Friday, May 27, 2011

Doc: A Novel, by Mary Doria Russell--Review

Random House, ISBN 9781400068043, May 2011

This novel is a rather different look at the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, famous (or infamous) friend and ally of the famous (or infamous) Earp brothers. The shootout at the OK Corral is epilogue, not centerpiece. After telling the tale of Holliday's upbringing in Georgia and his education as a dentist on the recommendation of his doctor uncle, who felt that medicine was becoming the realm of quackery while dentistry was becoming ever more scientific, the book focuses on what is presented as his one happy summer as an adult: the summer he met the Earp brothers in Dodge City, Kansas.

The new-minted dentist John Henry Holliday begins a promising young practice in Atlanta, but before too long comes to the painful realization that he's suffering from the same consumption (tuberculosis) that killed his mother. His uncle, Doctor Holliday, recommends that he move to the hot, dry southwest, and helps him locate a practice to join in Texas. All is well for a few, brief months--and then the Panic of 1873 happens. The dental practice can barely support its owner, and Holliday is out of a job. He gradually starts to support himself by gambling, and after a few years of sinking deeper and deeper into this life, he meets Kate Haroney, a smart, educated, former minor aristocrat who lost her entire family and position and is now supporting herself as a whore.

This is a partnership that will last, off and on, for the next decade, and it's also what brings Doc Holliday to Dodge City, where he meets the Earp brothers. And this is the meat of the story that Russell is telling, the story of the summer when Doc thought consumption might be loosening its grip on him, starts up a dental practice again, and forges a friendship with the Earp brothers, especially Morgan and Wyatt. It's the summer when Morgan and Wyatt get a painful education in politics, and the summer that another figure who will someday be famous, Bat Masterson, is also in Dodge and starting to fabricate the stories that will be the cornerstone of his fame. Russell gets us convincingly inside these heads, especially Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and builds a compelling account of how and why they made the choices that led them to that fateful thirty seconds in the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. We also see the beginning of Bat Masterson's myth-making about them, especially Doc Holliday, and the great distance between reality and myth in the story of Holliday's career as gambler and gunslinger.

One of the most touching strands in this story is Holliday's commitment to the positive good that professional dentistry can make in people's lives, freeing them from pain, even while it's clear to him that he'll never support himself with dentistry. In fact, it's his gambling that enables him to support his dentistry. Another, almost equally touching thread is Wyatt's rehabilitation of the horse Dick Naylor.

While there are gunfights and brawls in Doc, this is not a story of western gunslinging derring-do. This is a thoughtful and compelling look at some major icons of the American west, before they were famous and when they never expected that a gunfight would become the central event of their lives.

Highly recommended.

I received a free galley of this book for review from the publisher.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ashfall, by Mike Mullin--A Review

Tanglewood, ISBN 9781933718552, October 2011

Alex Halprin is a few weeks away from his sixteenth birthday when, somewhat to his surprise, his mother agrees to let him stay home alone in Cedar Falls, Iowa, while his parents and his sister Rebecca head off for the annual summer visit to his uncle's farm in Warren, Illinois. The delightful sense of freedom only lasts a few hours, though, before an impossibly loud noise starts up, and something crashes into his house, and he's trapped under his desk while fire creeps closer and closer. He manages to dig his way out, and then is taken in by Darren and Joe, a neighboring couple whose home is, so far, undamaged.

The sky is dark. The deafeningly loud noise does not stop. Ash is falling from the sky. And the power, phones, and water are out. On a battery-powered radio, they mostly get static, but pick up bits and pieces of emergency broadcasts.

The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted.

They huddle inside for several days, eating salad for every meal to use up the perishables first, and stuffing their ears with tissue and wearing headphones to shut out the noise and protect their hearing. Then looters break into the house, and during the fight Darren pulls out a gun and shoots all three of the intruders. Alex is shocked and horrified, and flees back to his own uninhabitable house. He decides he has to head for his uncle's farm in Illinois, and find his parents and sister. He salvages what equipment and supplies he can from the unburned portions of the house, and sets out on foot.

For the remainder of the book, we follow Alex's adventures and struggle to survive in a world turned suddenly stark and lifeless. He meets some people willing to give him a night's shelter and a meal once they know he's not a looter, and other people only too willing to kill him and take what little he has. And when he's out of water and hasn't had food in two days, he collapses in the barn of the Edmund farm. It's an interlude of peace, safety, and recovery--and then disaster strikes again, and Alex and Darla Edmund set out on a new round of travel, struggle, and survival in a wrecked landscape with almost nothing in the way of functioning society and government, with conditions improving only very slowly as they move eastward--and the remnant of the national government they find is one of the challenges they have to survive. They both have to learn new skills, learn to trust and rely on each other, and figure out how to remain civilized human beings in the face of the catastrophe and collapse all around them.

In some ways, Ashfall is reminiscent of the post-Apocalypse survival novels that were popular twenty years ago. It feels more grounded in reality, though, in part because Mike Mullin has worked hard at grounding the depiction of the effects of a supervolcano eruption in what scientists know and theorize about them, while also remaining grounded in a realistic but not unduly negative view of human nature. There's no magic, unexpected technology, and Darla is scary-smart but not more so than some people I've really known--and she's not without her own weaknesses and insecurities. Alex finds a toughness in himself that he hadn't expected, but which, again, isn't superhuman. These are real teenagers, dealing with horrific challenges. They're not saving the world; they're just making their little piece of it a little bit more habitable.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected when I started reading.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea With Ocean Experts, by Ellen Prager--A Review

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226678719, May 2009

Prager has a noble purpose in this book: to convey the excitement and adventure of doing science, and specifically of doing ocean science fieldwork, through telling the stories of the experiences of ocean-going scientists. To a fair degree she succeeds, but not entirely. This feels more like a collection of anecdotes than a collection of stories--but some of them are, no question, great anecdotes! I'm reminded of Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist, in the sense that I would wonder if she had read it, and were working at applying his advice, except that her book was published first.

The book is arranged in thematic chapters, highlighting the challenges of ocean-going shipboard research, diving in coastal waters, the effects of weather in making hay of the best-laid plans, the benefits of serendipity and of direct observation in making critical discoveries that would elude remote observation using  ROVs and AUVs (remotely-operated vessels and autonomous underwater vessels)  to do deep ocean exploration and research, the joys and challenges of life in underwater habitats, and the sheer delight and wonder of seeing the undersea world first-hand.

Prager was previously the chief scientist for the Aquarius Reef Base program in Key Largo, Florida, which includes what is currently the world's only undersea research station. Some of her best tales include the challenges, dangers, and rewards of living in an undersea research station, able to dive and do active research for eight or nine hours a day. She also shares her own and other scientists' stories of surviving dangerous weather at sea on the ocean-going research ships of the Sea Education Association--hurricanes, waterspouts, sudden squalls, and even an encounter with pirates. There's a disarming honesty about the role played by simply human mistakes and errors in judgment in contributing to dangerous situations, as well as human ingenuity in surviving the dangers and recovering and doing useful research anyway. She seems to take a special glee in describing her own early experiences, including her own mistakes that sometimes placed herself and others in danger. Prager learned the hard way to check everything twice, including whether or not colleagues had actually done their part in the preparations.

On the other hand, she also learned the joy of making unexpected discoveries for herself, whether or not those discoveries proved to be ones that would move the science forward in a big way, and she talks about her passion for sharing that joy with students who may yet become scientists themselves. This is one of the two major things Prager is seeking to convey in this book: the joy, delight, and pure satisfaction of doing real fieldwork at sea.

The other major point she wants to convey is the importance of real fieldwork, the vital necessity of doing direct fieldwork to build a real understanding of the ocean that is three-quarters of the surface of our planet, a major source of both food and weather affecting us all. She and her colleagues are deeply worried about what essential knowledge we might miss, if the difficulties, expense, and dangers of underwater fieldwork cause us to cease doing it, and she returns again and again to this issue.

Recommended despite my reservations.

I received this ebook as a free download from the University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Escape Artist: An Edna Ferber Mystery, by Ed Ifkovic--A Review

Poisoned Pen Press, ISBN 9781590588475, June 2011

It's 1904, and nineteen-year-old Edna Ferber is working as a "girl reporter" for the Appleton Daily Crescent, in the small Wisconsin town of Appleton. She's frustrated by the trivial nature of the stories she gets to report, and indulges her imagination and creativity in making the stories she can report as vivid as possible. While the publisher, aging Civil War veteran Sam Ryan, likes Edna, the new City Room editor, Matthias Boon, does not, and believes that females have no place in the newsroom.

Then Appleton's homegrown international celebrity, Ehrich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, comes home for a visit. Through a combination of luck and initiative, Edna scores the interview that Houdini originally didn't intend to give to either local paper. Boon's hostility is ratcheted up even further. Meanwhile, Edna can't escape from the stresses at work by going home, because she's in near-constant constant conflict with her sister Fannie, and her mother Julia is resentful and angry over husband and father Jacob's blindness which has forced Julia to take over running the family store, My Store.

When a beautiful young German-American girl, Frana Lempke, disappears from the high school and is found dead two days later, Edna finds herself drawn into the investigation. She knows the school, she knows Frana and her friends, she knows everyone involved. And of course, she is filled with imagination and curiosity that won't let her let go of it. And the deeper she goes in her investigating, the more the tensions at home and at work increase and threaten to come to a crisis that will force her to make major life decisions--if she doesn't become the next victim.

The characters are all compellingly drawn, not least Edna Ferber herself. Ifkovic set himself a risky task, making his viewpoint character and protagonist a young woman who will herself be the most famous and successful woman novelist of the first half of the 20th century, and he's pulled it off. I believe in Edna, her family, co-workers, and friends, and the little midwestern town they live in. Escape Artist works both as mystery and as historical novel, and is a delight to read.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.