Our first ‘book of the month’ of the year is The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, chosen by unanimous consent rather than the typical recommendations-then-vote process. This is the second book in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Zafón. The first, The Shadow of The Wind, was a Book Club favorite of 2020, even though it never made it to official 'book of the month' status, proof that the recommendation process is worth it even if your book isn’t voted in as the winner. In fact, The Shadow of The Wind was my favorite book that I read in all of 2020. Zafón is one hell of a writer and I am looking forward to reading The Angel’s Game this month.
Blog goals – don’t call it a resolution
2020 was an admittedly tough year on the blogging front. Even in the first three months before lockdown I was buried in preparation for teaching. After the lockdown, I remained behind on my work but also unmotivated to write blogs. In my mind’s eye, hallucinatory with delusions of grandeur, I saw the increased amount of time at home and working on my computer to be a boon for blogging. But there was something significantly consequential about working from home. It turned my home into my workplace and with most sites for socializing closed there was no escape. I was never quite at work, so my productivity suffered, and yet I was never fully away from work either. The best thing that I could do for a break was to close my computer, and blogging wasn’t as fun as it had been before.
Now the calendar year has changed, but the situation hasn’t really. Yet, still there is hope. So here are my goals for the blog this year:
Three goals are enough. I won’t be disappointed if I fail, but I gotta try, after all, this is for fun.
(Posted by Evan)
The French police come knocking on Eva's apartment door, list in hand. While her father is home and answers the door, Eva and her mother, Mamusia, are across the hall babysitting a neighbor's kids. Eva watches through the peephole as the police take her father, and overhears how Mamusia and her were also on there list to be taken. Within the short amount of time this spares, Eva forges false identity papers and gets her and Mamusia on a train from Paris to the south of France, Vichy France, the so-called free-zone, where she hopes to find help for her father first, and then passage to Switzerland for her family.
This takes place in the summer of 1942. This blog provides a thorough timeline of the Nazi occupation of France, with important dates, and pictures and addresses of some places where important events transpired. It would make for a good travel itinerary for tourists who like history. It also shows that blogs are superior to Wikipedia and Britannica. A few key dates:
June 14, 1940 in the early hours of the morning: One lone German soldier entered Paris from the east and crossed Place Voltaire.Not a single shot was fired. Paris fell into enemy hands during WWII without a single bit of resistance.
In the Author's Note, Harmel lists Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead, Jews in France During World War II by Renée Poznanski, Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France by Agnès Humbert and The Journal of Hélène Berr in addition to the books about Resistance forgers I linked to in the previous blog, as books she used for her research during the writing of this novel.
In the southern (fictional) town of Aurignon, Eva begins to work as forger in a back room library of a Catholic church. She fabricates documents that allow Jewiish children to be transported to Switzerland and escape 'deportation' to concentration camps. There is an internal struggle for Eva, as she had initially only hoped to save her family, but working for the Resistance keeps her there. At the same time, she can not deny the life-saving value of the work she is doing and the pull of a divine calling to help in the epic battle against the ultimate evil. This struggle is heightened greatly by Mamusia who didn't even want to leave Paris in the first place and feels it was an abandonment of her husband and Eva's father, Tatus. Furthermore, she abhors the idea of assuming a false, non-Jewish identity as she sees it as a betrayal of their heritage.
It becomes exaggerated as Eva works longer hours in the church, and becomes closer with her associate forger Rémy, a French Catholic boy. Mamusia accuses Eva of abandoning her religion for Catholicism, and chides her for having feelings for someone who isn't Jewish, while pushing her to seek to become the wife of another member of the Resistance, her childhood friend Joseph a.k.a Gérard Faucon. While Eva mostly shrugs off Mamusia's disapproval and continues her work, she questions whether her mother is right about her forgetting who she really is. This leads her to ask for a way to record the real names of the children whom they are creating false identities for, so that after the war they may be reunited with their families and know where they came from. Despite the dangers of keeping a record of the children's true identities, Rémy comes up with a solution - to encode their real names and false names by marking letters in a pattern according to the Fibonacci sequence in a book of epistles and hence, the Book of Lost Names. It is the mark of the gravest of times when a choice must be made between the preservation of heritage, of not forsaking who you are, and the preservation of life. Or as the conflict between Eva and Mamusia presents it: what is contributing more to the erasure of the Jewish people, imprisonment and execution or going into hiding for survival?
In the early part of the book, Eva's father would say "Courage. Cheer up. The Germans can only bother us if we let them." This determination to not be afraid, however, did not protect him from arrest and imprisonment in the camp at Drancy, and subsequent deportation to Auschwitz. The latter occurs despite Eva and Rémy's attempt to get him out of Drancy using false papers. Although Eva knows that this is almost certainly a death sentence for him, she tells Mamusia only that he was transferred there, and Mamusia maintains hope that he will one day be released. Eva, unbelieving, can not bring herself to quite come out and say to her that he is almost certainly already dead. This explains some of the difference in their reactions to the Occupation, and Mamusia can't understand how her daughter could plan for their escape in a manner that would prevent them from ever being reunited with Tatus.
