Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review #14: Grand Centaur Station by Larry Frolick

(An enjoyable travel book, the grand tour, Central Asian-style.)

Subtitled ‘Unruly Living with the New Nomads of Central Asia’, this book is an irreverent tour of Kiev, Moscow, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkestan, Mongolia and Siberia. Frolick is an engaging travel companion, not afraid to be politically incorrect as he guides us through strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes devastated, lands. Never content with playing the mute tourist, he constantly engages with people. In Kiev, he meets a gangster and a gorgeous museum director; in Mongolia, a drunken pack of Aussie tourists. On a train, he meets a Korean businessman, and a Mongolian woman who commutes from Los Angeles to Ulan Bator to manage her father’s slaughterhouse. In Tashkent, along the old Silk Route, he finds a market with a hundred different kinds of cherries. Throughout, he observes the crumbling of the old Soviet edifice and the shaky foundations of globalism, the deep past and the unknown future.

When meeting people and observing cultures, Frolick is excellent company; however, his intellectual conceit regarding nomads is all over the map and, like a road into the bush, appears to go nowhere. The writing itself, however, can be exquisite: “…a vast vernal plain, italicized here and there with great strutting strands of red pine…” or “Dawn, the colour of old honey.” But his language is also adaptable – in the Ukraine and Moscow, the air, and the writing, are heavy, as if still-present Chernobyl isotopes and the Soviet mentality continue to weigh on the mind. All in all, a fine travel book on a region still little known (let alone understood) in the West.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review #13: The Life and Times of Captain N. by Douglas Glover

(Douglas Glover is a writer of uncommon power and should be better known.)

The forest stands for fear, an ancient nightmare come alive. In Douglas Glover’s novel set on the Niagara frontier during the American Revolution, the vast brooding forest itself is a character, a dangerously fertile, darkly chaotic womb that spews forth bodies and heads.

This is the compelling story of Hendrick Nellis, a Tory fighter, and his eccentric son, Oskar, who lives half in dream, half in books. Like all pioneers of their day, they feared that darkness running for thousands of miles in all directions, the Great Mother and provider as well as the source of Indians ripping scalps and cracking skulls.

Glover sees clearly into the disturbing depths of the pioneer mind and the sometimes horrific mind of the native, as well, with its raw primeval grasp of magic.

In one gut-wrenching scene, the sorcerer, Crow, tortures a white soldier as a magic offering to the Iroquois sun god, “Boyd and the sorcerer are having a conversation, a dialogue of pain, a dual prayer. Crow…cuts a strip from Boyd’s forearm, inserts a stick, and pops out the tendons….”

What really sings in this book is the world Glover has envisioned. No noble savages here, no Little House on the Prairie, but a coarse reality steeped in violence, bad smells and rampant disease. Blood is spilled and brains splattered with abandon. This is war on many levels: territorial, political, racial, psychic.

With writing of breathtaking power, relentless and unflinching, Glover places the reader square in the middle of that nightmare world that is our common past.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review #12: Original Minds - in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel

This book includes 16 conversations between CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel and some of the most intelligent, visionary ‘minds’ in today’s world. The interviews each start with a two-three page biography and include novelists (Umberto Eco, Arthur C. Clarke), scientist/authors (Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond) and thinkers (Jane Jacobs, Noam Chomsky). As an interviewer, Wachtel is excellent – thoroughly informed on the lives, thoughts and writing of her interviewees but not overbearing in her knowledge. She lets them speak. And what they have to say is almost always fascinating and engaging: from the profound, troubling questions about the Holocaust raised by critic George Steiner to the astonishing insights of author Jared Diamond (the vertical, hourglass shape of the Western Hemisphere restricted movements of agriculture that passed easily across horizontal Eurasia).

From filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, you will learn that he alternates the making of epic and small films and that he’s seeing his analyst again. Even in cases where the reader may not have a powerful interest in the subject, these voices are often so engaged, they draw the listener/reader in. Amartya Sen, Nobel-winning Indian economist on famine (seldom caused by the unavailability of food) and the absolutely fascinating voice of primatologist Jane Goodall are highlights. And if the interview with critic Harold Bloom doesn’t send you back to reread Shakespeare, nothing will. A feast for the mind. Highly recommended.