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Big Trouble
Dave Barry
317 pp.



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 Sick Puppy.)


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?

--Woody Arbunkle

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A Friend of the Earth
T.C. Boyle
271 pp.


T.C. Boyle's 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 now."

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, Earth First!)

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 best.

--Charlie Onion

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The Moon in the Pines: Zen Haiku
Jonathan Clements (Translator)
Viking Studio
93 pp.



Anybody who 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 Buddhist meaning:


That soon they will die

Is unknown

To the chirping cicadas.

Bashõ (1644-94)


Others, while not lacking in symbolic value, are simply beautiful on their surface:


On the old pond

Snow falls on the mandarin ducks

This evening.

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 versa."

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Richard Fortey
Alfred A. Knopf
287 pp.



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 fun?

Comic trilobitologists of the world, unite!

--Woody Arbunkle

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