February 13, 2023 · 2:56 pm
I suppose on a six hour flight there are a lot of things you could do. Watch 1/3 of the Lord of the Rings movies. Contemplate mortality. Crotchet a hat. OR you could read Bonnie Garmus’ entirely fun Lessons in Chemistry and you might not notice the cramped seat and tiny cup of cold coffee meant to sustain you for the duration.
It is a very fun romp through the the 1960s as we follow scientist, Elizabeth Zott, who encounters sexism and gender-based violence in all the usual places, and some extras, in her efforts to simply be who she is: a scientist. The first half of the novel is something of a rom-com heavier on the rom. With the second half taken up with the shine of celebrity after Elizabeth becomes – and not too much of a spoiler here as I think its on the front cover or maybe in the prologue – a celebrity chemist-chef, maybe famous primarily because she imagines (apparently for the first time) that women might just like someone to talk to them like adult humans.
There are some lovely characters – a Mary Poppins-esque neighbour who saves Elizabeth and whom Elizabeth saves in return. A heroic dog (as a person long on the record for distrusting dogs, even I found this one endearing). A precocious child. Some rowers who – for whatever reason – are not subject to the same misogyny of the rest of their societal peers and are instead just interested in good rowers.
It is problematic in ways that we can just skip over so as to enjoy the book for what it is. But worth noting that the plot arc of individual who persists amid challenge demands a lot from individuals to pull up their bootstraps etc etc – which isn’t to say the novel isn’t aware of the structural impediments to Elizabeth’s success – quite the opposite! or that it’s not interested in how Elizabeth relies on others in a community for her eventual triumph – she does! or that there aren’t examples of other individuals who learn and grow – there are! more that in celebrating this exceptional woman – incredibly smart and tenacious – there’s something of a thread that the people likely to succeed, and those who can do the work of change, are those of the talented genius. Rather than a collective effort of community. And that if you happen to be someone who doesn’t learn to read by age 3 you might not change the world.
What a relief for me, then.
All that said: fun and absorbing and you’ll thank me when your plane is delayed for deicing and you have something to sustain you for the extra seventeen hours.
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June 12, 2022 · 12:25 pm
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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July 2, 2021 · 6:14 pm
We read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day with book club, and I’m 100% sure we should read Klara and the Sun together, too, because there are so many moments of ‘what would you do if’ that are both fascinating and (for the moment) speculative (but carry the near-future quality of only a matter of time). Mostly I can’t begin to answer these on my own during the length of nap I have to write this, and I am even more confident that having some wine and a snack sampler would make my answers better. So I offer you instead the questions I might ask and try to answer should we be gathering (with *spoilers):
- You have the choice to ‘lift’ your child by genetically tinkering to make them much smarter. Doing so carries some small risk of a lifetime of illness and death. Not doing so destines them to a life of subpar education/employment and social ostracism. What do you do?
- Your child dies. You could purchase a robot that will resemble your child in every way from appearance, to mannerisms, to speech. What do you do?
- Can a person be replaced in the most essential way by a robot – like not in the space of work, but in the literal replacement of a human? What qualities of human-ness cannot be replaced, if any?
- What and how is a ‘god’ or higher power constituted? What acts of faith and what proof of divinity do we need in order to conclude greater forces at play?
So yes. It’s an excellent book with an incredibly interesting narrator, fascinating questions to figure out and all kinds of unexpected and delightful plot moments. And given my best loved book club is still on hiatus, if you have thoughts on these questions or others… get in touch. xo
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November 16, 2020 · 5:55 pm
Having married a person who works with trees, I regularly find myself in proximity when tree-related questions are tossed his way. Sort of what I imagine those working in medical fields must encounter: any social gathering is an opportunity to solicit advice (though with fewer on the spot requests to examine moles or rashes, I suspect). S. also suffers the ‘owl’ conundrum so brilliantly outlined by David Sedaris in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: should you ever express a passing interest in something, say owls, you will find yourself on the receiving end of owl-related gifts, gadgets and whimsy for the Rest of Your Life. So it is with those who work with trees. No shortage of tree themed tea towels, stationary, wall-art or coffee table books. Which is to say, we have many Tree things. (Which is partly owed, I think, to the relative resistance of S. to inquires about his desires when it comes to gifts and the what-else-can-we-do-throw-up-the-hands-lets get-him-another-Tree thing result).
So it was that Richard Powers’ The Overstory was recommend to me because it is all about trees and so I’d likely enjoy it because… S. (Of course the book has also been suggested to S., but given his Terrible Flaw in that he doesn’t like fiction (*gasp*) hardly a chance he’d be inspired to read it). Maybe also recommended to me because I/we spent a lot of time in the forest?
Whether or not I had any involvement with S. it should have been recommended to me for the beautiful writing. Powers has a delightful tone in the book – something that bridges poetry and prose, coupled with a sort of achronology where the characters and setting all feel somewhat out of time, or beyond time, (like a tree!) even while they are clearly situated in time and space (also like a tree!).
The first half of the book reads as a series of short stories. A character introduced each chapter who has some passing or central connection to a tree. Having not read much about the book before, I wasn’t sure whether these characters ever come together, or whether there was some wider plot we were working toward. But! In another instance of form marrying content, we do see these seemingly separate characters come together into one narrative arc (form-content in the sense that one point of the book is to illustrate that there are no singular trees, rather all trees are intimately connected) as some of them try to save the giant Redwood trees and others sort of glom on to the scene in efforts to understand, capitalize or undermine these efforts.
But. And I’m sorry there’s a but. I want to offer a full-throated endorsement of this book because the writing really is beautiful and the message of the Value (far beyond monetary) of trees and the forest ecosystem is essential. But it’s… pretty dull.
Like there are only so many pages you want to read about the connections of roots and moss and leaves. Even while you’re like this is beautiful writing! And isn’t nature incredible! And aren’t these trees Truly Miraculous.
It’s a strange feeling. To be so bored by something so magnificent. Maybe there’s a special prize out there we could offer Powers for achieving this rare balance of banality and brilliance?
Anyway. I’m at something of a loss in suggesting whether you should read it. If anything, I’d say read the first long part that has the chapters on each character. As a series of short stories they are excellent and well worth your time. After that… well, I won’t think less of you if you put aside the poetry and homage to nature and… read a Louise Penny mystery. Just as I did.
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