Wednesday, May 18, 2011

'So Much For That,' is so much of a great novel

PEMBA, Zanzibar, Africa - Lionel Shriver's novel So Much For That hits just about every high and low note I can bear to read.

Lionel Shriver
There's absolute joy, horror, family dysfunction, employment bullying, death, life, taxes - and a very healthy whack at health care - and health insurance - in the United States.

And in the paragraph above, I left out a lot.

The book is the tale of a fellow named Shepherd Armstrong Knacker who has sold a business (think Home Depot, but on a local scale). He has a dream and that dream is about his having a life on Pemba, an island that is part of the Zanzibar archipelago.

But there are problems, of course, with getting to that dream from New York City (where Shep lives with his wife Glynis). Shep has a job, friends, children, an aging father, a sister (who believes she is an artist) and, eventually, there is an illness.

In all of So Much For That, Shriver shows great cleverness as a novelist and uses a device I have rarely seen, but which works fabulously. At several points, she will have a character suddenly dealing with an issue, but without stating directly what that issue is. It will be many pages later when the reader discovers what the character has actually had to contend with.

It makes sense and works out, somehow. She has a magic style in her writing.

Another novel device that hits the reader from the first page are the chapter subheadings - nineteen in all - like this:

Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
Dec. 1, 2004 - Dec. 31, 2004
Net Portfolio Value: $731,778.56

You can guess that the bottom number changes frequently. But how it changes, and what it means to the story makes for a compelling tale.

So Much For That, despite dark overtones, is not a dark book. It's real life with twists that suggest tears and laughter, frequently simultaneously.

If you read it, you will likely weep and laugh, too, of course - right through the last page - where the final two sentences wrap it up as nicely as any novel I have ever read.

And, no, you will not be reading those sentences here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gasland: Oh-My-God watch this movie, then pray

WATKINS GLEN, New York, USA - The movie Gasland should not be listed in the documentary section of videos on Netflix or at video stores. Instead, it might better be placed alongside all those disaster movies like Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Day After.

Those movies, of course, were works of fiction.

Gasland is not, which makes it sooooo much more frightening. And kind of sickening, too.

It's a tale of an out-of-control gas drilling industry, greed, corporate (and government) corruption and real suffering. The real suffering is not on the part of the corporations or gas drilling industry, of course. It's the people who live where the gas drilling - frequently referred to as 'fracking' - are having their well-water and air poisoned.

If the air you breathe and the water you drink make you sick, that's suffering.

Gasland is the work of independent filmmaker Josh Fox, who lives in the Delaware River basin near where gas drilling companies are getting ready to frack the countryside. In the process, the movie makes it obvious the ground water will be polluted with enough cancer-causing chemicals to make it unsafe to even use to wash a car. Fox had been approached by a gas company, wanting to lease his land to drill.

He had questions. And he made a movie about the answers.

The science is simple. Millions of gallons of water, laced with hundreds of nasty sounding chemicals, are injected into the ground (where shale rock formations exist) to create mini-earthquakes which release natural gas. The gas, in turn, is captured by the drilling companies, and sold as a product. The problems? Jaysus, where to begin?

The gas doesn't all go back up neatly into the collection wells, sometimes it bubbles up right through the ground, poisoning steams and water wells.

The water pumped in - under huge pressures - is toxic and remains so. It too leaches into ground water and even if most of it is recaptured, it has to be trucked away and disposed of. Check your local wastewater facilities and see if fracking water is being dumped there. If it is, try to stop it. Municipal wastewater facilities can't possibly deal with the toxic chemicals in the water. So the chemicals just come out and enter the water system. Your water system.

And what are those toxic chemicals?

Hard to say, exactly.

 In 2005, President George Bush, at the urging of (wait for it, here it comes) Vice President Dick Cheney, signed a bill that exempted gas companies from the various environmental laws that would have required them to disclose what they were pumping into the ground.

It was called the Halliburton loophole, a paean to Cheney's years as CEO of that company. Halliburton is big in the gas drilling industry. Very big.

Various agencies and individuals have analyzed fracking water samples and discovered why the gas companies wanted the exemption so much. The toxic-chemical stew is soooooo awful, so ridden with cancer causing chemicals, it should never be used.


As soon as the 2005 federal law was signed, it touched off of wild rush to drill across the U.S., the results of which are documented very well in the movie.

Gasland is a must-see movie: Where else can you watch people light the water coming out of their kitchen taps on fire.

Really... check this out:

Saturday, May 07, 2011

'Freedom' ponders functional dysfunction, really...

SOMEWHERE IN MINNESOTA, USA - The novel Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, had been on my list to read since it first came out in 2010.

It was one of those books I picked up in Costco three times, each time reading a few more pages before deciding I just couldn't part with the $25+ dollars Costco wanted.
Jonathan Franzen

Still, the lives of the family in the book - Walter and Patty - and children Joey and Jessica - had me fascinated from the first few pages. There's love, hate, a touch of violence and enough familial intrigue and interplay to give almost anyone gas, gasps, and very occasionally a guffaw.

Very occasionally.

It is not a book for everyone, even though the family themes and woes and joys are nearly universal.

The author's narrative voice probably drives some readers to distraction. (The librarian in Watkins Glen where I checked out the book told me she tried to read it three times and each time gave up). And it spans many years, with significant flashbacks, a device some people find maddening. It does work in this book, though.

I found that I could not wait to pick it up, and so I read it in just over a week, this in between regular life, writing assignments and adjusting to life here in upstate New York.

So why is the dateline on this review Minnesota? Well, life in that state figures prominently, as does the little blue bird on the cover.

But to find out about either, you will have to read it, or find a reviewer who doesn't mind spoiling a story.

Recommended summer reading, if that list isn't already filled.