Recent Reading Roundup 51
The first few weeks of 2020 have mostly involved catching up with stuff from 2019. I've been watching a lot of TV from the end of the year (I have some thoughts on the fourth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of the Power, and the debut season of The Witcher, on my tumblr) and I wrote a summary of my reading over the just-concluded decade at Lawyers, Guns & Money. This post has been an open tab for a while, covering books read in the later parts of last year (including several that already made it into the year's best list last month). I'm glad to finally be able to clear it off the decks--not only are these great books that you should be looking out for, but doing so also means that I can start looking forward to 2020's reading.
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead - The much-anticipated follow-up to Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a short snapshot of a novel which fictionalizes the real Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reformatory infamous for its use of corporal punishment, for corruption, for treating its students like indentured servants, and for the disappearance of boys who had crossed the staff, whose bodies were found decades later in a mass grave. Set in the early 60s, the novel focuses on Elwood Curtis, a bright, serious-minded black teenager from a small Florida town. Inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and by his sense that America is on the verge of meaningful change for its black citizens, Elwood strives to embody black excellence, to rise above the racism that surrounds him and better himself in anticipation of the better future he sees coming. Then a bit of bad luck lands him at the Nickel School, where violence and indifference to the students' fate are not only rampant, but heavily segregated. As Elwood witnesses brutality and corruption, he observes the way that the school's authorities have written off their students, and how the black students are routinely given the short end of the stick--their education is all but ignored, their food supplies are sold to local merchants, and the boys themselves are rented out to members of the school board for home repairs. While Elwood tries to keep his head up and his hopes on the possibility of release, his friend Turner takes a more cynical approach, convinced of the general uselessness of people, in and out of the school, and of the inevitability of abuse and exploitation.
Told in a coolly detached third person that switches between the two boys' points of view and then swoops into the school's past to recount events neither of them could have witnessed, The Nickel Boys largely avoids sensationalizing the school's brutality. It averts its eyes from the worst of the indignities the boys experience, ending a scene before Elwood is viciously whipped, and alluding only vaguely to rampant sexual abuse. Its focus, instead, is on the impact that abuse has on the boys, their shock at having been marked, physically and emotionally, by its sadism and cruelty, and the psychological coping methods they adopt to survive it--Elwood's determination to play to the school's rules and "graduate" early, Turner's attitude that the only thing to be done is put your head down and try to avoid trouble. Whitehead's choice of period means that the worst of the school's abuses are in its past--for every bit of cruelty and mismanagement Elwood witnesses or experiences, Turner is there to observe that things used to be much worse, which the omniscient narrator confirms. The point, I think, is less that Elwood and Turner have it easy (they clearly don't) but to draw a contrast between the feeling of change running through American society, and the changelessness of the Nickel School's cruelty, which always finds a way to express itself even when officially curtailed by the authorities above it. The novel thus puts itself in constant tension between Elwood's idealism and his belief in the inevitability of change, and Turner's cynicism and distrust in humanity. When Elwood conceives a plan to expose the school's corruption and violence to a visiting inspection team, even he realizes that he is placing his faith in representatives of the very system that has kept the school going through the decades. And Turner, though he knows better than to believe in that system, can't stop himself from momentarily giving that plan a push, even if he knows it'll end badly for him and his friend.
In its final segment, the novel rejoins Elwood in his post-Nickel days. We see him in his thirties, cynical and misanthropic, incapable of maintaining relationships and distrustful of all authority. Then in his middle age, now a successful businessman but also hardened and emotionally withdrawn. And finally in his old age, having found happiness in a late marriage, which gives him the space to finally speak up about his experiences, and the tragic end of his stay at Nickel. All of this is leading up to a twist that I'm not sure the novel needed. It feels as if, much like The Underground Railroad, Whitehead found himself struggling with the question of how to end his story--happily or tragically? Is happiness unrealistic, and is tragedy unhelpful? The entire project of The Nickel Boys feels like a meditation on this question of idealism vs. cynicism, and though Whitehead eventually finds a successful midpoint--one that acknowledges that things have gotten better, but also how much effort and suffering went into achieving that, and how much more there is yet to do--I think the last-minute revelation that he ends the novel with was an unnecessary bit of showmanship. But that still leaves The Nickel Boys as a remarkable accomplishment, encompassing in its brief page count not only this fundamental question of how to approach the edifice of American racism and racist systems, but an important bit of history that was long overdue for discussion.
