Tag Archives: politics

Asking What If? with Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Early on in Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, the character describes the method of decision-making she’s used since the third grade:

I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t.

Here’s the Rule of Two as applied to Rodham:

  • You are likely to enjoy this novel if:
    1. You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
    2. You are a devoted fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and, in particular, loved American Wife (her 2008 masterpiece from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush) and/or “The Nominee,” a short story voiced by HRC that appeared in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It.
  • You will probably want to avoid this novel if:
    1. The idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhea – causes you to recoil.
    2. You’re not particularly interested in “What if?” questions, or would prefer that they were answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages.

Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham and jumped at the chance to read it early. She has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channeling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy. It’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee,” the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’d read from HRC’s memoirs. However, a problem I had was that the first third of the novel sticks very closely to the plodding account of her early years in Living History, which I’d read in 2018. I liked coming across instances when she was told she was too strong-willed and outspoken for a girl, but felt the need for a layer of fiction as in American Wife.

So I was looking forward to the speculative material, which begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary. IF you want the juicy specifics and don’t mind spoilers, or you don’t think you’ll read the novel itself but are still curious to learn what Sittenfeld does with her what-if future scenario, you can continue reading in the marked section below. There’s a lot to think about, so I would welcome comments from others who have read the book.

As to my own general reaction, though: I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read the novel in big chunks of 50+ pages at a time. The made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. But the chronology has an abrupt start and stop pattern, going deep into one time period or scene and then rushing forward, and I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages. This would almost be better suited to some kind of serial format – it’s like the best kind of summer binge reading/watching.

My rating:

Rodham will be published in the UK on July 9th by Doubleday. I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. My thanks to the publisher and publicists for arranging my early access.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help kick off the blog tour for Rodham. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.


SPOILERS ENSUE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The alternative history section of the novel picks up in 1991, when Hillary Rodham is on the law faculty at Northwestern University in Illinois, not far from where she grew up. She and James, a married colleague with whom she flirts harmlessly, are glued to the TV as news of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the Supreme Court and replacement by conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas is complicated by a sexual harassment claim brought by Anita Hill. (It’s impossible not to see history repeating itself with Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.) In the wake of this scandal, Rodham’s gay friend Greg Rheinfrank, a Democratic strategist and all-round great character, suggests that she run for the U.S. Senate – Washington, D.C. could clearly use more of a progressive female presence. Even though it eventually involves running against a (real-life) Black female, she agrees and wins in 1992, becoming a multi-term senator and running for president three times, starting with the 2004 race and culminating with 2016.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has married and divorced twice and is now a tech billionaire living in California and rumored to attend sex parties. A sex scandal quickly derailed his first presidential campaign in 1992, but in 2015 he decides to run again, thereby competing with his own ex-girlfriend for the Democratic nomination (at his rallies, “Shut her up!” becomes a popular chant that he tolerates from the crowd). Rodham makes it clear to her staff that he should not become president because he is a sexual predator.

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking in Iowa, January 2016. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

But here a curious compromise comes into play: Donald Trump has a bone to pick with Clinton, so after some rigorous courting from Rodham and her staffers, he agrees to endorse her. In the novel, then, Clinton and Trump are like villainous twins: wealthy narcissists who devalue women. Trump is only differentiated by his lack of class and intelligence. He still tweets, spouts odious opinions and comes across as a buffoon, but – crucially – doesn’t run on the Republican ticket. Instead, it’s Jeb Bush, and Rodham beats him by 2.9 million votes.

So, whew! – a satisfying ending. At points I feared that Sittenfeld would conclude that, despite all that was different after Rodham rejecting Clinton, she still would have lost to Donald Trump. Instead, the novel envisions defeat for Clinton and comeuppance for Trump when he’s indicted for tax fraud in New York. It’s, of course, a vision of “what should have happened” (versus Hillary’s own account in What Happened). But in the back of my mind was the thought that, really, you could have just printed one sentence, “What if the USA didn’t still use that stupid electoral college system?” and you would have gotten the same outcome, because in 2016 HRC won the popular vote by that same 2.9 million.

