Monday, April 18, 2016

Doomsday Book

I was actually hesitant to read another Connie Willis book after To Say Nothing Of the Dog, because I loved it so much and didn't want to be disappointed.  How could another book live up to the sheer genius of that comic novel that made me LOL on practically every page, look up countless references about the Victorian period, start seriously studying bird stumps and sit down and have a serious think about Schrodinger's Cat?

So with no small amount of trepidation, I started Doomsday Book (1993).  Immediately: I'm hooked - why have I never heard of this author before now?  In Doomsday, a young historian, Kivrin, uses the "net" to go to the Middle Ages.  It's her life's goal to go there, and she's studied middle English, learned how to milk a cow, ride a horse, and dirtied her nails sufficiently to fit in.  Her tutor, Mr Dunworthy (also in To Say Nothing of the Dog, although this book takes place before that) is very reluctant to see her go because the Middle Ages are a 10 (very dangerous), especially for a young woman travelling alone.  Before she leaves she's given inoculations against illnesses of the time, and has a translater implanted (similar to the babel fish in Hitchhikers).  However, when she arrives in the middle ages, she immediately becomes very ill and also can't communicate with the "contemps".

One of the things I love about Willis's books is that the science is really simple - there are just a few terms the reader will need to grasp: the net, slippage, the drop, the fix.  Of course, it's deceptively simple. For example, the theory of Schrödinger's Cat plays heavily in this book - people love repeating that Schrödinger intended the thought experiment as a joke.  The cat-bit, yes, that's meant to be ridiculous, but superposition is not.

Meanwhile, back in the mid-twenty-first century, the lab tech who ran the drop also becomes seriously ill, and moments before he keels over and starts a pandemic in contemporary Oxford, he mumbles that something's very wrong.  Dunworthy wants to bring Kivrin back immediately but can't because of the convergence of academic politics, the pandemic, and the Christmas holiday.

In the 14th century, Kivrin is taken in by a family, nursed to health, and tried to find the location of the drop so she can return safely.  Doomsday flips between the treatment of illnesses in both centuries, and the misconceptions about the middle ages that flummox and delight Kivrin.

Doomsday becomes a nail-biting mystery about illness identification, a reflection on superposition, a real joy for anyone interested in language, and even an apt comparison to the crucifixion and the place of religion in our lives.

Friday, April 15, 2016

To Say Nothing of the Dog

I recently discovered Connie Willis and I am so in love with her.  I started with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a comic sci-fi novel - one of the funniest, smartest books I've ever read.  Ned is a(n) historian  who works in futuristic Oxford, where time-travel has been discovered and summarily relegated to historians, having been found unuseful for anything else.  Ned has been overworked by his employer, who has him frantically searching for a "Bishop's bird stump" which has caused him to experience "time lag". In search of a rest, he goes to the Victorian period, where presumably he'll be able to do nothing but relax in serene environs.  One of the side-effects of time-lag is "maudlin sentimentality".  To test him for the affliction, a nurse asks him to describe a card. "It appeared to be a postal card of Oxford. Seen from Headington Hill, her dear old dreaming spires and mossy stones, her hushed, elm-shaded quads where the last echoes of the Middle Ages can still be heard, murmuring of ancient learning and scholarly tradition, of--"

Before going to the Victorian period, a co-worker assigns an easy job for him, to return an item that mistakenly brought through the net and should be returned immediately to avoid space-time continuum anomalies.  Unfortunately, Ned is experiencing such an advanced case of time-lag that he doesn't hear the instructions properly.  Immediately upon arrival in the 19th century, he finds himself involved in rather complex and increasingly ridiculous machinations involving
his simple assignment.

