Review, Wolf in White Van

When Sean Phillips was a child, he assumed a throne in his grandparents’ backyard. It was a rock on which Sean perched and invented a dark world of imagination. “No one liked living there, not even its king. It has a soundtrack. All screams.”  wolftry

Fast forward a decade or so, and Sean’s real world is nearly as horrific as his puerile fantasies: his face, grotesquely rearranged; his livelihood threatened; relationships fractured; and daily interactions dwindled to caregivers and random encounters with strangers who exclaim, “Dude, your face!”

This is the world created by singer/songwriter John Darnielle in a complicated fiction called Wolf in White Van. It’s an excavation into darkness, a story told backward, similar to the 2000 film Memento.   The protagonist, Sean, has suffered a catastrophic event at age 17. After leaving the hospital and rehab, he returns home for a while, but then his parents, unable or unwilling to cope with what happened, ask him to move out. He is able to support himself because of good insurance and income from games he invented and sells by subscription through the mail.

The biggest and best, Trace Italian, was his first idea (“ There is something fierce and starved about first ideas”), developed during his recovery, when there was nothing else for his body or mind to do. It’s not a video game, but one with a story line and instructions that are written and delivered via US mail:

   For the third time since sunrise, you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It’s dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds….

The backdrop is an apocalyptic society, in which flesh-eating mutants roam the continent, looking for edible survivors in a contaminated society. The humans, the players, are trying to reach the lone safe place, the Trace Italian, the term taken from trace italienne, an ancient defensive strategy.

To play, participants choose actions from an array of possibilities that Sean offers. For example, those making it to an astrologer’s shack find the astrologer on the floor, dead, and then have to choose their next move. Do they flee, or steal the man’s knife and bury the body? It’s all done in writing, or at least is supposed to be, which is why it’s a shock when Sean learns that a player has died and her teen-aged boyfriend is in critical condition after acting out a part of the game. How and why this tragedy occurred is a storyline that duels with the how and why of Sean’s own condition.

The title comes from a real-life incident, recounted in the book, about the passing hysteria over “satanic” messages concealed in music recordings played backward. A song by Christian rock singer Larry Norman (who died in 2008) was said to have hissed “wolf in white van” when played backward, although the existential value of the phrase is dubious, as Sean points out when he hears a debate on a Christian TV show and calls in to the show. What follows is both troubling and funny, and leads to a philosophical aside:

“Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room. I sift and rake and dig around in my vivid recollections of young Sean on the floor in summer, and I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. … He is like a jellyfish adrift in the sea, throbbing quietly in the warm waves of the surf just off the highway where the dusty white vans with smoked windows and indistinct decals near their wheel hubs roll innocently past.”

The author, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist for the band The Mountain Goats, takes a potentially unsympathetic character and makes him enormously sympathetic by virtue of his disfigurement and vocabulary. (How many self-employed gamers can use the phrase “gestural semaphore”?) In his childhood game, Sean played a cruel king, thirsty for blood, who decreed, “Everyone in my orbit would have a terrible day.” The orbit doesn’t get much kinder as it expands and ages; Sean’s world remains “a smoking, wrecked kingdom,” but when the end comes, it is not a relief. This is good, because a complete understanding of what transpires may require a thorough second reading.

When the player dies, Sean says, “My grief sought out all parts of my body it hasn’t inhabited yet, and I felt like I might collapse in on myself right there, at last, spectacularly.” The young man’s face is “strange and terrible.” This is an apt description, too, of this story, but it is a strange and terrible story told beautifully.

Originally published in The Hippo. Read my new reviews here every Thursday.

Review, Apples of Uncommon Character

When Rowan Jacobsen and his wife bought an old farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, he was not a fan of apples, having eaten only three wan supermarket varieties – Red Delicious (“more icon than fruit”), McIntosh (“interminable skin”) and Granny Smith (“as close to artificial as a real fruit could be”) — throughout his life. Apples_HC_t1-232x300

But walking the perimeter of the property, Jacobsen discovered a row of apple trees, and he picked one and bit into it with the enthusiasm of Eve.

“Juice exploded into my mouth, fragrant with cinnamon and spice. It was heavenly, and I realized right then and there that I’d been missing out,” Jacobsen writes in Apples of Uncommon Character, the book born of that epiphany.

Conveniently, Jacobsen was already a food writer who had published an expansive ode to oysters, as well as a book about the decimation of American honeybees, among others. It was, then, a natural progression for Jacobsen to plunge into apple culture, which, he discovered was predominant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but retreated in the 1900s when mass production increased supply but diminished the product.

Thousands of varieties of apples were grown in the U.S. before Prohibition hit, but by late in the 20th century, most grocers stocked only six (Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and McIntosh). At one point, Red Delicious made up three-quarters of the country’s supply. “Every tree was genetically identical, monocropped on a massive scale in the sun-soaked (and irrigated) deserts of eastern Washington,” Jacobsen writes. “American consumers brought this disaster upon themselves by consistently choosing the redder apple over the tastier one.”

But we’re getting smarter in our food choices. A “Second Age of the Apple” is emerging because of local farmers’ markets, pick-your-own orchards and an expansive crop of nouveau American foodies. “Hard cider, too, is in a full-blown renaissance; there simply have never been as many superb ciders in existence, professional and amateur, as there are at this very moment,” Jacobsen says.

The author omits one factor that apple growers can thank for burgeoning interest in their wares: his book. It is the literary equivalent of the revelatory bite Jacobsen took at his new home, an enticement to learn more about a fruit grown ubiquitous to the point of boring. An hour with it will forever change how you shop for apples, and will make you a better cook and a significantly more interesting dinner-party guest.

Do you know, for example, what’s the best apple to use for strudel? It’s a Glockenapfel, an elongated apple that originated in Switzerland and remains common there and in Germany and Austria. It is, according to Jacobsen, “one Martha Stewart Living feature away from cult status” in the US.

How about the first true American apple, the Roxbury Russet, developed in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s? Still popular in New England, the variety has suffered under an onslaught of competitors, but Jacobsen still recommends for eating fresh, though he calls its flavor “yummy and strange.”

Winesaps, originally called “Winesops,” make a “mischievous cider,” he says. The Bethel is “Blue Pearmain’s little brother, the less accomplished one that has slunk off to live in Vermont.” It withstands cold, but “at this point is simply holding on in a handful of spots along the northern tier of New York and New England, cozying up to boreal, self-reliant types, waiting for the grid to go down and its fortunes to rise again.”

New Hampshire’s Granite Beauty “looks like it just came off a bar fight,” he writes. “The network of pale scarring across the surface, as if you were viewing the Badlands from a plane; the strangely oily skin; the air of noble ruin; Mickey Rourke will play it in the film adaptation.”

And so it goes, for 123 varieties of apples, all photographed beautifully by Clare Barboza of Seattle. The prose is bright and engaging, disguising the fact that this is basically an encyclopedia of apples. No matter. Here’s Jacobsen explaining the history of the McIntosh, first grown near the US-Canadian border: “The original tree died in 1910 at the age of one hundred plus. At that time, the McIntosh was still merely a regional understudy, scrabbling at the edges of the industry like a little mammal waiting for the dinosaurs to croak.”

Apple trees are survivors. In Hallowell, Maine, there is a “bent old Black Oxford tree” that produces a crop of purple apples each year even though it is 215 years old. A cornucopia of facts like that, plus a cheerful evisceration of mass-market favorites (Granny Smith: “Does plastic fruit have a season?”) gives Apples of Uncommon Character equivalent staying power and assuages the steepness of its coffee-table price ($35). Moreover, there are recipes, including an apple-lime custard tart, baked apples with bourbon-soaked raisins, which looks great even if you hate raisins. Apple up.

Originally published in The Hippo.

The other Weiner

Newspapers usually verify the identity of people who write letters to the editor, but one today had me thinking the fact-checker had the day off.

