Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Dreamers

Karen Thompson Walker creates stories where an impossible event takes place, yet she paces it out so slowly and thoughtfully, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. In The Age of Miracles, the rotation of the sun slows until a single day lasts weeks; in The Dreamers, the population of a town is affected by a virus that causes people to fall into a deep sleep. At first a student in a dorm falls asleep, then, quickly others. The dorm is placed under quarantine, and then the town is placed under cordon sanitaire, a French term I was happy to learn, dating from medieval times and referring to a physical or guarded barrier that separates an infected area. 

The doctors and scientists who study the sleeping townspeople and college students soon discover that they are dreaming: 
The true contents of the dreams go unrecorded, of course, but in some patients, the accompanying brain waves are captured with electrodes and projected on screens, like silhouettes of the hereafter. [...] There is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain - awake or asleep.
Walker's narrative voice in The Dreamers feels like an all-seeing eye that peels back the ceiling of first this house and then another, revealing the contents like a dollhouse, or a scene in a Wes Anderson movie.  For example, some patients are kept in the college library, for lack of space. 
  In the Classics section, a visitor could read about the oracles of ancient Greece and Rome , how the people of those eras believed that dreams could sometimes reveal the future.
  One floor down, in the Psychology section, one might eventually discover that Carl Jung, at a certain point in his life, became convinced that he had dreamed of his wife many years before he met her.
  On another part of that same floor, in Philosophy, one could entertain the theory that if you could truly understand the complexity of reality, you could accurately predict the future, since every moment of the future is set in motion by the events of the past - the whole system simply too complex for the human mind to model.
She taps into the sense of environmental unease that permeates our society, and, in this case, literal isolation of people who are living in what feels like a complex and dangerous time, always on the brink of natural or man-made disaster.  The Dreamers shares themes with another book I've read recently, Nick Drnaso's graphic novel, Sabrina.  In each, internet fear-mongering runs rampant, with ignorant trolls both blaming and diverting.  Conspiracy theories run rampant, claiming that what we, the reader, know to be true, never actually happened.

How people react to disaster is a common theme in Walker's books. Two sisters find fortitude in each other while their dad sleeps; a young man from the college imagines himself a savior while he endangers those closest to him.  Most people close ranks, concentrating only on themselves or their families.  The virus further isolates people who are already isolated. 

Ultimately, this book caused me to think about dreaming and consciousness in a different way.  I love any book that sends me on a search - to learn more about a word or an event.  Walker's clear love of language and desire to understand human reactions to extreme situations permeates The Dreamers with an infectious (why am I the way that I am?) curiosity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Lake Success

One consolation of Fascist regimes is great art, and I'm not hesitant to call Gary Shtyngart's Lake Success one of the great novels to emerge in these dark times.  Taking place mostly in the months before the 2016 election, the characters and motifs reflect the attitudes and atmosphere in America that led us to elect a swindling, racist, misogynist who can't even read the word "anonymous" off a teleprompter.

Shtyngart's anti-hero is Barry, the owner of a hedge fund, lover of watches, with "two feminine wrists, a liability at any point in history, but never more so than during the year 2016, at the start of the First Summer of Trump."  Barry's life in contemporary Manhattan, ruled by finance bros like himself in fleece vests, earning 2% of assets under management (AUM) whether they make money or lose it for their clients, is ideal, with the exception of his son, an child with autism who has never spoken and Barry is truly struggling to love.  One night, after his wife tells him he's neither a good father nor a good man, he hugs the child too vigorously, frightening him and terrifying his wife - he flees the apartment with a roller-bag and six of his favorite watches and jumps on a Greyhound, running away from his problems in New York, ostensibly toward an old college girlfriend in the American South.

That Shtyngart's describes both the Greyhound and the designer watches in such loving tones and hilarious detail speaks to his fondness for both institutions, however separate on the financial spectrum.  Barry yearns to prove his wife wrong, but he's so out of touch with the world outside his own that he fantasizes about starting a foundation with a young crack dealer he meets in Baltimore, "One that would help urban youth buy their first mechanical watch and learn to care for it." Shtyngart's descriptions of both watches and the Greyhound were, in fact, so precise that I began to wonder how much research he must have done to achieve the high level of specificity found in the book.  At first I thought he was pulling the descriptions of these watches from his imagination, but I googled a few and they were all real, much to my surprise (ie. a $60K "Crash" watch by Cartier, designed to look like it had survived a disaster).  It turns out Shteyngart is a long-time watch enthusiast - but what about the Greyhound? Turns out he took a similar journey to Barry's in the months before the election. In June, the New Yorker published a portion of the novel called "The Luck of Kokura" along with an interview with Shteyngart that sheds some light on this. (There's also an enlightening article and some beautiful pics of his second house north of NYC in the Times.)

