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22 February 2010

#11 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This was a quick read, a matter of a couple days. Post apocalyptic short fiction expanded into novel lenth, the plot is simple, though significant themes appear through the book. I've intended to read the book for some time, and I'm glad I picked it up. Beware spoilers below!

A man and his child are survivors of an undefined world-shattering event. Civilization has collapsed, natural life has collapsed, and humanity has turned to whatever means possible for survival; to many, this means cannibalism. Facing winter, the man and the boy travel south, seeking the sea. The landscape is barren, cloudcover blotting the sun, snow frequent from the clouds, ash parodying snow. Nothing grows, and dead trees topple one by one. They travel through the mans homeland, visiting the house where he grew up, now abandoned. Starvation threatens, but time and again luck leads them to edible goods: mushrooms, dried where they grew in the ground; canned goods, taken from derelict farmhouses; apples, long fallen and withered in the field. The other travelers on the road are either pathetic, as Ely who claims ninety years of age and offers neither assistance nor resistance to the man and his boy; or dangerous, as is the band of cannibals who hunt the pair only to leave one of their own, dead. Upon reaching the sea, the man finds yet another windfall in a ship run aground, the stores promise to nourish the two for days, perhaps weeks, though the man, long sick and aging, succombs to death a short time after finding the ship. Seemingly hopeless without the man, the boy is approached by another survivor, a man with a family who was been tracking the two for some time. The boy is welcomed into the family, and the book ends.

The themes of the book are many, but few of them are examined in depth. The book examines death and suicide throughout: we learn that the boys' mother killed herself because she simply could not go on, and the man contemplates killing his son in order to save the boy from life as a foodsource or worse. Religion is touched upon; indeed, the idea is presented that the boy is an angel or messiah of some description. Parenting is a theme, though one that isn't delved into. I can't say that humanity or human nature is examined, unless perhaps through the discussions between the father and the boy. I'd have to read the book again to see farther into the writing.

Don't pick this book up if you're offended by lax use of the English language; the writing is not for the faint of heart. McCarthy's style in this book helps describe the world. He uses short (sometimes incomplete) sentances. I don't recall seeing a single quotation mark despite sections of dialogue. The book is not divided into chapters, but rather short sections, scenes of perhaps a paragraph in length. Personally, I found that all of this did contribute positively to the book; it's hard to miss just how barren the world is when presented in this style. However, the novel is too long for the style, maintained as it is throughout. The book is too long to truly be described as a short story, though I believe that it's more appropriately classed as such rather than as a novel. I think the story could easily have been expanded upon and built into a novel that actually examined human condition or made a statement about religion. Alternately, a few episodes could have been deleted from the book (there are only so many times you want to read about someone facing starvation) to slim it down to short story length. But, we have the book as the author wrote it, and it's well written despite my complaints. If you're looking for a gritty, vivid tale that will haunt you and challenge your assumptions about life and living, The Road might be a good choice.

18 February 2010

#10 Farm City by Novella Carpenter

My wife passed this book to me after enjoying it herself. It chronicles the adventures of the auther as she pursues farm dreams from the depths of the Oakland ghetto. A terrifyingly cool idea!

Novella Carpenter moved from Seattle to Oakland in pursuit of adventure. Unsatisfied with her living arrangements, she abandons the backyard gardens and beehives she maintained in Seattle, and reestablished herself from an apartment in a rough area of urban California. Blessed with helpful, colorful neighbors who discribe their home as Sesame Street, Novella starts with bees on her deck and birds in her bedroom. Overtaking the empty lot next door, she establishes a vegetable garden. A friend leaves breeding rabbits in her care, which promptly establish themselve as livestock. The farm experiment culminates with pigs, whose feed consists of dumpster forage and whose future was hamsteak and salami. Novella survives awkward moments with neighbors, self-imposed local diets, attempted muggings, and more.

The writing in the book is demonstrative of Carpenter's training as a journalist. The chapters are short, episodic, and the tone is dry but poignant. The book shows Carpenter's development as a person discovering her own calling and comfort. It's a quick read, and I recommend it as a wonderful demonstration of the potential urban areas hold for personally raised produce.

04 February 2010

#9 The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon

I dream about self sufficiency, having the ability to produce my own food on my own land, releasing my reliance on the agroindustrial infrastructure into which this country is locked. When I came across this title, it seemed a great introduction to such an idea. While the book is somewhat dated, it contains a lot of information that'll remain current because it focuses on the best way of doing things rather than the popular way of doing things; it describes a way of farming contrary to what the government and big business proscribes. Logsdon descripes keeping sheep, cows, and chickens, growing various crops, and cutting wood, all in a fashion designed to keep the ground on which all this happens viable for future generations. He does not dismiss out of hand newer practices and wisdoms (such as chemical fertilizer or herbicides) but incorporates such ideas into his own way of farming. Using the common-sense wit of the country, Logsdon scrutinizes all aspects of farming and does not hesitate to criticize corporations, governments, or individual farmers.
The book reads almost like a how-to manual, although it doesn't delve far enough into the topics it introduces to be used individually as such. Rather, it gives enough information to present an idea of how and why, leaving the details to other manuals. I think that anyone with pastoral agrarian dreams would benefit from this book.

02 February 2010

#8 Ghettonation by Cora Daniels

Why I picked this book up: It was the most interesting title in reach when I desperately wanted a distraction from work.
Why I finished it: I wanted to find the point. Writing about the mindset which has overwhelmed American culture, Daniels has an almost unique perspective in the literary world, one that is between ghetto and . . . whatever is the next step up. The tone throughout was mixed, saying one thing but with a subtext that said the opposite. Daniels is clearly in favor of eliminating the ghetto mindset from society, but frequently alluded to demonstrations of that mindset with fondness and nostalgia. This made the book hard to follow, and diluted the quality of Daniels writings. While easy reading, I found the book to wander a little; it was hard to find the object of the chapter at hand, hard to find unifying subthemes outside of the main, stated theme. However, Daniel's familiar tone, amusing anecdotes, and the confirmation of held beliefs kept pages turning.
The book was, to me, a lighthearted look at a serious problem that fell short of the call-to-arms it wanted to be. Perhaps a good jumping-off point for studies along a similar vein, but not a weighty enough source for true social commentary.