This sets up another internal struggle that afflicts everyone in this time of severity - whether it is necessary or dangerous to have hope. Again, the dividing line falls between Joseph and Rémy on this struggle. When Joseph visits with Eva and Mamusia for dinner in Aurignon, he tells Mamusia that he is confident her husband is alive, while privately admitting to Eva he is sure he must be dead. "I just wanted to give her some comfort. And I think I did." says Joseph, to which Eva responds "False hope isn't comfort, Joseph." Leading Joseph to say, "I disagree. We're all pretending to be something we're not, aren't we?" On the other hand, while a romance is clearly developing between Rémy and Eva, they both hold back, and while I may be reading something that isn't really there on this one, I feel the main reason for this is that they are scared to become attached to someone when they are maintaining an idea that they are in a temporary existence. Is it better to have hope to persevere through pain or better not to in order to try to prevent the pain all together?
There's no place like home.
The Father of the church, Father Clement, decides to take Eva to see the children she is working to save in order to inspire her, by reminding her what she is doing it for. They are holed up in secret by a school teacher, who continues to teach them even as they hide and wait for a courier to take them to Switzerland. Eva feels an immediate connection with a young girl who goes by Anne through their mutual love of reading. Anne is reading The Wizard of Oz (by L. Frank Baum) and asks Eva if she's read it.
The bright young girl connects the story to her own: "I'm like Dorothée aren't I? I'm on a great adventure, and one day, I'll find my way home." Later, Anne asks Eva if she thinks Anne's parents are still alive, to which Eva replies, "I think there's every reason to hope they are." Then, with remarkable insight, Anne says: "You know, when Dorothée is in Oz, she has no idea whether her home in Kansas has been destroyed by a tornado. She is working so hard to get back to her aunt and uncle, but she has no way of knowing if they're there... But they were there... They were there all along, worrying about her, and when Dorothée got home, they were a family again." When Eva reminds her that "this is not Oz," Anne says, "We can imagine, though, can't we?... I know it's sometimes hard to believe the best. Isn't it better than believing the worst, though?" To which I say, yes, Anne, it is. You keep on believing in the best you can imagine.
Ending on a lighter note.
One of the games we play at Book Club sometimes is 'Who would you cast to play the characters in a movie?' I stink at this game because I don't know many actors or actresses at all and I am even worse at knowing their names. But in this case, our author has thrown in a gimme, and so for the role of Geneviéve Marchand, the forger who replaces Rémy as Eva's associate forger, I would cast Marie Bell, who you may remember from such mid-20th century French films as Madame Récamier, La Garconne, and Pantins d'amour.
The Children from the Book of Lost Names sing Wrapped Up in Books.
j/k. Real version. Happy Reading!
(Posted by Evan)
The novel begins with a librarian, Eva Abrams, who sees an article in an open newspaper about a German librarian making an effort to return books stolen by the Nazis back to their rightful owners, holding her book up in the cover photo. This sends Eva immediately off to Berlin to claim her book. We then transcend time and space and meet Eva, a French-born Jewish young woman of Polish heritage living in Nazi occupied Paris in 1942.
In the Author’s Note, Harmel describes how the idea for this novel began with interest in forgery piqued while writing her previous novel The Winemaker’s Wife. Two books then breathed fuel on the embers of that interest: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky and A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II by Peter Grose. The final piece of the puzzle came when her agent emailed her what I believe is this article from New York Times.
Otto Kuhn, the German librarian in the story, is fictional, but the work he’s doing is based in reality.
She also recommends The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell. The novel seems to be based primarily on two forgers she mentions: Adolfo Kaminsky and Oscar Rosowsky.
Kaminsky narrowly escaped deportation and became one of the primary document forgers for the Resistance in Paris, ultimately helping to save an estimated fourteen thousand people, though he was just a teenager at the time.
Oscar Rosowsky,... was just eighteen years old in 1942 when he was forced to flee his home, and by a stroke of good fortune, wound up in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a tiny village in the mountains of France that hid thousands of people wanted by the Nazis, including many children whose parents had been deported. Much like Eva, Rosowsky began by forging identity documents for himself and his mother-but when he found himself among like-minded people, he began to develop new forging methods that were quicker and more efficient. By war’s end, he had helped rescue more than thirty-five hundred Jews.
She also mentions forgers Mireille Phillip, Jacqueline Decourdemanche, Gabrielle Barraud, and sisters Suzie and Herta Schidlof.
While I am not far enough to have encountered the book-of-lost-names, aside from it's photograph in the newspaper article, there are many references to the power and majesty of books in general that are worth mentioning. To begin, Eva's father works as a typewriter repairman while Eva is studying English literature at the Sorbonne.
Moreover, there are some really great quotes about books:
She doesn't understand what it means to love books so passionately that you would die without them, that you would simply stop breathing, stop existing.
She took one last look at the wooden shelves that lined the walls, stacked from floor to ceiling with beautiful books, their pages full of knowledge she had eagerly absorbed over the years. ... She had devoured them all and saved up her own money to buy more. They had been her escape, her refuge, and now they would be all that was left of her in an apartment she might never return to.
"I-I was just thinking how much I love being surrounded by books."
"He had taught her to love reading, one of the greatest gifts a parent could give a child, and in doing so, he had opened the world to her."
I particularly and enthusiastically agree with this last one. I believe my dad did the same thing for me, and I've often contemplated how much that inspired love of reading has shaped my life. I remember some of the books my dad gave me to read when I was growing up. One of the earliest was John F. Kennedy and PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis. I also remember him giving me The Floating Opera by John Barth which made me want to be a lawyer. I don't know if he recommended I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo, because I remember my copy being a library copy, but he had read it and we talked about it as I read it (Great book!). It made me want to be a mob boss. Luckily, he also recommended two science books, one whose title I can't remember but it was about a scientist studying Red Tide or something like it, and the other was The Great Influenza by John Barry, which is as much about the development of modern medicine as it is about that pandemic. Most recently he recommended Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and now I recommend that book to everyone. Thanks Dad!
