A Review of Olivia Manning’s School for Love

school for love cover image

This novel is about Felix, a British boy whose mother has just died. Felix and his mother lived in Baghdad back when Iraq was a British colony, so Felix, whose father is also deceased, has to make a long journey home by ship at a time (early 1945) when berths on ships are reserved for service members, diplomats, and others who are directly working to bring the second world war to a close. He has a sort-of aunt in Jerusalem named Miss Bohun, and she offers to take him in while he waits for a place on the ship. Miss Bohun is a sort-of aunt because she and Felix are not biologically related. Miss Bohun was an orphan herself and was taken in by Felix’s paternal grandparents, so she grew up with Felix’s father, as a foster-sibling. Felix has never met Miss Bohun before, but he has heard his mother grumbling about her. Nevertheless, he is determined to forge a good relationship. Felix, whose age is not given but who seems about thirteen, is first and foremost a lonely, grieving child who desperately needs love. One might think that Miss Bohun, an orphan herself, would be sympathetic to Felix’s feelings, but you would be wrong. This is a British novel, after all, and treating orphans compassionately is just not something that is done in British novels.

Miss Bohun runs a boarding house, and she is also a “pastor” of a religious group called the “Ever-Readies.” When Felix arrives, he meets Frau Leszno and her son Nikky, who also live at Miss Bohun’s boarding house. Their status there is a bit unclear. Over time, we discover that Miss Bohun likes to use room assignments in her boarding house in manipulative ways. When Miss Bohun was looking for a place to live in Jerusalem, she met Frau Leszno, who ran this same boardinghouse but couldn’t afford to keep it going. Miss Bohun aggressively befriended her and offered to take over the boarding house, promising that Frau Leszno and Nicky could stay on as partners. Long story short, by the time Felix arrives, other tenants have moved into the more desirable rooms, while Frau Leszno is living in a shack in the backyard and Nikky is sleeping on a cot in the kitches, and Miss Bohun refers to them as servants. In Miss Bohun’s words, Frau Leszno and Nikky are “Polish Jews but they fled to Germany during some pogrom or other” – a remarkably insensitive thing to say in 1945 – and Miss Bohun has taken advantage of their vulnerability. Over time, we learn that this is typical of how she treats others.

At first the reader picks up on much more of this drama that Felix does. His young age and his grief understandably make Felix a fairly solipsistic character. He doesn’t mind being at the boarding house with Miss Bohun. There is a cat there – Faro – with whom he immediately bonds, and at first he accepts Miss Bohun’s party line that other people are always taking advantage of her. Miss Bohun charges Felix through the teeth for his room – so much so that the British consulate advises him to find lodging somewhere else – and rations things like water, electricity, and milk. Felix’s reactions to these deprivations are muted. He feels glum when he has to spend his days in a cold, dark room, but he doesn’t know how to assert himself enough to complain. He would almost certainly be diagnosed with depression if the novel were set in the present day, and of course depression is perfectly justifiable in Felix’s situation.

For a while I have had a nebulous sense that the books that are reissued by the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series – or the ones I’ve read, anyway, maybe 12-15 out of hundreds in the series – have a certain quality in common. This is no small feat for a series that publishes books from dozens of countries and a wide variety of authors. When I was reading this book, it came to me that this quality might be phrased as “less intensity than similar books.” I know – this is not very effective bit of literary analysis. The word “intense” means different things to different people and doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it. Intense things can be good or bad, and this label is entirely subjective. So let me walk you through my thought process a little. Imagine Miss Bohun in a novel written by Dickens. First off, her name would be Miss Plumpfingers or some such thing, and she would have at least one speech impediment. She would still complain about people taking advantage of her so-called generosity while also being the model of stinginess, and she would still be the pastor of the Ever-Readies, but she would do these things while also being a comic masterpiece who totally overwhelmed every scene she was in. Some readers would undoubtedly prefer Dickens’ version of her character, while others prefer Manning’s subtlety. I fall somewhere between these two camps. I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t difficult to finish, but I could just as easily have put it aside and picked up something else without regrets. I like a good overwrought Dickensian villain now and then, and I thought Miss Bohun as Manning wrote her could use a little more sturm und drang. But then I realized that Manning wrote this character the only way she could, given that Felix is her point-of-view character. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is clueless. He’s clueless because of his age, because of the tunnel vision caused by his grief, and also because he knows that Miss Bohun is the only relative he has who’s not back in England, and perhaps he does not want to look too closely at her treachery. He figures out how to live in her house without conflict, to accommodate her constant outrage, to be the wick in her gaslight, so to speak. To write the novel any other way, Manning would have had to be untrue to her point-of-view character’s essential limitations.

