Reading Alice Munro: “Walker Brothers Cowboy”

In the first paragraph of the first story in Alice Munro’s first collection of short stories, a little girl takes her father’s hand and the two of them wander away as her brother begs them to bring him an ice cream cone. Today that sort of beginning feels ominous: what’s going to happen? A father taking his young daughter aside, so late in the evening that her brother will be asleep when they return — in 2021, this would only be bad news. 

But this story was written in the 1960s, and it is set in the 1930s — almost a century ago. And it’s Alice Munro. Nothing as fraught and blatant as abuse is on the horizon. Instead, her father — the “Walker Brothers Cowboy” of the title — is simply showing her the world about her: the boarded-up factory, the vacant lot, the tramps around the docks, the Great Lake that has endured for centuries, pushed into shape by ancient ice.

The father, we learn, used to own a fox farm and now is a salesman. He goes door-to-door selling “pharmaceuticals,” treatments for lice and “natural” pills and bottles which must really be drugs and alcohol in disguise. He is a cheerful man, upbeat, often making up songs about his day. In my head, he looks like Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, who—fans will remember—had the same musical habit.

The father does not seem to feel the shame of losing the farm, but certainly his wife, the little girl’s mother, does. She dresses up to go to the shop, and makes excuses to keep her children from playing with the neighbors. “It does not matter that we were poor before,” the little girl explains, for “that was a different sort of poverty.” She is too tired, and her head aches too much, to sing nonsense songs or go on walks for fun.

All of this, the first few pages of the story, is just table-setting, a basic sketch of the family’s life. The heart of the story is a specific afternoon, when the father asks the mother to go with him on his sales circuit. The mother will not go, and so instead the father takes both children with him. He sings songs to amuse them, he tells dad jokes, and the unnamed narrator suddenly breaks the fourth wall, seemingly overcome with nostalgia. “The nineteen-thirties,” she says. “How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon, seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father’s hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board. . . “

After the rounds there is one more stop. The father takes his children to meet the Cronins, Nora and her mother. Nora and the father — how are they connected? We never learn, although it’s clear they knew each other well. The reader suspects they were lovers at one time but it is never made clear. And maybe the little girl, now grown up and the narrator of the story, simply doesn’t know the truth of the father’s bond with Nora. Maybe she was a crush; maybe he was; maybe they were simply childhood friends. 

The Cronins’ house bursts with interesting devices and colors: “a gramophone and a pump organ and a picture on the wall of Mary, Jesus’ mother . . . in shades of bright blue and pink with a spiked band of light around her head.” Nora offers forbidden fascination. “I think of what my grandmother and my Aunt Tena, over in Dungannon, used to always say to indicate that somebody was a Catholic,” remembers the girl. “So-and-so digs with the wrong foot, they would say. She digs with the wrong foot. That was what they would say about Nora.”

The little girl watches as her father shares a drink with Nora. She knows it is alcohol, although her mother has told her that her father does not drink. Her father does not seem to be a different person with Nora than he is with her mother — we have seen him singing at home, seen him trying to make the mother laugh with his antics — but Nora responds differently and that response seems to show her father in a different light. Nora and the girl dance, but the father refuses to dance with Nora. The mood turns — Munro communicates this in a terse exchange of pleasantries. The father gives Nora directions to their home but she does not repeat them back. She will never visit.

On the way home the father does not sing, even after his son asks him to.. “I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon,” the narrator says, “darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.”

The father and his children go home, and the sky is overcast, the color drained from the day, as if Dorothy is returning to Kansas.

The reader’s natural sympathy is with the father: he is so attentive to his children, he bears his social comedown with such good-humored grace. At the Cronins’ house both his longing for a different time and a different version of himself and also his circumspect loyalty to his wife are plain to see. But the mother’s frustration with her changed circumstances and with her husband’s blithe disregard of her distress is palpable and relatable as well. This marriage does not work for anyone, and on subsequent reads you begin to realize that this is as much the father’s fault as the mother’s.

Still, although I’d love to read a story with the mother at the center, Munro’s interest here is in the father, and in what life has done to him. “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” he asks his daughter. Really, the reader realizes at last, he is verifying his own existence. If anything was signified by that ominous beginning, it was the erosion of the father’s personality, the way it seems, in retrospect, that he was trying to hold onto fragments of himself.

Olga Dies Dreaming

Once upon a time I had a job so terrible and a life crammed so full of responsibilities and minor crises that when I got into my car to begin my commute, I would give myself five seconds to fantasize about driving far, far away, so far away that neither my boss nor my children’s school would ever find me. I never actually did that, of course, but I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes daydreaming about it. There is a whole mini-genre of novels about women who walk away from their families: Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, Gayle Forman’s Leave Me, just to name a few.

