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.
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.
There is a writer’s lecture series at a local theater which is currently held as a Zoom presentation because of the covid pandemic. You buy a ticket and you are registered to attend. Meg Wolitzer was the writer and the book she was speaking about was The Female Persuasion. I ordered the book but did not finish it in time so I never bought a ticket to the presentation. I find it hard to keep track of the many zoom meetings that come to me in my email. I am sorry I missed it though. I don’t often get to see a best-selling author in person (on zoom).
I finished the book not long after that, although spring had been a pleasant distraction. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer covered women’s rights territory that had key moments in my younger years, and here in this novel we have young people involved in the women’s movement which is having another key moment. Women’s rights are under attack. Hard won concerns, once thought resolved, could possibly be overturned here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Wolitzer’s book does not spend much time arguing the issues though.
Greer Kadestsky, a young lady who did not get to attend the college of her dreams with her boyfriend, Cory, finds herself at a smaller college. Despite having to travel to keep her relationship with Cory alive, Greer makes a good friend Zee. Although Zee is gay and Greer is not, their friendship transcends their sexuality. When Greer meets an iconic figure from the women’s movement of the 60’s, Faith Frank, she finds her focus. Zee has guilted her into going to the lecture, but it is Greer who becomes a Faith Frank fan.
After college Greer goes to work for Faith and overcomes her fear of public speaking, but she also learns about the compromises Faith has felt it necessary to make. Greer eventually criticizes the lack of purity in her mentor. Her mentor reminds Greer of something Greer has done which is a betrayal of a relationship.
Greer also has some lessons to learn about her relationship with Cory, a man who does not just talk the talk. It turns out that he understands love and sacrifice in ways that Greer does not recognize – until she finally does.
It’s a good story and some of the observations about compromise, and purity, and the correlations between means and ends are interesting to think about for our own lives and issues. It just didn’t grip me. It wasn’t relevant enough to women’s rights to hook me. Today’s news, modern activism and the current makeup of the Supreme Court offer far more gripping concerns. The mentor relationship was less interactive than it kept promising to be. However, Cory I came to like very much, and he might end up being the best mentor for Greer in this novel.
Kazuo Ishiguro may seem to be telling folkloric tales in his most recent books, but they are actually quite philosophical and contemporary. In Klara and the Sun we meet a number of AF’s on display in a shop in a city very like London. The Manager rotates the AF’s into and out of the front window hoping to attract the attention of a teen who will convince an affluent parent to buy an attractive friend, dedicated only to them. Klara and Rosa are both B2’s, with the newest B3 models hot on their heels. They follow all the manager’s directions to try to attract a buyer. A teenager named Josie admires Klara and tries to convince her mother to purchase her but then she disappears. Klara takes a chance and turns down a potential buyer because she is waiting for Josie to come back. Manager lets her get away with it, but tells her she will not be allowed to turn down a buyer again.
Klara is an unusual AF because she pays attention to what is going on around her and draws conclusions from what she sees in the store and outside the front window. She watches when the sun seems to resurrect the Beggar Man and the Dog and when it smiles on the reunion of long separated lovers. She is shocked when the Cootings Machine comes to park in the street with its 3 funnels that vacuum pollution and send it out into the air, turning day into night.
This is a future, perhaps a near future, when some children are genetically “lifted” in their childhood years if parents so choose. A social gap arises between those who are lifted and those who are not. Josie is “lifted.” Her best friend from a young age, and now her boyfriend is Rick, who was not “lifted.” For some young people being “lifted” can cause illness and even death. Josie is at the critical age when she is ill and she could die. That’s when her mother buys Klara for her. Klara goes home with Josie to their home in the suburbs.
I believe this is a story about soul; do we have one, can an AF have a soul, what is a soul. Perhaps Ishiguro is answering back to someone like Yuval Noah Harari who doesn’t put much stock in a human soul in his book Sapiens. To Harari we are animals, human but not “lifted” above any of the other animals on the planet. In fact, to Harari our big brains have been more of a liability than an advantage, especially to the planet we call home.
But Ishiguro may be suggesting that our soul may be a function of what we do, of how we live our life. If even a robot can do something that seems soulful, could believing in a soul prompt us to do better, to be less selfish. Klara undertakes a task that she thinks will cure Josie but she is unsure how her own abilities will be affected by the bargain she accepts and the sacrifice she must make to complete it. We can’t help but compare Klara’s optimism to the way Josie’s mom, Chrissie, gives in to the past experience she has had in this matter and sets a truly selfish and rather macabre plan in motion. If Klara had chosen to go along with Mother’s plan how would things have turned out differently, for everyone?
Do we have a soul? Do we build a soul by believing that we can affect the universe in positive ways? Is soul the same thing as character? Regardless of how you answer these questions or others you might arrive at, it is almost certain that you will find Klara an extraordinary AF indeed. This one speeds by. Make sure you stop and ponder the ideas as well as the story.
Anna Malaika Tubbs has given us a book about The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. I began reading this book near the end of Black History Month and finished it on International Women’s Day, a serendipitous accident of relevance.
Emma Berdis Baldwin was born on the island of Grenada to an activist mother and father who faced the same fights for racial equality we have seen in America. America had claimed to be a nation where all men (and they did mean men) were created equal, but of course when she arrived she found that she was not in any racial nirvana. James was Berdis’s eldest child. Berdis was able to communicate love, pride, and the value of an education to her family and her family remained a close and loving one living in a four story Harlem building owned by James Baldwin which offered places for his sisters and brothers. Finding a mother as beloved as Berdis, a mother who produces a child of such value to the nation and the world is surely enough to hold a place for Berdis in our historical memory.
Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X, was an activist all her life. She and her husband and her children moved frequently because her activism made them targets. She was a follower and an important worker in the movement begun by Marcus Garvey. She wrote in his newspaper and spread his message despite one close call with the KKK and other terrorist attempts to force her to be quiet. Her husband Earl was killed when he was pushed in front of a trolley. She and her children struggled with poverty after Earl’s death. Social services (welfare) pursued the family, eventually sending Louise to a mental institution, although her only mental illness was the stress of single parenting in a world where she could find no work. Malcolm X had followed in his mother’s footsteps, although he was not a Garveyite. He founded the Black Panthers and was assassinated for his embrace of violence as a means to change, but of course Martin Luther King Jr. who believed in nonviolent protest was also assassinated. Louise was released after 25 years in the mental institution and was able to spend her last years surrounded by her family in a lovely and peaceful black town they founded.
Alberta King was married to the powerful reverend at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. She led a life of greater affluence. Alberta was a talented musician who played the organ at that famous church and led a renowned choir that people came from miles around to hear. She also gave lessons in music to many black Atlanta children. As she watched Martin Luther, (ML) as he was called, turn into a speaker who captured the attention of the entire world she worried constantly about the forces arrayed against him. One day a stranger entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church and shot Alberta and four others as she sat at her organ. She survived to be surrounded in her age by her remaining children and grandchildren.
Anna Malaika Tubbs is well aware of how women, especially Black women get erased from history and she did not want that to happen in the case of at least these three moms who gave the world so much. As she writes she shows us the ways that these sons were products of their upbringing and how the mothers were the most influential forces in their children’s lives. These mothers lived through many dark days and they kept their families afloat and put hope and love and a need to speak out in their hearts. Our nation benefitted from the lives of these three men and they would, all three, wish us to remember their mothers. I can’t think of a better message for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2021)
Franny Stone, born in Australia, taken to live in Galway by her mother, is one the migrators in Charlotte McConaghy’s book Migrations. She is part ocean, part sea ice and part arctic tern. In this atmospheric tale the reader is taken to a landscape and a life unlike their own. Franny is a woman who must live near water, cold water, wild water. She must live near the few nesting sea birds that remain in a world where wild animals are almost gone. She embraces the cold and it seems to have seeped into her, except that she is also passionate.
This is a love story. Two people have this passion for arctic terns in common, and Niall Lynch is the only one who can bring this wanderer Franny to stay on land. This is a tragedy. I can’t tell you the details. This is an Irish folk tale. People imagine that Franny is a selkie (she’s not). When she is ten she leaves her home and follows a boy to his home on the other coast of Ireland. He tells her this story; “There was a lady, long ago, who spent her life coughing up feathers, and one day when she was gnarled and gray she stretched from a woman into a black bird.”
Franny, now older, places trackers on three arctic terns at a nesting site in Greenland. It is her passion to follow them on their migration, one of the longest of any of the birds. She has to find a sea captain who will take her. She has to ride on a fishing boat when she knows that fishing is over and destroys the very balance she wishes she could protect. She finds Ennis Malone, captain of the Saghani, in Greenland. Saghani means raven. Off they go.
You carry the entire Franny ecosystem in your mind for days, perhaps longer. A sadly sweet, cold water journey of a book. In a time when we are not supposed to leave our living rooms what would happen to a footloose, can’t stay in one place person whose entire life is a series of Migrations? And, since we already lost 3 billion birds it is not at all unlikely that there may be a last migration.
Hanging out with President Barrack Obama has been a real trip through his early days in politics, campaigning for the Senate, his journey through the presidential primary in 2007, his presidential campaign and a win that will seem like a bit of magic and a truly historical accomplishment. Obama was both a black man and a young man, fairly new to Washington, but with a grasp of American hopes and a charisma that fueled his improbable election.
It took a while to finish Obama’s book, A Promised Land, but not because it wasn’t readable or revealing, just because there were so many things going on as the 2020 election unfolded and the events of January 6th shocked us all. I was actually blogging about politics all through the Obama administration because the opposition to him in the Republican party and in the media, especially the alternative media (Fox News, Talk Radio) became a constant stream of negativity. As a Democrat, I agreed with Obama’s politics, but setting that aside, the use of racist tropes and the shade cast on his every move jump-started my love of the underdog.
Obama’s book gives him space to reveal the thinking behind his actions as President and offers plenty of insight into foreign affairs, especially the upheavals in the Middle East, which perhaps grew out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which Obama inherited but did not initiate.
After blogging for the past decade, I published some of my posts in a series of books entitled Loving America to Death and two omnibus editions which cover all ten years, including the Trump administration. Reading about the same events I wrote about with the new advantage of being, in a sense, inside Obama’s head and heart was similar to time travel. He discusses but does not dwell on the ACA. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the difficulty plugging that leak was something we both wrote about. Obama touches on Fukushima, the tsunami and the failure of the nuclear reactor. The dual track optics was so odd for me. We were observing the same events; me as a citizen sitting out here in the cheap seats, and Obama as the prime actor, the President of the United States.
Even if you don’t agree with Barrack Obama and you don’t like his politics and you think any of the dozens of complaints that were aired about him were true, it never hurts to spend time in someone else’s shoes. The memoir is personal, intimate, and informative and well worth the time it takes to read it. After all, it is our history.
In order to profit from The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson you must get through the first chapter – the catalyst for all that follows. Frank May is the only survivor of an extreme heat wave event that kills 20 million people, an entire village, in India. We don’t even learn his name until much later in the book. There are reasons.
Robinson skips around a lot which helps move this fictional/nonfiction book, full of what could be very dry science, along. India, in reaction to that enormous heat wave tragedy tries to recreate the ashy clouds of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption which blocked the sun for almost two years. The strategy India settles on of creating a layer of a reflective substance (several are under consideration) which would reflect some sunlight back into space thus cooling the earth’s atmosphere temporarily is an actual tactic being considered by climate scientists. The Children of Kali, also in India, decide to go ‘dark’ and use more violent strategies.
In order to make the billionaires listen up and force these greedy souls to give up fossil fuels, massively effective plans will be required. The Ministry of the Future, a UN project headed by Mary Murphy from Zurich, Switzerland, never openly supports violent action. But Mary’s Assistant Chair, Badim, has no such compunctions and he has Mary’s permission to head a ‘dark’ arm of the agency. It is so ‘dark’ that even as the book ends we have no clues about the tactics used by Badim’s group, but you might want to learn about Pebble Mobs.
Mary Murphy’s machinations are not secret at all. Through the Ministry, Robinson’s book offers up one idea after another – the state of the art ideas, the far out ideas and ideas unpalatable to many – that could be used to lower the temperature raised by global warming and for sequestering the carbon dioxide (carbon) that is to blame. A story that is basically a climate textbook is made readable by making it a personal story with characters who interest us, and by flashing around the globe. We might be in India in one short chapter, or in China, or at a committee meeting, or experiencing the kidnapping of Mary Murphy, or in Antarctica, or Russia, or in the Alps, or San Francisco, along the new wildlife corridors, presenting an audacious financial plan to the world’s central banks. It’s a whirlwind for the most part, belying how slow actual change may be, but it’s exciting and it makes the reader believe that we could do this; we could save the planet.
The Ministry for the Future is a fiesta of climate ideas. If it gets a bit Kumbaya near the end, after all our recent coronavirus isolation, some communal esprit might be welcome. Mary Murphy’s mantra is “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win.” We might need to stop losing and use some of Robinson’s pirated ideas if we want to have any hope of winning. Every person on the planet should read this book.