Category Archives: Reviews

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

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Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

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…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

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“Between life and death there is a library,’ [Mrs Elm] said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. But how much examination can one life stand? Nora Seed has reached bottom. Her cat is dead. And her philosophy degree is at least as dead as Schrödinger’s cat. She is 35, and has been working in a music shop in her home town, Bedford, (not Bedford Falls) for almost thirteen years. Nora’s boss tells her “I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.” She was in a band, with her brother, but bailed when the going got too promising. She was also a primo swimmer as a teen, one of the fastest in the country. The pressure put her off it. She had also backed out of her wedding to Dan…with two days notice.

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Matt Haig – Image from Independent – photo by Kan Lailey

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Haig counts down for us the hail of misery descending on poor Nora, the bad choices, the disappointments, the misfortune. Alienating those closest to you does not leave much of a support network, a needed bolster in a tough time. As with George Bailey, we are also introduced to the positive bits in her life. Expect to see them pop up later. But Nora has decided that she is not much use to anyone, that there is no real future for her. Her self image is that of a black hole, collapsing in on herself.

There was an old musician’s cliché, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all.

She decides to continue the process to its logical conclusion, and has a go at that.

[I seem to have been on a tear in 2021, reading books that deal with people considering ending it all before life gets even worse. Should We Stay of Should We Go? by Lionel Shriver, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time look at older sorts considering the dark deed. Younger folks struggle to cope with the damage in their lives, some of which has been self-inflicted, in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful, and now this one. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I may be getting on but I have had my three COVID shots and am not exactly contemplating a self-propelled early exit. Too many books left to read. Just seems odd, somehow.]

But then she wakes, or something, (apparently, she is not dead yet) has a look around, and finds her way through the mist to a modest-sized building with a clock on it, set to midnight. Mrs Elm, a librarian who’d helped her out as a student, is there to greet her. And the game is on.

For a decade I’ve been wanting to do something about parallel lives. Obviously, this is a well-trodden territory in film and literature, so I thought I didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. It had been done so well, so many times. And it was really just getting the concept of the library. What I liked about the concept of the library is that it managed to be a neat plot device, but it was also the center of what I was trying to do on the philosophical side of it…someone who’d reached this point where they’ve run out of options, everything’s bleak.


Between life and death you get to see all these different branches of how things could have been. So I liked the library because it was literally and metaphorically what I was trying to sort of do with the story as well as it being a little love letter to libraries, because libraries, I suppose, are our portals to other places anyway. – from The Strand interview

The Midnight Library offers immersion of a different sort than the experiences one might expect at a more usual book-lending emporium. Nora can select one element of her life she would change. A book appears applying the specific change and Nora gets to live that life. There is technobabble in here about the multiverse and all possible branches being true in some universe. Fine, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Skim.

Libraries have more than a few books, so Nora gets to make more than a few decisions, live more than a few lives. What if she had stuck with swimming? What if she had stayed with the band? What if she hadn’t bailed on her wedding? What if? What if? What if?

The appeal of the novel is that it makes manifest the thoughts that all of us have had. How would my life have been different if I had done this rather than that, chose to focus on this area of study or skill rather than on another? What if I had asked that girl for a date instead of chickening out? What if I had chosen some other boy than the one I chose? What if I had tried harder to save the relationship instead of calling it quits? What if I had called it quits sooner instead of staying in an unhappy situation? What if I had not made that deal with the dodgy Colombian drug dealer? Wait, what? (Oh, never mind) Go ahead, pick a change, get a book, find out.

Personally, I am pretty Zen about the whole what-if scenario. I am completely convinced that had any of my larger life choices been different, I would have wound up in similar or worse circumstances. Maybe I would not have learned the lessons I learned at place B that I learned at place A. Maybe I would not have grown in certain ways with person C that I did with person D. It is possible, of course, that my life might have been dramatically more successful than it has been, which is not terribly. But could I have handled success, even if it had? I expect the universe is a leveler, in terms of personal choices, anyway. We are who we are and our choices reflect that person. Different choices would reflect that person as well, even if the map of our lives might have been redrawn, presenting different challenges from the ones we have already lived through.

There’s a certain formula to tales of this sort. Character is miserable in his/her life, but gets a chance to see how it could have been different, maybe fulfills all their fantasies, or sees how much worse it might have been, and arrives at the end ok with life as it is, more or less. Maybe with a greater understanding, appreciation for what is. Some offer a single, long view of that alternate possibility like George Bailey’s, in It’s A Wonderful Life or Frank Cross in Scrooged, not to mention the original on which that one was based. Others offer iterations like a programming loop: DO whatever UNTIL some condition is met. EXIT. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors has to relive a single day over and over until he figures out how to be a better person. In Palm Springs, Nyles is caught in a time loop with a similar path to salvation. Speaking of loops, they seem to have been in my reading list this year too. The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke and Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey pop to mind. Maybe the universe wants me to be on the lookout for a time-loop story in which older people consider ending things?

At least Nora gets to have different days, places, and relationships. Of course, it’s tough keeping up when you enter every new sphere not knowing your specific history in it. Where do I work? Is that my kid? I live in this house? Cool. Or not. The stress of trying to figure out who she is in each iteration is both comedic and nerve-wracking. Whenever Nora knows (feels, really) that a particular life is not quite the one for her, she dissipates back to the library for another go.

One life Nora never got to have was being a male. Almost, though. The character of Nora began as a male in draft #1. Haig felt that it was not working, that he was writing too much about himself. He wanted his lead to very much NOT be him. Switching to a female lead took care of that quite nicely. The freedom he felt with the change allowed him to actually insert more of his personal concerns into the character without it really seeming to be him.

One piece that is very much about him is that he gave up piano lessons, even though he was pretty good, at age 13, caving to mindless peers who considered piano lessons so uncool. He imagines an Elton John version of himself in a parallel Universe. In a more serious vein, Haig struggled with depression as a younger man, and knows what it feels like to lose hope.

Nora’s alternate lives are diverse, expressing wishes any of us might have had. There are the grand ones of fame and huge success, but others of a much more modest scope, like owning a pub with your partner, salving ordinary regrets. Some focus on doing good, like studying global warming as a glaciologist. Some of the lives are pretty decent, but are any of them the right one for Nora, the right combination of the same, yet different, keeping the good, while minimizing the awful?

I have only one particular gripe with the book. When Nora finds herself in each of the parallel universes what is supposed to have happened to the Nora that was in that universe before the peripatetic Nora arrived? Did she die? When Nora winks out of each of the lives she leaves, does the Nora who was there before wink back into existence? Is she like the understudy who steps in for a time, to be replaced when the star is all better? I know this is fantasy, and not science fiction, so I should just shut up and get over it, but it bugged me. Thankfully not enough to detract (much) from my enjoyment of the book.

I feel like if you’re putting something out into the universe, why not offer people some sort of nourishment, or hope, or usefulness? Or all the things that are frowned upon in some sort of academic quarters. Why not make people feel good?

The book has been a huge success, selling gazillions and making Haig bags of money. Movie rights are sold. Good for him. In a world impacted way too much by darkness and cynicism, it is a welcome thing to have authors eager to spread some sunshine. Nora Seed is a decent person, not fabulous, mind you, but relatable. And she faces many difficult choices in her many parallel lives, well, really, one choice, many times, stay or go. It is not hard to root for her to find the right mix of ingredients in a life somewhere, that will allow her to escape the increasingly unsatisfactory option of death. If The Midnight Library offers you some impetus to consider the choices you have made in your life, and wonder maybe what alternate experiences might have resulted, so much the better. Or you could simply enjoy it as an engaging, heart-warming tale. And you don’t even have to choose one or the other.

Equidistant. Not aligned to one bank or the other.
That was how she had felt most of her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go, which path to commit to without regret.

Review posted – December 10, 2021

Publication date – September 29, 2020

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Strand Book Store – Matt Haig with Kristin Hannah: The Midnight Library– video – 1:02:49 – definitely check this one out
—–Independent – Matt Haig: ‘I ignored a phone call from Meghan Markle’ by Olivia Peter

Songs/Music
—–Cher – If I Could Turn Back Time
—–Jim Croce – If I could Save Time in a Bottle

Books noted in the review, and one not noted
—– The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons – Life has been very disappointing. An elderly Eudora is determined to see herself off, until life intervenes and offers reasons to reconsider
—–How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – if you lived forever might you welcome death?
—–Should We Stay of Should We Go?<!– by Lionel Shriver – a couple, many years ahead, considering whether to check out at age 80
—–
Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Shelby struggled, following a trauma, to re-start her life after shutting it down for several years, which included a suicide attempt
—–The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke – too spoilerish to tell
—–Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey – Thora and Santi experience multiple lives, trying to figure out their relationship and how they can step out of the loop. It also features a prominent public clock.
—–A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – skinflint Ebenezer gets some fresh perspectives on his life – full text with illustrations, from Gutenberg
—–Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – if there is a bigger homage to libraries and librarians, I do not know what it might be

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

Fiddling While America Burns – I Alone Can Fix It – Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and closely studied many presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, said, “I have spent my entire career with presidents and there is nothing like this other than the 1850s, when events led inevitably to the Civil War.

Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II,” Milley told them. “Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”

I did not intend to write a full review for this one. It came out in July. I did not start reading it until August, and did not finish reading it until late September. That is what happens when I read a book on my phone, in addition to the two I am usually reading, one at my desk and the other at bedtime. But I was going to offer a few thoughts. Typed a line or two and then my fingers started pounding away at the keyboard pretty much all on their own. I astral projected myself to the kitchen to whip up a sandwich, make some tea and when I returned they were still banging away. I am sure there is a lesson in there about compulsion.

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Phil Rucker and Carole Leonnig – image from Porter Square Books

There have been, currently are, and no doubt will continue to be many books written about the Trump years. I Alone Can Fix It tracks the final year of Trump’s presidency, notes that he had faced no major problems until 2020, and then proved incapable of managing the ones that presented, seeking only his own aggrandizement, while clinging to power at all costs.

If you read books of this sort all the time, if you read The Washington Post, The New York Times, or other world newspapers, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other at-least-somewhat-responsible news sources, much of what is in this book will not be all that surprising. In tracking Trump’s 2020+, I Alone Can Fix It offers inside looks at the actions and discussions, the conflicts and challenges inside the White House, almost day-by-day. Much that is detailed here has been reported before. And a lot of the new material has been outed in leaks to newspapers and TV political shows. Interviews with the authors chip away even more at the new-ness of the material, if you are coming to it any time after its initial week or two of release.

Trump’s rash and retaliatory dismissal of [Acting DNI Joseph] Maguire would compel retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write: “As Americans, we should be frightened—deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.“

I am betting it is not news to you, for example, that when 1/6 was happening, Liz Cheney screamed at Trump toady Jim Jordan (who, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, had participated in a coverup of sexual abuse of wrestlers within the program) “Get away from me. You fucking did this.’” Or that Trump wanted to use the army to put down demonstrations in American cities. Or that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley was concerned that Trump wanted to use the American military to keep himself in office.

Carol Leonnig (National investigative reporter focused on the White House and government accountability) at the Washington Post and Phil Rucker (Washington Post White House Bureau Chief) are top tier political reporters. They sat with many of the principals in the administration, including Trump, and amassed a vast store of materials in pulling this tale together. It is a horror story. In doing so they have unearthed considerable detail that did not make it to the pages of daily reporting. It is a portrayal of Donald Trump as someone who is generally disinterested in the well-being of the nation, concerned only for himself, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one with eyes to see and an ability to reason.

I take issue with the clearly self-serving nature of some of the interviews. Spinners are gonna spin and twirling is the name of the game in Washington politics. Bill Barr, for example, attests to his devotion to the law. How Leonnig and Rucker allowed such tripe into the book is beyond me. This from a guy who routinely politicized the Department of Justice to subvert justice, seek punishment of Trump enemies (otherwise known as truth-tellers) and neglect to trouble those accused and even convicted of crimes. Puh-leez. He also pretends that he was practically dragged from retirement to serve as AG when, in fact he had actively campaigned for the job. Sure wish they would have called him out on that steaming pile of poo.

Esper, Milley, and Barr—were tracking intelligence and social media chatter for any signs of unrest on Election Day. They and their deputies at the Pentagon, Justice Department, and FBI were monitoring the possibility of protests breaking out among supporters on both sides. The trio also were on guard for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act in some way to quell protests or to perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election. This scenario weighed heavily on Esper and Milley because they controlled the military and had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Their duty was to protect a free and fair election and to prevent the military from being used for political purposes of any kind.

Plenty more seek to burnish their records (the phrase polishing turds pops readily to mind) for history, eager to remove the fecal stench of attachment to the most corrupt administration in American history. I could have done with a bit more of Leonnig and Rucker pointing out for readers where the spinning ends and the truth begins.

One of the heroes of this story is General Milley. Were his actions not confirmed by multiple other sources, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was polishing his own…um…medals in reporting to Leonnig and Rucker his role in staving off Trump’s desire to use the military to suppress domestic dissent, and in working with other defense leaders, legislative leaders, and foreign military brass to help prevent what could easily have become a shooting war with China. But what he told them checks out. The man deserves even more medals, pre-shined.

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General Mark Milley – image from New York Magazine

One of the things that is most remarkable for its absence in this book is mention of Afghanistan. Really? That deal with the Taliban was not worth including? It makes sense, though. The MSM paid little attention to it when the deal was made, and largely ignored the fact that the actual Afghani government was not a party to the talks. They were more than happy, though, to jump on Biden’s back for implementing the shitty treaty by actually getting our troops out of an endless no-win war. Trump was rarely mentioned, and the awfulness of the deal, THAT TRUMP HAD NEGOTIATED, rarely merited serious coverage. Disappointing that Leonnig and Rucker seem to have skipped over this in their book. It was significant.

It is an avocational hazard for those who consume political news in mass quantities that when there are so many books out about aspects of the same thing, namely the Trump disaster, it can be difficult to impossible to keep track of where particular stories originated. Also, each of the Trump era books is heralded in the press in the weeks leading up to publication with the juiciest bits from the opus du jour. The cacophony of revelations can make it impossible to discern the altos from the tenors from the sopranos from the basses. It all becomes one large chorus. Did I read about that in this book or that one, or that other one? Maybe I heard a piece about it on CNN, or BBC, or MSNBC, or one of the traditional network news shows.

And no sooner does one finish one of these books that there are ten more peeping for attention like baby birds in a nest far outnumbering the worms their poor parents are able to scrounge. Thus, we get by with the news and political talk show interviews and daily early peeks at the books, hoping to be able to read at least enough of these things to get a clear picture.

Like AI learning systems, there is a constant feed of information. At some point (although hopefully one has already achieved such a state) one internalizes the incoming stream, somehow manages to sort and categorize it, finds some sort of understanding and can use the collective intelligence to face new questions, problems, and situations with an informed base of knowledge, and generate a wise, informed decision, or opinion. At the very least we should have a sense of where to look to check out the latest claims and revelations.

“A student of history, Milley saw Trump as the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having this stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of twentieth-century fascism in Germany were replaying in twenty-first-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

To that end, the Leonnig and Rucker book is a welcome addition to the ongoing info-flow. We live in dangerous times, and they offer some of the nitty gritty of how the sausage is made, how the perils are generated, and sometimes averted, who the players are and how they acted in moments of crisis.

In the long run it probably does not matter if you heard the relevant information in this book, in a Woodward book (I am currently reading Peril) or in one or more of the gazillion others that have emerged in the last few years. What matters is that we get the information, that it is brought to us by honest, intelligent, expert reporters and/or participants, and that it is presented in a readable, digestible form. Leonnig and Rucker are both Pulitzer winners. Keep your eyes out for any irregularities, of course, but these two are reliable, trustworthy sources. Add their work to your data feed and keep the info flowing. We need all the good intel we can get to counteract the 24/7/365 Republican lie machine and to face down the next coup attempt. Knowledge is power. Acquire it. Learn from it. Remember it. Use it.

Review posted – 12/3/2021

Publication date – 7/20/21

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Carol Leonnig’s WaPo profile and Twitter pages

Links to Phil Rucker’s Instagram, WaPo profile, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Face the Nation – “I Alone Can Fix It” authors say former president learned he was “untouchable” from first impeachment – video – 07:46
—–The Guardian – Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by David Smith
—–Commonwealth Club – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker: Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Yamiche Alcindor – video – 57:01
—–NPR – Fresh Air – Investigation finds federal agencies dismissed threats ahead of the Jan. 6 attack – audio – 42:00 – by Terry Gross – more about Leonnig’s book Zero Fail but worth a listen

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol– By Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti
—–Washington Post – The Attack: Before, During and After – Reported by Devlin Barrett, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. — Written by Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman — Visuals and design by Phoebe Connelly, Natalia Jiménez-Stuard, Tyler Remmel and Madison Walls

Items of Interest from the authors
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Non-fiction, Public Health, True crime

Cleanup in Room 401! – The Maid by Nita Prose

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The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.

Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.

A totally charming lead, Molly the Maid, Molly Gray, is as dedicated a guest-services employee as any hotel could wish for. She is an obsessive cleaner, determined to live up to the hotel’s stated desire to return every room to perfection every day, and particularly after guests have checked out…well…in the usual meaning of the term. Molly has the misfortune of entering a room where a notorious guest, Mr. Black, a hotel regular, and wealthy wife-beater who has been giving his second, trophy wife, Giselle, a miserable time, has checked out in the other meaning of the phrase. Cleanup in Room 401!

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Nita Prose – image from her site

It is upsetting, of course, but so is the fact that his shoes are misaligned on the floor, and the room is in need of much more cleaning than usual. She calls down to the front desk, where she can be counted on to be ignored, then sees something so alarming that she faints straight away. Returned to consciousness, Molly phones down to the lobby again, this time demanding that the hotel manager, Mr. Snow, be notified. People soon arrive.

