California by Edan Lepucki (2014)

This post was written by my husband. The book was one we both read and enjoyed greatly last summer and he re-read this past week in preparation for teaching the novel in his Dystopian Literature class. His remarks follow.

Attention was first brought to Edan Lepucki’s first novel during Stephen Colbert’s campaign against Amazon.com, as he encouraged viewers of the sadly defunct Colbert Rapport to buy California from their local independent bookseller, thus robbing Amazon of sales in the midst of their feud with publisher Hatchette. And so it was that Lepucki’s tale of a young couple seeking survival and the possibility of a future in a world torn apart by economic collapse, societal upheaval, and environmental calamity became a bestseller.

This footnote on the publication history of the novel, perhaps unfortunately, affects my take on the book. The novel, on its own merits and aside from any pre-publication-Colbert-driven hype, fits into the sub-genre of speculative fiction that is marked by master works like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (as well as the other two books in the Earthseed trilogy) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These are books that employ what the writer Mike Davis has called “disciplined extrapolation” to imagine a realistic fall of American civilization. Lepucki’s effort in California does not match the quality of The Road, but we would certainly never ask a first novel to compete with the mature work of a canonical American novelist. Yet, the hype has unquestionably placed California in a position to deliver on heightened expectations, and in so many ways, Edan Lepucki’s work succeeds in spite of its relative immaturity.

Like Butler and McCarthy, Lepucki describes the fall indirectly, through the side-view mirrors of her protagonists, Cal and Frida. There are no long, detailed passages of crumble and decay. Instead, we get glimpses of how our way of life has died through brief flashes of memory. Hurricanes and extreme instances of polar-vortex-”snowpocalypse” have crushed the population centers of the Eastern Seaboard and Mid-west. Drought, economic crisis, and resource inequality have shredded California into grimy cities where the 99 percent fight for scraps and “Communities” where the wealthy live in comfort and isolation. We are given to believe that such a dispersion of the American culture has occurred nationwide. This is much of the appeal of the book for contemporary readers; it pushes the current events of the past eight years to their logical, if extreme, endpoints. Set against the multiple crises is the rise of “The Group,” which is a likewise “disciplined extrapolation” of the Occupy Movement, a protest group that begins with dramatic, playful acts of civil disruption but that shifts to more violent acts of terrorism. Lepucki, like the aforementioned writers, takes a risk in presenting something so vast as the collapse of our very way of life–everything from the mindless entertainment and plentiful junk food that we take so much for granted to the governmental structures of infrastructure and security–merely as the setting for her young couple. And ultimately, this presentation feels quite contemporary, an expression of the so-called millenial self-absorption. The fall of the world occurs as something that happened while we were getting high and posting food pics on Instagram. This simultaneously impressed and bothered me about the novel.

We meet Cal and Frida hiding out somewhere in the woods of central California, in a ramshackle house eating homegrown beets and not much else. Cal, toughened by his student years at the unique Plank College (based on real-life Deep Springs College) where studies in philosophy are paired with the operation of working farm, sees the beauty in their new life away from Los Angeles, but Frida, who realizes she is newly pregnant, feels their isolation more sharply. They have carved out a hard life in the woods, though the loss of a nearby family has returned them to the feelings of insecurity and helplessness that they felt in Los Angeles. Their only contact is the mysterious August, who brings oddball items for trade as he makes monthly rounds with his mule-drawn junk cart. Under these conditions, the couple decides to explore beyond their woodsy territory, into the emptiness of the Central Valley, where they encounter a settlement surrounded by a maze of strange, sculptural “Forms,” made of piles of once-common objects shaped into spikes by wrappings of barbed wire and chain-link fencing.

