Calm before the storm

Four years ago, the day before Trump was elected, I remember clearly what I was doing. I spent the day finishing off the last book in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, which is a superb series of books built around a very small change in history, as the title suggests. In this timeline, England made peace with Hitler in 1941 – which England came so close to actually doing that this other version of the world feels so close you can actually touch it. England succumbed to fascism and the world changed.

Except the world didn’t change, really, for the protagonist of each book in the trilogy. Not at first. Not so noticeably. The first book of the trilogy, Farthing, starts out like a Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie story, what I like to call a puzzle box plot. A puzzle box plot is the sort that starts out looking a little opaque, but gradually the author guides you through all the missing pieces of the narrative and everything resolves with a nice satisfying snick at the end. The box opens at the author’s capable touch and oh, look, there is the solution inside. All threads neatly tied up. You read the book, you smile, you go on with your life.

Like I said Farthing is not a puzzle box mystery, it just tricks you into thinking it’s one by using all the right tropes. We find ourselves in the English countryside, in the latter 1940s. There is a gathering of the upper crust at a manor house. There has been a mysterious murder, in the night. Enter a police officer, come from the city to interview everyone and get to the bottom of things, arrest the guilty and tie up the story in a neat bow, maybe with a little bit of social commentary on the way.

Or that’s what you expect to happen (what I expected to happen). That’s what the police officer expects. Instead, gradually you realize that this is a world where England is now ruled by fascists, and that this quaint country house with its parties is what rule by fascists looks like: terribly ordinary, on the surface. Dig underneath just a little, as the police officer does, and the puzzle box opens to reveal not a solution but a yawning chasm of horror that none of the characters are willing to look at directly. There are no resolutions to be had, here. Instead the police officer guides us through the realization that bad circumstances can cause good people to compromise their very souls.

There is a point in the third book of the series, Half a Crown – each book follows that same police officer, Peter Carmichael — a very memorable point where Carmichael, who does not have many avenues through which he can resist the fascists in charge, finally falls apart in the form of a silent scream. I remember getting to that point in Half a Crown, the day before Trump was elected, the last day I spent not knowing that Trump would be elected but I was still paralyzed with dread, paralyzed by the terrible news cycle of the previous months, the natural disasters and the mass shootings, mixed with Trump’s awful rhetoric, feeling that we were all sitting in the path of a runaway train. Carmichael emits his silent scream. He does eventually find a kind of redemption, later, a redemption tinged by loss, but that was the moment that stuck with me, later: that moment when you finally admit how horrible everything is except you don’t have the words, you don’t have a voice, all you have is a silent scream.

I don’t think I quite know how to blog anymore, this feels like a very early 2000’s activity, from back before the internet got a bit horrible and most of social media an amplification tool for the very worst of human nature. I remember when I used to happily blog every last detail of my life, back when the internet seemed to have about 20 people in it and all of them just wanted to talk about books. I am not sure why this is the tool that I turn to, on the day before one more presidential election in the terribly problematic country of which I happen to be a citizen. I guess I’m just like Peter Carmichael at this point: I’ve seen the innards of the puzzle box, after the last few years of right-wing demagogues taking over a little too much of the world. And I’m just looking for a place to release my silent scream.

A lot has happened since I last picked up any Jo Walton. I think I got a bit scared, after that day I spent finishing the Small Change trilogy seemed to almost shape the future to come. Also my life has changed tremendously in the past four years: I moved continents, had a baby, lost a father. Figured out how to grow tomatoes. A lot has happened. I’ve been writing a lot more fiction than I ever used to, I think partly because I haven’t a clue how to describe the world as it is right now through the tools of non-fiction: this hissing pit that lurks within the puzzle box. I am trying to tell stories that have truth in them, these days, and sometimes you have to come at the truth a little sideways, sometimes the path matters as much or more than the message at the end. In the case of Farthing you make the reader think they’re reading P. G. Wodehouse and then drag them kicking and screaming into the realities of 1984.

Today I’m in limbo again, wondering what is going to happen in the election tomorrow. In a way, the results matter a good deal to me — in another sense, though, the puzzle box is already open. Just one election is not going to change the horrors that were already there, that perhaps before I never had the courage to see.

Books read in the last little while.

I published two book reviews online this last year that I’ll link to, before talking about all the non-academic books I managed to steal time for in the last few months.

