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Remember when I said (in my last post) that I don’t usually like novels with multiple viewpoints? Frankisstein not only tells the story from different characters’ views (primarily Ry, a trans doctor in contemporary England and Mary Shelley) but also fictionalizes real people (besides Shelley and her friends and family, Ada Lovelace, I.J. Good) and even a fictional character (Victor Frankenstein, imagined as an inmate of Bedlam, and later a guest at a party where he approaches Mary Shelley).  Jeanette Winterson even plays with Shelley’s characters’ names, naming her modern characters Dr. Mary Shelley (Ry) and Victor Stein, an AI researcher.

The book weaves (veers?) between the 1800s, starting around the time Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein while staying in Switzerland with her husband Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire and a doctor, Polidori, and the present, when Victor Stein is predicting (and working towards) a future when brains can be scanned, and “Once you are pure data you can download yourself in a variety of forms.” Ron Lord, a Welsh man who sees his Sexbot business as a public service, and Claire, an evangelical American who convinces him that a line of Christian companions is just what his business needs, join Ry in helping Victor bring his plans to fruition, even as they have no real understanding of what those plans will entail, while a dogged reporter, Polly D, tries to uncover whatever he’s up to.

The name play alone would ordinarily be enough to make me give up, but this book was pure fun, clever without being cute, and full of interesting ideas about how humans have viewed each other’s natural gifts, physical and intellectual, over the last two centuries, and how we use our own gifts to get what we need. The book also explores perceptions of gender, class, beauty, intelligence, sanity, and sex appeal. Its really hard to explain, but as Mary Shelley creates her story, and her countercultural life, and Ry, Victor, and Ron create their stories and countercultural lives, the ideas converge: that who we are is our hearts and minds, our spirits, not our frail physical shells. Or as Victor tells Ry, Ron, Claire and Polly: “And from here follows the story that we all recognise in some form or another. The story told by every religion in some form or another; the earth is fallen, reality is an illusion, our souls will live forever. Our bodies are a front — or perhaps more accurately, an affront — to the beauty of our nature as beings of light.”  Or as he said earlier, “pure data.”

Frankissstein defies easy description. Literary and yet full of shtick, cerebral but sexy, brimming with poetry and yet rooted in the notion that everything is 0s and 1s. It’s a story, on the one hand, of two Mary’s two centuries apart, both defying their roles as women, both loving men who respect their brains but also long for their bodies, both sure that in the end these men will leave them. On the other hand it’s the story of human hubris, of our certainty that we can manage whatever we create, and that we are capable of thinking our way out of anything.

In short, it’s a hoot.

 

This is the last of the seven books I downloaded so that I wouldn’t have to take any physical books with me on vacation. Unless you don’t follow book news at all you probably know that Bernardine Evaristo was co-winner, with Margaret Atwood, of the Booker prize this year. As with “best of the year” lists I have a love-hate relationship with literary prizes. Sometimes I just don’t get the winner at all. Sometimes I think the whole system is rigged and under-appreciated books are further under-appreciated when prizes pass them over, all because of the limited number of giant, wealthy media companies who dominate publishing.

Sometimes I just think the whole idea of picking “winners” is silly. That said, some readers I respect liked Girl, Woman, Other and the reviews I read made it sound appealing. Plus, one of my reading goals is to read work by diverse authors, so, conflicted feelings about literary prizes aside, I wanted to read this.

I’m not always a fan of the multiple viewpoint narrative. Girl Woman, Other features twelve different main characters, and spans several decades. So, I had some difficulty because in eBook format, there is no easy way to flip back to previous chapters about a character, which for me is helpful when a book changes viewpoint several times.  And that is one of the reasons I prefer print books — they are not a technology that needed to be improved upon (paraphrasing Robert Darnton in The Case for Books) and for this reader, work better! Anyway, I think I would have been able to manage the changing perspectives more easily — key when you read in snatches of time during breaks at work, before bed, etc. rather than sitting down to read for a long time — if I’d had the book in print.