I could go on about this book for the rest of the decade but what should really do is just read the book and trust me when I say it is more about history than sci-fi, and touches lovingly on Jeeves and Wooster, reverently on Sayer's Vane and Wimsey, and ever so gently on one of my favorite themes: quantum physics.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Between the World and Me

We read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats for bookclub.  Coats won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction last year and was listed in just about every top 10 of 2015 list that mattered.  I suppose it's a type of epistolary non-fiction, as it's written as a letter to his teenage son.  He begins by recalling how his son cried after the policeman who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO went uncharged for any crime. "...I didn't hug you, and I didn't comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within that all of it."  Coats writes about his own childhood in Baltimore, and how much difficult it was for him to protect his own black body - the preoccupation he had to have every time he left the house, the knowledge of what areas were safe, how his own parents were incredibly strict with him.  "Black people love their children with a kind of obsession," he writes, "You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made."

As a white reader I really appreciate the perspective Coats brings to this topic - reading his first-hand account made the reality of so many people's lives more vivid for me. As a white reader, it would be all too easy to argue against what Coats is saying - for example, he talks about living in NY in the early 2000s and walking around with his baby in a stroller, and seeing white children on tricycles, "The galaxy belonged to them" he writes.  I'll admit I found myself wanting to argue, like so many white people do, *I* was never handed anything.  I *wish* I had the opportunity to ride my tricycle down a Manhattan street like I owned the place.  But, not only is that ignoring my huge privilege of growing up in a white body, it's completely missing the point of what he's saying.  So, while I'm really ashamed that I had the instinct to argue, I'll admit that I had it, because I think it's important to acknowledge just how ingrained these prejudices are.

Coats book is doesn't hold a lot of hope, but I think it's exposure will lead more people to come to a greater level of understanding.  The heartbreaking repetition of all of the deaths in the past few years - Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, to name a few - that have lead to the Black Lives Matter movement give the book a sense of immediacy, although, as we all know, these needless deaths are nothing new.

Monday, January 18, 2016

May We Be Forgiven

I read A. M. Homes May We Be Forgiven at the insistence of my sister, who said it was her favorite book of last year.  It is an absolutely ca-razy book for the first 350 or so pages.  This guy Harold is having an affair with his sister-in-law.  He has a contentious relationship with his brother George, who is the head of a tv network and an asshole.  One day George comes home, finds Harold and his wife sleeping together in his bed, and picks up a lamp and slams it on her head.  George gets sent to mental institution instead of jail, being rich and white and having a team of lawyers.  Harold stays in their house, feeding the pets, and taking on increasing responsibility for George and Jane's children. 

One crazy thing after another happens, in what feels like maniacal farce.  It's quite funny, despite the violence, and occasionally tender, despite the fragile humanity of so many of the characters.  Ultimately Harold becomes not just the guardian of the children in name but in his heart and theirs.  Where they had a distant relationship with their parents, he creates a close one for all of them, until they have a very large extended family of relative strangers.  I was deeply drawn to that aspect because I firmly believe you create your own family - it takes care and investment - but I see it as an obligation to myself and my own little community to build a network of supporting and caring around us. 

Truthfully I thought the book was about 100 pages too long, although the last 100 serve as an extended opportunity to define the terms of this new family Harold is building.  It's almost too sweet an ending for what started with madcap plotting.  I was very interested in how Homes wrapped race into this story - essentially it's about a very wealthy, white, Jewish family in New York/New Jersey that are largely immune to answering for their crimes.  Harold's truly enamored with what he frequently refers to as "the other", for example, the Chinese family he has lunch with in Manhattan or... I hate to give too much away... some other characters of color in the book.  While the non-white characters at first feel like a sort of clumsy inclusion, most of them become part of Harold's created family.  "May we be forgiven" becomes an incantation for Harold, a plea for forgiveness for past wrongs, a promise to do better in the future.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Month of Italy

My sister-in-law gave me this book called A Month of Italy.  It's written by Chris Brady, who started the pyramid scheme called Life Leadership my brother and sister-in-law are currently enthralled of.  God bless 'em, they probably thought, "She likes Italy, here's a book on Italy, what could go wrong?" and under that good faith I did make a relative effort to read this damn thing and I was curious what kind of covert message hid inside that might make me want to throw aside all reason and join a goddamn pyramid scheme.  I was not able to read every word, finding the writing and sentiment offensive from literally the first page, but I honestly did make a valiant effort at skimming the damn thing.

Page one starts with a little slut-shaming for no good reason aside from it's probably good to put women in their place.  "One young lady, in the early bloom of her maturity and obviously intending to be sexy, is wearing a dress so tight old women shake their heads while young men find reasons to stop and turn."  Italian women (and men), according to Chris Brady, wear bathing suits entirely outside the realm of human decency, and to make sure, spends plenty of time looking at them. Basically he and his family go to Italy for a month, drive around in a small bus with their 4 or 5 children and generally make asses of themselves, gives a big speech at the end about how much the trip changed and restored him (unclear how) and how a bunch of people said "You should write a book about it" so he did.

As far as I can tell, Chris Brady, who claims to be some kind of leadership guru, makes most of his money writing shitting books which are pawned off on unsuspecting souls like my aforementioned bro and his wife. I'm truly curious about hearing what happens at this frequent "leadership" meeting they attend but they don't like to talk about it.  Possibly they pick up tips like the ones I found on Chris Brady's blog post entitled 6 Mistakes Public Speakers Make like "Being Boring" or "Being Nervous."  No joke. So, no "leadership" stuff in the book, no overt Christian stuff until the acknowledgements, just a bunch of crap about how the food is so good you can literally walk into any restaurant and it'll be good (not true) and how everyone should go to Italy for a month to really relax.  The tone-deaf persistence that not everyone can afford to go to Europe, much less spend a month there driving from resort to resort with 6 people is downright offensive, especially since this guy's business is preying on cash-poor people like my brother with the promise that they're going to be "leaders" one day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lulu in Marrakech

Lulu in Marrakech (2008) is by Diane Johnson, of Le Divorce fame.  I'm a fan of Le Divorce and bought a bunch of Johnson books one day which I've been slowly going through.  Lulu in Marrakech is about a young woman, an American spy, who goes to live with her boyfriend in Morocco at the behest of the CIA and await orders.  She's a low-level spy so mostly she's just supposed to keep her ear to the ground and listen for gossip.  Her British boyfriend owns a riad (a historic guesthouse) and they have many visitors from England and France.

Post 9/11, there's a lot of talk about charitable organizations that really fund terrorism, and a bit of drama re: a French Muslim teenager who is hiding in Morocco because her brother suspects she's no longer a virgin and threatened to kill her.  Lulu and her friends are naturally appalled, and do what they can to help her.

The spy-stuff felt purely extraneous - what I like about Johnson is how she explores different cultures, and she certainly does in this book - the food, the souk, the riad, the music, dance, etc.  Unfortunately Lulu is a bit of a boring character (despite being a spy in Marrakech????) and mostly moons around about her boyfriend and imagines how easy her life would be if she could just marry him and have babies, although Johnson doesn't give her a break for that.  "How easily I could be melted into wifehood, that time-honored refuge and slightly unchallenging calling - I even yearned for it deliciously. I could even stay in my job, could tell him about it."

There's a focus on the treatment of women in muslim culture, particularly the practice purdah, wearing the veil, and so-called "honor killings".

Maybe because of the way she writes - first person past-tense, she reminds me a bit of Austen or a Brontë - the story moves slowly and traditionally and has a very comforting rhythm I like.  The front of my copy reads "A sweet confection of a novel." which, to me, is kind of insulting, but that is fairly accurate - not too deep but certainly not moronic, it is a nice confection of a novel.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks's latest book, The Secret Chord, is about none other than King David, from the Bible.  Yeah, this David:
Side note for Art Talk: What's your favorite David sculpture?  Most people are going to say Michelangelo, right?  But, don't forget about this bonkers sculpture by Bernini, which is possibly the sexiest sculpture ever?
But, if I'm being honest, I have to say my favorite is Donatello's David, which is beautiful, a triumph, a homo-erotic masterpiece if one ever existed, and hilarious.  I mean: That hat!
Donatello wins everything

It's been a long time since I studied King David (like, back in Vacation Bible School from my Lutheran youth) I ended up reading this book pretty much side-by-side with the chapters about David in the Bible (1st and 2nd Corinthians and 1st and 2nd Samuel, mainly) to remind myself what was authentic.  Brooks does not stray far from the original scripture, filling in, as she does in her marvelous way, the details of the story.

David's an slightly unusual story - there's little-to-no evidence today that he actually existed, however, even Brooks stipulates that it's unlikely he's merely metaphorical because he's such a flawed character. In the Bible, God loves him, which is why he goes from being a lowly shepherd boy to king of Israel.  In many sects of Christianity he's seen as a kind of parallel to Jesus Christ, being from Bethlehem, becoming a king from a low position, and loved by God etc.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Nathan, the seer (who also was meant to have originally told 1st and 2nd Chronicles).  Nathan worked for David, because he had a vision (after David and his men killed his family) that David would eventually be king.  Nathan's visions are legit and David keeps him as a kind of advisor.  Nathan interviews people in David's life in order to write his biography.

One of the first people Nathan talks to his David's brother, who talks about how David slayed the famous giant, Goliath.  Just luck, according to him, but the way he tells the story is extraordinary:
David slings another stone, and Goliath can feel  the breeze as it passes. He dodges out of the way of it, and he's in all that armor, so he stumbles, and everyone laughs at him - his own and ours both. David's the only one not laughing. He's in some kind of a state, trumpeting away... ' this very day the Name will deliver you into my hands'- and more of that style of thing- it just poured out of him- the kind of high-blown words your kind comes out with: 'All the Earth shall know there is a God in Israel...' Not the kind of thing you expect out of the mouth of a shepherd boy.
Things really get crazy in the story of David when he takes Batsheva as a wife.  Brooks has a wonderful way of flipping traditionally male stories into the story of the women supposedly standing on the sidelines (March, for which she won the Pulitzer, is a great example, of course).  I had a great hope that any page the POV was going to switch to Batsheva or some other woman, but that doesn't happen.  The story of Batsheva (Brooks uses the Hebrew spelling for names/places) goes like this: Batsheva's is the wife of Uriah - David's general. While he's at some war, she's taking a bath on her roof, David sees her and sends for her, she gets pregnant.  David sends for Uriah and tries to get him to go home and have sex with her real quick, but for various reasons he won't.  So, David sends Uriah back to war with a note for another soldier that says, send Uriah out on the front lines, and don't help him.  Naturally, he gets killed, and David marries Batsheva.  Somehow throughout history, Batsheva has come to stand for a sort of wanton, beautiful femme fatale.  In Brook's hands, Batsheva explains that she was on her roof trying to find some privacy when guards came from the king to collect her, what choice does she have but to go.  Roofs, by the way, are historically the only place where women in closely monitored cultures could enjoy relative freedom & fresh air.
Jan Massys 1562
There are, by the way, a lot of hilarious painting of poor Batsheva taking a bath while creeper David looks on from a distant window.

After the Batsheva incident, David's family life really goes to shit with his many wives and many children.  Nathan makes some predictions that David's kids are going to be nothing but trouble. One of his sons rapes his half-sister, Tamar.  Then another brother kills the rapist.  Then eventually that brother tries to overthrow his father and probably has sex with all of David's concubines up on his roof.  Meanwhile David's like, "Boys. What are you gunna do?"

So, a book that sends me to secondary sources, trolling Google images and figuring out Hebraic names and places?  What could be better?  Told with Brooks signature insight and beautiful prose, The Secret Chord is a fascinating read that tells an ancient story in an extremely accessible way.