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Archive for May, 2022

I’ve had The Buried Giant on my to-read list for a long time, since a volunteer and avid reader at the public library where I worked when it came out recommended it. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve read other novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, and loved them. The Buried Giant was also on the list of Tookie’s recommended books at the end of The Sentence and was available relatively quickly from the library’s eBook app. Yes, this is the same person writing who, pre-COVID, moaned a fair bit about how far superior paper books are. I still prefer them, but have come to appreciate library eBooks during the pandemic.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got around to reading The Buried Giant. Unlike Ishiguro’s other dystopian books, this one is set far in the past in England, after King Arthur has died and there is a fragile peace between Saxons and Britons. Right from the start of the book, when we meet the elderly protagonists Axl and Beatrice, it’s clear that this peace is not all that peaceful. While there may not be open war, there is suspicion even within individual settlements. Axl and Beatrice live in a “warren” of a village — shelters carved into the earth — and are forbidden a candle because someone has managed to convince the leaders that they might accidentally start a fire. So even neighbors suspect each other. And there is at least an uneasiness about strangers, and in some cases, open hostility towards them.

This makes the old couple’s decision to travel several days’ walk away to visit their son seem quite strange. Although Beatrice has experience with part of the journey because she’s been to a Saxon village with other women to trade, neither of them really knows the way. They, like everyone else, seem to have difficulty remembering the events of their earlier lives. Axl and Beatrice suspect this is because of a mysterious mist that impairs them. Still, they gain permission to travel and set off.

It’s a strange journey right from the start. Early on they come across a boatman who ferries people to an island where every inhabitant thinks they are entirely alone unless a married couple can convince the boatman under separate questioning that their “bond of love” is particularly strong and has been so for their lifetimes, in which case they may be granted an exception (it’s all hearsay) and live on the island together. There’s no mention of younger folks or parents and children or friends or any other kind of love. The boatman Axl and Beatrice meet is being harrassed by an old woman who feels she was deceived and misjudged in this process, whose husband is on the mystery island while she remains on the mainland.

Then they come to the Saxon village Beatrice knows, and learn these folks have been having problems with some kind of super ogres, called fiends. Because he comes home with a nasty bite, they turn on a child who was carried away and later rescued by a warrior, a Saxon trained by Britons. Axl and Beatrice end up continuing their journey with these two strangers, the boy and the warrior. The four agree to travel together at least as far as a monastery in the mountains where Beatrice hopes to get the advice of a monk known as a skillful healer, and the boy is to go on with them to their son’s village.

Let’s just say the trip gets even crazier once they are a party of four. They come across the last of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, now elderly himself, and still on his last quest, to slay a dragon. He becomes entangled in their stories, and at this point none of the other characters are quite what they seemed. Even Axl is not the simple laborer he seemed to be when the book opened. They visit the monastery, which may actually be an old fort, ad find the healer, who is even more wounded himself.

As if all of that isn’t strange enough, as each character’s memories slip in and out and pieces come together, we learn that the mist was something Arthur thought would hold the peace together. The idea was that if people could not remember atrocities, they wouldn’t seek revenge. This was necessary because Arthur’s noble rules of engagement, which required his knights to engage only with other knights and not allow anyone else to be harmed, had not held together. I won’t spoil for you the source of the mist or whether or not it remains. But its hold seems to lessen as they travel, just as when we’re out of our usual element, we may think of things we haven’t in some time. And that reveals enough to help us get to know the characters a little more.

We also learn a little more about Axl and Beatrice and their son, although not enough to really understand entirely where he is, how he came to live there, what their reception will be if they find him, and whether the boy will be welcome wherever he is. The island (or an island — we learn there may be many of them) comes back into play as a possible destination. We revisit the question of whether Axl and Beatrice could meet the boatman’s test. They reassure each other many times on the journey that their love is strong and others observe their “unusual devotion to each other” but we also get hints of past disagreements, even possibly betrayals. Ishiguro keeps us guessing about what their memories might reveal if the mist is lifted and how that might impact their journey.

Is this a fable about collective memory, war, tribalism, xenophobia, and the danger of relying on charismatic leaders? Perhaps. Is it a story about the realities of a long marriage, the way bonds may be tempered rather than broken by challenges? Or is it about about forces — cultural, political, or even simply human nature — that cannot be overcome as we try to direct the paths we’re on? Is it about surviving those forces? It may be any of these. Or it may just be a good story, a little bit unsettling but lovely and mysterious and someone even reassuring?