What about you Book Club friends? Did you have someone who inspired your love of reading at an early age?
Eva's friend Joseph calls her "mon petit rat de bibliothèque" or 'my little rat of the library', while her dad calls her "stoneczko" or 'little sun'. I'm not sure there's much to read into there, but I found it interesting. I do have to call Harmel out for the error though, as everyone knows that the term in French is 'Ink Drinker' (hat tip: Madison)
Blog about books. Write about love. Happy Reading!
(posted by Evan)
The Chestnut Man is a murder-mystery thriller in the classic serial killer vein. The killer leaves a calling card at the murder scene which are little chestnut men or chestnut dolls, which look like this:
If that isn’t scary to you then you’re probably Danish.
The killer, who comes to be called The Chestnut Man by the press, has a certain gruesome signature in that he likes to amputate the limbs of his victims while they are still alive. He contacts the police and other authorities, albeit in indirect and misleading ways. He also has a certain target victim – women, whose children have suffered abuse and neglect, though not necessarily by the mothers. This may or not have something to do with the killer’s motive, because it doesn’t make sense to punish the mothers in cases where it is not they who harmed their children. But then again, amputating limbs and then murdering people isn’t exactly a rational process. But this part from the first murder (2nd chapter so not really a spoiler) has held my intrigue:
“Are you okay, Laura?” Its tone is soft and affectionate and much too close to her ear. But the voice doesn’t wait for an answer. For a moment it removes the thing that was stuck in her mouth, and Laura hears herself begging and pleading. She doesn’t understand anything. She’ll do anything. Why her - what has she done? The voice says she knows perfectly well. It bends down very close and whispers into her ear, and she can tell it has been looking forward to exactly this moment. She has to concentrate on the words. She understands what the voice is saying, but she can’t believe it. The pain is greater than all her other injuries. It can’t be that. It mustn’t be that… She’s known it for a while, yet somehow not – and only now, as the voice whispers it to her, does she understand it’s true.
Intertwined with this developing series of murders is the story of a member of the Danish parliament, Rosa Hartung, who is just returning to work after taking a year off, a leave that stemmed from her daughter being abducted and eventually declared murdered. A man confessed and was convicted for her death, though her body was never found. But the fingerprints of her supposedly dead daughter are found on the chestnut men left at the scene of the serial murders. Oh, and Hartung herself is receiving threats.
Two detectives are working to solve the case, one of them, Naia Thulin, is eager to move from the Major Crimes Division to the National Cyber Crime Center, while the other, Mark Hess, is an exiled member of the Europol who got booted back to Denmark for some sort of misbehavior. He is mainly concerned with trying to get back to his old position until he becomes obsessed with the case. He also has two different color eyes. Hess’ obsession is well revealed in one particular instance: When Thulin comes to his apartment to bring him news about an important upcoming interview for the case (with Rosa Hartung), she enters through his unlocked door and finds newspapers taped all over his walls with lines and notes scribbled all over them and also the walls of the otherwise very bare apartment in red pen, trying to connect the dots. I imagine it must have felt to Thulin upon entering the room, a little something like this:
Mystery novels are always very good for book club’s because, even for lack of anything else to discuss, you can always get a good conversation going about who you think the killer is. I haven’t read many mystery’s in my days but as Madison reminds us, you usually meet the killer in the first 100 pages or so. We all seem pretty clueless, which I think is a sign that the book is well-written. As Andy remarked, we have as many theories as there are characters. It’s also very suspenseful. Most of the time it’s a page-turner, aided on by short chapters that make it easy to always read one more.
Adding to the experience for me personally is that Stephanie and I are both reading it on the Kindle she got me for Christmas. We take turns moving a little bit further in the book, so when we get to a particularly revealing (or at least seemingly revealing) or really messed up part, we can look at each other and exclaim or gasp about it. Then, when one catches up to the other, we go through the different possibilities about what we just read may mean in terms of who the killer might be. It’s been fun, and I would recommend this activity to you married couples out there, but only if you like your spouse.
The book is pretty messed up. I wouldn’t say it’s descriptively gory and nasty to the point of being difficult to read, but in addition to the nature of the murders, the element of child abuse delves into the deeply darker side of humanity. As even Detective Thulin thinks:
… the whole thing is incomprehensible. Previously, she’s only read about this sort of case or seen reports about them in the news and it strikes her that until today they seemed unreal.
I think this is relevant to the book, and you can’t beat it as a Shocktober musical interlude
About the Author: (from bookseriesinorder.com)
Author Soren Sveistrup was born in Denmark in the year 1968. He was adopted as a baby, and went to live with his new parents, both of whom were teachers on Thuro, the isolated island in the south of Denmark.
Here’s the trailer for The Killing:
A little in his own words:
Happy Reading! And don't forget to check your house for chestnut men before turning out the light!
(Posted by Evan)
In my previous blog about the first half of the book I made the prediction that it was Kanya, Jaidee’s lieutenant, that set him up. And I was right! Then again, it turned out that everyone in Book Club made the same prediction. So, either I am not as clever as I thought, or everyone in Book Club is also very clever. I’ll go with the latter.
After Jaidee is sent into exile, he decides to seek justice on the members of the Trade Ministry who kidnapped his wife. He is caught in the act and after a very fun and action-packed fight scene, he is killed. The loss of a main character in the middle of the book is handled well by Bacigalupi though, as the sub-narrative that had centered on Jaidee continues seamlessly centered on Kanya. Furthermore, we don’t lose Jaidee completely, as he follows Kanya around in the form of what I at first thought were guilt-driven delusions but then came to realize was Jaidee’s spirit or phii, providing us with a nice character foil. There are many references to the religion of the inhabitants of our future fictional Bangkok and in particular to reincarnation.
Jaidee says something interesting to Kanya about her worshipping two gods. The main religion is Buddhism and she performs ritual blessings consistent with this religion, but she also wears the amulet of Phra Seub. I am no expert on religions and I wasn’t going to do a deep dive to be able to speak about this intelligently, but I did find this clarification from a blog, and believe me when I say, you can trust everything that you read on blogs:
§ The Phra Seub amulet presumably pays homage to Thailand’s renowned environmentalist, the late Seub Nakhasathien. A wildlife conservationist, today Sueb’s eponymous foundation still pursues his legacy. In reality he is not revered like a deity as the book suggests.
The page is short and mentions a little bit more about some of the names Bacigalupi uses in the book. Her dual belief system is consistent with her dual loyalty to both the Environment and Trade ministries as well as her sabotage and respect for Jaidee. The Grahamites, a group of Christian-like religious westerners (in the book) are similar in this regard.
One of the most interesting parts of the book in my opinion is the character development of Emiko, the windup girl. She is initially enticed by the idea of escaping her job as a sex-bot who is brutally degraded for entertainment in a night club. This gives her hope that she can work her way to safe passage out of the city and to the village of the New People. In addition to the internal struggle between her training to be subservient and her human-like need for self-respect, she consistently shows a strong drive for self-preservation. In the city she is an illegal being; the Environment Ministry (white shirts) will kill her if she is discovered. Her employment and life are sustained by bribes. As the sense that she is being misled about the eventual possibility of buying her own freedom and even that the city of the New People exists grows with time, her natural(?) need for self-preservation and self-respect overcomes her impressed subservience. She takes revenge against the night club owner and a few of its clients who had a good time violating her. The latter end up being the Queen’s protectors, well-trained body guards, but she absolutely destroys them (another good fight scene). We had seen glimpses of her superhuman strength and quickness before in some escapes from danger, the genetic benefits of her ilk. Importantly, this makes interested and sparring political factions think that she is a military windup serving at the behest of the other party and sparks a full-on civil war (Well, nearly does, but that’s complicated. Read the book. I’m leaving a lot of good stuff out after all). Anyway it is neat that the political factions misinterpret this because they cannot conceive of a non-military windup committing such an act. Never underestimate the power of desperation in self-defense.
Musical interlude – Green Day, from the era before they decided to take themselves seriously. The song that is, not the movie. Ahh to be 10 years old again.
One of my other favorite parts is a meeting between Kanya and Gibbons, the former calorie man of the west who is the genius behind the Thai Kingdom’s successful seedbank of virus resistant produce. As a cheshire, the windup version of cats, softly mews in his lap, he lays out his philosophy of nature, equilibrium, and evolution with regards to his genetic engineering:
“The ecosystem unraveled when man first went a-seafaring. When we first lit fires on the broad savannas of Africa. We have only accelerated the phenomenon. The food web you talk about is nostalgia, nothing more.”
It is interesting that we as human animals tend to define that which is natural as that which is not created by us human animals. I often think of ants and the way they build mounds, compared to a city full of skyscrapers. Is it possible for a product of nature to do things unnatural? This is not a new topic for Book Club; I remember a similar conversation as we discussed The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, which points to a wave of extinctions of other species of animals as being the result of human endeavors, mostly through the cross-pollination of our ancestors’ penchant for travel. It also brings to mind a beautiful story I recently read in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley, a book I suggested for Book Club but that wasn't chosen. In ‘How The Flower Changed The World,’ Eiseley talks about how the flower, in the broad sense of angiosperm, spreads its seed by luring animals to devour its pollen or eat its fruit, allowing the animals to spread the seed farther than earlier species of plant could on their own by dumping plant sperm into waterways or by exploding pods. This in turn led to grass, which in turn led to grazing animals, which in turn led to humans. And is that really such a bad thing? I am inclined to think not. On the other hand…
Well, that’s all for September's book. I hope you enjoyed it. If you read it, give it a rating in the survey below, and maybe drop a comment as to what you liked and what you didn’t. And whether you read or not, whatever you do, do it with sanuk.
(Posted by Evan)
The novel is set in a future Thailand that has become a flourishing kingdom after a global travesty. It is not explicitly stated but appears to be a climate change dystopia. High sea levels surround the city, kept at bay by seawalls. New York and other parts of the US are said to be underwater; the center of the US appears to be Des Moines, Iowa. Carbon based fuel is nonexistent, with the exception of rare coal power and some methane. But the real threat facing the global population is disease, that both affect humans and threaten the food supply. Food that won’t kill you is hard to come by in this world, which sets up competing interests between globalist food suppliers (calorie men) and free traders versus nationalist environmental protectors (white shirts). Invasive species can be quite a problem if you haven’t heard. Being a Florida boy (not to be confused with FLoridaMan), this invasive threat to the oranges is particularly alarming to me.