- Women Talking by Miriam Toews - Based on real events, Toews's short, shocking novel takes place in a remote Mennonite community in South America. For years, the women in the community have been waking up groggy, bruised, and bleeding. The community's leaders have blamed the attacks on demons who are punishing the women for their sinfulness and lack of faith, but after one of the victims lies in wait for her attackers, they are revealed as a group of community members--many of them relatives of the victims--who have been drugging the women with horse tranquilizers and raping them. Now the abusers are in town awaiting trial, and the men of the community have traveled there hoping to post bail for them, and return them to live among their victims. Women Talking takes place over two days during which the women--almost all of whom have been attacked--come together to decide how and whether to respond. A group of eight women chosen as leaders has gathered in a hayloft to discuss their options--do nothing, stay behind and try to reform their community, or leave. They have invited one of the few men who have been left behind in the village, August, the schoolteacher, himself something of an outcast, to take notes, even though none of them can read. August's spare, matter-of-fact narrative transcribes the women's words and adds explanations about the workings of the community, but as the novel progresses these explanations also elaborate on the extent of the abuses visited on the women. We learn, for example, that some have been left pregnant by their rapists, that not even small children were spared, that the aftereffects of the assault have included mental breakdowns and even suicides, and that medical help has been withheld from the victims for fear of calling even more attention to the community.
In its early pages, Women Talking stresses the unique qualities of the heroines' situation. They have been isolated from the outside world their entire lives. They don't speak the local language--they don't, in fact, speak any common language, but an archaic Germanic dialect that doesn't even have a written form. Though men are taught rudimentary English and some reading skills, the women are completely illiterate, in their own language and others. It doesn't need to be spelled out that this is a system perfectly designed to enable and even encourage abuse, but in it the women also find a form of freedom--because they have never read the Bible themselves, they are free to reject the version of it taught to them by their men, which insists that they should be subservient, and to imagine their project of escape (which they quickly realize is their only viable option) as a form of religious pilgrimage, a way of finding a more direct, unmediated approach to god. This faith is at the core of the women's choices. Their pacifism tells them that they mustn't respond to being abused with violence, as so many of them want to, but they rightly conclude that they would be tempted to violence if forced to live with their abusers. Leaving, then, becomes not just a rebellious act, but an ethical one.
At the same time, however, Women Talking feels like a concise summary of the central issues of modern feminism and its debate over how to live within rape culture. The questions the women pose one another are the ones that modern women have been asking themselves, online and in articles and meetings, for decades. How do you respond to a society that hates you, that sees you as less than human? Do you retreat, or do you stay and hope to change it from within? Are all men the enemy, even if they don't participate in violence themselves, simply because they prop up the system that enables it? What about weak men, vulnerable men, victimized men? What about boys? Is it the responsibility of women to raise their sons to be better men, and at what point do those sons become the enemy? All of these questions are granted greater urgency by the stark gender divisions and enforced conformity of the community in the novel, but they will be familiar to any feminist who has had to grapple with the ubiquity of violence against women, and with the indifference and tacit support that violence often receives from men who would never participate in it themselves.
All of which is to perhaps to make Women Talking sound like a treatise or an essay, but in fact it is deeply personal and vibrant. Toews sketches in the personalities of her characters in a few effective sentences--the grandmothers who have lived their entire lives under oppression and are now ready to rebel, even though they know they might not live to see the end of the journey; the granddaughters who seem flighty and carefree until they reveal that they know much more than they've revealed about how power works in their community. The central debate ranges mostly between three heroines--Salome, proud, angry, and prone to violence; Ona, dreamy and unconcerned with public disdain; Mariche, spiteful and bitter, always ready to be contrary--whose discussions often seem to spin into irrelevance and personal sniping. Slowly, however, they converge upon a powerful conclusion--that the women want to be safe, and free, and to articulate their own relationship with god that doesn't define them as subhuman. August's narrative voice gives us not only immediately recognizable portraits of these women, but background on his own history, which has left him unable to leave the only safe space he's ever known, but also uniquely capable of recognizing its faults. For a while it feels as if his narrative will be allowed to take over the novel, that his feelings (particularly his love for Ona) will become the point of the story. But as Women Talking approaches its end, it becomes clear that neither August nor the women have any intention of allowing him to come with them. Their escape is also an exit from his (or anyone else's) narrative, a choice to tell their own story in whatever form they can. It's a profound triumph at the end of a novel that has insisted on treating its bruised, battered heroines as fully human and fully alive, and their choice as ones made not just in anger but in joy, and in anticipation of better things.
- The Heavens by Sandra Newman - I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up this novel, which was billed as a time-hopping romantic drama about a woman who lives two lives, in the 21st century and the sixteenth. Perhaps I should have remembered that Newman's previous novel was the award-nomiated post-apocalypse, The Country of Ice Cream Star, and considered that an author who skips subgenres and tones like that might have something more up her sleeve. The most remarkable thing about The Heavens is how thoroughly it tricks you when it comes to its tone, and to the seriousness with which it takes its SFnal component. In its early chapters, it reads like a borderline-twee fairytale of New York, a love story among the hip and affluent with a slight genre twist, along the lines of The Time Traveler's Wife. Ben and Kate meet at a party. He's a geology student who writes poetry. She's an artist. They are surrounded by people with interesting life stories and even more interesting vocations--an heiress who bankrolls female politicians and promotes social justice causes; a former mail-order bride who has formed an organization to help other women in her situation while also creating documentaries and performance art pieces; a soulful ex-soldier eyeing a political career. When Kate takes Ben to meet her parents, they are quintessential New York academics--talky, interesting, effortlessly welcoming him into their pleasant, elegant home. It's all very charming, in a way that's a little hard to take, as is Ben and Kate's seemingly perfect romance. Only in the very background does one sense that something is a little out of whack. Ben and Kate's New York doesn't seem exactly like ours, and not just because they're both so privileged that they live in a different world to most people. The president has an unfamiliar name, for example, and everything seems a little kinder, and little less broken than we know it to be.
When Newman reveals her scheme, it is as shocking as it is inescapable. Her whole life, Kate has had strange, vivid dreams, which intensify and become more elaborate when she meets Ben. In the dreams, she is Emilia, a rich man's mistress floating around the outer edges of the royal court. She is compelled, by forces she doesn't understand but can't resist, to promote the interests and protect the life of an actor and would-be playwright called Will Shakespeare--a name that means nothing to Kate and her friends. And every time Kate wakes up from one of these dreams, the world she returns to is a little bit worse, a little bit closer to ours. Kate finds herself shocked by the omnipresence of advertising, or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. And she can't remember personal tragedies and dissatisfactions--the fact that her parents are divorced, and living in professional and personal disappointment far from New York; or that Ben's mentally ill mother died years ago. Though the reader slowly realizes what is happening to Kate--what she is doing--as far as Ben and the other characters in the book are concerned, she seems like a fantasist, or someone with an incredibly frustrating mental illness. As the novel's world grows increasingly polluted, war-torn, and malevolent, Kate and Ben's relationship crumbles under the strain of her insistence that this isn't the world she was born into, and that she is somehow making it worse every time she closes her eyes.