As it happens, though, the ending of this novel is great. About halfway through, Miss Bohun takes in a new boarder named Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis is an extremely young widow – maybe 18 or 19 – and she’s pregnant. Young as she is, though, Mrs. Ellis is not naïve. When Miss Bohun rations Mrs. Ellis’s milk, Mrs. Ellis contacts the milkman directly and arranges a separate delivery just for herself. When she requests certain foods that Miss Bohun refuses to buy, claiming they are too expensive, Mrs. Ellis announces that she will eat her meals elsewhere and stops paying the “board” component of her room and board. In other words, she refuses to play the game that the rest of the boarders are mired in. Felix adores Mrs. Ellis, whom he seems to see as both a love interest and his reincarnated mother, and while she keeps him at arm’s length she does share her thoughts on Miss Bohun’s character with him, and his understanding of his sort-of aunt becomes more nuanced. The most important think Mrs. Ellis does, though, is ask Miss Bohun what the Ever-Readies are ever ready for.

The answer is the second coming. Miss Bohun is the head of one of the many millenarian religious splinter groups that congealed in Israel in the twentieth century, believing that the second coming was close at hand. When Mrs. Ellis shares these facts with Felix, his understanding broadens, and Miss Bohun starts to become more like my made-up Mrs. Plumpfingers from a made-up Dickens novel – not because she has changed but because the perspective through which we are seeing her has been given the tools to see her for who she really is.

You may recall that earlier in this review I mentioned that Miss Bohun uses room assignments in her boarding house as a way to manipulate her boarders, but I never really followed up on how she does this. In addition to Frau Leszno’s outdoor shack and Nikky’s kitchen cot, the sleeping spaces include an undesirable attic room, two rooms of reasonable quality on the second floor, and the much-mythologized “front room,” the nicest of all, which Miss Bohun never rents out but constantly cleans, arranges, and redecorates. Every so often she drops hints that she is considering moving someone into the front room, and then everyone is on edge to figure out what that person has done to earn such a privilege (and when the move never happens, everyone is on edge again to figure out what the promised resident has done to lose Miss Bohun’s esteem). It is Mrs. Ellis who figures out the true purpose of the front room: it’s for Jesus. Like Elijah’s chair at the Passover table, no one is allowed to sleep in the front room, but Miss Bohun makes sure it is always spotless for the honored guest she suspects will be arriving any day now. Mrs. Ellis’s further research reveals that the financial backers of the Ever-Readies are paying Miss Bohun quite well for keeping the Risen Lord’s room available for Him 24/7, meaning that all the quibbling over pennies and nickels (or their equivalent in 1945 Jerusalem) has been unnecessary and ridiculous.

School for Love is a well-wrought example of the narrative technique called the first person/minor character point of view. In other words, Felix isn’t truly the protagonist. We think he is the protagonist because we see the action of the novel through his eyes, but really we are along for the ride behind his eyes, watching Miss Bohun come into clearer and clearer focus as the novel progresses. It’s true that Felix grows and changes (and that growth and change is one mark of a protagonist), but his growth is just a tool to allow us to see Miss Bohun better.

I liked this book and admire the mind that created it. I look forward to reading more of Manning’s work, and I plan to keep working on my theory about what the NYRB Classics books all have in common. I don’t think I’ve put my finger on it yet.

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Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Olivia Manning, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A Review of John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story

Cover Image of American Philosophy

If nothing else, this memoir will make book lovers everywhere envious of John Kaag. Some six or seven years before he wrote this book, Kaag was in rural New Hampshire helping to organize a conference on William James. He was suffering from depression, his marriage was in shambles, and he felt that his career was at an impasse (this is not the part you’re supposed to envy). Though talking with strangers was not characteristic of Kaag, for reasons he didn’t quite understand he started a conversation with a 93 year-old man in a roadside coffee shop. When the man learned that Kaag was a philosophy professor, he offered to bring Kaag to the estate where he grew up – the estate of the philosopher Ernest Hocking, where – he said – there was a library.

OK, you can start envying now.

What Kaag found was an overgrown plot of land and a stone building the size of a small house. He tried a door and found it was unlocked. While the man he met at the coffee shop was off doing other things on the property, Kaag entered the library and found it full of books, many of which were valuable first editions. Even more shocking was the fact that many of the books were filled with the marginalia of Ernest Hocking or of other, even earlier and more distinguished philosophers. Some first editions dated back to Locke and Hobbes in the seventeenth century. The stone library was not an ideal storage unit for these treasures, and many of the books were moldy and nibbled upon by small animals.

American Philosophy: A Love Story is the story of Kaag’s quest to save and catalogue the books in the Hocking Library. Through the man he met at the coffee shop, he is introduced to Ernest Hocking’s granddaughters, who listen to his plea and happily authorize him to catalog their grandfather’s books and – eventually – find a home for them in a university library with the climate-control system and other facilities needed to store antique books. It is also the story of Kaag’s decision to finally end his terrible marriage and confess his love for a colleague, Carol. Before that happens, though, Kaag’s dark night of the soul gets even darker. He contracts Lyme Disease at the library and has a humiliating experience when – in the middle of contemplating Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” – he has a flat tire in a rural area along a dangerous stretch of highway and realizes that he has never learned to change a tire. The first third of the book is full of camping mishaps, accidental run-ins with animal poo, and the continuing trials of Kaag’s horrible marriage. Slowly, though, things start to improve. He is continually inspired by the books he finds and the annotations he reads in them, often written by giants like Emerson and William James. He begins cultivating a relationship with his colleague Carol, who returns from a holiday break and tells Kaag that her marriage is ending too. She begins accompanying him to the library. They camp together, share motel rooms, and fall in love in a cloud of wisdom, old-book smell, and possible hantavirus.

I really loved this book. I knew only a few basics about the philosophers Kaag cites the book, which is to say that I know Transcendentalism well, know what pragmatism is and that William James is the father of it, and have a general awareness of how the focus of Western philosophy gradually shifted away from the individual’s relationship with God, first to his relationship with society (think of Hobbes and Locke) and then to his relationship with himself, with an emphasis on self-determination and individual identity. While his own approach is not religious, Kaag writes with great insight about Dante, whose three-part Divine Comedy is very much on Kaag’s mind as he journeys through his own hell and Purgatory. Kaag empathizes with William James’ own depression and in general treats the philosophers he writes about as if they were family members. If the idea of reading a book about philosophy intimidates you, don’t worry. This book is much more memoir than textbook. Think of it as Wild but with less cocaine.

I thoroughly recommend this book to general readers who are interested in an honest, cogent memoir about a personal journey from isolation to love and union.

Posted in John Kaag, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Literary Studies, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction - Philosophy, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter (by Jill)

Wolf Winter cover

 

Wolf Winter has the odd distinction of being both the last book I started in 2016 and the first book I finished in 2017. It often annoys me if the last book/first book spends too much time on either side of the year break, but that’s a weird one of my Rules of Reading. It’s not even a rule, really. It’s more like a dumb thing that annoys me. This book was the January 2015 edition of Powell’s Indiespensible subscription service. I guess I’m a little behind on my Indiespensible reading (which also annoys me. Oh no, please don’t let this post turn into a litany of miniscule things that annoy me on a daily basis….)