Still, Girl, Woman, Other is excellent, and any issue with the multiple viewpoints was my own. The narrative brings these women’s very different stories and lives together, showing how, when, and why they intersect, and where they diverge. The connections grow as you read, so that eventually you get how they all relate to each other. Evaristo writes with warmth and humor and where she examines social issues she is both smart and compassionate. Even though this is fiction, I feel like I learned a good bit about modern British social history, or dusted off what I may have learned in college in some cases, and I appreciated that Evaristo wasn’t afraid to examine feminism’s evolution and divisions.

My favorite characters had slightly less air time than the others (or so it seemed to me): Dominique, because by the end of the book she is feeling a little irrelevant but still wants to keep learning (I can identify), Morgan, because she genuinely cares about her gran and because she is almost an accidental influencer but is trying to use that power well, and Hattie, because she just kicks ass and anyone who sees contemporary Christmas as “Greedymas” and embraces her nonbinary trans grandchild even though she admits she cannot fully wrap her 93 year old mind around “they” is my kind of lady.

The writing is lovely, and there are so many beautiful musings on parenthood — and how painful it is to love children — that killed me. Also so many gorgeous conversations.  And thoughts, like this one: “Bibi replied that dreaming wasn’t naive but essential for survival, dreaming was the equivalent of hoping on a large scale . . . .” Which is helpful, just now in this world. Also, the ending of this book, which brings a few of the characters together in a way I didn’t really anticipate but when it happened made complete sense, absolutely slayed me. I love a book that makes me laugh AND cry, teaches me to be a better human, and enlarges my world.

I was perusing end of the year “best books” lists to see what I might have missed over the past year, and noticed From the Shadows, written by Juan José Millás and translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn. I am still somewhat skeptical of these lists but have learned to read several of them, to get a better idea of the breadth of well reviewed books over the year, and this book came up a couple of times and caught my eye because a) like many Americans, I’ve never read Juan José Millás, whose work hasn’t been widely available here even though he has won many awards in Spain and b) I really admire Bellevue Literary Press, which published this book.

This was one of the library books I downloaded to read on our trip to Utah, but I didn’t read it until we got back. It’s a wild story, but it’s also a novel about existence, really. Damián, the main character, has been laid off from his maintenance job and is passing time imagining himself being interviewed on a popular TV show about his strange and inappropriate relationship with his adopted Chinese sister. He wanders into a market and ends up shoplifting a tie bar with his imaginary television interviewer’s initials on it.  To escape the security guard coming after him, he hides in an old wardrobe. Next thing he knows he’s being transported, inside the wardrobe, to a house in the suburbs of Madrid.

Damián has no choice but to remain hidden — movers place the wardrobe against a built- in closet, and he escapes into that space. From there, he can hear what goes on in the house. Eventually, once he’s comfortable with the routines of the family, he ventures out of the wardrobe when they are out, and begins cleaning up the house, cooking, doing laundry, etc. He becomes a real life media celebrity, albeit an invisible, anonymous one, when he posts on a paranormal enthusiasts’ website as the Ghost Butler and radio shows pick up the story.

So far, funny, if a little sick and sad. Damián, however, is transformed by his secret and invisible life. He begins to wonder if he is really there. And as he becomes less physically present in the world, his mind changes too:

“While he was now struggling to evoke certain mental images, his senses had become preposterously sharp. He could hear a phone ringing in a neighboring home, and pick out airborne smells, and thereby travel the length and breadth of the house with his eyes closed. For his whole being to have been honed to such a degree brought about a sensation of quiet euphoria, and of safety, which, in turn cleared a space for him in the universe, one he’d never had before.”

The story has some twists and turns I don’t want to reveal, which make for some page turning moments, especially towards the end. And yet, From the Shadows examines, as I said, some of the fundamental issues of being human in this world today, and takes a hard look at the societal scourges of selfishness and loneliness. Millás also touches on outsourcing, family dynamics, privacy, media fragmentation, and social status. And the lasting effects of childhood experiences.

I’d even say From the Shadows explores the ethics of love — in part by providing models of self-serving that are the opposite of what love should entail. The choices Damián makes as a ghost are not cut and dried good or bad, however, and his sacrifices aren’t always pure, which would make this a good book club selection; there is much to mull over and discuss. The ending was both surprising and exactly what it should be.

A short, interesting, entertaining read.

Five books on vacation

The Computer Scientist and I just went on a vacation to Zion National Park and on planes and buses and in the evenings when we were not hiking I read five books. This is my idea of a quality vacation — lots of reading time and lots of time outdoors in the sunshine with my favorite hiking (and life) partner.

What did I read. Well, I did something that for me is not ideal, but made sense given our desire to travel light and carry our bags: I downloaded seven library books. I read:

Spring by Ali Smith — possibly my favorite of the seasons quartet so far. What a book! It manages to be completely about right now, and completely about every time we’ve ever failed each other as human beings. And the language! Listen to this: “The air lifts. It’s the scent of commencement, initiation, threshold. The air lets you know quite ceremonially that something has changed.” Is that spring in two sentences, or what? The story is both heart wrenchingly realistic, in describing the beautiful and wrenching story of a longtime friendship and creative partnership that ends when one of the partners dies and the way working in an internment center changes people, and eerily mythical, in describing the improbable, hopeful story of a little girl who manages to very nearly pull off a miracle through sheer force of will, magnetism, and perhaps, a touch of the supernatural. And the ending just breaks, breaks, breaks your heart. An incredible read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — I’d heard so much about this, and was happy to finally read it. Eleanor, too, will both make you smile (maybe even laugh) and break your heart. I was prepared to think the story a bit hokey — a kind coworker turns around the life of an eccentric loner? But it turns out Eleanor is not just some eccentric, but a person much like people you may actually know and work with. And the kind coworker is also a whole person, with faults and quirks even if he has a heart and isn’t afraid to show it. Same for the supporting characters, who are marvelously three dimensional, even the ones with bit parts. A lovely book which will make you remember that every person has a story you may not know, and all of us need a genuine person or two in our lives. And that we all have the capacity to be that genuine person to someone. Although perhaps my favorite part of Eleanor’s transformation is when her friend brings her an abandoned and mistreated cat who immediately makes known her strong views, and Eleanor thinks, “A woman who knew her own mind and scorned the conventions of polite society. We were going to get along just fine.”

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo — I don’t seek out heartbreak in my reading, I swear. But again, what a story. Set in Nigeria, this is the story of a couple who are living with infertility in a culture that values having many children, and that expects a man whose wife does not bear him a son, or at least a daughter, to take a second wife. Yejide is college educated and tells her husband, Akin, before they are even married that she will not be part of a polygamous family. He agrees. But the pressure from family mounts as time passes and she does not get pregnant. Adebayo explores what might happen when a man is faced with trying to please his family and the woman he loves. But when they finally do become parents, it is Yejide’s turn to find herself challenged by the fierce desire to protect both her children and her own heart. I did not see the ending coming, although in retrospect, I should have.  A passage that has stayed with me: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.”

Mitz by Sigrid Nunez — This is a novelization of a true slice of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s life in the late 1930s. Friends of theirs had an ailing marmoset, who had been in a junk shop window when the man saw her and bought her to remove her from the indignity of that existence. When the Woolfs met the poor marmoset, Mitz, she took to Leonard immediately. Shortly after, the Woolfs took Mitz in while her family traveled and Leonard nursed her back to health (he apparently visited the London zoo for advice on marmoset care). Nunez used letters, diaries, and biographies to sketch the few years of Mitz’s life in the Woolf home, and manages to also give us a peek at one of the most famous and fruitful of literary marriages. I knew little about Leonard Woolf and only the main details of Virginia Woolf’s life and death. I didn’t realize how much the Woolfs relied on each other and how many tragedies they had survived (like so many people of their times). I don’t usually go for fictional accounts of real people but I couldn’t resist the idea of a marmoset’s witness to literary history. It was entertaining, and left me interested in reading more of Nunez’s acclaimed work.