“Rereading Walden” – a review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau at Public Books, and,

“The Era of the Geographically Confused” – a review of Ayya’s Accounts by Anand Pandian at the LA Review of Books.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, by George Monbiot (2013): Partly a piece of environmental journalism, part call-to-arms, part personal memoir – similar in that way to Refuge, below.  Monbiot is an interesting thinker, and although I don’t agree with everything he says here I like how he argues – I’ll definitely be watching him more closely after this.  George Monbiot is a journalist, who I mostly knew before now for his column in The Guardian and this video on the effects of wolf-reintroduction in Yellowstone that gives me chills every time. He has been very vocal in his call for “rewilding” of the natural environment – and although his educational background is in zoology, the way that he structures his arguments is much more informed by his thirty-year career as a journalist and his concern as a nature-lover.  (his website has the quote from Byron – “I love not man the less, but nature more…”) All that is fine, because he’s very upfront about it – he does not claim to be making a purely scientific argument in favour of rewilding, which is great, because if he had I would have closed this book after the first page.  (coming from the perspective of evolution / population dynamics, you really cannot make straightforward ecological arguments in favour of reintroducing extinct species after hundreds of years – if nothing else, too much has changed for anyone to say that these species can just slide happily back in. And arguments about “restoring the ecological balance” by “introducing missing species” tread on terribly thin ice – they run the danger of causing extra abuse to the already faulty category of the ecological niche.)

All that aside. I loved this book. I loved it despite the fact that Monbiot has several conflicting definitions of rewilding that don’t quite mesh (at times he talks about it as re-introducing lost species, at other times as actively preserving ecological dynamism by taking “exotic” species like sheep out – elsewhere as just taking a step back and not managing the environment at all.).  I loved it for its emotional honesty.  Monbiot presents what he was able to dig up about economic, sociological and ecological benefits of rewilding, and then sets that aside to admit that his reasons for wanting environmental diversity and a tree-filled landscape have nothing to do with its practical benefits.  He suffers from “ecological boredom” in Wales, he says – he finds the barren, sheep-shorn hills near his house to be physically depressing.  He sees endangered or unexpected species coming back to the U.K., and feels joy.

That I can relate to, and agree with. There is a psychological need that forests fill that goes beyond language, and that we are swiftly losing.  I’m also increasingly realising that the kind of childhood that I had in rural Washington – with all the outdoors at my fingertips, running around with friends and stretching our imaginations in a small town without borders – where riverbeds were as accessible as fallow fields dotted with trees, was rare for the 1980s/1990s in the United States and has grown even rarer now. So I’ll leave you here with this quote from Feral… 

“Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world. In the turning of one generation, the outdoor life in which many of us were immersed has gone. […] So many fences are raised to shut us out that eventually they shut us in.”

Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (2009):  Tassie Keltjin is twenty years old and in college in the American mid-West in 2001, when planes hit the World Trade Centre.  The consequent ripples of change across American society shadow the next year as Tassie searches for work and for purpose in life. She gets a part-time job  as a nanny for an adopted multiracial girl (half Caucasian American / half African American), whose adoptive (white) parents have their own quirks and tragic backstory – those gradually unfold alongside Tassie Keltjin’s own coming of age story (dealing with school work, heartbreak and death over the course of one year).

One thing I really liked about this book was how far it went discussing multiraciality, and the challenges of adopting across race lines. It’s rare to see both issues dealt with in such a sensitive, deep way within a novel.  But I had some issues with the book.  Tassie’s character felt rather blank and politically naive – and given that I remember clearly what it was like to be in college in the US soon after 9/11, I really needed something more there (kind of along the lines of Adichie’s depth in Americanah, below).  Moore’s style also tended to overshadow her content – although some of the language was lovely, it was a kind of loopy loveliness that kept throwing me out of the plot. Very different from, say, Terry Tempest Williams, whose bare poetic style was a perfect reflection of the landscape she was trying to evoke in Refuge. Also  there’s a [spoilery] event at the end which was structurally inevitable from the beginning but still felt like gratuitous tragedy.

Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams (1992): Refuge follows two tragedies that occurred in Williams’ life in parallel: as her mother was diagnosed with recurring cancer, rains caused the Great Salt Lake to flood a neighbouring bird refuge.  “Refuge” takes on resonant meanings: two elements of the bedrock of Williams’ life – the powerful, dynamic woman that is her mother, and the bird refuge that has nourished her since childhood, both gradually crumble under forces beyond anyone’s control. Beautiful meditation on mortality, and the healing quality of the land.

