Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality required an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – Book

Each section of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell begins with the voice of a mosquito, or a swarm of mosquitoes- a fitting device for a tale of Africa.

“Zt. Zzt. (lots of Z’z) and a zo’ona And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa.”(Livingstone, I presume) “With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father, unwitting, our inadvertentpater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

 Colonialism, imperialism are words that inspire different emotions depending on whether you are the colonizer or the colonized. But whenever the European colonizers interfered in the natural development of the many places they felt would benefit from “civilization” (and supply untold riches to their imperial overloads) they diverted what might have been the history of an indigenous people into a new channel that forever combined native history with that of their colonizer. In this case, since we are in Africa, we have the further marker of skin color, which was often the case in colonization, as white Europeans (and later Americans) believed the white race far superior to any nation made up of folks with darker skin.

Namwali Serpell begins her tale of Zambia at a falls, mistakenly thought to be at the source of the Nile. They named the falls Victoria after the long-lived English queen. We hear the story of the first colonizers to arrive near the falls where the Brits who follow Livingstone to Africa set up their earliest town and drifted over Africa, and returned to settle near the Falls. Percy Clark was one of these early settlers. The Gavuzzi family owned and operated the Victoria Falls Hotel for a while. Colonizers eventually decided they would build a dam at the falls, a dam which will flood the lands of the Tonga people. These people have their entire history and culture tied to this land and would like to stay and drown on their land when it floods. The colonizers will not allow this. They disperse the Tonga people and raise a revolutionary spirit in them which never dies out. Each section of The Old Drift is written almost as a short stories. These short stories drift forward in time, but the stories always connect. The book ends back at the falls where it began, but despite a kind of belated divine justice, Zambia lives on.

Serpell’s characters are colorful, plentiful, full of human failings and quite loveable (for the most part). The European Giuseppe Corsale who returns to Europe to party in a gone-to-seed salon meets a child born with hair over her entire body that engulfs her and grows and grows. Sibilla, who captivates both Giuseppe and his brother Federico, learns that she has her own Zambian connection. Her father and grandfather are the same Gavuzzis who ran the Victoria Falls Hotel. Federico kills his brother, takes over his identity, marries Sibilla and takes her to Africa. His position at the dam construction makes his family a wealthy family in Zambia.

Ronald, an African man, goes to England to study, and falls for the blind ex-tennis star, Agnes, daughter of the rich family who gives him a place to stay. He marries Agnes and takes her to Zambia. They also, through Ronald’s position as an engineer, become a wealthy Zambian family, of mixed race – a thing that probably never would have happened if Agnes could see. The children of these two families involve themselves in the life of their new nation (they know no other) with, as the author tells us, many errors made.

A revolutionary spirt buzzes through the entire story as do those mosquitoes, and the urge to freedom drifts through generations of Zambians. Ba Nkoloso gathers in Matha’s mother and Matha is practically pickled in revolutionary chants, speeches, and writings. Matha dresses like a boy to attend school. She takes part in the Afronaut program of her mentor which aspires to beat the Americans to the moon. Then she enters puberty and her fellow Afronaut, Godfrey, now with ambitions to be a rock star, impregnates her and sends her spinning off track for almost an entire generation. Her daughter Sylvia, beautiful and adventurous, takes the family back into their connections to the colonizers. The thrum of freedom is almost louder than the swarms of mosquitoes. So many great characters in this novel.

Freedom becomes less and less likely as Zambia becomes entangled in European and American capitalism and eventually computer technology through the “Digit-All “bead” which turns hands into a computer interface. Addictive and enslaving, especially once government learns how to connect all to the cloud or the “swarm”. Those pesky mosquitoes are both inspirational and deadly.

The AIDS epidemic hits Zambia, the symbolic offspring of Ba Nkoloso, that original Zambian revolutionary and the children of Europeans alike. Are Zambians being used to test new AIDS drugs – are they the new lab rats? It becomes easy to understand the yearning for freedom. These young Zambians of the near future, create microdrones that connect and swarm, that drift wherever you direct them, called Mosketoze. They are used to convene a political rally and they bring about the ending that I cannot tell you about.

