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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

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 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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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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As lockdowns dragged on in late spring 2020, Yiyun Li and A Public Space led a worldwide read-along of War & Peace, which they called “Tolstoy Together;” I wrote about it here. SInce then they’ve led other worldwide reads, now called #APStgeother, which culminate in a virtual conversation about the book. It’s been very interesting and enjoyable to participate in some of these (see my posts about Persuasion and Hue and Cry). This spring, two years’ into the pandemic, Yiyun Li was back, inviting the world to read Moby-Dick, a book she explained that she first delved into at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson and has read annually ever since. One helpful aspect of #APStogether is the plan: each author suggests a reading schedule for their selected work, which makes approaching a sprawling classic like Melville’s tale of the white whale much less intimidating. Moby-Dick took a month, and I found that the daily selections were easily read during my lunch breaks or in the evenings.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you might still know something about it, such as the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” that has spawned a million riffs. What you may not know is that this novel, now considered one of the greatest in American literature, was more or less a flop during Melville‘s lifetime. In his lovely celebration of the book, Why Read Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains that it sold only 3715 copies between its publication, when Melville was in his 30s, and his death at 72 (it had already gone out of print by that time). He credits the brilliance of the book as the secret to its longevity:

“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”

Just as Starbuck, the mate on the whaleship Pequod, is unable to stop mad Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of revenge on the white whale, even though Starbuck knows it will bring danger to the ship and its crew, so America was unable to prevent the madness of slavery and racism from rending it. Philbrick notes, “As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears and hatreds in us all.” Which makes this book, written in the 1850s, relevant in every age, including today.

Both Philbrick’s book and Li’s zoom discussion also touch on Melville’s writing. Philbrick notes, “In its willful refusal to follow the usual conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, Moby-Dick possessed the experimental swagger so many authors were attempting to capture in the years after World War I.” Li referred to the novel as “messy” (as does Philbrick) with no emphasis on a narrative arc, a book that contains what she called “a whole universe” that requires readers to “float along with Ishmael” as he digresses from the loose tale of Captain Ahab and the journey of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick onto a wide range of topics that are both factual and philosophical. Li noted that the book is “craftless” — and that this is an important lesson to writers, that a novel “doesn’t have to be finely crafted to be good.”

As he examines everything from the specific details of whaling to the mysteries of the human mind and spirit, Melville is often poetic, as in this line describing Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” And philosophical, as in “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” He not only muses about death and the afterlife, but also revels in the minutiae of Ishmael’s here and now.

So, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, give it a try. Read it slowly, a little at a time, and with a guide such as Yiyun Li or Nathaniel Philbrick to steer you through its turbulent seas. Find someone to read it with you, to talk it over. And enjoy!

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I read Black Buck on a trip, straight through in a few hours. It was everything I’m looking for in a good read: smart, entertaining, thought provoking, funny, both heart-breaking and uplifting, ultimately about love and full of Truth with a capital T. Mateo Askaripour quit his day job to write, which is super inspiring. This is his debut, and he notes it “was written just for Black readers, though white readers are welcome to ‘come along for the ride.'”

Black Buck opens with a note from the main character, Darren Vender, known as Buck. He tells readers he wants to teach us how to sell, but he particularly wants to teach Black people how to sell. To white readers like me, Buck says, “I want you to think of yourself as an honorary Black person. Go on, do it. Don’t go don blackface and an afro, but picture yourself as Black.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that a) that’s why I read, to put myself into another life for a few hundred pages and try to learn something about being human from their perspective and b) I’ve been working on being antiracist and one way to do that is to try to understand the experiences of people of color from their points of view. So I appreciated this invitation.

Buck is a delightful narrator. He is honest about himself and his own foibles. He’s a lot like most of us — good at some things, bad at others, mostly kind but sometimes hard-hearted, a good son, boyfriend, and friend . . . except when he isn’t. Askaripour makes it clear when the novel opens that Darren is also someone with untapped potential; he’s 22, was a valedictorian at a magnet school for science, but he’s working in a Starbucks, moving up, but not really fully fulfilling the promise others saw in him as a teen. And still see in him: Rhett Daniels, the charismatic leader of a tech startup called Sumwun that aims to upend the mental healthcare world, recruits him one morning in the Starbucks.

Rhett is wealthy, successful, narcissistic, and from their first encounter, seems brash to the point of being somewhat unhinged. Initially, Darren isn’t interested. Pressured by his girlfriend and mom to at least hear about the opportunity, Darren, nicknamed Buck during his sales training week at Sumwun, ends up getting drawn into the tech startup atmosphere — the swag, the free food, the partying, and frankly, the success he enjoys in sales. But he is also aware from day one that there are no other Black employees at Sumwun, and that Clyde, the man who trains him, and others at the company expect him to fail. Rhett, however, believes in him, even seems to love him, and Buck is flattered. Who wouldn’t be?

As you can guess, this is just the beginning of the story. As Buck spends more and more time with his Sumwun coworkers (which reminded me of this great article on why workplaces should not call themselves a “family”) he spends less with his mom and girlfriend and friends he grew up with. As in any coming of age story, Buck faces some trials — some bad things happen in those relationships — and then he has to show what he’s made of. Some reviewers called this “formulaic” to which I would say, go read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; human storytelling has patterns, which make storytelling and listening/watching a delight when done well, as it is in this novel. Anyway, in the process of realizing he could help a friend he nearly left behind in his precipitous climb to wealth and success, Buck ends up inadvertently starting a movement. Which, as sometimes happens in real life, makes him the target of some pretty nasty folks.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by giving too many details, but I will say, what makes Black Buck uplifting even though it shines a light on all the excesses of capitalism, consumer culture, and gentrification, and the sins of racism, ableism, and other kinds of bigotry, is that Buck grows as a character. In the process, Askaripour examines the classic conflict of whether to take action against the forces of evil in our world with kindness or to fight fire with fire. His characters — and Buck is great but there are many terrific minor characters who advance the action in the story in different ways — make the social commentary happen, a la Jane Austen, which means you get so caught up in the story that it helps you understand the issues at hand. The ending is a bit wild, but unfortunately, probably not unrealistically so.

Ultimately, Black Buck is about a young man growing up in a world where inequity of all kinds stacks the deck against him and many of the people he cares about, who learns that what will really make him happy isn’t just doing well for himself, but being part of a community that can do well together. And that his own success will be richer for being part of something that helps others; Buck learns that there is no zero sum game when it comes to opportunity. (Yep, here is where I tell you again: read The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee). And as I mentioned, it’s also really funny, and a love story. If you’re looking for a good read, this is it. If you want something for your book club that is both a great deal of fun and also ripe for discussion, again, this is it.

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I didn’t set out to read two novels in a week. I was planning to read Ann Patchett‘s The Patron Saint of Liars because the NH/VT chapter of the Companions was having its annual mystery and theology discussion and this was one of the book choices. Then Anthony Doerr‘s Cloud Cuckoo Land became available and I’d been on hold for it for over two months, so I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read it. So read them both, one after the other, rather quickly.

If you are a reader you’ve likely heard of both of these authors. Cloud Cuckoo Land was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall and was on a lot of the end of the year “best books” lists. Although it came out in September, I have heard more about it lately from other readers, especially our older son, who got it just before Christmas and had been telling me I’ve love it. His recommendation was the reason I had placed a virtual hold through the library.

Longtime readers of bookconscious may recall that I didn’t love All the Light We Cannot See. But I really enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s the story of several characters dispersed by both geography and time whose lives are connected through an ancient Greek comedy called Cloud Cuckoo Land. That book is Doerr’s invention, but on his website he talks about the phrase, which is from a real Greek work. In his novel, Doerr tells the stories of:

— Anna, a girl in 1400s Constantinople and Omeir, a boy who is drafted with his oxen into the Ottoman military to sack the city.

— Zeno, a Korean War veteran who decides late in his life to try to translate the known fragments of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

— Seymour, a neurodivergent boy whose love for nature, and in particular an owl in the woods behind his grandfather’s derelict trailer catches the attention of his teacher and a librarian, and also causes him to be radicalized by ecoterrorists.

