Review: When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle

Even when his subjects are arcane, for instance, historical novels about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life (The Women), I can always find something to love in TC Boyle’s work. He is a master writer of accessible literary fiction: deep, thought-provoking stories that are readable, haunting, and often wryly humorous.

When the Killing’s Done, his latest novel, centers on the flora and fauna of the Channel Islands, a grouping of islands just off of Santa Barbara. Sound dull? Heck, no. Add in a colorful cast of environmentalists, hunters, scientists, protesters, government officials, and various others just along for the ride and this becomes a brilliantly told cautionary tale about how human interference, despite its best intentions, can seriously impact our ecosystems.

The human drama circles around Dave LaJoy, a local business owner and environmentalist, who is in desperate need of anger management, and Alma Boyd Takasue, a seemingly uptight biologist who works for the National Park Service. As we learn in the first chapter, Alma is the granddaughter of a woman who became shipwrecked on one of those islands.

Alma’s aim is to return the islands to their original state by “controlling” various species that have been introduced by man. This includes, at various times, a rampant overgrowth of rats, golden eagles, fennel, and wild boar. Dave’s goal is to thwart the scientists and stop the killing. But like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, he is frustrated at every turn. Eventually, his efforts end in disaster.

My only quibble—and a minor one—with this otherwise excellent work is that an intriguing scenario set up in the first chapter is not resolved. Is it important to know that Alma’s grandmother was shipwrecked on the islands, therefore setting up her fascination with them? Sure. But why leave me wondering about the backstory between her grandmother’s two male companions, who seemed to be locked in an epic struggle that was partially responsible for the wreck?

Or maybe he’s got a sequel in the works…

While this isn’t my favorite Boyle novel, it’s still very good. Read it for the beautiful language, the depth of detail, and his wry and quirky sense of humor.

The Joke’s on Me is Here!

Yes! Beating my personal deadline of having a novel published by a significant birthday, The Joke’s on Me is here and, like the hot tomatoes on the cover, ripe for the plucking.

I’m taking this show on the virtual road with my “Summer of Love” blog tour, which begins Wednesday, July 20. This promises to be lots of fun as I pop around the Internet visiting various lovely and gracious bloggers and talking about the novel, about writing, about the story behind the novel, the cover, and my fascination with tomatoes. Come visit, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or the libation of your choice) and join the conversation. We may even have a giveway at the end.

Blog Tour Schedule for The Joke’s on Me

Wednesday, July 20: About the book and writing, with Karen Cioffi at http://www.karencioffiwritingandmarketing.com

Thursday, July 21: About what inspired the book, with Rashmi Srinivas at A Book Blogger’s Diary at http://abookbloggersdiary.blogspot.com

Friday, July 22: I’ll answer a few interesting questions from Stephanie Burkhart at Romance Under The Moonlight. http://sgcardin.blogspot.com

Wednesday, July 27: Spending some time with Penny Ehrenkranz at http://www.pennylockwoodehrenkranz.blogspot.com

Monday, August 3:  I get to hang out all week with Shelley Workinger and talk about food at But What Are They Eating? http://bookfare.blogspot.com

More dates to come!

The Keep: A Review

Because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad, I went straight to my library to find Jennifer Egan’s earlier works. The Keep, published in 2006, is another example of how brilliant she is with flawed and sometimes unlikable characters. As I wrote in my review of Goon Squad, we can still love and root for unlikable characters if the author treats them with compassion and makes us empathize with them. This is a tricky tightrope. Jonathan Franzen, in my opinion, failed at that in Freedom. He built a universe of flawed characters, but his judgment of them was palpable. Not so with The Keep, where Egan’s compassion shines through.

The story begins when Danny, the “cool” kid whose adulthood has left him wanting, is reunited with his socially backward, nebbishy cousin, Howie, after twenty years. The last time Danny saw Howie was at a family picnic, where Danny and some other kids had abandoned Howie in a deep, frightening cave. Now cool, tanned, blond, and a millionaire, Howie has purchased a castle in Germany and invites Danny to help him renovate it.

To give away any more of the plot would spoil a tale with some well-done twists and turns. The Keep is a fascinatingly circular story, tantalizingly creepy, and plays out like a snake, winding around to bite its own tail. The point of view characters are definitely flawed, absolutely well drawn, and I had complete empathy for them.

This is another example of Egan’s gleeful rule breaking and terrific writing. For aspiring authors, it’s a great teaching tool, as is Goon Squad.

I’m looking forward to finding the rest of her work.

Give the MLB All-Star Game to the Minors

David "Big Papi" Ortiz celebrating another long ball...

I love the Home Run Derby. A fairly recent addition to the All-Star Game festivities (it’s televised tonight, at 8PM, check your local listings), it pits the big bats, like David Ortiz and Prince Fielder, head-to-head in a contest to see, you guessed it, who can hit the most homers. It’s fun. It’s a family thing. Some of the players bring their small children onto the field with them, and they sit together on the sidelines in special tiny uniforms. I could squeal from the adorableness of it. Even though David Wright was never quite the same hitter after whacking a record 16 home runs in the first round of the 2006 competition, the HRD is one of my favorite pro sports events of the year. (‘Cause according to Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, “chicks dig the long ball.”)