She has some challenges to overcome, both financial and social. When the police get involved in the hotel killing, her problems only multiply. Thankfully there are some who appreciate her, and are willing to help.

Over the course of the book we learn more and more about both the dodgy folks in and about the Royal Grand Hotel, and about Molly herself. It is clear to readers that Molly is on the spectrum, but has found work that she finds satisfying and well-attuned to her proclivities (neat-freak). It has the added element of honoring her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother, who had raised her, following in Gran’s career footsteps. Molly’s penchant for cleanliness stands out in stark contrast to the rather dirty goings on at the hotel. Her social cluelessness makes it tough for her to understand that there is something decidedly rotten about some people she believes to be good eggs. But, while not entirely morally pristine herself, Molly is a decidedly good egg, who values friendship, honesty, and loyalty. Her total recall makes it possible for some of the events of that terrible day to be played back, in detail. This makes it possible to unscramble the mess, at least some, but will anyone listen?

Nita Prose (pen name for Canadian editor Nita Pronovost) has a lot of fun with The Maid. In addition to an appealing, first-person narrator to lead us through the action, she decorates the scenery with nicely chosen colors, patterns, and motifs. Starting with colors, Molly is, of course, Gray. The hotel manager is Mister Snow. Molly’s unpleasant landlord is Mr Rosso (red). Her corrupt supervisor is Cheryl Green (notorious for poaching tips intended for other maids) . An unspeakable ex is Wilbur Brown. One of her co-workers is called Sunshine. Coloring applies to people, themselves. The deader sports red and purple pinpricks around his eyes. Giselle has green eyes. Molly has alabaster skin.

The palette extends to the surroundings, a black and white background against which some colors can glow. As I place a hand on the shining brass railing and walk up the scarlet steps that lead to the hotel’s majestic portico, I’m Dorothy entering Oz. (The Oz notion is picked up later, beyond the visuals, when Molly thinks of Giselle as bridging two worlds.) The hotel features an obsidian countertop on the front desk, marble floors that glow white, and emerald loveseats in the lobby. Molly’s uniform consists of black trousers and a white blouse. The receptionists, in black and white, look like penguins. A white bathrobe is found on the floor of room 401. Giselle stands out for having a yellow (yolk-colored?) purse. One character wears a wine-colored dress with a black fringe. Molly is sensitive to the colors of her world, and they stand out for her like a blood-red rose against a colorless background.

Prose also offers up invisibility as a theme throughout. Molly is invisible to most of the world due to her difficulty with social interactions, and welcomes this invisibility in her job. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.; It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible; [Mr Black]…often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible; Discretion is my motto. Invisible customer service is my goal. Molly is always intensely grateful whenever someone makes her feel seen or appreciated. Some find Molly’s invisibility enviable. And she is not the only person at the Regency Grand to be afflicted with translucence.

Eggs offer a bit of focus, as Molly thinks of people as good or bad ones. And there is a very different sort of egg that impacts Molly’s life. Someone preparing eggs for someone else is a very clear symbol of affection.

As an editor, Pronovost is always thinking about how a manuscript fits into a specific genre or how a story might bend reader expectations in that genre. For her own novel, she imagined mixing a misfit-character trope – inspired by the titular protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – with a contemporary locked-room mystery inspired by the work of U.K. thriller writer Ruth Ware. Add in a touch of the film Knives Out and the board game Clue, and there is The Maid. – from the Quill & Quire interview

But these are not her only influences. Prose provides some hints to the sort of story we are reading, informing us that Molly enjoys reading Agatha Christie novels. Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once. But she adds to that Molly and Gran’s fondness for another mystery entertainment. …we’d eat our meals side by side on the sofa as we watched reruns of Columbo. Expect amateurs to do some sleuthing. No hard-boiled detectives in this one. And you may or may not know who they should be investigating very early in the story.

Universal Pictures picked up the film rights to the book. Academy-Award-nominee Florence Pugh is slated to star as Molly. We all know that options are sold all the time, and most are never actually made. So believe it when you see it.

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Florence Pugh – image from Daily Actor

While reading, I was totally reminded of a TV series, Astrid et Raphaëlle, as it is known in France, and Astrid in its release on Prime in the USA. Sara Mortensen plays an autistic woman drawn into helping the police solve crimes with her unique talents. I kept picturing Mortensen’s Astrid while reading this book. The show is delightful.

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Sara Mortensen as Astrid – image from Amazon

Hopefully, you will not wait until all your rooms are in a pristine state to give The Maid a look. It is a charming, engaging, cozy mystery, with a wonderful lead, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an effervescent sense of style. Ideal for kicking back and just enjoying while you recover from the holidays. But be sure to put a coaster under that drink. Someone is going to have to clean that up.

Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?

Review posted – 11/26/2021

Publication date – 1/4/2022

I received an eARE of The Maid from Ballantine Books in return for making a few beds and doing a little vacuuming. Thanks also to NetGalley for calling this book to my attention in their newsletter, and facilitating the download.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Prose (Pronovost) is a vice president and editorial director with Simon & Schuster’s Canada division.

Items of Interest
—–A wonderful review of a personal-favorite TV show featuring an unusual crime-solving duo – Astrid – I pictured the Astrid of the title as Molly
—–Wiki on Columbo

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

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It was like the beginning of every show where the streets empty and something terrifying emerges from mist or fire.

I passed streams of people with signs, packs, water bottles. I passed squad cars and squadrons. I passed burnt-out stores with walls like broken teeth. I passed a woman with a shopping cart full of children. Down another street, a giant tank was rumbling forward. I turned to get out of the way. Pockets of peace then smoking ruins, then tanks and full-out soldiers in battle gear. I got a cold, sick feeling, and I knew there would be deaths down the road.

Bless me, Father, for I have read. It has been three weeks since I began reading. I am only sorry that I came to the end and could read no more. But I promise to avoid the occasion of reading… this book again, well for a while, anyway.

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Louise Erdrich – Image from MPR news – by Dawn Villella | AP Photo file

There is magic to be had in the Catholic sacrament of confession. Confess your sins to an invisible presence across a visually impenetrable screen, let the priest know you are truly sorry, promise to do the penance you are assigned (and actually do it. Depending on the severity of one’s sins, this sentence is usually of the parking-ticket-fine level, typically saying a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.) and, after a few traditional, if not necessarily magical words, your sins are erased, at least in the eyes of an even more invisible, all-powerful deity. Sins, forgiveness (or not) and redemption all figure large in Louise Erdrich’s seventeenth, and latest novel, The Sentence. The sentences are a bit more significant than the penances doled out in confession.

We meet Tookie, an immature thirty-something, early on. A friend manipulates her into stealing her dead-boyfriend’s body, and bringing it back to her. This bit of Keystone Kops body-snatching has the ill-fortune of involving the crossing of state lines…and the corpus delecti had some extra baggage. Her so-called friend throws her under the bus and Tookie is sentenced to 60 years, by a judge who would be right at home in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. A teacher of hers sends her a dictionary when she is in prison, and Tookie spends her time in lockup reading as much as she can. When she gets out, well short of the max sentence, she goes to every bookstore in Minneapolis with her resume and, finding the one where the dictionary-teacher is working, is taken on. This is not just any old bookstore, but a barely-bothered-to-try-disguising-it simulacrum of Louie Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, Birchbark Books. With her love of reading, Tookie fits right in, becoming a professional bookseller, and thrives.

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Birchbark books storefront – image from the BB site

Louise Erdrich has made a career writing about the contemporary world in light of the history of indigenous people, how the past continues to impact the present. One might even say to haunt it. The hauntings in The Sentence continue that focus, but add a more immediate presence.

There is just one problem at Tookie’s job. In 2019, four years after she starts, a frequent-flyer of a customer, both engaging (Tookie’s favorite, even) and very annoying, Flora, has passed on, but does not seem to accept this. She sustains enough mobile ectoplasm to make her presence known as she haunts the bookshop. The central mystery of the story is why. Like many who shop at this Indigenous-oriented emporium, Flora seemed a wannabe Indian. Claims some native blood, and did a fair bit to walk the walk. But she never seemed quite the genuine article to folks at the store. For reasons unknown, Flora’s ghost seems to have fixated on Tookie, bugging her more than other store employees, making noises, knocking books off shelves, and worse.

I had always wanted to write a ghost story. There’s this anomaly, “I don’t really believe in ghosts,” but I knew people who had inexplicable experiences and would not admit—as I would not—to believing in ghosts. I sometimes would take a poll when I was doing a reading and I would ask everyone in the audience if they believed in ghosts. Very few hands would come up. And then I would ask, “Have you had an experience or know someone who has had an experience with a ghost?” and almost every hand would go up. We do have some residual sense of the energy of people who are no longer living. They are living in some way. – from the PW interview

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A handcrafted canoe hangs from Birchbark’s ceiling – Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

It becomes a challenge, figuring out how to cope with this unwanted visitor. Why was she there, in the bookstore in particular, and what would it take to get her to leave? Flora had been found with an open book, a very old journal, The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1883. The book seems to be implicated in Flora’s passing. Tookie tries to figure out if the book had a role to play in Flora’s death. There might be a perilous sentence in the book.

