Summer beach books are usually light, enjoyable, and often as forgettable as a strawberry Twissler®. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is a cut above the usual beach book. This might be Heller’s first novel, but she has props from a career writing for HBO and for TV. A novel is a different beast than a screen play, but it’s not a distant reach. Heller’s characters are strong, especially the women, but even some of the men stand the test of reader approval also.
Wallace, an indifferent mother, a beautiful woman, after her husband divorces her, spends too much time needing the attention of other men, and trying to force relationships that are not close or rewarding enough, to suffice. When she finally gives up on looking for love she becomes the matriarch with enough feisty character to become a better grandparent than she was a parent. Still, however much you might appreciate her wit and beauty, you wouldn’t want to leave your children alone with Wallace for too long. She’s too self-absorbed.
The Paper Palace is the name of the Cape Cod summer house that has been in the family for decades. It was built when times were economically tough, so it is not necessarily glamorous. There is a Big House with kitchen, living room, porch, pantry and bathroom. There is an outdoor shower and several ticky-tacky cottages just for sleeping. It’s a place that you learn to love through familiarity and longevity. The camp faces a pond, with a narrow wood beyond, and at the end of the wood is the ocean. The wildlife the family encounters are more pond and woods creatures than ocean dwellers. Of course, the family makes many visits to more accessible beaches on the Cape.
Leo is the most recent of Wallace’s husbands. He’s a jazz musician and is gone a lot. Leo and Wallace fight frequently. He has two children by another marriage, but his daughter stays with the mom. Wallace’s family adds Chuck. To Wallace and Leo, Chuck is a socially awkward, poorly adjusted boy who will grow out of his difficulties; to Wallace’s daughters, Elle and Anna, he is a creepy and guilty secret they keep because they can’t bear to break up Wallace and Leo.
Secrets have consequences and these secrets fall far more on Elle than on Anna, because Anna goes away to boarding school. And yet, even as a young girl, Elle has far better taste in men than her mother ever had. Both Jonas and Peter love her. Would she have married Jonas if they didn’t share a terrible guilt of their own, and if Chuck wasn’t involved in the whole mess?
The story and the characters are enough to hold your interest, but Heller uses her words to bring us to camp with her. Through Wallace and Elle, she takes us through the earthy and the sublime, the earthy being her witty and profane conversations, the sublime being the way she describes nature and the close connections having a lifetime of Cape Cod summers offer those who are lucky enough to have such a legacy.
Even if Oprah had not chosen Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents for her book club this book was destined to become a classic about caste and the role it has played in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, that it still plays in India, and the role it plays in America. We don’t often call the racism we practice against African Americans a caste system, but Wilkerson feels that something that began with enslavement of humans from the African continent has become set in the kind of same kind of stone as the caste system in India. Further she believes that America’s treatment of African Americans after slavery informed the definition of Aryans as the only people with genetics pure enough to remain in the new Germany under the Nazi regime. She has done her due diligence and backs her contentions up with plenty of anecdotes and quotes from those who wrote to preserve the system, and those who wrote to end it.
Pg. 32 “In the winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, landed in India, in the city then known as Bombay, to visit the land of Mohandas Gandhi, the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered with garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”
“One afternoon, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala and visited with high school students whose families had been Untouchables. The principal made the introduction.
‘Young people,’ he said, ‘I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.’
King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro, and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them. ‘For a moment,’ he wrote, ‘I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.’
Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for—20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries,’ still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,’ quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country.
And he said to himself, ‘Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.’”
Again, using the author’s own words,
Pg. 85 “On this day, June 5, 1934, they were there to debate a legal framework for an Aryan nation, to turn ideology into law, and were now anxious to discuss the findings of their research into how other countries protected racial purity from the taint of the disfavored. They sat down for a closed-door session in the Reich capital that day and considered it serious enough to bring a stenographer to record the proceedings and produce a transcript. As they settled into their chairs to hash out what would eventually become the Nuremberg Laws, the first topic on the agenda was the United States and what they could learn from it.
The man chairing the meeting, Franz Gürtner, the Reich minister of justice, introduced a memorandum in the opening minutes, detailing the ministry’s investigation into how the United States managed its marginalized groups and guarded its ruling white citizenry. The seventeen legal scholars and functionaries went back and forth over American purity laws governing intermarriage and immigration. In debating ‘how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich,’ wrote Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman, ‘they began by asking how Americans did it.’”
Pg. 88 “By the time that Hitler rose to power, the United States ‘was not just a country with racism,’ Whitman, the Yale legal scholar, wrote. ‘It was the leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.’ The Nazis recognized the parallels even if many Americans did not.”
This might shock you, but Wilkerson offers evidence that the American treatment of African Americans did serve as a model for the Nazi exclusion and genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and others not considered pure enough to live in an Aryan nation. It is unclear whether we can shame Americans who fight to keep African Americans as the lowest caste in America and the scapegoats in everyday disputes. The rest of us, sadly, have no trouble believing that America has even more to shoulder in terms of blame and greater reasons to offer at the very least, apologies; and perhaps to seriously consider reparations. And Wilkerson is not done. She goes on to discuss the eight pillars of caste and to discuss each in some detail with plenty of pertinent details, anecdotes and quotes from scholars. More examples and descriptions of actual events bring us right up to Charlottesville and now.
Pg. 324 “’Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status,” Jardina writes, “and his political priorities are plainly aimed at both protecting the racial hierarchy and at strengthening its boundaries.’ These are people who feel ‘that the rug is being pulled out from under them—that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race, their group’s advantages, and their status atop the racial hierarchy are all in jeopardy.”
About the social safety net
Pg. 348 “There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success—happiness and a long life—exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.”
Pg. 349 “The majority of America’s peer nations have some form of free or low-cost healthcare coverage. The writer Jonathan Chait noted America’s singular indifference, unique among developed nations, towards helping all of its citizens. He connected this hard-heartedness to the hierarchy that arose from slavery. He found that even conservatives in other wealthy nations are more compassionate than many Americans.
‘Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States,’ he observed in New York magazine in 2014. ‘In none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of statism as the product of religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.’
A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows. The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries in the world.”
Whether or not you accept Wilkerson’s theory that African Americans’ position in America represents an actual place at the bottom of a “caste system,” the damage our racism does to our American democracy/republic and to human beings who were brought to this country to be slaves is incontestable. We must redress the harms we have done if we are ever to claim a spot among leading nations on this planet; a spot untarnished by a “big lie” that we truly believe that “all men are created equal.”
Although this book follows all the structures of any good scholarly text, it is quite readable and should be on every reader’s list. Great addition to the genre and will most likely become a reference for other writers on the subject.
Maggie Shipstead’s book Great Circle is a multi-saga. It’s a family saga, a historical saga, a saga of a girl with a goal, so a cultural saga of women’s struggles. The only part of her story that is true is the history bits, but Shipstead did her due diligence and she knows the flight records achieved with regularity after Kitty Hawk. Women who flew were a key target of her studies. In the midst of her prose story she will recite a timely fact about a milestone accomplished by a pilot.
Marian and Jamie Graves lost their abused and understandably reluctant mother as infants when the ship their father, Addison Graves, was captaining exploded and sank. Their father was sent to Sing Sing prison for disobeying the code of captains at sea in order to save the twin infants. The children grew up under the neglectful care of their painter uncle, Wallace Graves, addicted to gambling and drinking. When Addison was released he took one look at the young twins and walked away, unable to believe that he would be a good father. (In fact, there are a lot of reluctant parents in this book and perhaps an argument for the individualism promoted by free-range parenting.)