Cal and Frida find in this community of settlers, called The Land by its inhabitants, a shocking secret. A man well-known to both of them, someone they believed to be dead, is alive and well and leading The Land in its Plank-esque work program. Both Cal and Frida adjust to living in this community of people shell-shocked from their necessary adaptation to a harsh new world, but what they gain in regular meals, security, and relative comforts, they begin to lose in their own mutual trust and intimacy. The leader of The Land is secretive and, we come to learn, has big plans for Cal and Frida and the baby that will be born into this uncertain life. Lepucki’s portrayal of people faced with the necessity of rebuilding from the junk and the bones and the ashes of world we all took for granted is powerful and moving, but it feels, at times, frustratingly small, focused as it is so laser-like on Cal and Frida. And Cal and Frida, even in the empty openness of the fallen world, are frustratingly hemmed into a future that is controlled by their past.

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Jacket art for the novel.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff (2015)

In The Witches, Stacy Schiff brings readers an astonishingly well-researched, well-written, and downright thrilling piece of non-fiction about the life and times of the Puritan communities in New England which hosted the American witch trials of the late 1690’s. Although this is a topic that has been discussed at length in both popular and academic literature, it remains a source of horror and intrigue to Americans. Schiff argues that this ongoing obsession is rooted in the fact that, despite more than three hundred years of review, the activities and accusations of the time continue to make little sense and research still fails to offer a convincing explanation for their occurrence.

From the first sentence of the book’s outstanding Introduction — perhaps the most incredible opening chapter to a non-fiction book I have ever read (parallelled possibly by Michael Pollan’s Introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a link to which can be found at the end of this blog*) it is clear that Schiff is not simply writing a book to analyze the circumstances surrounding the witch trials, or to discuss the causes or ramifications thereof, but to put us in into the very hearts and minds of the Puritans who experienced them.

Meticulous researched and painstakingly crafted, The Witches is written so that every sentence helps us see more clearly a cloudy and complicated era. She paints of picture of a hardscrabble life, filled with toil, fear, uncertainty, and unendingly complicated and oppressive religious obligations. Notably, women and girls faced a particularly challenging life in the New World where they were forced to pioneer an entire existence for themselves and their families in a hostile locale while living in subservience to the men in their villages and churches, often with endless hours of work in and outside the home and absolutely no power in either realm.

Schiff’s work is far more personal that it seems possible given the amount of time that has passed since the events highlighted into her book took place. She uses her primary and secondary research not simply to report the facts, but to bring them to life. Each player in the book becomes a full-fledged character, with their strengths and flaws presented so that we can attempt to better understand their role in the trials. Schiff paints a picture for us that clarifies the mind-set of the people living in the time — both the godly and ungodly motivations — so that we can see how the events, while nonsensical to us, were not wildly out of the ordinary for the Puritans.

I highly recommend this book for any history or non-fiction lover; anyone who finds themselves fascinated by witchcraft; or anyone looking for an excellent book for a cold winter night. I only wish I had read it before I visited Boston and Salem this November.

*Here is the link to the Introduction to Pollan’s outstanding 2006 work of non-fiction, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: http://michaelpollan.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/omnivore_excerpt.pdf

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker (2006)

In this lovely, captivating novel, Sendker writes us a story enclosed within another story: bookending the novel is the tale of Julia Win, a New York woman in search of her father who has been missing for more than five years; within her search we learn the life story of Tin Win, a blind boy living in rural Burma in the 1930s, whose life since childhood seemed ill-fated for catastrophe.

Julia, unable to come to terms with her father’s disappearance, travels to the small village of Kalaw in Burma to see if she can either find him or get answers about his disappearance from her family’s life. When she arrives, she is greeted as an old friend by a Burmese man, U Ba, who proceeds — over several days — to tell her the life and love story of Tin Win, a local boy who became a beloved village icon.

Julia is immediately out of her depths, not only in the poor, rural village with ways she struggles to comprehend, but also with U Ba’s familiarity and with his tale of Tin Win, which she refuses to believe is anything but a fairy tale. However, U Ba draws her ever deeper into the story of poor, ill-fated Tin Win for whom the stars seem aligned for a life of misfortune.

