Friday, October 2, 2009

Slow and Steady Burn

Book Review / New Fiction

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Reviewed by Sarah F. Cox

Wells Tower’s first book captures families layered thick with misfortunes beyond their control. Dysfunctional characters led by poor judgment, immaturity and the slow steady boil of deeply repressed emotions rising to the surface describe the tyranny of emotional attachment in this collection of nine short stories, Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Each story presents a different uncomfortable, yet relatable setting in which relatives and strangers collide, often disastrously. A disgruntled ex husband drives his ex wife’s injured lover on a long car trip. A demented father, his much younger second wife, and an alienated son have dinner with the chess-playing hustler they picked up in the park. In a remote cabin, a jealous and insecure investor coaxes his fiscally conservative brother into discussing a real estate gamble.

Towers gets at the fundamentally sinister underbelly of familial ties with an entourage of irksome people doing things you can’t condone. What’s simultaneously frustrating and brilliant about this collection of misfits and schemers is how well you come to understand, sympathize with, and even justify their self-destructive and damaging behavior. Towers ability to simmer sympathetic and lamentable characters until they boil over as raging assholes is so artful and realistic that he somehow convinces you not only not to hate these people, but that you’d probably act just as irrationally as they do. In fact, the Viking warrior in the final story encapsulates the collections’ attitude towards its characters: You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.”

The increasing tension makes for a compelling read, even as you cringe thinking about what might unfold. Though most of Tower’s stories build obviously and gradually towards destruction (as should be no surprise given the title of the book) the conclusions are never trite or overplayed. The string of irrational and ill-conceived decisions often carry you through the story until it ends abruptly, just short of the subsequent remorse and regret. Escaping the scene of catastrophe at the crucial moment, you almost feel guilty for leaving behind the mess in which you’ve become so invested. But, of course, when it comes to sticky family situations outside your own, it’s best not to meddle.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Seems like old Times

Gloomy advance obituaries are already being written for the print version of the New York Times, with Michael Hirschorn predicting in the Atlantic Monthly ( that the paper may not have enough cash on hand to survive past May of 2009. I love everything about the linear rhythm of a newspaper—its early morning arrival on the stoop, mastering the origami fold needed to read it politely on a crowded subway, scanning it in fits and starts over the course of a day, polishing off the crossword puzzle after dinner—and will feel bereft without these little rituals. Like it or not, now is the moment to get acquainted with other formats for the paper of record. As the Russian proverb states, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

The digital Times Reader, a downloadable version of the Times available free to daily subscribers, was created in 2007 as a hybrid of online news and the “real” paper. It gives you the ability to read digital news offline and re-sync the content, updated every 30 minutes, throughout the day; a seven-day archive (think of catching up on a week’s worth of news during a long airplane ride); text searchability; legibility on any size screen. And no ink smudges on your fingers, or loose sports sections sliding all over the floor!

The bloom fades a bit when you consider that only subscribers get Reader for free. (Though it IS less expensive than buying the daily paper: $14.95 per month or $169 per year.) But if you just got the paper on your doorstep this morning, why would you need a digital version? Especially when there’s the Times’ very excellent website available, a more timely way for news hounds to stay current? Saddest of all, Reader only works well for PC users; the beta Mac version requires installing Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in which doesn’t support either Firefox or Safari.

Nevertheless, Reader is a much better option than the Electronic Edition, an exact digital replica of the printed paper, ads and all. It’s schizophrenic to expect that a digital newspaper would or should look anything like a physical one. You browse information from a site in a very different manner from the way you read a paper, after all. News is the greatest beneficiary of the web’s immediacy and accessibility, and referring its design back to the print format is futile. The whole idea of a digital newspaper as opposed to a news website is a little odd in itself, when you think about it.

I suspect when the time comes, I will rely on the Times website for my news fix. It's free, it's updated constantly, I don't have to sync it or download it. All I have to do is read it, and that's all I want. Except for my 15 sections of newspaper and a croissant with marmalade on Sundays.