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Pearl's Picks for August 2009

A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care - by Jennifer Culkin
Jennifer Culkin’s affecting and effective A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care is primarily an account of her experiences working as an emergency flight nurse on board a helicopter (an Agusta A109A for those whirlybird aficionados among you) in the state of Washington. But as we read about her attempts to keep heart attack and trauma victims alive while en route to the nearest hospital, we also gain insights into her personal life and her views on parenting, family relationships, and religion. As difficult as emergency medical care is under the best of circumstances (i.e., in a hospital setting), Culkin helps us see how the difficulty and danger are ratcheted up when you’re 8,000 feet up in the air and several hundred miles from the nearest hospital, working in the cramped confines of a chopper’s cabin. Some of the saddest parts of the book are where she describes the deaths of close friends and co-workers (in helicopter accidents) and her mother’s difficult death. Constantly living with life and death tempers a person, I believe, and Culkin is not only the kind of nurse I think we all dream of encountering when we’re in need of emergency care, but the sort of writer whose words and wisdom we can cherish.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders - by Emmanuel Guibert
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders is the story of photojournalist Didier LeFèvre’s first assignment: to accompany a team of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) who were traveling through Pakistan to Afghanistan in 1986, during the long bloody conflict between the invading Soviet Union troops and the Taliban. The book is a collaboration between LeFèvre and artist Emmanuel Guibert, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier. The pictures include both LeFèvre’s original contact sheets (it’s interesting to note that contact sheets of photos are not unlike strips of comics) and Guibert’s drawings, while the text is reconstructed from discussions Guibert and LeFèvre had about the journey. (LeFèvre’s journals--mentioned in the book--were lost years before.) The result is a powerful reading and viewing experience. It’s a good example of how the graphic novel format can work elegantly for nonfiction; it’s also a good example of how inadequate the term “graphic novel” is for a work that makes equal use of text and illustrations. And the decision to do this as a graphic novel, however inadequate the phrase is, was exactly right, because we need both the visuals and the text to fully grasp the experiences LeFèvre and the MSF team underwent. It began in Peshawar, and ended, three months later, in Afghanistan. Just getting to their destination involved plenty of danger; it required many pack animals and 40 armed guards. Straying off the path was not encouraged, as landmines were prevalent, and there was always the fear of snipers or of being attacked by roving soldiers of either side. Their destination was a small village in northern Afghanistan, where they set up a clinic to treat the men, women, and children who were the collateral damage in a brutal war. When the team was returning back to their home base in Pakistan, LeFèvre made an unwise choice to travel back to Pakistan by himself--a decision that nearly got him killed. Reading The Photographer is a stunning, unforgettable experience: you somehow emerge from your time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan with LeFèvre and the members of MSF a better, more humane individual.

Living Witness: A Gregor Demarkian Novel - by Jane Haddam
I have recently become addicted to the mystery novels of Jane Haddam. I read a few of them years ago--her first Gregor Demarkian mystery, Not a Creature Was Stirring, was published in 1990--but for some reason I don’t think I ever fully appreciated her until I read her newest one, Living Witness--the 24th featuring ex-FBI agent Demarkian--at which point I went back and avidly read all the earlier ones that I had skipped. Haddam’s books aren’t for thriller readers looking for adrenaline-charged, page-turners; they’re truly character-driven, British-style cerebral mysteries, deliciously slow-paced and intricately plotted. Living Witness is centered on the controversy over the biology curriculum in a small, very conservative town in Pennsylvania. Ninety-one-year-old Ann-Victoria Hadley, newly elected member of the school board, has initiated a lawsuit that would forbid the teaching of intelligent design (synonymous with creationism in her mind) in the local schools, thus requiring the teaching of evolution. When Ann-Victoria is found beaten nearly to death, and shortly thereafter two fellow plaintiffs to the lawsuit are found murdered, the local police chief, no fan of Darwin’s theory himself, and thus a possible suspect in both the beating and the killings, calls on Gregor to take over the investigation. One of the things I especially like about Haddam as an author is the way she treats her characters. All of them--both major and minor, and on both sides of the controversy---are fully developed, as well as treated with respect. It’s easy to imagine them having real lives both before and after we meet them in the pages of this book (except for the ones killed off, of course). Although events in Gregor’s personal life change and develop over the course of the two dozen books, I don’t think it’s at all necessary to read them in order. Two others I’d recommend wholeheartedly are The Headmaster’s Wife and Cheating at Solitaire.