Like many people, I want to find a comparison between the author's personal life and the characters in their novels. So I couldn't help but perk my ears when I read that GS is married to a Korean-American lawyer and they have a small child, similar to another character in the book.  I've written about autofiction before, and how women have long been accused of blending their personal lives into their art.  I find it interesting that, as more men are writing in this style (ie Karl Ove KnausgÃ¥rd, who I refuse to read for purely obstinate reasons) it's gaining some literary cachet.

Mini-Spoilers Ahead

While Barry's trip "on the 'Hound" brings him into physical proximity with people in lower economic status than himself (he loves bragging that a one-eyed Mexican fell asleep on his shoulder), he remains emotionally aloof to the lifestyles and struggles of Middle-America for most of his journey.  Only when forcing his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend and her son does he begin to relate to the life of the "common" American, and finally, the reader is able to somewhat relate to Barry.  It becomes apparent that Barry himself is "on the spectrum" (the words more commonly used to describe his own son).  Barry's ex works at a community college in Texas where the working-class students are making real sacrifices to educate themselves, while she and Barry had the privilege of attending Princeton where their path and trajectory to success were practically etched in stone. She and her colleagues are also making sacrifices - money, any fame, even death-threats from #MAGA assholes on Twitter.

However Barry might slightly redeem himself, I had to wonder as I got nearer the end of the book how in the world Shteyngart could wrap it up?  What resolution or restitution could Barry possibly perform to find his way into the graces of his wife and son and the reading audience?  Without giving away the ending, which reminded me quite a lot of the end of Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad, he finds a remarkable way of not only humanizing Barry but creating in him a (somewhat) sympathetic character.   I found the ending deeply, deeply moving.
"Things could be fixed.Barry could fix them."


Monday, January 08, 2018

The Pearl Thief

You know that phenomenon when you learn about something new and then suddenly it's all around you and you can't escape it? Last year I fell down this weird rabbit hole of "bogs" and stuff that gets preserved in them - first in the form of 2000 year-old-butter that was found in an Irish Bog ("What even is a bog?" is a question I asked myself back in those antediluvian days). That story was naturally a frequent topic of conversation with our foodie friends, all of whom were, of course, well-read in the subject of world-butter-revelations. Then I watched some British mystery about a body found in a bog, slightly clearing up the question of what a bog is with helpful visuals. Then I fell deeper in the rabbit hole when I happened upon a fascinating long-read in the Smithsonian about Tollund Man, which is about you guessed it: ancient human sacrifices perfectly preserved in European bogs!

THEN, seemingly unrelated to all of that, I read The Pearl Thief, which I was so invested in I ordered it straight from Across The Pond, having previously been obsessed with Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, although not so much Rose Under Fire, its sequel.  (For those of you keeping score, you'll notice all this news and the British publication all happened around June '17 and that is just how very, very far behind I am in my book bloggin'.)  In it, Julie Beaufort-Stuart returns to her grandfather's castle-estate in Scotland for one last summer before it is sold.  Julie immediately befriends some local Travellers who are long-time visitors to her family's land and thus is introduced some sympathetic and didactic history of Travellers in the area and the discrimination and abuse they often suffered. There are several mysteries that must be solved not least among them a BODY FOUND IN A BOG!  (Spoiler!) Which of course I immediately knew was an ancient triple-death sacrifice.

Julie is a beloved character from Code Name Verify and it is wonderful to get to spend more time with her. The Pearl Thief precedes that story in the narrative so the reader sees the open-hearted, privileged young woman before the war.  Hints of Julie's fluid sexuality are confirmed and her feisty, honest nature is further solidified.

Although The Pearl Thief occasionally reads as if it's truly written for a younger audience, being mildly over-didactic and specifically inclusive in a way that YA books sometimes are, over-all the book was very charming and had interesting things to say about living with history and how history, naturally, informs the present.  Also, Julie has Schiaparelli blouse that I spent a lot of time imagining.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Elmet was the dark horse of the Man Booker short list and after reading an intriguing review I found a copy at my library. Side note:  History of Wolves and Exit West were also nominated and I looooved both of those - although so was Lincoln in the Bardo and I swear to God I cannot get through that thing.  Although everyone else is going absolutely nuts over it so who am I to judge? 