— and Konstance, a girl from a future time whose family are part of a small group chosen to populate a space ship headed for an earth-like planet where people will try to start over after earth becomes uninhabitable because of climate change.

There are some notable minor characters, in particular a librarian named Marian who makes the Lakeport Public Library a place of welcome and refuge for Zeno (who was also looked after by Lakeport’s librarians as a child) and for Seymour and all her patrons. Seymour’s mother, Konstance’s father, and Omeir’s grandfather also stand out.

The stories are all very compelling, and Doerr’s language can be beautiful. This sentence describes Zeno: “All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk— Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him.” And this describes a daybreak Konstance sees: “In front of her, out on the horizon, the blue rim of dawn is turning pink, raising its fingers to push back the night.”

I think this sentence captures how the novel communicates a kind of “chastened hope” (a phrase Ellen Davis uses to describe the narrative arc of the bible in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture). In Doerr’s fictional worlds, horrible things happen, but individual people are often generous towards each other. He acknowledges the capacity for greed and even evil, but suggests that those will not prevail. Doerr addresses how the poor and people with disabilities — a cleft lip for Omeir, some kind of neurodivergence for Seymour — are treated by others in society. He also comments on our inability to understand that we’re harming the earth and on our inadequate response to climate change, some of which seems to be ceded in the novel to a large technology company that might be a fictional stand in for Google. People suffer because of all of this. But the innate kindness of most of his characters, even misguided Seymour who atones for his ecoterrorism later in life in some very interesting and benevolent ways, speaks to Doerr’s sense that our “interconnections” can help us.

Which is probably one of the themes of The Patron Saint of Liars. I didn’t like the book very much when I started it. Perhaps because I didn’t give myself time to properly think about Cloud Cuckoo Land and I wasn’t ready to jump into another novel yet. The Patron Saint of Liars is the story of Rose, a young pregnant woman who realizes she doesn’t love her husband and leaves, driving halfway across the country to St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in tiny Habit, Kentucky. There she meets Sister Evangeline, an elderly nun who cooks badly but has a gift for seeing into people’s souls. And June Clatterbuck, whose father found a miraculous spring in the family pasture which attracted people to this rural place, including a wealthy Catholic couple who built a hotel for visitors to the springs and then during the Depression donated the hotel to the church.

When one of the girls decides to hide her labor so she’ll have her twins at St. Elizabeth’s and get an hour in the ambulance before giving them up, Rose unwillingly goes along. The experience seems to move something in her and she wanders out into the snow to try to process what she’s been a part of that night and what will happen when her own baby is born. Son, St. Elizabeth’s caretaker, finds her in the snow and offers her a different future. From that pivotal evening, Rose finds her way onto a new path.

The book is also about Sissy, who grows up at St. Elizabeth’s, and Son, who came, like Rose, not intending to stay and ended up making a life there. Our discussion was very interesting — several women did not feel Rose was a sympathetic character nor that she experienced any growth or redemption. My sense is that she was dealing with deeply ingrained shame, the loss of her father, and a mother who did not really treat her as a daughter, but as a friend; I felt like she saw staying as a kind of penance, and that she loved her daughter and provided what she thought would best prepare her in life, having not felt at all prepared herself. The Patron Saint of Liars is an interesting story with a lot to discuss and a number of unresolved threads at the end. One person said she wished there would be a sequel.

In addressing any theology we saw in the book I wondered if three of the women might have represented a kind of feminine trinity after another participant pointed out that Sister Evangeline might represent Christ. I could see June as the Spirit and Mother Corinne as a kind of Old Testament version of God. But what I didn’t say in the discussion is that the theology of The Patron Saint of Liars is that we’re all interconnected and we have to care for one another. (You thought I’d forgotten that — the way this book and Cloud Cuckoo Land are similar? Nope, I was getting to it.)

I think Patchett is telling us, as Sissy and Sister Evangeline understand, and I think Rose ultimately did as well, that we are all signs from God for each other. Rose very much prays for a sign at the start of the novel, and at the end, Lorraine, a girl who has come to St. Elizabeth’s to have her baby, is praying to Saint Theresa for a sign. But Patchett’s story shows that even Rose, whose connections to others don’t look like what we expect from a wife/daughter/mother/friend, cannot avoid the fact that her life is deeply connected with others’ and that if we stop looking heavenward and start looking at those whose lives we touch and who touch ours, we may see the signs we seek.

Perhaps because of this, I ended up liking The Patron Saint of Liars more than I thought I would. The language is relatively plain, but still quite evocative. Take this passage, for example, where Sissy is describing Rose:

“My mother talked in her car.

If there is any explanation for this in all of science, I can’t imagine what it would have been. She didn’t talk in my father’s truck or the nuns’ station wagon. She didn’t talk on buses. But in that blue Dodge Dart that was hers alone in all the world she sat comfortably. She folded her legs beneath her. She even put her foot up on the dashboard for a minute. She smiled and stretched and said whatever came into her head. It was almost like the car was her house, only she was never like this in her house.”

If you’re looking for a good read with a lot to discuss, either one of these novels would be a good choice.

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I realized when I was writing about The Quiet Boy that I had not read Underground Airlines. I really like Ben Winters‘ writing and if you’re a longtime reader of bookconscious you know I’ve read many of his books. So I looked in my library eBook platforms and checked it out. I loved it and will buy it so the Computer Scientist can read it too. I am guessing that life was hectic when Underground Airlines first came out; I remember seeing it and meaning to read it. Anyway, I’m really glad I read it now!

As with several of Winters’ other books, this novel is partly a mystery, partly speculative fiction, and deeply humane. I’ve said before that readers can learn a thing or two about being human from his books; that is the case with Underground Airlines as well. It’s set in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president, and Congress subsequently passed a series of compromises and a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to remain legal and regulated in the South. By the time the novel takes place, only four slave states remain. The main character, who goes by the name Victor, is an escaped slave who works for the U.S. Marshall service, tracking others who have escaped.

When the book opens Victor is in Indianapolis, working a case. He meets a young mother, Martha, and her child at the hotel where he is staying. As he draws closer to finding the person he’s tracking, he finds himself helping Martha, and also revisiting memories he’d rather forget. Just when he thinks he’s solved his case, things fall apart, and now it’s Martha’s turn to help him. Winters uses their friendship to shine a light on the racism pervasive even in the abolitionist north. He seamlessly comments on inequity, “nice white people,” corporate greed, political dysfunction, and violence, but it’s not heavy handed. All of this fits into the story.

Which is compelling — I was nearly late for work one morning because I thought I could just finish a chapter I’d stayed up too late reading and when I looked up, I had ten minutes to feed the cats, get dressed, make coffee, grab a piece of toast, and fly out the door. Winters’ characters are complex people; there is no simple good guys/bad guys divide, and even the ones you root for do some things you wish they wouldn’t and vice versa. Winters gets that people are imperfect and sometimes act in surprising ways. Reading his books, I always get the sense that he is hopeful about humanity.

Underground Airlines is a terrific read, and it would be a great book club pick. There is a lot to unpack. I also think this would make a terrific movie or TV series. When I described it to the Computer Scientist he said it sounded like it has a similar vibe to Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle. I don’t know as I haven’t read that book or seen the show, but I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I get how the two writers could be compared.

Also, Underground Airlines ends with Victor trying to track down Martha’s partner, Samson. I would love to read that story! The final lines of the book left me wondering about a sequel. Earlier in the story, more than once, Victor or his handler express that “everything happens,” alluding to the fact that slave or free, black Americans are always in danger. At the end of the book, Victor has flipped that narrative and is hopeful about the chances of finding and freeing Samson: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible.” Could there be more in store for Victor and Martha?

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Yep, those are two very different books. This is bookconscious, I’ll manage to find some connection – stay with me.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde. I read Sister Outsider for my class on Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition. The book is a collection of Audre Lorde’s essays, conference papers, and talks, first published in 1984. Lorde considered herself a poet, as the introduction by her editor, Nancy Boreano notes, but she is also a powerful prose writer. Lorde writes about the many facets of her own identity as a Black lesbian feminist and about the failings of movements that advocate narrowly for the liberation of just one segment of society. She was critical of feminism for not also fighting racism and classism, and of womanism for not lending support to gay and lesbian people. Like so much else that I’ve read lately, the parts of Sister, Outsider that spoke most to me were those addressing the institutional root cause of our divisions: capitalism.

