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!