Xochitl Gonzalez’s novel Olga Dies Dreaming could be one of those stories about a mother freeing herself from the stress and grind of family life. The title character’s mother, Blanca, abandons her children when they are teenagers to pursue a life of political activism in Puerto Rico. She never regrets this choice. “Nothing, Olga, is more valuable than people being free,” she writes in her farewell note to her thirteen-year-old daughter. “Which is why, despite this being one of my own harder choices, I must leave you and your brother.”

On the other hand, you could see Blanca as a modern-day Mrs. Jellyby (minus the colonialism), neglecting the children sitting right next to her in favor of a faraway cause. When the book opens, some twenty years after Blanca’s escape to her homeland, both of her children plainly display the scars of her abandonment Olga is a jaded celebrity wedding planner; her brother, Pedro, is an anxious up-and-coming Congressman. Olga is brisk, efficient, and lonely: she has no friends other than her family, and her main romantic connection is with a wealthy older man who mostly enjoys having her as an ornament on his arm. Pedro is successful but haunted by a personal secret that he can barely admit even to himself, a secret that he is convinced will destroy his career. Both of them are financially successful, but neither of them has ever recovered from the fact that their mother left them. The emotional wounds never close, in part because their mother continues to write them, offering frank criticisms of their current lives.

Olga is under no illusions about the importance of her work, but she believes in her brother. “My mother thinks what I’m doing is stupid and I’m not sure I disagree,” she says in exasperation. “I’m absolutely ‘a slave to the capitalist needs of the White Man.’ Worst of all, I really enjoy money. My brother though? He doesn’t give a shit about any of that. All these City Council guys, these guys in Congress, pocketing this or that kickback so they can buy a house or send their kids to private school? My brother still lives in my grandmother’s house.” But Pedro has made compromises of his own, compromises he had to make to keep his own sense of self afloat, compromises he hopes Olga will never learn about.

For all Olga’s cynicism, Olga Dies Dreaming is ultimately a novel about love, love in all its varieties. Romantic love, yes, but also the love you have for your siblings, for your parents, for your children. Love for your homeland, love for the causes you hold dear, and not least the love you have for your own soul. Almost inevitably, this novel about love is also a novel about betrayal. When you choose between two loves — as Olga’s mother did — the one left unchosen will always feel the sting of rejection. Love and betrayal are inextricably intertwined. As the book continues, both Olga and Pedro are forced to make choices between the people they love and their own needs. For them, too, it is impossible to choose one love without betraying another.

When Blanca left her children, she wasn’t just walking away from them; she was walking toward something, something that felt more important and compelling to her than motherhood. It’s clear she would make the same choice again. Given a different spin, this could be a rah-rah “you go girl” tale of a woman beating the odds to reach her destiny. But Gonzalez forces us to look at the damage done to the people she betrayed when she chose one love over another.

What I Read This Week

Our Country Friends is a novel by Gary Shteyngart that tackles coronavirus head-on. It’s March 2020, and a racially and culturally diverse set of friends are waiting out the pandemic at a country house. They live there for several months, coming together and breaking apart, sometimes at odds, sometimes enjoying each other’s company, sometimes gritting their teeth and rolling their eyes.

The whole time I was reading this book I kept felt like I was missing something. I don’t mean that I was missing plot points — my attention didn’t really wander and I always knew what was going on — but I felt like there was some big thematic something that was lurking in the background that I wasn’t picking up on. My suspicion is that there are allusions and references to Russian novels that I am not getting because I’ve really only read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, and those were both a long time ago. (Someone on Litsy suggested that the book is modeled on Uncle Vanya and — maybe? I don’t know, it’s also been a long time since I’ve read Uncle Vany.)

But I didn’t get whatever point of reference there was, so I can report that this book is — fine. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I didn’t really buy that the kid was only eight, but I developed a fondness for Vinod. Maybe someday I’ll see a production of Uncle Vanya and everything will click and I’ll revise my mental rating. Or maybe the discussion during the Tournament of Books will illuminate it for me. Until then, it’s a solid three stars.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is Julian Sancton’s account of the Belgica, a Belgian ship captained by Adrien de Gerlache, a 28-year-old man determined to achieve glory for his homeland by exploring Antarctica. De Gerlache and his crew — including the famed Roald Amundsen — lose time, encounter various setbacks and in the end are forced to spend almost a year stuck in Antarctic sea ice. Most of them do make it back to Europe eventually, and de Gerlache and some of his crew now have namesake islands and landmasses in Antarctica.

I have always had a thing for books about nineteenth-century seafaring — beginning with Mutiny in the Bounty, which I read approximately one thousand times when I was growing up — and so I enjoyed this account, although conscience compels me to report it isn’t as vibrantly written or as eventful as Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice, an account of a North Polar expedition gone horribly wrong. The book is filled with interesting characters; besides Amundsen, there is the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, who comes across as proactive and energetic and a little bit full of himself (he would later spend several years in prison for fraud) and de Gerlache himself, who seems hubristic, unwise, and far too young to be in charge of the Belgica. The best adventure books keep you tense and attentive even when you know how they end, and I certainly was holding my breath as the crew attempted to break their ship out of the sea ice.

Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford, Mistress of the Monarchy, is absolutely delicious if you’re into biographies of medieval noblewomen. Katherine Swynford was the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, who was Richard II’s uncle and adviser, and Henry IV’s father. Gaunt was a very powerful man in his day, second only to the king, and his affair with Swynford was quite the scandal at the time.

There’s not a great deal of evidence about Swynford’s life: we don’t have letters or papers or a will or personal possessions or even any recorded words. Given all of that, Weir does a masterful job of cobbling together a four-hundred-page biography. As usual with Weir, I question some of her conclusions. I think she has a tendency to interpret evidence in the way that will make her happiest. In the case of Swynford and Gaunt, she is very invested in the idea that they were a true love-match. She is also attached to the notion that Gaunt was deeply in love with his first wife and would never have cheated on her. These beliefs affect the way she interprets every scrap of data, and lead her to insist upon “facts” that she can’t possibly establish as firmly as she thinks she can. (At one point, she refers to her belief that Gaunt would not have lied to the pope about his sex life as “watertight” evidence. Personally, I feel that the pope might be one of the first people you would lie to about your sex life.)

So I’m not convinced that Swynford and Gaunt are the great romance that Weir wants them to be. These were two wealthy, ambitious people who seem to have been rational actors. They may have begun their affair out of love (or lust) but once they had children there were plenty of political and financial reasons for them to continue a partnership, romantic or not. That doesn’t make them, or this book, any less fascinating.

Recitatif: The Shifting Sands of Historical Memory

Recitatif,” the late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s only short story, is explicitly concerned with race. When this new edition appeared on my Kindle yesterday, I thought, what a fortuitous time for the rerelease of this story. So far this week we’ve had a firestorm over the president’s commitment to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court and a slightly smaller firestorm over a Black actress saying that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, and it’s only Wednesday. But this is an illusion. I live in the United States. Name a week in the last fifty years when a short story about race wouldn’t have seemed eerily topical.

In “Recitatif,” Twyla and Roberta meet as children, two little girls shunted into St. Bonny’s, a children’s home. Alone among the children, these girls have living mothers. Twyla’s is irresponsible; Roberta’s is sick. Because these girls have living parents, because they are abandoned rather than simply unlucky, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder at the home. Well, not quite the lowest rung — they are a step ahead of Maggie, a mute kitchen worker who is bullied by the older girls:

Maggie fell down there once. . . . And the big girls laughed at her. We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked.

The girls share a room for a few weeks, and then they go home. They meet up a few times in future years. They occupy different social strata as adults and, perhaps for that reason, they remember parts of their time at the children’s home very differently. In particular, they cannot agree on their interactions with Maggie.

Morrison’s story has a trap at its center: we know that Twyla and Roberta are of different races. But Morrison never tells us who’s who. You can guess, but to guess is to fall into Morrison’s trap. Every guess you make reveals something about yourself and your perceptions of race and class, perceptions that you may not have been aware that you had. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to finish it without feeling at least a little uneasy about your own unexamined prejudices. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it,” writes Zadie Smith in an excellent, thoughtful introduction. “The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Smith seems to believe that Twyla, the viewpoint character, is probably Black; I very tentatively thought she was White.)

“Recitatif,” then, offers two interconnected questions without easy answers: what happened the day that Maggie fell down? And are Twyla and Roberta Black and White, or White and Black? Once you reflect on these questions for a little while, you realize there is a third: Does your perception of the race of these girls affect how you think about Maggie and the day that she fell? And even a fourth: Does the story hit different if you switch the races of the girls in your mind? The more you read the story, the more you feel that you are standing on shifting sand. All I can say for certain is that one girl ended up rich and the other ended up poor, but neither of them ever really left the children’s home behind. Two girls, with different pasts and different futures, both destined to be haunted forever by their experiences in the home. Experiences that they shared, but cannot even agree on.

It struck me as I typed the last paragraph that maybe this is what all of our fights about race boil down to: history that we share but can’t agree on. History that we keep trying to rearrange in our minds, because the rearrangement will allow us to believe we live in a world that is mostly good and just. That’s over now, we say. It was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter today. We tell ourselves the biggest lie of all: It was a different time, people didn’t understand.

But although the reader can’t be certain of the truth about what happened at St. Bonny’s, it is possible to know the truth of history, if we’re only willing to look at it. Maybe it comforts you to think that your Confederate ancestor just believed in states’ rights really fervently. Maybe you find it easier to make a passionate argument against affirmative action if you pretend centuries of chattel slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and redlining didn’t happen. Maybe you feel less unsettled if you think of the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated by a small but uniquely evil group of men rather than a race-based genocide that most of the population colluded in. But the comfort you take in those beliefs can’t make them true.

