It can’t happen here. Or can it? That’s a question Rosamund Lupton asks with her novel about a siege at a progressive school in rural England. When out in public with my copy of the book, I was asked a few times what I was reading. I would explain that it was about a school shooting in Somerset, and the reply was always “In the UK?!” Guns are difficult to come by in this country thanks to firearms legislation that was passed following a couple of high-profile massacres in the 1980s and 90s. So, to an extent, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief about the perpetrators getting access to automatic weapons and bombs. And you should, because the story that unfolds is suspenseful and timely.
Cliff Heights School is in the midst of a surprise November blizzard. It’s also under attack. At 9:16 the headmaster, Matthew Marr, is shot twice. Students bundle him into the library, barricade the doors and tend to his head and foot injuries as best they can. He recognized the shooter, but the damage to his brain means he’s incapable of telling anyone who it was.
At 8:15 Rafi Bukhari, a Syrian refugee pupil, had seen an IED explode on the school grounds and alerted Marr, who promptly evacuated the junior school. But the institution is based across several buildings, with some students in the theatre for a dress rehearsal, more in the pottery hut for art class – and now a few trapped in the library.
Lupton toggles between these different locations, focusing on a handful of staff and students and the relationships between them. Hannah, who’s doing her best to help Mr. Marr, is Rafi’s girlfriend. Rafi is concerned for his little brother, Basi, who’s still traumatized after their escape from Syria. Mr. Marr sponsored the boys’ move to England. Could it be that anti-Muslim sentiment has made the Bukhari boys – and thus the school they attend – a target?
We also spend time behind the scenes with police investigators as they pursue leads and worried parents as they await news of their children. I found the book most gripping when the situation was still a complete unknown; as the options narrow down and it becomes clear who’s responsible, things feel a bit more predictable. However, there are still unexpected turns to come.
A few elements that stood out for me were the use of technology (FaceTime, WhatsApp and drones weren’t available at the time of Columbine), the Syrian boys’ history, and the student production of Macbeth, whose violence ironically comments on the school’s crisis. While not my usual fare, I found this well worth reading and will look into Lupton’s back catalogue, too.
The final three review books of the year (not counting DNFs, which will be briefly dispatched on Sunday): a much-hyped novel set in contemporary New York City, a memoir of suicidal depression and recuperation, and a study of linguistics in the Internet era.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by TaffyBrodesser-Akner
According to the aggregated best-of lists (which Kate has surveyed here), this was one of the top two novels of 2019. I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders and admit, I don’t get it. To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst. Toby Fleishman is 41-year-old head of hepatology at a New York City hospital. He recently split from his wife, Rachel, agent to the creator of a Hamilton-style phenomenon. Not content with their comfortable lifestyle, Rachel hankers for true wealth.
When Rachel goes AWOL at a yoga retreat, Toby is left in charge of their children: Hannah, 11, and Solly, nine. He ferries them to and from summer camp, all the while bombarded with dirty texts and semi-nude selfies from the women he’s flirting with via a dating app. Had this novel been written by a man, people would have been up in arms about the unpleasant sexual content. But this is not just written by a woman; it’s also narrated by a woman: Elizabeth Epstein Slater, a former journalist turned stay-at-home mom. She and Toby became friends on their junior year abroad in Israel and have started hanging out more after his divorce.
So this is a book within a book Elizabeth is writing about one turbulent summer in her friends’ lives, but also her own – she’s dissatisfied with her staid marriage. It’s also Brodesser-Akner’s winking commentary on macho or moralizing fiction: “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man” and “none of my characters were likable,” Elizabeth thinks. But attempts to humanize Toby and Rachel fell flat for me. Sadness over the loss of one patient was insufficient to endear me to the randy Toby, and early life with a grim grandmother and severe postpartum trauma couldn’t make me care about whether Rachel was coming back. I also never fully suspended disbelief about Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Fleishmans.
This very New York novel started out promising, with echoes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Nest. There are some very perceptive passages about marriage, and the writing in general is more than capable. But the story didn’t feel nearly fresh enough to justify all that acclaim, or the 373-page length.
With thanks to Wildfirefor the free copy for review.
The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan
Cregan has a scar that reminds her, every time she notices it, of how close she came to taking her own life decades ago. In 1983, at the age of 27, she gave birth to a baby girl, Anna, who died two days later of a heart defect. The loss plunged her into a depression so severe that she made a halfhearted suicide attempt some weeks later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was given electroconvulsive therapy. One morning in the hospital, she brought a glass jar of lotion into the shower with her, smashed it, and took a shard to her throat. She only narrowly missed her carotid artery. Cregan wonders if, had she been given appropriate medication, all this heartache could have been avoided.
“I’ve often wished I could undo my own act (if indeed ‘I’ and ‘my’ are accurate words for a self in the condition I was in.)”
“It took a long time to work all of this out, because it’s very hard to see yourself clearly when depressed. The problem is that you think with your mind, but your mind is ill and untrustworthy. Your mind is your enemy.”
Alongside her own winding story, the author surveys the history of mental health treatment in the United States. This felt more familiar and thus engaged me less than the personal material. Nevertheless, I would recommend this forthright memoir to anyone keen to read about the experience of mental illness.
With thanks to the authorfor arranging my free copy from Lilliput Press, Dublin.
Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch
I’m surprised by how fascinating I found this: I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology (I’m still resisting a smartphone) and I haven’t given linguistics a thought since that one class I took in college, but it turns out that my proofreader’s interest in the English language and my daily use of e-mail and social media were enough to make it extremely relevant. The Montreal linguist’s thesis is that the Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. At the same time, it still reflects regional and age-specific differences in the way that people speak (write conversationally).
The book goes deep into topics you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. You’ll get a breakdown of current generations in terms of when the Internet became the default in their life (I belong to what the author calls “Semi Internet People”: I remember first using the Internet in a classroom in seventh grade, getting dial-up AOL at home not long thereafter, and opening my own Hotmail account in high school), a history of lolcats, and musings on the metaphorical use of periods and capital letters. If you are among the unconvinced, you’ll also be schooled in the appeal of gifs and memes.
Some trivia I picked up:
In 2015 the tears of joy emoji became the most popular emoji, more used than the smiley-face emoticon.
For many of us the Internet serves as what sociologists call a “third place” besides home and work where we can socialize.
Only 5–8% of Internet users are bloggers.
“Subtweeting” (as in subliminal) and “vaguebooking” are when you post about a situation without giving any specifics.
Parents often refer to a child by an initial or nickname so the child won’t have a searchable social media presence.
The Library of Congress now archives memes (The Lolcat Bible, Urban Dictionary, etc.).
McCulloch portrays language as a constantly changing network, such that terms like “standard” and “correct” no longer apply. She writes with such geeky enthusiasm that you’ll happily accompany her down any linguistic alley.
With thanks to Harvill Seckerfor the free copy for review.
I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)
I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.
Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.
The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.
A few of the many wonderful quotes:
“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”
“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”
“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)
When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:
“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”
“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”
All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.
The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.
The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.