The Children’s Bible: Also for atheists

Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible hits a little close. The novel follows a rag-tag group of children after environmental catastrophes – flood! – destroy their homes. Having to keep themselves, and their drug-stupor parents, alive they hole up and quarantine themselves, scratching out a new existence after society collapses.

Though it may be painful to read because of its indictment of our collective inaction on global warming, and the profound arrogance of having children amid such certain devastation, it is nevertheless, very, very good.

I grew up in the United and Anglican churches before quitting God and becoming a Unitarian (I feel compelled to offer that not all Unitarians are atheists. #joinus). But even if I hadn’t spent formative years hearing Biblical stories, the Biblical references and adaptations are drawn from the biggest and brightest of stories (Eden, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, the birth of Jesus, Revelations, etc) so anyone who has watched The Simpsons should have enough of a command of the allusions to appreciate the plot. That said, Millet does well to make these moments smooth and uses well timed diction to remind the reader that a Biblical Moment is happening.

Aside from mirroring these Biblical scenes I’m not sure the ‘point’ of having the plot follow that of the Bible. I guess because we are in End Times now? Or maybe to remind us that there is no God, or if there is, it’s a God who has opted for a non-interventionist approach, and it falls to us to make change. Okay, yeah, that seems a plausible reason.

The best part of the book is its argument for art and literature. It’s suggestion that we bundles of molecules, we who are destined to reunite with the water and mountains (poisoned though they may be by our garbage) find purpose and solace in writing. And of course reading.

After writing out my Christmas cards most of which began and ended with WHAT A YEAR, I’m very happy to recommend this book as a sort of 2020 solace. Like it admits and takes as its premise that everything is shit, and that there is no ‘but’ to that sentence. So you may as well read.

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Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Gone Dead: All it needs is a vampire

You know how some books would just be better with a vampire? Like all those remakes they did of 19th century novels they did with zombies (Pride and Prejudice AND ZOMBIES) but only from the beginning the author thought, yeah, this would be better with a vampire.

Actually I’m not totally sure Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead would be better with a vampire. I mean it’s really, really good to begin with, so… Right, here’s the plot: daughter, Billie, returns to childhood home after its bequeathed to her. On returning she begins to remember and question the circumstances of her father’s death (he died in the backyard when she was a child, and she was the only witness). Enter a cast of childhood friends, family, rivals and lovers. And the most adorable professor researching her father and his poetry. (Adorable for his representation of just how silly academia is when it comes to Life and Death). All trying to help or hinder her quest to remember and understand.

So I guess I only want a vampire because the book already has the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Mississippi Delta coupled with a murder mystery and the tangle of remembered/misremembered/invented stories that recall something of a fable. And that all point to something Gothic and clawing, but I’m just messing. Obviously this book doesn’t need an actual vampire. There’s enough danger without literal fangs: the Klan, the racist police, the well-intentioned by ultimately destructive white friends. And poetry.

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

All the Devils Are Here: Fun!

Louise Penny and I have been on something of a Pandemic Journey. At first I was reading her mysteries because they were the only books that could sustain my focus (plot!) and give me some hope (Armand is so kind!) (even his eyes are kind!) and then I was reading them with guilt because shouldn’t I be done *needing* mysteries after month three of quarantine? And now I’m just in a place of delight. Like it’s delightful to me how much I enjoy the books, and the books are delightful in their coziness (sure with threats on life and murder and drama).

And this latest instalment in the Gamache series, All the Devils Are Here proves even more enjoyable for the departure from Quebec and the endless descriptions of the kindness of the villagers in Three Pines. Set in Paris, we’re offered something fresh in the setting, and something fresh in the plot through the involvement of the Gamache children. It’s an altogether delightful departure.

That said, the consistent inclusion of descriptions of rich and delicious food was appreciated.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

The Overstory: Beautiful, but…

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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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner