An Academic Question

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
4/5

After finishing American War (which I wrote about here), I felt strongly in need of something cozy and charming to ease me back into reading about non-apocalyptic settings and themes; Pym’s An Academic Question was just the ticket. This is my second novel by Pym, and while I didn’t love it quite as much as her much more famous Excellent Women (which I adored), I did enjoy it. An Academic Question wasn’t published during Pym’s lifetime, I believe, but was, rather, cobbled together from two drafts (one that took a more fashionable wry and witty tone and one which was written more earnestly) and put out posthumously by a friend and biographer of Pym’s, Hazel Holt. I knew this little history before I began my reading, so I was a tad distracted looking for evidence of this origin story in the finished manuscript, but if there were awkward jolts between styles, they were few and far between. What I remember of Excellent Women is that it is this mixture of sardonic earnestness which rather marks Pym and drew me to her, and while that same blend doesn’t come off quite as well in this novel, it still achieves an amusing and sympathetic effect.

An Academic Question is about a young woman, Caro, who is married to Alan, a junior professor at “a provincial college” who is rather desperately casting about for his big break in the field of Anthropology. Caro, with the help of their au pair, Inge, cares for their daughter Kate, and is friend to a number of their small town’s more endearingly eccentric characters (my favorite is Dolly, a secondhand bookshop owner who obsesses over hedgehogs and uses her pensioner’s money to buy scandalously expensive brandy); otherwise, though, Caro is rather unfulfilled. She can’t decide on a life’s work, Alan seems to be either having or planning to have an affair, and the university events she’s expected to attend are becoming increasingly difficult for her. Her chief problem in the novel, though, unfolds when Alan makes her an accomplice to the theft of a dying missionary’s private manuscript which Alan uses to advance his own career and then foists off on Caro.

There are many academic questions explored within the novel: What are the moral limits when it comes to expanding the world’s store of scholarly knowledge? What about just when it comes to expanding one’s own career prospects? What are the duties of the spouse to the academic, and what are the duties of the academic to the nonacademic? Is a life devoted entirely to scholarship necessarily the best life? Like all good novels, An Academic Question does not answer such questions, or even directly pose them, but merely highlights them within a context for the reader’s inspiration.

Athena in Library

That face! I think she’s starting to develop a slight resemblance to Salvador Dali.

Since I finished grad school a few years ago, novels with academic settings or academes as main characters have been a bit taboo on my reading list. I tend not to find them charming or witty or fulfilling the suggested requirements of any positive adjectives really. There are a few exceptions (I read Moo by Jane Smiley while still in grad school and I loved it; more recently I added A.S. Byatt’s Possessions to my list of favorite books ever), but for the most part I have no stomach or sympathy to spare for such novels because they remind me of what a miserable time I had in grad school. Perhaps with my enjoyment of An Academic Question I’m getting beyond all of that, or perhaps the appeal of this book lies in the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a person who is a bit of an outsider to academia despite being thrust into its world on a daily basis. This is a position I often feel myself to be in, because while I happily and totally left that world behind me, I’m still the daughter of academics and many of my friends remain linked with academia in some fashion. So, I found Caro to be very relatable on this level, and I sympathized a lot with her anxieties about meeting the expectations of her husband and his peers regarding the living of a fulfilling life and the issue of who gets to decide what that means.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading more Pym! I’ve already got a few more of her books on my shelf just waiting to be devoured, but I’m open to suggestions! Any particularly good Pym novels I should be seeking out? What about any other novels that might help re-open me up to academia as subject matter?

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American War Review

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American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)
4.5/5

This book, journalist El Akkad’s debut novel, is, as I said in my little “blurb” review here, one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in a very, very long time. Perhaps I’m plucking this title out of the ether just because I’m loving the Hulu adaptation, but I would say The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was the last dystopian book I read that rattled and rallied me as powerfully as American War has (though it’s a very different sort of book). It took me a little under a week to read this (mostly because I frequently felt moved to set it down and read a humorous Milne story or essay by Sarah Vowell just to soothe my shattered nerves, honestly), and I had American War-inspired nightmares almost every one of those nights. Essentially, this book fucked me up, and I loved every minute of it.

American War is set in a future in which the United States has been shattered by a civil war over fossil fuels (those Southern states which don’t get reclaimed by the Mexican Protectorate go rogue when the rest of the country bans the use of fossil fuels). An outbreak of a vaguely defined but quite deadly disease has resulted in the entirety of South Carolina being quarantined, and the South is largely dependent on the Bouazizi Empire (formed by the Middle East and Southeast Asian nations, it seems) for aid. Details of how this all happened are passed along in the form of excerpted textbook entries, oral history segments, and the like which are presented between chapters. The bulk of the narrative, however, is given over to the Chestnut family which is comprised of Benjamin and Martina, their son, Simon, and their twin daughters Dana and Sarat.

The reader meets the Chestnuts as they’re preparing to move their family from a unstable and economically depressed “purple” area (situated in the geographic south but not a part of the Free Southern States or FSS) to the safer North. Benjamin is a casualty of a terrorist attack while trying to get his working papers in order, though, and the family is sent to a refugee camp for displaced citizens of the FSS. Conditions there are bad, and many of the refugees there seem to have given up on leaving the camp alive, but the Chestnuts each find their own ways to approximate a forward-thinking survival. I don’t want to give too much away, because this is the part of the plot in which things really get kicking, so I’ll stop the synopsis here and just say, vaguely and, I hope, enticingly, that the ways in which the younger Chestnuts learn to survive involve varying degrees of radicalization.

This novel is so unique and especially worthwhile because of the ways it manages to convincingly and movingly defamiliarize the radicalization narrative. We read so many accounts, almost always these days about radical Islamist extremists, of what goes into the radicalization of young people—lack of education, lack of jobs, resource scarcity, exposure to horrors, and exposure to charismatic leaders who promise the world. To see this narrative expanded upon and really poked and prodded until it starts to make some horrifying sense, and to see it against a backdrop of the United States where we like to pretend that such things don’t happen or, if they do, that they happen very differently, is jarring and fascinating.

Also, the writing is just straight-up excellent. El Akkad has a knack for compiling perfect paragraphs that just sweep you along with ease (from a readability-standpoint at least) until you’re drawn up short by the point of all that you’ve been taking in, succinctly encapsulated in quick, show-stopping sentences (“America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious”). The characters are each wonderful, fully-developed creations. I wanted to Google them all to learn more about their fates, what they’re up to now, and was stopped by the memory of Google’s limited usefulness in such a world before I was stopped by the realization that none of them actually exist. This book cracks open human psychology anew on almost every page. Here’s a passage I was particularly struck by:

“Karina hated to see the widows in black. They struck her as relics of their own making, frozen in permanent deference to reckless or foolish or simply unfortunate men who were nonetheless dead and sealed away in the earth forever.

“Husbands never wore black. Husbands were never confined to that kind of passive declaration, were never compelled to sulk across the world for the remainder of their lives, walking signposts of mourning. Husbands were permitted rage, permitted wrath, permitted to avenge their loss by marching out and inflicting on others the very same carnage once inflicted upon them. It seemed to Karina further proof that wartime was the only time the world became as simple and carnivorously liberating as it must exist at all times in men’s minds. Some of the women she met never used their own names again—she knew them only as the Widow This or the Widow That—but she’d never met a Widower Anything.”

I read that passage a few times over and I could feel my relationship to the whole world shifting—that’s how you know a good book, right?

My only gripe with this novel is a rather silly one, perhaps. I wish there’d been more of it. I had so many questions about the world created by El Akkad that went unanswered if they were even tantalizingly addressed. I wanted to know more about how things worked in the north, what the future peace was supposed to look like. I was so curious about how race and technology fitted into the various societies. I wanted more details about everything happened. I can understand why all of those answers aren’t given, and I know I’m being greedy asking for them, but I’m a greedy reader and I make no apologies. As I said in my intro, this is El Akkad’s first novel, and I’m going to be first in line for his next. I cannot recommend this book enough.

April Round-Up II

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April Round-Up Part II

I’ve been pretty good at keeping up with reviews as I finish books, at least during this second half of the cruelest month (which has actually been pretty lovely to me book-wise). Still, there are a few reads that I either didn’t get a chance to review or just didn’t feel passionately enough about to think that a full post was warranted. You should be able to tell by my ratings which books belong to which of these categories.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale: I picked this one up off the library shelf sort of at random one morosely rainy day, and so I must give credit to whatever morose-rainy-day sixth sense drew my fingers to this book because it was a fantastic read. In certain moods, I love true crime, but I often feel that book-length studies of one particular crime or criminal tend to drag on, suffering a dearth of material which is repeated too often to meet some arbitrary page quota. Not so of The Wicked Boy. Summerscale did her research, about the crime (a young boy killed his mother and then he and his younger brother left her body in her bed to rot for days while they used the family savings to gallivant about at cricket matches and such) but also about Victoriana generally. Everything from the particulars of Victorian currency to circulating theories of child development is explained in a clear and wonderfully interesting manner, and Summerscale manages to make all the principle characters of this murder investigation sympathetic, even the murderer himself. 4.5/5.

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson: This book is about a troubled psychologist named Preston Grind who teams up with an elderly businesswoman turned philanthropist to perform a grand scale social experiment which they called the Infinite Family project. Ten families with newborn babies are selected to come live in what is essentially a compound; in exchange for agreeing to co-parent all ten children for ten years, the parents are provided with whatever resources they want or need to better themselves. The focus of the novel shifts between Dr. Grind, who I thought was the most interesting character, and a young woman named Izzy, the project’s only single mother. We follow them through the duration of the project, which hits the sorts of bumps in the road one would expect such a project to hit, and their stories are, by turns, amusing, frustrating, touching, and heart-warming.
And yet, and yet…the book still left me, overall, feeling cold. Probably I’m not really the best reader for this book given my rather limited interest in children and narratives about parenting. But I tend to glom on to anything that even hints of cultishness, so this book should have gripped me more, I think. Part of the problem was that the book has an enormous cast of characters, but most of them are more or less indistinguishable from one another. Those who do stand out do so only by virtue of their relations to Izzy (one is her best friend, one is the guy she kisses during a freak incident of spin the bottle, etc.). Also, Izzy herself seemed only two-dimensional at best: the premise of the book is that something revolutionary is happening, but she doesn’t seem to change. I think this book could potentially be very interesting if read and discussed within a particular context (i.e. as part of a larger discussion on the sociology of parenting), but as a stand-alone read, it left me a bit disappointed. 3.5/5.

American War by Omar El Akkad: I’m finishing up a longer review of this book that I’ll post in the next day or so, so I won’t say much about it now other than I loved it. This is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in a very long time, and, though it shook me to my core and left me nightmare-ridden for days, I would absolutely recommend this to anyone and everyone. There’s something here for almost every kind of serious reader, and while it’s incredibly haunting, all of that darkness serves a purpose and results in a very rewarding experience all around. 4.5/5.

So, that’s my April reading all wrapped up nicely! I finished twelve books this month (many of which were library books or Kindle reads which is why they aren’t pictured above in case that discrepancy was going to eat at you), and I struck a nice balance between light and heavy in my reading, so I’m pleased about that. I’m also super pleased with how well I kept up with blogging about it all, so a nice pat on the back to me there. I must admit that I did buy an embarrassing number of books this month, too many to even tell you all about because it’s too shameful (suffice to say that I discovered Book Outlet this month and I went to my local library book sale on dollar bag day). But I need to keep up this rapid reading pace to have any hope of finishing them all this year, so there’s a vague and unattainable challenge set for myself. Wish me luck!

Elizabeth and Her German Garden Review

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
Virgo Modern Classics
4/5

This is such a strange little book, and I absolutely loved it. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a semi-autobiographical account of a year in the life of a garden created by an amateur gardener and, if I have the timeline correct, a relatively young writer. Throughout the book, von Arnim talks a great deal about the flowers she’s trying, the difficulties of communicating her vision for the garden (this was written at a time when it was rather outre for a woman to be operating her own shovel and spade), and the pleasures of sitting the whole day in one’s garden with nothing but a book and the greenery to amuse oneself. But there’s much, much more than musings on gardening going on in this deceptively small tome. There are strains of an ardent, homespun feminism that weave in and out of observations about the irritations of having guests to stay, amusing anecdotes about her children and husband (whom she refers to as the Man of Wrath), and lovely and amusing reflections on Christmas, libraries, and servants.

To be clear, though, I did not always find her thoughts on servants to be either charming or amusing, but I think these bits fall flat largely as a function of time and glaring class differences. For example, she seems to find it very funny that her seventy-year old carriage driver has developed the habit of falling asleep on his box; my reaction to that story was to want to shake her until she realized the decency of giving a man his retirement. These sections are few and far between, and none of them cross the line into abject cruelty or the boorish inability to imagine the experiences of others. Rather, they read to me like evidence of a very privileged person blinded by her own lack of experiences outside of a highly regulated realm, so I give her— more or less—a pass for these problematic passages.

At any rate, it can be difficult at times to decide when von Arnim is having her Elizabeth character be in earnest or slyly satirical. One of the joys, as well as one of the frustrations, of this book is that, at least upon a first reading, it often seems wholly up to the reader to decide how seriously to take many of her comments. Most of the more egregiously shocking comments (namely, upon the subject of women’s rights and abilities) come from the Man of Wrath, and her blithe willingness to accede to him a few points made me grimace, but, again, there’s the trusty function of time, etc. excuse for this. Doubtless, many of von Arnim’s contemporaries would have had similar reactions to the parts of the book I liked most.

Many of my favorite passages were charmingly insistent on the pleasures of solitude and the horrors of bad company. A few examples:

“If you have to have neighbors at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to their satisfaction?”

“…the dullest book takes on a certain saving grace if read out of doors, just as bread and butter, devoid of charm in the drawing-room, is ambrosia eaten under a tree.”

“The longer I live the greater is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms…. The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the word eccentric was the one required. Very well, I suppose I am eccentric, since even my husband says so; but if my eccentricities are of such a practical nature as to result later in the biggest cauliflowers and the tenderest lettuce in Prussia, why then he ought to be the first to rise up and call me blessed.”

All of these passages made me smile, but it was her longer anecdotes, which I won’t copy out here, that made me laugh out loud several times as I read this book. Quaint, old-timely British humor does it for me like few other things do, and this book definitely did it for me. (The title of the book makes it very clear that this is a German garden, but von Arnim originally hailed from England so I’m counting this as British humor.) Think P.G. Wodehouse or A.A. Milne (about whom I’ll be writing more here in a few days, I expect), but imagine them as women in a natural setting. The result is wonderful. Also, like much of Wodehouse’s and Milne’s work, there’s loads of von Arnim’s stuff available free on Kindle which is perfect if you’re still on the fence about giving her a try. 4/5.

 

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The leafier half of my own little porch garden.

Prodigal Summer Review

 

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Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
Harper Collins
5/5

I’ve been meaning to read more Kingsolver since I read The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago (I loved it so much and still think about it often), and since the spring bug has bitten me fiercely this year, I let myself heed the call of this novel’s leafy cover, and I’m quite pleased that I did. This book is a little on the long side, but I never felt like it dragged. Indeed, I devoured it. It became one of those rare books that, when I was interrupted while reading, I would gesture to very pointedly without looking up from the page, immersed in the narrative to such an extent that the real world lost a bit of its allure for a few days.