Years later, in 2014, if you go by chronology, we meet Hadley, a young actress whose life parallels Marian’s. She also lost her parents and was raised by an uncle. Her parents died when their plane crashed into Lake Superior. In the midst of a boyfriend scandal, Hadley, hoping to rehab her reputation takes on the role of Marian Graves, a heroine of her childhood from a book recommended to her by a school librarian. So, the story becomes a two-fer and the modern “Marian” is not necessarily having an easier time of it than the Marian of the last century who tried to navigate a life that went against the cultural grain.
Great Circle is not just a fictional saga though. Marian’s story tells us about obstacles women face when they don’t feel comfortable within the narrow norms that circumscribe women’s lives. Marian’s fascination with the poles, the ultimate test of cold places which was a male domain, and her encounter with a married pair of barnstormers who stay with her uncle and take her up for her first flight, sets the course for her life. Her uncle cannot hold on to money. In order to learn to fly Marian delivers bootleg liquor and wine during Prohibition. She is young and slight. She can pass for a boy if she dresses in overalls and pulls a hat low and tries not to make eye contact. This works until she meets Barclay McQueen, a wealthy, powerful and seemingly respectable criminal. He is fascinated by Marian but she is too young. He woos her with pilot lessons and airplanes, wins her reluctant hand in marriage, and tries to control her and tame her by forcefully raping her until she is pregnant. Once Marian wins her freedom she flies, literally and figuratively. Her life’s trajectory faces the constant limits on what is allowed for women. Marian always finds ways to fly. She even finds ways to love who she loves, finding herself in love with Ruth and Caleb at the same time.
Hadley, our modern “Marian”, star of the movie Peregrine about Grave’s life and disappearance/death, still, in the twenty-first century, finds herself, at the beginning of her career in a #metoo moment. Even later in her career she finds herself in the midst of sexual shaming, which leads to her losing her star role in a TV series called Archangel. However, she has gained some equanimity over the years and is freed to accept the role in Peregrine, a possible future indie success with greater heft than her former roles.
The novel is readable and long, although it doesn’t really seem long. Do the themes justify the length? There is some really good writing in there. It gives us two great stories and many side stories. Could the author had made more of the great circle analogy so that when the moment came for Marian to tackle her dream it seemed like a true culmination? Possibly. The novel still accomplishes a lot and the characters may have longevity and enter that group of fictional people who we perceive as real. Only time will tell. Is Marian’s Great Circle dream ever realized? Perhaps. But culturally our goals might rather be to break some great circles, send the lines off in new directions that offer far more freedom from gender roles and rules.
Nora Seed is depressed. She has lost so many things recently. When a man she is attracted to knocks on her door in the midst of her despair, she thinks things might be looking up, but he is just there to tell her that he thinks her cat, a ginger tabby named Voltaire, is dead at the side of the road. He stays to help her bury the cat, but then she is late for her job at String Theory, a shop that sells albums and musical instruments, so she gets fired. Her only piano student’s mom tells her that Leo will no longer be taking lessons. She looks back over her life and sees that she has been unable to commit to anything and that this has caused pain to her brother Joe and to others in her life. She tips over the scary edge and swallows enough pills to end her miserable life, but she ends up in a limbo between life and death (with lots of talk about Schrodinger’s cat) in The Midnight Library with Mrs. Elm, the school librarian who helped her when she was younger.
The Midnight Library is a place we might all want to visit. Nora is faced with a big book of her regrets, which become far less of a weight once she has made it through the book. The shelves are infinite and all the books are green. Nora is able to go back to each moment in her life when she chose a path and see what would have happened if she stayed on that path. The Midnight Library is not endlessly patient. There are rules that can be broken with existential results. Nora has a degree in philosophy and knows all about existential results. But she longs for an authentic life such as that of Henry David Thoreau.
Matt Haig is the author of this book and we readers always get a little nervous when a male author chooses to feature a female character. Did Nora Seed have to be female? Perhaps in this tale the gender of the main character doesn’t matter as much because, although this is an interesting concept and a good story, it doesn’t have the literary heft or the philosophical depth that it could have had. There is a certain Faustian quality to Nora’s library research. She doesn’t have to sell her soul, but she has to remember that her corporeal body is alone in her apartment flickering between life and death. The concept of The Midnight Library is interesting and the plot resembles time travel, but the overall effect is quite quotidian and therefore a bit disappointing. Enjoyable, just not profound.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab warns us to follow her neighbor Estelle’s advice and never make a deal with gods who answer after dark. The tale of Adeline LaRue shows what can happen if you make such a deal, even by accident, or because you are desperate. Adeline ends up making a very bad deal with a tricky god who takes on the appearance of Adeline’s perfect partner, a made up figure she has been drawing for many years.
Adeline grows up in the 18th century in a small village called Villon in France. It is practically impossible for a daughter to avoid a local marriage and the life of a wife and mother, hard and full of toil if you are not from a wealthy family. Adeline doesn’t want this life. She wants to be free, in a time when freedom for women was also something that might be marginally possible only if you were rich. Adeline’s family is not rich. Her father carves small, and quite desirable figures from wood and sells them at local markets.
Be careful what you ask for.
I almost put this book aside because I don’t usually read fiction about the occult or magic but I was ready for light entertainment and so I kept reading. Adeline’s deal means that she gets to live a long life as a ‘free’ woman, but no one remembers her. She can’t rent a hotel room or own any thing or have a normal relationship because she is always unknown. Everything is temporary. She can’t even say her own name. She is not really free at all because she sold her soul to ‘Luc’ for a freedom that is worthless. Luc visits Addie frequently to see if she is ready to give up her soul yet, but she is a stubborn girl. The more he tries to get her to give up, the more determined she becomes to go on. Three hundred years later, looking back, she acknowledges the things she has gained from her long life. Certain pieces of art work seem to give credence to Addie’s story. But she is tired.
In 2014 she finds a way to change the deal – at least temporarily. How does that happen? Read and find out. This was an inventive and entertaining piece of fiction, although the word ‘palimpsest’ cropped up a bit too often perhaps. Good job, V. E. Schwab.
The only complaint I have about Andy Weir’s new book Project Hail Mary is that I finished too quickly. But I had a big smile on my face most of the time. Weir’s book has upset some physicists and astronomers because they say Andy Weir doesn’t always get the science right. I am not a physicist or an astronomer, although I like to read articles about both areas so, for me, this book offered enough math to make it seem authentic, without getting too esoteric. The main character, Ryland Grace, is, after all, just an eighth grade science teacher and the math seems just about right for that level. Acceleration in different gravities, temperature ranges that support life, an alien culture that uses base 6 rather than base 10, spectrographic analysis and control screens that can offer up any missing information or do the math—all of these elements are intended for readers who are not physicists or even biologists.
I don’t usually read reviews before I write about books but The Washington Post kept dangling one in front of me so I finally opened it but I tried to just lightly skim it. Another thing the reviewer found annoying was the use of coma amnesia by the author as a device to prevent information overload. We learn everything in flashback mode. If our reluctant astronaut only remembers info as needed we learn about technicalities as he relearns them or remembers them. He wakes from his coma alone and has lost the team of true experts that were supposed to keep the mission on track. This device did not bother me, it seemed useful, but it might bother some readers.
Earth has a pressing problem. For some reason the sun’s energy is being diminished and it looks like the culprit is Venus. With a probe scientists are able to collect samples from the place where the ‘Petrovian’ line heads from the sun and hits the atmosphere of Venus. We learn that the true culprit is a tiny organism called an ‘Astrophage’ and that it goes to Venus to breed because it needs carbon dioxide to reproduce, which cannot be found in the sun. It then returns to the sun to collect more energy for a return trip. Each trip increases the Astrophage population. So, as if climate change were not enough, now our own sun will get so dim that we will starve to death.
When Grace (corny name or perfect?) finds himself alone in space he hears a Tap, Tap, Tap and finds he has a neighbor, an alien spaceship is nearby. He makes a leap of faith and allows his neighbor to connect the two ships with a tunnel. “Rocky” and Grace cannot share the same spaces or they will die. Rocky requires an atmosphere heavy on ammonia and he lives in extreme heat. Thank goodness for xenonite. Rocky’s planet is also being attacked by Astrophage, but Tau Ceti, the sun they are both visiting is infected with Astrophage and yet it is not losing energy. Why? Grace and Rocky find ingenious ways to figure it all out.
When my friend’s daughter was four she saw a movie over and over, as children love to do. The movie was called The Land Before Time. There was a character in the movie, Ducky, who would always say “yup, yup yup” or “nope, nope nope,” three times. It was so catchy and we all heard it so many times that summer that it has stayed with me all these years, although I never even watched the movie. Rocky and Grace also talk in threes after they learn enough of each other’s language. “Bad, bad, bad” they intone, or “good, good, good.” Rocky is a really lovable little alien engineer with a can-do attitude and a pretty even disposition. Does he make the book childish? I don’t know. That WaPo critic claims that the book is written like a movie script rather than a novel. Maybe. But Ducky prepared me well for a space engineer that looked like a turtle on top and a spider underneath, who had the lovable habit of saying things three times.
What is relevant about the book is not an imminent Astrophage attack on our sun, but the way humans come together to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. It is reminiscent of the way The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson tackles climate deniers by just finding ways to develop strategies that bypass them, right down to the leader of the Ministry, Mary Murphy, a strong woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dr. Eva Stratt is just such a strong woman and she leads the group of scientists from all of earth’s nations in getting a mission ready to travel to Tau Ceti as soon they see that earth will die if they don’t figure out why that other sun is not losing energy.
Mary Murphy had a male counterpart who used the most aggressive and unethical approaches. Dr. Stratt plays both roles. She does not mind getting down and dirty. But this idea that humans, even humans and aliens, can let go of jealousy and animosity when the survival of their species is at risk is present in both books. It is cooperation, even enforced cooperation, that solves existential problems. We end up with the question of whether our problems are existential enough to get us to work together towards a common goal, which just so happens to also be related to carbon dioxide. What do I have to say about Project Hail Mary? It was good, good, good!
The Sympathizer reads as if the author was there at the fall of Saigon, except that the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, although born in South Vietnam, was born after those events. His parent were there, the authors of the source materials he read either were there or had used journalistic methodologies to research Vietnam history, the Vietnam War, the fall of Saigon and the aftermath. He may have learned about the war second hand, but he writes about it very much as a first hand observer/participant.
Others have written about those harried days when the U. S. admitted defeat and had to get out of town fast, but here is a new voice. And, although the book is fiction, it is immersive. Until I read the end notes I was convinced that V. T. Nguyen had been in Vietnam throughout the war. Our narrator remains unnamed and the use of first person is consistent throughout. This novel offers us an expert’s use of point of view.
Our unnamed main character is both simple and complex. He is the “man with two faces,” “the man with two minds.” The child of a culturally unacceptable liaison between his Vietnamese mother and a French priest, he’s reviled by villagers–his mother shunned and very poor–he is labeled a bastard. He is also handsome and bright and is sent to a Californian college where his views become more global. He has made a blood pact with two other guys, Man and Bon, and they are the only two who command his loyalty. They are communists.
Back in Vietnam during the war years, our narrator is imbedded in the South Vietnamese Army, but he is a spy who sends off reports to Man in North Vietnam. He appears to be a shallow, somewhat cynical guy, his voice is irreverent and politically ambivalent. He works as an aid and driver to the Commandant of the Vietnamese troops in the South. His grasp of English makes him valuable to both the Vietnamese and the Americans. He doesn’t seem to have any real ideological attachment to communism and certainly, given his deceptions, doesn’t even think in revolutionary rhetoric. He tells us on the very first page that he can see both sides.