Specific scenes and elements that I loved:

  • Through her (fictional) childhood best friend, Maureen Gurski, we get an alternative vision of what life could have been like had Rodham married and had children; Maureen’s daughter Meredith becomes like a surrogate daughter for her.
  • In 2015 Rodham becomes close to Misty, a supporter who’s battling breast cancer, and has her speak to open a rally for her.
  • She goes on a stoned bonehead’s radio show and storms out in protest at his sexism – I totally got vibes of Leslie Knope on Crazy Ira and The Douche’s radio show (that’s a Parks and Recreation reference, in case you’re not familiar with it).
  • Rodham gets a late chance at romance: there’s a “First Boyfriend” who seems just right for her.
  • This isn’t a hagiography: Sittenfeld includes instances when Rodham is tone-deaf about race and chooses pragmatism over the moral high road (e.g. campaign funding).
  • Sittenfeld found ways to incorporate real speech from press conferences, campaign announcements, etc. I also recognized two verbatim lines from the infamous “baking cookies” remarks HRC gave to reporters in 1992 (in the novel this happens in 2004).

Ultimately, I think Rodham doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, from her three published (ghostwritten) memoirs and from her being so much in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.

If you have made it all the way to the end of this extended review, give yourself a pat on the back!

Thinking about the Future with David Farrier & Roman Krznaric (Hay Festival)

My last of three digital Hay Festival* talks this year was by Roman Krznaric, a School of Life philosopher with a background in politics and gardening. I discovered him through Greenbelt Festival eight years ago and have since enjoyed several of his books on the topics of empathy, finding purposeful work, and models for living well. His talk on his upcoming book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, was an ideal follow-up to one of the top three 2020 nonfiction works I’ve read so far:

 

Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

~from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In May 2013 a set of fossil human footprints was found at Happisburgh in Norfolk. At 850,000 years old, they were the oldest outside of Africa. In the same month, atmospheric CO2 passed 400 ppm for the first time. It’s via such juxtapositions of past and future, and longevity versus precariousness, that Farrier’s book – a sophisticated lattice of human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes – tells the story of the human impact on the Earth.

Unusually, Farrier is not a historian or a climate scientist, but a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh specializing in nature and place writing, especially in relation to the Anthropocene. That humanities focus allowed him to craft a truly unique, interdisciplinary work in which the canon both foreshadows and responds to environmental collapse. On a sabbatical in Australia, he also gets to hold an ice core taken by an icebreaker, swim above coral reefs and visit a uranium mine exempted from protection in a national park.

He travels not just through space, but also through time, tracing a plastic bottle from algal bloom to oil to factory to river/landfill to ocean; he thinks about how cultural memory can preserve vanished landscapes; he imagines propitiatory rites arising around radioactive waste to explain poisoned lakes and zinc-lined coffins; and he wonders how to issue appropriate warnings to the future when we don’t even know if English, or language in general, will persist (a nuclear waste storage site in Carlsbad uses a combination of multilingual signs, symbols, monoliths and planned oral tradition, while one in Finland is unmarked).

Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. For example, “The Insatiable Road” is about cars and the concrete landscapes they zip through – all made possible by oil. Farrier wins a chance to be among the first to cross the new Forth Bridge on foot and finds himself awed by the human achievement. Yet he knows that, in a car, the bridge will be crossed in seconds and soon taken for granted. Whether as a driver or a passenger, we have become detached from the journey and from the places we are travelling through. The road trip, a standard element of twentieth-century art and literature, has lost its lustre. “Really, we have conceded so much,” he writes. “Most of us live and wander only where road networks permit us to, creeping along their edges and lulled into deafness by their constant roar.” Ben Okri’s legend provides the metaphor of a famished road that swallows all in its path.

