictured). It was a depressing account of the high rate of rape at The University of Montana. Typically, but not always, the women were drunk and didn’t cry out, fight or protest because they were afraid. Typically, but not always, the rapists that were often drunk as well said they thought the women wanted sex, and some of the rapists just felt they were entitled. The prosecuting authorities tended to not pursue the few rapes reported, claiming insufficient evidence. The police questioned the motives of the women reporting the rapes.  The raped women suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome. Krakauer said he chose to write about rape at The University of Montana, not because it was rampant, but because it was typical of college campuses.

Krakauer tends to take on tough topics without happy endings, i.e., Into Thin Air his personal account of the 1997 death of eight climbers on Mt. Everest. And though I felt for the victims of that book, they didn’t affect me like the rape victims in Missoula. I never faced death on a mountain but someone did try to rape me. Fortunately I escaped, but like most women (64-68%) I didn’t report it. What is most sickening about that is I know he probably tried again with someone else.

Missoula is a well written, albeit excruciating look at one of the most prolific underreported, and controversial crimes in our society. Read it because we mustn't look away.

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