Although even to comment on this excellent novel, turns me into something of a colonizer, I will, as my ancestor’s did, drift into this Zambian space and bequeath TheOld Driftby Namwali Serpell to all adventurous readers everywhere.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami – Book

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“Beware the double metaphors”, our artist, our main character, our guy in an early mid-life crisis is told by the Commendatore. Haruki Murakami bends our brains in fiction once again and his readers, and I, enjoy every minute.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami does something several books have done recently. It begins at the end and then fills us in. Of course by the time I immerse myself in this story I forget that it is all a flashback. The end of the story we get in the beginning is hardly definitive. But we do meet the artist, acting like a true artist in that little scene.

In present time (in the novel) he is feeling that his life has robbed him of the excitement and ambitions he once had as an artist. He, in a way, blames his wife. He rationalizes that he has had to be practical since he is a family man. He earns his living painting portraits and as his wife works away from home and he is often working at home, he does most of the housework. He feels he has “sold out” by painting portraits, which he considers a lesser form of art. He is feeling dead inside. Just when he is most dissatisfied with life and his art his wife asks for a divorce, says she is sleeping with another man and will not sleep with two men at once.

Yuzu’s husband (the artist) grabs a few clothes (very few) and begins a long journey in his car along the northern coast of Japan. Until he begins naming roads he could be living anywhere. He could be any modern man in any modern nation. He ends his journey months later when he has a very strange and concerning sexual encounter with a young woman and meets the possibly evil man in the white Subaru Forester.

His old college friend and fellow student Masahiko offers him the small mountain house where his father, the famous artist Tomahiko Amada, who is now in a nursing home with dementia, had his studio. Masahiko cannot care for the home as he works and lives in Tokyo.

Up to now. I must say, our artist (unnamed) seems more like an engineer. He has a very pragmatic approach to his wife’s confessions and his road trip. But Haruki Murakami paints his portrait with words. Our guy cannot have a boring identity crisis or get to know himself without going through an ordeal.

From the time he enters that mountain home his inner journey begins and it is a doozy. Temple bells ring in the dead of night with no temple nearby, a deep and magical pit is uncovered with meticulous and unusual stonework walls. There is a secret painting Tomahiko Amada has hidden in the attic with the pretty little owl, there is a collection of opera and classical music on vinyl, and there is a millionaire neighbor with a purring silver Jaguar (car) and many secrets. Then there is the young girl, Mariye, he meets in his children’s art class (about the same age as his beloved sister, Komi, who died as a young teen) and the older, married woman from his adult art class who we get to observe, along with the Commendatore, having satisfying illicit sexual relations with her teacher. Who is the Commendatore and how does he get killed? That I cannot tell you.

There is no blatant spirituality and our artist seems far too self-absorbed and modern to accommodate a deeply religious life, but, even so, in this novel the symbolism (the temple bell, the little shrine, the pit) and a certain sparseness in the prose give a religious tone to the artist’s inward journey. Whether it strikes you as spiritual or not, you can at least enjoy the novel as one great big entertaining Haruki Murakami double metaphor.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns – Book

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Milkman by Anna Burns follows none of the rules for storytelling or literary fiction that we are used to. The novel seems to be written as one long sentence (of course it isn’t really). I enjoy reading authors who try something new, especially if they do it well. Anna Burns does it well enough.

Middle sister comes of age in a divided culture, almost a tabloid culture. It is a paranoid, male-dominated place in a perpetual state of war (although most of the fighting happens elsewhere) with the “over the border”, “across the waters” people. Readers identify this unnamed country as Northern Ireland because Middle sister speaks of the on-going hostilities as ‘the troubles’. Men are either renouncers, soldiers, paramilitaries or police. Terrorist bombs from unidentified groups occasionally plague the residents and acts of personal terror up to and including death happen frequently enough to keep people on edge. Toxic masculinity is the expected male behavior. Of course, not all men conform but those who don’t are not allowed much peace by those who enforce the convoluted code these folks live with.

Middle sister is also maybe-girlfriend to her car loving mechanic, maybe-boyfriend, who seems nice and who says he would like to not be a ‘maybe’ anymore. Middle sister has her own reasons for wanting to remain a ‘maybe’ for now. Middle sister does things that make her stand out in a culture where women especially are not supposed to stand out. She reads books while walking (nothing newer than the 19th century). Now that she is of marriageable age her behavior is considered deliberately provocative. She is not being properly observant of possible dangers. She is too self-absorbed. She attracts the attention of the creepy, middle-aged Milkman (who is not the real Milkman).

Around her in her single state swings the true chaos of this time and this place. Young people go to bars to drink and mingle – not to dance it seems. Some bars cater to only one group for example, the paramilitary, others attract a more mixed group –  a more dangerous situation with violent fights and explosions more likely. Once Milkman shows an interest in Middle sister other men in the bar scene back off and certain women begin to offer her tips about what to wear and how to act.

Her relationship with maybe-boyfriend continues as he is not part of the mainstream toxic male culture. Middle sister is seriously weirded out by Milkman. She no longer walks and reads. She now runs with Third brother-in-law rather than alone. She knows better than to get in Milkman’s cars or his van. Because of Milkman’s attentions Middle sister becomes an object of gossip because rumor has it that she is having an affair with this Milkman. Until her recent difficulties she did not see herself as belonging or identifying with these grown up mothers (including her own) and widows (lots of widows). As her fate gets more precarious she begins to learn of the subtle power these women have.

Maybe-boyfriend, the car guy, wins ownership of a ‘Blown Bentley’ engine from over the water. Gossips claim that he got to keep the bit with the flag (not the right flag), but he didn’t. Eventually Milkman uses this gossip to threaten maybe-boyfriend whenever he runs into Middle sister – not often if she can help it. He talks about “car bombs”. He’s a real subtle guy.

Some may find this book difficult to read, although words, at first, tend to be short and simple. The breakneck pace lacks pauses or temporary stops, and the vague war between basically unidentified enemies, all the jargon of a carefully controlled society, gets repetitive and makes us long for some specificity. But Middle sister makes the perfect protagonist because, although she knows the rules, she doesn’t always follow them. She is bright, and cautiously adventurous. On occasion her internal dialogue breaks away from the monosyllabic argot and reveals some pretty sophisticated language skills. Of course she was a girl who read books while walking.

Creating a world, or even turning a real world place into something more generic, is not always easy if it is to be a believable world that readers want to occupy for a time. For me the world of Middle sister in Milkman by Anna Burns was well done. But see what you think about that ending.

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White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey – Book

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White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey starts with a real resistance movement inside Germany, the White Rose Society, and builds a novel around it. We can imagine that there were Germans living in Nazi Germany who did not buy into Hitler’s racism, his use of fear and instant retribution, the way he used his paranoia about what people said and did in privacy to justify invading everyone’s privacy, and setting neighbors to spy on neighbors.

In White Rose, Black Forest we meet a young German woman who was imprisoned for a short time because she had a boyfriend in the White Rose Society, the German resistance group which published underground news sheets called “The White Rose”. Franka Gerber, our young lady, a nurse in Munich, actually helped write that flyer and distribute it but was assumed to have been naively led astray by her boyfriend Hans. After serving time in prison she is now considered an outcast.

Now with all her family dead Franka lives alone in the family’s cabin in the Black Forest. She is devastated by the things that have happened to her family and the rumors of the terrible things happening to the Poles and the Jews. She sees no way forward for herself. She is planning to shoot herself out in the Black Forest with her father’s gun. It is the middle of winter and winter snows are deep on the ground, the cabin in a remote location, the roads closed due to the snow.

Her suicide is interrupted when she stumbles on a Luftwaffe officer attached to a parachute and unconscious, with two broken legs, who despite his extensive training speaks to her in English. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails. Some of the author’s explanations for what Franka does require a bit too much suspension of disbelief. Although the snow is a great device to buy her parachutist, John Lynch aka Werner Graf, time to heal.

What I did find relevant and worthy of attention were Franka’s interactions with her neighbors dished out in flashbacks to her years as a young girl when she joined the Hitler Youth movement, and with her earliest friends and her first boyfriend who shared these experiences with her. She eventually turned against Hitler and the Nazis, but her old beau, Daniel Berkel, became an agent of the Gestapo, became a loyal Nazi, and with promotions and power became quite a menacing figure.

Much is revealed about the role of women under Nazi rule which was defined by Hitler. Women were house frau’s and child bearers and kept an eye on their neighbors and reported their behavior when it seemed suspect. Women, unless single, did not work outside the home. However many German women became very good Nazi citizens and supported the regime in every way. Others obeyed because the penalties for not obeying were very steep, often even life-threatening.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey is a very readable story, but not a polished literary novel. We do end up on the edge of our seats, and you might want to see if they are able to escape their very precarious situation.

From Wikipedia – “The White Rose (German: die Weiße Rose) was a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in the Third Reich led by a group of students and a professor at the University of Munich. The group conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi party regime.”

Find me at Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

 

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy – Book

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Although All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy is narrated, as it begins, by Myshkin, a young boy, and is also narrated by this boy grown to be an old man in his sixties, this is actually a book that has its roots in a true story of a German artist who travelled in Asia between the Great War (WW I to us) and World War II. Walter Spies was a creative person (and probably a wealthy person) who was so unique and charming that he was considered accomplished and interesting wherever he went, although he was also perceived as somewhat out-of-place, a curiosity. He travelled extensively in India (the author imagines) but he fell in love with Bali and made that his home base in Asia for many years.

Anuradha Roy wrote two stories in one because she admired Mr. Spies and wanted to bring him to life. So she begins her tale not with Spies but with that young narrator in India, a young boy with a mother who was given a nontraditional upbringing by her doting father, a woman born with a passion for an authentic life and a talent for painting and drawing. She was a woman, Gayatri, married to a professor and political activist, who felt held back, held down, imprisoned by her conventional life and loveless marriage. Her husband tried to give her a modicum of freedom but they did not perceive life in the same way. Women of that time, of course, were expected to marry and raise families and did not go traipsing off looking for their bliss.

But Gayatri did run off and left her husband and her young son. She meant to take her son with her but he got delayed at school that day and she had to leave him behind. She is happy in her new life but abandoning her child put a shadow of grief on her happiness. She ran off with a man, Walter Spies, but not to be his lover, rather to be free and live an artist’s life in the way that Walter and his friend Beryl de Zoete were living theirs. Beryl travelled in Asia studying dance and movement.

In this way Anuradha Roy is able to talk about the way women’s lives are curtailed by cultural expectations and public censure. She is also able to tell us about an artist she admired, whose freedom was likewise eventually curtailed, but not by the Asians he lived among, rather the Europeans he had fled.

Gayatri’s boy grows up and becomes, to his father’s dismay, a horticulturist, but he always remains the boy who lost his mother. Years later, as an adult he read the letters his mother wrote to her closest female friend from her life in India. We find that life can destroy our dreams in more than one way.

“As an old man, trying to understand my past, I am making myself read of others like her, I am trying to view my mother somewhat impersonally, as a rebel who might be admired by some, an artist with a vocation so intense she chose it over family and home.”

“But then his father left too to go off on his journey to the center of his self.” Interesting that in India, as in other places, if you are rich enough, both parents can leave but servants and relatives keep the details of the child’s life stable, even at the sacrifice of the child’s heart. Fortunately for Myshkin the grandfather in this story is a kindly and solicitous soul who stands in for the father.

In this way All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy weaves the familiar daily routines of Indian life with the more foreign whims of European artists escaping from the daily routines of their own lives into a believable whole, a novel that explores the tension between art and cultural mores and rules. I just found myself wishing that both parts of the story were based on true events. However I remind myself that the author is an Indian woman and there may be kernels of truth in that fictional family’s portrayal. In the end I have always been happy so far when immersed in a story of India.

Photo Credit: Nancy Brisson

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – Book

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The Dreamers by Karen Thomas Walker is a story of a viral outbreak, think ebola, only without bodily fluids. This virus hits a small college in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town, one road in-one road out. Where did the virus originate? Some said a strange haze moved through their college town one day. The town is in the middle of a drought. Is that the cause? The author suggests that letters from earlier centuries hint at a similar infection.

The virus strikes in the freshman college dorm first. Mei is a new student at Santa Lora who is finding social life difficult, but her roommate Kara connects with the other students easily. Kara is the first to feel woozy, she is the first to fall into her bed fully dressed after a night of drinking and partying, and she is also the first to die from whatever this is.

Caleb is the only person in the dorm who has the social skills to deal with Kara’s grieving parents. When the students drown their seriousness in a party that is pure escapism Caleb puts the moves on Rebecca, child of a religious family, home schooled, but finding herself a social success at school When he wakes everyone up in the morning with his screaming there is Rebecca in his bed and she has the virus.

The author tells us, “The first stage of sleep is the lightest, the brief letting go, like the skipping of a stone across the water. This is the nodding of a head in a theater. This is the dropping of a book in bed. Rebecca falls quickly into that first layer. Ten more minutes. She sinks further, just the beginning of the deep dive. This is when a sudden dream floats through her. She is at church with her parents. A baby is being baptized,”

The virus turns people into dreamers who cannot be awakened. If they are not fed through tubes and given water through IV’s they die of dreaming. It seems just a gentle virus, and few discussions of gross bodily functions trouble that dreamy quality (although such care must also be required).

I enjoyed reading The Dreamers but it left me with more questions than answers. Is it symbolic that this happens in a college town? Is it symbolic that the woods are dying from an attack by insects, that the lake is drying up from a long string of perfectly sunny days – a drought? Is it symbolic that the college administrators house the dreamers in a library?

The author takes us through the disciplines of thinkers who have dealt with dreaming, with mental time travel, with the past, present and the future – the Classics, the Psychology section, the Philosophers, the Physicists, the Linguists. Time does seem to morph for these dreamers in subtle ways.

Is it symbolic that Rebecca sleeps with a “sleeper” – a baby growing inside unknown to all, a baby whose every stage of development is described. Why does Rebecca dream that she has a boy child and then lose her sweet boy when she is delivered of a girl. She goes through the rest of her life loving her daughter but missing her son, who seemed more real in that dream state than what turns up in her actual life?

As with any virus some who fall to dreaming never wake up.

Is the small fire that begins in the forest and is quickly put out a foreshadowing of another key fire in this story?

The isolation of the college perhaps stops the virus from becoming widespread. So many volunteers show up to tend to the dreamers. In spite of protective suits and masks some get ill anyway and take their place on a cot. Some defy their suits to offer some personal gesture to a dreamer and get infected. Once you come into the village you cannot leave.

I just don’t know if this book simply takes us through an experience, the way an epidemic does, or if it has a point, a meaning, is perhaps a conceit, an extended metaphor. It strikes me as a skillful exercise in writing, immersive, beautifully realized, but, except for the baby growing in the midst of all that sleepiness in that lovely dying landscape, it seems without relevance, especially since it happens in a place almost as remote in time and place as Brigadoon. Perhaps a deeper message will dawn on me at some later moment. However Walker truly created a dreamy quality and that is skillful, like a painter who can capture transparency.

From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile