So Dave Barry's
turned into a novelist, and it turns out, a damn funny one.
Who'd have guessed?
Inevitably, when a 'lightweight' journalist turns to fiction,
skeptics step in with their caveats: Big Trouble is a
funny novel...but Barry really isn't a novelist, is he, and he
hasn't done anything all that new (or unfamiliar to anyone who
has seen even a handful of popular Hollywood comedies), has he?
After all, the intricate mistaken-identity plot Barry uses here
(it's too elaborate to describe in this space frankly) is as
old as Plautus and has been used to good big-screen effect in
everything from Top Hat and Bringing Up Baby to
Back to the Future. And the comic crime novel genre is
owned by Elmore Leonard, right?
It's true. Big Trouble is basically a combination of
a tightly structured, farce-driven plot and the sort of laugh-out-loud
one-liners that Barry has perfected in twenty books and countless
newspaper columns. And yes, sometimes, Big Trouble's humor
feels like it was lifted conveniently from one of those topical
columns in which Barry pokes his writing finger into a variety
of local eyes. (Example: "Humvees are a common sight in
Miami. They're especially popular with wealthy trend-followers
who like to cruise the streets in these large, impractical pseudomilitary
vehicles, as though awaiting orders to proceed to Baghdad.")
And while we're rummaging through those caveats, I suppose we
should agree that his characters, colorful and oddball as they
may be (among them, a well-meaning barfly who sleeps in a tree
and a pair of Russian arms dealers who run the Jolly Jackal Bar
and Grill as a cover), aren't exactly round or otherwise geometrically
admirable. And, well, I suppose Big Trouble lacks the
thematic depth and rhythmic subtleties that distinguish Florida's
greatest comic novelist, Carl Hiaasen (whom Barry himself dubs
"the master of the genre I tried to write in--the Bunch
of South Florida Wackos genre"). (Click here
to read WAG's review of Hiaasen's
The fact remains that Big Trouble is a funny book,
and Barry's skill at not only fabricating an elaborate plot but
holding it together while zipping through it at a zany, madcap
pace is something that many established, widely admired novelists
could only wish for. Besides, anything that makes you laugh out
loud repeatedly in the course of a few hours' enjoyable reading--particularly
if you happen to be a somewhat jaded book critic--can't be all
that bad for you, can it?
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A Friend of the Earth
new novel, A Friend of the Earth, opens in the year 2025,
when the world is not, shall we say, faring well under humanity's
stewardship. Formerly fecund Brazil is a desert, California suffers
alternating bouts of flooding rains and drought, many of the
planet's mammalian species are extinct, and the world's largest
cities have become impossibly overpopulated (forty-six million
people live in Mexico City alone, for instance). In short, Boyle's
future world is every worst ecological nightmare come to life.
As the novel's seventy-five-year-old narrator (Tyrone O'Shaughnessy
Tierwater) says in describing himself as an environmentalist,
at least he "used to be; not much sense in using the term
These days--in 2025, that is--Ty manages a private menagerie
for an animal-loving pop star named Maclovio Pulchris. It's "an
important--scratch that, vital--reservoir for zoo-cloning and
the distribution of what's left of the major mammalian species,"
Ty tells us, with an emphasis on "the unglamorous things
of the world." (As Mac himself says, "I want to save
the animals nobody wants...The ones nobody but a mother could
love. Isn't that cool? Isn't that selfless and cool and brave?")
But in his younger days, Ty was a decidedly more aggressive environmentalist--indeed,
he was, for a time, a fugitive eco-terrorist associated with
a fictional group called Earth Forever! ("Think radical
enviro group," Ty suggests, "eighties and nineties.
Tree-spiking? Ecotage? Earth Forever!" Think, in other words,
As Boyle shows us in chapters set primarily in 1989 and 1990
(they alternate with the 2025 chapters), Ty hadn't always been
a radical environmentalist. In fact, it was only after an idle,
suburban contribution to the Sierra Club tendered him an invitation
to an Earth Forever! party that Ty even knew they existed. But
it was at that party that he met Andrea Cotton, the fervent California
blonde who would become his second wife and the catalyst for
his turn to eco-terrorism. But his devotion to ecology is brought
into dire conflict with his love for his daughter, Sierra, after
the court places her in foster care, following their arrest for
a relatively minor act of civil disobedience. And thirty-six
years later, in 2025, when Andrea (now Ty's ex-wife) shows
up with an activist writer and asks him to help write a biography
of Sierra (a tree-sitter long since martyred to the ecological
cause), Ty again has to weigh his desire for privacy and a certain
sense of stability against a desire to save the world, no matter
how little of it is left.
