August: Arson, mass extinction, and Joe Biden dangling from a train

My summer reading came to an end with a strange mix of political potboiler, modernist melodrama, the science of extinction, and a shocking lack of young adult fiction, something I will most definitely correct in the coming months. For the time being, here are my reviews for August.

 

hope

Hope Never Dies By Andrew Shaffer (Crime/Mystery) 

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’ve had a rough day or when the political news is just too depressing to stay engaged, I watch the video of Vice President Joe Biden receiving his Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. No matter what happens, I remind myself, they can’t take that away from us. In a similar vein, reading this fun little mystery starring fictionalized versions of Obama and Biden was pure self-indulgence and I have absolutely no regrets. Hope Never Dies begins with Uncle Joe living the bored life of a recent retiree in Delaware. What’s really troubling him, beyond his trick knee, is the sense of being abandoned by his best friend. The 44th president seems more interested in adventure sports with younger, more glamorous celebrities than nurturing the bonds of friendship his former VP. That changes when Biden’s favorite Amtrak conductor, Finn Donnelly, is found dead amidst mysterious circumstances and the two reunite to solve the case. Obama’s entrance in the narrative – as a shadowy presence at the end of a tiny orange flare in the dark woods of the Biden estate – is a delicious combination of classic noir a la Raymond Chandler and that triumphant moment when Captain America finally shows up in Infinity War. It’s pretty much your standard Holmes-Watson buddy adventure from there, as the two go to ever greater and more dangerous lengths to infiltrate an opioid smuggling biker gang to uncover what really happened to Donnelly. The climax is as ridiculous and over-the-top as you might expect from a story that depicts President Obama packing a sawed-off, but if you’re take the escapist’s road, you might as well take it all the way.

night and day

Night and Day By Virginia Woolf (Fiction)

To go from political fanfiction to the Bloomsbury Set was quite a leap but luckily I had the idyllic Oxford Canal to help ease the transition for me. I read Night and Day, Woolf’s second novel, seated in the bow of our narrowboat hire as the green hills of Oxfordshire sloped gently by at four knots. Two things struck me about this novel: one, its departure from the style by which her work became known six years later with the publication of Mrs. Dalloway, and two, the fact that she wrote the entire thing – all 440 pages – while taking what was then known as the “rest cure” after suffering a major breakdown in 1915. Allowed to work for only a half hour a day, Woolf took three years to finish Night and Day. Fans of her more well-known works will probably need a little while to get used to the more straightforward style and conventional romantic plot, but stick with it and a vibrant, textured character study soon takes shape. The novel centers mostly on heroine Katharine Hilbery, the granddaughter of one of England’s most celebrated poets, as she is courted by two very different suitors and attempts to navigate the expectations of her upper class literary family. Her decision is never inevitable and her own feelings about what she wants from her life seem to change with the tide. Indeed, one of the most indelible impressions the story had on me was the contrast suffused into every part of Katharine’s life, epitomized by the title. I kept thinking of how convictions we arrive at during the night often seem silly or foolish by the light of day. Thus Katharine goes back and forth trying to set a course for her life, ultimately arriving at a decision that is neither safe nor resolved, but is satisfying in its promise of freedom. That yearning is something so familiar and crucial to Woolf’s later works; seeing the motif in a more nascent, hopeful form was endearing, a bit sad, but also exciting, knowing what was to come.

narrowboat
My view from the bow of our narrowboat, where I read Night and Day. Oxfordshire, England

 

some hope

Some Hope By Edward St. Aubyn (Fiction)