This book can be difficult to read because the author uses many words that are either of Thai origin or invented future terms that they are not explained in much detail, so you have to rely on the context to understand. In particular, the names of the diseases (cibiscosis, Nippon genehack weevil, blister rust, scabis mold) names of important societal figures (the Child Queen, King Rama XII, Phra Seub, the Dung Lord, Grahamites, Dog Fucker [yes, that’s a real character’s name, though I wish I could claim to have just thrown that in there to see if you were still paying attention] and characterizing references to people in the book (mahout, Khun, farang, fa’ gang, gaijin, yang guizi; italics seem to indicate real foreign language) are casually sprayed about as if anyone would know what they mean. As Haeleigh pointed out, this does serve to immerse the reader in the setting. Imagine if a time traveler came from just twenty years in the past and had to listen to me talk about Facebook, selfies, hastags, trolls, apps, COVID, climate change, streaming, being woke, twerking, etc. They wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I’m not sure I do either, honestly. Still it unnerves me a bit to read a book like this because I like to consider every detail and how it is relevant to the novel as a whole, but in this case, it is best not to Google (there’s another one) every word not understood. That indicates to me that the book is best considered on a coarse grain scale.
The story centers around the perspectives of four characters, with chapters alternating between these perspectives.
Anderson Lake is an American business man in the Thai Kingdom, He works for a company that makes “kink-springs” which seem to be springs that allow for energy to be stored in them in a stable manner and slowly released to power machines, based on some kind of algae converted into an industrial powder coating. But Anderson’s real interest is the seedbank that allows the Thai kingdom to develop disease free fruits. He’s called a calorie man and his company seems to have developed synthetic rice, wheat and soy products. (4186 Joules = 1000 calories = 1 Calorie, the nutritional unit of energy; an impressive kink spring gives a gigajoule of energy about 280 kwh, or roughly ½ a month to 1 month of my typical electricity bill for a small apartment).
Hock Seng works beneath Anderson in the factory making kink-springs. He is a former wealthy Chinese merchant in Malaysia before Islamic fundamentalist executed a genocide of his people. He is now known as a yellow card man, a reference to the immigration status that allows him to live in the kingdom. They are lower status people. Hock Seng is haunted by his past, and seeks to use the invention of the kink springs as a bargaining tool with a mafia boss figure, the Dung Lord, to obtain a ship and legitimate trading status to restore his place as a trader.
Despite what you might expect from the title, Emiko, the windup girl, is the least present of these four characters and plays the least significant role so far. I suspect this will change significantly in the second half. Windups were invented by the Japanese to replace the people they needed for work and for military service. She is a cyborg of some sort; New People she is called, but she doesn’t have a crank sticking out of her back. Her motions are robotic, herky-jerky, heechy-keechy, but she eats food. Emiko was originally employed as a secretary in Japan, where she was treated with respect but not treated as fully human. In the Thai kingdom she is owned as a sex-worker and subjected to humiliation for the entertainment of customers. She has extremely smooth skin due to unusually small pores. In the hot and humid climate of Thailand she is always close to overheating. She's the most interesting character in the book in my opinion. It is in her DNA and training to serve, so she obeys often even when she doesn't want to. She has an internal spirit and a yearning for freedom, but at the same time feels a deep gratification from serving people who demand it of her, as it appeals to her nature and her sense of purpose. This internal conflict is captured well in the beginning of the first chapter centered on her:
And then she wonders if she has it backwards, if the part that struggles to maintain her illusions of self-respect is the part intent upon her destruction.
Jaidee is a renowned fighter known as the Tiger of Bangkok. He is a Captain in the Environment Ministry, referred to as 'white shirts'. They are the most powerful force in the kingdom as they protect it from the outside diseases that threaten the population and the food supply. Everyone is afraid of them and bribes them. Sean said that Jaidee seems to be the ‘good guy’ in the book and I agree with that in that he seems to be the only character who isn’t working a double angle or have secret ulterior motives. He just loves his country and loves being a fighter for it, even if he goes too far. Globalism vs. nationalism is a big part of the current political discussion, and there’s nothing I try to avoid more than being trendy, so I won’t wade to far into those waters. I’ll just say that being purely globalist or nationalist is dumb. These issues are very nuanced and are best considered deeply and on a case-by-case basis. The cross-pollination is the result of so much of what could be considered either ecological destruction or evolution is a good example upon which to ponder. There are always grifters behind any ideology as well.
These stories of these characters slowly begin to intersect. Anderson is pushing Hock Seng hard to get kink-spring production up to par, even though this is only a front for his caloric concerns. They need new tanks to grow the algae and have to get this imported. Hock Seng must bribe the white shirts to get this stuff in on time. But the Tiger of Bangkok shows up, takes a huge bribe at the port, and then burns all the equipment anyway. This is the main event so far, as the retribution from the kingdom, suspected to come from the Trade Ministry leads to Jaidee's wife being kidnapped in order to force him to apologize, be publicly shamed and demoted. It seems this is part of a plot by foreigners like Anderson to establish free trade in the country so they can make a lot of money importing. For those who are reading, I’ll offer my conjecture it is Kanya, his seemingly loyal lieutenant that setup Jaidee. As for Emiko, her story intersects with Anderson's as she first tells him that she had a man named Gibbons as a client, an old colleague of Anderson's in the gene hacking and ripping game to make new foods. Anderson suspects this is the key to getting the IP of the successful Thai seedbank. During this meeting, Anderson tells Emiko of a city of windups in the North. This gives her hope of a place to flee where she will not be so mistreated, with her life under constant threat. Later, Emiko is accosted by a drugged-up guy in the streets who seeks to kill her merely for being a windup. As she flees her attacker, she sees Anderson in a rickshaw on the street and runs to him for help. He helps her, although it's not clear why, he doesn't seem to be interested in much more than money, and it's a risk for him to be associated with her kind.
There are also some kind of genetically recreated elephant or mastodon like creatures called megadonts. They are created to do heavy lifting and pulling, including driving the gears of the kink-spring factory. This, along with the algae of the springs, is an interesting take on bio-fuels - creating genetic animals in order to power a city.
One theme I think is clear is the strata and worth of people in this society. As I said, windups and yellow cards are considered lower castes, less than human. Certainly windups, they are considered an abomination. Emiko's mission can be likened to the search for an 'Underground Railroad' a way she can make it to a safe haven without being killed in the process. Even the animals feed into this theme. When a megadont in the spring factory goes rogue, Anderson shoots and kills it. As the megadont's body is hacked up, Hock Seng tries to get Anderson to barter for the worth of its remains. In typical American fashion Anderson could care less. Hock Seng thinks of how much the animal is worth and how wasteful it's death will be, reminding me of so many farm animals who become wasted uneaten meat in our society. There are also strange "Cheshires", cats that formed by the breeding of a genetically manufactured cat for a rich man's daughter as a birthday gift with regular cats. These creatures now dominate the city, and are quick to pounce on the remains of dead things. They are generally despised. Looked upon almost as evil sprits. It beckons the question: are Cheshires really different from real stray cats? Are megadonts worth anymore than the price of their meat or labor? Are windups really different from humans? Do androids dream of electric sheep? That kind of thing.
Anyway, here's an old favorite. It seems slightly more fitting than exclusively because of the title, even if I only put this here because of the title, and because I really like Thursday.
(Posted by Evan)
About the author: From britbennett.com,
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 awardee, and her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller. Her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes are raised in a rural town in Louisiana called Mallard, a town too small to appear on a map, about two hours’ drive from New Orleans. It’s a strange town. It’s founder was obsessed with creating a community of light-skinned blacks who would become ever increasingly lighter in complexion, to the point of “Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek” . The Vignes are a kind of aristocratic family of the town, being direct descendants of the town’s founder.
However, they are still black, certainly not white. This couldn’t be clearer than when the twins watch from a hiding place in a closet the lynching of their father at the hands of white men. Bennett seems to make a habit of exposing us to atrocities seemingly without warning, such as this sudden invoking of the lynching in the last sentence of the first paragraph of Chapter 2, the 33rd page of the book. The details of the horrific scenes of two violent attacks with the second finalizing their father’s murder are reported in little more than a paragraph that follows.
Bennett discusses the artistic merits of graphic descriptions in composing the slavery narrative, in this half essay half book review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, in which she contrasts that author's approach to 'ripping the veil' with Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
“Popular taste discouraged the writers from dwelling too long or too carefully on the more sordid details of their experience.” Instead, writers “pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as ‘But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.’” The job of the contemporary writer, Morrison argues, is to “rip that veil.” If slave narrators were forced to obscure moments of extreme violence to make their narratives more palatable to a white audience, then contemporary authors must force their own readers to look.
Bennett's own approach is moderately descriptive. The passages aren't hard to read in themselves, in my opinion, one must identify and empathize with the characters to experience these scenes. So her manner seems similar to the one she attributes to Whitehead.
A key event in the book occurs after the twins are taken out of school to work – they conspire to runaway to New Orleans together. After a short time there, Stella pretends to be white in order to get a better job, and eventually disappears, leaving Desiree behind and marrying a white man. Desiree also gets married, but to a very dark-skinned black man. They have a daughter together while living in DC, where Desiree works in fingerprint identification. This is apparently a reference to Bennett’s mother,. From this article in Vogue:
In 1968, the spring after she turned 20, my mother left Louisiana for a job working as a fingerprint examiner for the FBI in Washington, D.C.
One of the interesting elements of the novel is in speculation about Desiree and Stella’s different motives for leaving Mallard. Desiree is described as snobbish in childhood, always dreaming of Paris or Rome and never interested in life in Mallard, “trapped by its smallness.” Stella on the other hand enjoyed school and wanted to be a teacher in Mallard, seemingly comfortable with small town life. Yet in New Orleans it is Stella who remains adamant about staying there and who convinces Desiree that they shouldn’t go back when Desiree is homesick. It could be considered that Stella is the one with the plan, and so she actually sees her opportunity to realize it, whereas Desiree was just longing for escape but doesn’t really know what she wants to escape to. There is more to Stella’s motivation that turns up in Part III but I won’t spoil it for slackers who are not quite half-way through.
The book actually begins when Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude in order to escape her husband who was beating her. Jude has a rough time in Mallard because she is so dark-skinned ('blueblack') growing up in a town obsessed with skin-color. Many of the locals are outraged with Desiree for bringing such a dark-skinned person into the town at all. In school, she is called lots of racist slurs. A girl estranged from and longing for her father ends up telling her fellow students her mother is not her real mother just to get them to stop bugging her about it.
Part II of the book occurs ten years later, when Jude goes to UCLA on a track-scholarship. This part centers around a developing friendship then romance between her and a trans-sexual man named Reese who ran away from his family in El Dorado, Arkansas and seems to be trying to transition with self-mutilation and black-market steroid injections. He is in LA trying to save up for a real surgery (illegal at the time, 1978). Reese doesn't believe a town could not exist on a map so Jude proves it to him.
If a major theme of the novel is transitioning, then part of this requires a consideration of the relationship between identity and the past. Adele, Jude's grandmother, tries to lighten Jude's skin as a child by keeping her out of the sun and applying pastes to her skin (Ironically, the founder of Mallard's mother had tried to darken him by putting him out in the sun). In Part III, we will learn more about Stella's transition into 'whiteness', or "passing over". Stella disappears from her family, Desiree disappears from her husband, Reese leaves his family and home behind, and Jude as well, leaves Mallard for LA. But does leaving people and places behind, starting new lives in new towns and making new families allow someone to escape their past?
There are somethings about us that are beyond our control. After Jude and Reese finally hook-up, friend Barry knows immediately without her saying anything about it and her mother can hear the change in her through her voice over the phone. Jude is embarrassed by being so "transparent". An interesting choice of words. As Jude and Reese struggle to connect, they both express desire not to be seen. Jude doesn't believe the Reese actually finds her beautiful, and Reese does not want Jude to see him naked. Opening up and letting other people see who we are is maybe the hardest thing for people to do, I think because the way that other people see us seems more real to us than the way we see ourselves. I think sometimes it is... depends on how they see me.
To wrap up, so far so good on this book. The plot doesn't move much in the present tense of the book, but the story develops, mostly in the form of character's relationships, in both a forward and retrospective dimension. The twists come through revelations about a character's past as we watch the characters develop in their timelines. I'm interested to see how it all comes together by the end.
(Posted by Evan)
Happy to put this blogging drought to an end! Let’s talk about the first half of American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson.
First, let’s hear it for the librarians and archivists out there. While Oscar Heinrich is the star of the book, he receives help from his closest friend and pen-pal John Boynton Kaiser. Kaiser sends Heinrich books that he comes across during his work stocking the Tacoma library. I can’t imagine how awesome it would be if I had a friend who was reading papers in my field and shooting me the ones that were helpful to my work. Kaiser is perfectly matched Heinrich’s erudition. One of the most impressive things about Heinrich is the way he makes a point to learn new subjects and skills once he realizes that he can use it as a tool.
But there is another librarian who does yeoman’s work in the background, not in the life and times of E. O. Heinrich but in the production of the book itself. Kate Dawson’s very own Kaiser. In the prologue, we are informed about the massive archive of artifacts from Heinrich’s life and work: “In 1968, [Henrich’s son Mortimer] bequeathed his father’s many boxes, containing case files, evidence, personal diaries, letters, even romantic poetry, to the University of California at Berkeley, Oscar’s alma mater and the college where he spent years teaching forensic science. The archive was an incredible repository of information, but given the university’s limited budget for archival material and research, the collection remained uncatalogued and untouched for more than fifty years.”
In the acknowledgements, she dedicates the first two pages to the help of Lara Michels, the library’s head of archival processing at UC Berkeley. When Dawson’s initial request to access the archive is denied by the university, it is Michels’ piqued interest in Heinrich herself that leads her to help Dawson. “Michels would dedicate one day a week for the next eighteen months to traveling there and cataloguing his collection… She catalogued every tiny, itty-bitty thing she discovered. She meticulously read through each document; she squinted at each piece of evidence that Heinrich kept (which should have been turned over to the police by him, frankly). She dismissed nothing.” It also says that Michels was the one who suggested Dawson look into August Vollmer and Kaiser as well.
Blessed are the record keepers! The personal characteristic that jumps out at me about Heinrich is his fastidiousness. His detailed records were probably essential to recreating a coherent story about what happened at the scene of the crime. There is so much information for him to parse, wonder what the ratio of evidence collected and catalogued to the evidence presented to the DA’s was. I would wager it is small. Simply sifting through hundreds of facts to extract one or two that are the most suggestive and least refutable. I’ve generally observed the difference between competent scientists, such as myself, and exemplary scientists is the detailed record keeping and adherence to organizational systems of the latter. I geek out over organization, but for me it is an endeavor and not a way of life. My productivity requires cleaning up a mess afterwards. It is a nonlinear approach. I imagine the record keepers as those that maintain their sense of place and purpose more consistently, they stop to think more frequently but for less duration. Importantly, they stop to think at an earlier stage than I would, at points where I would keep plugging ahead. “Heinrich kept everything from his life (personal and professional), manically collecting notes written on napkins. Thousands of newspapers, hundreds of bullets, and dozens of financial journals. I began jokingly describing him as a “productive hoarder” – until my colleague, a psychology professor, at the University of Texas suggested that he had in fact fit the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder… People with OCPD have a preoccupation with perfectionism, control, and order – a neat life. They are frequently extremely productive and successful…”. “Oscar faithfully, meticulously filled out several pages of his large field journals every day of the week, even on weekends and holidays. He chronicled specific times for every appointment, phone call, or scientific test and noted the case involved in the margins. He required that his secretaries and assistants do the same and, if they refused, or he fired them. Oscar always noted when he awoke in the morning, when he fell asleep, and when he required his afternoon naps (almost daily). He even journaled when he journaled, the mark of a fastidious, rigid man: “8pm-10pm, journalizing,” he wrote in one entry.” That's some impressive journalizing.
In Chapter 4, we are presented with several different forensic techniques that were pioneered around the time of the case of the baker’s handwriting, the disappearance and murder of Father Heslin. The most prominent one and most useful for the conviction is handwriting analysis. Additional remarks are made, however, about eyewitness identification, petrography, and the first use of the polygraph - the lie detector.