Newman has the reasons for Kate's experiences, and the rules of how they work, thoroughly worked out, and delivers the explanation for them in a surprising and unexpected way. But she can't quite overcome the inherent oddness of her concept. The Shakespeare bits of the novel are where it feels weakest, name-checking historical celebrities and referencing Shakespearean trivia (Emilia, for example, turns out to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets). But that's compensated for by the sheer bloody-mindedness with which Newman addresses the project of destroying not just her characters' lives, but their entire world. We watch as Ben and the people around him get less hopeful, less idealistic, and less interesting as the world around them grows more degraded--Ben, for example, takes a job with a fossil fuel company because they're the only ones hiring. It feels like a direct response to the genre Newman seemed at first to be working in, a reminder that the world we live in shapes us, and that it's easier to generous and creative and remarkable when the circumstances of your life have given you the room and freedom to become so. It's also incredibly bleak, even as Ben and Kate make their way back to each other. Their final reunion is a happy ending in a fundamentally broken world, one that takes care to remind us of both halves of that equation. Reading The Heavens can feel more than a little punishing--how much more can this woman, these people, this world endure? But it's also a stunning achievement of SFnal imagination and sustained tone, and marks Newman out as one of the most exciting and interesting writers currently working.
- Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich - This oral history by Nobel-winner Alexievich is credited as the source material for HBO's magnificent miniseries Chernobyl, but the two are very different works. In fact, it might be better for people who (like myself) knew only the bare minimum about the Chernobyl event to watch the miniseries first, and get a sense of the sequence of events and the specific challenges involved in the response to the disaster. Alexievich's book is less a standard nonfiction work about the disaster than an impressionistic collage of first-hand accounts from people touched by the event, both near and far, and from every level of society. Some of the narratives will be familiar from the show--the opening account is by the wife of a firefighter who was one of the first responders to what was then still billed as a burning roof at the power plant, and who went on to die of radiation poisoning, which forms the backbone of one of the show's most harrowing plotlines. Others clearly provided inspiration, such as the multiple heartbroken recollections of leaving Pripyat and the other towns around the reactor on a few hours' notice, or the stories of farmers and villagers further out from the disaster who have suddenly been informed that they can't eat anything that grows on their land, and must abandon their homes, probably forever.
But Chernobyl Prayer (publishing as Voices From Chernobyl in the US) is more wide-ranging. It talks to young people who grew up around Chernobyl and now find themselves, as they enter adulthood, being viewed with suspicion by the families of prospective partners, or with prurient curiosity by friends. To scientists who insist that it is possible to produce healthy crops from the irradiated soil downwind from the reactor, so long as proper safety procedures are followed--procedures that local farmers are being left ignorant of. To medical professionals who recount how they were given conflicting and ultimately false information to spread to the people under their care as radioactive dust blanketed them. Each narrative is a few pages long, presented as a "monologue", in what purport to be the original words of the interviewee.
Running through all the narratives in Chernobyl Prayer is a sense of disillusionment that has not faded despite the years since the disaster (the first edition of the book was published in 1997; the expanded edition I read, in 2013). The interviewees describe the shock to their system that the accident represented--to their belief in Soviet technological superiority and benevolent leadership; to their perception of nuclear power as inherently safe and fundamentally unlike nuclear weapons; most of all, to their understanding, founded on decades of heroic narrativizing of the Great War, of what a disaster looks like. Many interviewees talk about the cognitive dissonance of that beautiful, verdant Ukranian spring turning poisonous, the bounty of the fields and forests all promising death to anyone who reached out for them. Most of all, they talk about the trauma of losing their homes--or, in some cases, of insisting on staying behind despite knowing that everything around them is poisonous, because they can't bear to say goodbye forever.
This is the fundamental difference between Alexievich's approach and the miniseries's. The latter focuses on dramatic events and equally dramatic acts of heroism, many of them fatal--the firefighters and engineers who quickly succumbed to radiation poisoning, the soldiers who ventured onto the irradiated roof to clear rubble, the miners who dug under the reactor to keep radioactive material from seeping into the groundwater. These are all present in Chernobyl Prayer, but far more attention is paid to ordinary people, whose stories are so common that they repeat themselves in slight variations, together forming an impression of heartbreak and homesickness that still haven't abated. The miniseries will give you a sense of Chernobyl as a manmade disaster, but Alexievitch's book will teach you to think of it as a tragedy and a communal trauma, one whose effects continue to be felt, far beyond the reach of the reactor's radiation.
- The Little Animals by Sarah Tolmie - It's hard to pin down just what makes The Little Animals so engrossing, given that most of what happens in it is unremakrable. A dramatization of the life of pioneering microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, it takes its cues from reality in describing his life as fundamentally mundane. A draper and well-regarded member of seventeeth century Delft's community of merchants and artisans, van Leeuwenhoek was also a skilled glassblower who constructed microscopes of previously unheard-of degrees of magnification, and was the first to observe microscopic lifeforms and the structure of plant and animal cells. The Little Animals follows him as he compiles his observations into a report for the Royal Society, finally receiving a delegation from England to confirm his observations and offer him a membership in the society. He also takes inspiration from the natural forms he observes, creating patterns for fabric which make him rich and give the novel the opportunity to explore the vibrant business community in Delft, where artistry and mercantilism meet and create new products for the middle classes to adorn themselves with. In his home, van Leeuwenhoek and his wife Barbara struggle with the early deaths of all but one of their children, and open their home to a strange, nameless goose girl who claims to be able to hear the "little animals" that Antonie sees through his microscopes.
It's all, in other words, terribly ordinary, and deliberately plotless. Even the occasional suggestion that something dramatic might happen--that the goose girl's claims that she can hear microbes talking to her, and even predict death according to what she smells and tastes in people's blood and sweat, might get her denounced by the church or relegated to an insane asylum--is quickly dealt with and squared away. And yet The Little Animals is thoroughly winning, firstly because Tolmie is so good at sketching her characters and their world, her clear, unfussy sentences crafting complex pictures of comfortable drawing rooms, rich fabrics, and busy factories. But also because she's so clearly interested in all of her characters and their mundane concerns--van Leeuwenhoek's scientific curiosity and how it clashes with his instincts as a merchant and fear of being made to look ridiculous in the hidebound Delft community, his business partners' calculations about when and how to release new fabrics, his neighbor's Johannes Vermeer's money troubles and endless scrambling after models and painting materials. Even the thread of the fantastical introduced by the goose girl, whose predictions inevitably come to pass, and whose deductions about people are invariably proven true, is woven into the novel's tapestry of the mundane, rather than overpowering it.
It eventually becomes clear that this ordinariness is the point. That in a novel about a man who discovers an entire hidden world within ordinary materials like spit or blood or pond scum, Tolmie's project is to talk about how even thoroughly ordinary people can experience revelation and grow in unexpected ways. Antonie's scientific and business endeavors end up reverberating in his community in unexpected ways. Even as the discovery of microbes and cells is monetized, turned into commercial products before anyone can understand the significance of what has been discovered, its effects change the novel's characters in profound ways. Antonie's draftsman develops the wherewithal to stand up to his bullying, abusive father, giving his mother and himself a better life. Another draftsman, a dissipated, disappointed man, finds a new calling as a sex worker, and then parlays his newfound wealth into a business career. An English priest admits to himself that he desires men, and may even find happiness with a partner. We might expect drama and calamity to result from some or all of these storylines, but Tolmie instead chooses to offer the possibility of understanding, change, and progress. When the priest discovers the goose girl and her heretical claims, he's moved not to indignation and condemnation, but to pity, and walks away from her a more thoughtful, kinder man. The Little Animals is about the possibility that everyone, no matter how ordinary, is capable of greatness of spirit, and how learning that there is more to the world than we had realized can inspire that growth. It is, in its small, gentle way, a profoundly benevolent novel, about a profoundly SFnal topic.
