What Does It Mean to Be

A Calculated Life

By Anne Charnock

Published 2013

Read 3/12/2017

I’m not sure when I bought this book for my Kindle, but likely shortly after I got it in 2014.  I certainly don’t remember why I bought it, but likely it showed up on the screen and I was compelled for some good reasons to purchase it.  Fortunately I bought this book before I reigned in the tendency to purchase ebooks in such a manner.  Much more importantly, however, it’s fortunate that 47North, a publishing arm of Amazon, saw this book after it had first been self-published as an e-book and then as a paperback and decided that much more of the reading population ought to get to read it than might find it otherwise.

I started reading this book without knowing anything about it or its author.  I actually really like starting books under these circumstances although to increase the probability of it being a useful journey I generally reserve this approach for recommendations from reliable sources, specifically a few friends with whom I spend many hours discussing books.   Although this book didn’t come from one of my reliable sources, I heartily endorse it for others.

My experience with this book was not dissimilar from my experience with “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.   In each case, you are introduced to a character doing what seems to be a usual type of job living a usual nondescript life.  In both cases the novel slowly unwinds a different reality.  In this book the job is to find relationships between things so predictive algorithms can be developed.  We slowly learn the algorithms aren’t just about predicting trends in financial market but also such events as violent acts and very unexpected measurable variables such as wind speed.  The goal is to develop predictive algorithms of value to someone or some organization that will purchase it, although how they exploit it is apparently not of great concern to the employer and certainly not the to the analyst.  The person doing the job isn’t actually a human being but rather a “stimulator” created, programmed, and made available via contract to her employer by the Constructor.  Jayna is a version which has benefited from learnings from earlier versions, some of which are still functioning in different roles under contract to various employers.

In each case, the world around the characters is a not inconceivable and doesn’t even seem terribly distant in time from our own.  This characteristic is what, for me, separates “speculative fiction” from “fantasy/science fiction”.  Margaret Atwood has spun a number of terrifically well-written novels in this genre and Anne Charnock is certainly committed to playing in this territory and does it very nicely with this offering.

The plane that both Ishiguro routinely visits and Charnock’s “A Calculated Life” is now on is the one in which the primary questions being addressed are “what does it mean to be x” and “what role does memory play in our being x” (x=human or otherwise).    Not surprisingly, perhaps, these authors help us realize answers to these questions are ones they don’t claim to own and ones that will keep us reading great literature as we continue to consider them.  Like “Never Let Me Go”, in “A Calculated Life” the plot evolves slowly.  Some readers have found this trying.  I think it’s a helpful attribute because the questions being poised are profound and require slow careful consideration which is supported by the slow speed of the novels.

I will not further compare and contrast these books as they do take different trajectories with their characters and plots and to say more there will further spoil it for readers.  Take the dive yourself and consider “what does it mean to be x” (human or otherwise).

Can We Ever Say the Unsaid

My Name is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout

Published 2016

Read 3/3/2017

I was walking through the library on the campus where I am an adjunct faculty member and saw this book on the “new books” shelf.  I previously experienced the author through her books Olive Kitteridge, a novel written through a series of short stories, and Abide with Me so I immediately checked out this new offering and devoured it quickly.  Then I  re-read parts of it more slowly, savoring its form and content, as I try to provide this column some ideas about it.

Strout draws the reader in quickly with a description of the view from the hospital room of the narrator and how the narrator longs to be on the street with the other young women instead of being where she is, and how she expects to give thanks when she was again.  The narrator tells us her story is a “simple” one–recovery from a simple appendectomy is stalled mysteriously resulting in a nine week hospital stay.  Her mother visits for five days, the visit being arrange by her husband who visits infrequently both because he is functioning as a single parent for their two young daughters and because he doesn’t like hospitals.  That he arranges the visit by the mother is somewhat remarkable for several reasons.  The narrator’s parents disapproved of the narrator’s chosen life—to attend college, to marry a man clearly descended from German stock, and to live in New York City.  The disapproval has led to little contact between daughter and mother and no contact between daughter and father since her marriage.  In addition, the narrator’s family is desperately poor and they have led a very isolated life outside a small town in Illinois.  Travel of any sort, especially plane travel, is far from the ordinary for her mother.  But the mother suddenly appears in the narrator’s room and spends five days and nights there. The book primarily describes their conversations and corresponding various thoughts of the narrator about topics including the characters in the gossipy stories she and her mother share, her family, her childhood, and her marriage.

Their family lived outside a small poor rural town, first in the garage and eventually in the house of an uncle.  They were even poorer than most and certainly considered oddities.  They lived in isolation physically and socially.  The narrator lets us know she is haunted by dark memories and slowly meters out the source of some of them but always in an incomplete way, leaving much to be imagined but not verified.  This is classic Strout which we saw in Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me:  childhood forming us; memories from that time keeping us in that form unless and until we find a way to free ourselves from them—realizing them for what they are—memories but not life policies.

In Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me we saw the characters only from the outside.  In My Name is Lucy Barton we are deep within Lucy.  She is our narrator and she chooses what to reveal to us, or actually keep to herself.  We are witness to her as she unwinds her memories.  The conversations with her mother are primarily about people they knew when Lucy was growing up.  Lucy learns about her mother’s view of these people as the mother describes them and fills in their history since the narrator left home.  The narrator tells us directly that she is unreliable in telling us about the conversations.  She says “but maybe that wasn’t what my mother said”.  But she also doesn’t tell us what might have been more accurate nor when and why she is inaccurate.   The narrator does tell us, however, that she specifically chose not to ask her mother the questions for which she most desperately wanted the answers, including “do you love me” and “does her father ask about her”.

This is the first book Strout has written via a first-person narrator.  She crawls inside the character so far that one of course wonders if the book is autobiographical.  Both Strout and the narrator wanted to be writers from a reasonably young age.  However,  Strout was surrounded by books her whole life in her home while the narrator only had books at school where she stayed to do her homework and read when finished to avoid going home to where it was desperately cold.  The narrator was also so socially isolated that when she attends college, possible due to the intervention of a counselor who recognizes the promise of this girl with nearly perfect academic performance (because if you just stick to doing the work, it gets done), she imitates people to learn how to do things.  The narrator decides to become a writer because she takes the learning that books make you feel less alone and she wants to make other feel less alone also. Strout takes us fairly quickly through later years of Lucy’s life—writing, publishing, leaving her husband and the impact that has on her relationship with her children, which is far less than she hopes it would be.   At least one trace of Strout show up here—-Strout indicates publically that while her family was growing, she only had a few hours a day to write.  Lucy Barton also tells us “the two or three hours a day in which to write were terribly important to me”.

We learn about Lucy’s last interaction with her mother as the mother lay on her deathbed.  Once again Lucy doesn’t say what she wants to say.  Once again she hopes her mother hears what Lucy says to her in the hallway.  Once again we see a real relationship between two people as we do when Lucy recounts, with acknowledged lack of reliability, her last encounter with her father.

Strout has a remarkable way to telling us stories about real people and their real, painful relationships where so much remains unsaid but not unfelt.

I look forward to reading more from this author.

Best Sellers from Sinclair Lewis

Mainstreet (published 1920) (finished reading 10/28/2016)

Babbitt (published 1922) (finished reading 4/30/2016)

by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

Babbitt was the first Sinclair Lewis book I read, being drawn to it to learn directly about the character that led to the term “Babbitt” becoming part of the English language.   Oxford English Dictionary 3rd edition:  Babbittry is “behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.” Meriman-Webster:  Babbitt is “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.”  I am glad I went to the “source”—Lewis’s book– to directly understand Georg e Babbitt and the meaning of this expression.

Many reviewers speak to the nearly complete lack of plot it this book and in his earlier Main Street. Lewis spends many chapters describing George Babbitt’s daily routine, residence, family, and his interactions with business associates.  Lewis enjoys painting his character, George Babbitt, and his surroundings– physical, social, and professional.  After a detailed description of his five year old Floral Heights house which possessed “laudable architecture and the latest conveniences” Lewis add this lament:  “in fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house:  It was not a home.”  But eventually George Babbitt does engage in a story—he goes through a painful mid-life crisis during which he turns away from social norms and expectations, has an affair with a beautiful client, attends parties with her and her non-business and non-professional friends, “the Bunch”, and even wonders if Seneca Doane, a candidate for mayor of Zenith on “an alarming labor ticket” has some useful things to say.  He nearly earns complete scorn and disowner ship from his colleagues and isn’t initially invited to join the new Good Citizen’s Club.  Eventually he returns to and is accepted back into the fold and he is mainly happy to have returned to popularity and security.  However, at the end of the book he has interesting words for his son who is more interested in mechanics and inventing than business and earning a college degree.

Having been well engaged by Babbitt and interested in reading more of Sinclair Lewis, I turned to his previous novel, Mainstreet.

Mainstreet is also said to have minimal plot but my view is slightly different.  The story covers the main character’s evolution from early girlhood through about ten years of marriage.  Lewis’s style is to focus in a detailed way on particular instances and string these together to progress the story.

Mainstreet centers on Carol Miliford who we meet as a young college senior, orphaned in early adolescence, to whom we are introduced as “a girl on the hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life.  The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth”.    While attending Blogett College, a small religious college on the edge of Minneapolis, she considers a number of occupations (teacher, law, nursing, motion picture writer, marrying an unidentified hero), turns down a marriage proposal from a school mate who sees her as a great lawyer’s wife, and finally decides to attend professional library school in Chicago.  She spends a year or so as a librarian in St Paul where she is disappointed by the patron’s less than lofty interests.  She meets Dr Will Kennicott at a dinner party given by friends of Carol’s older sister.  He is a doctor in a small town (Gopher Prairie) in the Minnesota plains, is about 12 years Carol’s senior, and is besotted with Carol.  Kennicott paints an appealing picture of Gopher Prairie and suggests that the town would welcome her assistance in improving it.  She is eventually convinced and marries him without ever actually visiting Gopher Prairie until after their honeymoon trip.

Once arrived, she is appalled at the state of the town—tidy but extremely dull– and is convinced she’s made a mistake.  She steels herself to enjoying becoming a homemaker in her own home and sets off to improving the town.  Of course the town is not so interested in her assessments and plans and she suffers a number of blows.   She should find comradery with Vida Sherwin, an unmarried but well educated school teacher, and does to some extent, but Vida understands the pace at which things can happen in Gopher Prairie and is willing to press her plans for a new school at the rate the town will tolerate. Even Kennicott moves from his courtship declaration of “Come on! We ready for you to boss us!” to his statement the day after arriving in Gopher Prairie “Scared? I don’t expect you to think Gopher Prairie is a paradise, after St Paul.  I don’t expect you to be crazy about it, at first.  But you’ll come to like it so much—life’s so free here and the best people on earth”  Fortunately he is quite tolerant of his wife’s pursuit of intellectual stimulation and interest in improving the town, and the town is willing to have her fit in to the various social circles, but she finds them generally unsatisfactory and boring.   Carol befriends the town handyman, Miles Bjornstam, “The Red Swede”.  He is content to be totally unobligated to anyone and anything and freely speaks his mind.  Miles marries Carol’s maid, Bea, who was as new to being a maid as Carol was having a house and a maid.  They became friends while Bea was in her employ and Carol remains friends with Miles and Bea after their marriage.  Carol becomes friends with Erik Volborg, a Swedish farm boy who is working for the local tailor.  He is desperate to become educated and pursue a career in fashion design and seeks her mentorship.  There are some town tongues that cluck about their interactions.  Carol is tempted to pursue an affair with Volborg, but stops after Kennicutt picks them up in his car while they are taking a walk one evening.

The story fast forwards a few years after Carol bears a son and becomes enamored with him, although she was not interested in hearing that this would be true from the various town women.  She sets up a room of her own in the extra bedroom of their house.  She eventually can no longer bear what she feels as oppressive but dull town life and takes a leave from the town in Washington, DC where she takes a job and lives with some other women working in Washington, DC during the war.  She and Kennicott correspond and he visits her after a separation of over a year.  Carol eventually decides to return to Gopher Prairie and Kennicott welcomes her back as does the rest of the town.   She retains a spark to improve the town and declares things will change eventually and her new daughter will see a very different world from the one in which they live.

Unlike Babbitt, Carol does not revel in being part of a great community.  However, like Babbitt, at the end of the story both Carol and Babbitt return to their initial relationship with their community—want to be change agent and booster.

I initially engaged with both of these books via audiobook editions.  For Babbitt, this was very helpful as the narrator delivered the slang of the 1920’s that Lewis documents in this book to a greater extent than in Main Street.     Lewis’s view of his characters—-the Mainstreet of Gopher Praire and the city of Zenith—can be missed if only listening, however.  Lewis’ use of capitalization (“a thousand Sam Clarks and a few Widow Bogarts were to be identified in the Sunday motor procession…”) so visual reading to at least supplement audiobook reading is useful.

Both Mainstreet and Babbitt gained best-seller status when they were released.  Mainstreet sold 180,000 copies within six and more that 2 million copies within a few years.  Babbitt also found wide commercial success.  I find this quite interesting since Sinclair’s writing is quite biting and his disdain for the Mainstreet of Gopher Prairie/all small towns and for George Babbitt and “booterism” in small cities is quite clear.  This tone was likely instrumental in Columbia University’s decision to overturn the judges’ recommendation to award Mainstreet the 1921 Pultizer Prize for The Novel which they did again regarding Babbitt in 1923.  The timing of their publication—when serials in magazines and novels were primary forms of entertainment (in addition to “stunts” performed at parties) is likely a driver for the commercial success of these novels.   I’m not sure these books would have achieve this same level of success today but I am glad they were published and became “must reads” for me as they give a view of life of that time, certainly through a particular lens.

Finding the Value of Literature in Trash

The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright

Published 2012

Read Feb 27, 2017

This book was inspired by the documentary, River of Victory, written, directed, produced, and photographed by Cameron Wright’s son, Trevor Wright.  Trevor Wright’s film explores a young family, mother Sang Ly, father Kim Lim, and their son, Nisay, as they live in and make their living from scavenging recyclables from Stung Menchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia.  Nisay is chronically ill with diarrhea and Sang Ly believes living among the stench and filth of the dump is a driver of that illness.  However, the family seems to have few choices for making a living as revealed when the family returns to their homeland to visit a healer.  As she reunites with family and friends there she is reminded that the financial situation in her homeland is as dire as theirs.

Cameron Wright decided to take this real-life story and retell it adding a fictional story regarding the woman who collects rent on their shack in the dump.  This framing provides Cameron Wright a platform for describing in words and book form the difficult life the documentary reveals:  the filth and danger in just existing on and in the dump, the hand-to-mouth level of existence of collecting and selling bits of material “picked” from the dump.  The book includes the trip Sang Ly and her family make to their homeland and the trip to The Healer.  The treatment is not discussed, but apparently it is effective while treatments received in the city from both western and homeopathic medical practices have not worked.

Sang Ly discovers that the dreaded, usually drunk, and mean Rent Collector can read.  Sang Ly and asks the Rent Collector to teach her to read.  The Rent Collector eventually agrees and Sang Ly progresses from learning the alphabet to reading words and eventually reading stories and poems and experiencing the riches that great literature can provide.  This is possible as it happens that the Rent Collector was a teacher educated in the US and, most probably, a professor of literature.  Soriyan (the real name of the Rent Collector) lost her husband and baby to slaughter by the Khmer Rouge during their “cleansing” missions to rid Cambodia of all intellectuals.  Soriyan’s housekeeper, Sopeap, is killed instead of Soriyan when she pretends to be her so Soriyan is doomed to live under a false name and pretense.  Soriyan eventually is able to provide for Sopeap’s family and does so for many years without the family knowing the identity of their benefactor.  This story allows Cameron Wright the ability to remind us of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and other similar regimes that have risen to power in various times and places in history.  It touches on the theme of self-sacrifice and  the reality of the resulting survival guilt and the burden accompanying it.

A primary purpose Cameron Wright seems to have for bringing together the Rent Collector and Sang Ly is to discuss the role and value of  literature:   the universality of many of the important stories that various cultures tell in various ways (ie Sarann in Cambodia, Cinderella in North America, Ye Xian in China,  etc); dreams as inspiration for and subject of various works of literature; the indistinct boundaries between good and evil, heroes and villains,  and especially the ability of literature make us think differently than we ordinarily would or could.

Through teaching Sang Ly, the Rent Collector regains her connection with humanity.  Although she had provided for her housekeeper’s family, she had isolated herself from everyone and everything, finding solace only in alcohol.  The Rent Collector leaves Sang Ly a collection of essays and stories as lessons for her after the Rent Collector leaves for a reason she is unwilling to articulate.  Cameron Wright decides to tie everything together for us and the characters; I won’t detail the ending here.  He does let us know, however, that Sang Ly and her family remain in the dump although Sang Ly is certainly in a different state than we found her at the beginning of the book.

I was sometimes unconvinced by the tenor of the Sang Ly’s voice as narrator and had to accept the seemingly rapid rate of learning of Sang Ly to progress from alphabet to the study of serious literature.  I also found some of the subplots almost distracting as they were not fully developed so we only got a very brief hint of the theme they carried.   Cameron Wright touches on multiple human themes including:  what a mother will do for a child; what a father will do to protect his family; surviving dire financial circumstances; self-sacrifice; survivor guilt.  Cameron Wright’s book was primarily written to enable us to learn about life in Cambodia post- Khmer Rouge and the challenges the Khmer Rouge wrought on the population.  An even better version would have more fully developed all of the themes which interest him while telling it within the framework of the post-Khmer Rouge situation.

Some describe the book as one with a message of hope.   An apparent goal of the Khmer-Rouge was to wipe out all sources of education and thinking not authorized by the government. There is certainly a warning in this book that all must diligently oppose any kind of force that seeks to fulfill such a goal.   However, if there is a trace of literature available and any willingness to share it, that literature will enable humankind to continuously grow, learn, and expand its capability and capacity to make a positive difference in the world regardless of current circumstance.  That is truly a hopeful message.

Addendum: My Sunshine Away: Dark, Engaging and an Appeal to Be a Good Man

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Published 2015

Read 2/14/2017

Book Club discussion:  3/14/2017

As I routinely experience, Book Club discussions enhance my understanding and/or appreciation for the books I read, especially ones with which I’ve struggled a bit.  That was the case again for My Sunshine Away.

The references to the Challenger explosion and the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murder case help establish the time of this story for many readers in 2017.  I anticipate the Challenger explosion will do that for readers for many years.  I don’t think that’s the case for the Dahmer murder case, and may actually “date” the book, or maybe I just hope it won’t be a universally recognized event.  I guess I’m hoping that we don’t perpetuate the stories of deeply inhumane acts of serial violence but that’s probably not realistic since we’re all familiar with the existence of Jack the Ripper.

I now do see a useful role of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murders and why Lindsay is so interested in discussing it.  This is a public case of an evil set of crimes and, importantly, it’s not about her.  The narrator is willing to discuss primarily because of his obsession with Lindsay.

A substantial theme I hadn’t fully digested is  the importance of a male adult/boy relationship in the development of a boy into a man.  The narrator has limited interaction with his father, especially after he leaves the family for another woman.  The brief time his mother’s brother stays with the family (while he is sorting out his own problems) provides the only relationship the narrator calls out as one that has an influence on the way he views things.  The narrator reveals the true audience for his narration in the last chapter.  Exploring this theme in this way certainly elevates the novel light-years above the SVU type story it uses to start the book.

The short (50 min) but amazingly effective book discussion I attended about this book enabled me to recognize this substantial them, almost buried within the description of male adolescence and impact of a sex crime.  It’s prompted me to consider finishing “The Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks especially since there was a clear lack of positive adult male figure in the life of that book’s protagonist.   I’ve previously read and have moved by earlier novels by Banks but put this one down due to the topic of sex offense.   I haven’t yet obtained it again from the library and perhaps I won’t.  I continue to hope there are ways to discuss important human themes without involving human evil.  I continue to hope that our society hasn’t been overly numbed and requires vivid depictions of evil to be moved.  I continue to hope that Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction doesn’t continue to predict so well society trends….