A Review of Anita Shreve’s Testimony (by Bethany)

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When I encounter a book I’ve never seen before that is set in a boarding school, SOP is to buy the book first and ask questions later. When Anita Shreve’s Testimony was published in 2008, I remember being very pleased with myself for NOT purchasing it right away. I just had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be good and I was going to be annoyed, and trust me, I did not need one more thing to be annoyed about in 2008. My annoyance plate was already quite full that year. I picked the paperback up a few years later at Target (for 20% off – the book still has the sticker on it) and then rediscovered it on a shelf last weekend.

Most of the time what I enjoy most about books about boarding schools is how wrong they all are. Very few fictional representations of boarding schools capture the realities of that world: the grinding schedule, the relentless forward motion of time, the giddiness that comes from being constantly stimulated and constantly exhausted. The intimacies (and I don’t mean sexual intimacies, although those happen too, of course) – I know more about the dogs of some of my boarding school colleagues than I do about actual people I’ve worked with at other jobs. One novel that does capture what boarding school feels like is The Catcher in the Rye. Remember chapter 2, when Holden goes to say goodbye to his history teacher, who is in bed with the flu? As a kid, I read through that scene without thinking about it, focusing on the many humorous moments – Holden commenting on the teacher’s hairy, pale chest under his bathrobe, and so forth. It wasn’t until later that I reread this scene and thought about it through my own perspective rather than through Holden’s. This is an older man (Holden exaggerates about his age, of course, but he seems at least sixty) in bed with the flu, and here comes Mr. Sarcastic Underachiever in his red hunting hat to say goodbye. The teacher has his stack of graded exams in bed with him while he has the flu. If you filter out Holden’s sarcasm, what you see is a man who cares more about a failing student than he does about his own health and his own privacy. That’s boarding school. That’s it right there.

I was pleasantly surprised by Testimony in one sense: Shreve gets the day-to-day details of life in boarding school down on the page fairly well. She clearly has some experience as a teacher or parent in a contemporary boarding school setting. As I was reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel was set at New Hampton School in New Hampshire, a school at which I interviewed in 2007 and which struck me as perilously poised on the edge of a scandal like the one in this novel.

This novel is about what happens when a sex tape surfaces and makes its way to the headmaster (I can barely type that word without cringing – just about every school nowadays uses “Head of School”) – at what is described as a prestigious boarding school (this could be a credibility slip – there is a mistaken sense out there in the world that all boarding schools are prestigious. Some are, sure – but some will take anyone. I’m just saying.) called Avery Academy. The headmaster’s response is to quietly expel the students involved and do everything possible to avoid alerting the media. The novel is structured with shifting points of view: a chapter about the headmaster receiving and viewing the tape is followed by a chapter about Ellen, a mother of one of the students involved (Ellen’s chapters are written in the second person, for reasons I could not discern). All of the students involved have their say, as do the other parents, various townspeople and members of the police department and media, and other students who only know small parts of the story. Sometimes I think shifting points of view are a copout because they free a novelist from having to tell the story well through the limited perspective of one character; however, it occurs to me that shifting third person may be the only realistic way to tell a story set at a boarding school, because a boarding school by nature is a multi-eyed beast. Nothing is ever viewed through only one lens.

So some quick details on the sex tape: four students, including one holding the camera who is never identified to the authorities (although we as readers know who he is). Three are senior or PG boys (Anita Shreve even knows what PG’s are and how they behave – I was especially impressed by this!) on the basketball team; the fourth is a freshman girl. In the video, the girl performs oral sex on one of the seniors and has sexual intercourse with another. While the girl gives the impression in the video of being very willing to engage in these sex acts, she later calls her parents and tells them she was raped. They’re the ones who call the police, and that’s how the media, the local police, and several local residents get involved. Two of the boys are expelled first and then later arrested; the third leaves campus before the authorities can find him and goes for a long hike in the woods, where he is later found frozen to death. It wouldn’t be a boarding-school novel without a death.

In spite of Shreve’s above-average command of the realities of boarding school life, I felt a general dislike of this book as I was reading it, and I didn’t realize until I started writing this review that the reason I found this book so unimpressive is the fact that not one single thing happens that is unpredictable. The parents all react to their children’s expulsion in a predictable way. The girlfriend of the boy who disappears in the woods reacts to his death in a predictable way. I was never once surprised by anything that happened. Because the thing is, in boarding schools, incidents like this one happen all the time. There isn’t usually a tape involved – and the combination of this piece of hard evidence and the fact that the girl’s parents called the police and the media dictated a specific course of action that had to happen in this novel. Usually, administrators become aware of these sorts of incidents through rumors and innuendo, and with no proof these incidents are handled via a combination of enhanced supervision, the planning of educational events about safe sex or some other relevant topic, and the counseling of individual students by dorm parents, deans, or health staff. When I was a boarding school administrator, we had something called “the statutory rape talk,” and we gave it all the time. The dean of students would look at his to-do list and announce that so-and-so needs the statutory rape talk – who’s on it? We also had something called the “Anal Sex Phone Tree,” but that’s a story for another day.

It’s possible that Anita Shreve knows the boarding school world too well – but it’s also possible that she sabotaged her own novel by packing the first few chapters with several incidents and details that could only lead to one realistic result. With a sex tape and a rape charge given in the first few chapters, the characters’ only choices for the remainder of the novel are in the area of what color shirt to wear to the arraignment. The plot proceeds with grim inevitability toward its end – like a novel that opens in New York City on September 10, 2001.