"Elmet", it should be known, was the name of the wild country of northern England back in the 5th century and also the subject of an epic poem by Ted Hughes. (Favor a challenge? Read the Wikipedia page on Elmet. Sample sentence: "In the Tribal Hidage the extent of Elmet is described as 600 hides of land, an area slightly more than the total of the wapentakes of Barkston Ash and Skyrack." Whaaaaaaaaaaaa?)

Fiona Mozley is a young, British author and this is her first book. She writes lovingly of a small, odd family composed of "Daddy", Daniel, the narrator, and Cathy, his sister.  They're sort of like squatters and build a house on someone else's land and mostly live off the land, eating wild animals and trading with people in the nearby village.  Daddy occasionally engages in a fist fight for money.  Most of the book is allotted to the almost devotional descriptions of the home and the food eaten in the home.  The family's house build completely by them, covered in moss, evokes a feeling of deep contentment, even despite Daddy's occasional dark periods when Daniel and Cathy retreat to the outdoors to give him some space to expel his demons.  Interspersed throughout the book are very short passages that indicate Daniel is chasing a woman - one can only assume it is his sister - and it is unclear why or how this came about.  As Daniel runs, his narration becomes even more poetic - he is almost animalistic in his single-minded pursuit:
I see bovine silhouettes shift steadily across meadows, hulking their uneasy weight from trough to furrow, and elsewhere, I see the dusk settle on the fleeces of grazing ewes like sparks from flint to tinder. I watch the land glow and the sky burn. And I step through it with a judicious tread.
I pass from Elmet bereft.
Jesus Christ!  Right????  Although, to be honest, I personally do not like the otherwise over-all style of this book which is heavily stylized prose composed of short, Hemingway-esque sentences in the past tense.  It reminded me of Kazuo Isiguro's Never Let Me Go which I really, really hated.  But, he just won the goddamn Nobel Prize for literature, so what do I know? But, I mean, look at this:
We arrived home and Daddy went straight out into the woods with his tools. The shell of our house was sealed tight against the winter but the insides remained rough. Daddy was working on the lining and on the floors. Wood was the material he used as much as he could. It was right there in the copse. Trees of different ages and different kinds.
I mean, honestly.  However, unlike Isiguro's much lauded novel which goes absolutely nowhere, Mozley's book is building to this completely bonkers ending that I am still mildly in shock about several days later.  Also, it cannot be forgotten that what's she's doing is building upon a great literary tradition and drawing connections between people who occupied her country in the 5th century to the way we live today, bringing up important questions like what it means to inhabit a land... what is "home"... the role of collective history and memory, and what is it that composes our very society?

It's pretty much worth reading just for that insane ending, if you enjoy being tortured by literature and then literally shocked out of your senses and... who doesn't, amiright?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow is Fylnn Berry's first novel and a winner of an Edgar Award this year.  It takes
place in England but Berry is an American.  You know I love my British Lady Mystery writers!

Early spoiler and possible trigger warning:  a dog dies.

Nora arrives at her sister's house to find her sister (and her dog) murdered.  She reels.  Actually, a good part of the book is Nora recovering from the shock of discovering the gruesome murder and the loss of her sister.  Nora isn't aware of anyone who would want to harm Rachel - however, her sister was the victim of an attack when she was younger by a stranger.  The police tell Nora that it's statistically unlikely that a woman would be the victim of two attacks by strangers in her lifetime - they look, of course, to old boyfriends and, eventually, to Nora herself.

As a narrator, Nora is a bit unreliable - she forgets things and, though the reader seems privy to her most solitary moments, something like the hotel manager coming to say the other guests are complaining that the noises (presumably her screaming and crying) are disturbing.

Unsurprisingly, Under the Harrow confronts misogyny and violence toward women.  Accusations are levied against Rachel for her behavior, the hour, her clothing in her first attack, and after her death Nora is cautioned to avoid talking to the press lest they expose "the worst parts of her" to the world. The team that was this sisterhood is not the sentimental fluff you might expect from a "sister novel" but a complex, deep relationship. It is fierce and devoted.

Here's a particular passage I related to - on losing her Yorkshire accent during college: I changed my voice the way I would have chewed off my leg to get out of a trap. Every time I heard my cool, even accent, I thought - I've left. I'm gone.

As mystery's go... it's one of those that's virtually impossible to solve yourself, but it's more about the journey that Nora takes to find justice for her sister.  Berry's a really fantastic writer and I love the way she puts her sentences together.  She crafted a great story here that had me skipping back pages to re-read the careful unravelling.  Really quite an amazing first book!