I am pretty sure that this is a truism of reading: any book that one ends up reading during the month of December will take twice as long to finish as it would at any other time of year. I am glad, however, that I read Wolf Winter in the dead of winter, because it is a story of a winter that is deeper and darker than any I have ever experienced. The setting is eighteenth century Swedish Lapland, which is the northernmost part of Sweden, which means come winter it’s really dark and really cold and really snowy. The main characters are Maija, and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea, who come to Sweden with their husband/father Paavo, who is absent for much of the winter of the title. He goes south to look for work, and the women are left behind. But even before Paavo leaves, and actually before much of anything has happened, Dorotea and Frederika find a dead, mutilated body up on the local mountain, Blackåsen. Turns out it is the body of a man named Eriksson, a local man who has a few too many people with reasons to murder him. Maija is a medicine woman of sorts, and somehow ends up helping the local priest (who is new to the town, and not beloved amongst the locals) investigate Eriksson’s murder. There are all kinds of long-buried secrets in the snow here, and also a whiff of indigenous person mysticism, which Frederika is drawn to when she starts seeing and interacting with the ghost of Eriksson. I was disappointed that the ghost story aspect wasn’t fleshed out more, but one can only do so much with 350-ish pages. I almost wondered while I was reading if the author was going to write more books about these characters, if only because the Scandinavians are known for their crime fiction and this was at its core a murder mystery novel (which tend to be more series than stand alone novels), albeit a historical fiction one, and one that dips into literary fiction and magical realism too. I’m sure some people think Ekbäck is straddling too many genres here, but I actually quite liked the genre-straddling, and I think she did a great job with it. (Bethany: is “genre-straddling” a thing? If not, can we make it one?) I will definitely be looking for more books by Ekbäck, especially if I can spend more time with Maija and Frederika. The details have gotten a bit dim in the three months since I finished this book, but I remember thinking that both Maija and Frederika were women fighting the customary roles of women of their time: Maija likes having responsibilities beyond those of her home and family; Frederika wishes she could still go to school with her younger sister, but that time in her life has passed and she needs to be at home helping her mother. Both find ways to be more than what their society expects of them, and watching them age and grow in life experiences would be, I think, a venture worth people’s time and attention.

Posted in Cecilia Ekback, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Mystery, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

A funny thing happened on my way to write some blog posts…. (by Jill)

It goes without saying that my presence on the blog has been limited lately. Life has been, well, busy for the past year. At work, one thing they tell us when you’re running behind is to not get too involved in making excuses to the clients you’re late for. They don’t care why you’re late, they just want you present and focused when you go get there. So I’m not going to spend a ton of time making excuses or trying to tell you guys about all the diabetics and deranged knees and ear infections I’ve had to deal with. If you wanted to read about my adventures as a veterinarian, you’d be reading that blog (there isn’t one, so don’t go looking for it). But you’re reading a book blog, so I’ll talk about books. I came up with the idea last night to just get myself caught up quickly, and doing a single post with brief thoughts on all the books I haven’t posted about so I can check them off my list and more along. So that’s what I’m doing.

 

I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster

I started a post about this book a few weeks ago, but found myself getting nowhere fast. I feel like all of my recent posts about Jen Lancaster books involve me saying that this one isn’t as good as her earlier books. That statement is definitely true here. I read Jen Lancaster because I love her voice, and I want to keep up with her. She’s like an old friend with whom I don’t have much in common anymore, but the affection is still there. I Regret Nothing continues the cataloging of Jen’s adventures in “adulting,” including a trip to Italy (and Jen does it right—she takes Italian lessons so she can communicate with the people she meets in their native language, she avoids tourist traps) and starting a furniture refinishing business and trying not to get blackout drunk on her annual girls’ trip to Savannah. Jen was more amusing when she was worse at adulting than she is here, but I still enjoyed this book. Her stories about her pets and her snarky comments about the people in her Italian classes saved it for me.

 

A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

It is a tragedy to me that I let so much time pass between finishing Kate Atkinson’s latest book and writing about it. I love Kate Atkinson, have since maybe 2000, and am glad that she has achieved a measure of commercial success. A God in Ruins is a companion piece to Life After Life, focusing on Teddy Todd, the younger brother of Ursula Todd, the protagonist of the first novel. Teddy is not able to reset time life his sister, and is stuck living the same life once, as far as we know. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, so having one of my favorite authors write not one, but two historical fiction works, is like a huge deal for me. I am torn between wanting Atkinson to keep writing about the Todd family and wanting her to go back to her Jackson Brodie detective novels (I love mysteries too), but I figure either way she goes next will be a win for me. I loved A God in Ruins, and will refer you to Bethany’s post about it if you want more details.

 

The Awakening and other stories, Kate Chopin

This book is one of my boss’s. The copy I have may or may not be older than I am, so that was kind of intimidating. I had read The Awakening before, of course, in college or maybe high school. Maybe I’d read one of the short stories before, but I can’t remember. In short, I loved this collection. The stories take place in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the south, but I think there were others set in different places. Sadly, I don’t remember much by way of details at this point, but I definitely recommend reading any and all Kate Chopin stories that come your way. Her ability to create a complete world in a small number of words and pages is akin to Alice Munro’s.

 

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I finally read this book after years of being harassed by my husband about how I needed to read it after he publicly shamed me on Facebook for not having read it before. Bethany said in that thread of comments that she thought people would only enjoy Fahrenheit 451 if they read it when they were adolescents. I can’t remember her reasoning at this late date, and that conversation probably happened close to 9 months ago. I’ll never find it buried in social media. I partially agree with her opinion, but not completely. I did enjoy this teeny tiny proto-dystopian novel. I wished there had been, oh, you know, more like hunger games action type action or Divergent type genetic manipulation. The biggest thing in this book was a four-walled interactive TV, which I still can’t totally wrap my head around, because I’m trying to liken it to something we have now: is it like Skype? Are the screens 4K UltraHD? What sort of WiFi speed must they need for something like that? And why aren’t they just streaming Netflix? And the answer comes to me in a flash: they aren’t live chatting on Facebook because Bradbury didn’t know that Facebook was going to be a thing back in 1953. I wish I had read this book back when I was a sophomore in high school and read 1984 and Brave New World, both of which I loved. I wonder how I would have felt about Fahrenheit 451 then.

 

In Twenty Years, Allison Winn Scotch

I read this book because it was a Kindle Unlimited book and I was on vacation and needed something light to read while laying by the pool in Mexico. In Twenty Years fit the bill. This novel has no message, other than the one that’s obvious to anyone who has lived more of their life since finishing high school than she lived before and during it: time accelerates after the age of twenty-two. It is the story of a group of college friends who are called to reunite at the house where they lived together by the ghost of their dead roommate. The gang is not as close as they once were, and some of them parted on terrible terms. Over the course of a long summer weekend, these people air all of their dirty laundry and figure out where they all got so turned around in their lives. It was compelling but not a future award-winner. BTW, it wasn’t a real ghost who summoned them; this was not that sort of book.

 

Trail of Broken Wings, Sejal Badani

Another Kindle Unlimited book! Loved this book. Was about an Indian family, three sisters, a mother, and a very abusive father who falls into a coma at the start, calling home the prodigal daughter. Her two sisters have stayed close to home. While they wait for their father to recover or die, secrets are revealed and relationships are mended. My hair stylist and I often make fun of Kindle Unlimited books and how they are low quality tripe, but this was actually a really good book, though a bit overwrought. I did really like it, and think most people would enjoy it.

 

The Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick

Another Kindle Unlimited book. I thought I would love this one. Yes, I read it because of the Amazon show, though I don’t watch it. In case you don’t know, this novel supposes that German and Japan had won World War II and divided the USA up between them. It was fascinating to read about what Dick thought might have become of us twenty years after this not-event happened. I had kind of a hard time with this book, not because it was poorly written, and not because it was boring, but because I guess I wanted more information about the particulars of the Allies losing the war. I enjoyed glimpsing the lives of the Japanese living in San Francisco and the Jews hiding in San Francisco and the Americans living as second-class citizens in San Francisco. It was disturbing but fascinating. I’m not going to watch the show, though, because I know that liberties have been taken with Dick’s source material and for some reason, this time, that’s not okay with me. This is a thinking person’s speculative fiction novel, and don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be action-packed, because it isn’t. I was also a bit annoyed that Dick drops us into these peoples’ lives and then pulls us back out again before anything is resolved. I wanted to know what happened next.