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival - by Dean King
All you armchair true-adventure fans--i.e., those who loved reading Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, Endurance by Ernest Shackelton, or Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air--should put Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival high on your to-read list. In August of 1815, 12 crewmembers (including three officers) from the Connecticut merchant brig Commerce were shipwrecked off the western coast of Africa, enslaved by a Bedouin tribe, and forced to accompany their captors--by foot and by camel--on a seemingly endless, desperately grueling, and bone-dry trek through the sands of the western Sahara desert (now part of Morocco). Which of the crew, if any, will survive the unspeakable horrors, misery, and deprivation they face? And if they do survive, how will they ever make it back across the Atlantic to home and family? King based his book on two first-person accounts of the hellish experience the men underwent: The first was called, quite simply, Sufferings in Africa. It was written by James Riley, the captain of the Commerce, and was originally published in 1817. The second, written by Archibald Robbins, an “able seaman” aboard the Commerce, appeared in 1818. From these two works, King has constructed a gripping, page-turning narrative--a tale of survival and courage in the most dire of circumstances. The fact that this story was unfolding alongside a parallel story of survival and courage in the face of dire circumstances--the abduction and enslavement in the “New World” of African native men, women, and children--makes King’s book especially ironic.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks: A Novel - by E. Lockhart
E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is not only one of the most enjoyable teen novels that I’ve read in a long time, but it’s also one of smartest. It’s intelligently written, with a cast of well-drawn characters; it has an intelligent and witty narrative voice; and Lockhart has created an original and thought-provoking plot that carries a serious message along with its good humor. (This would be a terrific choice for mother-daughter book groups.) Twelve- to 15-year-old girls looking for a relationship novel that’s neither sappy, angst-y, nor a fantasy need search no further: here it is. Frankie starts her sophomore year at Alabaster Prep a changed young woman from the geeky freshman she was just a few months ago. When she starts going out with handsome Matthew--the senior boy who’s the catch of the campus--she’s pretty sure she’s left all remnants of the old nerdy Frankie behind. But when she learns that Matthew is the president of an all-male secret society of juniors and seniors at the school called “The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds,” her immense annoyance at being excluded simply because she’s female leads her to come up with a brilliantly inventive (if perhaps slightly illegal) scheme to get back at the club members. But I think the caper-filled plot--entertaining as it is--is Lockhart’s method to get us interested in knowing Frankie, who is pure and simply a delight. She’s a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, she loves words (I can foresee a lot of engaged readers playing with the notion of “neglected positives” (if being disgruntled means you’re not happy about something, why not use gruntled when you are?) and she’s not afraid to either ask questions or challenge accepted norms. I wish I had been exactly like her when I was 15.

Border Songs - by Jim Lynch
I am (in my reading life) always on the lookout for unforgettable characters who are both quirky and believable. That’s how I would describe many of the men and women who populate Anne Tyler’s novels, especially Justine in Searching for Caleb, Ezra in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Elizabeth in The Clock Winder, as well as Christopher Boone, the hero of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Night-Time. Jim Lynch’s greatly enjoyable second novel (after The Highest Tide), Border Songs, is filled with such characters. Set in Washington State, hard by the arbitrary and basically invisible (but very real) line separating the United States from Canada, the main character of the novel is inarticulate, dyslexic Brandon Vanderkool, a 6’8” somewhat-accidental American Border Patrol agent with a startling talent for ferreting out smugglers and illegals. He lives with his father Norm, who loves, but doesn’t understand, his son, and his mother Jeanette, who loves and does understand her son, but is losing her mind to dementia, on a failing dairy farm. (There’s a terrifically rendered scene of (the three of them?) trying to save some sick cows). But Brandon is much less interested in law enforcement than birding, painting, and building structures à la Andy Goldsworthy from the natural materials around him. Oh yes, and lusting after his former high school classmate Maddie, who lives on the Canadian side of the border near Wayne, her marijuana-growing, usually stoned, ex-college professor father. Through the lives of these characters, Lynch explores the notion of what borders signify, whether they’re between countries (the difference in attitude towards drugs between the U.S. and Canada is pretty starkly presented), between people, between nature and the man-made world, between self and self-knowledge, or between sickness and health. There’s not much of a plot here, but that didn’t deter me--the pleasure of spending time with Lynch’s unusually well-drawn characters was more than enough to keep me reading.

Getting Stoned with Savages: A trip through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu - by J. Maarten Troost
J. Maarten Troost’s Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu is an anecdotal (and frequently hilarious) account of the year he spent with his wife Sylvia living on the South Pacific islands of his book’s title. This is the first of his books that I’ve read, and I found Troost to be delightful company. He’s eminently curious, open to new experiences without being foolhardy (most of the time, anyway), and entirely without pretension. Whenever I read the sort of armchair travel book in which first-world authors spend time in third-world locales, I am always on the lookout for any signs of looking down on, or making fun of, the native populations. Troost is entirely respectful (even when he’s describing how corrupt the government is), saving his harshest criticisms for his own fears, inadequacies, and dumb decisions--all of which just made him seem more human to me. Whether it’s traversing (or trying to) the mud-slick, unpaved roads of the islands; landslides; encountering active volcanoes or giant centipedes seemingly bent on household domination; musing on the pros and cons of cannibalism (while visiting a village in which the last incidence of this practice took place within living memory); surviving Cyclone Paula; or trying out kava, Vanuatu’s intoxicating drink of choice, Troost’s writing is lively and entertaining. When Sylvia gets pregnant, the couple moves to Suva, on the advice of the obstetrician on Vanuatu, so that they can have access to more up-to-date medical care. Troost calls the bustling metropolis of Suva, the capital of Fiji, “the Midtown of the South Pacific,” a description that somewhat unaccountably brought the city alive for me. When I finished this book, I was sorely tempted to spend my next vacation in Vanuatu and Fiji, but reason belatedly kicked in, and I realized that I would probably need to bring Troost along as well, in order to guarantee myself a good time.