A good read might keep you wondering what it was about long after you get to the final page, and this is one of those reads. It would be interesting for a book group to wrestle with the many questions that arise.

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I admitted to some well read friends recently that I have never read Louise Erdrich before. What? Well. Now I have. The Sentence is a hoot. It’s also a love story — about a man and a woman, about families, about indy bookstores and their loyal customers, about community. It’s also a tribute to all the people who’ve ever worked for a better world, especially the American Indian Movement and the George Floyd protestors, but also just folks who make their loved ones special food when they’re down, or who recommends something good to read, or hold up an ipad so loved ones can visit with the hospitalized. I loved it.

The main character, Tookie, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a very strange crime involving a dead body and unrequited love. Her lawyer recognizes she had no idea of the fact that there were drugs planted on the body, and even though the judge (in Erdrich’s brief but searing critique of our justice system) is merciless, the lawyer works tirelessly to get her sentence commuted. When she gets out, she marries the guy who arrested her, her childhood friend, Pollux. In November 2019, Tookie is working in Birchbark Books (Louise Erdrich’s real bookstore; she even writes herself into the story), when one of their regular customers, Flora, dies and starts haunting the bookstore, especially when Tookie is there. The rest of the book follows the events from that fall to the next – including the beginning of the pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and the Black Lives Matter protests – and how Tookie manages it all — the haunting, lockdown, essential worker status, Pollux’s daughter moving in with them with her new baby.

In the book as in real life, Birchbark’s “staff is of either Native background, or exceedingly Native-friendly” (from the store’s website). They’re also a real community, and several of them help Tookie figure out what’s going with Flora. The sentence of the title is a clue — she died reading a rare journal entitled The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1888. Tookie comes to believe the very sentence she was reading as she died has something to do with her death. Then there is Tookie’s sentence, which changed the trajectory of her life and of a few others’. Reading it now, a couple of years after George Floyd’s death — a man who like other BIPOC people in America was sentenced to living in a racist country — and also the decisions early in the pandemic which sentenced millions of Americans to die unnecessarily of COVID; I can see this novel is also about those sentences.

Tookie is not an optimistic or sunny person; she is a survivor of many traumas. She says about herself fairly early in the book:

“I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they cannot afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.”

What matters? In Tookie’s world, it’s love, it’s family and community, it’s certain customers, it’s the way her grandson jarvis at three weeks old, “saw that what was left of my heart was good and loving.” It may be many other things. Truth, and freedom, and ancestry, and respect and honor. This book, and many others, does contain those things, though. So I am not sure what Tookie means. Unless it is that everyone comes to their own conclusions about what matters. But she herself says that books have helped her with that, so it’s a mysterious statement.

The Sentence is a terrific book, a quick but deep, thoughtful, and actually very funny read. And, as a bonus, it contains a whole lot of recommendations from indie booksellers about what else to read.

I also finished reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, for a book discussion at church. It’s the story of a visit Tutu made in 2015 to Dharamsala for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. He had invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa for his own 80th, but the government there, to please China, denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Abrams and the two holy men’s teams arranged to film the visit and to produce this book as well as a film. It was not just a social call, even though the two men love each other and delight in each other’s friendship. They were working towards producing a legacy, something the world could use long after they have each passed away to apply their teachings about joy — what it is, what gets in its way, how we can nurture it, and why practices meant to increase our own joy can also leave the world better than we found it.

One of the remarkable things is that exile from one’s country and political repression are not obstacles to joy. Neither is such suffering redemptive, in their minds — it is instructive, it teaches us to find compassion for ourselves and others experiencing similar suffering. These two wise elders make note that joy is a reservoir to draw on, that we can tap by connecting with the “pillars” of joy: shifting our perspective, thinking less of ourselves and focusing on others, having a sense of humor, accepting reality in this moment (again not to give up on change, but to recognize the present is what it is), forgiving, being grateful, being generous, and nurturing the compassion that we are all born feeling for others.

None of this is rocket science and if you’ve studied mindfulness it may not be new, but the joy of these two men, as they joke and share and answer questions, makes this book unique. You don’t have to be religious to find it interesting; the Dalai Lama in fact says that after 3000 years of trying to teach people to be compassionate through religion maybe it’s time to try something else (he proposes education). And their teachings are especially poignant now, as we are experiencing a spring COVID surge and both the number of deaths from COVID and from guns in our country — all entirely preventable — is overwhelming.

This book isn’t about turning away from sorrow and suffering, or tuning them out to focus on joy. Abrams explains as they are getting ready to leave, “. . . the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more — incredibly — we are able to bear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This was their true secret to joy.”

A hopeful read, and there are detailed guides to practicing each of the pillars I mentioned. In the past twenty four hours I found the teaching about tonglen — giving compassion and taking suffering — useful although I need a lot of practice.

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I heard about Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Dr. Suzanne Simard in April when folks from different parts of my life recommended it within a short time. I always take that as a sign I should read something, when I get multiple recommendations! I’d heard that Richard Powers based his tree scientist character in The Overstory on Simard and her work, and that intrigued me as well. Simard is a forest ecology professor at University of British Columbia, and she is a world renowned researcher, as described on her website:

“Suzanne is known for her work on how trees interact and communicate using below-ground fungal networks, which has led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or Mother Trees, which are large, highly connected trees that play an important role in the flow of information and resources in a forest. Her current research investigates how these complex relationships contribute to forest resiliency, adaptability and recovery and has far-reaching implications for how to manage and heal forests from human impacts, including climate change.”

What I enjoyed about Finding the Mother Tree is that Simard doesn’t dumb down the science — there are what seem to me to be fairly detailed explanations of the discoveries she made and the experimental designs she devised to carry out that work. At the same time, she also tells stories, about her family’s history as small scale loggers, about growing up loving the forests and mountains of Western Canada and exploring them with her siblings, parents, and grandparents, about working in the forest service and realizing that what was happening — clear cuts and then monoculture plantings — was not beneficial either to the forest or to the timber industry, and about the coworkers and mentors who encouraged her to follow her instincts, learn to be a scientist, and conduct her research.

Many of the stories are about the disrespect and misogyny Simard experienced, as Powers depicts in his novel. Simard described these parts of her life without bitterness; if anything she’s a bit hard on herself for not speaking up more firmly. Considering the imbalance of power, it’s understandable, and her work speaks for itself. Despite people reviewing her already peer-reviewed work and sniping at her rather ungraciously because what she proposed was mind boggling and also a threat to the establishment, her research has not only held up but become more and more widely accepted. And she also writes about the many people, in the timber industry as well as in forest ecology and just the general public, who have thanked her and appreciated her work as well.

Simard really captures the excitement, as well as the hard work, of doing science. She also captures the challenges of trying to lead the life of a researcher and professor and still be the mother she wants to be to her daughters. She writes with great vulnerability about the pain of strained relationships and the struggle to manage the many aspects of her life, to be whole. And about what it was like to undergo treatment for cancer at the height of her career as well as at a formative time in her daughters’ lives.

Like many of the other books about ecology I’ve enjoyed (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Braiding Sweetgrass, The Hidden Life of Trees, to name a few), it’s SImard’s philosophy that really drew me in and that makes this book, in my view, a crucial addition to the popular science literature of our time. She writes:

“It is a philosophy of treating the world’s creatures, its gifts, as of equal importance to us. This begins by recognizing that trees and plants have agency . . . . By noting how trees, animals, and even fungi — any and all nonhuman species — have this agency, we can acknowledge that they deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves.”

Simard doesn’t say we shouldn’t farm, fish, or use wood products; she is calling for us to shift our mindset from one of seeing the world’s resources “as objects for exploitation” to seeing those resources in terms of “taking only what gifts we need, and giving back.” This more sustainable way of seeing nature, “Of showing humility toward and tolerance for all we are connected to” is similar to what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in Braiding Sweetgrass, and to what Ellen Davies suggests in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is at the root of both Hebrew scripture’s teachings about land stewardship and agrarian literature. Gratitude, humility, a willingness to share, and a sense of wonder and responsibility towards all of creation, are found in many cultures and traditions, and are key to caring for humankind as well. That Simard brings these sensibilities to forest science is a real gift to the world.

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I adore Ali Smith‘s writing; if you’ve been reading bookconscious for a while you’ll know I read her seasons quartet and loved each book, and I’ve read a couple of her other books as well. I was very excited to see that Smith had a new book out in May, Companion Piece. Like many of her other works, this novel features women artists. One, Sandy/Sand, living in contemporary England during the pandemic, gets a phone call from a college acquaintance, Martina, who aggravated her then and still seems to now. Martina tells her a strange story about being detained by British customs with a rare lock she’s bringing to the museum where she works, and asks for Sand’s help understanding what happened. Sand is contending with the social mores of her time during the COVID pandemic, worrying about her hospitalized father, caring for his dog. The second woman is an unnamed young blacksmith who is exceptionally good at her craft, but has no family and loses her home and job when the smith and his wife in her village die. She is contending with the social mores of her time, during the plague pandemic centuries earlier. This woman appears in the modern portion of the story as someone who comes into Sands’ house unexpectedly, with a curlew who also accompanies her in her own time.

Is there meant to be an actual visitation of someone from the past, a touch of magical realism in this novel? Or is this simply a story Sand tells Martina to satisfy, in a way, her strange out-of-the-blue request, as Sand later tells Martina’s daughters? Smith writes, “I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end to the girl, except that she went the way of all girls. Same with the bird, other than it went the way of all birds. If any of this ever happened, if either of them ever existed.”

Why include her in the story? This young blacksmith’s sense of self reliance flies in the face of a patriarchal society that teems with mistrust and dissent in a time when people contended with outbreaks of plague and also with enclosure — the practice of taking common land away from the people and placing it under the sole control of the local aristocracy, which consolidated power and wealth and was also, according to some historians, the end of a cultural connection to the land and the source of the first “satanic panics” in Europe. Not only does she survive, but in Smith’s telling, the girl has many supporters in her community who respect her abilities and subtly help her. Smith reminds us that the official narrative of repression, punishment, and labeling (she’s literally branded with a V for vagabond, a mark for others to know where she fits in society) isn’t the end of the story.

Meanwhile in Sands’ time, Martina’s twin daughters show up at her house accusing her of ruining their family. Sand lets them in, welcomes them in a way. They don’t leave. They don’t wear masks and she can’t get COVID and risk sickening her father, they meddle with her life, her house, her stuff, but rather than call any authorities or make a fuss she does her best to engage with them, and when they won’t go, she goes over to her father’s house. This would be impossible to fathom, she remembers conversation when she was much younger with her father as they were listening to a song about people showing up at your door. Her father says you should “Invite them in. Put the kettle on. What else are you going to do?” When she rolls her eyes he goes on, “And by putting the kettle on I mean polite. Welcoming whatever’s happening, whatever’s going on. That’s resistance too.”

It’s a weird thing, though, that she lets this maddeningly rude family temporarily displace her and use her. They’re really awful, they threaten her. She remains calm and simply explains she told their mother a story, and why. They accuse her of being a liar, and she says “People who tell lies are only interested in the enslavement of their listeners to some cause of their own.” Which really describes politics and commerce in our time, and also the shifting narratives of why we have to open things up during COVID to protect our economy, or why we were told to go shopping after 9/11 to defeat terrorism. Sand also doesn’t need to be right. She muses at one point, “I knew nothing really, about anything or anybody. I was making it up as I went along, like we all are.”

To me, Sand represents the potential we all have to resist — she resists being estranged from her dad who is grumpy with her and has been dismissive of her work as an artist. She resists feeling angry towards her mother, who left when she was a small child. She resists being dismissive herself, of Martina or her rude family. She’s resisted living the way “everyone else” lives — doesn’t have an online presence, not even a website. She resists being disheartened by the people who act like COVID’s over. She finds stories in what’s happening in the world, rather than bitterness. She uses words to enlighten, to enlarge. For me, Sand and the blacksmith are both examples of people living freely in a world that tries to constrain our freedom, through economic and political controls that are meant to divide people in ways that consolidate power. And symbols of a kind of humane resistance, a put-the-kettle-on resistance, that we’re told regularly doesn’t exist. Just think of how often you hear that we’re living in a polarized world.

Companion Piece is beautiful and thought provoking, and also like all of Ali Smith’s work, just a glorious master class is the use of words. Smith not only plays with meanings but with the sound and variation of language — even the title, is it about companionship, is it about being a companion book to her quartet? It’s a lovely read, and I found it a hopeful one. We should all live more like Sand.

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Just a little light reading about climate change and racism, right? Actually, here’s the thing: you can become better informed and learn about being a better human without feeling badly. In fact, feeling guilty or ashamed, according to social science research, can actually prevent people from making progress. So yes, you can read and even enjoy reading books that explain where humans have gone wrong on things like treating our planet and each other well, and help readers learn what to do to be part of the solution.

Next week, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action is discussing Saving Us: a Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing by the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Katharine Hayhoe. When I was working on open educational resources advocacy in my previous job, I often joked that I could talk about OER with anyone, anytime. That is Hayhoe’s approach to climate change conversations, and this book is her manual for anyone who wants to get better at this. You might be thinking, why does it matter if we talk about it? Isn’t it too late? Or as the former teen the younger said to me the other day “people have been getting ready to talk about climate change my whole life.”

Again, turning to social science research, it turns out that what we tend to do when there is a huge, seemingly intractable problem is feel powerless, which causes us to withdraw from the issue. Talking with others helps us feel less overwhelmed and better able to contribute to solutions (the fancy term: we increase our sense of efficacy). I wrote about this for my science communication master’s dissertation as I was researching how to best to support the rollout of a household carbon footprint tracker. Quick aside: while households alone can’t cut enough carbon to stop climate change, we can, if enough of us pay attention to reducing our use of fossil fuels, make a significant dent in the U.S. output — five household activities (electricity use, home heating, transportation, food, and waste (yes, trash)) in the U.S. actually make up around 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions for our country. But even better, research shows that learning about your own carbon footprint and working to reduce it can make you more likely to advocate for the systemic, societal changes we need to really mitigate the impacts of climate change and have a more sustainable future for the planet.

What does all this have to do with talking about climate change? EcoAmerica has found that 45% of Americans are “very concerned” about climate change . . . and that jumps to 75% if you include people who identify as at least somewhat concerned. But only 14% of us think other people are “very concerned.” So we currently have a perception gap that keeps us from reaching out to others, sharing solutions, or talking about how important it is to us. If we can bridge that gap, it’s more likely we’ll come together in our communities, and beyond, to work towards sustainable actions.

Hayhoe provides some great examples. First, a man in England showed her a list that has grown to twelve thousand people at the time she wrote the book, all folks who joined conversations about climate change that he started having after he saw Hayhoe’s TED talk about the importance of talking about this. That’s twelve thousand people who starting thinking about what they could do to help. And, the borough where he lives declared a climate emergency and committed to funding a sustainability effort, as a result. All because he listed to her advice to talk with people.

Another example is “solar contagion” — research that confirms what you may have noticed, that once a homeowner installs solar panels, neighbors often do, too. Not because people like to be like others (although we do) but because it becomes easier, once you can stop and ask, “Who did you hire? How’s that going? What do you recommend?” Hayhoe noticed people were intrigued by her plug in electric car when she got it. Seeing someone in your immediate sphere do something you couldn’t imagine doing makes it imaginable.

Saving Us is full of examples like this, plus all the details about climate science, social science research, expert advice, and data to help equip a budding climate communicator. But even better, it’s full of Hayhoe’s practical, open-hearted, very relatable anecdotes about her own conversations. She shares the actions she’s taken in her own life, modeling the idea that by sharing, she can help readers take actions too. And it works. I hadn’t gotten around to figuring out a worthwhile way to offset the impact of flying; I took Hayhoe’s suggestion and gave to Climate Stewards to offset a recent flight to see my dad.

Finally, the book ends with a nice summary of how to apply what you’ve learned from reading Saving Us, summarized in Hayhoe’s “secret formula” for climate communication:

“I have good news. There is a way to talk about climate change that works. You don’t need a PhD in climate science. You don’t need a bulletproof vest. And you don’t need antidepressants, either. In fact, chances are you’ll know more afterward than you did before; you’ll have a better understanding of the person or people you’re talking to than you did earlier; and you’ll be encouraged rather than discouraged by your conversation. So what is this secret formula? It’s this:

bond, connect, inspire.”

She suggests ways to open a conversation, and how to ask questions to learn more about what folks care about or are interested in, notice where you can find common ground and shared values, and talk about what you’re doing and learning and are excited about. Throughout the book, right up to the end, Hayhoe doesn’t sugarcoat our situation or gloss over how serious climate change is, but she makes it clear that ordinary people are not alone but instead are working alongside millions of other folks around the world who also want to make sure we have a more sustainable future. It’s a helpful read, and I really can’t recommend it enough, for everyone!

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed was on a lot of best books of 2021 lists. My Me and White Supremacy alumni group decided to read it before our June meeting so we can understand the holiday better. Gordon-Reed is a historian, and her book reminded me that reading history doesn’t have to be dry and dull. On Juneteenth weaves together historical and cultural information about Texas and its people, especially people of color, and Gordon-Reed’s family history and her own experiences growing up in East Texas. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, history, and social commentary that is illuminating and thoughtful.

