And hello Spring! I’ve been enjoying our long and hesitant spring with a set of firsts. Take for instance a lot of what I have been reading. All Our Wrong Todays is Elan Mastai’s first novel; it’s about time travel and it’s a treat. Put it on your list. And thanks Dan for sending this goodie my way.
I enjoy science fiction books that shine a bright and happy light on our future; but don’t get me wrong, sci-fi stories filled with broken and clanging infrastructures and characters who rattle uneasily through the night because future society is broken – well those stories, I like those kinds of stories too. But if I could have a single wish, it would be one that secures a perfect future for us all. That future would come complete with a restored natural world, free education and technology along with a guaranteed living income for everyone. Oh yea, and with hovercraft and jetpacks for all. Amen.
In All our Wrong Todays the reader gets to experience both types of futures.
One morning the main character, Tom, wakes up in a 2016 world he doesn’t recognize. His 2016 was better, a nirvana really. Tom’s original world is a techno-utopian paradise. The reason why Tom’s 2016 is so much better than our 2016 is due solely to the invention of the Goettreider Engine in the 1960’s. The Goettreider Engine harnessed the power of the Earth’s rotation, which enabled humans to end all their earthly woes. The result: a Jetson world in 2016. Mastai highlights technology advancements and the universal availability of technology, which is great fodder for the story. I was so enchanted with Tom’s 2016 I wanted the narrative to extend to the bee population and the polar caps, but that wasn’t covered. Still, it didn’t take away from his story.
Just as the reader settles into the beautiful modern future, Tom who is not a solid thinker, makes a series of poor decisions that send him back in time (using his father’s untested time machine) to when Dr. Goettreider initially activates the engine. Tom’s interference results in the destruction of the engine, which in turn results in our lame 2016 world.
The remainder of the story is about Tom’s attempt to make things right as he travels back in forth in time to get the good 2016 back. The time travel loops got confusing to me, but the slowly changing 2016 scenarios were entertaining.
The tone in All Our Wrong Todays is lighthearted, the chapters (over 100 of them) are short and snappy. It’s a happy book even though the ‘crummy’ future is the now in which we currently live.
I read one review that compared Elan Mastai to Vonnegut. Nice comparison. And maybe not yet quite deserving but All Our Wrong Todays is clever in that way good science fiction can be when it is written with a light touch and a good amount of humor. Since this is just Mastai’s first published novel, let’s see if he continues down the Vonnegut path.
Another book I read during the earliest spring days was Educated by Tara Westover. It is her first book.
Educated is Westover’s life story and she tells a ‘can’t put it down’ tale about what it is like to be born to and grow up with survivalists. Surprise, it’s no barrel of monkeys.
The reader initially gets the sense that most people could pass the Westover house or meet the clan in a store and walk away thinking: eccentric or not my kind of life.
And that would probably be it. But scratch and sniff that household just a bit more (which is what Educated does) and anyone with a lick of sense would be bowled over by an olfactory tidal wave of very disturbed.
Westover’s youth was spent stockpiling canned goods and making herbal tinctures for her mother (who is a healer and midwife) and monitoring the whereabouts of her head-for-the-hills bag, packed in preparation for the end of the world. You see Westover’s father had convinced the family that the Feds were out to get them.
Westover was homeschooled but not really. Once she learned to read and write she spent most of her free time helping the family survive off the grid and prep for the Lord’s second coming.
The danger of living with mentally ill adults is that a child’s health and well-being is at constant risk because those in charge of making decisions shouldn’t be. Tara had six siblings, she was the youngest, and the first half of the book is filled with a series of dangerous, death-defying accidents that occur simply because of her parent’s muddied mental facilities. And then one of her brothers becomes physically violent towards Westover.
This book could be subtitled ‘My life without Social Services’ because Westover’s childhood is a march through increasingly dangerous situations. Situations that likely could have been prevented if the family had lived around stable citizens who would have likely contacted the authorities. She also begins to suffer greatly at the hands of her brother who may have inherited the family mental illness. It is maddening to read through the torture Westover experiences at the hand of her brother AND at the same time witness her parents, who reportedly love her very much, refuse to notice the abuse she endures. Finally, Tara’s survival instincts push her enough to get out of the house.
Westover’s educational experiences transform her life. She starts at Brigham Young and ends with advanced degrees from Cambridge. It is enjoyable to see Westover engage with society for the first time. Westover doesn’t know how to take class notes, she has never heard of the Holocaust and is offended by immodest clothes that women her age wear (e.g.; shorts). It goes on.
Throughout Westover’s transformation and exposure to the secular and scholarly world she cannot quit thinking of her parents and her home in the mountains of Idaho. She loves and misses them but her educational pursuits have put a broader barrier between them than just a physical one. Tara Westover’s successes are not the end of this story as the book continues to document the attempts Westover makes to connect back with her family.
I was fascinated with Tara Westover’s life story. She is a gifted storyteller and she sucked me in. I even followed up on her by listening to a recent podcast where she was interviewed by Michael Ian Black. Andy sat down and listened to the podcast with me. It hurt to hear her talk about her childhood with a thoughtfulness and grace that no one in her family had shown her. I wanted her to be angry. But instead there was a notable ache in her measured tone. It rang of pure desire to be accepted by her family.
Here are two other firsts:
George Saunders, who I believe is one of our greatest living American writers, released his first novel in 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo. I bought the book as soon as I could. But despite all my enthusiasm for the release of his first novel, I couldn’t finish it. This book was on nearly every ‘best of’ list last year and I couldn’t get through the first 100 pages.
The novel begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who succumbs to typhoid fever in the White House one night while his parents host a state dinner. Willie’s body is taken immediately to a cemetery, but not buried. And it is not long before Lincoln arrives at the cemetery in the middle of the night to hold Willie’s body next to his and rage.
Cemeteries and Ghosts are a big part of Lincoln in the Bardo
Saunders weaves real-life accounts and reference material along with imagined narrations and false sources in alternating paragraphs to tell this story. There is also a community (a bardo) of ghosts that exist in the cemetery and who share their own stories, introduce Willie to the afterlife, and provide a running commentary to the readers on the ins and outs of daily existence for ghosts living in the cemetery.
Truthfully, Saunders’ unique style in this book became tedious for me very quickly. It was just too much; the numerous ghost voices, the continual references to real and imagined sources. The short paragraphs ended up only wearing me down and never caught my interest. (This is sharp contrast with my enjoyment of the short sassy paragraphs in All Our Wrong Todays). And then I bought the audio book, because I had heard wonderful things about the production and wasn’t willing quite yet to give up on Saunders’ book. But the same issues I had when reading the book were present in the audio version too. There were just too many voices even though those voices included Lena Dunham, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and more. I simply could not get drawn into this story with all that yammering.
I am interested to hear from any Rocky Scrambler who completes the novel. Let me know what you think. I love Saunders’ writing so I am baffled by my inability to read his novel.
Finally, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is another book I am listening to through Audible. It is a powerful YA book from another first-time author. Whenever I slip on the earbuds to listen I am immediately drawn into the story and it is very hard for me walk away.
Briefly The Hate U Give is a story of a 16-year-old African-American girl named Starr who is caught between two worlds. Starr lives in a mostly black and poor urban neighborhood but she and her brothers go to a white prep school on the other side of town. The story begins when Starr is at a party where a gang dispute leads to gun shots and she flees with Khalil, a childhood friend. Starr and Khalil have nothing to do with the violence at the party but are stopped by a policeman on their way home. The cop shoots Khalil in front of Starr, and Khalil dies.
After that the book centers on Starr’s struggles with how best to advocate and honor Khalil when the investigation into the shooting begins. Another significant concern for Starr is how to honor Khalil without exposing her true self to her school friends.
The Hate U Give is being made into a movie. I am not sure if a movie can capture the nuances of Starr’s situation without overplaying the storyline. So, consider getting the book, in any form very soon.