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction, we are told, according to the Innocence Project. This is because people are stupid liars with pliable memories. The Innocence project actually quantifies the “leading cause” as: “Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.” The Innocence Project also lists
Even fingerprints are not so solid, we learn in Chapter 6. According to a NAS report, the lack of quality samples of fingerprints at the crime scene. So, I guess DNA is the only thing that is safe?
The history of the polygraph was neat. How cool is that the guy who invented the blood pressure test also created Wonder Woman and the Lasso of Truth? The polygraph is no good either, particularly when it comes to likes of Costanza. But ultimately, I think that August Vollmer was an interesting guy, with good intentions, who deserves credit for improving that state of forensic science. The methods may not be truly sound, but these initial attempts to take investigations beyond ‘hunch’ and ‘beat it out of him’ were noble and clever. The collateral damage of lots of wrongful prosecutions isn’t to be dismissed or justified; science experiments should not affect people’s lives. But you have to push the envelope for progress and much of science is carried by innovations that are eventually realized to be in error. The Drude model of metallic conduction being my favorite example.
Happy reading, and be truthful!
I preordered on Amazon. Still no estimated delivery date. In the meantime, I know y'all read other books aside from our monthly shared pleasure. What are you reading?
My bus-reading this week consisted of Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet, Captain of the USS Santa Fe. It's a book about leadership. He took command of the most dysfunctional nuclear submarine in the Navy and turned it around in to the best. He changed the leadership style from 'leader-follower' to 'leader-leader'. It's good. I mean it's not page-turning and I'm always skeptical of the value of reading self-help or secret to success type books, but I think it's good to at least think about these things.
I'm reading this book on my new Kindle that Steph got me for Christmas. I am enjoying this a lot more than My First Kindle Experience:
When I first got it, I enjoyed the ability to preview books. SO I was downloading free previews and checking things out. Then I decided on my first book. Inspired by the talk of Gothic novels ala Tangerine, and the references to the Scarlet letter in Little Fires Everywhere, I decided to read some Hawthorne, but something I have never read. I chose The House of The Seven Gables.
I found it difficult to read. It wasn't difficult in the sense that the language was dense or old-times, so much as there were grammatical errors and awkward diction. I began to suspect that either Hawthorne had failed grammar school or that the kindle version was fffffed. Turns out it was the latter. I went to the library and compared it to a paper copy:
I''l be sticking to newer books on Kindle from now on.
Other books I have on my shelf with bookmarks in them but haven't touched for a while are :
As you can see, I am well on my way to becoming an old man who only reads history books. Oh yeah, and I just bought the book that my friend Jen wrote, but haven't really started it yet. I am looking forward to reading all the hot sex.
What about you book club? What else are you reading? Anything you are really enjoying?
(posted by Evan)
I’ve been thinking about the green text a lot, obviously. But now there is a(n) (updated) thread for that topic alone. But it reminded me of the green light from the phosphor lamps. Then, there is silver. The City-State of Texas is The City of Silver (Silver City, Texas); see the map on pg. 62. There was mention of the silver buttons that adorned the uniforms of … I’m not sure what it all means but I think there is something there. Youth and Old Age, perhaps?
All of the cities are named after metals. I just as vaguely connect this with alchemy, through the old adage about the search for the sorcerer’s stone, a cheap route to manufacture gold. There is no city of gold, ask Coronado. Alchemy holds a strong place in the novel, in the Auspices in particular. I’ve been waiting to see what all this obsession with bloodline was about, and at this point there have been some big reveals. Aunt Anne, an Auspice, guides Joseph Gray on the bloodlines of his daughter’s future husbands. So, then I started searching a bit on alchemy. And looky here:
There were a few differences from source to source - but you can see some major similarities with the names and symbols of city-states on the map of the Republics of National Alliance on p. 62. Note the symbols for the alliance is Earth in the alphabet below. Also, note that the symbols for Fire and Water, which when combined make steam, space vehicle propelling steam, when combined look like the singles units in the map of the Republic of Texas on p. 32-33. Also, I really think we should read Lizzy’s book rec about maps next.
Speaking of speaking in code, there are words that the inhabitants of the City-State speak in sign-language. Like the green text, scrutinizing which words they choose to speak silently seems to me important, or at least, fun to ponder.
'Follow' is interesting, because if you ask someone to follow you then you intend to reveal something to them. A revelation is like an uncarbon'd letter to the government from which nothing should be kept. 'Quiet' is similar. 'Morning' and 'Goodbye' don't seem like the kind of things you need to keep from recorders, but I can understand it one sense. If you don't allow the recorders to pick up on distinct beginnings and endings to conversations, then it is harder to be sure they have everything.
I bring this wild conspiracy up because the book sometimes drops you in the middle of a chapter of the Sister's Gray and when the story rest so heavily on family bloodline and connects 200 years of events and consequences, it seems our author likes stories without beginnings or endings. So this brings me back to the time-warp aspects of this book. If the McMarrow was reading The Sisters Gray when he was shot, hence the hole through the pages of the photocopied book, then he was reading a book before it was written. If the City-State is the book that was written in 1843, then the future isn't real or she predicted it, like an Auspice would.
The separate narratives of Henry Bartle, Eliza’s handwritten notes, and the City-State which is in third- person but relays the thoughts and feelings of Zeke, are too coherent for me not to discard my previous think that one of them could be ‘real’ while another is a ‘work of fiction’. The same goes for the Letters of Zaddock and The Sisters Gray.