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The Testaments

September 11, 2019

Since 1985, when it was published, I have assigned reading The Handmaid’s Tale to students in any literature class I taught. It’s an important novel with a satiric ending–because readers don’t know what happens to Offred, they’re inspired to work harder to make sure that what happens to her can’t happen to any woman in our world. (Readers are goaded even harder in the “Historical Notes” by Prof Pieixoto’s clueless and relativistic academic point of view on Offred’s experience in Gilead—see Gerry Canavan’s article on the Historical Notes for more detail on Pieixoto’s problematic attitude.)

So I’ve been a bit skeptical about the tv series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, and repulsed and worried by the violence depicted in it–worried because not enough people seem to be similarly repulsed and because a few even seem to be excited by the violence. I watched the second season because I couldn’t follow the story any other way, and it was almost beyond my capacity to keep watching to the end. I decided not to watch the third season, especially after reading about how it offers the viewers hope (that’s the last thing women need right now—hope through fantasy fulfillment fiction).

I was even more skeptical about Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments. How could it possibly be as important, as much of a call to action, as The Handmaid’s Tale? How could it co-exist with the tv show? Well, it is and it does. It’s brilliant and well-written; I read it all in one evening and thought fondly about the evening a few years ago when Margaret Atwood came to Kenyon and I got to meet her (she is tiny in stature while mighty in intellect).

As usual, I will avoid “spoilers” in this review, but try to interest you in reading The Testaments and thinking about the issues it raises. There are three points of view in the novel: one from an Aunt, required to enforce the laws of Gilead for its female population, one from a sheltered daughter of Gilead, and one from a character who was raised outside of Gilead–this one we first met on the tv show version of The Handmaid’s Tale (although any knowledge about the show is not necessary to an understanding of this novel). I guessed who this third character is shortly after she was introduced; you probably will too.

The daughter’s life has been severely curtailed; the details of her story reveal that she is from the first generation of girls adopted into the families of Commanders of Gilead. She is not allowed to read, of course, or even to learn to bake, since she is told that she will always have a “Martha” to do that for her. When she crosses a playground she is wistful:
“There were swings in one of the parks, but because of our skirts, which might be blown up by the wind and then looked into, we were not to think of taking such a liberty as a swing. Only boys could taste that freedom; only they could swoop and soar; only they could be airborne.”

The character who was raised outside of Gilead tells about writing a paper on a female from Gilead who escaped to Canada, saying that “she was being used as a football by both sides, and it would be the greatest happiness of the greatest number just to give her back. The teacher had said I was callous and should learn to respect other people’s rights and feelings, and I’d said people in Gilead were people, and shouldn’t their rights and feelings be respected too?”
Discerning readers might hear the echo of an American president saying there are “good” people on “both sides” of the white supremacy movement and also an echo of Professor Pieixoto’s remarks about how the job of academics is “not to censure but to understand” (his relativism is particularly offensive as it comes immediately after Offred’s harrowing account).

The Aunt’s story is the backbone of this novel, and reveals even more of the seamy underside of Gilead. We learn what this particular Aunt did before Gilead took over, why she was chosen, how she was forced into her position, and how delicately designed and long-plotted is her revenge on the whole regime. She echoes Dante as she guides us through hell, although that echoed language (“think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood”) is juxtaposed to the comedic effect of such names as the “Schlafly Café” and the “Hildegard Library.” Still, when the phrase is repeated in the thoughts of the daughter, it’s clear that this Aunt has guided that young woman to the point where she can actually begin to see the dark wood that surrounds her.