His mother Mya Mya “knew that the day, hour, minute of one’s birth can determine the course of one’s life. There were niceties one did well to observe, days on which one ought to remain inactive, rituals one needed to follow in order to avert catastrophes.” When her son Tin Win was born on the wrong day and month, she immediately decided it was predetermined by fate that he would neither have nor bring others good fortune or happiness. She abandons him as a small child, feeling terrified of the ill-will he will bring her. Her abandonment finds him not only alone, poverty-stricken, and at the mercy of an older neighbor; but also stricken suddenly blind.

Slowly though, Tin Win, finds ways to grow and learn despite these setbacks. He learns to navigate town, begins his studies at a monastery, and becomes a successful student. Tin Win is also mentored by a blind monk, U May, who teaches him that he has been given a great gift: to see the world from another angle. “A person’s greatest treasure is the wisdom of his own heart,” he tells Tin Win. Tin Win has been gifted with the ability to see deeper into the essence of the world, not with his eyes, but his heart. U May teaches him that “the true essence of things is invisible to the eye. Our eyes [are] the most deceptive. We believe we see the world around us, yet really it is only the surface that we perceive. Our eyes distract us…they are a hindrance…they [make us] neglect our other senses” and we become unable to follow the “compass of our heart.”

With these lessons, Tin Win finds that the world comes alive once again. Now he hears the trees crying, the ground humming, even the insects moving through the walls, and on the day he meets and falls in love with Mi Mi, he also learns to hear and “read” the heartbeats of others. Learning first by intently studying the sound of his beloved (but unable to walk) Mi Mi’s heart, he soon is able to tell everything there is to know about a person — if they are ill, strong, happy, lying,afraid — by the tone and rhythm of their heartbeat. Together, they become two parts of one person: Mi Mi gives him sight by detailing the world around them and Tin Win carries her about the city and gives her the ability to listen to the earth and its inhabitants with her mind and her heart.

Between them grows a love that neither will ever forget or let go of, even in the face of a forced separation that spans many decades. Theirs is a love so strong, so pure, and so enduring that it becomes a legend to the people of the village. Hearing their tale, Julia comes to realize that Tin Win is, of course, her father and this is his life before coming to American that she is learning about for the first time. At first she is in denial; then she feels shocked to learn of these events from a stranger; but finally she too is overcome with the passion and depth of her father’s love with Mi Mi. Learning his story she reaches the closure she has traveled so far to find.

While the book is a wonderful and culturally rich love story, on a deeper level it is also a story of East meets West. In many ways, Julia’s story is one of Western, urban beliefs and expectations while that of Tin Win and Mi Mi is one of rural, Eastern traditions. Slowly, through the tales of all of the characters, we see emerge two distinctly different ways of viewing the enormous life altering events of love, separation, grief, and death.

The Burmese characters are all quite content with the knowledge that “life is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined and any attempt to have a life of one without the other was bound to fail”  As the monk U May points out, “in every life, without exception, illnesses are unavoidable, that we all age and we cannot elude death. These are the laws and conditions of human existence.” Of course, Julia — and the rest of Sendker’s Western readers — feel quite differently. We have come to expect good fortune, health, and success as our birthright and feel shock when our luck changes.

Also of note is the way that Western love is portrayed as something which consumes lovers, driving them wild with the desire to control, own, or even absorb completely the other person; “an outburst of passion that deludes one into thinking they cannot live without a certain person, that sets them quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility that they might ever lose that person — a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches because we long to possess what we cannot.”

By contrast, the love that blooms between Tin Win and Mi Mi is selfless and open and expansive. It survives, without contact of any kind, without fear or suspicion for more than fifty years and it remains as strong and whole at the end as it was at the beginning. Their love was simply a fact, something that existed between them despite life’s circumstances.