This book, and Williams’ style, are utterly unique. She wrote Refuge in the late 1980s, and has produced a torrent of environmental writing since then. A recent quote from a piece by Williams in Orion magazine that I found while reading Refuge, and that went beautifully with the thought-processes the book inspired in me:

“Wilderness is not my leisure or my recreation. It is my sanity.”

One of those rare books that is in fact a poem or a song, disguised for the day as a novel.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (2010):  Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of thirty.  She left a husband and five children behind, the youngest of whom was just an infant at the time. Twenty-five years later, her children found out that their mother’s cancer cells had been taken by the hospital staff and turned by biologist George Gey into one of the first successfully self-sustaining human cell culture lines, known as Hela cells.  The family had not known earlier that Henrietta’s cells were being used in this way, and one could argue that her husband had not provided informed consent.  When Rebecca Skloot contacted the family in the early 2000s, it became clear that they had been left entirely in the dark by the scientific community, and that they still believed justice had not yet been done.

This book is extraordinary.  Rebecca Skloot takes ten years of interviews and archival research into Henrietta Lacks’ family and the biologists connected to the discovery of Hela cells, and then performs a juggling act – mixing biography with biology and a heavy dose of medical law.  She handles opposing views on medical ethics with sympathy and sensitivity, while bringing Henrietta Lacks back to life through words in ways that the woman’s immortal cell line never could. Her position is fragile: she is trying to give voice to a family that has been marginalised – telling a story that is theirs, not hers, to tell.  She walks a fine line there, and I thought she did a fairly good job – her editing of interview material (at their request) is quite minor.

My quibble with the book is a small one – Skloot oversimplifies the science more than I would have liked, and sensationalises scientists a little too much. It’s easy to latch onto large personalities to make a good story, and occasionally she falls prey to that. Overall, though, I loved this book.

The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson (1998): Collection of short stories, ranging from the speculative to the simply strange.  Jeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers, and has written a number of my favourite books.  She does have the occasional piece out there that just doesn’t click with me, though, and this one was one of them.  Her style works well in a novel – but doesn’t transpose perfectly to short stories, which set some interesting thoughts going for me about the demands of the different mediums. (short stories need a slightly more compact, self-contained structure, I suspect – which doesn’t tend to be Winterson’s style.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Follows the parallel stories of high school sweethearts from Nigeria whose lives take them to different corners of the West, in search of dreams that slowly fade or change.  Ifemelu leaves Nigeria in her early twenties to go to college in Philadelphia, and spends the next decade of her life in the North East of the US, navigating romantic entanglements and her own shifting identity as a Nigerian with Americanized aspects – and as an African in America who is not African-American.  Obinze, her former lover, moves to the U.K. to start a life that never quite lives up to his expectations, wrestles with the immigration system and finally returns to Nigeria, ending up a successful business-man who is still not quite comfortable in his own skin.  Ifemelu and Obinze both reflect on the twists and turns their lives have taken, as Ifemelu prepares to return to Nigeria and Obinze prepares for her return.

I adored this book.  Beautifully nuanced discussion of the complexities of racial identification in the United States that does not tiptoe around its subject matter at all.  Gorgeously written – and the book radiates a kind of dark glee as it highlights the absurdity of the life of the immigrant in America.  I remember reading somewhere that Adichie said she kept laughing out loud while she wrote it.  There is also a line in here that perfectly articulates my problem with a lot of contemporary American literary fiction – Obinze complains that in these books,

“nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.”

I need to pick up more by this writer.

Embassytown, by China Mieville

So I’m tinkering about with wordpress at the moment, because I love its layouts & it’s what I always recommend to people, but I’ve never actually tried it out. This is me, summoned to the dark side, giving wordpress a try. Like all my blogging experiments, no clue how long it will last.

I’m trying right now to finish more books than I have been lately – where by “lately” I mean the past four years or so that I’ve been in grad school. I just went through my little list of books read by month since 2005, and added things up, and the number of books took a massive swandive every time I was in school – which is a little bit counter-productive, one should think. There are too many good books out there, I feel, to let academia get in the way of education. My aim right now is fairly modest – at least a book a week for the next few months; hopefully more (my to-be-read and to-find piles are about as long as I am tall, at this point, and I’d like to chip into them a bit before I turn forty). So my thought right now is that as I read books, I’ll write up little reviews / blurbs and stick them here. I don’t know if this will be of interest to anyone in the world but me – the hope, I suppose, is that it will be. But it may be nice to have a place to point people to when I’m raving about whatever I read last.

Embassytown, by China Mieville Continue reading