What we keep learning over and over again is that the past finds you and won’t let you rest no matter how hard you try to hide from it. This is the reality that Roberta and Twyla face in their last meeting, a meeting that ends with Roberta wiping away confused tears. And it’s the reality we face as a nation, every time another firestorm over race erupts and we’re faced with another piece of history we can’t bear to look at head-on.

Fiona and Jane: On Friendship

I met my two best friends during the first year of college. We’ve been a trio for many years now, three decades, and although I remember meeting them very clearly it’s also almost impossible to realize that there was ever a time when my first reaction to significant news — good or bad — wasn’t to share it with them, a time when in fact I wouldn’t have known who they were at all. We message each other almost every day. Our friendship is central to my life.

I’m telling you this because I’m certain this thirty-year friendship affected the way I read this book. Fiona and Jane is the story of two Chinese-American girls; eventually we learn of their childhood and their adulthood, but the story is not told chronologically. Fiona and Jane is billed as a linked short-story collection but it works better if you think of it as a novel told in vignettes. Most of the chapters would feel slightly empty as standalone stories. But read one after another, they build a resonance from callbacks to and echoes of previous scenes. We learn early on that Jane is the daughter of immigrants, with a deeply religious mother and a father forced to move back to Taiwan to provide for the family. Fiona immigrates to the United States with her mother; she does not know her father. She has been spoiled by her Chinese grandparents but in the U. S. she and her mother — and, later, her stepfather and younger brother — are often scraping by. Fiona and Jane say they are friends, best friends, but they hold each other at arm’s length. The characters reflect, often, on how long it has been since they have spoken.

Without knowing anything about the author’s biography, it’s tempting to read this book as a novelization of her own life. Her first name is Jean, which lines up so nicely with Jane; and all of the chapters about Jane are told in the first person, whereas all the chapters about Fiona are in the third person. Jane is a writer, and I read the chapters about Fiona as written by Jane, in an attempt to understand her missing friend. Even in stories that are Fiona’s alone, Jane always seems to be lurking just offstage, perhaps taking notes.

But you don’t have to read this as autofiction to recognize that Fiona and Jane is ultimately Jane’s story. The novel is bookended by two critical moments in her life: the first, a visit to her father in Taiwan, which ends in a revelation and a mistake that Jane will regret for years; the last, two decades later, when she finds a way to exorcise her guilt and come to terms with both of her parents. Fiona’s life seems more eventful — romantic complications, marriage, career shifts — but it’s Jane I was drawn to. Bereft of Fiona, Jane seems lost and lonely. And Jane cannot move on from the exclusivity of the friendship, even when Fiona seems to have other interests, other priorities, other people who take precedence over Jane:

The strange feeling I’d had earlier—the one I couldn’t place, when Fiona said she and Won had kissed—came over me again. My throat tightened. I’d thought it was jealousy before, and I’d crushed it down inside of me, ashamed. I didn’t want to be jealous of Fiona. Sure, there was plenty to envy about her, but I’d never felt anything close to competition between us. Until tonight. Until I learned she’d kept a secret from me. 

But it wasn’t jealousy. It was the shock of grief, that we didn’t share everything, no matter how much I wanted to believe we could. And now I held my own secret with Won, with Fiona on the outside of it.

At the end of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You the two main characters end arm-in-arm. “If you weren’t my friend, I wouldn’t know who I was,” one says, and the other agrees: “I wouldn’t know who I was either.” That’s how I feel about my besties, too, and how I think they feel about me. Fiona, though? She makes mistakes but she knows who she is, with or without Jane. This isn’t a book about two best friends, not really. It’s a book about two childhood friends who have to figure out their places in each other’s lives when childhood is over.

What I Read This Week

Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is one of those books I would never have picked up were it not for the Tournament of Books. Alas, I wish I could say I’m glad I stumbled onto it but in fact this book and I did not get along. It is the story of a scientist, Evelyn Caldwell, whose pathbreaking research into clones has led to awards and acclaim. But her personal life is unhappy — her husband Nathan has left her for another woman. Not just any other woman, but a literal Evelyn clone. And — we learn in the first few chapters — the clone is pregnant, and Nathan is dead.

It’s an intriguing premise, if a bit on the soap operatic side. But I could not get invested in this novel, because I never believed in any of the characters. Martine and Seyed and Nathan all behave in ways that advance the plot but don’t make sense. The world-building, too, was puzzling and inconsistent. But what frustrated me most of all were the pains the author took to tell me what to think about Evelyn’s actions. She might as well have put up a neon sign that read “THIS IS A BAD SITUATION.”

