Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Book

From a Google Image Search – Signed First Edition- Raptis Rare Books

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion-Book

In the literary world Joan Didion’s work is spoken of almost with reverence. I must admit that I was intimidated and put her off for years. Then I watched a documentary about her life on Prime or Netflix. She was born in 1934 and died in 2021 which means we experienced many of the same years and events; attitudes and politics. She was married to John Gregory Dunne in 1964. He died in 2003. Two years later their daughter Quintana Roo died. 

I always thought she would be a west coast Dorothy Parker, witty and biting, or that she would be obscure and academic. She was a west coast girl, brought up in Sacramento who went to live in New York City in her twenties where she met her husband. After they married, they moved to LA. 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the title of Didion’s book and is the title of an essay in her book. The title comes from the last line of a poem by W. B. Yeats called The Last Coming. The book is a good place to start because it is made up of short observational articles that Didion previously published and collected for this iconic book. The articles were written in her twenties and thirties between 1961 and 1968, peak counterculture years. Turns out that Joan Didion is not the least bit like any of writers I imaged she might be like. She is not sarcastic, although she is honest. She is not obscure and academic, although she did live in a rarified world most of us don’t even visit. She was an observer and her take on the things she observed was uniquely her own. Her writing seems deceptively easy to read but would not be easy for anyone else to write. 

In the ‘Preface’ Didion says, “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun: those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.” 

The first section is named “Life Styles in the Golden Land. ” This section ends with the title piece, observations made during a stay in Haight Ashbury by someone who is not a flower child. She is documenting what she sees; she’s not a participant in the rather messy lives she briefly occupies. What she sees is not romanticized, it is reported, but it is also immersive and presents a verbal sketchbook that offers up reality without too much judgement.

The second section is labeled ‘Personals’ and the articles begin with “On” or “I” like the ruminations of 18 th century poets or essayists. “On Self-Respect” will lead you to examine yourself and see how you measure up to your ideas of yourself. “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at least, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no precisely drawn lists of good intentions.”

The last section is labeled “Seven Places of the Mind.” These articles are literally thoughts set down in or about different geographic locations. All take us to the location Didion is examining in her mind and perhaps in person. The last place, in the article entitled “Goodbye to All That” shares Didion’s take on New York City, especially as a west coast transplant. She stayed far longer than she intended but she always felt like she might leave at any moment. “Quite simply,” she writes, “I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way. I mean I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and brought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I have come out of the West and reached the mirage.”

I no longer buy a lot of print books since moving with book is so difficult and I didn’t want to leave the task to one of my sister’s when I am gone, but I decided that owning Joan Didion’s books allowed me to take as much time as I wished. Especially because the articles in this book are short it is easy to pick up the book, which is quite flexible and not the least bit formal (the kind of book a guy could roll up and put in a pocket) open it up and read one article or several or all of them in one sitting. 

Joan Didion Collage from a Google image Search – The Ploughshares Blog

The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer – Book

From a Google Image Search – You Tube

I have put off writing about The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer because I am not even sure how I feel about the events described in the book. We focus on two main female characters, the men and children in their lives, and their acquaintances. 

Sofie lives in Berlin, Germany and we follow her through the rise of Hitler in Germany and the reign of the Nazi regime during World War II. After the war we follow Sofie and her children when she reunites with her husband in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950. 

Sofie is married to Jürgen, a rocket scientist coveted by the US space program. Jürgen worked in the German space program experimenting with building rockets to launch into space. This work was in its very beginning stages, but was progressing and seemed promising, Jürgen loved his work but when he was forced to work for the Nazis or starve, when his goal was changed from rockets to rocket bombs, he dreaded his job. Fear for his life and his family’s lives, the impossibility of leaving Germany at that time, and his knowledge that such a high-profile scientist could not hope to hide out in anonymity made getting away from the Nazis unrealistic, perhaps suicidal. 

Sofie hated Hitler and the Nazis. She hated that she had to let her children be indoctrinated into Nazi beliefs in their school. She loses her two oldest children to the Nazis. She has to send her best friend, Mayim, away because she is Jewish, and Sofie’s block manager (spy) told the Nazis that Mayim was living with Sofie’s family. Their best friends Lydia and Karl became loyal Nazis. Lydia stopped wearing make-up and started producing babies for the Reich. Karl, also Jürgen’s boss, put pressure on Jürgen to join the Nazi party. 