Behold, in today’s Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), a slam on incumbent US Rep. Mark Sanford, signed by someone who claims to be the cousin of former US Rep. Anthony Weiner, and whose name is — wait for it — Smoky Weiner. Capturesmoky

He sounds like a character in a Dave Barry novel,  but apparently it’s true, and it gets better.  Mr. Weiner, a resident of Bowen’s Island, SC (a suburb of Folly Beach, as it were) is an electrician and also the leader of a band called Smoky Weiner and the Hot Links.

In military terms, this is a great example of “embracing the suck,” making the best of a bad situation, or in this case, a potentially troublesome name.

As for Anthony Weiner, Smoky (whose real name is apparently Andrew) wrote, “By the way, New York, that most hated state, at least had the brains to throw my infamous cousin out on his rump just for taking a couple of stupid pictures.”

Mr. Weiner, the musician, plays the harmonica, according to this profile of him in The Charleston City Paper. He suggests that South Carolinians write in Dimitri Cherny instead of voting for Sanford.  I suggest voting for Smoky instead.



Review, Doctored

If you’ve got troubles, don’t tell them to your doctor, who is probably more stressed and impoverished than you, and more exasperated than even her patients with the state of medicine today. This is the gloomy take-away of Dr. Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored, The Disillusionment of an American Physician.  doctored

Trawling through Sermo, an online community of physicians, Jauhar finds one doctor who calls American medicine a “charade” and believes he is a “pawn in a money-making game for hospital administrators” and another who figured he made $11.74 an hour the previous year.

This is the cheery prologue to Jauhar’s own story, in which his wife longs to escape their one-bedroom apartment and a “cash-poor” life that is rich in angst and overtime, but scarce in rewards that were plentiful just two generations ago. Back then, Jauhar writes, “If you were smart and sincere and ambitious, the top of your class, there was nothing nobler or more rewarding that you could aspire to become. Doctors possessed special knowledge. They owned second homes. They were called upon in times of crisis. They were well-off, caring, and smart, the best kind of people you could know,” he writes.

What happened? Well, Medicare, for one thing, then the dastardly Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, explosive malpractice liability premiums and the rapid growth of a “labyrinthine payer bureaucracy.” Throw in an aging population that requires more care than its parents and grandparents did, and pressure to make money, not for one’s family, but for vaguely sinister “hospital administrators” and you’re likely to just take an aspirin and call it a day.

It could be argued that Jauhar, a cardiologist who writes regularly for The New York Times and who chronicled the early days of his career in 2007’s Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, is burned out, not from the rigors of medicine, but from his moonlighting as a scribe. And he is, in fact, a masterful writer who might have scraped by as a poet or novelist, and foregone the medical-school debt, if he hadn’t succumbed to family pressure to become a physician.  Jauhar’s mother, he reveals, wanted her sons to become doctors so people would stand when they walked in the room. He complied, but also became a fine wordsmith along the way. Here he is, musing about the notes he writes after making hospital rounds one afternoon:

“How limited our interactions with patients, I thought. We see them for a few minutes, then pen a quick summary and leave directions for the nurses to follow. To whom are we speaking in these inky chart drizzles? Doctors, patients, a phantom lawyer?”

In this, and in case histories, in which Jauhar makes plain the psychic agonies of the profession (in one case, he urged a man to have a diagnostic catheterization that, because of complications, resulted in the man’s death), Doctored delivers with enlightening punch. Its theme, however, remains darkly consistent. It’s as if Eeyore got a medical degree.

Jauhar’s points are well taken, and you don’t have to believe, as Cicero did, that men are as gods when they bestow health, to think that doctors should be well-compensated. They should be, if not for their knowledge and their willingness to do things others won’t do, then simply so they won’t be distracted by how they’re going to pay the light bill while they’re pulling our gall bladders out.

Then again, in an age in which almost every profession is convulsing, and pensions and Social Security can no longer be relied upon for old age (not that they ever should have been), there’s only so much hand-wringing from doctors that patients of modest means can take. When the average American takes a second job to pay bills, it most likely involves delivery of pizza. When Jauhar takes a second job, he’s paid a thousand dollars to deliver a speech about a drug he prescribes – and on the job, he gets dinner “with fine wines flowing freely” and even car service if he’s not up to the drive. Cue the world’s smallest violin.