Grim-sounding stuff, eh? Remember, though, this is the work
of T.C. Boyle, America's most consistently satisfying satirical
novelist, right? Readers who draw back reflexively from message-driven
prose should rejoice: Boyle's impeccable timing and the sheer
splendor of his high-energy style of comic storytelling keep
A Friend of the Earth from ever feeling like overbearing
didacticism (the bane of message-bound books) That Boyle is able
to make fun of the hoity-toity end of the ecologist's spectrum
doesn't hurt. Example: "[W]hat's an environmentalist? Somebody
who already has their mountain cabin." Boyd's future world
is indeed as grim and foreboding, in its way, as any William
Gibson environment, but in Boyle's hands, it becomes darkly hilarious
rather than conspiratorial or (at Gibson's worst) merely confusing
(click here to read WAG's review of
Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties).
By turns grim and satirical, A Friend of the Earth
never fails to entertain, and it often shows Boyle at his storytelling
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The Moon in the Pines: Zen Haiku
Jonathan Clements (Translator)
has tried their hand at writing haiku (and hands are important
for counting those syllables) understands how difficult and surprisingly
complicated the world's shortest poetic form can be. In three
lines of seventeen syllables (5-7-5; the form dates back to the
seventeenth century), the haiku poet seeks, as Jonathan Clements
writes in his brief but illuminating introduction to his new
collection, The Moon in the Pines: Zen Haiku,
to crystallize an instant in all its fullness, encouraging
through the experience of the moment the union of the reader
with all existence. The reader side-steps conventional perception,
startled into a momentary but full understanding of the poet's
experience. By locking reader and poet into the same reality,
haiku helps us perceive the ultimate unity of all realities.
Haiku transforms the most mundane of moments into something special.
In Zen it is glimpses like these, rather than the study of doctrine,
that are said to lead to enlightenment--the realization of the
true nature of existence.
That's an awful lot to achieve in seventeen syllables, but
by grounding his work in a single moment--a snapshot, as it were--and
relying on a well-established set of images and key words, the
talented haiku poet manages to pack both the expected elements
and the all-important surprising turn into a remarkably small
space. Thus, in the haiku's most common form, the poet, his senses
alert, records a single moment's perception of nature that, if
read equally perceptively, reveals a sudden discovery of startling
complexity. Often, the complexity involves a delicate, surprising
balance of juxtaposed opposites, as it does here:
The first snow
Just enough to bend the jonquil leaves.
Inoue Shirõ (1742-1813)
By seeing the unexpected balancing act between the
winter snow and the summer leaves, the poet makes us feel
that perfect equilibrium between the two. It's our sudden imagined
feeling of the snow's delicate weight--its heft--that reveals
the moment's complexity for us, thereby turning a word-picture
into a terse but instructive discovery of a hidden truth.
Some of the haiku poems in Clements's collection have overt
That soon they will die
To the chirping cicadas.
Others, while not lacking in symbolic value, are simply beautiful
on their surface:
On the old pond
Snow falls on the mandarin ducks
Masaoka Shiki (1856-1902)
Still others are more personal--and painful. Here, for example,
is Fukuda Chiyo-Ni (1701-1775) writing about her dead son:
My hunter of dragonflies
How far would he have strayed today?
Clements has taken some interesting liberties with the collection's
translations and arrangement. Traditionally, the poems in a haiku
collection are grouped by season or date of creation, but Clements
instead divides his anthology into four periods of the day: dawn,
daylight, dusk and moonlight. The effect, I think, is quite nice
at least in part because it offers shadings and nuances to the
thematically grouped poems. Perhaps more significantly, Clements
has elected in most instances not to conform to the traditional
5-7-5 structure in his translations, and many even appear as
two lines rather than three. Structural rigidity yields, then,
to brevity and emotional impact, and the effect is often eye-opening
and fresh in even the best-known poems.
The book is enriched considerably by forty beautiful reproductions
of paintings and woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603-1867).
