Monthly Archives: January 2015
Thoughts from J:
“…But what if a surprise awaited him just inside the door, for even a poor unfortunate man as he, for so Mr. Sweet thought of himself, unfortunate to be married to that bitch of a woman born of beast, the surprise being the head of his wife just lying on the counter, her body never to be found, but her head severed from it, evidence that she could no longer block his progress in the world, for it was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was…”
That sentence is from See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid. My Bookmarks magazine tells me See Now Then, Kincaid’s first novel in ten years, is one of the Most-Reviewed Books in February and March of this year. So you don’t’ need a review here. There are plenty to choose from.
But if I was going to add my two cents, I might say that Allen Shawn, (Ms. Kincaid’s former husband), a composer (like Mr. Sweet in the story), who lived in New England (like Mr. Sweet in the story), with his English professor wife (like Mr. Sweet in the story), with whom he raised two children (like Mr. Sweet in the story), who left her for another woman (like Mr. Sweet in the story), might be happy and thankful that his former wife’s weapon of choice is only words.
She seems kind of upset.
P. S. To be fair…Kincaid says See Now Then is not autobiographical.
P.P.S. Just sayin…
J asks: Can you judge a book by its cover?
Last summer I was just coming off the final week of comprehensive exams, the last of three where I read nothing but research and wrote opinions and proposals based on the literature in my field. At the end, I was craving escape. But when your go-to relaxing activity is reading, and you’ve just spent a week doing nothing but that in a very un-leisurely way, how do you select the perfect story? One that’s not too demanding, doesn’t carry a heavy cognitive load, does not require interpretation of complex literary themes? …etc.
In the movie version of this library scene…I am scanning the “Recent and Readable” shelf for just such a novel. Zoom in on the book Poor Little Bitch Girl. The cover catches my eye. I mean, look at it. Then the title… “Sound’s pretty shallow,” I thought, “Could be just the thing.” And the author: Jackie Collins has written 29 best-sellers. 90,000 + fans can’t be all wrong. So I checked it out, using the self-scanner (lest a scholarly librarian judge me).
And…? It was perfect. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics all make the scene with beautiful young characters jet-setting from coast to coast. I spent a Saturday and Sunday afternoon under the umbrella on my patio with it. A completely satisfying read.
But before I draw a conclusion based on this one experience—(if my comprehensive exams taught me anything, it’s to weigh the evidence. And one data point is not conclusive evidence)—a few months later my friend lent me Severance Package. Check out the cover…form an opinion of what the book might be about…(if you think comic book style office action thriller, complete with illustrations each chapter, you’re right)…read…and enjoy.
So, can you judge a book by its cover? Yeah. Sometimes you absolutely get what you see…in books anyway.
I hope suburban Cali is ready for a dystopian future. Cause it’s coming on fast (or should I say slow) in The Age of Miracles. Our eleven-year-old protagonist and narrator, Julia, just woke up to discover that the days are getting longer. And not in a good way. The rotation of the Earth has dramatically begun to slow down. One apocalypse, coming right up.
1. Julia’s father Joel is a doctor specializing in high-risk births. When one of his patients dies on his late-night shift, Joel lies to Julia about the woman’s death. Is it okay to lie to someone to protect them from a sad truth? Let’s say, for example, that this person is on vacation and she’s having a really great day? It’s okay under those circumstances, right?
2. Julia prizes the gold-nugget necklace that her Grandfather once gave her. The necklace is lost when she is brutalized by her schoolmate Daryl as he attempts to expose her lack of a training bra. Why does she never recover the necklace? Even towards the end of the book. Not even on the very last page. What do you think happened to the necklace and where is it now?
3. Seth’s mother is dying of cancer. Julia tries to help Seth save a dying sparrow by giving it water. Daryl intervenes and throws the bird over the side of the canyon to its death. Seth returns the favor by throwing Daryl’s backpack over the side of the canyon. What items do you think Daryl’s backpack contained? What’s the deal with Daryl?
4. Seth’s mother has died. As conditions on the planet worsen, Julia tries to help Seth comfort one of the many dying whales that have beached themselves alongside the canyon. They carefully choose what they believe to be the most needy whale. After pouring their meager supply of saltwater over the creature’s brow, they are informed by the man with the white pail that the whale is already dead. Why do you think the pail was white? If the pail had been a different color, how would it have changed the story?
5. Later, Julia is invited to Seth’s house to watch the night sky as the Orion rocket is scheduled to return from space. Seth offers Julia a Coke and some pretzels. Given Seth’s apparent obsession with providing comfort to the doomed and dying, should Julia be a little worried? If you were Julia, would you hang out with Seth?
6. When asked, should an author be expected to answer questions regarding an unresolved issue contained in one of her books? If you were an author and you were contacted by a reader inquiring about a certain missing necklace, how would you respond?
7. Let’s say you, as the hypothetical author, do provide a response, but it’s one of those wishy-washy “up to the interpretation of the reader” kind of answers. Do you think the reader is justified in pursuing a more-definitive clarification?
Read this one. It’s a really good story about a teenaged android who first realizes she can taste and it escalates to desire not just for food but for freedom and for a soul. She “emerges” on a Utopian island that was created after the “water wars.” The island is surrounded by chemically engineered water and air to make all the rich humans who visit there feel healthy and blissed out. The island is run on clone labor. The clones are soul-less versions of recently deceased humans.
George has noticed a small rash on his hip. If he chooses to ignore it everything will be fine. He will lend support to his daughter as she prepares for her second wedding. He will give a charming speech at the reception. His emotionally distant son Jamie will happily attend. Jamie might even bring his lover Tony to the wedding. Tony will be welcomed with open arms.
If George ignores that spot of bother, he may even remain blissfully unaware of his wife’s ongoing affair with one of his former business colleagues. He does NOT ignore the rash. To say the least. He becomes more than a little obsessed with doing something about it. Things begin to go badly. Then they get worse. For everyone. A comedy of manners ensues. Irony abounds.
For me, this book is about losing perspective. The characters all run into trouble when they choose to focus on the wrong aspects of their lives. The milestones they are encountering in their lives play into this. When they’re enmeshed in their everyday lives things seem to go well. But when they step back and start questioning things, look out.
I didn’t completely buy George’s rapid spiral into near insanity. But the rest of it rang true for me. There are many truly hilarious scenes that unfold throughout the book. Very funny. And a few quite touching moments as well.
I believe this to be true: non-fiction reading fuels the imagination. And in the depths of this winter I needed my imagination to be poked and prodded some. So I randomly selected some non-fiction books and read with a frenzy. I just have not taken time to write about the books I waded through / ran through for most of the winter. But I am going to start.
In your mind’s eye think of things I describe below and tell me if these bits of information aren’t more colorful, mind-numbing, awesome, frightening, awful, or smelly than any book of fiction you now or in the past have had lying on your dusty bedroom floor.
1491 by Charles C. Mann : The latest thinking is that the Indian population in the Americas in 1491 was between 90 and 112 million. That’s people. That’s not jaguars and bison. Think of this: when Columbus set sail for our side of the earth more people lived in the Americas than in Europe. It was packed here.
But by the start of the 16th century about 80 to 100 million people had been wiped out by disease. Say these words: influenza, smallpox, diphtheria, and measles (repeat and repeat again because those little pretties didn’t come flying through the Americas just once). I contend that those 4 words are scarier than any pages horror writers have ever penned.
In the late 1700s George Vancouver explored the Puget Sound and found heaps and heaps of dead bodies lying along the water’s edge – smallpox had just preceded them. There were only a handful of survivors which the explorer described as ‘pitted’ and as having ‘lost their Eyes’. This was The Walking Dead – 18th century style.
More quick facts:
- The pilgrims were thieves
- Soto’s army in 1539 killed, raped, tortured and enslaved Indians with wild abandon but the worst thing they did was to bring pigs. These Spanish puercos turned out to be mighty effective biological weapons (if you were rooting for the Spanish)
- More than half the crops grown today were developed in the Americas
- It is smart to live at the foot of mountains because that means you have some pretty significant eco-system diversity is in your backyard which is a good thing when eking out survival in a hand to mouth society.
Charles C. Mann has written a follow up book entitled: 1493. I don’t have the courage to read it.
Why Does the World Exist? An existential Detective Story by Jim Holt
- Best question in the book: Why is there something rather than nothing?
- The question that most sounds like a stoned college freshman: Is the universe and life anything more than a short interlude between two vast nothings?
- Most vivid description in the book: Universes may be “as plentiful as blackberries”
- 2nd best description in the book: The big bang was like “a party girl jumping out of a cake.”
- There were endless sentences and sections in the book that baffled me even after re-reads or rereads of rereads and so it is hard to pick just one. But here is a sample of one: “Nothingness is a closed spherical spacetime of zero radius.” There is not one part of my brain that understands that string of 9 simple words.
- Spoiler Alert: You never really get an answer to the question posed in the title. But its still a mind blowing read.