This particular Aunt was dragged away by armed soldiers at the very hour that women in the newly-created country of Gilead were discovering that they no longer had bank accounts. Held for weeks in a stadium, she describes the effect of the conditions of their captivity on her fellow judges, lawyers, doctors, and other professional women:
“I am sorry to dwell so much on the facilities, but you would be amazed at how important such things become—basics that you’ve taken for granted, that you’ve barely thought about until they’re removed from you. During my daydreams—and we all daydreamed, as enforced stasis with no events produces daydreams and the brain must busy itself with something—I frequently pictured a beautiful, clean, white toilet. Oh, and a sink to go with it, with an ample flow of pure clear water.
Naturally we began to stink. In addition to the ordeal by toilet, we’d been sleeping in our business attire, with no change of underwear. Some of us were past menopause, but others were not, so the smell of clotting blood was added to the sweat and tears and shit and puke. To breathe was to be nauseated.
They were reducing us to animals—to penned-up animals—to our animal nature. They were rubbing our noses in that nature. We were to consider ourselves subhuman.”
The details, like that some of the women were menstruating but had no supplies, are chilling in their relevance to current U.S. news.

The Aunt gives three reasons for her survival:
“First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders—too much dirt—and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.
Third, I’m discreet. Each one of the top men has always felt that his secrets are safe with me; but—as I’ve made obliquely clear—only so long as I myself am safe.”

This Aunt has a wry way of stating things, which might make a reader think that she’s the character who has the most of the author’s voice:
“Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords.”

The wry way of stating things may come from the way she uses humor to keep from getting hysterical about the situation she’s found herself in:
“Once a Vassar girl, always a Vassar girl, as I sometimes said snidely to myself while watching her beating to a pulp the feet of some recalcitrant Handmaid prospect.”

Everything the Aunt relates is a warning:
“Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

The most serious warning, I’d say, is about the person reading what the Aunt has gone to so much trouble to be able to say:
“How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”

Let us hope. And let us also hope that we will never achieve the degree of academic detachment that Professor Pieixoto has reached, as he again gets the last word.


The Islanders

September 8, 2019

I picked up The Islanders, by Meg Mitchell Moore, in the college bookstore while waiting for someone, and read a few pages. They stuck with me, and so I went to the library looking for a copy. The library didn’t have it, so after putting in a request for them to acquire it I found myself back in the bookstore unable to resist finding out more of what happens.

The novel starts out with an ominous prologue and then takes us back “two months ago, June” to Anthony’s viewpoint, followed by Joy’s, followed by Lu’s, and then Anthony’s again. I felt a little irritable about this, as I object to being switched around just as I’m starting to get interested in someone’s story. Also I wasn’t sure if I liked the writing—is it stupid or will it eventually seem charming to read sentences like “he spent three thousand dollars on four items. (Not really, but it felt like it.)”? The answer is that the author cuts it out; the writing gets less obvious and self-indulgent after that particularly low point. Soon I got hooked on more than one story, and the switching increasingly made sense. Something was building, a complete picture from three different points of view.

Anthony has left his wife, who seems to be sleeping with someone else on their “Avery bed” (I looked this up, but unlike my revelation about what a “Viking kitchen” is, I didn’t find out about a particular kind of expensive bed). He misses his 4-year-old son, Max. Joy is a single mother to a 13-year-old daughter and manages a bakery. Lu has an often-absent husband, two little boys, and a secret cooking blog which is making money (in the world of this novel, all you have to do to get a book contract is write a blog and keep plugging away at it). All these characters meet on Block Island, which is a real place; part of the state of Rhode Island.

Joy’s bakery specializes in a regional delicacy called “whoopie pies” (also claimed by Maine and Pennsylvania, as she notes) and it is called “Joy Bombs” after what her brother said when he first tried one: “these things are amazing. They’re like little joy bombs.” Her daughter is now 13, and Joy thinks what all mothers think when their daughters are 13 and start spending more time with friends, like Maggie’s friend Riley: “for years and years it had been the two of them against the world….Now talking to Maggie was like walking through a minefield. No, it was worse—it was like walking through a minefield at night when someone had taken your night-vision goggles and given them to Riley because they looked better on her.”

Lu’s cooking blog is called “Dinner by Dad,” and in it she pretends to be the father of two. When she feeds her two sons charred broccoli and vegetable lasagna and find “they’d done a passable job on the broccoli but had made a poor showing with the lasagna” she thinks that the fictional sons “were much more reliable vegetable eaters.” She is raising the two boys mostly on her own while her husband Jeremy, a doctor, is at work. When the kids go into the living room and turn on the tv after dinner, she thinks “Jeremy would have disapproved of television time immediately after dinner. He wanted them to play wholesome board games, but he was never here to play them.” (As a mother who stayed home much of the time while my two children were growing up, I feel the need to point out that any adult who has tried playing Candyland or Chutes and Ladders with two children for any length of time or on a regular basis might choose another adjective besides “wholesome.”)

Anthony, who has had a glamorous marriage and a fancy house and then had the expectations of the world turned away from him, is falling in love with Joy because she’s the first person to ever ask him what his favorite movie was as a kid. Joy falls in love with Anthony despite her worry that she can’t be both an independent woman and in love.

Lu is the straightest thinker of the bunch. She knows what she wants and goes for it. When she thinks about her mother telling her to enjoy her kids while they’re young—you know, what everyone says to mothers: “they won’t be young forever, it goes so fast”—she thinks “but the career years go by fast too….Those are also finite. All of it goes by too fast, life goes by too fast. By the time Chase was off to college she’d be—well, old. Older. Old. Over fifty. She’d be tired. She’d definitely be out of touch. She’d have no connections; she’d be starting from scratch.” When her husband asks “don’t you think I would like more time with the boys? Don’t you think I would love the luxury—and let’s call it what it is, it’s a luxury—of these long summer days at the beach with my boys instead of being inside a hospital all of the time?” Lu answers “No….I’m not sure you would” and thinks “Full time family time was one of those things that sound lovely in the abstract, but wait until Chase cut his foot on a clamshell and then got sand in the cut and had to be carried back to the house. Wait until Sebastian came home from a birthday party high on cupcakes and Capri Sun and turned into a wet puddle of emotions.” She says “you wouldn’t be you without your work to make you complete, and nobody expects that you would be.”

What each partner in a marriage contributes to their life’s work turns out to be a theme of this novel: “who got a career, who didn’t, and what you did with yours once you had it—these were all their own kind of power plays.” The different perspectives show us all of these fictional people sorting that out, giving the reader a perspective it’s harder to assemble in real life.

Although I loved this novel, I did not love that all the independent women build careers around cooking. Maybe I’m reacting to it on top of my weekend, which I spent at Hendrix College, reading a character called Anni in a play by John Haman entitled Pie Town. It features strong women characters (the audience said so at the “talk back” afterwards) but even the one who becomes an author writes a book about pie. Some women do things other than cook and make it pay, and I’d like to see a few more of those in fiction.


The Dutch House

September 2, 2019

I received an advance copy of The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, from HarperCollins, and found that it fits into my pattern of always liking Patchett’s writing while feeling attracted only occasionally to her subject matter (my favorite of her novels continues to be State of Wonder). This novel will be published on September 24.

The subject of The Dutch House is a sibling relationship, as defined by their relationship to a splendid old house they lived in for a few years, early in their lives. Taking the house as a metaphor for the lives of many people Patchett’s age (and mine) on this splendid planet could be interesting, but the story line is very literal.

The story is narrated by the brother, Danny. He explains that “The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived.” Danny and his sister Maeve lived in the house after their father bought it from the VanHoebeeks, who’d had it built after the first world war.

Raised by his sister, their father and the hired help, Danny is sheltered from the world as a child. He remembers feeling embarrassed when he finds out that the two women who are taking care of him once Maeve has left for college are sisters: “both of them had children, I knew that because Maeve gave them whatever clothes we’d outgrown. I knew because when one of their children was really sick they didn’t come to work. Did I ask them when they came back, who was sick? Is she better now? I did not. I liked them both so much….I felt terrible for failing them.” The sisters are named Sandy and Jocelyn, and there is another servant they call “Fluffy” who was dismissed after she hit 4-year-old Danny in the face with a wooden spoon.

It sounds like an idyllic life: “we never ran out of apples or crackers, there were always stamps in the left-hand drawer of the library desk, clean towels in the bathroom….We would never tell them the laundry needed doing or a floor needed cleaning because everything was done before we’d had the chance to notice.” But everything changed when their father married Andrea, an unpleasant woman with two daughters who
“made weekly menus for Jocelyn to follow and gave her opinion on every course….Why was Jocelyn serving cod when Andrea had specifically told her sole? Could she not have troubled herself to check another market? Did Andrea have to do everything? Every day she worked to find something extra for Sandy to do, dusting the shelves in the pantry or washing the curtain sheers.”

Their father doesn’t appreciate his daughter’s intelligence and generosity. He teaches his son the real estate business, but then dies suddenly and leaves his children with nothing, as the stepmother, Andrea, inherits it all and kicks them out of the house. Their lawyer tells Danny and Maeve that there is one provision he was able to convince their father to make for them, and that’s a trust for Danny’s education. Although Danny becomes a medical doctor, he never practices and gets into real estate as soon as he can manage to do it. He hires the former servant they still call “Fluffy” to take care of his own children.

Maeve and Danny often moon over the past when they’re together, sitting in a car near the Dutch House and watching what goes on there while they talk. Danny marries a woman who doesn’t get along with Maeve and they have three children, one of whom becomes rich enough to buy the Dutch House, after a childhood spent parked in front of it with her aunt: “May insisted that she, too, had lived there when she was very young….she layered Fluffy’s stories about parties and dancing onto her own memories of childhood. Sometimes she said she had lived above the garage with Fluffy and together they drank the flat champagne, and other times she was a distant VanHoebeek relative, asleep in a glorious bedroom with the window seat she’d heard so much about. She swore she remembered.”

When Danny is forty-five years old, he and Maeve meet their mother again, and they come as close as they ever have to fighting, over whether she has any right to be in their lives now after leaving them as children. Danny says to Maeve:
“Okay, if you know so much about her, tell me why she left. And don’t say she didn’t like the wallpaper.”
“She wanted—” Maeve stopped, exhaled, her frozen breath making me think of smoke. “She wanted to help people.”
“People other than her family.”
“She made a mistake. Can’t you understand that? She’s covered up in shame. That’s why she never got in touch with us, you know, when she came back from India. She was afraid we’d treat her pretty much the way you’ve treated her. It’s her belief that your cruelty is what she deserves.”
“I haven’t been cruel, believe me, but it is what she deserves. Making a mistake is not giving the floorboards enough time to settle before you seal them. Abandoning your children to go help the poor of India means you’re a narcissist who wants the adoration of strangers….What kind of person leaves their kids?”
“….Men!” Maeve said, nearly shouting. “Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.”

The Dutch House of his childhood gives Danny’s narrative a bit of shape. His story shows the narrow confines of gender roles in the twentieth century and has the feel of a family saga. It doesn’t add up to much, kind of like his sister’s life. We experience a little bit of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mrs. Everything

August 30, 2019

When I get a Jennifer Weiner book out of the library, I expect a fun story with a romance plot and some kind of oversized heroine. Mrs. Everything is not that. I guess this book represents Weiner’s bid to be taken more seriously, but it’s hard for me to see how plowing over the same tired baby-boomers-growing-up ground is going to do that, especially the way she does it.

Mrs. Everything is the story of Jo and, peripherally, her sister Bethie. Like her literary namesake from Little Women, Jo is awkward and tomboyish and does not grow out of it. She is of course ahead of her time in terms of playing with her black maid’s daughter and once noticing that when she goes to a swimming pool there are black kids outside the fence: “the kids hadn’t said anything, and of course they hadn’t tried to get into the pool, but the look of longing on their faces had stayed with Jo all through the summer.” Jo realizes that her mother’s argument that they’re discriminated against because they’re Jewish doesn’t compare to the racial discrimination of the 1960’s.