 

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, Emily Carpenter

This novel was the last one I finished in 2016, and was another Kindle Unlimited selection. I’d put this in the same category as In Twenty Years: a fast-paced plot driven novel directed at women of a certain age. In this book, our protagonist, Althea, returns home to Mobile, Alabama following yet another trip to rehab. Her family has a problem: all the women develop schizophrenia when they turn thirty. Or do they? Burying the Honeysuckle Girls was completely compelling, escapist fiction, which is the only kind of book I’ve been able to focus on lately. Carpenter did a good job getting me to care about Althea, who seems like she was kind of a terrible person prior to the action of the novel. But she’s trying to do better, and isn’t that all we can do? Try? It was part mystery, part addiction/recovery tale, part historical fiction, part southern gothic, and I definitely enjoyed it, though perhaps it, too, was a bit overwrought….

 

And that brings me to the end of 2016. I hope I can get some thoughts up about the books I’ve read so far in 2017 soon.

Posted in Partial Reviews, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Review of Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming

How I Killed Pluto cover image

I bought this book several years ago, back when I qualified for an educator discount and could get paperbacks from Random House for $3 apiece. Whenever you see me review a book that seems out of my usual oeuvre (I try not to have a usual oeuvre, but my prejudices seep out), chances are that it dates from this era – either that or from some library book sale. I decided the time had come to read this book when I was helping a student with her science homework and found that the chart in her textbook of all the planets ended with Neptune. Seeing the updated chart and talking with my student, who had no idea that there had ever been a planet called Pluto, made me care about this change in the solar system more than vaguely remembering seeing a headline several years ago, most likely when I was busy thinking about other things.

This book is a light, quick read meant for laypeople. Mike Brown is a CalTech professor of astronomy who discovered several “objects” in the farthest reaches of the solar system during the early years of the 21st century. Around this same time, other astronomers first saw the Kuiper belt – a second asteroid belt past Neptune that was named after the astronomer who first theorized that it existed. The Kuiper belt is important to the demotion of Pluto mentioned in the title.

Brown begins the book with a quick trip through the history of our understanding of the solar system, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s intellectual history. He traces the word ‘planet’ back to ancient Greece, where it was used to mean any object that moves through the sky rather than staying in place. Under that definition, the sun and the moon were planets, while the earth was not. The ancient Greeks counted seven planets – the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – all of which could be seen with the naked eye. Brown leaps forward to Galileo’s telescope and the rapid-succession discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and a series of smaller “planets” that would later be reclassified as asteroids, a term that did not yet exist in these early years of telescope development. The word ‘planet’ was called into question once again and eventually defined not only as an object that traveled through the sky but also as an object that orbited the sun. The earth became a planet. The sun was classified as a star. The moon was classified as a satellite, and astronomers discovered similar satellites around most of the other planets. Initially declared to be planets and given names (because they do travel through the sky and orbit the sun), the asteroids were downgraded because the word ‘planet’ was redefined to mean something that orbits the sun on its own. Since the asteroids all share an orbit, they are not planets.

The short version of Pluto’s demotion (its new status is “dwarf planet”) follows a similar trajectory. During the years Mike Brown covers in this book, astronomers were finding new objects in the far reaches of space in a way that mimicked the discovery of the asteroid belt. These objects were later demonstrated to be the Kuiper belt. Some of these objects were extremely far out in space – hundreds of times as far as Pluto – and some of them had funky orbits that didn’t resemble the orbits of any known planets. Astronomers were once again faced with the question of how to define “planet.” Size came into question. Much smaller than the other eight planets, Pluto was popularly seen as not just the smallest planet but as the smallest possible planet. Whenever a newly discovered object was deemed to be smaller than Pluto, astronomers grumbled that it couldn’t possibly be a planet – in spite of the fact that “all planets must be the same size as or bigger than Pluto” is not a scientific statement, not at all.

