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Archive for February, 2019

I am not exactly certain where I got Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but I think it was either a library free cart or sale. I hadn’t read Jeanette Winterson before. This was her first novel and I’ve seen it described as “semi-autobiographical.” It’s a coming of age story about a girl growing up the adopted daughter of an evangelical woman in northern England. Jeannette (the character, not the author) loves her mother, who tells her stories and teachers her music and tells her she’s destined to be a missionary. And she is part of her mother’s church family, mainly a group of women. Men are not at all central to the story, except for Pastor Spratt, a missionary and leader in her mother’s church, but even he appears sporadically.

When Jeanette is small, her mother is the star she orbits. When the school sends a letter saying Jeanette must attend (her mother had previously kept her home, calling school “a Breeding Ground”), she begins to see herself, and her mother, for the first time through the world’s eyes. As a teen, she falls in love with another young woman and this sets up the rest of the book’s drama as her mother and the church deal with this revelation and Jeanette chooses her path. Along the way Winterson writes at times affectionately, at times critically, and often humorously of the church people who form Jeanette.

The book’s chapters are named for books of the Old Testament, and there are legends and stories woven into Jeannette’s narrative. I especially liked the story of Winnet Stonejar, a young girl who becomes a sorcerer’s adopted daughter and apprentice. Jeanette is a careful observer, and Winterson gives her space to reflect, towards the end of the book, on her upbringing: “I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it . . . . As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and love me until death and know love is as strong as death and be on my side for ever and ever.” That goes on and develops into a beautiful reflection on why men find love challenging, why she can’t measure her own need, and what betrayal means. I can’t quote the whole two pages but it’s really wonderful and you should read it.

Altogether a good read, the kind that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

 

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I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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The director of marketing at my college, who also teaches a communication course, asked me to order The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. It turns out this book discusses many of the things I’m studying in my “Science and the Media” course right now. The title might lead you to think this book is about fake news, but it goes far beyond that, covering the many ways that real information can be manipulated or shared selectively in ways that alters what people think.

A couple of things stood out for me as I read this book. First is something we talk about a lot in the library world — inaccurate or misleading information is a far greater problem than outright fake news. Really fake news — like the Pizzagate story — is often sensational and headline grabbing, and we usually indulge in some collective hand-wringing after one of these stories explodes. What’s more dangerous, and Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall detail this carefully in their book, is deliberate or even inadvertent spread of information that is factual but shared in ways that give people the wrong idea. For example, the tobacco industry knew it couldn’t undo or entirely discredit the research linking smoking and cancer, but decided on a different strategy, as summed up in a memo that O’Connor and Weatherall quote: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the public.”

In other words, the tobacco companies not only didn’t care that their product caused cancer, they also worked to make the public doubt the truth, so they could go on selling cigarettes. The book goes into a fair bit of detail about their misinformation campaigns. It wasn’t all through advertising — they recruited scientists to do research and then shared only what they wanted to from the results. So it wasn’t untrue, but highly selective, and it deluded people into thinking smoking was healthier than it is.

That is the root of The Misinformation Age. O’Connor and Weatherall share mathematical models that explain how scientists and others share and assess information. The way we do this — ostensibly to get to the most accurate view we can of something — is informed by a number of psychological tendencies related to how we decide who and what to trust. When bad actors, like the tobacco industry, or other commercial or political operatives, interfere with the way we receive information, we sometimes never even have the chance to reach the right conclusions. The second thing that stood out for me as I read is that these social influences impact not only the public, but also experts in science and the media, often slowing, if not completely obscuring, these experts progress towards truth.

And this is a book that doesn’t shy away from the idea that there is such a thing as truth. O’Connor and Weatherall are philosophers of science, so they come from a science perspective, but it’s worth remembering that many fields also boil down to this: there are facts, which encompass what happened, when, where, and with whom, which can be measured, quantified, described and verified. And then there is how we view the facts. Truth is the raw material, and our conclusions can contain the truth but are not themselves necessarily the truth. So when we take in only selected facts, or facts that have been manipulated to help us reach a particular conclusion, or facts produced in a particular way to benefit a particular person, group, commercial or political entity, we will form views based in only part of the truth. Online media (both traditional and social) makes it very easy to package truth according to a particular frame or value and share it widely.

And that is much harder to fight than “fake” news. As O’Connor and Weatherall note, “Merely sussing out industrial or political funding or influence in the production of science is not sufficient. We also need to be attuned to how science is publicized and shared.” This means watching out for balance bias: “If journalists make efforts to be ‘fair’ by presenting results from two sides of scientific debate, they can bias what results the public sees in deeply misleading ways.” I recently gave up listening to national NPR coverage because I’d had it with how often someone is invited on air who has prepared talking points that are not based in fact, and then is allowed to say those things without the reporter or host being able to note that the view expressed is unsubstantiated.