Although she is attracted to women, Jo marries a man because she wants “to not be the one making plans, to not be the one attempting to propel an unwilling partner forward, to not have to push through a hostile world. If she married a man, she could let him plan, let him push, let him maneuver; and the world they inhabited would welcome them.”

Bethie survives sexual abuse and learns what her mother meant when she said “it’s a shande, the way she’s let herself go. Bethie puzzled over that phrase, wondering how you could let your own body get away from you, like it was a car speeding away out of control. Now she understood. You stopped weighing yourself, stopped restricting yourself to small meals and salads, stopped picking French fries off your friend’s plate and started ordering your own.” Bethie triumphs over disordered eating with a smattering of self-acceptance and the assertion of her will. So true to life.

As a young mother, Jo thinks “no matter how much the bra-tossers and the National Organization for Women and the Society for Cutting Up Men had done to point out the tedium of marriage and motherhood, they hadn’t done much about offering other possibilities or smoothing other paths. The only option she could see was paying some other woman—most likely an African American or Hispanic one—to do it for her, the way her mother had, and that did not feel like progress at all.” This is a thought I’ve also had, about the baby boomer generation. In the eleven years between getting married and having my first child, I used to half-jokingly reply to queries about when we were going to produce children by saying that I was waiting for the baby boomers to work out decent child care options.

The title comes from Bethie’s perception that Jo missed the 1960’s: “while I was roaming around, protesting the war and dancing at Woodstock, she was married. When the world started to change—for everyone, but especially for women—she was already a mother. She missed everything.” Jo’s daughter responds “misses everything….It’s like a joke. Like, there should be a Mister Everything somewhere.”

The end of the novel comes with the end of Jo’s life, as Hillary Clinton announces her presidential run. And the novel stays uncomplicated, since the pervasive misogyny displayed by American voters in November 2016 is not a part of the story.

I kept waiting for this novel to get better, to say something relevant to the present day, and to see Jo break out of her chains. One of the three happens, I guess, if you can call slipping her hands out of discarded wrist cuffs at an advanced age “breaking out.”

This is a novel the world didn’t need and it’s not going to advance Weiner to the rank of serious novelist.


The Year of the Hare

August 25, 2019

I got The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna, as a gift, and on the face of it, it does seem like the kind of book I’d enjoy, about a guy who escapes from his workaday life in Helsinki and travels around Finland with a wild hare that he tamed after it was hit by a car. A blurb on the back describes it as “comic misadventures” and “a novel in the tradition of Watership Down, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Life of Pi.” I found it neither comic nor having anything in common with those three novels except that it has an animal in it.

The main character, Vatanen, is a journalist before his photographer’s car hits the hare. He works for a magazine which, he says, “succeeded, not by transmitting information—by diluting it, muffling its significance, cooking it into chatty entertainment.” He is married, but to a woman he doesn’t like: “apart from sailing, Vatanen had no particular pastimes. His wife sometimes suggested going to the theater, but he had no wish to go out with her: he got enough of her voice at home.”

Among his wacky adventures, Vatanen goes fishing with a conspiracy theorist who shows him “drawings on graph paper, showing careful longitudinal sections of human crania” to prove that President Kekkonen (Finnish politician 1956-81) was replaced in 1968 by a different man. He propositions a woman who admires the hare by saying “would you like to take it to bed with you?…You can, if you like. Provided you take me as well.” He sleeps in a pew of a church and when the pastor comes in and finds the hare in his church, Vatanen watches him chase it around and then shoot at it, destroying a painting over the altar: “it was a picture of the Redeemer on the Cross, and the bullet had pierced Christ’s kneecap.” This is where I started to think maybe the book is kind of like a Soviet satire, and maybe the point of this escapade was to make fun of religion. If there is a point, however, it seems to be delight in cruelty, as the adventure ends with the pastor conducting an entire marriage ceremony with a hole shot through his foot, bleeding through his shoe, before he can go to the hospital and Vatanen can go back to sleep.