In fairness, I do think Gailey nails Evelyn’s voice and personality. She is the only character with much development at all, but Gailey seems to thoroughly understand her. Still, if you want to read a novel about personhood and identity, I would choose Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Klara and the Sun before this one.

The Confession of Copeland Cane, by Keenan Norris, also frustrated me. It is the story of a Black California teenager who is recruited by a prep school. He navigates the social and educational hierarchies of the school while also negotiating aggressive policing, incipient eviction, and ultimately political protests.

The novel is well-written but I’m not sure what it’s bringing to the table that is new. It’s supposedly set in the “very near future,” but it might as well be the present for all I could tell. I liked Copeland well enough, and I like Jacqueline, who provides the frame of the book, but I didn’t feel that I got new insight on structural racism or police states or the failures of the media; I would just as soon reread The New Jim Crow. I don’t want to be too hard on the book; it may be the victim of my dystopia fatigue as I read through the Tournament of Books longlist, which this year features one dark take on modern times after another. I do think Keenan Norris is massively talented.

David Green’s The Hundred Years War: A People’s History was a refreshing distraction from the other books this week. Granted, the story of peasants dealing with the Black Death and the miseries of war wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was a bit of a relief to be reminded that pandemics and political turmoil aren’t confined to twenty-first century America. Each chapter in this history takes up a different topic — ranging from peasants to kings to women to prisoners of war — and describes how the subject was impacted by the Hundred Years’ War. The book is filled with interesting facts and people. Some were new to me: for example, my heart really went out to Charles of Orleans, who spent twenty-five years as a political prisoner. Others I had heard of but only half-remembered. I feel certain I read some of Christine de Pizan’s work in college but I now really want to learn more about her.

For this most part, I found this book riveting and informative, in particular the final chapter on the national identities that were forged in the crucible of the war. Green does have a slightly annoying habit of repeating his main points several times throughout a chapter — well-connected prisoners could be used as political bargaining chips, who knew? — but this is a forgivable flaw in a book that made me reflect on the roots of historical change, and served to remind me that humanity has survived the likes of the Trumpists before, and will no doubt do so again.

Strange Flowers: Style and Substance

It’s tempting to frame this review as a tug of war between style and substance. No one could ever deny that Donal Ryan writes beautiful sentences. It’s such a cliche to talk about lyrical prose in a review, but in fact you could pick up this book and turn to almost any page and find a passage that rises and falls like music. I loved every second I spent on Ryan’s paragraphs.

But what of the substance? Strange Flowers opens with Paddy Gladney, a rural Irishman, mourning this disappearance of his twenty-year-old daughter Moll. They know she has left on purpose — she took a bus out of town — but they do not know why. They search for her in Dublin but she is not to be found. And so they go one with their days, Paddy farming the land that his family has farmed for generations (although it belongs to the wealthy Jackmans), Kit keeping house. And then Moll returns. She has a secret, and as the years go on, it turns out that she has more than one. But the focus of the book isn’t really on Moll; it’s on the quiet hum of an Irish village as everyone works and lives and eats and prays over the course of decades.

One of Ryan’s talents is for making the mundane come to life, to feel almost mystical. Here is Paddy clearing a cobweb:

He found a spider’s web that stretched from behind the rearview mirror down as far as the gearstick and back along to the parcel shelf, and the sun that streamed in through the space where the slats were cracked lit the thin strands of it so it shone there silky in the shard of evening light, and the size of it and the intricate detail of it and the way it spanned out so perfectly from a central point made him shiver with pleasure and wonder, and it nearly broke his heart to destroy all that spider’s good work with one sweep of his arm.

In a similar vein, late in the book another character observes men repainting lines on the highway:

One of the men is carrying a steaming bucket and the other has a metal triangle at the end of a long handle, and with these things they’re painting white diagonal lines along the side of the road, on top of the ones that are already there, faded almost fully away. The man with the teaming bucket pours hot paint into the rectangle while his comrade deftly sweeps it along so that the lines are laid down in perfect palimpsest, new on old, and the way they work is almost hypnotic.

Maybe you like this sort of writing and maybe you don’t. I posted an excerpt on Facebook and one of my friends described it as “writerly.” He didn’t intend it as a compliment. I can see that Ryan’s prose might be easy to parody. But when I was reading this book I fell into the rhythms the way I might fall into a comfortable bed at the end of a long day. While I was reading this book I woke up looking forward to picking it up again — not because I wanted to know what happened, but because I wanted to read more of Ryan’s sentences.

But then I read the book again. During my second readthrough I was more accustomed to those lovely sentences, and some of the shine was off. Now I started to think harder about the plot. And I began to remember what frustrated me about Ryan’s last novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea. First, Ryan has a fondness for unexpected shocks at the end of a novel, giving his novels the feel of a shattered stained-glass window. The twist at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea is fairly effective. But in Strange Flowers, we have two surprises, presented back-to-back in the last several dozen pages. This is at least one too many, particularly since as a reader I felt prepared for neither.

Ryan’s deeper problem is with character. In From a Low and Quiet Sea, to my annoyance, he struggled to develop fully fleshed-out female characters. In Strange Flowers, however, even the men feel unsatisfying. Paddy and Alexander, while both lovable, are too saintly to feel real. Ellen and Kit are ciphers. Worst of all, there is an emptiness at the center of this book where Moll should be. Moll is the character who brings all the others together; without her there’s no story. But she never comes to life. She is beloved, but she is also berated (I lost count of how many times other people yelled at her); she is described at various points as “a changeling” or “like an animal.” She says of herself that there was “this monstrous thing inside me.” Ryan may intend us to read Moll’s story as tragic, the way that this normal young woman sees herself as though “the devil was stuck in me,” but I was mostly confused by it. I was never sure how she felt about anyone, or about the choices she made to leave and then to come back. The surprises Ryan throws in at the end are, I believe, intended to clarify who Moll is, but they only muddle what we already know. She does not make sense as a character; she only makes sense as a plot device.

I wrote all of this, and I read over it again, and I thought, so this book is stylish but lacking in substance. I could quote it all day long, but I have no idea what Ryan is trying to say with all those beautiful sentences. On reflection, though, that isn’t quite right. The beautiful sentences serve to imbue the world he’s depicting with a magic and a grace that a more matter-of-fact tone could never convey. That, as much as anything, is what Ryan is trying to accomplish here: to show off this world, to lend dignity to Paddy and Alexander, to polish up a little Irish town and show it off. That doesn’t make the book’s flaws less real– the shocks at the end don’t work, Moll isn’t as developed as she should be — but it may offset them. Treating this novel as a battle between style and substance isn’t the right way to evaluate it. Here, the style and the substance are one and the same.

What I Read This Week

I read Evvie Drake Starts Over solely because I read Linda Holmes’s work religiously back when she was still writing recaps of The Amazing Race as Miss Alli at the late lamented Television Without Pity. You could definitely hear her voice in this book, and certainly some of the storylines and character relationships seemed to faintly echo what I know about her life. This novel is about a young widow whose secret (this is not a spoiler, the reader is in on it from the beginning) is that she was literally leaving her husband at the very moment she got a phone call that he’d been in a terrible car accident. After a year of struggling with guilt, a pitcher with a famous case of the yips moves into the guesthouse on her property. You can probably guess everything else that happens.

Evvie was a pleasant diversion from my other reading this week. I have a hard time with romance as a genre because it is a bit predictable for my taste — you see two characters and you know that by the end of the book they will be together in some form. In general, I don’t find that enjoyable. (Caveat: Last March I got depressed and read five and a half Bridgerton novels all in a row.) But I enjoyed this one, without being bowled over by it. I’d rather read Holmes’s recaps of The Amazing Race, to be honest, but she has moved on, and who can blame her?

Last week I complained that Summer of Blood, while striking and detailed, didn’t give me a lot of context about the fourteenth-century Wat Tyler Riots. Well, Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 made up for that and then some. Context, context that stretches back several centuries and across Europe, context as far as the eye can see. Which was great! Except that ideally, a book about a particular uprising would devote more than seven of almost 250 pages to the events of the uprising.

In retrospect, the best way to get what I wanted would have to read the first half of this book, then read Summer of Blood, then finish this book. Or, I don’t know, find a third book that manages to provide both historical context and narrative color and maybe mentions a woman at some point. I probably could have replaced both of these with Juliet Barker’s England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 and I no longer remember why I didn’t. (I am now feeling the itch to add this to my reading plan, but do I really need a third book about Wat Tyler?)

Percival Everett’s The Trees was, like every other book I’ve read by Everett, an exercise in frustration. We are not on the same wavelength, Everett and I. This book is about a couple of Black detectives investigating a strange pair of murders in a tiny Mississippi town. In both cases, a White man was found brutally killed next to a the corpse of a Black man who seems to resemble Emmett Till.

Oh, where to start. I really wanted to like this novel — nothing in my literary life makes me feel guiltier than my failure to warm up to the work of Percival Everett — but as soon as I got a load of the names in the first chapter I knew I was going to have a problem. Silly names don’t amuse me (“Herbie Hind,” really?) and most of the attempts at jokes just fell flat. For me, at least.

I want to be clear, I do recognize that this is an accomplished book and that the author achieves what he sets out to do. The problem here is that I am not the intended audience of this book, and that is fine! I can see by scanning Storygraph reviews that it has found its intended audience. For me the humor is too broad and it doesn’t sit well next to the dark storyline. I didn’t even think the Trump jokes landed.