Eventually pressure was put on Jürgen to join the SS and he had to supervise prisoners from the camps to do the work of building bombs. He carried the guilt of the cruel treatment of those “workers” with him for the rest of his life along with the guilt of those hundreds of thousands that his bombs killed. At the end of the war Jürgen gets captured and sent to Fort Bliss in Huntsville, Alabama to work as a rocket scientist once again. Five years later he is freed and Sofie and their two remaining children join him in a housing project locals call Sauerkraut Hill. This may sound like Jürgen’s story, but the author always focuses on Sofie.

Lizzie is the other female character we follow. She, her parents, and her brother own a farm in Dallam County, Texas. Lizzie loves farming and it is her goal to stay on the family farm and help her father, and to eventually inherit the farm. The 30’s in Dallam County, Texas has other plans. No rain has fallen for several years, and this draught continues and deepens to become what is known as the Dust Bowl which happens to coincide with the Great Depression. Farmers lost their farms and farm families became homeless wanderers, temporarily homeless until they could find a new job, not an easy task in a depression. 

Lizzie and Henry become orphans trying to scrape by in El Paso. City life is no place for a farm woman who wants nothing more than to own her own farm, who has to find a way to support herself and her brother. Henry can’t seem to find any way at all to cope with their new circumstances, but eventually he joins the service. It seems safe enough to Lizzie until the attack on Pearl Harbor happens in 1941. Lizzie has found a place to work at an upscale hotel where she, who never wanted to marry, meets, and marries a well-off man who stays frequently at the hotel. Calvin and Lizzie live in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950 when the Germans arrive. Henry is home from the war but with what we now call PTSD. His neighbors are now Germans, fresh from Nazi Germany.

If you were Sofie how would you react to finding yourself in Huntsville, Alabama when you expected to have to pay for your Nazi past, regardless of the fact that you were only a Nazi for reasons of survival? The German community is riddled with guilt.

How would you feel if you were Lizzie with a brother damaged by his war experience and his presence at the liberation of Auschwitz? Suppose like Lizzie, America had never handed anything to you even though you are a citizen, never a Nazi? These people were our enemies and yet they are given lovely homes, jobs that pay very well, freedom, and eventually they will become citizens. 

Would you be angry if you were their neighbors? Would you fear them if you were their neighbors? If America were to become a racist authoritarian state, would you rebel, become an activist, ‘go along to get along’, see your children raised as white supremacists and Evangelicals? Do we still have time to stop this from happening here? 

Kelly Rimmer may not have intended this book to be an analogy of our current situation in America, but anyone reading this story cannot help but make the connection between then and now, between Germans who enabled Nazi murders because they were driven by fear to put on Nazism, but who never become Nazis in their minds. I always wondered what I would have done if I had lived in Nazi Germany, didn’t you? This book takes you there but your answer to that question might be very different now?

The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz – Book

The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz is a spy story, although not in the classic style, as it takes place in a new era after the dissolution of the USSR and the key character is not exactly operating as a spy, but rather as a cultural attaché. Expert advice tells writers to “write about what you know.” William Maz, the author, was born in Bucharest, Romania and this is his debut novel, so he kept the conventional wisdom in mind.

Bill Hefflin, Harvard student, is a child of Greek parents, now American citizens, who were once residents of Bucharest. Hefflin is selected by Professor Pincus to join the Fly Club, an exclusive club at Harvard. Through the Fly Club he meets the mysterious, sophisticated, and lovely Catherine. Bill, who doesn’t realize that the Fly Club is a testing ground for future government operatives, is soon involved in the spy games the club specializes in. When Professor Pincus is killed the games turn real.

The CIA recruits and trains Bill and he is sent to Romania in the reign of the cruel authoritarian leader of Romania, who keeps himself wealthy and his people, who live in fear, poor. From his training in America Bill has a connection to a KGB asset he calls Boris. Boris also wants Hefflin in Romania.

