by Pat Holt
Friday, October 26, 2001
GETTING BACK TO BOOKS
Books transport us to other worlds, thank heaven, so even while catching up on Ahmed Rashid's "Taliban" and Yossef Bodansky's "Bin Laden" (gad, isn't it great they're now bestsellers?), I've been trying to find a balance in books that give us a rest from the nation's legitimate obsession over the events and aftermath of September 11.
For the first time in years, I sought a little solace in Dirk Pitt, the hero of Clive Cussler's popular series of sea-adventure novels. Cussler's love of the sea, his inexhaustible knowledge of nautical history and his eloquence at describing in vivid detail every kind of boat and ship (not to mention classic cars and airplanes) would, I hoped, make this 16th Dirk Pitt novel, "Valhalla Rising" (Putnam; 544 pages; $27.95), more than a diversion.
Now you can make fun of Dirk Pitt - his fearless nature, his invincibility (his name!). And you can laugh at Dirk's perfect masculine looks, the black wavy hair and green "opaline" eyes that command the respect of men and the adoration of women. But when it comes to commanding underwater submersibles for NUMA (the National Underwater Maritime Administration), Dirk and his sidekick, tough Bostonian sharpshooter judo master marine expert Al Giordino, have no equal.
Nor does Cussler, who in this book updates Viking legends and Jules Verne's Captain Nemo with improbable digressions that turn out to be stupendously relevant to the Big Secret of a brilliant inventor, Dr. Egan, who's traveling on a luxury cruise ship with his gorgeous daughter Kelly.
Of course, Egan's got to kick a watery bucket when the ship bursts into mysterious flames and Dirk Pitt just happens to notice the flames from a NUMA ship in the middle of the vast ocean. Through heroic efforts on the part of Pitt and his crew, the tiny NUMA boat somehow saves 2000 people. Among them is Kelly, who's clutching Dad's briefcase with The Secret inside just as she with her breathtaking cinnamon-colored hair is about to sink for the third time before Dirk Pitt himself dives in to save her.
Sabotage, assassinations, Native American history, Stinger fire, frictionless oil, Congressional hearings, deepwater bombings, a hijacked NUMA ship, hand-to-hand combat, terrorists working in "cells" (uh-oh), an evil oil company CEO and a wild shoot-out above Manhattan between an ancient Red Baron airplane and Pitt's antique transport carrier (he just happens to be showing the skyline of Manhattan to severely disabled kids) all lead to a drop-your-jaw climax that is typical Cussler but unbelievably prescient, considering this book came out in early September.
Because (stop reading here if you're going to read the book): Long before 9/11, Cussler put himself in a megalomaniac's frame of mind and thought: What could be the biggest disaster ever perpetrated by a small band of terrorists on the United States? Why, thinks Clive, a vehicle loaded with inflammable fuel heading for lower Manhattan with plans to slam into the World Trade Center and raze everything to rubble within a 2-mile area!
Holy cow, we think approaching chapter 11: This is no diversion from September 11, as here again we see the military "caught napping," Coast Guard and anti-terrorist units scrambling too late and the mad attackers racing to incinerate thousands of civilians when the explosion occurs.
In fact, the only difference between "Valhalla Rising" and the events of 9/11 is that Cussler's self-immolating vehicle is not an airplane but a huge oil tanker called, naturally enough, Mongolian Invader, and it's filled with propane (even worse than gas or oil in terms of the size of explosion, we're told).
And although Cussler couldn't envision a suicide mission - his NUMA officials dismiss the idea of "fanatics giving up their lives for a cause or a religion" -- he does invent a submarine so ingenious even Jules Verne and the Vikings of olde would be proud.
Then, too, this is fiction: Before the terrorists can accomplish their hideous plan, who should intervene with a tiny (by comparison) explosive so precisely placed against propeller and rudder as to disable the evil ship but our hero, Dirk Pitt, and his stocky no-nonsense bullet-headed Italian steel-fisted warrior Al Giordino. (Of course, what seems to save the day is not enough, but then, efforts to save the distressed are never enough in the life and series of Dirk Pitt.)
Okay, so maybe I made a mistake turning to a military techno-thriller for escape from, um, military techno-horrors in "real life." How about, then, something more - well, not "safe" but nonviolent, character-driven and literary, such as the latest novel by Chris Bohjalian ("Midwives," "The Law of Similars") called "Trans-Sister Radio."
First, a thought about how titles are chosen for books. The conventional wisdom is to never pick a title whose cleverness and irony are understood only after the reader finishes the book. Instead, try to make the title catchy and inviting, informal and erudite all at once.
"Trans-Sister Radio" is an annoying and obfuscatory title, so of course I plunged right in.
And what luck. The story is immediately absorbing, told from four points of view about a sixth-grade teacher and single mom (Allison) who lives in a small Vermont town, and who begins to date a professor named Dana from a nearby college.
Allison is charmed by Dana. He's witty and knowledgeable, listens thoughtfully and treats her daughter Cary with genuine respect and affection.
The only thing that's odd about Dana is that he plucks his eyebrows, a fact that Allison's possessive ex-husband Will, who heads the local Vermont National Public Radio, uses to turn Dana into an evil presence (Will always exaggerates any threat to Allison).
Meanwhile, though, Allison discovers that Dana is the most caring and attentive sexual partner she's ever known. ("I had never in my life been with a man whose hands were that gentle or whose mouth was that soft. He would spend long minutes tracing my lips ... " well, you get the idea.) Dana is a terrific cook and so comfortable to be with that soon the three - Dana and Allison and Cary - are close to becoming a family.
What no one knows (but we learn early on) is that for the past several months, Dana has been taking female hormones and undergoing electrolysis in preparation for a sex-change operation that will take place when he goes on sabbatical. Allison is so shocked when she hears this that she falls into a fetal position and remains that way for some time, resentful and hurt yet aware that she's fallen in love with Dana and wants to understand how he came to this decision.
Bohjalian has clearly done his homework, having befriended and studied a number of transgendered MTFs (male-to-females), interviewed their doctors and friends, sat with their relatives, perhaps even (he seems to know everything) witnessed operations.
So the fact that Dana has always considered himself a woman emerges with such careful attention to that fine line between physical and emotional nature that we come to love Dana even more. In fact, something about his struggle toward self-knowledge seems to enhance his deepening bond with Allison - a bond that becomes as profound as any that lovers (or sisters?) could share.
Well, a novel about a sex-change is perhaps not what many of us have in mind when we pick up "Trans-Sister Radio." But by this time, we're so caught up with these characters, so curious about their next step in life and so inquisitive about such things as (why not say it?) how both Allison and Dana feel about Dana's penis before it's gone for good (Allison makes several ol' college tries to save it) that we find ourselves appreciating every detail of Bohjalian's beautifully researched and eloquently told story.
And here is another reason why saving midlist fiction is so important. "Trans-Sister Radio" is not a great novel, nor does it aspire to be. It's structurally solid, filled with wise humor and people we root for and studded with surprising little twists. For example, even before Allison or Will or Dana's parents acknowledge the transition, Allison's daughter Cary is the first to refer to Dana as "she."
Soon, though, there is a price to pay for Dana's decision. Allison has always been an inventive teacher who's broken a few rules to give her sixth-graders new experiences. (On a field trip in 90-degree weather, she let the kids swim with their clothes on, causing gossip around the school about "what really happened" when the girls' clothes got wet.)
As word gets around the tiny Vermont village where Allison teaches that she's in love with (and by now living with) the town "freak" who's dressing in women's clothes and about to have THAT kind of surgery, protests are made to Allison's school, and meetings are held, some surreptitiously. Parents begin to pull their kids out of Allison's classes, and the principal drums up reasons and proceedings that may cost this dedicated teacher her job.
Soon the media are pounding on the door and, although Allison and Dana refuse to be interviewed, the story of the gene-crossed lovers becomes a sensation. Increasingly silenced in every other way (Dana now goes out of town to shop so no one will be "embarrassed" by the beautiful woman she is becoming), the two find themselves receding from public life for the "security" of this family-oriented town. Hey, wait a minute, one thinks, ripping through the pages like a house afire. This novel is about ... CENSORSHIP. It's about the media going after big headlines and missing the human story. It's about people jumping on a bandwagon and refusing to tolerate dissent. It's about discrimination and the loss of privacy; it's about the breakdown of due process and of other civil liberties in the heat of - well, battle.