This novel is the literary equivalent of iceberg lettuce. There’s no there there. It’s not unpleasant or bad, but reading it will not do one single thing to nourish your mind or soul. I can’t think of a single reason that this novel ought to exist. People who are naïve enough to believe that these kinds of sexual incidents don’t happen in high schools might be a little titillated by the scandal. There’s a certain amount of forward momentum to the plot, and the short, character-driven chapters give the novel a fast (almost frenetic) pace that a reader might find amenable to a plane trip or beach vacation. But there are so many books out there that are better, that will leave characters and situations in your mind that you will carry with you forever. Why waste your time on one like this?

Posted in Anita Shreve, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

I really hope that all New Yorkers aren’t like the ones in this book. Thoughts on Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (by Jill)

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Sex and the City was my August Numbers Challenge selection. I put it in my list for several reasons, not the least of which was that I actually wanted to read the book that the HBO series was based on. I really loved that show. It was my favorite means of procrastination during the middle of vet school. It was this glimpse into a glamorous and fun life that I was very much not living at the time, and I genuinely cared about Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda and their trials and tribulations in Manhattan in the late nineties and early 2000’s. This book is not at all like the series. Yes, versions of these women all make appearances. But they are sort of terrible people, or rather, Bushnell doesn’t flesh them out enough, so all we see are the least attractive parts of their personalities. I know that the book is essentially a compilation of Bushnell’s Sex and the City columns she wrote for the New York Observer in the mid-nineties and it’s not meant to be a novel. This is the major reason why it took me the better part of four years to find it at Borders—it wasn’t in the fiction/literature section. I think it was in journalism or somewhere like that. I happened upon it accidentally one day, I think in 2008, if the price tag on the back of my copy is any help. Also the front says “Now a Major Motion Picture” on it, which puts us at 2008 (when the first Sex and the City movie came out) as well.

I started this book on Sunday afternoon. On Sunday evening I emailed Bethany and said that I didn’t think I could finish it because it was so awful. She told me that she likes it when I don’t like books so I should keep going. So I did it for her, and because sometimes it’s fun to say not nice things about a book. In short, this book was not what I was expecting. I was expecting to see the genesis of the characters from the TV show, maybe some early adventures of the four BFF’s. While some of the stories contained in this book are present in the show, the “modelizers;” Carrie, et. al.’s trip to the suburbs for a bridal shower; Carrie’s disastrous first go-round with Mr. Big (which was so much more painful to read than watch); and others that seemed vaguely familiar, it was like this book had the worst of that world on display. The callous courtship rituals of the upper middle and upper classes of Manhattan society made me sick to my stomach, and it wasn’t just the way men talked about women. The women were equally culpable. Apparently in Manhattan in the mid-nineties it was all about appearances and drugs and partying and the people who got away from that world were just not worth anyone’s time. Maybe this makes me an old country bumpkin from Sacramento. I mean, I love to go out and drink and have a good time, but nightly? All night? For decades? It makes me tired to just think about the shenanigans these people were up to. Oh and the Carrie that’s in the book is a freaking crazy person. She needs medication and rehab. I never thought that way about the version on TV, but maybe I would now since the last time I watched that show was ten years ago. It’s possible that I would have a different opinion now.

The people who ran the show at HBO did a smart thing: they picked four of the names from the book/newspaper column, fleshed them out, and focused on them in particular. I don’t think that the show would have gotten very far if it had maintained the format of Bushnell’s original work. I haven’t had an urge to watch Sex and the City for a long time, but now I do. I want to know if I still feel the same way about Carrie, Big, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. I hope that I do, but I’m worried that I won’t.

Posted in Candace Bushnell, Fiction - general, Reviews by Jill, The Numbers Challenge, TV/Film Adaptations | 2 Comments

Yarn Along (by Bethany)

 

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I started a cowl for myself yesterday out of this lovely orange alpaca/merino blend. I bought it a few months ago for a sweater, but I think I bought too few skeins for the pattern, and of course there’s no chance of finding more of the same dye lot at this point, so a cowl it is. I hadn’t been working on it for two minutes when I realized that I wanted to make a little deal with myself. I’m making the cowl, and in return I am promising myself that between now and next spring I will go somewhere cold enough to wear it. Just the thought made me so happy. I really, really miss cold weather. Most people think San Francisco IS cold, of course, and I do love our foggy days here, but what I miss is real cold weather. A vacation isn’t likely to be in my budget any time soon, so I’ll have to be creative, but even if I just go to the Sierras for a day or hop a cheap flight to someplace random, I WILL wear this cowl in actual cold weather this winter.

The book in the photo is Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season. I started it a week or so ago and was in awe of the first sixty or so pages, but then I let myself get distracted. I’m throwing myself back in to it and should finish it this week. I’m reading a ton lately, and writing a ton too. It’s one of those strange weeks when everything is working as it should. I’m trying my best to just enjoy it and not keep looking around for booby traps.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her lovely blog, Small Things.

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Final thoughts on Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (by Jill)

the interestings cover

I was fortunate enough this weekend to have four days off and to get to see one of my dearest friends and her family. It was a lovely visit, only made better by the two hour drive to get to her house. I got so much reading done thanks to my husband who likes to drive much more than I do, and who is very tolerant of my reading needs. It’s too bad he never reads the blog because he’ll never see this compliment. Oh well him. I plowed through The Interestings in about a week. I feel like having a kindle takes the length factor out of the equation—every book feels the same, so there’s no obvious size intimidation. I won’t lie, the heft of this book is one of the reasons I put off purchasing it myself. But now I’m glad I waited, because if I’d bought it myself I doubt I would have read it anytime soon. And I’m glad I got to read it.