Bill has been haunted by memories of his childhood in Bucharest. His father was a medical doctor. Next door to his family was a warm and loving neighbor whom he called Tanti Bobi, and his best friend, a little girl everyone called Pusha. Pusha and Fili (the young Bill) fell in love under an enormous apple tree until his parents left Romania and eventually ended up in the US, 

Bill has official duties which are so nebulous as to be questioned by nearly everyone in and outside of the American Embassy in Bucharest. The reign of Ceausescu is ending right before Bill’s eyes, but certain anomalies lead him to suspect that people close to him might be involved in a regime change scheme.

A good, if unusual spy story, but the sex scenes seemed awkward and not at all erotic, nor even the desperate coupling of war-torn lovers snatched from the jaws of death. These scenes did not work for me. So, I’m a bit mixed on this one, but it does give some insight into the struggles of Romania and the reasons why Ceausescu was a target of a push to show how democracy was better than communism. Of course, as with any capitalist nation, America had dreams of development and dollar signs in its eyes. The foreign involvement in the overthrow of Ceausescu is the kind of move that led to the cynicism of many younger Americans in the current age who question America’s supposed altruism. There is an actual dossier, and it is worthwhile waiting to learn the contents.

How to Prevent the Next Pandemic by Bill Gates – Book

From a Google Image Search – Twitter

Whenever Bill Gates’ name comes up in conversations on social media these days it calls forth mostly haters who probably only know whatever social media tells us about him. We know he’s a billionaire. We know he co-founded Microsoft. We know his wife Melinda left him because of some behavior she could not tolerate. We know that when she left it was revealed that Bill Gates had been to Jeffrey Epstein’s island where Epstein allegedly trafficked underaged girls to rich and famous men. We do not know if Gates did anything disgusting but Melinda Gates sure sounded disgusted when she made her public announcement about the divorce.

Should we all shun Bill Gates because he might have gone beyond the pale? Perhaps once again we should take our cues from Melinda who is staying active in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, whatever his sins, still possesses one of the most rational minds of our era and his logical solutions to modern problems seem unclouded by a political agenda, very rare in an era of divided and passionate politics.

When Bill Gates wrote about climate change in his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, he used terms like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” to lower the heat on discussions of environmentalists and to erase blame. This objective approach allowed him to discuss lowering carbon emissions as a universal problem that we all have a stake in.

In How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, Bill Gates once again avoids politics and recriminations, although he does try to draw logical conclusions from contrasting public health choices. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been involved with public health in developing nations for years and has worked to control diseases like polio, AIDs. Ebola, and malaria by funding vaccination teams in remote areas. Polio has been almost completely eradicated worldwide in locations where vaccines have been allowed which seems to be everywhere except a small area in Pakistan. 

Gates’ combination of logical thinking, access to experts, his long involvement with research and treatment of diseases, and his name recognition may help us take public health measures out of control of politics and allow us to use reasoned, unemotional steps to address future pandemics more efficiently. It could take America decades to heal our political divisions especially with so many conscious efforts being made to widen gaps between political parties.

Gates tells what worked and what didn’t for an airborne infection. He’s not saying anything new, just summarizing what worked with COVID and what turned out to be not as important. Masks worked, social distancing worked best with masks, worrying about germs on surfaces or on our hands and face were not as important in controlling this airborne virus. Gates advocates a global body to keep track of outbreaks and a GERM team – Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization team, which already seems problematic in today’s political environment since it contains the word “global.” Gates likes contact tracing but admits that it is also a problem given American politics, and he admits that this worked better in authoritarian societies. Even then it was still not perfect and there were definitely some human right’s issues. 

Should we throw out the wisdom of Bill Gates because he is possibly flawed in ways that may be morally unacceptable? I see nothing earthshattering in Gates’ well-informed and realistic suggestions except that people may not be so willing to accept wisdom from a man they perceive as “damaged.” We cannot expect Melinda to air her objections to Bill in public, but we may be thinking the worst when the actual situation is quite different.