After the church, Vatanen’s adventures are more cruel. He cuts open a tin of meat in a way that ensures that a raven who has been stealing his food will be trapped and killed. When this happens, he doesn’t regret the loss of the tin because “there was more raven’s blood in the tin than meat.” He thinks his cruelty is funny:
“there was enough cruelty in him to laugh out loud at his foul play.
And it looked as if even the hare might be laughing too.”

Vatanen does rescue his hare from the clutches of a passing ski instructor who makes it a “practice to immolate living creatures—sometimes a Siberian jay trapped in a net, sometimes a snared willow grouse, even a puppy bought in Ivalo.”

But then he gets caught up in a bear hunt which begins when a battalion of soldiers carrying out a three day military exercise in the woods disturb a hibernating bear. Vatanen follows them to their base, where that night there is a fire, and he watches from a tree as “the men’s faces, black and frostbitten, looked improbable, hardly human; they were more like a chain of Moomins” before going back into the woods to retrieve the hare:
“which was frantic after hanging so long on a branch, in a bag, in all this pandemonium.
Vatanen tossed the knapsack on his back and returned to the scene of the fire. The hare whined in its bag but made no further efforts to escape; in any case, the cord would have stopped it if it had tried.”

At one point Vatanen takes the hare to a veterinarian in Helsinki, where he sees “a tired reindeer was tugging and pulling at its leash, while a broken-down old Father Christmas gave it a nasty kick on the hooves. The reindeer kept its eyes closed, probably in pain. The deer was surrounded by squalling children, whose tired mothers were having to repeat over and over: ‘Jari, Jari, stop trying to get on its back! Come on, Jari. Jari, listen…’”

When Vatanen and the hare are hunted by a group of men with hounds he thinks “this savage chase must stop, but how? How could such men exist? Where was the pleasure in roughhousing like this? How could human beings lower themselves so viciously?” But then he ends his own adventures by hunting the bear that the soldiers have disturbed all the way over the border into Soviet Russia where he shoots it as it runs across the ice of the White Sea:
“The great bear collapsed on the ice: no second shot was needed. Vatanen crawled up to the bear, opened its gullet, and let the blood flow out, black and clotted. He cupped his hands and supped two handfuls. Then he sat on the huge carcass and lit a cigarette, his last. He wept; he didn’t know why, but the tears came. He stroked the bear’s fur, stroked his hare, which was lying in his knapsack with its eyes closed.”

Rather than comic, I found this novel horrifying, not least because the main character has no particular reason for where he goes and what he does. When he’s cruel, it’s because he chooses to be, not because circumstances have forced him into it. When he gets a happy ending, which he does, it is most decidedly mercy, rather than justice.


Family of Origin

August 13, 2019

I heard about Family of Origin from my friend Readers Guide one day last week and I went right out to the library, where I found a copy and started reading it that same day. It didn’t take long to finish. Reading it was kind of like spending a weekend with family; it makes you remember how twisted things can get and how looking out at the world with others can make you see it differently.

From the first page, the way this novel is written is interesting, and it implicitly offers itself as a bit of escapism from the current state of things: “this was the summer people came to the Landing to forget their jobs, forget climate change, forget police brutality, forget opioids, forget refugees, forget their inboxes, forget white supremacists, forget tsunamis out of season.” But the characters who have come to this place, the siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey, “remembered everything….They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. They were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.”

Elsa and Nolan are on an island trying to figure out what led to their father’s, Ian’s, death there. He was working with a group of scientists who are studying a particular kind of duck called an undowny bufflehead in an attempt to prove that survival of the fittest has turned the other way, calling themselves “Reversalists.” At first his children suspect that this means he had no hope for the future because he has found them and everyone else in their generation wanting. Elsa thinks, when she first arrives on the island,
“here she was in this ragged shack, clinging to the coast of nowhere, surrounding by jars of feathers, revealing that what Ian had given up everything in his life for was just a squalid heap of nothing. The island confirmed that, with each choice, each fall, since Ian had left Elsa, he’d chosen things that were worse and worse. And every time it felt like he was saying: Even this I choose instead of you.”

Most of the people on the island are old hippies, and one of the conflicts in the novel is between the attitude of their generation and Elsa and Nolan’s, the “millennials.”
“Most of the Reversalists’ research had started not with the ducks, but with their abiding sense that something had gone unstoppably wrong with the world, and that the generation of young people rising up were the cause of it. At best, the millennials were stupid, lazy, entitled narcissists who could not be trusted. At worst…the whole of their generation were an evolutionary step backward for humanity. An insurrection of idiots who would trample everything the Greatest Generation and the Boomers had achieved and doom the species permanently.”

The old people tell stories about how the world is changing. As she got older, Esther says that her elementary-grade students were not as interested in biology, even though
“Esther was famous for making her students run to their various study sites to maximize class time. She shouted: Be light, be quick, keep up or you will be culled from the herd! Previously, people had found this charming.
But this winter, when she made the students run out to the field of their second-rate football team and take off their mittens and press their hands into the snow to imitate the tracks made by different types of animals, the students complained. They showed her their hands, wet and red. It hurts, they said.”

The millennials get the last word, though, in a passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:
“They called it the Hippie Reeducation Program. They taught the generation who had gone to Woodstock and believed in the hypothetical recycling of materials and the practical smoking of weed how to compost with earthworms. How to indoor-irrigate. How to grow tomatoes upside down in hanging baskets that saved space. They turned the Lobby into a greenhouse full of plants grown from colonial-era seeds.
None of this is particularly revolutionary, the older Reversalists said.
That’s exactly what’s wrong with all of you, the brothers said. You only ever wanted to fix problems in ways that felt exciting. You thought you could make the world a better place by talking about it. Fucking about it. Marching about it. You need to learn how to do shit, they said. Then you need to work your asses off. Then you need to get a dozen other people to do the same. That’s the only shot we’ve got.
We don’t have any shot, the Reversalists said. The Earth is kaput.
That’s easy for you to say, the brothers said. You’ll be dead soon.”

There’s a wonderful subplot about an old hippie fiction writer and the kind of dystopian science fiction he doesn’t want to write, tied in with Elsa’s longing to be one of the first people to colonize Mars.

The millennials in this novel are right about some things, but they’re human too. Like everyone, Elsa doesn’t want to have to worry about “elections, or the prison-industrial complex, or the dye in pink birthday cupcakes, or pornography that made women want to whimper instead of moan, or the disappearing bees, or celebrities whose names wormed their way into Elsa’s brain, she did not know how.” Elsa “wanted back the illusion of her childhood, that era of certainty, and if she couldn’t have that, she would take nothing,” which is kind of like the defeatist Boomer thinking. But during the week she and Nolan spend on the island, Elsa figures out that there’s no winning the games she’s been playing and “the sooner [she] stopped trying to hunt down some class of people who had all the answers—adults, scientists, Mars missions, Ian—the sooner she could stop the cycle of trying to win. Could look around and decide what kind of game might actually be worth playing.”

If you’ve been short on hope this summer, this novel will provide some, along with the reminder that we can’t always fix problems in ways that feel exciting, but have to begin to “learn how to do shit” that’s essential to the future of our life on this planet.


You, Me, and the Sea

August 10, 2019

As I’ve mentioned here before, my local public library always has good book displays, and their display of beach books recently made me go over and take a look. I picked up Meg Donohue’s You, Me, and The Sea because a blurb identifies it as “inspired by Wuthering Heights,” and it’s been 26 years since I last read a Wuthering Heights homage novel (I remember the date because I was reading it the night my first child was born). This one might have quelled my urge to read anything based on Wuthering Heights ever again, although it wasn’t a bad book. The thing is that it ended, um, happily. What peculiar kind of homage is that?

My curiosity about updates of the Wuthering Heights story stems from my conviction that it’s very much a 19th-century upperclass English plot. When else would two unrelated children have been raised together in an isolated area with few other available playmates and such class consciousness?

Donohue does a decent job of trying to translate that into modern American life, making the setting an isolated farm on the coast of northern California where a former hippie widower takes in an Indian orphan to live with his daughter and older son. The parallels to Wuthering Heights are very close, even to the names—the family that Catherine (in this version called Merrow) gets involved with as she stays with them after an injury are the “Langfords” rather than the “Lintons.” The older brother who is especially cruel to the adopted orphan (in this version called Amir) is a brutal alcoholic with an eleventh-hour backstory that makes him seem, finally, pathetic instead of frightening. The man who rescues Merrow from her life of squalor is rich and blonde.

Even the writing occasionally manages that overwrought quality usually only found in 19th-century novels:
“We had been left by too many loved ones; we would never inflict that pain on each other. Already, I heard Amir’s voice in my mind when he wasn’t speaking, just as I knew he heard mine. In the shed at night when it was very cold, we huddled close under the gaze of the red birds we had made together, and I would drift to sleep unsure whose breath I heard so steady and sure, his or mine.
We would never be apart.”

There are mysterious disappearances that only Merrow fails to realize are thefts by her older brother. He injures Merrow’s dog and it leads to the dog’s death. He also sells Merrow and Amir’s horses for beer money. Amir later wins his share of the farm from the older brother “in a few games of poker….It wasn’t just one card game. I stayed there for three nights, and every night he wanted to gamble another piece of his land. He kept losing, but he insisted we keep playing. He knew what he was doing. He could have stopped the whole thing, and he didn’t.”

There’s also a pitch-perfect passage in which Amir plays on the affections of the Langford younger sister, here called Emma:
“I watched as Emma linked her arm through Amir’s. Did I imagine that he cringed at her touch? I must have, because he gazed down at Emma thoughtfully, as though seeing her for the first time, and in response to his study Emma seemed to pull him closer. As they walked away, I watched Emma tilt her chin up toward Amir and say something I could not hear.”

I found the ending, however, tone deaf. Merrow gives up her Langford fiancée and Amir gives up his revenge. Maybe it would be okay if we left them on the cliff edge of their farm: “Standing there with Amir’s hand in mine, on the edge of our new life together, I felt the shame that I’d felt for so long about my feelings for him finally crumble.” But it’s not okay to have to see their erstwhile fervent romance played out in everyday events and conversation: They have sex. They talk about opening the farm to underprivileged children. They reference the symbolism of a beach rock that Amir once gave to Merrow. They think about having children together. As in real life, no one is swept away by passion or destroyed by longing.

There were two passages I thought translated well to modern life, and one is about racism:
“He thought the Langfords were racist. The possibility had occurred to me, too, while we’d sat together in their den. I’d wondered how differently they would have treated Amir if he had been the one whom Tiger had bitten instead of me. Would Will have insisted he come inside? Would Rosalie have bandaged his leg?
….Maybe,’ I said, ‘it’s easier for some people to have sympathy for people who look like them, whose lives they can imagine more easily.’
‘Why would she be able to imagine your life any better than mine? Because you have the same skin color?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe because I’m a girl. I think I make her think of her own childhood.’ I thought for a moment. ‘If she’d had time to get to know you, it would have been different. With a little time, I think you would have felt differently about each other.’
‘You want me to forgive her for looking at me the way she did.’ I felt Amir’s gaze travel through me, below my skin, through my veins, quickening the pace of my heart. ‘You think I should have empathy for her…because it’s too much work for her to feel sympathy for a boy with brown skin.’

The other passage is about how we treat books. Merrow says that her own books “were bloated with salt air from trips to the beach, their pages dog-eared and marked by my pen” while her fiancee’s books are “pristine. He treated them with a reverence that I supposed I understood but did not quite share. I thought that perhaps Will thought of books as possessions while I thought of them as sustenance. His relationship with books lacked the messiness and the hunger and the desperate sort of joy that mine held.” As I’ve always thought of books as sustenance myself, I enjoyed this comparison.

How about you–can any of you readers make the urge to keep books pristine sound nearly as compelling?


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