Into the Beautiful North: A Novel - by Luis Alberto Urrea
Following hard on the heels of two well-reviewed titles (the novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter and the nonfiction work The Devil’s Highway), Luis Alberto Urrea once again offers readers a glance into another culture. The protagonist of Into the Beautiful North is 19-year-old Nayeli, who works at a taco stand in a small coastal Mexican village called Tres Camarones. Years before her father had gone to America--to a place called Illinois--and never returned. She gradually realizes that, indeed, most of the town’s male population has headed to the fabulous and fabled north, leaving their families behind. Nayeli isn’t the only one to notice this phenomenon, however. A gang of drug dealers plans to move into the vacuum left by the absent men and take over the town. But Nayeli--influenced by the film The Magnificent Seven--decides that she, too, is going north to the U.S. There she’ll recruit a group of Mexican men---her own personal “Siete Magnificos”--to return to Mexico and reclaim the village. As her plans unfold, Nayeli and her three accomplices encounter many difficulties, including finding enough money both to begin and carry out their plans, learning whom to trust and when to run away, getting over the border (illegally), and simply resisting the temptation to give up on their goal of recapturing the soul of their village. And for Nayeli, an added objective is to see her father again after so many years, and persuade him to come home and be one of the “siete magnificos.” The characters in Urrea’s novel are three-dimensional (especially Nayeli); the plot is fast paced and filled, somewhat unexpectedly, given the subject, with humor. Book clubs, especially those interested in reading multicultural novels, will want to add this to their list of books to be discussed.

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey through Chile - by Sara Wheeler
Not to mince words here: I think that Sara Wheeler is one of the best contemporary travel writers around. Her writing is filled with the dry yet engaging humor of the classic British travelers, she does her homework before she visits a country, she’s fearless (more about that later), and she has the particular kind of luck that serious travelers (or, at least, travel writers) seem to have. They’re always giving accounts of meeting up with just the right people at just the right time, in order, for example, to hitch a ride (frequently planes and helicopters) to an otherwise inaccessible place. If they’re in upscale hotels in locales like Montreal, Rio, or Sydney they’re always getting upgraded to a better hotel room. Wheeler’s masterpiece is, I think, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, which is both an account of her own experiences as part of the American National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program, and a history of the exploration of the region, which is made up of both wise and foolish decisions, luck (both good and bad), heroism, and the inevitable fatalities. But Wheeler’s Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey through Chile is definitely not to be missed. Chile is approximately 2600 miles long, and is never more than 250 miles wide (its average width is 110 miles); Wheeler makes her way from the arid north to the islanded south. Here’s a brief example of her writing: “I woke up on my 31st birthday in a seedy hotel very close to Argentina, and John the Alaskan tried to wish me a Happy Birthday in Spanish, but by the time he had worked it out we had both lost interest.” Before reading this, I never really considered visiting Chile; now it’s on my list of must-see places. Interestingly, Travels in a Thin Country is one of the few books about the country that aren’t centered on its terrible history under the dictator, Pinochet. Now for the fearlessness: I have one very adventurous daughter, who, like Wheeler, has an amazing gift for friendship and instant closeness with nearly everyone she meets. At one time in her life she would, like Wheeler, drop whatever plans she had in order to go off rock-climbing with a group of strangers, fax us updates on whatever was happening in her life on stationery from her new boyfriend’s place of employment (this particular one was a bodyguard for the president of a Spanish province that shall go unnamed by me), have her passport confiscated on a train between Florence and Budapest, sleep on the couches of strangers, be out of touch for weeks on end, and generally keep my anxiety level sky high. So, all the time I was reading Wheeler’s wonderful books, I was feeling dreadfully sorry for her mother. Incidentally, Wheeler is also the author of two great biographies: Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton and Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind--and Nearly Found Myself--on the Pacific Crest Trail - by Dan White
When Dan White and his girlfriend Melissa decided to give up their newspaper jobs in Connecticut and walk the 2,650 formidable miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to British Columbia, from the California desert to the rain forest of Washington, through mountain passes and over rivers, they had no idea what they’d let themselves in for. Nor did friends and family exactly cheer them on. As White describes in The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind--and Almost Found Myself--on the Pacific Coast Trail, none of their friends could understand why they were doing it, and their parents feared for their survival. After vicariously sharing the couple’s experiences with--inter alia--exhaustion, sunstroke, giardia, bears, equipment malfunctions, blisters, hallucinations, and a particularly painful and unusual encounter with a cactus, readers will simultaneously applaud the couple’s determination to keep going and at the same time probably question their sanity. There are many books available on walking the Pacific Crest Trail, but White’s is the best I’ve found so far.