There is another problem with offering such rational solutions to us at a moment when we seem anything but rational. Looking at what we have managed to do to stop climate change we see that we seem to be moving backwards due to the war in Ukraine and its effect on gas and oil supplies from Russia, broken supply chains, an oil industry that underproduced in the pandemic and now claims that it can’t get up to speed as fast as we would like, and because of inflation. Currently we are talking about producing more oil and gas, opening old wells, and drilling new ones. The oil and gas industry argues that we do not have enough alternative energies to end our dependence on fossil fuels and clearly that is true at this moment. It is possible that fossil fuel companies are doing things, or not doing things, to make that so. The same may be true for pandemics. If we tried to take Bill Gates’ advice and use his well-reasoned approach to staying ahead of future pandemics the public health culture wars would make it impossible to apply public health initiatives throughout America, let alone throughout the world. In either the case of climate change or pandemics we may have to look for approaches that are not quite so reasonable, that in fact are greater challenges to individual freedom than telling people to wear a mask, or to stay home..

Trust by Hernan Diaz – Book

From a Google Image Search – Oprah Daily

This book is so unique that you might set it aside, but the departure from traditional story structure is an essential element of this novel of a man so private and yet so concerned with his legacy that just one version of his story will not suffice. Trust by Hernan Diaz will perplex you and engage you and deliver you up to an ending you will either love or hate.

This is a billionaire’s tale from before, during, and after the Great Depression. This is social commentary. It’s a glimpse into the roots of conservative American financial philosophy. It exposes the rationalizations for breaking financial rules for personal gains while assuaging guilt and, in fact, turning insinuations of crimes into a philanthropic set of actions that saved and preserved America. That’s some major league rationalizing. Andrew Bevel (aka Benjamin Rask) is practically on the autism spectrum with almost no social skills, but a clear understanding of markets, math, and the outputs of the ticker tape machine. We hear his story in four different versions from different fictional authors, Harold Vanner, Andrew himself, Ida Partenza, and Mildred Bevel. Similarly, we get four different views of Andrew’s wife, Mildred. 

The author does not say that Bevel’s stock shenanigans (short selling) may have contributed to (caused) the crash of the stock market in 1929, however it’s possible to draw such a conclusion. We see market machinations through Andrew’s eyes so any criticism is offered through tone or insinuation; commentary as dry as Andrew’s personality. There is also the contrast between Ida Partenza’s father, activist and typesetter, socialist/communist/lefty. Andrew’s contempt for American workers who became impoverished during the Great Depression is a subtle match for the “makers” and “takers” that are used to rationalize the financial rights of twenty-first century millionaires and billionaires.

Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust is both different; and good. If I say too much it will ruin all your fun.

Madhouse at the End of the World by Julian Sancton – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads.com

I picked Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton late one night thinking it would be a sci-fi book. In small print the cover said “The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night” which would have been a clue if I had read it. But it ends up that this journey, one of the first to Antarctica reads like science fiction, although it is a factual account of an expedition to a piece of our own planet that has an environment as alien as any you might encounter in space. It has air humans can breathe, but the behavior of an ice field is treacherous, the cold temperatures are unfriendly to human life, and isolation and severe weather take a toll. What drives men to go on risky adventures, to put their very lives on the line for fame and fortune, science, and curiosity? What drives them to want to simply be first?

Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery of Belgium does not want to do as his family expects. De Gerlache wants to go to sea. Belgium has a tiny navy consisting of only two ferries, but de Gerlache finally is allowed to earn credentials as a navigator after which he joins the navy. King Leopold, his king offers to send him on an expedition to the Congo, but de Gerlache wants to go to Antarctica. He raises money, finds a ship (the Belgica), hires sailors and scientists and after three years of planning sets sail for Antarctica. He wanted to use an all-Belgium crew, but it proved impossible. He left with his friend Danco, Georges Lecointe (28), his captain, an experienced Arctic explorer, Amundsen, and a crew that spoke a variety of languages (French, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Polish, English, Romanian, Latin). The best bit of luck de Gerlache had was when he took on Dr. Cook who met the group in South America and saved many lives on the ship by his Arctic experience and his great good sense.