Our narrator escapes the fall of Saigon with a General and others, including his sworn brother Bon, whose wife and child are killed during the escape. Our narrator may not have many values that demand his absolute allegiance but he is determined to keep Bon from despair and suicide.
The book is masterful, so well-written, evocative of what we already understand as the senselessness of war, combined with the truth that we seem unable to end our apparent love affair with wars.
“…our revolutions had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard of hoarding power. In this transformation we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us…Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom—I was so tired of saying those words!—we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.” (pg. 326)
Nguyen dazzles as he traces the occupations of Vietnam back to its origins, starting from the origins of his character.
“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant, if I had fallen in love with the right woman, if I had been a more virtuous lover, if my mother had been less of a mother, if my father had gone to save souls in Algeria instead of here, if the commandant did not need to make me over, if my own people did not suspect me, if they saw me as one of them, if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in some one else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other, if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists, if our bonzes had not incinerated themselves, if the Americans hadn’t come to save us from ourselves, if we had not bought what they sold, if the Soviets had never called us comrades, if Man had not sought to do the same, if the Japanese hadn’t taught us the superiority of the yellow race, if the French had never sought to civilize us, if Ho Chi Minh had not been dialectical and Karl Marx not analytical, if the invisible hand of the market did not hold us by the scruffs of our necks, if the British had defeated the rebels of the new world, if the natives had simply said, Hell no, on first seeing the white man, if our emperors and mandarins had not clashed among themselves, if the Chinese had never ruled us for a thousand years, if they had used gunpowder for more than fireworks, if the Buddha had never lived, if the Bible had never been written and Jesus Christ never sacrificed, if Adam and Even still frolicked in the Garden of Eden, if the dragon lord and the fairy queen had not given birth to us, if the two of them had not parted ways, if fifty of their children had not followed their fairy mother to the mountains, if fifty more had not followed their dragon father to the sea, if legend’s phoenix had truly soared from its own ashes rather than simply crashed and burned in our countryside, if there were no Light and no Word, if Heaven and earth had never parted, if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if the serpent of language had not bitten me,…” (pg. 307-8)
Nguyen leaves us, like Bon, in despair that we will ever find ways to suppress the flaws in our blighted human condition. It’s depressing but the narrator’s rather amoral and insouciant patter takes some of the sting out of some really dreadful things. Viet Thanh Nguyen is an excellent new voice in both American and global fiction.
Jhumpa Lahiri finds herself in Italy, with time between books and engagements. In Whereabouts she takes a notebook with her as she meanders around a country she knows well. She’s not a tourist. She’s more of a ‘flaneuse’ or in Italian, a ‘fannuilona’ or a ‘perdigomo.’
Her notebook is not actually a journal because it’s not organized by dates (or days), but by geography, places, “whereabouts.” She is mostly alone and her writing reflects some of the decay, weight, and beauty of antiquity. Italy has a long history.
Although published in English in 2021, as translated by the author, the book was first published in Italian in 2018. So, we are not experiencing Italy either during or in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was hit early and hard but would not have allowed for a whimsical wander about any of its cities in those sad days.
Chapter names reflect content: On the Sidewalk, On the Street, In Spring, In my Head, Nowhere.
From In My Head, page 31
“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well. It’s probably my mother’s influence. She’s always afraid of being alone and now her life as an old woman torments her so much that when I call to ask how she’s doing, she just says, I’m very alone…”
From At the Museum, page 33
“The most beautiful room—it belonged to an emperor’s consort—has a garden painted onto the walls, teeming with trees, flowers, citrus plants, animals. Pomegranates have split open and birds perch on the branches of the trees. The scene is fixed, faded. The trees with their thin branches, seem to bend as if from the soft breeze that courses through the landscape. This semblance of a breeze is what makes the painted nature tremble, rendering everything paradoxically alive.”