If you think you know about the Alamo, about Texas history or about America’s war with Mexico, even about western movies and Giant in particular, this book will likely open your eyes to how these topics are skimmed in school textbooks and have been told mainly from the point of view of white people. Gordon-Reed is very generous in her critique of this, but sets the record straight. As she explains:

“About the difficulties of Texas: Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so. How that is done matters, of course. Striking the right balance can be exceedingly hard.”

Gordon-Reed does it very well. This book is so much more than a cogent explanation of the significance of Juneteenth. It is a snapshot of what it is to think deeply about history and one’s place in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and also highly recommend it.

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Siobhan Phillips‘ debut novel novel, Benefit, reminds me of a skit Eddie Izzard does about British films where he says the action consists of a character saying something like “I guess we better had,” and a pause until another character says “Yes, we rather shall.” It’s more of an indie film character driven kind of story rather than a plot driven story (that is not a critique — I happen to very much like that kind of film). The benefit of the title is for a foundation established by the widow of a sugar magnate that provides paid fellowships for students wishing to study at Oxford or the Sorbonne. The main character of Benefit, Laura, was the recipient of one of those scholarships. When the book begins, it’s ten years later, and she has been laid off from her adjunct faculty job and is moving back in with her mother. Her friend Heather, who has had a successful career working for a consultancy, asks her to write an essay for the foundation’s benefit. It’s unclear why a foundation whose original funds came from a sugar fortune needs to have a benefit dinner, but the event draws Laura back into the circle of people she knew at Oxford.

Other than Heather, she hasn’t kept in touch with many of the other fellows. She is the lone literature scholar among them, and her dissertation is on minor characters in Henry James. She loves research but feels that this work is somewhat pointless compared to the accomplishments of her friends. This is perhaps my favorite part of the book — that Phillips shows, through the story, what capitalism does to undermine the value of intellectual or creative work. Laura feels badly about herself because she likes working hard at reading, writing, and thinking, at piecing together research. And she has the least stable work of anyone from her group of fellows because of her preference for this kind of work. Phillips does provide glimpses of what else gives Laura this sense of inferiority, including her family status, and body image,but her occupation is the key to her suffering, both psychological and financial.

For much of the book she enjoys researching the foundation, it’s mysterious widow benefactress, and the exploitative and corrupt sugar industry which yielded the inheritance she gave to fund it. For example, history books talk a lot about cotton, but slavery on a sugarcane plantation was in some ways even worse; similarly the sugar industry pretty much wrote the book on corporate subsidies and buying politicians. Phillips provides sources for Laura’s work at the end of the book. And yet, even this new research path, which Laura follows thoroughly and with relish, leaves her feeling inadequate, and questioning whether her work has any worth.

Or worse, whether any of us can do anything that’s any good. At one point Laura muses, “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you. Or all three.” I think this admirably captures the sense of helplessness that recent history has awakened. Major historical events that happen during Benefit — the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars, the 2008 economic crisis, the occupy movement and its failure to bring about lasting change, have created a sense for many people that Laura is right, there is no way not to be at least tangentially involved in the things of this world that cause other people, and potentially yourself, harm. If you’re among the people who’ve wondered why young people seem so angry — that’s one of the big reasons. They’ve seen that our institutions, systems, and ways of operating are founded on cruelty or will crash or have no use for them, or all three. That’s really spot on.

And it’s what makes this an interesting book. Some of the minor scenes — like a class for people working in “student success” and an interview with one of the sugar widow’s last surviving relatives that turns into an avante garde portrait sitting — are slyly humorous. Most of the characters are not particularly likeable, but I did root for Laura, and hoped she would find some peace and a way to support herself; there is a sense that she has a mentor who can help her regain her sense of herself, but we don’t learn that until close to the end of the book. And yet, despite a glimmer of support, this is a fairly bleak book, where the characters and society generally don’t seem to be heading for redemption. They’re satisfied, but they’re mostly, other than Laura and her mother, pretty self absorbed. And there was a lot about one of Laura’s friends, Mark, in the beginning that led me to think he’d be pivotal later on. He wasn’t, which I guess is true to life as well — how many of us, existing on the periphery of the brightest lights in our social circles, really never connect with them in any meaningful way?

Anyway, an interesting read, and it’s always good to see what Bellevue Literary Press is up to!

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