Las week I did tune in to an NHPR show, The Exchange, to hear a show on vaccinations. I was delighted that the host and the panel responded to uninformed callers the way media should — they acknowledged that the anti-vaxx view exists, and then calmly and factually explained why it is unsubstantiated. The host of the show even responded to a caller who claimed the show was on- sided by noting that because of the level of consensus among medical professionals that vaccination is safe, effective, saves lives, and eradicates disease, it would be wrong to present “both sides” as if they are equal. This is responsible media. Especially in reporting science, rather than creating the false impression that all theories have merit, the media should explain when a consensus has been reached, how certain it is, and what conclusions can be drawn, even if it means discrediting views that aren’t evidence-based.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a tough read, and you’ll be angry when you’re through — after all, you are part of this: “Public beliefs are often worse than ignorant: they are actively misinformed and manipulated.” But you may feel better equipped to seek evidence and resist misinformation, which is good for all of us, after reading this well-documented, well-reasoned book.

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I liked The Essex Serpent so when I saw that Sarah Perry had a new book out, Melmoth, I was excited to get it for my library. It’s different than Perry’s earlier book, but like that one, hard to characterize. It’s the story of Helen Franklin, originally from Essex but a longtime resident of Prague and a translator. When the book opens, Karel Prazan, “who constitutes precisely half her compliment of friends” stops her as she crosses the Charles Bridge over the Vlatva River and tells her he has something to tell her, a file to show her.

They go to a cafe and he begins to tell her about another researcher who like Karel and Helen, frequents the National Library. This man, Josef Hoffman, has recently died and left Karel his file on Melmoth, the Watcher. Melmoth or Melmat is a mythical woman who is witness to people’s worst moments. Hoffman’s file contains myriad accounts of her presence in various parts of the world and various times, including rural 16th century England  where heretics are bring burned at the stake to Turkey at the time of the Armenian genocide to Nazi occupied Prague. Karel is quite overcome by her story, and Helen soon becomes wrapped up in it too.

As the book unfolds, we learn that Helen not only has almost no contact with other people, but also she sleeps on a bare mattress, dresses only in plain, drab clothing, and denies herself all but the minimum of sustenance. Towards the end of the book we learn why, and there is what seems to me an unlikely closure to her story. I was telling a friend today I did not enjoy the ending very much — it felt like Perry was trying to draw in a few last threads and I felt the final Melmoth story could have come before Helen’s final part of the story and things would have flowed better.

Still, the friend I chatted about it with helped me make more sense of it than I’d had when I read it. A character from Helen’s earlier life appears in Prague and that seemed unlikely to me, but my friend noted that if the book is about your worst moments stalking you it makes sense that this character had to show up. Melmoth bears witness, but she also serves as a reminder of each transgressor’s guilt. Without her, these painful moments would not necessarily fade from memory, but they might be pushed away, as Helen has managed to push away what haunts her and live carefully within a routine. Melmoth forces her to actively remember. Just when it seems she’s pursued Helen to the breaking point, there is a tiny gleam of hope. And then at the very end of the book, it seems as if, with no one else to torment, Melmoth turns to us, the readers . . . .

A strange little book, a good read, full of interesting places and people, not without a bit of discordance.

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I came across two references to Giovanni’s Room recently, one in an article about reading fiction to deal with current reality, and the other, a re-post of the New York Times review from 1956 when the book came out, at Literary Hub. At some point in college I’d read some of James Baldwin‘s essays I think, but not his fiction. It seemed like time.

My library has a good bit of older fiction, so we had it on the shelf in an original $0.60 Dell paperback. I could have read it in a couple of sittings, given the time, but I’ve had a lot of reading and writing for grad school, so it took several evenings. If you’ve never read it, I recommend reading it through rather than splitting it into several shorter readings — the impact, I think would be greater.

The book is the story of David, a man old enough that his father thinks he should have settled down already, an American abroad in Paris. The whole book takes place on the evening before his former lover, Giovanni, an Italian who was tending bar when David met him, is going to be executed for murder. David is spending a sleepless night drinking and recalling his time with Giovanni, his early recognition that he was attracted to men, and his attempts to live as a heterosexual man, including only recently leaving Giovanni for Hella,  a woman he planned to marry.

David and Giovanni have a brief affair but one that profoundly impacts David. At first he is amazed by the way Giovanni so freely and openly loves him. But eventually he reverts to his old emotional pattern of shame and dread. Having grown up in America where being gay is not only scorned, but illegal, he has never felt anything else about his own sexuality.  Ultimately though, David’s shame isn’t simple self-loathing, it’s also tied up with confusion he feels in not really being able to reconcile who he is with who he feels he should be.  When he tries to live into this perception he holds, he ends up being more like what he dreads — heartless, thoughtless.

His recollections show how shame can infect every aspect of someone’s life, their aspirations, their relationships with family and friends as well as lovers. And Baldwin is an incredible writer, whose descriptive passages amaze even as they repel, as in this section describing a woman David has just taken to bed to forget his conflicted feelings about Giovanni and Hella: “She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety — as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.” Is that not the most gorgeous writing about something terrible?

Some of the conversations about what men and women are like are hard to read; perceptions of gender in society haven’t really progressed much, I fear. And the story is obviously emotionally difficult. But although it can be wrenching it isn’t bleak, even at the end when David is alone. He will go one, it seems, even if he isn’t any surer how than he was before: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope . . . .”  It’s dreadful for now, but there’s a sense David will survive.

I think I’ll be mulling this book over for some time.

 

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