By the way, "under the harrow" is from a CS Lewis book, A Grief Observed.  Even if you don't know what it means, it's evocative.  Berry explains more in this interview.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is a painful but rewarding novel about a young boy, Jojo, and his family in Mississippi.  Jojo and his baby sister are being raised by his grandparents because his mother is a meth addict and his father is in jail for cooking meth.  His grandparents are loving, gentle people, but his grandmother is dying of cancer and things are falling apart.  Jojo's mother, Leonie, comes in and out of their lives - when she needs something. Her children are, at best, inconsequential to her, and at worst, active sources of resentment.

Leonie's parents practice what I believe is Santaria - her mother is very knowledgeable about herbs and was a midwife and both she and her husband make "gris-gris" bags - small pouches to protect against evil spirits.  The grandmother hears spirits and prays to some kind of sacred feminine.  Ward's goal is not to educate the reader on this religion - it's just part of the rich history of this couple, which makes it all the more agonizing that they have this gifted daughter who turns out to be a terrible mother and makes horrible choices.

Leonie drags her children a long journey to  retrieve her boyfriend from Parchman Prison - a place where her father and uncle also were incarcerated in the early 20th century.  I was horrified to find out this is a real place and is in fact, still an operating prison.  In case you're not aware of this place, for many years it operated as an extension of slavery well after slavery was outlawed in the United States, and black men and women were arrested for minor crimes and then forced to work long days under inhuman conditions.  Anyway, all kinds of crazy shit goes down during this trip, with Leonie desperately trying to use her kids as props in what she imagines will be the joyous reuniting with her boyfriend while entirely ignoring their physical and emotional needs.

What I haven't mentioned is that Leonie and her son also have the gift of sight - what we are to understand from the Grandmother as the ne plus ultra gift, the one that she herself does not have.  Leonie sees her brother, Given, who was killed by white men in his community, and Jojo sees his uncle Richie, who died in unknown circumstances in Parchman.  Both are overwhelmed by these visions and unsure how to deal with them, and neither mention these occurrences to anyone.  What these spirits, or unburied souls, come to exemplify is the literal embodiment of the destroyed black body in our terrible shared history.  Unable to escape this history, which for Leonie and Jojo lurks and the peripheral of their nearly every moment, they remain plagued by the history of violence and heartbreak that wracked their community.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (that title!) has rightly been nominated for the National Book Award and I think will continue to do very well. Ward's lyricism and tight control of these many and various complex themes is so impressive.  I hope you'll give this powerful book your attention.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I knew I finally needed to pick up a copy.  What a wonderful book it is! Simple but thoughtful, post-modern but very approachable.  He makes big ideas, like what it means to travel through time and space, not like Doctor Who but just like humans living, so understandable, and he makes the immigrant experience, particularly the immigrant who escapes horror and harm, as thank god I have not, nevertheless relatable.

Hamid's characters, Nadia and Saeed, are living in a country that suddenly erupts into violence.  They live there as long as they can, but soon discover they need to leave to survive. They immigrate to a refugee camp, where things are in some ways better, some worse; and again, and again. There's a slight magical realism element to the way they travel which reminded me of elements of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - they approach a door which becomes like a portal.  For a while, they're in a nebulous space, and then they emerge in a new land, sometimes sure of their destination, sometimes not. It's really the only fantastical element of the book and it's beautifully effective and an a spot-on way of capturing not just the immigrant experience but I think most air-travel experiences, honestly.

I came to love both Nadia and Saeed - both of whom continued to defy my expectations - the loving and gentle, religious Saeed who wishes his wife wouldn't wear a full-length black robe. Nadia tells Saeed she wears the gown “so men don’t fuck with me”. She smokes pot and likes living alone.

Hamid also introduces other characters in short vignettes. To me these small asides don't serve much purpose aside from offering hope and showing love in a world that seems overwhelmed with hate.  In one rather remarkable two-page "run-on sentence" a young woman rides a train to stand in a human chain to protect migrants from a militant mob.
... it wasn't until she boarded the train and found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she left fear, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worried they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn't, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered her courage, and she began to walk...
My god! I mean! Could you just!

"We are all migrants through time." Hamid writes this simple sentence near the end of the book, where by then it lands with a thud in your heart, having come by then to think about travelling in a slightly different way. But, it really sunk in for me, the lucky person who's never had to flee her home, during this time where there word "migrant" is loaded with so much controversy.  And it really made me think about how moving forward through time, as most of us experience it, we emulate the migrant experience, sometimes leaving people behind that we love, changing our own goals and aspirations and sometimes modifying what's most important to us.

It was a lovely, lovely book and I highly recommend it.