As Lorde explains in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinding Difference:”

“In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. . . . Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” Ironically, this wastes human capital, as Lorde notes, because the the outsiders are the ones who have to explain themselves to the dominant class: “There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Like Pauli Murray, Lorde was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality, critiquing the reproduction of oppression in marginalized groups that inhibits liberation for everyone, critiquing the lack of racial cultural and socioeconomic diversity in women’s studies and academia, and recognizing the power of creativity in helping people work towards a freer society. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes, “It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

The essays on Lorde’s visits to the Soviet Union and Grenada are also very interesting and educational (the invasion of Grenada always baffled me, and I see it now in the context of US imperialism in Latin America), and bookend the collection. An interesting, thought provoking read. I wonder what Lorde would have to say about the rifts in human rights movements today? Her critiques unfortunately are still needed today, and it seems to me she would call on people to stop reproducing hierarchies of oppression within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities as well as other progressive movements. I feel like she would appreciate The Sum of Us. Plus, she was a librarian! I look forward to really thoroughly processing her teaching in class.

Now how on earth am I going to connect Audre Lorde with Ben Winters? Well. The characters in his book, The Quiet Boy, are in one way or another victims of the same profit-over-people economy that Lorde cautions us to resist. That’s as far as I’ll go to push the connection right now.

Still, when I’m reading a book that requires studying — careful attention and thought, followed by processing what I’ve read and considering where it fits into the other reading I’m doing or have done, how it relates to the course, what learning it offers, what work I still need to do — it’s nice to have a mystery to read before sleeping. Like working a puzzle, reading something that swiftly moves your brain from clue to clue can be a great release. But this is no pat mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with reading those). Ben Winters is an author I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, and his books are always intriguing and thoughtful. This one was interesting for me to read as I now work in a hospital, and the plot revolves around a lawyer trying to win a malpractice trial after a boy named Wesley hits his head, is operated on, and is a shell of himself, walking endlessly in his room without speaking or interacting in any discernibly human way with those around him.

The lawyer, Jay Shenk, is hired again by Wesley’s family over a decade later when his father is accused of murdering the scientist who served as an expert witness in the malpractice trial. Throughout the book, Jay’s relationship with his son Ruben, and the impact of the two cases on Ruben’s life, are the focus. A mysterious man and his small band of followers are convinced that because of his condition, Wesley is the key to bringing about a “good and golden world” and this little existentially motivated cult play a key part in both cases. This twist is provocative in the best way, as are the themes Winters treats so well: the nuances of ethical behavior, family relationships, the impact of those who’ve died (or become walking shells of themselves) on the living, what it is that can transform humanity into a better version of itself.

One of the things I love about his books is that people I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, like a policeman (in his Last Policeman trilogy) or an “ambulance chaser” lawyer like Jay Shenk shine as not only fully human but also deeply empathetic characters. Winters gently challenges readers to look beyond the exterior of the “usual suspects” that appear in his books, and he manages to make the familiar pattern of a mystery (which is comforting for many readers; we like mysteries because they fit into our deeply grooved mental binaries of good and bad) and expands it to something much more complex and thought provoking and even instructive.

You can learn a thing or two about being a better human from Winters’ books. There you go. Another way reading Audre Lorde connects with reading Ben Winters.

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Last summer I read Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, and this week, I remembered that McConaghy’s second book came out in August and I could check it out as a library eBook. I’ve been reading some heavy stuff — Pauli Murray’s memoir, books about theology and capitalism — and I wanted a good story to fall asleep with. Once There Were Wolves met that need, except instead of falling asleep reading it, I stayed up too late because it is a good story.

I will say, it’s not for the squeamish. McConaghy’s work could be called ecofiction; both books deal with environmental degradation, climate change, and species loss. But in addition to examining the darkness of the world and our utter hubris when it comes to nature, she also explores the darkness within her characters and their lives. In Once There Were Wolves, there is less environmental degradation than in Migrations, where nearly all wildlife is gone. Once There Were Wolves seems to be set in a time more like the present, where species are depleted but things haven’t yet reached the grim state of Migrations. But, the characters in Once There Were Wolves are facing all manner of human darkness.