From a Google Image Search – Wikipedia

De Gerlache made a fateful decision to spend a winter frozen into the Antarctic ice pack because he wanted to continue when summer returned to find the Southern Magnetic Pole. Early adventures on the ice revealed a lovely canal that opened between glaciers where perhaps the expedition spent too long collecting scientific data. By the time they moved on winter was upon them. Thankfully there were men on this expedition who loved to pit themselves against nature, the harsher the better. De Gerlache, suffering from scurvy, never having trekked the cold places, was not one of them, but he was an excellent navigator. He made the decision to spend the winter in the ice pack deliberately and the hardships that ensued should have been laid at his feet, but he never reaped the criticism he deserved, although he did not come off unscathed either.

The expedition undertaken by de Gerlache for family, nation, and science was intended to give Belgium a place on the world stage and it did succeed somewhat in this regard. But it was the Order of the Penguin, the risk-takers, the experienced polar travelers who saved the lives of the men of the Belgica and the reputation of de Gerlache. Lecointe, the 28-year-old captain, Amundsen and Cook, the Arctic explorers brought experience to bear. 

Even so, trapped in an ever-changing field of ice and watery channels that opened and closed at a whim, trapped in a season without sun day after day, riddled with scurvy due to a lack of fresh food, life aboard the creaking ship became a madhouse in the sense that holding onto sanity became a challenging legacy of ice and night that no one had foreseen. Obviously, the mental state of participants in extreme conditions presented explorers of Antarctica with information on a subject they had not included in their scientific considerations and studies. Madhouse at the End of the World is a well-researched and detailed presentation of the journey of the Belgica and of the men who went on that expedition. It is also an engrossing read.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel – Book

Fully Booked – From a Google Image Search

Apparently living in virtual quarantine throughout a long pandemic leads to thoughts of traveling through time rather than through space. Emily St. John Mandel in Sea of Tranquility presents us with anomalies which end up coming to us by way of the Time Institute of Moon Colony Two. Detectives are trained and then travel in time to try to explain events that seem to operate against the rules of time travel. The rules of time travel have come down to us from science fiction writers and scientists, from Star Trek and Isaac Asimov, et al. The main rule of time travel is to have as little effect on the past as possible because it is impossible to predict the consequences of changing past events beyond the tiniest of adjustments. Penalties for breaking the rules of the Time Institute are severe. You could be killed. You could be banished in time.

There is the anomaly experienced by Edwin St. John St. Andrew who questioned the concept of British imperialism at the dinner table in his London family home, who suggested that meddling implied a responsibility to “civilize savages”. Edwin is banished to America where he experiences a strange vision under a giant American oak tree on an island off Vancouver. 

There is Olive Llewellyn, a few centuries later, on a book tour on Earth. Olive lives in Moon Colony Two with her husband and her child. Her homesickness follows her to characterless hotel rooms all over Earth. There is a threat of a spreading disease, but Olive is determined to complete her tour and the disease seems always far from where she is speaking and meeting readers. Her book is called Marienbad and is, ironically, about a pandemic.

There is the mysterious Gaspery-Jacque Roberts who keeps popping up in different eras. Is he from an entire family that names each boy in generation after generation with this unusual family name, or is there another explanation for his ubiquity? 

If you could save an innocent, restore a loved one to their family, but had to break the rules of time travel to do so, would you? The fear of what might be lost to history and what might be gained would be difficult to overcome. Would you accept your punishment, or would you rebel? 

There are evocative images in this novel and resonant questions about scientific speculations that may never become realities. Will time travel ever be possible? Can we use time travel to escape existential threats to humanity? Mandel brings a certain European sensibility to her books which seem sometimes shrouded in mists. Her mysteries are so mysterious that we can’t quite grasp what we learned and whether we want to know it. Even so she is marvelous at atmospheric fiction and in all her novels, even when travel in time is not the topic, her images and metaphors take us traveling in time.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson – Book