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts — Author Powell Watts says of this novel, “Imagine The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.” She doesn’t follow Gatsby exactly, but instead imagines her Jay (JJ) returning home a well off and successful man, to build a beautiful home high above the town he came to as a traumatized teen, and where he hopes to reconnect with Ava, who he has thought of all the years he traveled and worked elsewhere. Ava is not married to a rich man but to Henry, a factory worker. While Ava and Henry are making it in the precarious middle class, they are dealing with infertility, and they are barely separated from the poverty that their parents and grandparents struggled against. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, is a strong figure central to all of the storylines — of her and her daughter’s marriages, of the extended family, of the town in North Carolina where they live, of our times. She is a practical woman, and dispenses what she believes is sensible advice. But Powell Watts notes, “You get old, but the dreams remain spry and vigorous. Swat them and they come back like gnats, like plague. You can’t kill them, they can’t die.” Sylvia, it turns out, dreams as much as any of the young people about what could be, even as she declares they should live in reality.  A book that exposes the fragility of being human, but also shines a light on a number of hard truths about race, poverty, privilege in America.

All five are good reads, well written, thought provoking, the kind of books that work their way into your thoughts days later.

 

A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

I know I’m late to the party on this one; it’s not that I didn’t want to read Educated, but I hadn’t, yet, even though a number of readers I know had recommended it. My son picked up on the fact that I hadn’t read it and got it for me for Christmas. Over the last two days I’ve read it at breakfast and lunch and in the evening. It’s a very compelling read.

Most of you have probably heard enough about it to know the gist — Tara Westover was raised by survivalist Mormons, in a family led by a patriarchal father who suffers from mental illness. Her siblings and she all suffer serious injuries working for him, but their mother is an herbalist and treats them at home. Her older brother manages to get out and go to college, and encourages her. Out in the world, Westover realizes, gradually that she has been living in a world of her father’s making, not in the real world. And that she is a scholar. These realizations cost her everything she’s known, but it’s not a tragic story. What she gains, in her own life and her coming to know her family better, seems to far outweigh what she loses.

In some ways this book is similar to KooKooLandwhich I wrote about last fall. A mentally ill father, a violent home, a girl who never even realizes education could be hers goes far because of the power of her own mind. Both Gloria Norris, who wrote that book, and Tara Westover seem to have a deep well of empathy to draw on, and both trust that their flawed fathers do in fact love their families, despite the harm they cause.

But Westover’s story is ongoing, while Norris’s story has more closure to it — she’s older, her parents have died, but she explains in KooKooLand that her parents and sister were supportive of her telling the truth in her memoir, even if it reflected poorly on them. Westover is younger and her family are still alive and in fact, disputed her story through their lawyer when the book came out. Both women are courageous, but I am especially admiring of Westover’s fearlessness in light of the fact that there are people in this world who wish her ill because she told the truth. And her compassion for those who hurt her, combined with this resolve.

I also find the narrative structure of Educated very compact and clear. This story takes us from Westover’s girlhood through most of her twenties, to the point where she has become educated, not only in the worldly sense, as a historian, but in a personal sense. There are no tangents, or loose ends, no over dramatization (honestly, Westover’s life is dramatic enough already) and a good deal of honesty about what she remembers, what she journaled about, what she consulted other family members and friends about, and what is disputed. It’s also a beautiful book; here’s a bit of the gorgeous prologue that describes the wind in a wheat field, “. . . each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, as is as close as anyone gets to seeing the wind.”

A really good read.

** I kept musing about this book — head over to Nocturnal Librarian to read more.

I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.