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk - Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's 2009 novel took a while to win me over, and this feels entirely deliberate. Its narrator, an elderly woman named Janina (though she hates her name, frequently complains about it, and makes up nicknames for everyone else in the novel rather than use their given names) lives on the outskirts of a small town on the Polish-Czech border. She has few neighbors and even fewer friends, and she spends the early chapters of the novel explaining to us, in obsessive detail, the contours of her world--the few houses that dot the countryside and their eccentric inhabitants, the summer cottages for which she acts as a caretaker, the factory farms that have begun to crop up in the region, the small town where she visits to explore the charity shop and teach English at the school. Most of all, the police station, where Janina returns again and again to explain to increasingly weary detectives that the various deaths that have been occurring in her neighborhood--another recluse who choked on an animal bone, a police chief who tripped and fell into a dry well--are actually acts of vengeance carried out by animals, who are angry at the local people who have been hunting them for centuries.
Janina is a crank--besides her vengeful animals theory, she's a staunch believer in astrology, forms elaborate theories about people from coincidences and dubious observations, and insists that the Czech Republic, which lies just across the border, is a place of kindness and compassion where none of the evil she witnesses in Poland (for example hunting) could possibly occur. It's hard not sympathize with the people who are just barely tolerating her tirades, since we are exposed to endless run-on, haphazardly-capitalized paragraphs of them, in which she explains her increasingly bananas theories of the world or complains about her various physical ailments. It takes a while for us to realize that Janina is actually a much more substantial woman than she initially appeared, with an impressive history of work and academic achievement behind her, and profound generosity towards other outcasts and misfits--her friend Dizzy, who works in the IT department at the police station, and visits Janina in his free time to translate Blake, or the girl who works in the charity shop.
Drive Your Plow takes place over the course of a year, during which Janina makes new friends and expands her world. As she does so, our understanding of the richness of her life, and the depths of her emotional resources, deepens and grows. As deaths begin to pile up in the neighborhood, and Janina continues to insist that animals are responsible, we learn of a recent tragedy that befell her, the pain from which is clearly still so fresh that she can only address it obliquely, and begin to grasp the profound rage she feels towards the cruelty and injustice she perceives in the world. Despite this, Janina is still cheerful, kind, and energetic, the quintessential irrepressible old woman, the kind of person who is ignored by almost everyone, and uses that invisibility to live exactly the kind of life she wants.
Tokarczuk's scheme with the novel doesn't become clear until close to its end, which is one of the things that makes Drive Your Plow so brilliant--it is a novel that, like its main character, keeps revealing itself, and turning out to be richer and more complex than you could ever have imagined from its early chapters. Though most reviewers have read the novel as a treatise about vegetarianism, to me it feels as if its concerns are broader. The more Janina shows us of her community, the more we see how violence is embedded in every level of it. That violence is ostensibly directed at animals, but as Janina reveals, fundamental assumptions about the utility of force, and the justness of exploiting those who are weak and helpless, quickly come to shape society, and to justify cruelty at all levels of it. The local fox farm where animals are raised for their fur is also being used as a front for illegal activities; the local church has folded hunting into its religious rituals in a way that ostracizes anyone who doesn't wish to participate in it. Drive Your Plow comes to feel like an allegory about being a humanist in a world that is growing crueler by the day, more and more in love with power and strength of arms. The community initially ignores and dismisses Janina's insistence on the rights and personhood of animals, but when she openly challenges its core precepts, it turns on her with a sudden, terrifying viciousness. It's enormously gratifying that Janina turns out to have been ready for such an attack--to have, in fact, been carrying out her own campaign of resistance throughout the novel, just hidden from the reader's view. It's a brilliant performance from both character and author, who has vaulted to to the top of my list of writers to seek out.