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Archive for September, 2020

Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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Another reason to prefer Hoopla to the other library eBook options is that it includes books published by independent publishers, like Bellevue Literary Press. I was intrigued when I heard about one of their recent releases, Moss, by Klaus Modick. As I’ve written here before, I am a fan of reading books in translation; I like finding out what people are reading around the world. And I like being transported not only to the place and time of the book, but to an author’s view of the world that cannot help but be different than mine, by virtue of having grown up in and lived in a completely different culture.

Moss did transport me to another’s view — the main character, Lukas Ohlburg, is an elderly plant scientist, whose memories include his botany professor, Mandelbaum, being warned by other students to “stay on topic” when he referred to the rising fascism in Germany derisively as “pseudomutations of political brown algae.” Lukas is staying in the partially thatched cottage where his family spent summers as he was growing up. And he is reflecting on the ways the work he has done, describing plants in the structured ways of science, is lacking. He writes about this in a manuscript that readers are told his younger brother finds in the house.

To Lukas, the scientific language he has worked with for his entire adult life is lacking, ” . . . in the best case, it says only what grows here, albeit in a soulless and uncomprehending way. Never can it say how, and never with full certainty could it say why.” As he writes, swims, watches the seasons change, and faces his own mortality, he remembers certain key moments in his life that influenced his understanding of the world and devotes himself to really understanding the plants he loves, especially the mosses.

Despite the strangeness and the setting unlike my own place and time, the story seemed familiar, or maybe just resonated because of other things I’ve read that had similar sensibilities. For example, I thought of Tinkers, where the protagonist is traveling through his thoughts as he is dying, although he is in the active stage of dying whereas Lukas is just approaching it. And I thought of The Hidden Life of Trees, which so eloquently describes how our own capacity to understand the world expands if we try to learn how our fellow species understand it. Good books seem more apt to connect in this way with other things we’ve read, and I enjoyed the connections Moss triggered.

There were two points in this short novel that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, which detracted somewhat from the overall effect, but it’s possible I’m just misunderstanding. First, the timeline around the ownership of the house seems off to me. Lukas says his father built it around 1900, and transferred ownership to a neighbor before they emigrated because of the Nazis. He refers to the neighbor giving the deed back in 1947, but also says that the neighbor made sure they never lost possession in “fifty years of forced stays abroad” even though the events of the book, according to the first pages, happen in 1980-81. Probably the emigration occurred in the late twenties or early 30s, but I couldn’t reconcile all these details into a timeline.

Second, although he refers to his brother and he being boys together, and refers to his own old age (and if he was a recent graduate when the family emigrated, that would make sense), his brother has a five year old daughter, and a son who is presumably much older because he has joined the Green Party. I guess that’s entirely possible. But these details that stood out as anomalous distracted me a bit from the meditative parts of the story, because my brain was trying to work out the chronology. I also kept wondering why a man who lived when he did would not mention either world war in his recollections of his boyhood and youth — someone who is old in 1980 would presumably have been alive for both.

Anyway, these were minor distractions. And Moss doesn’t depend on a chronology — in fact, Lukas might say that my trying to classify the order of things is the problem. After all, he notes, “In the botanist’s piercing gaze, science only feeds on and exploits the fullness of the world. The gaze I search for must, instead of viewing nature as leading from an inseparable wholeness to a cataloged system, see it flow through that system back again into its original fullness.” Throughout his life, Lukas “. . . found such a gaze only once among my colleagues — namely in Marjorie’s eyes.” She was a young Scottish exchange student he loved, who left Germany because of fascism’s rise. Now, as he is completing his life’s work alone in the woods, learning from the mosses he has studied his whole life, the gaze he seeks comes to fruition and it is not only his own gaze, but the mosses’ and trees’ that help him see.

There are lots of mosses around our house, on the ground, trees, rocks, roof. When I see them now I’ll think of this book and the way that humans explain themselves into truths that are limited by our own minds and our relentless desire to categorize and classify — a desire I relate to. Perhaps paying closer attention to mosses, without giving into the desire to explain them, and as I said in my previous post, making eye contact with our fellow species, would benefit us more in the long run than relying so heavily on what we can prove.

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Although I own a print copy of H is for Hawk, I listened to it as an audio book; I’m not much of an audiobook listener, but if I was still driving to work every day I probably would have tried the audio of Helen Macdonald‘s new book, Vesper Flights, because she is an excellent reader. As it is, I was delighted to download the library eBook on the day the book was released, which was lucky. I don’t love e reading, and it takes me longer than print, but while I’m not going to physical libraries, I’ve been pretty happy with the selection of new (and some old) books on Hoopla, which doesn’t have holds and long waiting lists like Overdrive or cloudLibrary. 

Vesper Flights is on Hoopla so I got it right away. It’s a collection of essays, some of which are reprinted and others, new. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it didn’t matter much to me which were which. She writes about the natural world, and many of her pieces are about birds, but as in H is for Hawk, she tends to tie what she’s learned or observed about nature to observations about human nature. 

For example: “So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present moment, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about history. They are able to show you the last five hours, the last five days, and the last five centuries, all at once.”

And: “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken. And if you’re watching urban falcons, this is not a distant world, but one alongside you, a place of transient and graceful refuge . . . . The Poolbeg site is about as far as you can get from a thriving natural ecosystem, but the act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair. Matters of life and death and a sense of our place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.” 

Brexit and the awful conditions for refugees in Britain make their way into some of the pieces. So does climate change. But though there is plenty to be anxious about in human behavior, Macdonald examines the way we take solace in animals and suggests we consider what we don’t know. In the final piece in the book she notes, “. . . the more I’ve learned about animals the more I’ve come to think there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.”

She cautions that the way we experience the world and the way the other inhabitants we share it with experience it are not only different, but beyond us. We can’t feel or experience what other creatures do. She explains, “Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone.”

But Macdonald doesn’t think this means we can’t experience a real connection with other creatures. Yes they are not us, and we are not them, but we do share the places where we both live. She describes a moment when, feeling worn out with worry and computer time, she steps outside and as a rook flies over, and they make eye contact. “Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.”

To enjoy this book, I’m afraid, you’d have to be open to this idea. And to the idea that we are negatively impacting nature by our inattention and self absorption and greed. I would hope that those ideas are commonplace, but that’s probably overly optimistic. I enjoyed it very much. I don’t know when I’ve made eye contact with anything wild other than insects and squirrels that I’m chasing away from my garden, including one squirrel who very well may have nibbled through two strands of solar lights on our deck. I plan to be more deliberate about noticing. I have a feeling that making eye contact with birds and other wild creatures might make us all less self-absorbed.

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