But Flora is not the only unwelcome intruder. Erdrich gives us a look at what life in Minneapolis, and her bookstore, was like (and may be again) paralleling Flora’s growing intrusiveness with the COVID rampup in 2019 and lockdown of 2020. Figuring out how to cope with COVID, both personally and professionally, adds a major layer of challenge. A very present, you-are-there, account of empty streets, closed shops and short supplies, adds to the haunted feel of the entire city during the lockdown. (“This is the first book I have ever written in real time.“)

Sometimes late at night the hospital emitted thin streams of mist from the cracks along its windows and between the bricks. They took the shapes of spirits freed from bodies. The hospital emitted ghosts. The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.

And then there was George Floyd. Floyd was hardly the first (even in recent history), minority person murdered by police, but what set his example above so many others was the precise documentation of his killing. Also, not alone in current near-history, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, in a way. The outrage that has followed has been driven not just by the phone-videos that now have become commonplace, but by the long history of the same events that lacked such undeniable evidence. The annihilation of native people by Westerners is of a cloth, if at a much greater and intentionally genocidal level. It is amazing there is room enough left for living people with all the ghosts that must be wandering about.

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The confessional – image from MapQuest – This part of the store figures in the tale

Tookie is our focus throughout, with occasional side-trips to other POVs. Her journey from convict to bookseller, from criminally-minded to good egg, from single to paired up. Hers is a later-in-life-than-usual coming of age. You will like her. She starts out with edge, though, which you may or may not care for.

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.

In case you are wondering what that final line means, even Erdich is not sure. Tookie may not have been the most glorious flower in the bouquet, but she still has considerable appeal. In addition to being smart and creative, being willing to learn, to grow and to repent her sins are among her finer qualities.

The cast of supporting characters is wonderful, per usual. Pollux is Tookie’s other half, well, maybe more than a half, as he totes along with him an adolescent niece in need of parents. He is a bona fide good man, although he has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to believing in ghosts. One of the truly lovely elements of the book is how Tookie and Pollux express their love for each other through food. His niece, Hetta, is, well, an adolescent, so the emotional interactions can be…um…lively. The shop crew are a fun lot, ranging in age and interests, and we get a look at some of the sorts of customers who patronize a shop that specializes in indigenous-related material. One other supporting cast member is the bookstore’s owner, a famous writer, referred to only as “Louise.” Erdrich has a bit of fun with this, giving herself some wonderful, LOL lines, and letting us in on some of her life under a bookshop-owner’s hat.

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image from KARE 11 – Credit: Heidi Wigdahl

One tidbit I found interesting from my wanderings through things Erdrich is that she writes to a title, that is, the title is the first element of her books, and the rest is built around that. She first came up with the title for this one in 2014.

I gathered extraordinary sentences. healing sentences, sentences that were so beautiful that they brought people solace and comfort, also sentences for incarcerated people. – from the Book Launch

At some point the weight of her accumulated material justified beginning to flesh it out. This happened in 2019. I did not find any intel on just how many titles she carries about with her at a given moment, or what was the longest gap between title idea and deciding to write the book.

Bottom line is that when you see the name Louise Erdrich on a book, you can count on it being an excellent read. You can count on there being compelling contemporary stories, engaging characters, and a connection with the history of indigenous people. You can count on there being some magical realism. In this one, there is a powerful motif of sins in need of forgiveness. Mistakes need correcting, penance needs to be done, and redemption is a worthy, if not always an attainable goal. The Sentence asks how we can come to grips with the ghosts of the past, and cope with the sins of the present while mass-producing the specters of the future.

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Protesters gathered at Chicago Ave. and East 38 th Street in South Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd – image and text from Minneapolis Star Tribune

At the end of the sacrament of Confession, the priest says, “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” If only forgiveness were all that was needed. Read two literary novels, one thriller, a memoir and a non-fiction, and sin no more.

Many books and movies had in their plots some echoes of my secret experiences with Flora. Places haunted by unquiet Indians were standard. Hotels were disturbed by Indians whose bones lay underneath the basements and floors—a neat psychic excavation of American unease with its brutal history. Plenty of what was happening to me happened in fiction. Unquiet Indians. What about unquiet settlers? Unquiet wannabes?…Maybe the bookstore was located on some piece of earth crossed by mystical lines.

Review posted – November 19, 2021

Publication date – November 9, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages. Erdrich’s personal site redirects to the site Birchbark Books. She owns the store. There really is a confessional there. According to the store’s FAQ page, it was renamed a “forgiveness booth” after it was rescued from becoming a bar fixture.

A GHOST LIVES IN HER CREAKY OLD HOUSE

This is Erdrich’s seventeenth novel, among many other works. She won the National Book Award for The Round House, the National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose and Love Medicine, and the Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman, among many other recognitions. Her familiarity with cultural mixing is personal, her mother being an Ojibwe tribal leader and her father being a German-American. Familiarity with both native spirituality and western religion also stems from her upbringing. She was raised Catholic.

Interviews
—– Louise Erdrich: The Sentence Book Launch Conversation by Anthony Ceballos
—–PBS – Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ explores racial tensions in a divided Minneapolis
—–Publisher’s Weekly – A Ghost Persists: PW Talks with Louise Erdrich by Marian Perales

Other Louise Erdrich novels I have reviewed
—–2020 – The Night Watchman
—–2017 – Future Home of the Living God
—–2016 – LaRose
—–2010 – Shadow Tag
—–2012 – The Round House
—–2008 – The Plague of Doves
—–2005 – The Painted Drum

Songs/Music
—–Johnny Cash – Ain’t No Grave – Flora plays this while haunting Tookie

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Where to Find Native American Culture and a Good Read By J. D. Biersdorfer
—–Twin Cities Daily Planet – After 17 years Birchbark Books continues to center Native stories, space amid society of erasure By Camille Erickson | April 27, 2017
—–The Catholic Crusade – the traditional Act of Contrition

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Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Native Americans

Weighing the Cost of Silence – Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.
The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates, and a host of tall, shining windows, facing the town.

Bill Furlong is a decent man, risen from a lowly station in life to being a respected pillar-of-the-community sort. Not well off, mind, but a coal and wood supplier who keeps several folks employed, his customers supplied, and his family fed, a George Bailey sort, but from a much less settled foundation. There is never much left over, and always a new cost looming on the horizon. In the course of making his rounds he sees something that presents a powerful moral challenge. The story is Furlong’s struggle to decide, stay silent, or do something.

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Claire Keegan – image from her FB page – shot by Cartier-Bresson

1985 is a grim time in New Ross. Ireland is in the midst of a long recession. Despairing of ever finding work, people are emigrating in droves, to England, to America, to wherever work can be had. Those who remain hold little hope for any near relief. Those with work know that they could be laid off in a heartbeat. Those running businesses know that their continued survival depends on the continued demand of their customers, and the customers’ ability to pay. Those without work drain their savings, survive on the dole, or what charity they can find. Too many, employed or not, drown their fears in drink. Keegan captures the bleak tone of the time.

the dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their coats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to Fishguard. Once, a man from St Mullins got a lift into town to pay his bill, saying that they’d had to sell the car as they couldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing what was owing, that the bank was coming down on them. And early one morning, Furlong has seen a young schoolboy eating from a chip bag that had been thrown down on the street the night before

Christmas is coming, and one might wonder if that starving boy was a descendant of Tiny Tim’s. Keegan even summons A Christmas Carol to mind, noting that, as a boy, Furlong had received the book for Christmas.

He had had a difficult start to life, raised by a single mother, his father not known to him. Luckily for them, a well-to-do local woman, Mrs Wilson, took in mother and son, employing mom to work in the house. Things could have been a lot worse. Like many other nations, Ireland was host to a network of Magdalene Laundries. These were institutions run by the Catholic Church, with the complicity of the Irish government. Young women who became pregnant were often cast out of their communities, their families even, and these enterprises took them in. Reports eventually emerged revealing the abuses these girls and young women endured, often being forced to give away their babies, living in degrading conditions, essentially forced laborers in church-state workhouses. Thousands of infants died there, and many of their mothers as well. New Ross was one of the places where a Magdalene laundry was run. It is one of the reasons Keegan chose to set her story there. This is not a tale about these laundries, per se, but one of those constitutes the immediate and very considerable dark force that Bill Furlong is thinking about taking on. While delivering coal to the convent, he sees something he was not supposed to see. To act or not to act, that is the question.

Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?

The language of this novel, the imagery is powerfully effective, celestial even. I felt a need to read a lot of this book out loud. (trying to avoid spoiling it with my terribly fake Irish accent) There is a rhythm, a musicality to the writing that propels its powerful imagery towards the intended targets.

The passage quoted at the top of this review offers a sense not only of a grim time and place, but of the hostile force of the nuns, priests, and the Church, as embodied by the crows. The state, participant in the Magdalene miseries, is given passing notice when a local pol parachutes into town for a Christmas-tree-lighting, if it is possible to parachute in while riding a Mercedes and wearing a rich man’s coat. This is a town that is not being well looked after by the authorities.

When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
“My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
“I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning.
– from the Independent interview

When she returned home with her degree, Keegan sent out 300 resumes and did not get a nibble. Erin go Bragh.

The harsh times have not driven from people in New Ross the ability to want things, needed or not. Furlong’s wife, Eileen, wants a proper, going-away vacation, as well as some nice things seen in a shop window. His children have small, mostly manageable desires. The people in town want an end to economic doldrums, some reason to stay around instead of emigrating. The residents of the convent want something more significant. Furlong is in dire need of a new truck to replace the one his business relies on, and which is nearing its last gasp. He also wants to know who his father was.

Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England.

He is no saint, but workaholic Furlong has that rare capacity to look inside himself critically, consider his life, his actions, in light of his values, even recognize where he might have stepped away from the moral line he believes in following. He had opted to ignore wrongs he had seen before, but for this father of five girls, and son of a single mother, this is a tough one to let pass. However, there are powerful, and insidious forces arrayed against his better angels. He is repeatedly warned, when he mentions his concerns, that crossing the Church could be extremely costly.

The cold of the season will make you shiver and want to add another layer as you read. Some Irish coffee might help as well. Will Furlong cross that bridge and do something or let what he knows sink into nothingness in the dark, frigid waters of the Barrow River below? You will want to know, and will read on until you do.

Keegan is mostly known as a short-story writer. She has won many awards for her work, which is marked by compactness, showing what needs to be shown to tell her tale. Do not dismiss this novel for its brevity. Small Things Like These is huge! You may not need to prepare a manger with fresh hay, but I would definitely make room for this novel in your collection this holiday season. It is an evocative, beautiful, moving novel that deserves to become a Christmas classic.

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

Review posted – November 12, 2021

Publication date – November 30, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Small Things Like These from Grove Press in return for a fair review, and a few lumps of coal. Thanks, folks, and thanks to Netgalley for facilitating. Bless you, every one.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Keegan’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

On her personal site, there are links to, among other things, two of her short stories, in the Links tab.

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Claire Keegan: ‘Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can’ by Sean O’Hagan – 2010
—–New Ross Standard – Claire’s novel examines cult of silence in 1980s New Ross by Simon Bourke – April 2021
—–Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’ by Claire Armistead
—–Independent.ie – Writer Claire Keegan: ‘I think stories go looking for their authors’ by Emily Hourican
—–The Writing Life – Claire Keegan and the art of subtraction by Terence Patrick Winch – video – 28:29 – from 2013 – re her short stories

Items of Interest from the author
—–The New Yorker – Foster – this is an abridged version of her award winning story
—–Hollihoux – a reading of Foster by Evanna Lynch

Items of Interest
—–The Charles Dickens page – A Christmas Carol – the full text
—–BBC – Irish mother and baby homes: Timeline of controversy
—–Wiki about The 2005 Ferns Report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Diocese of Ferns
—–The actual report
—–Wiki on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
—–Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries
—–George Bailey
—–Ann Lovett

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Oh, Yes! – Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout

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Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image—and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died—so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.
This may sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why this is true, but it is. I suppose because being with Hansel—even if we were lost in the woods—made me feel safe.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) had been a very successful novel for Elizabeth Strout. She had even written a followup, Anything is Possible, (2017) a collection of stories, in which Lucy visits her Mid-West relations after a prolonged absence. Laura Linney was starring in a one-woman show of the former. Strout was there for a rehearsal when Laura opined that maybe William, Lucy’s ex, had had an affair. A lightbulb went off for Strout and she realized that William had a story of his own. Thus was born Oh, William!

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Elizabeth Strout – image from Time magazine

She carried forward details about William from the prior books and built outward, or dug deeper, from there. There were some real-world elements of William’s tale. William’s father was a German POW, held in Maine, and his mother, the wife of a farmer who was using POW labor, fell in love with him and left her husband. The POW camp is a real place.

So my husband and I took a field trip. We went up there, we went to all the places that Lucy and William go on their own trip, and I took furious notes on everything I saw. And when we came back I settled down and wrote their story. – RandomHouse Book Club kit

Caveat Lector
You should know before diving in too far that, while I have read Strout’s Olive books, I have not read her prior Lucy Barton books. As Oh, William! is a third in that stack, this is not a trivial shortcoming. There are likely to be connections between this book and the prior two that I missed. But I have read up on those a bit, and acquired some gist. That said, I believe Oh, William! can be read, enjoyed and, hopefully, reviewed as a stand-alone. Just sayin’, cards on the table.

On the other hand, I felt very personally touched and engaged by the novel. I am of a common demographic with William, (we even share TWO names) and re-viewing the events of a lifetime is a natural hazard of this place in our existence. One thinks about the ages, the events, the people, the possibilities, the chances missed, and caught, the attempts that failed or succeeded, the misreads and the insights, the absence of understanding and the wise perceptions, maybe the bullets dodged, the awful relationships that never happened, the good ones that did, maybe the actual bullets that impacted elsewhere. In a way one might see this novel as a look back over William’s life from the point of his final days. A life examined. It could also be seen as the life of a relationship examined, the intersection of two trunks, Lucy and William, meeting, intertwining, then branching out in separate but linked directions.

In any such examination, whether of a life or relationship, it is natural, I believe, to wonder what might have been. Could we have performed better in the roles in which we were cast, or in which we had cast ourselves. To wonder why the director led us to this spot, to stage right instead of left, and always wondering at the playwright, and whether there was ever a script at all. This question of choices is one Strout takes on here. How much freedom of choice is there, actually, how much decision-making? William and Lucy talk about her decision to leave him.

I would like to know—I really would like to—when does a person actually choose anything? You tell me.”
I thought about this.
He continued, “Once every so often—at the very most—I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something—we don’t even know what it is but we follow it, Lucy. So, no. I don’t think you chose to leave.”
After a moment I asked, “Are you saying you don’t believe in free will?”
William put both hands to his head for a moment. “Oh stop with the free will crap,” he said. He kept walking back and forth as he spoke, and he pushed his hand through his white hair. “…I’m talking about choosing things. You know, I knew a guy who worked in the Obama administration, and he was there to help make choices. And he told me that very very few times did they actually have to make a choice. [
This was taken from a conversation Strout actually had with an Obama official, about how the decisions to be made were so obvious that there was little choosing required] And I always found that so interesting. Because it’s true. We just do—we just do, Lucy.”

And how might it be that so much of our lives is so constrained? A lot of that is based on where we began. Marx would call it class, and that is a very powerful force indeed. Strout digs into the specific roots of this for her characters. Lucy had grown up poor and miserable, (I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.) and never felt entirely comfortable, persistently invisible even, (I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.) in the more middle-class world in which she lived with William, a parasitologist researcher (a nod to her father of the same profession) and teacher, despite her successful authorial career, despite living in a nice neighborhood in Manhattan, despite raising successful children. She is not the only major character haunted by an impoverished childhood. It is made quite clear that this other character had been severely damaged by that experience and that it had driven many life decisions.

The external of the story is William’s discovery at age seventy-one that he has a half-sister he had never known about. William and Lucy had remained on friendly terms, despite their divorce and subsequent remarryings. William’s third wife has left him. Lucy is widowed. He asks her go to Maine with him to look into this never-suspected sibling. Although it seems a bit odd, Lucy agrees to go along. It gives them both opportunities to look back, not just on their own lives, but on the lives of William’s parents. Coming to this revelation so late in life raises an issue. Is it ever really possible to truly know anyone? Lucy had kept much of her early life hidden away. William’s mother, Catherine, a very large presence in their marriage, had done the same. William had kept plenty of secrets during their marriage, including multiple affairs. He covered his true feelings with a friendly façade, and Lucy loathed him for that. But Lucy had kept a part of herself turned away from him as well. Her family’s rejection of her marriage to William left a lasting scar. The externals of their trip reveal some buried truths, but this is a novel about internals, not physical action.

How does one cope with the challenges of dealing with other people, with those to whom we are closest? There is the challenge of knowing who they truly are in the first place. And then there is the challenge of letting our true selves be seen, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust others with our most delicate emotional parts. This is almost certainly universal. Who among us does not have at least one secret (and I would bet that most have more) that we keep hidden even from our closest friends, our lovers, our mates, parents, children, priests, shrinks, not to mention the police?

There was an amazing film released in 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. (Recently remade for HBO) It examines ten years of a union doomed to failure. The original was a revelation for me. My gf at the time urged me not to see it, concerned about the impact on my view of whatever-it-was we had. Oh, William! reminded me of that, less as a forensic analysis of a marital corpse, but as a broader view of a lifelong connection, in their marriage, and beyond it, a friendship. It looks at what went into building their marriage, at what kept it from being more than it was, and at the impact of William’s mother on their lives. Even after they split up, Lucy often says He is the only home I ever had.