The Vineyard Gazette – From a Google Image Search

Do you believe in magic? (Did your brain sing this sentence?) In Neal Stephenson’s entertaining novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., magic and physics partner up, with physics being used to bring back magic which has gone missing from the modern world. Triston Lyons literally bumps into Melisande Stokes outside the Harvard office of Dr. Blevins, the Head of Ancient Linguistics. Triston Lyons has figured out that magic died when photography was born, specifically when Berkowski, a daguerreotypist, took the first picture ever of a solar eclipse somewhere around the 1850’s. Melisande is fed up with Dr. Blevins, her Department Chair and boss, for good reasons. Triston has asked her bad boss Blevins to work on his D.O.D.O. project and has been turned down, so Triston takes Melisande for coffee and convinces her to join up. He can’t even tell Mel what DODO stands for; everything is “classified.” She makes a series of witty guesses such as, Department of Donuts, Department of Dusty Objects, Department of Deadly Observations, Department of Doing the Occult, and Department of Diabolical Observations, The interactions between these two suggest that they might “hook up” but Triston is a perfect boss for the “me too” era and is actually so obsessed with his science that he is oblivious to sexual undertones, to the amusement of most of the women and a few of the men he encounters as the project progresses. 

Melisande is introduced to Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East-Oda. Frank is a retired physicist who has designed a time machine. The only thing missing is that it is necessary to use a combination of magic and physics to send someone back in time. It’s a big hiccup because there is no magic left in the modern world. Time travel is something that must be approached cautiously as there are rules to follow. If you don’t insert someone gently into the past; if you don’t carefully limit interactions, then you can cause a diachronic shear that obliterates everything in the path of the shear, causes mayhem and death, and changes history. While they build the first ODEC or time machine, under the auspices of a government department called The Department of Diachronic Operations they advertise for witches. One persistent person keeps calling them to insist that she is a witch, but they are skeptical until they finally meet her. Erzebet is a witch stranded in modern America without being able to use her magic to get her back to her home in Hungary in 1851 so she can spit on the graves of her ancestors. Magic works in an ODEC.

You can begin to see that this is the kind of story that Neal Stephenson excels at; a complex plot, a huge cast of characters, a scope that embraces time and space, and lots of cutting-edge science that may or may not ever be useful. The inclusion of magic is new, but it gives Stephenson and his partner who writes the follow-up book, an interesting way to talk about the multiverse and quantum mechanics. It seems that witches have for centuries used primitive style “abacuses” to keep track of different strands in the multiverse, although that is not the name they use. They can move sideways across these strands to affect events in the real world. Witches understand the danger of diachronic shear but have different names for the catastrophe. Erzebet knows it as lomadh, or perhaps that’s Gráinne, a witch who lives in London in 1850, around the time that the first photo is taken of the eclipse.

As with any scientific project that becomes a matter for national intelligence the military soon gets involved and complications multiply. The loosey-goosey early structures of DODO get whipped into shape with layers and layers of bureaucracy. And sad to say, they hire Mel’s old boss, the arrogant, clueless Dr. Blevins to be the head of the project. Triston, our oblivious dreamer, keeps his eye on the target and as he is in the army is unfazed by the hierarchy. Others are not so blithely unaware of the danger of an administration that doesn’t understand the project. In fact, the military would not be involved in this endeavor at all if other nations were not working on similar projects, making this a possible issue of national security.

The first mission of DODO (or the first DEDE), once the ODEC is up and running and Erzebet understands and reluctantly agrees to her limited magical role as a “sender,” is to steal a valuable first edition of a religious book published in Massachusetts when it was still the Bay Colony, to hide it in what will be the garden of Frank Oda’s wife Rebecca East-Oda, and then dig it up in modern day Massachusetts and auction it off for funds for their project. This is far more complicated than you would expect and leads to travels back to Shakespeare’s London and that’s how the bankers get involved, the Fuggers, who seem to have the ancestral memories of insects or birds. These bankers are not magical but find a way to crop up in almost every diachronic operation. By the way the real meaning of DODO is – the Department of Diachronic Operations. 