Finally, the comparison of death between the cultures is quite stark. For Julia, death is something remote which she has no real knowledge of or experience with. Julia expects that grief will be her crippling companion and that the gaping sense of loss she feels will last for many years to come, something that she will have to work very hard to overcome. U Ba, her Burmese companion, sees death completely different. Death is all around the people of Kalaw, it happens to the young and old in equal measure and there the cause of death is hardly ever known or sought out; it is agreed that knowing would not change the circumstances for the bereaved. It is a constant fact of life. Furthermore, the Burmese “do not get over or leave the dead behind but take them with us [forever], and learn to live with them in another form.”

In all, this book was an absolutely lovely story of love, family, loss, and grief that takes us traveling around the world into a small Burmese village that we come to know so well. Sendker embodies the story of the Burmese children, men, and women he writes with greater ease than he is able to embody the woman from New York; when he writes as Julia his prose is uncomfortably stiff and formal. The author’s bio — which highlights his work throughout Asia — might offer clues why he is more comfortable in the voice of the Burmese than the American woman. Nonetheless, this slight awkwardness does not in any way dampen the wonderful story he tells.

Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding (1996)

When I was browsing around the library just before the new year, looking for books to read on vacation or just for books that seemed well-suited for the start of the year, I found a copy of Bridget Jones Diary on the shelves and decided to give it a re-read. While I did not read anything on vacation– it is almost unheard of for me to go 8 days without reading at least two books — because I was too busy enjoying nine-hour days at Universal Studios and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I did read it on my first night home while I tried to settled back into my routine. It turns out that it was a timely read, not only because it the book begins on January 1 and follows Bridget through one tumultuous year of her life, but also because a movie loosely based on Fielding’s third book in the Bridget series, Mad About the Boy, is set to be released this year.

Although twenty years have past since Fielding wrote Bridget Jones Diary, I found it to still be funny, touching, and relatable. In the story, which is told through a series of journal entries made by Bridget most days of the year, Bridget starts the year setting goals that will help her start living a more adult life: drink less, eat healthier, get more rest, and start making smart choices about the men she dates. All goals that many women around the world were certainly making earlier this month. As the book unfolds, we see Bridget struggle to keep her resolutions, stumble though several near-disasters in work, life, and love, and try to keep a positive attitude that life is looking up. Despite a horrible affair with her boss, her parents surprise separation, and a sudden career-shift Bridget keeps her head held high and forges ahead, determined to create a better life for herself even if she has to embarrass herself mightily in the process.

At its heart, the book is a light-hearted examination of the life of a modern single woman. Bridget does not want to trade in her London-based, career-centered life for suburban married motherhood. She simply would like to be able to tone down her urban life just a touch, get a better job in her field, and find a decent man to date. She and her friends struggle to find men who will treat them as equals and not demand that they conform to unrealistic ideals of womanhood or accept their commitment-phobe histrionics. Just like women today, they want companionship and love without having to give up any parts of their independent lives. These are all current concerns and just as complex for women in 2016 as they were in 1996. (In fact, the only thing that feels out of date is the technology Bridget and her boss use to flirt at work, the company’s clunky intranet email system.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

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On the eve of my family’s departure to Universal Studios Orlando to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I thought it only fitting to blog about the incomparable Harry Potter books, specifically Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Illustrated Edition.  For Christmas, we received new edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and it is absolutely gorgeous. One of our family’s most beloved stories seems fully renewed in this illustrated edition. In addition to the beautiful pictures by artist Jim Kay, the book also boasts a much larger size and has exceedingly high-quality presentation: gorgeous heavy duty high-gloss paper, well-bound hard back, and with enough heft to seem very important indeed.

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This book is one to be curled up and read aloud, to be handled delicately, and to be treated as an heirloom rather than just another paperback to jam on the bookshelf. In fact, we did just that, we bundled up on the couch and started reading it as a family on Christmas night.

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For those who have managed to avoid reading the Harry Potter books so far — or for those who decided they would wait to read it to their children when the time was right — I strongly recommend starting with the illustrated version. The story comes to life not only through JK Rowling’s amazing words but also now through the pictures of Jim Kay. In it, we travel from Surrey to London to Hogwarts Castle along side young Harry Potter and experience the amazing world of magic with him.

You can find a complete review of the first Harry Potter novel here: https://www.nytimes.com/books/99/02/14/reviews/990214.14childrt.html

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These stories really are among the best books I have ever read and they have become a major part of the lives of my children, my husband, and I and we were thrilled to get this illustrated version and discover another way to celebrate that love.

I will be back to work posting on the blog in about two weeks!

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”

All the Light is so gorgeously written, so well crafted, that as it unfurls before its reader, it seems almost magical. It is a book that cannot be rushed but instead must be contemplated, a work of art that is meant to be slowly consumed and digested, more than read. Usually an uncommonly fast reader, I found that this book took more than a week of pondering over to complete. It simply offered far too much — too many amazing passages, too many thought-provoking events — to be hurried.

It seems somewhat incomprehensible that a book about the horrors and indignities of war could be beautiful, but this novel is breathtakingly so. Like the themes of radios that prevail throughout, sending invisible messages across the continent, making the large world seem smaller and more connected, Doerr takes a subject as huge and complex as war and makes it human and understandable. Using his two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr tells the larger story of Europe’s path into and out of war through their personal experiences, giving us a story that is relatable and cogent. While we may never understand the motives of Germans who followed Hitler, or Frenchmen who rebelled even though their lives were at risk, the author can help us understand the thoughts and motivations of two children, using their specific stories to paint a more comprehensible picture of war.

The story follows the lives of two children: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a brilliant but impoverished German orphan. Through Marie-Laure we learn of the occupation of Paris, the flight of Parisians to the countryside, and of life in French town, Saint Malo, occupied by the Germans for more than two years, and Saint Malo’s violent liberation by the Americans. More, it is through her story that we learn of the great treasures of Europe looted, stolen, and hoarded by the Nazis. While those larger lessons are important, we also meet Marie-Laure the girl. We come to know her as a girl who loves stories, adventures, science, and the miracles of nature, things that continue to fascinate and thrill her during the occupation. Her verve for life makes her indefatigable in her belief that life will improve.

In Werner, we see an orphaned boy who is desperate to be able to put his brilliant mind to work, who fears nothing more than a life spent working in the coal mines toward an early death. When offered a chance to go to school to learn to be a soldier and engineer for the Third Reich, he does not hesitate, willingly accepting the indignities of being molded into a Nazi-zealot in exchange for the knowledge his teachers bestow upon him. Werner shows us the machine at work behind Hitler and his armies, the planning, the manipulation, the brainwashing, the loyalty that was given under punishment of death. His story is one of German successes and failures on the battlefield, of how Germans were swept up in the Reich’s tide, and of the atrocities of war. Like Marie-Laure, he is more than just a vehicle to discuss Nazi Germany. He is a boy whose mind is alive with math, science, inventions, improvements, and wonder. His longing to learn led him to become complicit in horrible things, and he is haunted by them throughout the novel.

The stories of these two characters and those around them are threaded loosely together at the start of the novel, but as the story progresses, the two are drawn closer and closer to one another. Doerr expertly weaves their stories together so that by the time they meet it seems as if the universe has been plotting for the intersection of their lives all along. Indeed the entire novel seems to reveal an invisible net which links every single person — alive and dead — to everyone else, so that every story is really our story and vice versa.

Woven throughout the book are themes centering on creating order from chaos, especially with regard to creating a life even among the devastations of war. Like the radios Werner so competently takes apart and reassembles in working order: the Reich believes that they are using science and knowledge to re-order the world in favor of Germany above all else. The Nazis feverishly look to science and technology for the answers to controlling chaos. Werner’s teachers tell him directly,  “There must be order. Life is chaos and what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon.” Werner himself must become like a machine, overlooking the horrific demands of the Reich. Muting his mind to his own objections, he moves forward with his education, perfecting his radio transmitters, blind to the implications.

Simultaneously, Doerr repeatedly examines the other side of science, the unending progress of nature. Birds, shells, the sea — all things both purposeful and beautiful, following observable patterns and paths, without concern for the war ravaging the continent. Like the birds that soar over icy Schulpforta schoolyard where boys are turned into Nazi soldiers, or like Marie-Laure’s beloved snails moving centimeter by centimeter day in and day out, the characters must  also work to maintain normalcy even in face of turmoil and fear. Marie-Laure adjusts to her blindness, to Saint Malo, to being trapped in the house, to losing her father; she determinedly lives despite all of the setbacks. The characters make note of the sadness of a world that never pauses; after dealing with yet another death Marie-Laure observes that  “a house spider spins a new web every night, and to Marie Laure this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause even for an instant in its trip around the sun.”

Upon finishing, I feel that I not only know more about the war — the people who created it and those who fought on and off the battlefields — but also much more about resilience of people who survived it. The story is amazing most of all in presenting characters who go on and on and on living — fighting, running, loving, resisting, bring thrilled by the world around them — in spite of the war’s determination to defeat them. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”

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Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach (org 1995)

In the mid-nineties, my mother was in the heart of her “Oprah worship” years. She devotedly watched The Oprah Winfrey Show every single day and if she could not (which was rare, as she curated her schedule to be home for her show) she taped it using our rickety VCR.

She was a member of from the very first of Oprah’s Book Club and read every single selection and tuned in to watch the book discussion on the show. When the book Simple Abundance was selected for the book club, my mother went out and bought a copy, something she never did because we had an amazing library in our town which had copies of every book we could hope to read.

The book begins on January 1 and offers readers one short reflection or mediation for each day of the year. My mother read Simple Abundance and was moved by its message: that there are lessons to be learned everyday simply by paying attention, and honoring, the things and people around us. I was a teenager who had just gone away to college when my mother discovered the book and was sent a copy to — presumably — read night and reflect on my life. Sadly, I sat it on a shelf where I did not open it for many years. As you know, eighteen-year-old’s know all there is to know about life and do not need instructions, advice, or reflection…not from their mothers, not even from Oprah.

Something profound happened when I finally did pick the book up, on January 1 many years later as a new wife and mother living in a town more than three thousand miles away from family and friends. To my shock, I fell in love with Simple Abundance. I loved how its daily meditations — never more than two pages — allowed me a chance to pause and think about the magical things that had happened that day, even when it seemed (before reading the passage) that nothing of import had occurred at all. The book represented a kind of self-reflection and meditation that fit right into my life as it was, no new age music or meditation instruction required. All the author asked was that I think about the special gifts each day, each season, had to offer and be thankful for them.

Last month, mid-December, amid the craziness of the holiday season I asked my husband if he could help me locate my copy of Simple Abundance. I had a sudden yearning to read one of its passages each night of 2016. How glad I am to have dusted that old treasure off!

The six daily reflections that I have read so far have been calming and uplifting all at once.  The goal she sets out for us this January is not to create resolutions but rather “embrace the gentle yearnings of your heart…gradually become the curator of your own contentment.”

I love how accessible her language is and how she weaves her everyday life into the reflections — one passage on the magic of watching snow fall, another on the special quality of conversations by a fireside, later come reflections on hearing the first spring birds return or harvesting food from your garden.

While the language can be a bit new-agey and there are some references to guardian angels and a”Higher Power,” that does not diminish the sentiment of the book, which is to highlight that power of pausing each day to find the unique gift it has brought to your life.

That sounds like a wonderful way to start –and end — the year.