So even if this book has nothing to do with terrorism or violence, its underlying themes remind us as much about the precious nature of civil liberties as do the many questions that arise about how much we should "give up" for national security after the events of September 11.
Well, thanks to Bohjalian's attention to the fiction-writing craft, the twist in this story that we might have missed brings us back to that small town in Vermont where very large questions are being answered by very specific human needs. You won't believe what happens at the end of "Trans-Sister Radio" (except that the title hits a nerve at last, though too late!), but you'll be glad you stuck with it to the end.
Now where's that copy of "War And Peace" I wanted to read for diversion?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In light of Amazon's revelation that its used book sales are accounting for a larger chunk of its income, even as it must cannibalize its new book sales and ultimately diminish its margins (wotta heck of a biz plan!), I'm still really curious about suspicions voiced some time ago that these "used" booksellers are really new-book vendors operating at paper-thin margins.
As the "used" sellers must undercut Amazon's already discounted prices, the question is, where do they get these books and how do they survive? There are too many publishers complaining about books just published with few review copies sent out mysteriously turning up as used within DAYS of release.
Something smells rotten.
Now if these guys are buying the books from new-book wholesalers, then we publishers and authors are indeed getting paid. And if they're selling review copies, well, that's been going on for years. Yet shouldn't booksellers be more concerned that new books are being commoditized and offered at drastic markdowns?
And why is Amazon continuing to provide a safe berth for these guys to do their business?
An Independent Publisher
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I had to smile (grimace with familiar pain?) as I read those accounts of trying to collect from independent bookstores. In the years when I was more actively publishing my books through Ata Books (I'm now turning them over to Feminist Press) I would get on the phone once a month to call about invoices that were overdue 4 months. I usually found that one phone call did it—however, if I had to make that call, that bookstore went on my list titled "Prepayment only."
How that list grew! Not only independents were guilty, but they riled me more because they tended to have a kind of "liberal, good causes" orientation, a stance of purity. But like the big stores, they did a kind a triage every month—what bills have to be paid? which ones can wait? The ones that could be put off, obviously, were the small presses that didn't have any clout. (You don't pay Random House, and they cut you off from their best sellers.)
A California bookstore that will remain nameless was especially self-righteous about their political correctness, and after three or four phone calls and 8 months, I still wasn't getting paid. My son (six foot two, 200 pounds) happened to be attending college in the same town. Upon leaving after a trip home to see me, he took the invoice back with him, marched into the bookstore, slapped it down on and someone's desk and stood there glaring, until he got a check.
Ata Books last published a book in 1994, and at that point went onto a policy I've kept to ever since, ALL pre-payment, with exceptions like libraries and college bookstores ordering for a class. Running a bookstore is tough. I sympathize, but I sympathize more with the little publishers I've known who were stiffed because they were too decent to make that crass phone call. Dorothy Bryant
Dear Holt Uncensored:
My buddy here at work says the story of "The Book That Stopped a Passenger" was a hoax initiated by someone in order to boost sales of that book. Care to comment?
Holt responds: Sure. I think it's healthy to suspect a hoax on the Internet whenever possible, since heaven knows those Edward Abbey-like tricksters are out there in number. But in this case if you go back to the URL where the story ran originally - http://www.citypaper.net/articles/101801/news.godfrey.shtml - and root around the site, you'll see that the Philadelphia City Paper, founded in 1981, is a legit alternative weekly. Further, I don't think anybody would benefit from trying to boost sales of "Hayduke Lives!" since the author's dead, the book is at least 10 years old and it will never command a large audience since it's not a very good sequel to Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang" (which will probably sell forever). Considering his famously cynical sense of humor, Ed Abbey, wherever he is now, is probably having a good laugh at the tangly little mess his book created, complete with snarling officials and bewildered young passenger - of course, maybe he was a bit TOO innocent to be believed. Anyway, good for your pal.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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