At about the two-thirds point, we finally catch up with Jules, Ash, and the other members of “The Interestings” in the present day. Their lives touch on all the major first world problems of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jules’ husband Dennis has massive major depression issues and finds help with a SSRI. Ash and Ethan’s son has an autism spectrum disorder. Jonah is a gay man who loves a man who is HIV positive. They are aware of the problem of child labor in third world countries. Cathy is raped by her ex-boyfriend Goodman, and no one believes her for a long time. Jules’ therapy practice takes a major hit during the Great Recession. They all know people who are killed on 9/11. The list goes on and on. This aspect of the novel is not necessarily a complaint. I actually fully expected one of the major characters to be killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, though, and was surprised when they all made it through.

I enjoyed “watching” these characters grow from teenagers to adults starting out their careers to seasoned professionals to people having later in life career changes. Of course I related best to the mid-thirties married and having kids section of the book because that’s the age I’m at now (minus the kids), but the nostalgia aspect of summer camp and all that was cool too. An eight-week long trip to sleep away summer camp was never something I engaged in; in fact it seems like sleep-away summer camp was something that happened in the late sixties and early seventies and then faded away. Maybe I’m wrong about that. It reminded me of movies like Meatballs and The Parent Trap, with all the shenanigans that ensued. What made me sad about these characters in their middle age is how dissatisfied they all seem. Ethan seems almost afraid of his autistic son Mo. Jules is so jealous of Ash and Ethan’s “perfect” life that she almost forgets to be happy about her own relatively happy marriage, healthy daughter, and productive career. They are all pretty well-rounded and fleshed out people, though, and I liked them all in general, though each and every one has characteristics I found annoying. And that means Wolitzer did her job well. These people are fallible. They are human. And they are about as interesting as anyone you might meet, no more or less, despite what Jules thinks about her little life.

Like I said in my last post, Wolitzer has some passages I enjoyed a lot and wanted to share. I never did find the original ones but I found a couple more and I wanted to share one of them. This is from page 320, shortly after Ash and Ethan learn that their son, Mo, here three, has an autism spectrum disorder that is never identified. The Wolf-Figman family retreats to Bali to “heal,” which makes little sense to me, but then if I had more money than Donald Trump maybe I’d go to Bali to heal, too. Anyway, here it is: “For a while they’d stayed close during the absurd years of his sharp rise, having children had knocked it all into a different arrangement. The minute you had children, you closed ranks. You didn’t plan this in advance, but it happened. Families were like individual, discrete, moated island nations. The little group of citizens on the slab of rock gathered together instinctively, almost defensively, and everyone who was outside the walls—even if you’d been best friends—was now just that, outsiders. Families had their ways. You took note of how other people raised their kids, even other people you loved, and it seemed all wrong. The culture and practices of one’s own family were the only way, for better or worse. Who could say why a family decided to have a certain style, to tell the jokes it did, to put up its particular refrigerator magnets? …. There was a further divide between those with children and those without, and you had to accept it.” As one of the outsiders without children, but who maintains close friendships with many moated island family nations, I see this all the time. Some friends retreat inwards, some still manage to maintain links with outsiders. They all criticize other parents, some of them even criticize the parenting skills of their own parents. This has always confused me more than a little. Maybe it’s something I won’t understand unless I have children of my own. Or perhaps my parents are just so wonderful no one would even compare to them. And it’s too bad that they don’t read the blog so they’ll never see that nice thing I just said about them.

Yes, I enjoyed this book. Yes, I recommend it. It’s not offensive, it’s entertaining, and it’s pretty quick. I do sort of feel like Wolitzer did almost too good a job including every single major cultural issue of our era. It’s almost like she had a check-off list. Autistic kid? Check. 9/11? Check. Date rape? Check. Depression? Check. AIDS? Check. That being said, the novel does a stupendous job encapsulating the past forty years of American life (of a certain demographic) into an easily digestible tale.

 

Posted in Fiction - general, Meg Wolitzer, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

A Review of Laurence Cossé’s Bitter Almonds (by Bethany)

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This is the best book I have ever read about a woman sitting at her dining room table and teaching another woman to read.

The protagonist is Édith, a French woman living in Paris. She works from home as a literary translator. She has a husband and children who never appear in the novel and are rarely mentioned. One day, an acquaintance – Aïcha – who works in Édith’s neighborhood knocks on Édith’s door to ask if Édith will hire Aïcha’s mother to do some occasional housekeeping. Aïcha’s mother, Fadila, is about sixty years old. She spent her childhood and young adulthood in Morocco but has been living in Paris for some time. All of her adult children are in Paris as well. Fadila speaks passable French (rendered in translation as broken English) but has never learned to read or write in any language. Édith admits that she tends to let her ironing pile up (as I’m sure I would too, if I ever ironed anything) and hires Fadila once a week to help with ironing and other chores.

I don’t have a lot of formal training as a teacher, but I do understand the concept of critical periods. Just about any skill set that human beings can learn is best suited to a particular stage in brain development. Highly nuanced skill sets, such as speaking a language with native-quality fluency, require immersive training early in life, while the acquisition of facts is suited to the child and adolescent brain and skill sets that require practice, patience, and creativity are best learned in mid-adulthood. In addition, the older we get, relevance becomes more and more important to the learning process. A child can memorize lists of facts just for the heck of it; adults need a clear awareness of how the subject matter is directly relevant to their lives.

Édith learns early in her acquaintance with Fadila that Fadila cannot read or write and has sometimes suffered as a result – in the sense that she is unaware of important rules and regulations or vulnerable to being tricked. Édith offers to teach her to read and write and does some basic research on how best to do so. She starts by teaching Fadila how to write her own first name. Every day – except on days when Fadila announces that she is too busy – they practice printing the six letters in Fadila’s first name. It becomes clear, though, that even the concept of letters is foreign to Fadila, as is the basic skill of holding a pencil. Fadila can’t recognize the fact that the A at the end of her first name is the same as the A at the beginning of her last name, Amrani.

And this is how the novel progresses. There is absolutely no action. Every day, we wonder whether Fadila will recognize her name (and, as time progresses, the names of her children and a few other key words). Will she have practiced at home as Édith asked? Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. Édith despairs of having ever taken Fadila on as a student – though even this despair is fairly lightweight – and starts looking around for languages courses Fadila can take at night. Fadila does enroll in a couple of classes, but she always drops out early on and returns to her classes with Édith. Over time, Fadila tells Édith her life story, which is marked by ignorance and victimhood and being unloved. She bemoans her children’s neglectful ways. And then she tries again to spell her children’s names, and cannot.

This novel succeeds to a much greater degree than one would expect, given its simple internal plot. I never felt frustrated or wanted to stop reading. It helps, of course, that the novel is less than two hundred pages long, and it also helps, of course, that Fadila is an extremely well-drawn and compelling character. Another novelist might have taken this same premise and written a more encyclopedic story, delving deeply into Édith’s family life, career, and past, the present-day lives of Fadila’s grown children, the French colonial presence in North Africa, French immigration policies, social services for the poor in Paris, and so forth. This novel drops hints in all of these directions at times, but only with a word here and a sentence there. We are asked to see the beauty and simplicity in the relationship between two different women engaged in the simple (and also painfully complex) process of breaking down the written word to its component letters. This novel succeeds in the way that many poems succeed: because it is so apparent how much has been deliberately, judiciously left out.

At the same time, this is not a great novel. Édith is almost entirely opaque as a protagonist. With the exception of the two times she becomes frustrated with her own failure to help Fadila make progress, we really never see the inside of her head. Does she like being a literary translator? Has she always lived in Paris? What is her marriage like? What was her childhood like? What kind of relationship does she have with her parents and her own children? We don’t know. We just know that she is a literary translator who doesn’t like to iron. There is some beauty in such stark characterization, I guess, but in general I like my protagonists more rounded and fleshed out.

And one more thing: this novel ends with a death – an out-of-nowhere death that I found meaningless. It reminded me of the equally out-of-nowhere death that ends another recent French novel, Muriel Barbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was translated by the same person (Alison Anderson) as Bitter Almonds (I am mentioning this as a coincidence – I am not suggesting that the translator somehow engineered the endings of the two novels). Novels can end with deaths, of course, although in general I think I prefer novels that begin with deaths or that feature deaths at key moments in the middle. In my relatively limited real-life experience with death, the most salient feature of this life-event is how NOT final it is. When a human being dies, the intensity of life is ratcheted up for everyone in this person’s life. The world keeps spinning by, and its beauty is exacerbated by grief. For this reason, I want to see characters react to deaths. Having a character die suddenly at the end of a book certainly reflects the reality that human beings do sometimes die suddenly, but for the purpose of the book’s plot it feels like a waste of a perfectly good character. I think novelists should let their characters survive their novels – OR kill them off early and let their deaths impact the lives of others.

I can see this book being an interesting topic of discussion in an undergraduate or graduate course in fiction writing – with the goal of examining just how internal a plot can be and still succeed. I might even use it that way myself someday. I recognize the author’s skill and even, on some level, her courage in writing a book that is so extremely character driven. As far as recommending it to others, I’m neutral. If this review has intrigued you, then by all means pick up a copy and read it, but I’m not going to ascend into a pulpit for this one. Maybe next time, for I do enjoy ascending into pulpits.

Posted in Fiction - general, Laurence Cossé, Reviews by Bethany | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide (by Bethany)

I’ve been so steeped in series lately. This kind of reading pattern is unusual for me – if you look through all of the book lists I’ve posted, you’ll see that I rarely read two books by the same author in the same year and that I almost always read stand-alone novels or short story collections. But lately this blog has been all about Outlander and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, with some inroads into Charlaine Harris’ and Kim Harrison’s vampire porn series, and I’ve recently accepted the fact that sooner or later I’ll be reading Game of Thrones. I read most of Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’ series in the spring of 2013, then took a break and read Speaker for the Dead in January of this year. I waited longer – eight months – to read Xenocide, even though technically this book and the final installment, Children of the Mind, have never left my ever-evolving on-deck circle.

The ‘Ender’ cycle may be the most overwrought series of all time (though it may soon be overtaken by Outlander – we’ll see). The endless belaboring that Orson Scott Card has given these characters and situations should not work – it should be awful. But the thing is – it’s not. These books are good. Xenocide is my least favorite so far, with the exceptions of the extremely cheesy A War of Gifts and First Meetings in Ender’s Universe, but I still enjoyed it a good deal, especially its second half.

For those who don’t know this series, here are the bare bones. Ender’s Game, written first as a short story and then expanded into a novel, is the story of a gifted young boy who is identified by the government as possessing certain qualities – ruthlessness, compassion, willingness to act decisively – necessary for a military commander. In this sci-fi novel set roughly two hundred years in the future, Earth is preparing to fight an alien enemy called the “buggers.” The buggers are essentially giant ants, and their social hierarchy resembles that of ants in that all intelligence is centered in a hive queen, who communicates telepathically with her worker drones, who don’t have the kind of individual identities that humans have. In the ‘Shadow’ sequels (more on these in a minute), the buggers are called the “formics,” because “buggers” is deemed politically incorrect. The ‘Shadow’ books, incidentally, are set 2-20 years after Ender’s Game; the other sequels – Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind – are set three thousand years after Ender’s Game, and the formics are called “buggers” again. A mild continuity problem – no big deal. I just wanted you to know that I was paying attention.