The main character in this novel, Inti, is an Australian biologist working on a rewilding project, bringing back wolves in the Scottish Highlands, where they were hunted to extinction. She has a rare medical condition, mirror-touch synesthesia, which causes her to feel physical sensations that other humans — and in her case, also animals — are feeling. In addition to facing the opposition of local people who are afraid the wolves will kill their livestock, she and even more so her twin sister, Aggie, lives with the trauma and grief of having experienced violence and loss. Inti is also drawn to Duncan, who is her neighbor, the local police chief, and a fellow trauma survivor. McConaghy makes clear how much trauma impacts not only its victims, but also a community, especially when it’s a small rural place like the village near Inti’s wolf project. When a local man disappears, some believe a wolf attacked.

All the trauma was a bit much right now, as COVID seems to circle ever closer. Still, the combination of interesting ecology and rewilding information, a strong sense of place, some resilient and sensible folks who are in favor of the rewilding, and the mystery at the center of the story kept me reading. I found a few plot points just a step too unbelievable towards the end, but hey, it’s fiction. And actually, if we’ve learned one thing in the past few years, it’s that strange, even unbelievable events are really a part of life. McConaghy’s writing also drew me in. Here’s a passage where she describes Inti watching a wolf pack:

“I spend the morning watching two of them play, one with a long white swan feather, which brings her no end of joy, waving it between her teeth and batting at it with her paws, while the other — the male alpha — dances with the shadows of clouds for hours on end. Old male Number Fourteen, our oldest wolf, watches them serenely, while vigilant Number Ten stalks the riverbank, up and down, mesmerized by something in the water. The more I watch them, the more I understand that I will never know what happens inside a wolf’s mind. I won’t even come close. I smile at the foolish teenager in me who thought she could discover their secrets.”

Definitely an entertaining read.

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I was looking at the shortlisted Booker prize nominees the week the winner was announced and came across this video of Rowan Williams talking about No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I adore listening to him explain what a social influencer is. And to the way he explains that in this funny but serious novel, the narrator’s “social media prattle is somehow enlarged, extended, deepened to try to cope with an experience it’s really not designed for.” Which kind of sums up the book: in part one, the narrator is busily commenting on the world from within “the portal” — Lockwood herself is very active on Twitter, and that seems to me to be what the portal is based on — sharing thoughts and images that veer from profane to profound and back again. In part two, her mother sends her a couple of texts asking her to come back home, because her sister has learned that her unborn child has Proteus syndrome.

The narrator still describes the world the way she did when her whole life was the portal, but her whole life now is her family, especially her sister and niece. Which is what Rowan Williams is talking about — the “prattle” exits the portal and enters the experience of this family trying to live with what’s happening. Someone who became famous for posting “can a dog be twins?” and laments that the world is so messed up, “that people had stopped paying attention to celebrity dogs” now describes her baby niece: “Her face was luminous, as if someone had put flesh on the bones of the moon, and her beautiful blue eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.”

The narrator comments, “That every person on earth might be watched in that way, given a party whenever she waved and raised her little arms arms, breathed just like the rest of us.” She notices her own response, too, in much the same way she noticed her own presence in the portal before, “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life. She was a gleaming sterilized instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency . . . . She wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!”

Lockwood is a poet, and this novel’s style is a cross between poetry and “social media prattle” (I am really pretty obsessed with that characterization). The narrator observes society, comments on the human condition, and wonders at our capacity for dealing with love and loss. She is also someone who “loved to yell, loved to be inconsistent, loved to make no sense in the little awestruck hours of the night, which stared up at her as a perfect audience with their equal little heads.” She can be both absurd and brilliant.

No One Is Talking About This is definitely one of those books that is its own thing, not like anything that’s come before it. I found it funny in places and tender in others. And I was so intrigued by the time I got to the end that I checked out Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. It’s a book that leaves you wanting to know more about the author.

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