One of the many triumphs of Oh, William! is how Strout offers up many small bits, pointing out the things about their interactions with each other that drove them crazy, that show without telling.

He stared at me, and then I realized he wasn’t really seeing me.
“Did you sleep?” I asked him, and he broke into a smile then, his mustache moving, and he said, “I did. How crazy is that? I slept like a baby.”
He did not ask about my sleep and I did not tell him.

The past is our inevitable root. We are not ents, that can simply follow our needs and drag ourselves away from where we sprouted. That past is inescapable, even if we can change our external circumstances, move up in the world, move away from the painful parts that formed us. But we live in the present, and the past often appears to the here-and-now in the form of ghosts, of one sort or another. When William and Lucy visit Fort Fairfield in Maine, it is truly a ghost town, barely even a town any more. Images they see in the local library conjure a long dead era. In a way their marriage, if not their friendship, is a spectral presence, long dead, although still hovering in the room.

I usually try to come up with something that did not sit well in a book, gripes of one sort or another, elements that might have been better. This time, really, I got nuthin’.

There is so much in this novel that is beautifully portrayed, insightful, wise, and moving. A penetrating portrait of two people and their half-century of connection, warts and all. Oh, William! is a masterwork by one of our greatest fiction writers, at the peak of her creative power. Oh, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

There have been a few times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me: There was no escape.
When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying.

Review posted – November 5, 2021

Publication date – October 19, 2021

I received an ARE of Oh, William! from Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Elizabeth Strout: ‘I’ve thought about death every day since I was 10’ by Kate Kellaway
—–Time – Elizabeth Strout Knows We Can’t Escape the Past by Annabel Gutterman
—–Entertainment Weekly – Howe a literary conscious uncoupling and Laura Linney helped Elizabeth Strout write Oh, William! – by Seija Rankin
—–Bookpage – Elizabeth Strout: The heart and soul of an emotional spy by Alice Cary – for Anything is Possible
—–WBUR – Author Elizabeth Strout explores marriage, memory and class in ‘Oh William!’ – audio – 9:26

My reviews of other books by the author
—–2019 – Olive, Again
—–2008 – Olive Kitteridge

Items of Interest from the author
—–WBUR – excerpt
—–Random House – Book Club Kit
—–Literary Hub – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Fuzz by Mary Roach

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…I…follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, and there’s a bear in the back seat earing popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”

Mary Roach is up to her old tricks. A science writer now publishing her seventh book, Roach has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, NY Times Magazine, and many more. She begins with a notion, then goes exploring. Roach tells Goodreads, in a book-recommendation piece, that she came across a potential story about cattle breeders staging deaths to commit insurance fraud. She even had a grand theft avocado story lined up, but the local Smokeys would not let her come along, which was a requisite. She shifted to wildlife.

I paid a visit to a woman at the National Wildlife Service forensics lab who had authored a paper on how to detect counterfeit “medicinal” tiger penises. – from the GR piece

Wait! What? (there is link to the study in EXTRA STUFF, of course) But again it was nogo accompanying the officers into the field. Really? Her presence would blow a National Wildlife Service raid on a market selling junk johnsons? It is pretty easy to come up with a descriptive for such unwarranted reticence. (Rhymes with sickish.) In any case, in her investigative travels, Mary came across a weird 1906 book about the prosecution and execution of animals and realized she had her hook. What if animals were the perpetrators of crimes instead of people? She breaks the book down into “criminal” categories, homicide, B&E, man-slaughter, larceny, even jaywalking, and off we go.

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Mary Roach – image from Lapham’s Quarterly

First, and foremost, I need to let you know straight away that you will be laughing out loud at least every few pages. This is not an experience I have with any other writer, and yet have had it consistently with Mary Roach, across the several books of hers that I have read. Ditto here. Well, fine, your sense of humor may not be like mine, but Mary has the key to my funny-bone.

Her intro offers a stunning representation of just how stupid people have been when attempting to enforce laws on animals over the course of history. Python-worthy material, totally side-splitting, and jaw-dropping. Really, they actually did that? Yes, gentle reader, they totally did.

On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province in northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars. The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from people’s gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court…Of course no caterpillars appeared at the appointed time, but the case went forward anyway.

It goes on. Would have been tough making a charge stick anyway. They would have just blamed each other. It was that caterpillar, not me. I was nowhere near that orchard. And even if they were jailed they would have just flown out anyway. The law may be a ass, far too often, but sometimes it truly boggles the mind.

As usual, Mary interviews experts in all the areas she investigates. She begins her contemporary explorations with a gathering of Canadian Conservation officers (in the USA) getting Wildlife Human Attack Response Training or WHART. They don’t, but you go right on ahead and call it what it is, CSI-Wildlife – DUUUUUM-DA-DUM! Mary brings plenty of funny to her reporting, but a lot of it is simply laying out the facts and letting them make you laugh themselves. For example, the test manikins are named for brands of beer. Good one, eh? And there is that quote at the top of the review. You will also learn some real-world intel like the significance of a round versus a more oval drop of blood at a crime scene.

As usual with Mary, you will find yourself learning a whole bunch of information you never knew you wanted to know, like how to tell the difference between a bear and a cougar kill. (No, not that sort of cougar, the one with fur and claws, a mountain lion, Geez! and no, no, no, not that sort of bear, creatures of the Ursus genus, not those other large hairy beasts. Stop that right now!) She considers issues with elephants, leopards, cougars, bears, macaques, gulls, vultures and other birds, rats and mice, trees, and beans. Come again?

The lines here get a bit vague. It is not just animals that are the focus but some non-critter-based elements of nature as well. Sticking with critters for the moment, there are considerable challenges in managing the interface between people and animals. For instance, the vig that farm mice seem to extract from farmers regardless of what is done to get rid of them can turn peaceable crop-growers homicidal. Mary looks at the control methods that have been tried, and explores a promising, more laid-back approach.

Rats in the Vatican (which is an outstanding name for a band, just sayin’) present the challenge of managing the property while taking seriously the lead of Saint Francis of Assisi, an animal rights figure of long-standing, and a major inspiration for Pope, ya know, Francis. Mary talks to the guy in charge of this problem (I could not help but imagine Father Guido Sarducci, sorry), the Vatican Director of Gardens and Garbage, Rafael Torning. The considerable Vatican rat population has a taste for wires, and damages a lot of machinery. VG&G does what they can, trying to avoid using nasty chemicals. But even so, aren’t there ethical concerns? So, she talks with the house bioethicist, Father Carlo. Let’s just say that if you could count the number of angels on the head of a pin, Father Carlo could very nicely twist all of them into pretzels with his words.

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A possible solution to half of the Vatican’s Gull-and-rats problem? – image from the Irish Sun

The Vatican has a considerable problem with herring gulls as well, thousands of ‘em. None of this Mary Poppins Feed the Birds nonsense. The feathered rabble that descend on Saint Peter’s seem more like the gathered horde in that Hitchcock movie. You will not come away from this book fond of gulls. I found her lapsed-Catholic’s tour of the Vatican to be worth many, many indulgences, rich as it was with fun details and ambience.

Chapters on elephants and leopards are particularly alarming.

…when a leopard stalks and kills more than three or four people, villagers consider it a demon. – [it, clearly, considers them takeout]

There was one historical case in which a single leopard killed over a hundred people. Mary travels with government and non-government people as they try to educate local populations in best practices for avoiding potential conflict. Not all leopard attacks are the same. You will learn the sorts. And not all attacking leopards are handled the same way. She looks at changes that have been at least partially implemented to try to reduce the carnage. (Indoor toilets, for example), and the challenges going forward in handling the problem, getting leopards to leave people alone.

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Leopard – image from Wild Cats India

When it comes to elephants, Mary Roach knows her shit, literally. She reports on a Smithsonian project that measured daily defecation by an Indian elephant. A poop scooper will not do. Maybe a poop plow? 400 pounds, give or take, per diem. Elephants loom large as a danger, laying waste to crops, trampling fields and bulldozing buildings. People are sometimes accidentally trampled. Sometimes it is no accident, as when one elephant did a headstand on someone. A bull elephant in an elevated period of breeding excitement, called musth, is particularly aggressive and a mortal peril. She can also tell you about the effectiveness of small arms against big pachyderms. Keep your powder dry. Most bullets do little or no damage. Even a bit of armor-piercing ordnance intended for tanks needs a follow up to get the job done.

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Indian elephant in musth – image from Wikipedia

Monkeys in India come in for a look. Macaques in particular, have made pests of themselves in urban areas, becoming aggressive thieves, to the point of violence, and even of extortion, as some will steal your phone, handing it back only when you pay the fee in food. Government officials struggle to come up with solutions, tough in a place where the monkey is a sacred animal. It is impossible to deliver directed doses of birth control without endangering other native wildlife, for example. Roach delivers a bleak portrait of official finger-pointing and inaction.