I was determined not to like Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney, but it won me over. It is a novel about two best friends who begin relationships with two very different men — but the book is more interested in their friendship than in their romantic lives, which is refreshing. I wasn’t wild about Rooney’s novel Normal People, and I thought Rooney’s logic about not translating this latest book into Hebrew was both shallow and performative, so I was rolling my eyes as I began the book. And I found the first hundred pages — when one of the main characters, Alice, who seems to be a Rooney stand-in, was at her most insufferable — a bit of a slog. But I really loved Eileen, the co-protagonist, and as the book continued I even warmed up to Alice. The most interesting parts of the book are the letters the two women write to each other, with exchanges not just about the men in their lives but about the world around them. Alice worries that her novel-writing and her romantic peccadilloes are frivolous in a world riddled with poverty and exploitation, and Eileen responds:

[T]here is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive—because we are so stupid about each other.

It reads as though Rooney is trying to convince herself of the importance of her fiction, and maybe she is. Or maybe it’s all a conceit. At any rate, Eileen gives both Alice and the reader quite a bit to think about in this book, as she repeatedly champions the importance of human connection.

At the end of the book, Eileen tells Alice, “If you weren’t my friend I wouldn’t know who I was,” and when I think about my two dearest friends I feel the same way. We met the first year of college and now I find it’s impossible to imagine a world in which I don’t know them. I can’t think who I might be without these friendships to ground me. “We are so stupid about each other,” Eileen says, and when I think of the mistakes I’ve made in my life, most of them were because my brain was clouded by my feelings for other people — my friends or my husband or my children. The argument of this book is that those mistakes are okay, or at least understandable — the “nicest reason you can imagine” for errors in judgment.

Nervous System: We Are Made of Star-Stuff

“The cosmos is within us,” Carl Sagan once said. “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Nervous System, by Lina Meruane, is a slim elliptical novel which takes this sentiment very much to heart. Ella, the main character, is a student of astronomy and she sees stardust and planets everywhere she looks. The novel abounds with scientific imagery: a mole on a neighbor’s cheek is like a star; Ella and her boyfriend El are an electron and a positron, each the other’s opposite; an MRI machine is a black hole.

Very little action happens in Nervous System. If you sketch out the plot beats they seem barely enough to flesh out a short story. Ella struggles to finish her astronomy dissertation. She wishes she could get sick, so she could be relieved of her teaching duties; then she does become ill, a mysterious lesion appearing on her spine, and she regrets her wish. She allows her father to pay for her studies but worries that she is wasting his money. The major events in her life — her mother’s death, a breakup, a move to another country — are hinted at rather than expanded upon. Nearly everything that might be of ordinary interest happens off-stage.

What Meruane wants to write about instead are illnesses and injuries. Each chapter centers on the maladies and mishaps of a different character, and each chapter has a scientific title and theme, such as “stardust” or “gravity.” Sometimes the theme illuminates the characters beautifully. Associating Ella with black holes and El with explosions gives the reader an interesting window into their relationship. At other times the theme falters — associating the milky way with Ella’s stepmother and her breast cancer struck me as, let’s say, overly literal.

Peppered throughout the book are asides about astronomy, or — as Ella corrects El at one point — “extraterrestrial planetary sciences.” These seem like digressions, but feature some of the most arresting writing in the book. For example, Ella ponders the universe:

An old cosmologist conjectured that after the big bang there must have been other, smaller explosions that produced infinite pocket universes scattered through space. Some empty and others saturated with matter, some eternal, others ephemeral, others that were expanding too quickly and violated the human laws of physics. But why would they be so different? Ella thought. Why was it only humans who were lucky enough to live in a space specially designed for them? A space, a planet, that humans seemed intent on destroying. 

Life on earth was composed of 82 percent plants, 13 percent bacteria, and the remaining 5 percent included everything else. Of that everything else, only 0.01 percent was human. And still, that 0.01 percent was finishing off the other species. It was even finishing off itself.

When I finished Nervous System, what stuck with me were not the moments with doctors in hospitals, not Ella’s flailing love life nor her flailing career, but the side notes about stars and planets. These seeming diversions are as central to Ella’s story as her dissertation or the scans of her spine. The universe is part of her. She is part of it.