Brown does a great job of portraying the role of the emotions in science. By this I mean not just the egos of individual scientists (“We recommend that you remain humble,” Brown was told by a bureaucrat at the International Astronomical Union after an object he found was – temporarily – deemed a planet) but the sentimentality that everyone – scientists and ordinary people – seems to attach to objects in space. When I first saw this book in Random House’s catalog, my first thought concerned the mnemonic I was taught in second grade to help me remember the planets: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. What would happen to the mnemonic now that there was no more room in it for pizzas? I didn’t exactly obsess about it or anything, but I wondered. As it happens, Brown spends some time on that acronym in his book. It appears that there was a contingent out there who really did obsess about the acronym and were furious at Pluto’s removal from the planetary pantheon. Brown is both amused and bemused by the whole experience and tells the story with a light yet erudite touch.

It happened that during the worldwide debate about whether Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects would be classified as planets, Brown and his wife were also caring for their newborn. Brown conveys both the experience of falling in love with their infant daughter and the jarring experience of being yanked out of his time at home with his wife and newborn daughter to appear on TV at 5 am on the day the IAU announced its decision on Pluto. These sections of the book are humorous – sometimes in a “men are so clueless” sort of way, and who doesn’t love that? – and they also provide context to remind us that science is a human endeavor, always happening while the rest of life is going on, fraught with and at the mercy of human emotions. Ultimately, it is this focus on “real life” that makes this such an enjoyable book, both easy to read and enriching.

Posted in Authors, Mike Brown, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction - Science, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

cover image of underground railroad

The greatest trick Colson Whitehead ever pulled was convincing this bookblogger that he had written a realistic novel.

Yes, yes, I know that the fact the railroad in this novel is a literal series of tracks running under the nineteenth-century United States is revealed on the book jacket. I read the jacket before I read the book, I think, but this is Colson Whitehead. When he publishes a new book, I don’t ask questions. I just read.

The first sixty pages of this novel read like a fictionalized version of one of the well-known slave narratives: one by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs or Solomon Northrup. Cora is orphaned, so to speak, when her mother, Mabel, escapes from the plantation, and she is sent to live in “the Hob,” a cabin in the slave quarter in which slave women live when they do not fit in anywhere else. The other women in the Hob do things like foam at the mouth and keen unconsolably – essentially, they are women so traumatized by slavery that they have stopped functioning and even the threats of punishment within the slave system can’t shock them into self-control. Cora is in the Hob partly because she became a pariah of sorts when her mother escaped but also because she chopped up a doghouse built by a new, powerful slave named Blake because Blake had chosen to build the doghouse on the plot of land Cora had long used to grow some vegetables and potatoes.

Now let’s wait for a minute here. Doghouses? Gardens? Was I tricked even more than I thought I was? I know that slaves on rice plantations in South Carolina and north Georgia maintained gardens to grow their food because they were not given food by their masters – but since Cora is the only slave who seems to care about her (or any) garden, this plantation does not seem to be one on which slaves were responsible for their own upkeep. And a doghouse? This plantation looks suspiciously like something out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Is this one of Whitehead’s games? Was he messing with me from the beginning, long before the Hogwarts Express pulled up to a station far underneath the southern U.S. to chug Cora off to points north? Let’s consider this question as we proceed.

As I said, the first sixty or so pages of this novel – Cora’s life on the plantation and her escape with a fellow slave named Caesar – felt realistic to me. When the Underground Railroad takes them to South Carolina (yes, South Carolina), a new chapter begins in which Cora has a new name (Bessie) and identity and is working as a valued nanny and housekeeper for a white family. She is paid for her work, and at the end of the day she goes home to a dorm created especially for ex-slaves. She is looked over by a white housemother figure named Miss Lucy, who corrects the ex-slaves’ grammar and generally treats them with solicitous condescension. Soon it becomes clear that this safe haven for runaway slaves expects a specific kind of payment: the ex-slaves are expected to submit to sterilization. No one is forced, but after Cora resists the efforts of Miss Lucy a couple of times, she is beset with other well-meaning white authority figures who smile sympathetically while explaining how much happier she will be if she just visits the doctor for this one simple procedure. I know that one of the sticking points in the anti-slavery debate in the 1800’s was the question of where ex-slaves would go and what they would do as free agents in the larger economy. It’s never stated outright, but apparently in this alternate history, South Carolina hopes to solve this problem by making it a temporary one, by making sure the descendants of African slaves do not survive in their state past the current generation.

Cora and Caesar spend considerable time in South Carolina, but eventually they choose to let the Underground Railroad whisk them farther north. They are soon separated, and Cora endures several terrible days trapped in a pitch-dark station that has been closed, only to find herself in North Carolina, which has taken a less subtle approach to dealing with its black population: total massacre of the race. Here, as in the other states in which Cora spends time, we meet some of the whites who shelter the runaway slaves, learning their stories and the reasons for their resistance.

Now that I’ve written about it, I do think this book’s first chapter is intentionally sly. Forever trapped on the first step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, slaves probably did not build doghouses. South Carolina is famous as one of the most terrible places to be a slave, while North Carolina was one of the least horrific, relatively speaking. The American south depicted in this novel has the feel of something out of a George Saunders novel: almost a nightmarish theme-park version of our nation’s greatest reason for shame. I have to imagine that Whitehead’s purpose here to to draw attention to the fact that slavery has become mythologized in the American mind. Anyone who has read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass remembers Douglass’ harrowing time on Mr. Covey’s slave-breaking farm – both for Covey’s sadistic treatment of the slaves and for the triumphant way Douglass evades him. An acquaintance of mine who is a professor of African American history refers to this section of the Narrative as “propaganda.” He makes the point that plantations were businesses, and that as cruel as masters and overseers were, they also wanted to protect their investments, so their punishments always had the goal of making slaves work faster and more efficiently. He argues that the beatings depicted in the Narrative were meant to inspire pity and outrage among Northerners during the years before the Civil War; they were never meant as perfect realism. I cannot say on my own whether this acquaintance is correct: I believe him because he is a professor of African American history and because his argument that slaves were first and foremost business investments was persuasive, but I can’t confirm his assertions based on my own knowledge.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? We are a nation with a terrible past, and it is difficult for those of us without advanced history degrees to know where the lines are drawn between literal and figurative truth. Because I am glad that slavery ended when it did, I don’t look down on Douglass’ Narrative for being propaganda, if in fact it is. This is the nature of propaganda: people who support its purpose tend not to care if it reflects the literal truth. Whitehead’s novel plays with the mythological nature of our history as a slave nation. The “real” Underground Railroad (the one without tracks) was in some ways larger than life because of the courage and grit that were required to keep it moving and because of the fact that it saved as many slaves as it did; Whitehead mythologizes its greatness by transforming it into a literal railroad that runs in secret beneath the cities and countrysides of an oblivious nation. The insidious racism at the heart of Whitehead’s fictional South Carolina feels, by the time Cora leaves, as cruel as the most barbarous cotton plantation. The central message of this novel is that we don’t know as much as we think we know about our nation’s terrible history. This novel’s verisimilitude lies in the way it mixes fiction so freely with fact; in this it resembles the knowledge base of the average American.

Posted in Authors, Colson Whitehead, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Yarn Along

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I still haven’t bought the yarn for the short-sleeved sweater I showed you a couple of weeks ago, but I’m making progress on my test placemat (or whatever) that’s helping me master linen stitch. It’s different from everything I’ve ever done and feels more like weaving than knitting. I realized that last time I didn’t do a good job of showing what linen stitch looks like up close, so I took the time to get a good close-up:

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Isn’t that cool?

Other than showing off my linen stitch, mostly I’m just here today to tell you that apparently I’m now old enough that my books from college require special handling. I pulled this one off the shelf and opened it as if it were any other book, and the cover just popped off in my hand, just like that. Next time I’ll wear white cotton gloves and store the book in a climate-controlled vault. And there will have to be paperwork involved, of course.

With Daylight Savings Time on the horizon, I will do my best to keep obnoxious reflections of the overhead light out of my Yarn Along photos for the next seven months.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things. Happy Wednesday!

Posted in Uncategorized, Yarn Along | 4 Comments