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Street Monkeys in India – image from Outlook

While reporting on the damage done to area farms and people, and the impact of wildlife in places populated with humans, Roach does point out that a lot (all) of these conflicts result from people expanding into the native territory of dangerous or potentially pestiferous, animals.

I was surprised that there were parts of the book dedicated to non-creature natural perils. The material is interesting, but thematically it felt a bit off the central topic.

There is much surprise information (well, for me anyway) about “danger trees,” those fully grown trees that have come to the end of their lives, at least in terms of growing. They still serve as useful woodland citizens by providing places in which creatures can nest, wood in which bugs can live, biomaterials that will be absorbed back into the woods. This is all good, but there is still one problem. The rotting tops of these gentle souls can come crashing down on passers-by, unaware of the peril. The approach that is taken, by woodland managers makes one wonder whether it is better to yell “Timber” or “Fire in the Hole!”

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Decay throughout this tree makes it too hazardous to fell with a saw. It was felled with one bundle of fireline explosives taped to the side of the tree – image and text from the US Forest Service

There is an element in this book that you should be aware of. The disposal of animals considered pests. This is of particular relevance in places where invasive species have arrived and laid waste to significant segments of the local fauna, and/or flora. Not all of these are the usual suspects, stowaway rats wiping out bird populations with their fondness for eggs, brown snakes, ditto and far too many others, often foolishly introduced by people attempting to counteract an earlier invasives problem. Some of the invaders are adorable and not on your likely list of things that MUST BE EXTERMINATED NOW. Mary looks at the techniques attempted (usually failed) and on the thought that goes into trying to make a creature’s passing as quick as possible. You might want to skip that chapter (14). Many of my daily companions are on that list and, although I did read it all, it was disquieting at times. Just lettin’ ya know. I hope this does not turn you off the book if you are otherwise interested.

She does focus on ways in which people can live in coexistence with nature. This includes a greater understanding of the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, and a workable approach for reducing roadway carnage.

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Deer in the headlights – image from Bryans Blog

I have issues with the titling of the book. The raised-patch addition to the hardcover jacket goes very nicely with the patches my wife and I picked up at many US National Parks. Mary might have called it Nature Gone Wild, but that was already taken. Naming it Fuzz, though, (maintaining the tradition of single-syllable Mary Roach book titles) does make it seem like it is about the police-type officials who are charged with coping when forces of nature interfere with people. Although there were indeed some badged officials in her stable of interviewees and guides through these fascinating worlds, she spoke as often with people who were researchers or administrators, and the stories were about the problems, not so much the law enforcers. Many may be related to parks here and there. Some were employed by wildlife services, but it just did not sit well with me. Her reporting is as much about a wider view of the issues as it is about the direct, Book-em, Danno “crimes” supposedly perpetrated on people by the furry or feathered set. So, I will not shy away from this. When it comes to actually describing what the book is about the title is decidedly fuzzy. There. I did it, and I am not sorry. Well, ok, maybe a little. Not that I can come up with anything better, just whining.

That done, it is clear that wherever Mary Roach shines her light there will be surprises, there will be new knowledge, and there will be smiles, lots and lots of smiles, covered with copious quantities of laughter. Follow along behind Mary as she opens some closed doors, peeks into some hidden corners, and pesters defenseless officials to find fascinating, wondrous real-world material. Even despite that one grim chapter, I found myself reacting as I always do to a Mary Roach book, laughing out loud, often, very, very often. There is a definite joy in trailing after Mary as she shines her very bright light into unseen corners and calls back “Hey guys, come see what I found!” If you have enjoyed her books before, this one should do quite nicely. There is nothing fuzzy about that at all.

Feeding animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict. The promise of food motivates normally human-shy animals to take a risk. The risk-taking is rewarded, and the behavior escalates. Shyness becomes fearlessness, and fearlessness becomes aggression. If you don’t hand over the food you are carrying, the monkey will grab it. If you try to hold onto it, or push the animal away…it may slap you. Or bite you. The Times of India put the number of monkey bites reported by Delhi hospitals in 2018 at 950. [When your teenager makes off with your car, just remember that it all began when they were small, and you made the mistake of offering them food]

Review posted – October 29, 2021

Publication date – September 21, 2021

I received this book from Barnes & Noble in return for cold, hard cash

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Interviews
—– Mary Roach Discusses Craft & Humor in Science Writing With the Northwest Science Writers Association with Hannah Weinberger and Ashley Braun of Northwest Science Writers Association – video – 1:05:08 – Covers her entire career
—–Commonwealth Club – Mary Roach’s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law – with Kara Platoni – audio – 1:04:44 – a lot of fascinating material in this one – more focused on this book
—–Bookpage – Mary Roach – Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws by Alice Cary
—–Goodreads – Mary Roach’s Highly Unusual True Crime Recommendations

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2013 – Gulp
—–2010 – Packing for Mars
—–2006 – Spook
—–2004 – Stiff

Items of Interest
—–National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – Distinguishing Real Vs Fake Tiger Penises – Where it all began for Mary re this book – You know you’re curious – yes, there are illustrations
—–The Guardian – Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town by Adam Gabbatt – Geez, talk about pests!
—–NY Times – Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand by Gardiner Harris

Songs/Music
—–Mary Poppins – Feed the Birds – Julie Andrews

Scrabble Words – from the book, to weaponize against family and friends in the game
–—-frass – insect excreta – white powder that appears on trees (Not a birch! Please do not lean there.)
—–kerf – space left by a saw-blade cut in a tree (not necessarily by a man wearing a leather mask)
—–kronism – the eating of one’s offspring (named for Saturn. Did not work out well for him, though)
—–musth – a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. (from Wiki) (aka Friday night?)

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Heaven-Sent – Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

book cover

Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.

Anthony Doerr has written a masterpiece of a tale, connecting five characters, over hundreds of years through their relationship to a single book. Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ancient story written by Antonius Diogenes around the first century C.E. (Only in the novel. While the author is real, the book was made up.) It tells of a shepherd, Aethon, seeking a magical, heavenly place in the sky, the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” of the title. Each of the five characters are introduced to this story, and we see how it impacts their lives. Each has characteristics that set them apart. But all have lost, or lose, at least one parent.

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Anthony Doerr – image from Boise State Public Radio

We meet Konstance, 14, on an interstellar, generational ship, maybe the late 21st century, maybe the 22nd. She is laying out on the floor of a large room the scraps of pages that comprise the book. (Sometimes he [Doerr] would lay out all these micro chapters on the floor so he could see them and discover the resonances between characters across space and time. – from the NY Times interview) She was born on The Argos, and the plan is that she will not live long enough to reach the ship’s destination, but will grow to adulthood and raise a family there, passing down humanity’s culture so that someday, homo sapiens can rebuild on a new, unspoiled home world, Beta Oph2. Hopefully that planet will remain better off once people arrive. She is driven by her need to know, a boundless curiosity, and a willingness to think outside the ship.

Anna is an orphan. In 15th century Constantinople we follow her from age 7 to early adolescence. She and her older sister, Maria, work as seamstresses in the house of Nicholas Kalaphates. It is a Dickensian world of exploitation of diverse sorts. Anna is far too bright to be denied the world of words, and, once exposed to it, she pursues that world doggedly. On her travels through the city on errands she comes across a class of boys being taught Greek, The Odyssey, and attends, surreptitiously. The master agrees to teach her privately in return for modest items. Her literacy makes her a suspect to the adults around her, a criminal to others, and possibly a witch to the most ignorant, but leads her to a ruined library and eventually, to Aethon.

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The Imperial Library at Constantinople [in better days] – image from Novo Scriptorium

Omeir was born in 1439, like Anna, but with a cleft lip and palate. The superstitious country people in his home town believed him cursed, demonic even, so he is driven out of town, exiled to a remote part of what is now Bulgaria, where he does his best to remain out of sight, to be raised by his grandfather. But Omeir is a survivor. He becomes a marvel at the care of oxen, raising and training two to immense proportions. The team of three are remarkable workers. Downside is that the new sultan demands Omeir, now an adolescent, and his oxen serve in his army. He is planning to lay siege to Constantinople, a city with walls that have withstood such attacks for over eleven hundred years. Omeir will encounter Aethon later.

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The oldest surviving map of Constantinople, by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, dated to 1422. The fortifications of Constantinople and of Galata, at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, are prominently featured. – image from Wikipedia

Seymour does not fit in. He lives with his mother, who struggles to get by on low-wage jobs. Probably on the spectrum, he struggles with more than the usual travails of growing up. He cannot, for example, tolerate loud sound. He cannot or will not remain in his seat at school. The world overwhelms him and when the pressure of it builds too high, he screams, which is not conducive to a successful school life. A class library outing brings him into contact with a whole new world, when the librarian, Marian, (surely a nod to The Music Man) hooks him up with nature books. He finds comfort in the natural world, befriending a large, amenable owl, and reveling in walks in the woods adjacent to his home. We follow him from childhood into adolescence and into his development as an eco-warrior. Seymour is the avatar of Doerr’s concerns about environmental degradation, presenting a generational cri du coeur, however misguided in its application, about the destruction of a following generation’s natural heritage.