Interesting to be in someone else’s head and space for a while, especially in the head of Jhumpa Lahiri, an author I admire. Virtual reality, old style. This book is fiction but I identified with it so strongly that I read it as nonfiction.
Jane Smith, is a mom and a wife, with a job in the security business in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Hummingbird Salamander. Jane lives a normal American life, constantly questioning if this is the best life she could be living. She is a big woman, a wrestler who no longer wrestles, but does work out at a strip mall gym, not the designer variety. Her boss has named her giant hand-bag ‘Shovel Pig,’ signaling to her that she is not exactly a dainty woman, which she already knows. She decides to keep the name. She is in the American game, working to get ahead, trying to avoid office politics. Until one day someone hands her an envelope outside her favorite coffee shop with a cryptic message – an address and a key, and a message that says if Jane receives this envelope the sender is probably dead.
Would you bite? Would you get more and more distracted from your fairly normal life, lose everything to solve an increasingly twisted and dangerous mystery pathway, somehow related to either ecoterrorism or solving climate change? Can anyone embrace a cause fully without having it take over their life? Can you be a true activist without putting your family in jeopardy, without losing your job, perhaps even your home, your reputation, your clean criminal record? Would living a life on the run make you feel rootless and disoriented? Could you keep your focus on your target goals until you reached your own personal endgame?
Silvina, the woman Jane never meets, the woman who sent her the note, who leads her to a hummingbird, and eventually a salamander, the woman who puts Jane in mortal danger, is just such a committed activist. She seems, for some reason, to pick Jane as her successor. Will Jane ever solve the mystery of who Silvina is, how she is connected to Jane, and what she wants Jane to see and do. Entering this book is like entering an Escape Room where clues keep leading you to an exit that seems to recede into the distance just when you think the riddle is solved. You don’t get out of this Escape Room unless you finish the novel. Halfway through I got so frustrated, so angry at what Jane was doing to her life that I wanted to quit, but I could not put the book down.
There are no plans for stopping climate change in this book that would ever have worked. But we do learn if Silvina was a fraud or a true activist and she does present us with a result, sort of, maybe. As the story moves along the climate worsens, the color of the sky is a sickly gray-green and weather conditions are erratic – rain alternating with snow and sleet, excessive warmth replaced by freezing cold. Life doesn’t stop in an instant. The world goes on and people adapt to each new climate change as best they can. There are refugee ships full of climate migrants out on the oceans with nowhere to land.
There will be a hummingbird, and a salamander? What happens to them? What do they represent? Hummingbird Salamander is a conundrum because of the clues Jane follows and the threats she faces. It’s a thriller.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is an authentic piece of journalism about Americans fed up with our social systems which consistently rob middle-class Americans of things they felt were part of the ‘social contract.’ In a land where our Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), we assume that our government would not legislate against our rights.
Although governing is complicated it seems clear to most of us ‘bottom dwellers’ that our laws have been skewed to advantage the wealthy. When the wealthy play with the stock market and the economy to tweak it so they can get wealthier it hurts those whose finances are least secure. We are taught that consumption is good. We are dazzled by credit card offers that allow us to live well.
But when the rich go too far and we land in the Great Depression or the Great Recession people at the bottom, perhaps those very folks who believed the promise of credit as a road to comfort, fall off the economic scale.
They lose a job, they age out of the job market, they can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t afford health insurance and a major health crisis hits, their long time employer goes bankrupt and they lose their pension, or they are a widowed housewife who now has to live on the abbreviated Social Security they get from their dead husband’s account.
These are the people who sell their homes or lose their homes, who refuse to be homeless, who can find employment but not unless they travel to where employers are hiring. They buy a van or an RV, new or used depending on how much they were able to salvage from their previous life.