I always find Neal Stephenson books to be delicious nerd-romps in truly imaginative spaces and, since they usually involve plenty of speculative science, are intriguing to real scientists and dabblers alike. The book is intended to be fun, and it is, but it also tries to make complex knowledge understandable. Of course, ironically, if Triston succeeds in wiping out photography, he will also wipe out computers and almost all of modern technology. Just another little hiccup.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – Book

Vanity Fair from a Google Image Search

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara begins with an America that is hard to recognize and yet unsurprising, given recent exposés of our historical and current prejudices, works as an obvious device for a novel of social commentary and is smack in the middle of Yanagihara’s wheelhouse. The Northeast section, NYC is called the Free States. Then there are the Colonies which include Southern states and Texas and Oklahoma. The current states east of the Rockies, north of the Colonies and including the Midwest are called America, the west coast is known as the West. You can find copies of the maps on Google Images. The social mores of Americans have been changed along with Hanya’s changes in the map of America. 

Although it is only the end of the nineteenth century same sex marriages are totally legal and acceptable if you live in the Free States. Same sex relationships are illegal elsewhere. There are also male-female marriages but the relationships we are concerned with for the most part involve two men, and these are not casual relationships, they are marriages, and these couples adopt children to become families. These relationships are hardly perfect; same sex couples experience the same challenges all marriages present. Couples may stay compatible for their entire lives or may drift apart because their partner is not who he seemed to be, or because of infidelity, or just from plain disappointment. 

This is a family saga with a time-travelling family tree that has some large gaps and, at the end, a big leap forward into the future. The Bingham family is wealthy, and the family is given credit for the founding of the Free States, so they are famous. They live in a mansion on Washington Square. The children live with their grandfather because both parents died. John, Eden, and David are grown now. John’s partner is Peter, Eden’s partner is Eliza. Learn the names because they come up in every era to mark characters in the Bingham family line. Charles Griffith has been matched with David Bingham, but David meets Edward Bishop and falls in love. He does not want to settle down on Washington Square, or in a stodgy marriage. Edward offers love and adventure although he is a slightly louche character. Remember those names also because there will be several incarnations of Charles and a few of Edward. Adams pops up over and over as the butler. It’s a very interesting and unique way to connect stories that could be lacking in continuity.

Book II involves a sojourn in Hawai’i, a colony, once a kingdom, that lost its culture to mainland invaders. Our next David is a member of the sidelined royal family. He is known by the native name Kawika. All the David’s have difficulty with social adjustments. Perhaps they would be placed on the autism spectrum today or diagnosed with Asperger’s. They just do not have a grip on their own life or identity. David does not know that he might be a homosexual in this future story. He meets Alice and she has a son who he becomes responsible for. For the most part the son is raised by the grandmother. He is called Wika. Then Edward, a young man Kawika went to school with arrives in his life as a grown man with a fire in his gut to return Hawai’i to its former glory. There is a Charles Griffith; he’s the family lawyer. Here the family blood line adds Asian-Hawaiian genes to its DNA.

In Book III we pop up in Zone Eight and travel back and forth in time between 2050 and 2094. Zone Eight centers on Washington Square in the same mansion where the story began. The Bingham family still owns the house for a while. Nathaniel and Charles are married and have just moved to Zone Eight from Hawai’i. Nathaniel, who studies and collects artifacts of his homeland is not at all happy to be in Zone Eight. Charles has an important job at a Research Center. The world has been rocked by one virus after another, and in what used to be New York and Washington, DC plans to contain diseases as they arise are changing America beyond recognition. So is climate change which is making cities so hot that people must own cooling suits to go out-of-doors at times. 

We focus on Charlie, a child who recovered from one of these viruses but with cognitive damage. Charles is protective of her and when he realizes that he will be arrested by the state, he finds her a husband and teaches her how to be a wife. Charles writes to the man he loves in New Britain whose name is Peter. It is so friendly to meet these familiar family members as we time travel through a culture like ours with this family. Many of these family members have dark skins so racism is not the issue in this book, but homosexual relationships become illegal once again. Hanya Yanagihara has a sort of mission to normalize LGBT+ relationships and make them as acceptable as heterosexual relationships or even staying single. 

In the future the author subtly suggests that the government of the once Free States is somehow now ruled from Beijing, so we can only assume that Beijing has taken over as the world’s most powerful nation. The Free States are no longer free. The fear of viruses that repeated in 2050, 54, 70, and now in 94 has allowed the government to control the population by promises to cure the viruses as they spread if the people will do as they are told. It may sound like residents have a choice, but their choices dwindle as new viruses continue to threaten. All is done in the name of keeping people healthy and safe. Since so many people are dying or being removed to containment areas or rehab centers, there is a big push for relationships to produce offspring. Homosexuality still exists but it must be kept secret and can lead to arrest. Fortunately the David in this timeline is focused and sure of himself.

“There were some people who thought the scientists were creating the sicknesses in our labs, because they wanted to eliminate certain kinds of people or because they wanted to help the state maintain control of the country, and these were the most dangerous people of all.” Pg. 383 “Back then, the Square (Washington Square) had been planted with trees and covered with grass, and the pit in the center had been a fountain, where water erupted in bursts and then fell back into the pit again. Over and over the water exploded and fell, exploded and fell, for no other reason than because people liked it. I know it sounds queer, but it’s true; Grandfather showed me a photograph of it once.” Pg. 388 

Is Hanya against mandates, is she an antivaxxer, or does she think that the temptation towards authoritarian solutions to problems that affect the lives of everyone must be considered very carefully to balance freedom and health measures? Clearly the world did not solve climate change. Are there still places in the world that have handled things in better ways with less disruption of normality while holding on to freedom and human rights? Clues suggest there are. I would have liked to go to New Britain to see what they did differently. You will have to decide where Yanagihara stands and even where you stand on these matters, but whatever you decide you will most likely agree that To Paradise is another Hanya Yanagihara tour de force. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – Book

From a Google Image Search – Vulture

Having seen announcements of Louise Erdrich books for some time on Amazon, Goodreads and in the New York Times, I decided that I should read one. I knew nothing about Erdrich’s connections to indigenous people and shame on me. The Sentence begins with a set up. Tookie, our main character, describes herself as solid and unattractive. She had to raise herself because her mother was addicted to drugs and was so often using that she had nothing to offer Tookie, which certainly explains Tookie’s lack of self-confidence. 

Tookie answered a call from someone she had been close to and agreed to perform a task that every cell in her brain rebelled against. She did it out of a sense of duty owed to a pair of old friends. Her friends betrayed her. Tookie ended up sentenced to fifteen years in jail. There was no one on the outside to care about her except a tribal police officer named Pollux. But if you need someone to care about you Pollux is your man. He felt so guilty about arresting Tookie that he hovered nearby, and he even quit the tribal police force. 

Love does wonders when it is a supportive force, as it is in Tookie’s life. She finds a job in a bookstore that specializes in native books and her love of books makes her invaluable to Asema, the owner. Penstemon also works at the bookstore. Obviously being an indigenous author opens up a wide range of interesting character names. Pollux attends native ceremonies, drums for the dancers and feeds everyone. All goes well until two complications arise. A customer named Flora dies, but for some reason she still hangs out at the bookstore every day. Tookie can hear her bracelets, her footwear on the floors, her silky clothing swishing. Sometimes Flora knocks books off the shelves in front of where Tookie is working. Since no one else can hear Flora Tookie at first says nothing, but after she finds a mysterious book that seems to have caused Flora’s death, Erdrich’s title takes on a new meaning. Tookie believes that when Flora read a certain sentence in the book it killed her. Tookie buries the book next to the tree that recently fell in her yard, but signs are adding up. Eventually the other two in the bookstore sense Flora’s presence.

The other complication that arises is the pandemic, the COVID pandemic, which has the bookstore busier than ever with mail orders. But Tookie cannot work in the shop alone, the sense that Flora wants something from her is too menacing. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Flora has adopted an indigenous heritage when she is not indigenous at all? Between being unable to visit Pollux, sick with COVID and in the hospital, trying to forge a better relationship with Pollux’s daughter and her new baby boy, and the terror she is beginning to feel whenever Flora makes her presence known in the bookstore, Tookie is having a difficult time holding on to the sanity she found in her relationship with Pollux. She is reliving past sorrows. 

Erdrich obviously loves books and is a voracious reader. When her tale is done, and throughout the book great titles and exciting reads spill out, and as a bonus end up in lists of book recommendations at the end of the story. Read with a pen and paper handy because you will want to write down those book titles. Nothing like a good haunting, insight into indigenous lives, and a precarious love story to provide readers with a book that is hard to put down.