Prodigal Summer tells three very distinct, though ultimately intertwined, stories in alternating chapters which are all set in or directly adjacent to the Appalachian Mountains. The reader is first introduced to Deanna, a federal employee charged with ensuring the preservation of the mountain upon which she’s been living, entirely alone, for two years. We meet her as she’s tracking a coyote family, shacking up a bit further south than is typical, and doing everything she can to ensure that the family’s survival chances are optimal. Then along comes Eddie Bondo, participant in a nationally sponsored competition to see who can shoot the most coyotes. Incredibly, Eddie and Deanna begin a relationship, a turn of events that shocks, delights, confuses, and enrages them both.

The second story we’re dropped into is Lusa’s. Lusa is a former city-dwelling entomologist who has come to farm country with her new husband, Cole. Cole is the inheritor of the family farm, and Lusa is having a hard time navigating the different farming philosophies she and Cole turn out to possess. Then Cole dies, suddenly and tragically, and Lusa is left with a farm surrounded by Cole’s sisters and their families, nearly all of whom are suspicious of her, varyingly unfriendly, and terrified about what she plans to do with the farm. She knows she doesn’t want to continue farming tobacco on the land, but, since she also doesn’t want to leave just yet, she has to come up with some money-making alternative, and fast.

Finally, we meet Garnett Walker, a crotchety widower in his eighties whose final aspiration in life is to cultivate a strain of blight-resistant American Chestnuts, the tree that built his family a fortune before the blight came and knocked them all out. His goal isn’t to get rich again but, rather, to leave a lasting mark on the land that sustained generations of his family. However, his next-door neighbor, Nannie Rawley, bane of his existence, refuses to use pesticides on her organic orchard trees, a difference that he believes to be irreconcilable. I loved Garnett because he’s so persnickety, a Bible-thumping Creationist with strong ideas about women in short pants and the bra-burning ways of the Unitarians in Knoxville, but he’s written with such charm that he wiggled and kvetched his way into my heart regardless.

In fact, all of the main characters in this novel found a place in my heart. I saw pieces of myself in all of them; I rooted for each and every one of them even while they were tearing each other limb from limb, collapsing under the weight of the effort to be the best possible stewards of the land. Plus, I learned a lot from this book! It’s stuffed full of fun animal facts, gardening tips, and lessons about environmental conservation and preservation, all of which become lodged in your brain while your mind is distracted by the storytelling. This novel is fun, it’s moving as hell, and it’s educational to boot. What’s not to love? 5/5.

Exit West Review

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Riverhead Books
5/5

This is probably my favorite read of the month so far, which is actually a bit surprising to me as I was initially nervous that I wouldn’t like it. Exit West is part love story, part science fiction dystopia, part moving critique of the plight of refugees in the modern world, and all of those parts coexist and intermingle in a book just a smidge over 200 pages. I was worried that it would all be too much in too little space, but my fretting was foolish because this book is incredible. The story is so tightly plotted, the characters are perfectly developed, and the writing itself is absolutely wonderful. I keep a commonplace book in which I jot down choice quotes from my reading, notes about my plant babies, interesting new words, recipes, etc., and I filled pages with quotes from this book, quick snippets of description to longer passages that packed within themselves emotional punches I want to keep remembering and revisiting. Here’s one:

“But many of the children in the House of the Children had at least one living parent or sibling or uncle or aunt. Usually these relatives labored on the other side, in the United States, and their absences would last until the child was old enough to attempt the crossing, or until the relative was exhausted enough to return, or on occasion, quite often, forever, because life and its end are unpredictable, especially at a distance, where death seems to operate with such whimsical aim” (160).

It’s writing that just quietly eviscerates you before it just as quietly puts you back together again:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being” (202-203).

Exit West is the story of two young students, Saeed and Nadia, living in an unnamed country on the brink of a civil war of sorts, who fall in love. Saeed is a moderately religious man who lives with his parents in a small but pleasant apartment, the crowning jewel of which is a telescope that he’s inherited from his father. Nadia is not religious, but she adorns the trappings of a conservative Muslim woman to keep herself free from the inconveniences of unwanted attention from men. Privately, she has disinherited her family to have the freedom of living alone in a small apartment where she listens to records, smokes joints, and nurtures a lemon tree on her rooftop. Their relationship is improbable but so easy to root for, and the reader comes quickly to adore them both.

Of course, our beloved characters cannot be left long to their happiness. Trouble comes in the form of armed militants who do battle with the government military forces, destroying neighborhoods and curtailing possibilities in the lives of all the citizens of Saeed and Nadia’s country. At the same time, rumors begin to spread of ordinary doorways, all over the world, that are randomly changing to become unassuming portals to other places on the planet. One might cross a threshold in Argentina and wind up in Greece, for example. Developed and “secure” nations such as England are immediately put on high alert as they try to staunch the exponentially increasing tide of immigrants and refugees from war-torn or drought-ridden countries, and one of the central themes of Exit West is the extent to which such tactics are able to work and the effects they have upon the perpetrators and the victims.

The story that binds this novel together is, of course, Saeed and Nadia’s, and the reader watches to see how they fare in this tumultuous world that is so like our own actual world but with, frankly, more hope. The use of doorways as literal teleportation devices serves as an intriguing defamiliarized portrayal of refugee migrations; it is a plot device that allows the reader to view a topic, so weighted and fraught in our lives today, with, if not levity, exactly, a bit of literary playfulness. This lets the reader move beyond her preexisting ideas about our current refugee crisis to imagine other viewpoints, other possibilities, and entirely novel outcomes. But, to be clear, this novel is not moralizing; it is not pedantic or sentimental. Provocative, yes; sanctimonious, no.

I’ve never read anything quite like Exit West before, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to experience this novel. I cannot wait to get my nose into another of Hamid’s creations, and I recommend this one without reservation. 5/5.

The Utopia of Rules Review

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Street art near Skylight. I’m not much of a Bukowski fan, but I enjoyed this.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber (2015)
Melville House
4.5/5

“There are dead zones that riddle our lives, areas so devoid of any possibility of interpretive depth that they repel every attempt to give them value or meaning. These are spaces, as I discovered, where interpretive labor no longer works It’s hardly surprising that we don’t like to talk about them. They repel the imagination. But I also believe we have a responsibility to confront them, because if we don’t, we risk becoming complicit in the very violence that creates them” (102).

I picked this book up, on a bit of a whim, at Skylight while visiting LA last month. I’d noticed it as part of a display of newish, recommended reading, flipped through it, thought it sounded interesting, and snapped a picture of the cover to remind me to think about reading it later. Then I found more copies in the anarchist literature section of the store. They were snuggled between copies of Steal this Book and Situationist manifestos, and this marketing, ironically enough, was what prompted me to buy it then and there despite the limited space in my carry-on. I was the sort of teenager who decorates her room in hand-illustrated Guy Debord quotes, but anarchist theory has been missing from my reading repertoire since I assumed a mildly more conservative bent in college (feel free to laugh at me for this, all of it). I felt a burst of nostalgia and bought the book, and I’m so glad that I did. In addition to being a novel take on notions of the role of bureaucracy in our lives, it was a welcome reminder of the early roots of my thinking about how to live the best life possible as both a private and a public person.

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The Utopia of Rules is a collection of three interconnected essays bookended by an introduction and a wonderful epilogue in which Graeber applies some of his theorizing to the Christopher Nolan Batman series. Due to this organizational scheme, there is a bit of repetition throughout the book, but given the density of the subject matter, I found this repetitive aspect more helpful than irritating. Graeber begins by laying out his thesis, which he revisits and revamps throughout the book as necessary, but which can be summarized briefly with the deceptively obvious statement: Bureaucracy is everywhere. This is deceptively simple because Graeber isn’t just after the usual subjects (governmental institutions); private enterprises is what he seems most concerned with, and this is because the bureaucracy of private enterprise is often to subtle, so stealthy, so ubiquitous, that most of us don’t even realize it’s there, corralling us and influencing us in a myriad of ways we usually don’t even think to track. As he puts it, “they become so omnipresent that we no longer realize we’re being threatened, since we cannot imagine what it would be like not to be” (42). To borrow and tweak one of Graeber’s examples, whether one has the clearance to access something (research records, say, or medical power of attorney) is a function of bureaucracy: it’s a matter of having the right paper trail attached to you, of having jumped through the correct hoops, of having the time and the skills and the patience to have followed all of the rules.

The result of all of this is the emergence everywhere of what Graeber calls “dead zones of the imagination,” aspects of our lives—often some of the most important ones, I would say—that cannot be navigated on the vitality of our creative or innovative skills alone, or even on the strength of a set of basic, mastered skills. Rather, as the second essay in The Utopia of Rules argues, one’s ability to navigate these spaces becomes a function of one’s ability to buy the time to figure out the rules or, more likely, to buy the labor of someone whose sole function in the labor market is, often as not, to navigate the rules that others cannot. We’re used to hearing the Donald Trumps and Ted Cruzes of the world rail against the (usually only vaguely described) exploitations inherent in our tax codes, but Graeber extends these sorts of criticisms to the free market systems that allow for the plethora of jobs which exist only to enlarge and then parse the very arcane, labyrinthine bureaucracies that they have themselves created through their very existence.

The last full essay in this book examines possible reasons why this whole bureaucratic miasma has been able to exist, unquestioned, for so long. Succinctly, we enjoy rules. We enjoy sports, board games, and the pleasure of having successfully navigated government and market-based systems to achieve the effect we were after because human beings like rules and we like the structure they impose even when they make things difficult at times. We enjoy the challenge as well as the challenges we believe are staved off by the rules (playing chess, we may be frustrated periodically that our bishop can only move diagonally, but we’re all the while glad that our opponent’s bishop is similarly limited). This is fine and natural in many areas of life, Graeber argues, but bureaucracy takes this fetishization of rules to levels that are, at best, not helpful to fair play, and, at worst, violent against one or more players. The reasons for this, as he lays out in great detail in this third essay of the book, are multiple and can be traced back to our collective confusion about what is rationale or reasonable and our (sometimes willful) inability to examine the tensions inherent in the relationships between unstructured freedom, constructive regulations, and organized progress.

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Now all of what I’ve just said is a vastly oversimplified account of Graeber’s argument, and I’ve left out the best bits about his proffered visions of better ways of doing things, ways that don’t reduce us to spending increasingly larger chunks of our time becoming bureaucracy-mastering automatons. One of his visions has the added benefit of a real-life example of the theory becoming practice: Graeber was a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a famously nonhierarchical, non-bureaucratic phenomenon. I’ve also left out parts of his argument that were, to me, most compelling, namely, the role played by the notion of interpretive labor (the labor one performs when one is trying to parse out the intentions, needs, desires, etc. of another person or institution) and the unequal distribution of expectations as to who is assumed responsible for the performing of this labor (generally, women, people of color, the poor). I left these fascinating aspects of his argument out of my summary because they’re largely borrowed (as he notes) from feminist theorists whose work I’ve since sought out for myself to read in their original iterations, so hopefully I’ll get to that soon and write it up here.

So often, political theory is a slog, but Graeber’s voice is fresh and clear. His arguments are amply supported with inventive and illuminating examples, and while he does indulge in the occasional digressive tangent, the quality even of these sections makes the tendency an easy one to forgive. I wish I’d read this one more slowly (and I can definitely see myself giving it a reread in the future), because there’s a lot to digest, and for the same reason I wish I’d had some sort of reading group to sit down with regularly for the purposes of hashing out all of the component parts to Graeber’s arguments. I just bought the book that put Graeber on the map, so to speak, which is Debt: The First 5,000 Years; it looks like a sociological history of debt. Maybe when I get around to it, I’ll try to seek out another reader or two to tackle it with.

(As a side note, I’m wondering if a somewhat regular (weekly-ish) effort to post on a shorter work of theory or criticism would be beneficial for me. I’ve been trying to read more of it, and I’m thinking some sort of loosely regimented schedule might be helpful (there’s that human love of rules again!). I’ll give it some thought.)

Anyway. The Utopia of Rules is, by turns, fascinating, troubling, inspiring, enraging, and illuminating. I’ll be thinking over this little book for a long time, I think, and I highly encourage others to look into it. The essays, like I said, are interconnected, but I think one could dip in and out as one wished and not miss too too much of the depth of the individual essays. And this book has the additional perk of being such an original departure from party lines, for any of you who are interested in political theory but frustrated by efforts to find contemporary material that isn’t toeing some sort of line. Graeber’s an anarchist! There’s something to love, or hate with relish and a sense of still broadening horizons, for everyone. Enjoy.

April Round-Up Part I

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We’re well over half way through the month: Easter has come and gone, the bean seeds I planted at the end of March are suddenly shooting up like weeds, and I finally feel confident that we’ve seen the last snow of the season. My reading urges are shifting a bit, too, from cozy murder mysteries and unsettling nonfiction to more literary fiction and lighthearted essays; thus, now seems like a good time for me to do a mini round-up of what I’ve been reading this month before I switch tracks completely and no longer have the desire to make compelling cases for some of these early-in-the-month reads.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: This was my third or fourth Spark novel, and while it wasn’t my favorite (that distinction goes without ado to A Far Cry from Kensington, if you’re interested), I enjoyed it a lot. The characters of this novel are almost all elderly men and women who are recipients of alarming and mysterious telephone calls from an impossible to describe voice telling them that they soon will die. Some of the characters attempt to pursue the matter along police lines, but they are not believed: for the most part, only other elderly people pay them the courtesy of belief and true interest. This isn’t some sort of woe-unto-the-old sort of book, though, and neither is it a scrappy Marigold Hotel sort of celebration of the joys of freedom in old age. Rather, Memento Mori is a droll, though still moving, examination of the aging process and the fears most of us have accompanying it: the fear of losing one’s mind, the fear of being patronized, the fear of being exploited, not able to care for oneself, not able to care for one’s loved ones. These terrors are accompanied by Spark’s customary wit, though (“How nerve-racking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old,” for example). My only bone with this little book is that it seemed like, as per usual, Spark has attempted to cram in just a few more characters than she quite had the room for, with the effect that I sometimes felt like I must be missing the pages in which certain characters had been fleshed out, though I was reading on my Kindle at the time. 4/5.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert: This is the Kolbert book before The Sixth Extinction (which I read and loved when it came out), but this one is organized as a collection of essays rather than a sustained, book-length argument and thus may be more approachable to those just dipping their toes into the body of climate change disaster literature. Various essays explain just what permafrost is and why we all need to care about its well-being, the history behind the Kyoto protocol and what it means that the US has failed to sign on, and some of lessons we were meant to have learnt from Hurricane Katrina. Kolbert is neither the first nor the last to cover such topics, but she is one of the best: her writing is clear and engaging while still giving the utter seriousness of the subject matter the gravity it deserves. The Sixth Extinction is more thorough, and more recent, but I would still recommend this one as a good “primer,” a book that’s easy to pop in and out of as one can stomach it (and one must be able to stomach this information to some degree). 4/5.

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber: I actually mean to do a longer review of this one in the next day or two, so I’ll just give a very brief summary here. This is, I believe, Graeber’s latest book, but he has written previously on the history of debt and he was a pivotal figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In this book, he argues that while we often throw around complaints about and arguments against government bureaucrats, we simultaneously ignore the ubiquitous presence of private enterprise bureaucrats, the paper pushers and important form holders of our personal lives. Throughout the book (which is deceptively short, as it’s quite loaded with arguments and a wide array of evidence), Graeber traces how these “hidden” bureaucratic forms influence our ability to live the lives we want, to imagine futures for ourselves, to act in ways that could be meaningfully different from the norms imposed by capitalism and representative democracy. He writes, “Revolutionary change may involve the exhilaration of throwing off imaginative shackles, of suddenly realizing that impossible things are not impossible at all, but it also means most people will have to get over some of this deeply habituated laziness and start engaging in interpretive (imaginative) labor for a very long time to make those realities stick.” Deep, potentially complicated stuff, but very worthwhile. 4.5/5

The Bowl of Night by Rosemary Edghill: This is a delightful 1990s-era murder mystery set down in a group of delightfully 1990s-era Wiccans on their annual pre-Halloween retreat to a campground in Upstate New York for a weekend of networking (coven building), ritual performing, and selling and buying of magical goods. I believe this one is part of a series that concerns itself with Bast, a renegade Wiccan turned amateur detective, but I haven’t read the others. In this one, Bast goes for an early morning walk through the campsite on her first full day at the retreat and finds the body of a local religious zealot, famous for protesting the appearance of the Wiccan retreat every year in his home town, murdered in what appears to be a ritualized Wiccan fashion. Bast is desperate to prove that the perpetrator wasn’t one of her own, but even she can’t deny that the evidence isn’t looking good for her clan. I found this novel a little bit ridiculous and rather predictable, but it made me so nostalgic for the years when middle school-me (coincidentally, 1990s-me) would sit up all night reading teen witch books and fantasizing about spell casting. 2.5/5.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: I also want to do a longer review of this novel in the next few days because I loved it so much, want to spend some time revisiting it, and I think it’s an incredibly important work of fiction “for our times,” as the saying goes. But, for now, a brief summary. Exit West is a sci-fi romance novel about two refugees, Nadia and Saeed, who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to abandon their homes and lives early in their relationship to flee their war-torn country as refugees. Rather than traveling by foot or boat, however, they utilize some of the many doors that are opening around the world; these are literal doorways that serve as instant portals between countries. Through them, desperate refugees can materialize in wealthy, secure countries in the blink of an eye. The resulting destabilization and eventual reconciliation experienced by the citizens of these countries is mirrored in the evolution of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. This book is so gorgeously written and so beautifully plotted, and I want the world to read it. 5/5.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: This is my second Flavia de Luce mystery by Bradley, and it will not be the last. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in the series (I read the Christmas book, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, last December) and it gets off to a bit of a slow start as the setting is built, but it’s worth it. The protagonist, Flavia de Luce, is a wonderfully precocious eleven-year-old, a budding chemist with a particular interest in poisons, the much maligned youngest daughter of a family that has fallen in fortunes and temperaments since the death of her mother when she was a baby, and, as this novel establishes, a quite skilled detective. This book has her investigating the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body in the cucumber patch of her amazingly historical family manse; the details involve the darkly obsessive world of philately (the study of stamps) and the decades-old suicide of her father’s old Latin teacher. This book is charming, clever, and cozy: a perfect cozy mystery for the chilly, rainy evenings of spring. 4/5.

Heirs and Assigns by Marjorie Eccles: This little historical mystery is a nod to the classic age of closed house mysteries: in the midst of a family reunion, the head of the family (a successful man of business in poor health who has just announced that he plans to marry the gardener) is found dead in his bed. Detective Reardon is brought in when it becomes clear that the murderer had to have been someone in the house, and he spends the length of the novel unpacking the various neuroses and relationships that have sprung up within and between the various members of this rather embittered family. The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, but I guessed the culprit quite early, and I expect others will too, and this made the remainder of the book drag on a bit for me. Still, it’s not a long book, and it’s well written and anyone who loves to peek into the lifestyles of the 1920s’ wealthy (though fictional) scions will enjoy this one, I imagine. 3/5.

So, that’s what I’ve read this month so far. In the next few days I’ll pop out my more elaborated thoughts on Graeber’s book and Exit West, and I’ll probably get up a review of Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver which I’m nearly finished with now and am adoring absolutely.

The Stranger in the Woods Review

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The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

This is the last book from my April reading that I’ll be reviewing here. As I said in my previous post, I was tempted to just write the whole month off, but this book has stuck in my head for the last few weeks, so I’m finding it worth the time to unpack it a bit and encourage others to give it a go. The Stranger in the Woods is about a man, Chris Knight, who is arrested one night in the early spring of 2013 after having lived alone in the Maine woods for over twenty years. He’s arrested because he’s sustained himself, for all that time, off of the food, books, and other supplies he’s stolen from cabins and the larders of a campground that border his hermetical retreat. Finkel, a marginally disgraced journalist (he once used multiple subjects to form a single composite subject—apparently a hugely taboo thing to do in the field of journalism—was found out, and subsequently he was made persona non grata at a number of publications), found himself connecting with the figure illustrated by the news stories he reads about Knight. He reached out, established a relationship with Chris, and this deceptively slim book is the result.

In addition to a fairly detailed biography of Knight—where he came from, how he managed to live in the woods, what happened to him after his arrest—Finkel provides the reader with a lovely history of hermeticism, a history that is fragmented and scattered across the book in conjunction with illuminating dips into the philosophies of other hermits. While reading, we enter into conversation with loners ranging from the obvious Thoreau (who Knight describes as “a dilettante”) to the more obscure (to me at least) Tenzin Palmo, the second Western woman to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

It’s hard not to compare The Stranger in the Woods to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the original creative nonfiction exploration of a young man (also named Chris, incidentally) who tries to remove himself from society and make a solo life living off the land. Krakauer’s subject infamously was not able to survive, but Finkel’s subject, one believes, could easily have thrived out in the woods until he died had law enforcement not seen fit to intervene. The disparate fates of Chris Knight and Chris McCandles could explain the different tones of each book, the different implicit morals the authors leave you to mull over when the storytelling is done. Into the Wild provides a beautiful but harsh lesson in why people need each other; The Stranger in the Woods suggests that there’s a small fraction of our population who may, for whatever reason, fare better without direct contact.

Of course, Knight, Finkel makes clear, was not trying to live off the land or become ruggedly self-sufficient. He felt terribly about it, but he depended on thievery to eat, to warm his campsite, to clothe himself, and to keep himself entertained, especially during the long winter months when he did not leave his campsite. This was not the sort of experiment in survivalism that it’s so popular in our culture to romanticize, and it was not an effort to learn more about the natural world through deep immersion. It doesn’t seem to have been an overtly political act, though Finkel muses (and I find this hypothesis most compelling, personally) that there was implicit rejection of the politics of living in America in the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. Knight was hesitant to give anyone, even Finkel, a direct explanation of why he did what he did, so all Finkel could do, really, was guess. He writes:

“It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living” (122).

I had a lot of time off work in April. My boyfriend traded his overtime shifts to a coworker in exchange for giving his coworker a ride home at four in the morning, every day during the week I read The Stranger in the Woods. I read most of the book late at night, sitting up on the couch with my boyfriend while he played videogames. When it was time for him to go pick up his coworker, I would go along for the ride, telling him about the book, the new things I was learning about silence and solitude, and I’d watch the miles of farmland we drove through unwind out the window. I studied the scarce beacons of light, a lit-up farmhouse window appearing every few miles, and I thought about how scary but also liberating it would be just to live, in a house and with a family, in such relative isolation. I thought about Chris Knight in perfect isolation, no one knowing where he was, no one desire to have anyone help him if he needed it, no desire to share his experiences with anyone.

I find it easy to imagine a good life with limited human contact, but it’s less easy for me to imagine no desire to share experiences or needs with anyone. The importance, I think, of Chris Knight’s story isn’t as it could function as a blueprint, but how it can act as a catalyst for reexamining the assumptions Western culture urges us toward about the roles others should play in our lives, the purpose of time spent with them, the prices we pay for the luxuries we take. I’ll be thinking about—and recommending—this book for a long time. 5/5.

Dead Letters Review

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

I actually finished this one last month, during a bit of a blogging and reading slump. I was going to just shrug it all off, with firm resolve to do better in April, but a friend who also read the book asked to see me do a review of it. I’m happy to oblige, so here’s a moderately breezy summation of my thoughts about Caite Dolan-Leach’s debut novel, Dead Letters, and I solemnly promise not to slack so horribly again this month. (In fact, I’m already at work on more blog posts, so that might be considered as some money down on my promise.) The novel tells the story of a young woman named Ava who, while pursuing a vanity graduate degree in Paris, learns that her twin sister, Zelda, has been killed in a barn fire back home in Western New York. She returns home and, as is the way in literature, learns that everything is a mess. Her mother is an alcoholic with dementia; her father, also an alcoholic, has returned home as well but is being distinctly unhelpful; her old high school boyfriend is tempting her away from her dreamy Parisian boyfriend, left behind for what was supposed to be only a short trip; and, worst of all, it seems that the bodily remains found in the burnt-up husk of a barn actually may not be her sister’s. The evidence for this last bit: Zelda keeps emailing Ava, and leaving handwritten letters around the family homestead, and otherwise making herself very, very present even while her funeral is being planned. The mystery is, plainly enough, from whose body did the ashes in the barn originate? Is Zelda really dead?

Dolan-Leach presents her evidence, for and against, in classic Oulipo fashion: the novel is structured around the unveiling of clues presented in alphabetical order. The story doesn’t crumble around the difficulties imposed by these technical concerns, though some of the more outlandish aspects of the narrative seem, at least in part, a consequence of the superimposed structure (supposedly Zelda, a young unemployed person with a disastrous financial history, managed to secure herself an unbelievably large personal loan shortly before her maybe-demise, as one example). I found myself cheerfully chalking all of these unbelievable bits up to the axiom that weird shit happens all the time, especially in Western New York (I lived nearby-ish to Ithaca for five years and I’ll believe any insane bureaucratic story from those parts, honestly), so all of that bothered me less than it might have in a different book.

I was a tinge more bothered by the narrator’s unpleasantness (like everyone else in her family, she’s an alcoholic, though she’s fairly cognizant of the fact; she doesn’t think kindly of or behave nicely toward any other character in the book unless she needs something from them; and her inability to recognize the projected self-hatred in her anger toward the hedonistic Zelda was a source of much aggravation for me). There was enough about Ava to sympathize with, though, that a redeeming balance was struck, and while I wouldn’t add her to a list of characters I’d like to share a bottle with, I enjoyed unraveling her complexity along with the mystery. In particular, it was refreshing to read a full-blooded exploration of the miseries of being a presumed caretaker and the difficulties of breaking free from the young woman as nurturer stereotypes that so often go unexamined in literature as in life.

I also adored getting to vicariously reexperience New York wine country culture, so this book has a place on my shelf for the foreseeable future. I’m excited for Dolan-Leach to write her next one! 4/5.