Some Hope is the third novel in the Patrick Melrose series and thankfully it does deliver, at least in part, on the title’s promise. Set eight years after the events in Bad News, this novel catches up with Patrick at 30. He has managed to stay clean, as he resolved to do after his disastrous, heroin-soaked trip to New York to retrieve his father’s remains. If only he could escape David’s horrible social set, in whose company he is forced to spend an insufferable weekend celebrating the birthday of some forgettable wealthy bastard named Sonny Gravesend. This slim novel (I read the entire thing on our flight home from London) has been my least favorite so far, partly because so much of it depicts the petty concerns and cruelties of the aforementioned insufferables. Luckily, Princess Margaret makes an appearance at the party to make sure everyone knows their place. The schadenfreude is sharp but all too hollow; it’s satisfying to see these craven social-climbers get what they deserve, but none of it seems to matter set against Patrick’s brutal honesty about his childhood trauma. In conversation with his friend Johnny, who is now a child psychologist, Patrick opens up about the years of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and I felt myself cheering for him as he observes, “How could he tell Johnny? How could he tell anyone? But if he told no one, he would stay endlessly isolated and divided against himself”. The hope is that Patrick will now manage to make the missed connection that might have saved him in Never Mind and Bad News. The novel ends with him contemplating a deep longing for his soul “to be let go”; with two more books in the series, it seems that Patrick will have to suffer more before earning redemption at last. I just hope I can make it that far.

 

6th

The Sixth Extinction By Elizabeth Kolbert (Science; Nonfiction)

*Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction*

Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was the fourth and final option for our A.P. Language and Composition summer homework assignment. In a style that manages to be scholarly, poetic and approachable all at once, Kolbert examines the scientific history of the planet as defined by five mass extinctions, from the Paleozoic era some 500 million years in the past, through the event that wiped out the dinosaurs, a mere 50 million years ago. Drawing on research from a variety of fields of study, including geology, marine biology, botany, and ornithology, Kolbert argues that we are currently in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. This one is brought about not by an asteroid or a sudden rise in sea levels, but by humans themselves. The evidence is all around us: development that results in the loss of habitat that puts many species in threatened or endangered status. The increasing acidification of the oceans caused by the massive carbon byproduct of modern life. In every chapter, Kolbert presents indisputable evidence tracing back to the birth of the species that time and again, human activity has altered the planet in ways that are as numerous as they are irrevocable. Though fascinating, The Sixth Extinction can also be quite depressing because its Big History point of view makes it seem at times like the destruction of the planet is inevitable or even fated. Kolbert ends on a somewhat optimistic note. The last chapter, titled “The Thing With Feathers” (a nod to the famous Emily Dickinson poem, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” as well as a reference to the work being done by conservationists to prevent a species of Hawaiian crow from going extinct) provides a handful of reasons not to despair. But I wasn’t entirely convinced, and ultimately, that isn’t Kolbert’s purpose. She ends by taking a giant step back and marveling at the fact that, for the first time in the history of the planet, a single species has been able to determine the course of evolution, and that power – the Sixth Extinction itself – will be humanity’s legacy.

 

unsheltered

Unsheltered By Barbara Kingsolver (Fiction)

The theme of evolution continued in Barbara Kingsolver’s forthcoming novel, due out in October. Through my independent bookstore connection (a former student, how proud am I?) I wound up with an advance copy. Unsheltered follows Willa Knox and her family as they move into a crumbling ancestral home in Vineland, New Jersey because it’s the only place her professor husband can land a teaching position. The contemporary narrative alternates with the parallel story of 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood and his (real life!) scientist neighbor, Mary Treat, as they attempt to enlighten their provincial town on the newest scientific findings regarding evolution. In each story, the protagonists fight the forces of willful ignorance (in the form of an unnamed race-baiting presidential candidate and a town establishment dead set on keeping Darwin out of the classroom). Infused in Willa’s struggles navigating the bureaucracy of Medicaid and caring for her right-wing father-in-law (who insists on blasting conservative talk radio on their drives to the doctor), is a post-2016 feeling of confusion in a world that has stopped making sense. Thatcher’s story, on the other hand, conveys frustration at a world that has blinded itself to all sense and longs for regression. To me, the novel was a bit too long and got bogged down in characterization of the Knox family dynamic and personal histories of each of its members. I was much more interested in the 1880s narrative, which is based on true events and features a cold-blooded murder (an obvious reference to “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue…”) but unfortunately gets less of the spotlight as Kingsolver prioritizes giving Willa and her family a semi-plausible ending they can all live with. I loved the metaphor of a house slowly falling apart all around us, but I was not persuaded by Kingsolver’s take on how to put it back together.

 

mexican daughter

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter By Erika L. Sanchez (Young Adult)

*National Book Award (Young Adult Literature) Longlist*

I read this book at the recommendation of one of my 11th graders, who said she could easily relate to Julia, the imperfect teen in the title (aside to Esperanza: you are perfect to me). I was instantly drawn in by the voice Sanchez creates in this brilliant and original coming-of-age story. It begins with a family in crisis, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in traffic accident on a busy Chicago street. Meek, compliant, and conservative, Olga was perfect, and her death brings the contrast between the sisters into even sharper relief. Julia’s parents’ grief takes the form of indifference that becomes more hostile and controlling as she tries to define herself against the memory of her sister. But Olga was not quite the saint her parents make her out to be and Julia is on the case, enlisting her brash best friend Lorena to help make sense of the clues Olga left behind. Julia’s quest to find the truth becomes a journey to understand herself, as the trauma of Olga’s death exacerbates some already serious mental health problems and she is sent to visit family in Mexico in an attempt to set her back on the right path. There she begins to understand how much her parents sacrificed in crossing the border to give their children a better life. This develops into a deeper empathy for them and slowly, the broken bonds between mother and daughter begin to heal. I loved this book. In her bold combination of mystery, grief, humor, and love, Sanchez beautifully renders the complex heartbreak and triumph of adolescence itself.

 

what it means

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky By Lesley Nneka Arimah (Short Stories)

Arimah’s collection of short stories was the Now Read This book club’s selection for August. Set in both Nigeria and the United States, the stories all seem to explore betrayal and disappointment – by people, life, science, fate – and suggest that this is a drama that has played out since the creation of the world (“What is a Volcano”) and will continue even as humanity figures out how to literally escape that world by conquering gravity (“What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”). It’s hard to categorize Arimah’s stories; they range from myth and magical realism to contemporary, as in “Windfalls”, which depicts a mother and daughter who earn their livelihood by suing businesses for contrived accidents staged on their property. The view of humanity – especially as it is experienced by girls – is thoroughly pessimistic. Despite this, I found myself inspired by the fight in Arimah’s characters. In the final story, “Redemption”, two young domestic workers are caught trying to run away with the church offering (a church, incidentally, that employs a pastor who sexually assaults both Mayowa, one of the house girls, and the story’s narrator). “Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction until the fire dies out,” the narrator observes when Mayowa is brought back home. “But my tongue stirred anyway”. Arimah may see humans as powerless against their baser instincts, but the tone of defiance present in each story gives us a reason to keep fighting.

 

little fires

Little Fires Everywhere By Celeste Ng (Fiction)

For the last weekend in August, my husband and I drove all the way to Wichita Falls, Texas for a cycling event. The ride is fourteen hours each way, so I was intentional in my audiobook selection. I’d seen this title on many Best Of 2017 lists and it was ideal for making the miles fly by. Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s follow up to her acclaimed debut, Everything I Never Told You, opens with the Richardson family calmly watching as their comfortable suburban home is engulfed in flames. Everyone suspects the youngest child, 14-year-old Izzy, but why she would do such a thing is the intricate mystery the rest of the novel skillfully unfolds. It must have something to do with the custody battle between the adopted parents of an abandoned child and her birth mother, a plot line also introduced in the novel’s first pages, but to parse the connections between them, the reader must delve into the murky past of Mia Warren and her 15-year old daughter Pearl, who rent a duplex from the Richardsons. With a name like ‘Pearl’, it’s clear Ng is drawing a parallel to The Scarlet Letter, but Pearl’s mysterious patronage is not simply a matter of forbidden love. Little Fires Everywhere is really a story about motherhood. The profound, soul-destroying love is the defining characteristic of each of the women in the novel. Without giving too much away, I will say that this theme struck a particular chord in me. Ng explores prematurity, infertility, and adoption with such respect and honesty that it made me reconsider some decisions we’d made about our own family planning. We always saw ourselves adopting if the infertility treatments don’t work out, but Little Fires Everywhere shines a light on the ways in which a decision often seen as generous and selfless is in reality complicated and problematic. The novel is nothing if not thought-provoking and I came away much less secure in my conviction that adoption is better than the alternative of a child growing up in a potentially unstable home. What’s best for a child, what can overcome any adversity, is the power of a mother’s love. More than anything else, this novel reminded me how desperately I want to know what it’s like to be on the giving side of that love. 

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