They are drawn from The Art Institute of Chicago's superb collection,
and their impact on the text is immeasurable. As Bernd Jesse,
the Institute's Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, writes in
the Afterword, "[I]t is not surprising that the painters
and graphic artists of the Edo era often used ellipsis, suggestive
but unexpected juxtapositions, and deceptive simplicity--all
elements of haiku--to engage the imagination of the viewer in
a similar way as poets used techniques to involve the reader.
In fact, a number of Edo Period painters were poets and vice
The Moon in the Pines is a wonderfully produced, intellectually
and psychologically satisfying collection, and it encourages
and rewards repeated readings--with each new reading, new views
and discoveries appear.
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Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Alfred A. Knopf
In his new,
deliciously entertaining account, Trilobite! Eyewitness to
Evolution, Richard Fortey sets out to do something that might,
in a less successful book, seem unintentionally comical or even
delusional: "Through trilobites," he writes, "we
shall take possession of the geological past." It's a grand
statement...which you might expect to be delivered by a man who
also thinks he's on his way to battle Wellington at Waterloo.
After all, while Fortey may "have been enthralled by trilobites
for more than thirty years," the rest of us might be forgiven
for thinking the little, bulb-headed fossils might be best used
as intriguing paperweights or Christmas presents for a nephew
who sadly collects rocks and fossils rather than playing football
and throwing rocks at his sister's cat.
On a second, more educated glance, though, the lowly trilobite
becomes decidedly more interesting--and unusual. A remarkably
diverse creature that prospered for 300 million years (take that,
Homo sapiens!), they nonetheless have no exact comparison
living today. (The horseshoe crab Limulus is considered
the trilobite's closest living relative.) They were first discovered
three hundred years ago by Edward Lhwyd (who thought--mistakenly,
of course--that it was a flatfish), and since then the little
paperweights--er, trilobites--have had everything from their
legs to their sex habits so closely considered that the experts
have earned (you guessed it) their own name: trilobitologist.
Fortey is one of those rarified experts (he himself has named
more than one hundred and fifty new trilobite species), and he
makes a compelling argument for the trilobite's scientific importance--particularly
as a case study by which to examine evolutionary development,
as well as the "reconstruction of vanished worlds"
(i.e., plate tectonics--heavy stuff, that).
Science enthusiasts--not to mention those lonely fossil collectors--will
love Trilobite! because it wins one for the trilobite
and the Cambrian period (take that, Spielberg!). The rest of
us (bashful English majors, all) will catch ourselves enjoying
this book largely, I think, because Fortey is a wonderful writer
who knows how to cajole, amuse, tease and mesmerize his audience
by turns. In the quest to bring history (both Cambrian and human)
alive, he favors questions that cross disciplines and offer thought-provoking
'what-if' scenarios, and he has a special knack for finding the
perfect metaphor or analogy to help the general reader understand
science in a flash.
In a sea of intriguing, well-presented facts, though, readers
may find one element of Trilobite! particularly surprising,
given its subject: it is often a laugh-out-loud funny book. Indeed,
in his funniest moments, Fortey reveals himself to be the P.G.
Wodehouse of the science-writing world. Here, for example, is
Fortey describing some of the local language he picked up on
a fossil-finding expedition in Norway:
The most surprising linguistic fact I learned was the impoverishment
of that language in swear words. In fact, there is only
one--"farn"--which merely means something like
"devil take it!," but is considered very rude by a
well-brought-up Viking. It has to pass muster for most of the
everyday tragedies that beset an expedition. If a finger is hammered,
you jump up and down and cry "farn"; if you drop an
outstanding fossil irretrievably into the sea, you splutter for
a while and then mutter "farn" under your breath. If
all your provisions were carried away by a hurricane and death
were guaranteed, all the poor Norwegian could do would be to
stand on the shingle and cry "farn" into the wind.
Somehow this does not seem adequate for the occasion.
And here is Fortey poo-pooing the popular notion of the mad
scientist: "Try as I might I cannot devise a scenario whereby
trilobite science is appropriated by a totalitarian régime
to oppress the people. 'Aha, Mr. Bond! You have arrived just
in time to witness the triumph of the trilobites, and the end
of the human race.'" Why can't all science writing be this
Comic trilobitologists of the world, unite!
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