At one point, while bemoaning a monthly budget that was $2,000 short of bills that had to be paid, Jauhar verbally spars with his father, who yells at him, “What’s not to enjoy? You are a doctor! You have the respect of the world!”  Though this is a parent whose influence has not always been admirable, on this point, the reader may be inclined to agree. Doctored opens a door into a once-golden world that, for most, is still enviably silver. Forgive him that, it’s still a fine read.

Originally published in The Hippo.

Review, The End of Absence

   Michael Harris recalls an encounter with a younger friend who was texting throughout the conversation. It wasn’t the texting that was memorable  — who hasn’t been there? absenceimage— but the chasm between a swath of people who see texting-while-talking as normal, and those who find discomfiture there.

“The really gruesome thing was that he didn’t notice or care that we were both so disengaged. The ‘natural’ attention of someone just a few years younger than me is vastly more kinetic and fractured – attention span has evolved,” Harris writes in The End of Absence, which he calls a “meditation” on digital culture, but is just as much blistering critique.

Harris is 33, but he’s an old soul troubled by a new age, one in which teens send 4,000 texts a month, compared to 764 for adults. “They mumble to each other friendly enough, but mostly it is their phones that grip their various attention,” Harris observes of today’s teens.

The teens are the eldest of a demographic that Harris calls “digital natives.” They dwell in violent contrast to their parents and grandparents, the “digital immigrants” who dabble in digital life. Between them are the “straddle generation,” those born, like Harris, in the 1980s, and who will eventually be the last people to remember life before the Internet.

The straddlers possess almost mystical power, with their vision of both future and past. They are the ones who see and understand what will be lost to coming generations, what Harris generalizes as “absence” but is also aptly described as distance. Either, the ability to remove oneself from the constant demands and solicitations of others.

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value,” he writes.

Twenty years ago, the prescient cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly that we need a “psychic distance from technology.” Here, Harris rises in his shoes, urging not just psychic distance, but physical, too. Frustrated with his own inability to finish War and Peace – 1,300 pages and “weighing the same as a dead cat” – Harris proposes to create the necessary absence from the incessant pinging, both internal and external, and to read 100 pages a week and finish within two weeks. After this experiment, he embarks on another: to unplug – to go “analog” – for a month, to the point of duct-taping his cell phone to an old-school telephone cord in his kitchen, and only using it for tethered conversations like our grandmothers did.

Throughout his own ruminations and experiences, Harris reports on the evolution of the digital age, interviewing sources as disparate as the founder of the online dating site Plentyoffish, to a medical doctor who serves as a moderator on Wikipedia, to the Stanford professor who was the first to put college courses online. In these passages, he’s utterly engaging.

Prude alert: Harris is gay, and although he is in a committed and respectful relationship with an artist, who makes frequent appearances in the narrative, in a chapter on digital dating he wades thigh-deep into territory that some might prefer not to know about, websites like Grindr, which, by comparison, make the denizens of Ashley Madison look buttoned-up and repressed. On the whole, this chapter didn’t seem to fit the theme of the book, and it’s not the only time that Harris wanders off the path, as he does in discourses on elitism and criticism. A longtime theatre critic for The Globe and Mail, Harris struggles with the new world in which everyone’s a critic. “What a lovely thing, to shut up and listen and not broadcast anything back,” he writes.

While the conclusion of the book, a diary of the digital fast, is vaguely predictable, The End of Absence is a satisfying discourse for anyone wishing Postman had lived another 50 years. And Harris, though his friends call him a Luddite and a curmudgeon, is young and nimble, able to both savage and embrace digital life. It’s not all terrible for the kids. “They will get lost in the woods, they will run naked on beaches, they will sometimes shut off their devices,” he promises.   But this book is a reminder that parents must “proactively engineer moments of absence” for themselves and their kids. “We cannot afford to count on accidental absences any more than we can count on accidental veggies at dinner.” Hear, hear.

Originally published in The Hippo.