“What mistakes could we repair?” Ella’s father asks late in the book. “Which one would you start with?” He’s talking about the damage done to the planet, but he’s also talking about Ella and about his own life. It’s a metaphor, sure. But it’s more than that. It’s also a suggestion that learning what has gone wrong with the planet will illuminate what has gone wrong with Ella. She is a way for the universe to know itself, and for us to know the universe. Can the damage to Ella or to Earth be undone? Who can put them right? “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” wrote Carl Sagan. “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

What I Read This Week

In Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Dan Jones tells the story of the Wat Tyler riots in a brisk 238 pages. It sounds a bit cold-hearted to describe a book about an event in which many people died as entertaining, but at the very least this account is gripping. Jones’s strength is in setting a scene. His description of the plundering of Savoy Palace, for example:

Greater and greater discoveries were made. Barrels of gold and silver plate were turned up. Some were dragged up to the roadside and smashed, and others rolled down to the riverside gates and hurled into the Thames. Jewels were stamped on and crushed into dust to ensure they could not be rescued or reused. Gilded cups were beaten out of shape by rebels wielding swords and axes. That which could not be adequately mangled or smelted on the bonfires was thrown into the sewers. 

Jones also has an eye for the telling detail: the Flemish wife struggling with an axe to avenge herself on her husband’s murderer, the bishop-turned-battler who holds a condemned rioter’s head to prevent it from hitting the ground as he is dragged to the gallows. Jones makes it easy to develop a mental picture of the confusion and mayhem that roiled England during the revolt. (In fact, I’m not sure I needed quite so many images of botched beheadings.)

Although Jones is a great storyteller, he falters when contextualizing the riots. In particular, the numbers he gives are often fuzzy and imprecise, or outright missing. He tells us that the tax that initially provoked the rioters was intended to be a crippling four or five groats per person, but that Parliament reduced it and also asked the church to pay a third of the reduced total. But he doesn’t tell us what they reduced it to! My back-of-the-envelope math suggests about two groats per person, but I still don’t know whether that would have been a devastating increase or just an annoying one. I also didn’t get a good sense of the size of the mobs compared to the rest of the commons. Was this a small group of troublemakers, or were large portions of the villages involved?

Finally, I would like to have known more about what women were doing — were any of them in the mob? Were they providing some kind of homefront support? — as well as religious and ethnic minorities. Jones does suggest at one point that the Flemings in particular were seen by the mob as immigrants stealing their livelihoods (which, yes, makes the mob sound like a big bloody MAGA rally) but again, this was something that was hinted at rather than developed. The book is vivid and even thought-provoking at times, but I didn’t feel that I got enough information to truly understand the significance of the uprising.

Mona Awad’s All’s Well is a darkly comic novel in which a woman turns pain and resentment into something akin to a superpower. Miranda, the protagonist, is a drama professor at a small college where she is directing a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. She’s also getting over a bitter divorce, and perhaps most importantly of all, riddled with pain stemming from an accident that destroyed her acting career. A meeting with three strange men begins to heal her, and even to offer her some measure of power.

It’s how she uses this power that provides most of the interest of the book. Miranda is angry, and she wants to get what she believes she deserves. Is that success? Is it dominance? Or is it vengeance? I was at times reminded forcibly of Daenerys Targaryen managing her dragons.

It’s been more than three decades since I read All’s Well That Ends Well. I’m sure I missed allusions and references that might have enriched the book for me. (I did recognize nods to MacBeth, and I don’t think it’s an accident that Miranda shares her name with the daughter of The Tempest‘s Prospero.) As it was, I mostly found the book an exercise in frustration. Miranda’s complaints about her disappointments in life grated on me, and although I could sympathize with her chronic pain and her truly terrible doctors, I found it hard to sympathize with her disdain for her students. And while the book is clearly intended to be humorous, I didn’t think it was all that funny. To my ear, it was more mean-spirited than amusing. This novel is original, but it made for a deeply unpleasant reading experience.

Several People Are Typing, by Calvin Kasulke, has a ludicrous premise, but it manages to be both amusing and weirdly touching. The premise is that a staffer at a PR firm, Gerald, has gotten stuck in his company’s Slack, and he can’t escape. He has become pure intellect and spirit, capable of working in the Cloud but unable to do anything with his body. It’s ridiculous, but somehow it works. It is perhaps a sad commentary on our times that becoming trapped in Slack, unable to leave, doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

The entire novel is told in the form of Slack messages; the chapters are various Slack channels. The Slack conversations will have a ring of familiarity if you’ve spent any time working at an office in the last couple of years (the main difference I noticed: my office uses far more emojis than the office in the novel, but I suppose that’s hard to replicate). I was startled to see how revelatory banal conversations about clients and work product could be.

Because of the format, Several People Are Typing is a remarkably fast read, and although it is at times laugh-out-loud funny, it can also be sweet and introspective. Slack comprises “the daily outrages and minor amusements and short videos and updates from people whose worldviews are impossible to comprehend and people whose worldviews are uncannily aligned with your own, brand new each morning like a fresh loaf of the same bread, like the rising sun,” says Gerald, “the sublime plopped right next to everything else.” By the end of the book, I was getting a bit tired of the shtick, and I would have excised at least one of the subplots, but you know what? I laughed and I got really invested in Gerald’s happiness and what else can you ask for from 249 pages of faux Slack messages?