So Ender defeats the buggers – decisively. He kills all of them, since the buggers’ strategy was to put all of the queens on one planet, and then this planet is destroyed and all of the buggers died – because the workers can’t function without their queens. Initially Ender is hailed as a hero. The military hesitates to send him home, though, because they suspect, correctly, that Earth, which united to fight the buggers, will once again fragment into warring and competing nations and religions and that Ender will be a tart for kidnapping and exploitation. The wars that take place after Ender kills the buggers are the subject matter of the ‘Shadow’ sequels: Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, Shadow of the Giant, and Shadows in Flight (the first ‘Shadow’ book is Ender’s Shadow, which tells exactly the same story as Ender’s Game, but from the point of view of a different character – this sounds like a horrible idea that should never work, but it’s actually really compelling). While Ender is still in space, Earth is eventually united under a person called “the Hegemon,” who happens to be Ender’s borderline psychopathic brother Peter, who finally makes the decision that Ender should never be invited back to earth. So Ender is assigned to be a colonial governor and is sent on a centuries-long journey to the planet he will help to colonize (after the buggers are defeated, humans quickly learn that the buggers thrive in atmospheres and climates similar to that of earth, so they immediately start colonizing the now-empty planets that have been vacated by the Buggers.

Somewhere along the way, Ender learns that there is one hive queen that survived his annihilation of the buggers. How he finds this out is a long story, but the short version is that the Buggers communicate telepathically, and when Ender was fighting against them they studied his mind and came to understand him, and then they used some of his own memories to communicate with him. Ender promises the hive queen to find her a safe planet where she can begin to reproduce again, and she promises never to fight humans again. After being a colonial governor for a while (at the age of fifteen-ish), Ender takes advantage of the fact that high-speed space travel allows for the relativistic passage of time. On any given flight from planet to planet, Ender might age six months or a year while several hundred years pass on Earth or on other planets. Ender spends his time reading and studying and getting to know the other passengers on the ships, and over time he becomes extremely wise. He writes a book about the hive queen and about the nature of the bugger civilization, and he has it published anonymously. People who read it find it so moving that they start to vilify Ender (they don’t know that he wrote the book, only that he is the one who killed the buggers, whom people now recognize as beautiful and complex and civilized. Now Ender really can’t return to Earth, where he could be executed or lynched. So he keeps traveling and dealing with his deeply guilty conscience, suffering like Job – or worse, since at least Job eventually got to die. Once three thousand years of Earth time pass, Ender is about fifty years old and comes to rest on a planet called Lusitania.

You can read more about what happens on Lusitania in my review of Speaker for the Dead, here. The very short version of the story is that Lusitania is the only planet humans have explored on which there is a sentient species. They call this species the pequininos – or ‘piggies,’ if one wants to be extra condescending. Keep in mind that the buggers are a sentient species also, but no one except Ender knows that there is still one hive queen left, and Ender is bringing her to Lusitania. The human scientists on Lusitania have recently learned that there is a virus on that planet called the descolada, which is lethal to humans but necessary for the pequininos to survive and reproduce. At the beginning of Xenocide (which means ‘species killer’), some of the scientists are beginning to argue that the descolada is actually a sentient species in its own right, even though it appears to be only a virus.

In addition, Ender has a noncorporeal friend named Jane. Long story, but Jane was created inside Ender when the buggers were studying him telepathically. They were directing so much intensity on Ender’s mind that this new kind of life form appeared. I don’t really get it either – but Jane exists and appears to be a different kind of sentient species in her own right. She and Ender are sort of in love with each other.

So this is how Xenocide begins: every single known sentient species is gathered on this one planet: humans, the bugger hive queen, Jane, the pequininos, and the descolada. Starways Congress, the earth-based administrative body that oversees space colonization, has decided to punish the humans of Lusitania, who violated policy by intervening on pequinino behavior when they were supposed to keep themselves strictly isolated behind an electric fence. Starways Congress’ punishment method of choice is the M.D. Device, the same weapon that Ender used to annihilate the buggers. Starways Congress thinks it is a) punishing the human colonists on Lusitania, b) wiping out the pequininos, whom they see as vicious killers (they’re not, of course, but essentially the Congress is forgetting history and vilifying the pequininos the way their distant ancestors vilified the buggers), and c) preventing the spread of the descolada. They don’t know that the hive queen is there, and they don’t know about Jane.

So much for keeping the background information brief.

In Xenocide, Jane – who is connected to every computer in the universe – cuts off all communication between the ships heading to Lusitania and the rest of the known universe. She hopes this will buy some time while the many citizens of Lusitania work on various projects that they hope will allow the humans and pequininos to live side by side. Essentially, they need to figure out a way to engineer a new strain of the descolada that will enable pequinino reproduction without killing humans.

Meanwhile, on a planet called Path, a human colony based on the traditional Confucian ideals of ancient China has been tasked with figuring out how and why the Lusitania fleet “disappeared” (they didn’t disappear, of course; they just lost communication with ships and planets). This part of the novel introduces a whole new set of characters and a totally different social system – which means that yes, there will be STILL MORE plot summary in this review. On Path, some people are “godspoken,” meaning they hear the voices of the gods (they’re sort of like oracles, I guess). Except that what they call the voices of the gods, you or I would call obsessive-compulsive disorder. The godspoken are extremely intelligent, but they are all afflicted with unbearable urges to wash their hands and complete other tasks like tracing the lines in the grain of their wooden floors, which they see as the gods’ way of purifying them. Apparently when Path was first colonized, Starways Congress introduced a genetic mutation in some of its residents on purpose. For some reason I never quite grasped, Starways Congress wanted some of the people on Path to be extremely intelligent but burdened with their obsessive purification rituals so they never had time to use their intelligence to seize power. Long story short, Jane appears, enlists the help of the godspoken citizens of Path, and helps them in return by providing an antidote to their OCD.

For the first half of this novel, I was relatively annoyed by all of this Path business. I wanted the plot to get back to Ender and the Lusitanians, all of whom I felt invested in from Speaker for the Dead. I didn’t care much about the godspoken of Path, although I was pleased for them when their OCD was cured. I don’t care very much about Jane either, to be honest. I do care about the pequininos and the hive queen and Ender’s longstanding struggle to find a way for them all to live in peace.

At some point before I read Xenocide, I remember reading somewhere that this novel is the most philosophical installment in the Ender series, and this is most certainly true. One of the things Orson Scott Card is really good at is giving his novels a clear and complex worldview. This can be annoying, as in the many anti-gay-marriage rants in the ‘Shadow’ series, but overall the philosophical contents of Card’s novels are very appealing. Card’s attitude toward the human race is affectionately cynical. He knows that we never change, and he likes us anyway.

I’m going to hold off on giving away the ending of Xenocide, which is both satisfying and totally ridiculous. I’ll just give you one quick teaser: Peter Wiggin – Ender’s brother, the borderline-psychopath who becomes Hegemon of Earth in the ‘Shadow’ novels – comes back! He’s not exactly ‘reborn,’ but he’s not exactly not reborn either. Long story – but suffice it to say that this development redeemed this sometimes-slow novel in my eyes and made me really excited to read Children of the Mind. And I do recommend this series – occasional inanities and all – to all of our readers, especially if sci-fi usually isn’t your thing.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, Orson Scott Card, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Final Thoughts on Robinson Crusoe (by Bethany)

robinson-crusoe 

When I was about thirty pages away from the ending, my boss saw me reading Robinson Crusoe and asked if I thought her eleven year-old son would like it. I didn’t even take a moment to think when I replied, “I don’t think anyone alive today would like Robinson Crusoe.

As always, a truly thoughtful answer to this question is much more complicated. I liked Robinson Crusoe, sort of, although I was also very happy when I finished it on Monday afternoon. I am very glad that the Numbers Challenge pushed me to read this book. I read it carefully and took a ton of notes. My intellect was 100% engaged the whole time I was reading. This novel is also a great target for mockery, as it is so steeped in the assumptions of its own time and place.

This novel was published in1719, but its sensibilities come straight from the 17th century. I kept thinking of Donne’s famous “No man is an island…” sermon, even though the central message of this sermon doesn’t really apply to Crusoe’s novel. It seems to me that the 16th and 17th century obsession with exploring the globe, coupled with the fierceness of 17th-century theology, created the archetype of the individual marooned on an island (although Shakespeare got a head start, as he often does, in The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, and Homer got a huge head start in portions of The Odyssey). 17th-century English Protestants were terrified of being alone. They were taught that the devil lurked in the darkness and that the only way to be safe from corruption was to stay within shouting distance of their local church. I find it fantastically ironic – and also a little bit sad – that people who were physically stoic and brave enough to cross oceans against terrible odds, to survive New England winters without provisions, and to walk literally and figuratively into the mouth of the unknown also saw themselves and their fellow human beings as so psychologically and spiritually fragile. Look at yourselves, I want to say, You fight WOLVES with your bare hands – and you can’t even handle having a couple of Quakers living on the edge of town? Sometimes I think we 21st-century Americans are the opposite of these pious explorers. We’re all filled up with self-esteem and self-importance. We think we’re important enough to need fingerprint-scan security on our iphones. We assume that everyone in the world is interested in our selfies. In our day-to-day lives, though, we’re terrified. We don’t trust ourselves to read maps and change tires. We’re terrified of the Ebola virus and non-organic fruit and are outraged whenever we hear rumors of injustice.

You probably know the plot of this novel fairly well even if you haven’t read it, but in case you don’t, I’ll summarize it briefly here. Robinson Crusoe is the third son in his family and therefore will inherit nothing in a British property-rights system still governed by the medieval idea of primogeniture. His father pleads with him not to go to sea, delivering a fascinating lecture in which he asserts that the middle class is the only class that is likely ever to be happy. Crusoe ignores his father’s pleas and goes to sea anyway, where he ends up in Brazil (or “the Brasils” – this novel includes lots of creative spelling and italicizing) and participating in the slave trade. Then his ship is torn apart in a storm, and Crusoe wakes up on an island. As far as he knows, he is the wreck’s only survivor. The ship itself is stuck on some rocks out at sea, and Crusoe spends his first couple of weeks on the island swimming out to the ship and using a makeshift raft to carry supplies back to the island, where he accumulates an impressive hoard of the sorts of things one needs when one is a 17th-century castaway: namely gunpowder and alcohol. And also clothing: unlike the kids in Lord of the Flies and that guy from the first season of Survivor, Crusoe never loses his taste for fine English clothing. In my margin notes, I appropriated the acronym “SOS” and repurposed it to mean “Superego of Steel.”

Next Crusoe spends about 150 pages of reading time (and about 22 years of his own life) reliving the history of the human race. At first he is a terrified hunter/gatherer, shooting at anything that moves and keeping his supplies carefully hoarded and rationed. Later he becomes a more confident hunter/gatherer proficient in extracting the egg sacs from turtles and other such skills. He creates a home for himself in which his supplies are organized and safe and dry – in some ways, he becomes the member of the English middle class that his father wanted him to be, except with more basket-making and not as much obsession with the royal baby. Next, like our ancestors, Crusoe progresses into agriculture, cultivating corn, barley, and rice (you can see one of my previous posts on this novel for some of my doubts on the verisimilitude of Crusoe’s agricultural procedures, but I won’t belabor the point here). He also tames a bunch of goats (and by “tames” I mean that he basically gives them Stockholm syndrome: he ties them up and starves them until they become totally dependent on him for food and therefore unwilling to hurt him – I suppose this is how human beings have tamed animals for millennia, but it made me a little uncomfortable nonetheless) and builds a fenced yard and at one point has a flock of over forty goats. Finally, through tons of trial and error Crusoe teaches himself to make a wide variety of tools and containers – clay pots, baskets, canoes, waterproof raingear – though he never quite abandons his trusty gun.

And then there are the churchy parts – as there tend to be in 17th-century literature. One night in a rainstorm, Crusoe finds Jesus. He has always been technically a Protestant, of course, given his time and place, but on the island he does some serious channeling of the likes of John Milton and John Winthrop and other individuals of the Puritan persuasion. He becomes deeply aware of his vulnerability and his smallness in comparison to the scale of creation and the power of God, deeply thankful for the fact that he has been saved from death and delivered to an island that is actually pretty well equipped to sustain him, and deeply guilty for not having given much thought to spiritual matters during the first twenty or so years of his life and for not having listened to his father. He starts celebrating the anniversary of becoming shipwrecked on the island, not in the way that we might celebrate a birthday or wedding anniversary but in the way that alcoholics celebrate the anniversary of their sobriety: with gratitude for having been saved from destruction and humility and sorrow over the fact that it took him so long to reach this point of salvation and wisdom. All of this is quite plausible for a person in Crusoe’s situation, and the first time he meditates on his newfound piety is quite moving. But then the waves of churchiness keep on coming, and the reader starts to long for a bit more action. How about some more goat sex? I found myself asking. Surely there are some more reeds that he could soak in water and weave into baskets for twenty pages or so? Maybe he could pistol-whip another baby parrot?

I knew, of course, that sooner or later Crusoe would see the famous “footprint in the sand,” which I thought would lead directly to his encounter with the man he calls Friday (or, more correctly, the man he calls Friday). I wasn’t entirely correct about that, however. Crusoe finds the footprint at precisely the novel’s midpoint (page 141 out of 282 in my edition), and then he spends another fifty pages freaking out about the footprint. It appears that every so often a bunch of “Savages” from a nearby island paddle their canoes over to Crusoe’s island to eat some of their prisoners. What the footprint in the sand does – rather than providing a companion for Crusoe – is to catapult him out of his safe, happy life on the island. Immediately he is overtaken with fear and anxiety, and he becomes even more of a gun-toting white-supremacist survivalist than he already was. Now, fear and anxiety are certainly reasonable responses to the proximity of cannibals – I am not suggesting that Crusoe should not have felt these feelings. But seriously – fifty pages? On a figurative level, the middle of this novel contains all kinds of allegory about how human beings deal with suffering and isolation and – after Crusoe finds the footprint – about how we deal with the lack of isolation. This portion of the novel reminded me of the moment in the TV drama series Lost – which I thought about quite a lot when I was reading Robinson Crusoe – when the survivors of the plane crash first meet the “Others” on their island at the end of season 1.

So then there’s more gun-toting and more hiding and more hand-wringing about possibly being eaten. At times Crusoe feels firmly that the best thing for him to do is to stay hidden and let the cannibals do their thing without interruption; elsewhere, though, he is overcome with a sense of responsibility to the cannibals’ victims and is determined to rescue some of them. Finally, fifty long pages after he first sees the footprint in the sand (and does absolutely NO wondering about how one single footprint might have appeared on the beach – was someone parachuting onto the island only to be swept out to sea by a gust of wind right after he set his first foot down but before he set down the second? The novel never tells), Crusoe gets his act together and rescues Friday from certain death by char-broiling.

Crusoe teaches Friday English, of course, and converts him to Christianity. I would have enjoyed this novel SO much more if Crusoe had set out to convert Friday but found himself more and more seduced by the cannibal lifestyle and by whatever religion Friday’s people practiced – but alas, this novel is unapologetically a product of its age. I kept looking for ironies that weren’t there.

So long story short, Crusoe and Friday briefly re-establish the kind of proto-Eden (in which Friday is Eve, I guess?) that Crusoe had enjoyed at the height of his post-agricultural revolution, pre-footprint years. Crusoe is delighted with Friday in every conceivable way, delighting in his own Pygmalion-like handiwork in turning Friday into a puppet trained to spout the Reformation-era English theological and political agenda. Friday is just another incarnation of Poll, the parrot Crusoe tamed and taught to speak earlier in the novel. The dynamic between Crusoe and Friday reminds me of any number of other pairings in literary and cultural history: Huck Finn and Jim, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Victor Frankenstein and his monster IF Frankenstein had managed to put aside his horror at the monster’s ugliness and stick around long enough to get to know him.

Soon, though, the human population on Crusoe’s island and on other nearby islands increases exponentially. It turns out that a Spanish ship has been shipwrecked nearby, and there are sixteen Spanish sailors who have managed to make some kind of peace with the cannibals and are living there in harmony. And then another ship appears, only this time the crew has mutinied and has stopped at the island only long enough to deposit the captain and others loyal to him before leaving to become pirates or whatever. Crusoe and Friday join forces with the captain and some of the other sailors, and they imprison the mutineers and get control of the ship. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this, Friday happens upon his father. It all happens out of the blue The-Empire-Strikes-Back-style, with no foreshadowing at all, and there is great rejoicing for a while, until Crusoe sends Friday’s father off to the other island to look for the shipwrecked Spaniards and then decides to LEAVE WITHOUT HIM. Oh well, Friday’s father. In case you hadn’t noticed, it sucked to be dark-skinned in the 17th century.

The ending of this novel reminds me of the ending of Huck Finn, which is to say that the adventure component of the plot is resolved via a series of over-the-top hijinks while the more philosophical components of the novel are not resolved at all. Crusoe and Friday make it back to England (this is after the first series of implausible hijinks, but before the second one), where they discover that the property Crusoe had purchased in Brazil has appreciated in value and he is now an extremely wealthy man. Take that, primogeniture. Crusoe and Friday travel to Lisbon to deal with the paperwork involved in Crusoe’s property, and when it’s time to go home, Crusoe decides that he would rather not travel by sea – a reasonable decision for someone who has been shipwrecked for 27 years. So they band together with some other travelers and find a guide and decide to travel to Calais over land and then take a short boat trip to Dover.

And then things get totally ridiculous. Friday fights off wolves and bears (both of which he claims to have fought frequently on his Caribbean island home – this is only one of many moments when DeFoe quite adorably shows off his total ignorance of what Caribbean islands are like) and shows a heretofore-unexplored glee in ridiculous risk-taking behavior. Take this, for example: “When Friday saw him, it was easy to see Joy and Courage in the Fellow’s Countenance; O! O! O! Says Friday, three Times, pointing to him; O Master! You give me te leave! Me shakee te Hand with him; Me make you good laugh” (271-72). Then Friday proceeds to play a series of practical jokes on the bear while narrating the entire thing in broken English. At one point he also takes his boots off and changes into “a Pair of Pumps” (271). I’m sure “pumps” meant something different in the early 1700’s than it does now, but who doesn’t like a little cross-dressing innuendo mixed in with their Eurocentrism and their racism and their animal cruelty?

Next they fight off three hundred wolves. I’m not sure if I have ever been this perplexed by the ending of a novel (except, perhaps, for the Lost at Sea scene close to the end of Beach Music). I couldn’t figure out if the number 300 was chosen on purpose as an allusion to the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae (indicating the triumph of reason and culture over militarism and brutality) or if this ending was simply DeFoe’s way of saying that horrific dangers are waiting for us everywhere and that we’re naïve to think that our silly little human machinations can keep us safe from destruction.

But they fight off the 300 wolves, and then some other things happen, and then Crusoe decides to go back to the island and start his own human-breeding company there: “I sent seven Women, being such as I found proper for Service, or for Wives to such as would take them: As to the English Men, I promis’d them to send them some Women from England, with a good Cargoe of Necessities” (282). And then the number 300 pops up again, since 300 Caribbean natives attack the English people on the island. The Englishmen fight them off, but then another 300 show up and kill everyone. All of this happens in the second-to-last paragraph in the novel.

This novel is almost as ridiculous as Candide.

Going back to my boss’ question about whether her son would like Robinson Crusoe (and my response that no one alive today would like it – which is not true): to enjoy this novel one needs a good sense of the absurd – and also of the mindset of 17th-century Europe, which of course is a subset of the absurd. I can’t imagine reading this novel and taking it seriously. People did, of course, for many, many years, and there are probably some readers even today who read this novel and find only an exciting adventure story and/or a parable about solitude and spiritual isolation. I can’t even imagine reading this novel that way – my imagination, which is fairly good, can’t fathom it.

It takes a lot of education to learn to see the absurdity in classic novels. Almost every book written before 1900 makes me laugh in some way that the author most likely did not intend. Most of the students I have taught – and any number of adults I have met – have had trouble finding this laughter. They find it disrespectful. They assume that something is wrong with them when the books seem absurd – that there’s something they are not getting. For a culture that is not especially literate, we still have a lot of Canon Worshipping built in to the way we study literature. I think that when many 21st-century Americans think about reading a classic novel, they picture a wrestling match in which the book will win. When I was teaching, I tried to model this willingness to laugh at the moments in literature that seem absurd to modern readers – not for any kind of well-thought-out pedagogical reason but because 1) mockery is fun and 2) in order to mock something, we have to dive in and get to know it. The parts of classic novels that tend to make 21st-century readers laugh are often the parts that reveal the most about the world the book’s writer lived in, so by diving in and getting to know these moments well enough to laugh at them, we also become aware of patterns of thought and feeling that have in some cases entirely disappeared.

I don’t recommend this novel to eleven year-olds (not even really smart eleven year-olds like my boss’ son), and I can’t imagine myself ever adding it to a high school syllabus, not because it doesn’t belong there but because there are so many other books that belong there more. I took enough notes while I was reading to write at least a hundred pages (though you’ll be pleased to know that I plan to draw this review to a close quite soon). I want to study it side by side with so many other texts: Lord Jim, The Tempest, Candide, Huck Finn, Walden, The Odyssey. This novel drew me farther into ways of thinking that are alien to my own than any other novel I can remember – but I had to wade through a LOT of muck to get there, and the vast majority of readers just aren’t willing to do that. But for those who are (and it helps to have a blog challenge to provide a bit of motivation), the rewards are certainly there.

Posted in Authors, Daniel DeFoe, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, The Numbers Challenge | Leave a comment