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Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl is a book that caught my eye when it came out. I skimmed a review (librarians do, you know — we have a lot of reviews to get through) and read that it was about monarch butterflies and birds and insects. That sounded good, and the subtitle, I thought, referred to species in decline, and someone who loved nature. Sounded great.

I missed the fact that it’s the story of Renkl’s family as well, mainly her family of origin but also somewhat about her life as a mother and spouse. When I started reading I was mildly annoyed by the structure, which weaves back and forth between natural history and family stories. But eventually, this grew on me, as the book seemed to weave themes together, like the spiders or birds whose webs and nests Renkl admires.

It’s a beautiful book, which is the other reason it grew on me. Renkle admires ” . . . he red-tailed hawk fluffs her feathers over her cold yellow feet and surveys the earth with such stillness I could swear it wasn’t turning at all.” And describes finding herself outside in college, when she “headed out” after weeks in which she “followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria.” As she walks away from the crowds and into “red dirt lanes” that remind her of her childhood, she says, “I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense of the glory that was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once — feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where dark and light exist simultaneously.”

That is not precisely the way I picture eternity, but that’s a minor quibble. Renkl’s writing is lovely. I could see the places and creatures and relatives she described, and could empathize with the emotions she described. And she doesn’t glorify things; her descriptions of early motherhood, caregiving for frail and ill elders, and grieving are not prettied up, even if the words she uses are a delight. The experiences she relates are things most of us go through, but don’t necessarily reflect on the way she has.

A good read, thoughtful and serious, but also humorous in places, moving, and evocative.

A new colleague at work recommended The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater to the One Book, One Manchester committee.  I read it over a few nights before bed and the only problem I have with it is I got less sleep — rather than drifting off after a few paragraphs or even a few pages, I kept reading, wanting to know what happened.

Otherwise, I loved this book. It’s the story of Sasha and Richard, two teens in Oakland California. Richard, an African American young man, is a student at Oakland High. Sasha is a white agender senior at Maybeck, a small private school. As Slater notes, “Each afternoon the two teenagers’ journeys overlap for a mere eight minutes. If it hadn’t been for the 57 bus, their paths might never have crossed at all.”

In a moment that changes both of their lives forever on November 4, 2013, while Sasha is sleeping on the bus, Richard, who has been goofing around with some friends, lights the edge of Sasha’s skirt on fire. This book tells their stories before that moment, and after. It’s an incredible story both because Sasha and Richard are not unique — there are teens like each of them all over this country. And because Sasha and Richard — and teens like them all over this country — are unique.

Slater explodes the idea that there is equal justice under the law, which frankly is an idea that had already imploded on its own. But she also portrays people in the criminal justice system fairly, neither demonizing or lionizing them. And she also manages to make both Sasha’s middle class, educated, liberal parents and Richard’s working class single mom fully human rather than stereotyped representations of their types. The opportunities denied Richard and provided to Sasha are spooled out naturally, as part of their stories. Slater does not club readers over the head with the truth.

But she does make clear that despite Sasha’s suffering, they were ultimately ok. And that despite Richard’s imprisonment, he was also ok. And she celebrates the generosity, compassion, and kindness that Richard’s mother and Sasha’s parents exhibited towards each other and towards their children. You’ll learn about what Sasha and their friends think about being nonbinary, what Richard thinks about being a young black man in Oakland, how they each tried to get what they needed at their schools. And you’ll learn about the media’s influence on a crime’s narrative, and how that impacts what the offender, victim, and their friends and families experience. And about restorative justice, an alternative to criminal proceedings that is about addressing the harm done and how to repair it.

I think this is a beautiful book. It’s honest, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful. Slater did a great deal of research and spoke at length with all the people she writes about. I thought it was a terrific read, and would make for good discussions.  In an interesting twist, Slater’s charge to readers comes at the end of the very first brief chapter, rather than at the end, and it has stayed with me: “Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.”

Of course she doesn’t mean me, or you. She means us. There must be something we can do.

My grandmother used to find mysteries soothing. If the news was bad, or she was worried about something, she felt there was nothing like a good mystery. Arguably the news is perpetually bad, but I’m also worried and/or preoccupied by a good many things at work and home. A good friend of mine used to tell me that after work, all she wanted was a book with a body in it. With that advice, and my grandmother’s, in mind, I picked up Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, which I bought at a small used bookstore in Prescott, Arizona, last fall when I visited family after a conference.

I first found William Boyd’s work at the Five Colleges Book Sale. I picked up Armadillo in part because it was a Penguin Street Art edition and the cover caught my eye (to the Computer Scientist’s continuing amazement, I sometimes buy wine that way, because the label caught my eye). I’ve kept an eye out ever since for his novels when I’m at sales or used bookstores, because I loved Armadillo, which opens with a man coming across a dead body and unspools the impact this has.

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts in a similar fashion. A young man, Adam Kindred,  through sheer chance, chats with a stranger in a restaurant, realizes he left a file behind, tries to return it to him, and ends up interrupting the man’s murder. He tries to help the man, who dies, and even in his shock, realizes that he, Adam, will be taken for the murderer because his prints are now in the man’s apartment and even on the murder weapon.

Boyd imagines what it would take in a modern city, in this case London, to disappear. Those who don’t use services the rest us take for granted like credit cards, ATMs, phones, etc. become “invisible or at least transparent, your anonymity so secure you could move through the city — uncomfortably, yes, enviously, prudently, yes — like an urban ghost.” As Adam becomes a ghost and tries to understand the circumstances that led to his new life, we meet Rita, a police officer called to the murder scene; Mhouse, a prostitute who tries to both fleece and help Adam; Jonjo, former soldier turned assassin whose life is permanently changed by the interrupted murder; and Ingram, CEO of the small pharmaceutical firm that was developing a new asthma drug based on the murdered man’s research.

Boyd brings these disparate lives together as Adam works to return to a fully human life, if not nearly the life he once had. Most of Boyd’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad. He manages to elicit occasional sympathy for Ingram, the privileged CEO, who is desperate to restore at least one relationship in his mostly shallow life; and occasional contempt for Adam, who can be ruthless even though he knows what it’s like to be utterly lost because of others’ ruthlessness. In my view the ending left room for a sequel, although I couldn’t find any evidence that Boyd plans to write one. Readers are left with Jonjo vowing to exact revenge and Adam unsure of whether to tell Rita his full story. among other loose ends.

Despite this untidy ending — which is probably truer to life than a neat ending would be — Ordinary Thunderstorms is a satisfying “book with a body in it.” It was a page turner but also made me think about lives quite different than my own (in different ways). It was an interesting book, with a lot of insight into contemporary London, the pharmaceutical industry, and human social structures. And, it took my mind off the many things preoccupying me. A good read.

 

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.