What will the human species leave behind? “The entire atmosphere now bears the marks of our passage … Perhaps no one will be around to read our traces, but nonetheless we are, everywhere, constantly, and with the most astonishing profligacy, leaving a legacy that will endure for hundreds of thousands or even hundreds of millions of years to come.” That legacy includes the concrete foundations of massive road networks, the remnants of megacities on coastal plains, plastics that will endure for many centuries, carbon and methane locked up in permafrost, the 2300-km fossil of the dead Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste in isolation plants, jellyfish-dominated oceans and decimated microbial life.

Thinking long term doesn’t come naturally. In the same way that multiple books of 2019 (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland) helped us think about the place of humanity in reference to deep time, Footprints offers an invaluable window onto the deep future. Its dichotomies of hubris and atonement, and culpability versus indifference, are essential to ponder. It was always going to be sobering to read about how we have damaged our only home, but I never found this to be a needlessly depressing book; it is clear-eyed and forthright, but also meditative and beautifully constructed. Life on the planet continues in spite of our alterations, but all the diminishment was unavoidable, and perhaps some of it is remediable still.

My rating:


Related reading: Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell. I’m only up to page 36 and at the moment it’s just him watching loads of crackpot preppers’ videos on YouTube, but already I think that Footprints should have had this book’s spot on the Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation longlist (a new prize run in addition to the standard UK nature writing one) for being more directly engaged with conservation issues rather than just humorously commenting on the end-of-the-world mindset.

 

Roman Krznaric at Hay Festival

Krznaric’s discussion of being a “good ancestor” resonated in connection with the long-term thinking of Farrier’s book. “This is the age of the tyranny of the now,” he began, but “humankind has colonized the future” as well, treating it as a tempus nullius where we can dump our ecological waste and tech failures. Yet long-termism is needed more than ever as a way of planning for environmental challenges (and pandemics and the like). Future generations have no say in the decisions we make now that will affect them. To put this in perspective, he showed an image of three spheres, proportionally sized: one represented the 100 billion dead, one was the 7.7 billion currently living, and one was the 6.75 trillion in unborn generations (if the current birth rate continues).

It was Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who asked, “Are we being good ancestors?” Krznaric invited the audience to come up with examples (in the chat window on the sidebar) of long-term projects through which people are trying to help future generations, such as the Svalbard Seed Depository, the Green New Deal, the 10,000-Year Clock (inside a mountain in the Texas desert), the Long Play piece of music to last 1,000 years, rewilding, archives and libraries, and tree planting. He had also opened the talk with his own modest contribution: he and his partner ‘gave’ their 11-year-old twins their votes in the latest election.

Krznaric elaborated on four of his book’s six ways of thinking about the future: 1) Rethink human nature by using the “acorn brain” (long-term thinking) rather than the “marshmallow brain” (instant gratification). 2) Embark on projects with long time horizons (“cathedral thinking”). 3) Think in terms of legacies, whether familial or transcendent – leaving a gift to the citizens of the future (e.g. The Future Library of 100 books not published or read until 2114). 4) Create a politics for the future, e.g. the citizen assembly movement.

Roman Krznaric at the digital Hay Festival. Q&A led by John Mitchinson (right).

In the case of the UK, Krznaric advocates abolishing the House of Lords, replacing it with a citizens’ assembly and a Minister for the Future, and establishing legal rights for future generations. He noted that globally we’re at a “devil’s fork” where there’s a danger of authoritarian regulations continuing around the world after quarantine ends, endangering the future of social democracy. Instead, we need grassroots activism and “doughnut economics.” He pictures devolution of power away from central governments, with progressive cities becoming new loci of power. Individual actions like vowing not to fly and installing solar panels can inspire peers, but only collective action can tackle environmental breakdown.


Related reading: I’ll be reviewing Eric Holthaus’s forthcoming book The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming for BookBrowse later this month. The meteorologist and science journalist fleshes out some of Krznaric’s ideas, such as a citizen assembly and the cyclical economy, in his proposal for the drastic changes needed over the next three decades.

 

*You can access the recorded Hay Festival talks by paying a £10 annual subscription here.

 

Have you read anything about the deep future?

11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst

I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year – though a number of them were started in 2019 (one as far back as September) and several of them are novelty books and/or of novella length. Just for kicks, I’ve arranged them from best to worst. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale – Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of bipolar Cornwall artist Rachel Kelly and her interactions with her husband and four children, all of whom are desperate to earn her love. Quakerism, with its emphasis on silence and the inner light in everyone, sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows for family secrets to proliferate. There are two cameo appearances by an intimidating Dame Barbara Hepworth, and three wonderfully horrible scenes in which Rachel gives a child a birthday outing. The novel questions patterns of inheritance (e.g. of talent and mental illness) and whether happiness is possible in such a mixed-up family. (Our joint highest book club rating ever, with Red Dust Road. We all said we’d read more by Gale.)

 

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil – An extended essay whose overarching theme of hospitality stretches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to a culture of culinary abundance. Greed, especially for food, feels like her natural state, she acknowledges. However, living in Berlin has given her a greater awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU, often to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikhism she grew up in teaches unconditional kindness to strangers. She asks herself, and readers, how to cultivate the spirit of generosity. Clearly written and thought-provoking. (And typeset in Mrs Eaves, one of my favorite fonts.) See also Susan’s review, which convinced me to order a copy with my Christmas bookstore voucher.

 

Frost by Holly Webb – Part of a winter animals series by a prolific children’s author, this combines historical fiction and fantasy in an utterly charming way. Cassie is a middle child who always feels left out of her big brother’s games, but befriending a fox cub who lives on scrubby ground near her London flat gives her a chance for adventures of her own. One winter night, Frost the fox leads Cassie down the road – and back in time to the Frost Fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames. I rarely read middle-grade fiction, but this was worth making an exception for. It’s probably intended for ages eight to 12, yet I enjoyed it at 36. My library copy smelled like strawberry lip gloss, which was somehow just right.

 

The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame – This is the last and least enjoyable volume of Frame’s autobiography, but as a whole the trilogy is an impressive achievement. Never dwelling on unnecessary details, she conveys the essence of what it is to be (Book 1) a child, (2) a ‘mad’ person, and (3) a writer. After years in mental hospitals for presumed schizophrenia, Frame was awarded a travel fellowship to London and Ibiza. Her seven years away from New Zealand were a prolific period as, with the exception of breaks to go to films and galleries, and one obsessive relationship that nearly led to pregnancy out of wedlock, she did little else besides write. The title is her term for the imagination, which leads us to see Plato’s ideals of what might be.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Collins won the first novel category of the Costa Awards for this story of a black maid on trial in 1826 London for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. Margaret Atwood hit the nail on the head in a tweet describing the book as “Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace” (she’s such a legend she can get away with being self-referential). Back in Jamaica, Frances was a house slave and learned to read and write. This enabled her to assist Langton in recording his observations of Negro anatomy. Amateur medical experimentation and opium addiction were subplots that captivated me more than Frannie’s affair with Marguerite Benham and even the question of her guilt. However, time and place are conveyed convincingly, and the voice is strong.

 

(The next one is a book my husband received for Christmas, as are the Heritage and Pyle, further down, which were from me. Yes, I read them as well. What of it?)

 

Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker – This has had us in tears of laughter. It lists examples of English being misused abroad, e.g. on signs, instructions and product marketing. China and Japan are the worst repeat offenders, but there are hilarious examples from around the world. Croker has divided the book into thematic chapters, so the weird translated phrases and downright gobbledygook are grouped around topics like food, hotels and medical advice. A lot of times you can see why mistakes came about, through the choice of almost-but-not-quite-right synonyms or literal interpretation of a saying, but sometimes the mind boggles. Two favorites: (in an Austrian hotel) “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension” and (on a menu in Macao) “Utmost of chicken fried in bother.”

 

All the Water in the World by Karen Raney – Like The Fault in Our Stars (though not YA), this is about a teen with cancer. Sixteen-year-old Maddy is eager for everything life has to offer, so we see her having her first relationship – with Jack, her co-conspirator on an animation project to be used in an environmental protest – and contacting Antonio, the father she never met. Sections alternate narration between her and her mother, Eve. I loved the suburban D.C. setting and the e-mails between Maddy and Antonio. Maddy’s voice is sweet yet sharp, and, given that the main story is set in 2011, the environmentalism theme seems to anticipate last year’s flowering of youth participation. However, about halfway through there’s a ‘big reveal’ that fell flat for me because I’d guessed it from the beginning.


This was published on the 9th. My thanks to Two Roads for the proof copy for review.

 

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle – I love these simple cartoons about aliens and the sense they manage to make of Earth and its rituals. The humor mostly rests in their clinical synonyms for everyday objects and activities (parenting, exercise, emotions, birthdays, office life, etc.). Pyle definitely had fun with a thesaurus while putting these together. It’s also about gentle mockery of the things we think of as normal: consider them from one remove, and they can be awfully strange. My favorites are still about the cat. You can also see his work on Instagram.

 

Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals by Stuart Heritage – I bought this for my husband purely for the title, which couldn’t be more apt for him. The stories, a mix of adapted fairy tales and new setups, are mostly up-to-the-minute takes on US and UK politics, along with some digs at contemporary hipster culture and social media obsession. Heritage quite cleverly imitates the manner of speaking of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. By its nature, though, the book will only work for those who know the context (so I can’t see it succeeding outside the UK) and will have a short shelf life as the situations it mocks will eventually fade into collective memory. So, amusing but not built to last. I particularly liked “The Night Before Brexmas” and its all-too-recognizable picture of intergenerational strife.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – The Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize shortlist? You must be kidding me! The plot is enjoyable enough: a Nigerian nurse named Korede finds herself complicit in covering up her gorgeous little sister Ayoola’s crimes – her boyfriends just seem to end up dead somehow; what a shame! – but things get complicated when Ayoola starts dating the doctor Korede has a crush on and the comatose patient to whom Korede had been pouring out her troubles wakes up. My issue was mostly with the jejune writing, which falls somewhere between high school literary magazine and television soap (e.g. “My hands are cold, so I rub them on my jeans” & “I have found that the best way to take your mind off something is to binge-watch TV shows”).

 

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho [trans. from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk] – These hardly work in translation. Almost every poem requires a contextual note on Japan’s geography, flora and fauna, or traditions; as these were collected at the end but there were no footnote symbols, I didn’t know to look for them, so by the time I read them it was too late. However, here are two that resonated, with messages about Zen Buddhism and depression, respectively: “Skylark on moor – / sweet song / of non-attachment.” (#83) and “Muddy sake, black rice – sick of the cherry / sick of the world.” (#221; reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “tired of London, tired of life” maxim). My favorite, for personal relevance, was “Now cat’s done / mewing, bedroom’s / touched by moonlight.” (#24)

 

Any of these you have read or would read?

Onwards with the 2020 reading!

Doorstopper of the Month: A Reread of The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”

You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.

Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:

  • It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
  • One of the sisters marries an African.
  • The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).

 


Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:

  • Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
  • The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
  • Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
  • Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
  • The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
  • The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
  • Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
  • We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.

 

What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”

I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.

 

 


English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.

 

Our Father speaks for all of us

Our Father knows what’s best for us as well

 

He planted a garden where poisonwood grew

He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew

that the seeds that filled his pockets

would grow and grow without stopping

his beans, his Kentucky Wonders

played their part in tearing us asunder.

 

Our mother suffered through all of this

Our mother carried the guilt

Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us

Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.

 

Page count: 615

My rating:

This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook

“There is no planet B. This is where we will live, or go extinct as a species.”

I’m periodically prone to melancholy musings on the impending end of the world (like here). Reading this punchy collection of 35 essays was a way of taking those feelings seriously and putting them to constructive use. You’ve likely heard of Extinction Rebellion: a peaceful environmental activism movement that began in the UK and has now spread worldwide, it demands that governments face the facts about the climate crisis and do something about it, now. Fittingly, the book is divided into two sections: “Tell the Truth” plainly sets out the basics of climate breakdown and the effects we expect to see, including the disproportionate toll it will have on the poor and marginalized, and on island nations like the Maldives; “Act Now” is a practical call to arms with pieces by politicians, economists and protest organizers.

Not surprisingly, experts are calling for radical societal change: we must move away from the car culture; we cannot continue to equate success with economic growth; we must reorganize how cities function. “We are not looking at adjustments any more. It’s a complete overhaul,” Leeds University’s Professor of Urban Futures, Paul Chatterton, writes. But what did surprise me about reading This Is Not a Drill is that it’s not depressing. It’s actually rather exciting to see how many great minds and ordinary folk are aware of the climate crisis and working to mitigate it. We might not have political will at the highest levels, but grassroots movements involving just 3% of the citizenry have been shown to effect social change. I want to be part of that 3%. After I finished reading I signed up to ER’s mailing list, and though it’s not at all in my comfort zone, I’m going to consider taking part in their next public disruption.

I came away from this book with a feeling of camaraderie: we’re all in this together, and so we can only tackle it together. Post-apocalyptic fiction envisions violent, everyone-for-themselves scenarios, but it doesn’t have to be that way. ER demonstrations are said to be characterized by energy, music, laughter and good food. One word keeps appearing throughout the essays: “love.” There is righteous anger here, yes, but that’s outweighed by love – love of our planet, our only home, and the creatures it nurtures; love of the human race, the family that encompasses us all. While the authors are not unanimously optimistic, there is a sense that there is dignity in working towards positive change, whether or not we ultimately succeed. Plus, “It might just work,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams concludes in his afterword.

If you feel hopeless when you think about the state of the environment, I encourage you to pick this up, even if you only skim through and read a handful of the essays. The handbook achieves a fine balance between academics and laypeople; forthright assertions and creative ideas; grief and enthusiasm. It’s also strikingly designed, with the pink cover matching the ER boat and heavy use of the sorts of recurring icons and slogans you might recognize from their banners: skulls and hourglasses share space with bees, birds, butterflies and a Tree of Life. My only real quibble is that I would have liked a short bio of each contributor, either at the close of each essay or in an appendix, because while a few of these authors are household names, many are not, and it would be useful to know their bona fides.

Don’t miss these pieces: “Climate Sorrow” by psychotherapist Susie Orbach, “A Political View” by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, “A New Economics” by Oxbridge economist Kate Raworth, and “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion.

 

Some favorite lines:

“Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.” (from “Survival of the Fittest,” by American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff)

“It’s interesting and important to note that the people who are most effective are often the least attached to the effectiveness of their actions. Being detached from the outcome, and in love with the principles and the process, can help mitigate against burn-out.” (from “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam)

“We may or may not escape a breakdown. But we can escape the toxicity of the mindset that has brought us here. And in so doing we can recover a humanity that is capable of real resilience.” (from the Afterword by Rowan Williams)

“if you are alive at this moment in history, it is because you are here to do a job. So what is your place in these times?” (from “What Is Your Place in These Times?” by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion)

My rating:

 

This Is Not a Drill was published on June 13th. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the free copy for review.

New Networks for Nature 2018

This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.

What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.

I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.

Mark Cocker

Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.

Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”

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Ben Smith’s poem links unlikely subjects: surfing and climate modeling. Photo by Chris Foster.

Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.

After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.

Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.

Young, McCarthy and Lucas. Photo by Chris Foster.

Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.

I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then debut author Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:

Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.

It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables. Heartland is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.

This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.

Heartland serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.

The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.

Heartland is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.

My rating:

 

A favorite passage:

“My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”

 


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth was published by Scribe UK on November 8th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This is one of those books I’d heard high praise about from America but never thought I’d be able to get hold of in the UK. I looked into borrowing it from the public library on my last trip to the States, but even nearly a year after its publication the reservation list was still a mile long. So I was delighted to hear that Hillbilly Elegy was being released in paperback in the UK last month. For British readers, it will provide a welcome window onto a working-class world that is easily caricatured but harder to understand in a nuanced way.

J.D. Vance knows hillbilly America from the inside but also has the necessary distance to be able to draw helpful conclusions about it: born in the “Rust Belt” of Ohio to parents who didn’t complete high school, he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and became a successful investor with a venture capital firm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t give into lower-middle-class despair and widespread vices like alcoholism and hard drugs, even though his mother was an addict and installed a “revolving door of father figures” in his life after his father abandoned them.

Vance attributes his success to the stability provided by his grandparents, his beloved Mamaw and Papaw. They were part of a large wave of migration from Kentucky to Ohio, where they moved so Papaw could work in the Armco Steel mill. Prejudice assaulted the couple from both sides: Kentucky folk thought they’d grown too big for their britches, while in Ohio they were maligned as dirty hillbillies. Mamaw, in particular, is a wonderful character so eccentric you couldn’t make her up, with her fierce love backed up by a pistol.

The book is powerful because it gives concrete, personal examples of social movements: it’s no dry history of how the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia switched allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican after Richard Nixon, though Vance does fill in these broad brushstrokes, but a family memoir that situates Mamaw and Papaw’s experience, and later his own, in the context of the history of the region and the whole country.

I most appreciated the author’s determined use of the first-person plural, especially later in the book: he includes himself in the hillbilly “we” such that he’s not some newly gentrified snob denouncing welfare queens: he knows these people and this lifestyle and recognizes its contradictions; he also knows that but for the grace of God he could have slipped into the same bad habits.

Jackson [Kentucky] is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.

At Yale Law School Vance felt out of place for the first time in his life. One of the most important things he learned from professors like Amy Chua was the value of social capital: in his new world of lawyers, senators and judges it really was all about who you know. At law firm interviews, he had no idea what cutlery to use in restaurants and had to text his girlfriend for help. For as much as he’s adapted to non-hillbilly life in the intervening years, he still notices in himself the hallmarks of a stressful, impoverished upbringing: a fight or flight approach to conflict and an honor culture that makes him prone to nurturing feuds.

Although I enjoyed it simply as a memoir, I can see this book especially appealing to people who are interested in the politics and psychology of the lower middle class (perhaps an American equivalent to Owen Jones’s Chavs, a book I never got through). British readers will, I think, be surprised to learn that Vance is on the conservative end of the spectrum and has political aspirations. Essentially, he doesn’t think the government can fix things for struggling country folk, though certain social policies might help. He seems to think it’s more a question of personal responsibility – and also that churches have a major role to play.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.

(These strike me as alien ideas in the UK, apart from short-lived strategies like David Cameron’s “Big Society” – except, perhaps, if one goes all the way back to Thatcherism.)

Much has been made in the British press about this book’s ability to explain the rise of Donald Trump. This is an overstatement, and perhaps even misleading, when you consider the author’s conservatism; he never mentions Trump, and never engages in any specific political discussions. But what it is helpful for is exposing a mindset of rugged, defiant individualism that often shades into hopelessness. I have my own share of redneck relatives, and though I feel far removed from the world Vance depicts, I can see its traces in my family tree. I’m glad he had the guts to draw on his experience and write this hard-hitting book.

My rating:


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was first published in the UK by William Collins in September 2016. My thanks to Katherine Patrick for sending a free paperback for review.

 Note: Ron Howard is to direct and produce a movie version of the book.