But the All-Star game itself? It’s become a charade. Who cares who gets voted in? Who cares that your kid voted, like, a thousand times for Derek Jeter, C.C. Sabathia, Mariana Rivera, José Reyes, Justin Verlander, A-Rod, or Chipper Jones? They’ve already been yanked out, substitutes announced, either because their managers don’t want to risk injury to their superstar players, or, in the case of José Reyes and Alex Rodriguez, they’re already injured.

And if the superstar pitchers nominated by the managers of their respective teams have pitched in the last couple of games before the break, like Rivera and Sabathia, they are automatically yanked because of rules Major League baseball has set up to protect the pitchers.

I understand injury prevention. I’m a Mets fan. Half our team is injured at any point in the season. We just lost José Reyes, the team sparkplug, to a hamstring pull. Even if he was healthy, he might’ve been yanked. What manager these days wants to risk their best players for a game that essentially doesn’t count, is nothing but PR?

But if the superstars aren’t going to come out, that not very good PR.

So I think they should ditch the All-Star game altogether. Save our overpaid thoroughbreds for the pennant races. And how about using all that great media time and goodwill (and still give Major League players a few days off midseason) to highlight the accomplishments of minor league ball players? How about an All-Star game for the guys coming up? I still crow about watching José Reyes play for the Binghamton Mets, before the Mets drafted him. Wouldn’t it be great to see, in prime time, the next A-Rod? The next Derek Jeter? These guys work hard, often on their own time, or for not very much money. Give them a shot at the big time, or a bonus; give them some publicity, a big hand for how hard they work, and let the MLB superstars spend the break on ice.

I’d definitely watch that.

The Not-So-Great Gatsby: A Literary Abomination

In a brilliant blog post yesterday, film critic Roger Ebert lays into Macmillan Reader Editions for putting out a “dumbed down” version of The Great Gatsby. This series, apparently, is designed to relieve high school students of that nasty responsibility of parsing complex sentences and ideas by spoon-feeding the text to them with fewer (and shorter) words and none of those pesky metaphors, similes, or allusions.

Which, according to Ebert, defeats the purpose of reading great literature. Or, as he puts it,

“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he choose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”

Along with doing our children a great disservice by stripping from them the opportunity to learn and to stretch their minds, I fear that this edition of Gatsby (and, God help me, other “retellings”) could set up a lifetime aversion to challenging reading. This is bad for the individual and does not bode well for our culture. Breaking down classic literature into “manageable” plot lines is as wrong-headed as censorship. Both crimes prevent readers from experiencing an author’s vision of the world and its inhabitants as he or she intended.

But, you may be saying, isn’t it better to offer students a book they can easily read and regurgitate for good test scores rather than giving them one that’s too challenging?

No. No, no, no, no, no.

Sure, I wasn’t wild about Shakespeare in high school. Mainly because I hated the idea of someone telling me what I should be reading. I hated the personal agendas of certain English teachers. But I’m grateful for the gift of great literature. I learned how to read critically. I learned about different cultures. In my little corner of nearly all-white exurbia, I learned about the world.

Through reading I also learned how to write, because reading the masters is how we get better. Reading amazing books like The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for a modern example, make me want to be a better writer.

Greatness begets greatness, in my opinion. Part of the teaching of great authors involves a study of their artistic influences. Or, as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” How can a new generation see further if they’re standing on the bare, osteoporotic bones of plot summation?

Food Fight on the Fourth

Every Independence Day since 1916, Nathan’s Famous has sponsored their International Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. But don’t for a minute think these contestants are simply a bunch of big dudes who can pack away a lot of food. This is serious business. They call themselves “competitive eaters” (I only thought this referred to trying to get seconds on Thanksgiving before my (at the time) teenaged stepbrothers devoured the whole spread.) Most belong to an organization called Major League Eating, and membership is required if you want to belly up to the barbecue at the Coney Island gorge fest.

Reigning champion is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who once packed away sixty-eight hot dogs and buns in ten minutes. He is the perennial favorite in these competitions, and he doesn’t stop with frankfurters: he once ate over nine pounds of deep-fried asparagus spears in ten minutes, among other stomach-churning feats.

This year’s Coney Island culinary sprint, however, is going to be a little different. For the first time, women will have their own division. They claim that men have a competitive advantage by being larger, although some of these women, (including Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas, who once downed thirty-six dogs and buns) are no slouches when it comes to shoving food down their gullets. This gives women an opportunity to earn the competition’s coveted “Mustard Yellow International Belt” and prize money.

While part of me welcomes gender equality in competitions of wretched excess, the other part thinks this is ridiculous, dangerous, and another example of why certain people in certain parts of the world hate us. Especially the ones who are starving, and would probably do many immoral and illegal things for just one of those links. Especially because several of these contestants are from China, a place where a heck of a lot of people don’t get enough to eat. (Then again, maybe a childhood of deprivation is why they compete.)

I don’t think Nathan’s ever intended this contest to be anything more than a fun publicity grab, and don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of fun and don’t want to poop on anyone’s parade. But every year this deal seems to be in poorer and poorer taste. I would love to see the company donate the equivalent of the hot dogs consumed to any number of charities that help the hungry. It can still be fun, and the heavy hitters can earn their prize money (which they would undoubtedly spend on Pepto-Bismol, a sponsor of the League, and a good medical savings account for years down the road when their digestive systems explode.) And, Nathan’s can look like good guys doing it for charity.

Meanwhile, it’s like a seventeen-car pile up on the highway: hard to look at, but impossible to turn away.

(Note: no crotch-tweeting former legislators were gratuitously lampooned in the making of this post, even though the writer desperately wanted to.)