We see Zeno as a child. He realizes he is gay at an early age. But it is the 1940s in Idaho, and this is simply not allowed. He has to keep that part of himself hidden. We see him again as a POW during the Korean War, when he learns Greek, and as an octogenarian teacher. He lives in a small Idaho community, and is leading five students in a stage performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land, a book he translated from the Greek, well, from what bits remained of it.

As with All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, his characters here are young. (Not necessarily for the entire book, but for a good chunk) He says writing from a child’s perspective allows one to “to see more nakedly some of the things that we’ve elided or erased in our minds because of age.” (From the NYTimes interview). Each comes to the world with their own personal content, but also with a sense of wonder. Anna is amazed by the vast universe of story that can be reached through literacy. Seymour is dazzled by nature and nature books. Konstance is amazed by the things she can see, the places she can visit, the knowledge she can gain in the virtual library on the ship. Zeno also finds a refuge and a world of possibility in his local library. For Omeir, it is the tales his grandfather tells him when they’re out trapping grouse that capture his imagination.

While all the characters have their individual stories, Zeno and Seymour’s stories converge in today’s Lakeport, Idaho; (Doerr and family spend a lot of time in McCall, Idaho, a likely model for Lakeport) Anna and Omeir’s stories converge in the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, and all their stories converge on the connection to that ancient book up through the somewhat near future of Konstance’s experience.

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Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453 – image from Europe Between East and West

It is these connections, these convergences, that provide the structure and core mystery of the book. How does this first century story find its way to fifteenth century Constantinople, to the world of today, and to the future in which Konstance lives? How is it preserved, by whom, and why? Asked about the spark for his focus on the preservation of literature, of culture, Doer said:

I’m getting close to 50. And though I still feel and behave like a kid most of the time, my eyesight is fading, I can apparently injure myself while sleeping and my little baby boys are suddenly big hairy-legged job-working car-driving high school kids. I’m realizing that everything—youth, hairlines, memories, civilizations—fades. And the amazing technology that is a printed book seems to be one of the few human inventions that has outlived whole human generations. What a privilege it is to open a book like The Iliad and summon tales that entertained people almost 3,000 years ago.

The folks doing most of the preserving are librarians of one sort or another. Each of the characters has a relationship with a librarian, Zeno and Seymour with the librarians in Lakeport, Idaho, Anna with scribes in Constantinople, Omeir with Anna, and Konstance with the AI controller of her ship.

I hope that my readers will be reminded that librarians serve as stewards of human memory—without librarians, we lose perhaps our most important windows into the human journey. – from the QBD interview

Part of his growing-up environment was spending a lot of time in libraries as his teacher mom often made use of them as a form of day care for Doerr and his brothers. It’s not like he minded. In fact, he even dedicated the book to librarians.

They were a place where I felt completely safe. And just the miracle of them, there’s something that – talk about peeling the scales off your eyes. Like, here’s the work of all these masters available to you for free. And you can take them home. – from the NPR interview

As with All the Light…, Doerr found inspirations for the elements of the book in diverse places. It was while researching the walls at Saint Malo for his prior book that he came across repeated references to the millennium-long impenetrability of the walls of Constantinople, and dug into that a lot deeper. He is also interested in how technology induces change. In All the Light… it was radio. Here it is gunpowder and advanced armaments in the 15th century, allowing a new level of violence in the assault on supposedly impervious walls. In the contemporary world it is the internet allowing in both a world of information and a cannonade of lies and manipulation. He sees the future as being driven by artificial intelligence.

One of the things that most stuck with me was the portrayal of reading, particularly the reading of material to others, as not only an act of kindness, of affection, but also be a source of healing, and certainly comfort. There are several times when characters read to other characters who are ill, to positive effect. We are a species that relies on stories to make sense of our world, and to inspire, to spark imagination. The story of Aethon inspires all the main characters to dream of more, to dream of better, to dream beyond realistic possibility.

Doerr enjoys tossing in a bit of classical reference spice. The ship Argos, of course, recalls Jason and his crew. Zeno is saved by a dog named Athena as Hercules was rescued by the goddess herself. There are plenty more of these.

I would keep an eye out for owl imagery, and roses come in for some repeated attention as well. Walls get special attention. The big one in Constantinople is the most obvious, but Konstance has physical walls of her own she needs to get through. Seymour tries breaching a physical wall, as Zeno tries to defend one. The notion of paradise permeates. The title alone refers to an unrealizable fantasy of heaven. It is the heaven that Aethon pursues. For Zeno it is a place where he can be accepted, loved, while being his true self. Seymour is lured by the promise of a sylvan environmentalist camp where he can embrace nature with others of like mind. A development in his beloved woods is called Eden’s Gate (close enough to make one think of Heaven’s Gate). He and his mother live on Arcady Lane. For Anna it is a dream of a better life outside the city.

How Doerr weaves all this together is a dazzling work of genius. He will leave you breathless, even as he shows you the construction of his multiple threads, bit by bit by bit.

“That’s the real joy,” Doerr said, “the visceral pleasure that comes from taking these stories, these lives, and intersecting them, braiding them.” – from the NY Times interview

Mirroring is employed extensively as the experiences of all five characters (and Aethon) repeat in one form or another for them all.

The book lists at 640 hardcover pages. Do not take this at face value. In terms of actual words, Cuckoo Land is about the same length as All the Light. There are many pages holding only titles or section headings. There is a lot of white space. That does not make this a fast read. It would still be around 500 pages if one stripped it down to word-count alone. But it is less daunting than the presenting length of 640 pages. Also, Doerr writes in small chunks. You can always use a spare minute or two to drop in on this book and still get through a chapter or five. There is a reason for this.

He had hit upon this approach for the most practical of reasons. As a parent, he couldn’t hope to get more than an hour or two of solid work done before having to attend to shuttling the boys to swim practice or some other activity. “I might have stumbled accidentally into that,” he said. – from the NY Times interview

While there are dark events that take place in this novel, the overall feel is one of optimism, of possibility, of persistence, and of the availability of beauty and hope to all, if only we can keep alive our connections to each other through time and place, keep alive hopes for a better place, for a better, meaningful life, and continue to dream impossible dreams. If you read nothing else this year, do yourself a favor and read Cloud Cuckoo Land, and be transported (no wings required) to a literary paradise by this book, which I hope will be read as long as there are people able to read. It is a heavenly book, and an immediate classic.

“Repository,” he finally says, “you know this word? A resting place. A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.”
His eyes open very widely then, as though he peers into a great darkness.
“But books, like people, die too. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”

Review posted – October 22, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an ARE of Cloud Cuckoo Land from Simon & Schuster, but I first learned of it from Cai at GR, who passed on my request to someone at S&S, who sent me an ARE and passed on my request to the person responsible for this e-galley, who ok’d that too. Thanks to all, and thanks to NetGalley for providing an e-ARE.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, GR, and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Anthony Doerr: ‘Rather than write what I know, I write what I want to know’ by Anthony Cummins
—–CBS – Sunday Morning – Novelist Anthony Doerr on “Cloud Cuckoo Land” – with Lee Cowan – video – 7:49
—–NPR – Anthony Doerr On The Spark That Inspired ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ – audio – 8:26 – with Scott Simon – text of the interview is on the page as well
—–Seattle Times – Pulitzer winner Anthony Doerr discusses his new novel, the timeless power of books and more by Moira Macdonald
—–New York Times – For His Next Act, Anthony Doerr Wrote a Book About Everything by Gal Beckerman
—–Parade – Anthony Doerr Revels in the Uplifting Messages of Stories in His New Epic Cloud Cuckoo Land by Dillon Dodson
—–QBD Book Club: Cloud Cuckoo Land with Anthony Doerr with Victoria A. Carthew – video – 28:06

My review of Doerr’s prior novel
—–All the Light We Cannot See

Songs/Music
—–Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway
—–Man of La Mancha – The Impossible Dream – Richard Kiley at the Tony Awards
—–The Music Man – Madam Librarian
—–Edison Lighthouse – Love Grows Where my Rosemary Goes – Playing when Zeno is in London

Items of Interest from the author
—–audio excerpt – 0:58

Items of Interest
—–Interesting Literature – on the etymology of the phrase Cloud Cuckoo Land
Since the late nineteenth century, the phrase has been used more generally to refer to ‘a fanciful or ideal realm or domain’. Indeed, most of the time people use ‘cloud cuckoo land’ they do so without referencing the phrase back to Aristophanes; indeed, many people who use the phrase may well be unaware of the term’s origins in the work of ancient Greece’s greatest comic playwright.
—–Wiki on The Fall of Constantinople
—–Wiki on The Imperial Library of Constantinople
—–Generation Starship – thanks to Derus for the ref

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, Cli-Fi, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Sci-fi, Science Fiction