Saturday, May 24, 2008

Time Bandit

I love books that chronicle what people do for a living. I have read books on waiting tables, housecleaning, cooking at a five star restaurant and stripping. I enjoy reading about people who can describe what they do in a compelling manner.

Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand have done this for the world of commercial fishing on the Bering Sea. (Read: very dangerous and very cold.) I enjoyed the book and all the stories involved more than I thought I would, but I still struggled to finish the book. The novel is arranged around the framing device of one of the two brothers stranded at sea on a fishing boat awaiting rescue. The bulk of the chapters are from this lost fisherman’s point of view. A few others look at fishing from the rescuers viewpoint or from the view point of the other brother who is living in Indiana on his horse ranch. The beginning of most chapters is the brother talking about drifting alone on the sea and then moves into his stream of conscious thoughts and memories about fishing.

The stories are narrated as sort of fishing tall tales. Big men who do a big scary job make big money and get big drunk and get into big fights and go through wives and women like underwear. At first they were funny and interesting. I loved reading about the rules and regulations of commercial fishing, the way the crew worked for 96 hours in all kinds of horrid conditions to bring the catch in, how the boat and crew worked together, how the industry is regulated, the grocery expedition to stock the boat for the voyage, the mindset of a fisherman and how they built their boat with their dad. Many many of the tales were true and touching and fascinating.

After awhile though, I got tired of reading about the fistfights and the bars and the men they saved from freezing in the Bering sea. I think this points to the biggest problem with the narrative and that is the framing device. I think a better way to organize this account of fishing on the Bering Sea would be just to give me 12 chapters each organized around a part of the fisherman’s life. The slow meandering build-up to the fisherman’s rescue really took away from the rest of the story. I did not think for a minute that he would not be rescued. Better save that tale for one independent chapter.

All in all, I am glad to have met these two brothers and learned something more of the price they pay to bring fish to our tables. I realized at the end that these two men are featured in a Discovery Channel show called “The Deadliest Catch.” Check it out!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Zookeepers Wife by Diane Ackerman

Anyone who has read The Natural History of the Senses knows that Diane Ackerman has a magical way of describing senses and the natural world. I first read this work more than 10 years ago and it has stuck with me for a long time.

I was drawn to The Zookeeper's Wife when I saw that it was Ackerman telling the story. She does not dissappoint. She writes a non-fiction account of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a Polish couple who run the Warsaw Zoo. When the Third Reich invades Warsaw and begins dismantling life for Poles and Jews, Jan and Antonina use their once beautiful zoo to help hundreds of Jews escape Warsaw and thier inevitable fate during the Holocaust.

Ackerman bases this beautiful book on Antonina's diaries and fills in the blanks with meticulous research about Warsaw, the Jewish ghetto and the world of Zoo's at the middle of the 20th century.

What arises is a beautiful tale of one couple's heroic acts in the middle of a strange otherwordly paradise which they created in the middle of a surreal kind of hell.

Ackerman not only tells thier tale but helps us understand what exactly they were up against during the war. She paints a vivid picture of Warsaw and the Poles resistance to Hitler and the Gestapo.

Jan Zabinski after the war was commemorated Righteous Among the Nations.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Speaking of the Shoe Muse

here is a poem I wrote in my Wednesday writing class. Susan read it aloud during class and I kind of liked it. Here it is:

You don’t know what came over you
when you saw those sparkling red pumps--
Candy-apple red, three inch spiked heels,
shinier than the ruby slippers,
narrower than a ballet shoe.

A deep longing sprang up from somewhere
you could not remember.
Your size 11 feet always gave you
lessons in humility, never grace.

The desire ran so deep and so thick
that now your dreams are filled with red shoes,
And the muse whispers “shoes”
on her weekend nights off.

Imagine, as I know you will,
picking up prescriptions and
dropping off dry cleaning, and you suddenly
see something shine in a store window
and remember what you cannot have:

The taut muscular stomach of a pretty boy you once knew
The feel of a baby sucking at your breast
The ability to dance high on tip-toe,
a slender hipbone jutting out
above the waistband of your jeans

All your longing seems focused on lightness
On being no denser than a piece of fine silk
On floating somehow, impossibly, on a cloud
or being dangled by fine wires as you pretend to
fly across a stage on extended calf muscles.
All your longing points you at smallness,
Points you at bright high heeled sparkly shoes
That all size sevens wear.