Madness of Crowds: You Can’t Read This in a Covid Wave

So the opening pages of Louise Penny’s Madness of Crowds features the relief of our beloved Inspector Gamache at the end of Covid. The vaccines have saved the day and Covid is eradicated. Onwards to hugs and shared food and no masks and no complicated decisions about coughs. I started the book in January 2022 and immediately threw it across the room.

I tried again while on holiday and was able to suspend my heartbreak on the state of Covid in the world and to instead play speculative fiction of What If and then go with Penny on that journey.

What follows then is a regular Inspector Gamache book where I should probably stop reviewing them because they are all sort of the same: great descriptions of food, long meditations on Gamache’s kindness/deep scars from making hard decisions, cameos from the Three Pines villagers etc. It’s good and fine and exactly the sort of book I wanted to read on the beach, but besides the post-Covid-not-actually-post-Covid part nothing stand out. So sure, read it, don’t read it, but probably you should read Cloud Cuckoo Land instead.

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Devotions: Or, My Third Time Reviewing a Poetry Collection

It’s true. Check the archives and in 13 years I’ve reviewed hundreds of novels and works of non-fiction, (reluctantly) dozens of collections of short stories and… two works of poetry.

But today make that three. The reasons are several: this one person I follow on Twitter keeps posting these poems and I read them and think, I should read more poetry; this one person kept referencing Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” and I kept thinking yeah, that’s beautiful, and I should read more poetry; this other friend, D., was sending poems a day to Their Person and I thought, I should read more poetry.

And so I got Mary Oliver’s Devotions from the library and boy did it deliver. Spent a whole night chatting with E. and sending screenshots of poems that were reading my mind. Poems that do a lot with nature (like maybe Oliver saturates the market on goldenrod and moss and different types of birds) but get at mindfulness, and pointlessness, and existential yes-ness (one poem is delightfully titled Yes! No! and nailed the experience of Having! An! Opinion!) of being alive and an optimist in a degrading humanity.

And poems that you, skeptic of poetry, thinker that it is impenetrable or difficult or Too Much, can sink into. Can read in the breath between text messages and appointments and on-your-way-to-the-next-… and will be better for them. Slow in line breaks but fully digestible in a way that will make you feel like I Am a Person Who Reads Poetry – and not just the Instagram kind*. And I am a person who is alive in a universe both infinitely larger and where I am irrelevant, and in a particular place where my breath can change the outcome of the existence of this moth.

So truly I don’t know if this is the poetry collection for you. There are a lot of poems about trees and birds and flowers and wind, but in all of them are line turns that wrench and see and pull. And so if not this collection then make your summer resolution to be a person who reads a poem. And let me know what you discover.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with that

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Sea of Tranquility: My Simulation is Broken

I didn’t read the news all day. Had Roe v Wade broken to me at a pizza picnic in the park and just.

The simulation hypothesis goes like this: we are living in a computer simulation. I mean it’s more complicated than that, but also that simple. And so all the bananas things we individually and collectively experience are just the simulation playing itself out. Like today. Just a part of the program.

Emily St. John Mandel, in an interview with Ezra Klein talks about how the idea of the simulation hypothesis and the current fascination with the multiverse offered her a way to write a book – Sea of Tranquility – she already wanted to write about time travel. That if we live in a simulation it solves the problem of a recursive time loop that time travel in reality would introduce.

And those of you who read The Time Traveller’s Wife this is not that. This is… god, I don’t even know where to start with how good this book is. But that’s my job here so let me try:

Let’s start with a novel self-aware that its novelist is most famous for her pre-Covid incredible pandemic novel, Station Eleven, but that the new novel is being written during a pandemic and all of its readers will have been in a pandemic and so why not make a narrative space for that experience. And it’s so breathtakingly sharp in the section of the novel set (oh yeah, it covers 600 odd years with lots of jumping around in time) just before a pandemic is going to rip across Earth and the moon colonies (oh yeah, much of the setting is the literal moon (hence the title)). The conceit of time travel means we know already what will happen in a way we didn’t and couldn’t and still don’t with Covid, and the helplessness of watching what is about to happen, to not being able to intervene, the (what is a stronger word than desire?) desire to go back to yourself in December 2019 with a set of instructions. (and what would yours say?)

And then a novel that is guttingly beautiful writing. Just come on.

And a protagonist in each temporal section – but particularly Olive and Gaspery-Jacques – that are whole and human but also believably in their future settings. Like the particular genius of describing one of the moon colonies as having broken it’s artificial sky and so it being perpetual night (The Night City) in a way that fills a world-building function but also gets at the particular ache and beauty of feeling (or being) alone in the darkness when government just won’t or can’t spend enough to fix the sky.

And then back to the question of how do we know that there is anything approximating a ‘real.’ That even if we believe that we are not in a simulation – that the couch under you and the ground under that is just material in an ever-expanding universe of material – we are nevertheless in simulations of identity and community and politics and nation and family where we convince ourselves (as we must) that our beliefs and our choices are somehow real.

So not a book to read while high, maybe.

But a thousand times a book to read.

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The Pull of the Stars: Pandemic, Abortion and… 1918

Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.

So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.

And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.

This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.

And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.

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