They outfit their RV, or van, or bus, or even just their car using lots of advice from those who have set out on this journey before them. They make places to bed down, they deal with how they will get electricity and water if they end up at a campsite with no amenities, they add solar panels hiding them if possible because they are not allowed to have them in some places where they camp, and they figure out what to do about showers and wastes.
There are websites for this. On Reddit there is a thread called ‘vandwellers’. There are searchable maps on a site like FreeCampsites.net, Allstays.com. There is a Wallydocking app. There are websites for Workampers who are seeking jobs to pay for their expenses, to possibly save up for a more comfortable van experience.
Jessica Bruder is a journalist, a writer. When she decided to write about this population she had a hard time getting vandwellers to speak to her. The media had not been kind; they tended to eventually get around to using the word ‘homeless’ which is offensive to vandwellers. These nomads tell the author that they have nothing against the ‘homeless,’ they are just not at all homeless. They have a home; it just is not anchored in one place.
Because the National Park Service allows campers only fourteen days on a site, vandwellers have to move frequently. You can work as a camp host, cleaning bathrooms and campsites, checking in campers, stay for an entire season, and get paid, but these jobs are being eliminated.
Amazon hires workampers at Christmastime but these jobs are difficult for seniors as they involve walking for many miles on the concrete warehouse floors, bending and rising, and hefting a weighty scanner that keeps track of your every move. Workampers consider the challenges worth the rewards, although some do not make it in these physically taxing jobs.
Bruder makes friends with a camper named Linda May and she finally outfits a van of her own, which she names Halen, and joins Linda at sites vandwellers frequent, such as Quartzite, Arizona (The Gathering Place) and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. She gets to listen to and learn from many vandwellers when she actually lives the life. Swankie Wheels is one of her sources, Bob Wells who started the website CheapRVLiving.com, Silvianne the astrologer, someone called Ghost Dancer.
One of her sources tells her, “[w]e’re facing the first ever reversal in retirement security in modern US history. Starting with the baby boomer, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards…” (pg. 62) Another source says, “[b[y moving into vans and other vehicles people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them. They could be reborn into lives of freedom and adventure.” (pg. 75)
Bruder writes, “[w]hile it’s human nature to put on a good face in turbulent times — and to present that face to strangers – something else was also appearing among the nomads. The truth as I see it is that most people struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning, and kinship when confronted with adversity. In other words the nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers” (pp. 164-5)
Linda May is an especially interesting and aware vandweller. Beset by adversity she still has a grand plan to build an “Earthship” of dirt-packed tires and to get off the grid on her own land. As Nomadland ends she sets foot on the property she has saved for, searched for and purchased, and she is getting ready to build. She has made friends along the way who have promised to help.
The author finds it hard to leave the vandwellers and return to her own life to write the book she has researched and she concludes in this way:
“The most widely accepted measure for calculating income inequality is a century old formula called the Gini coefficient. It’s a gold standard for economists around the globe, along with the World Bank, the CIA, and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What it reveals is startling. Today the United States has the most unequal society of all developed nations. America’s level of inequality is comparable to that of Russia, China, Argentina, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.” (pg. 247)
Obviously, I also have had some trouble leaving the vandwellers behind as I continue to digest the details of life on the road and the philosophies that maintain those whose lives have become nomadic. I worry that this could happen to me, or indeed, anyone I know. I have a friend who chooses to be nomadic for a portion of the year, but he and his wife own two expensive properties. Not the same thing at all.
The fact that women are safe and able to pursue this lifestyle if it becomes necessary helps lift my spirits a bit but the thought of 10-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse to keep me in groceries has the opposite effect. It’s as if we are playing a game where colorful ‘peebles’ are lined up on a shelf and as new ‘peebles’ are added at the front end of the shelf, identical looking ‘peebles’ are falling off the shelf at the other end. Are you ready for Nomadland? Check out more of what Jessica Bruder learned and do a bit of soul-searching.