‘Tis Autumn! Is this hope, I sense, germinating in the air? Or is it just the smell of leaves dying?
Maybe it’s the promise of a mid-term Blue Wave, or the interesting election Texas is currently experiencing. Or maybe it’s the protracted Kavanaugh hearings, or the unusually cloudy and wet September days we’ve been having, or maybe I’m just finally getting used to this warped timeline, but something about this change of season seems overdue and welcome. While the start of school in August has, in the past, always signified a turning over of a new proverbial leaf for me, the first day of autumn (or fall, as we unsophisticated yet linguistically efficient Americans prefer to say) has never felt particularly significant: perhaps because the 100 degree days often go strong into October, no leaves actually fall for another couple of months, or just avoidance on my part as the shortening of sunlit days feels like a theft of my most active and conscious hours.
Whatever it is that’s brewing this curious feeling of hope, I realize it’s misleading. The latest polls indicate the Blue Wave will likely only impact the House, not the Senate. Other polls indicate the Texas race will be decided by undecided independents (who are, in my experience, usually just conservatives who only boast the ‘independent’ label in order to smugly prove themselves as free-thinkers… as if the rest of us are not), most of whom will likely vote for Ted, not Beto. The Kavanaugh hearings will either stall indefinitely, then confirm or dismiss him, and then what? And the unusually cloudy, low-temp days are simply a result of the five active tropical storms that recently churned the Pacific and Atlantic oceans into tempests of unpredictable cloud cover in my neck of the not woods.
So I’m probably just getting used to this warped timeline.
But, hey, I read some books.
BOOK STUFF: MAN BOOKER EDITION, I GUESS.
Autumn by Ali Smith (2017)
“The First Great Brexit Novel” the New York Times declared when it came out last year. (This is not to be confused with Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, which is arguably the actual First Great Brexit Novel, with its 2014 release predating yet pre-imagining the impact of ditch-the-EU discussions).
Maybe coming out of my post-Trump funk made me feel ready to turn east and experience the Brexit trauma from the ground… of Ali Smith’s mind, that is.
It’s a broken, jagged, non-linear story (so, clearly, I’m a satisfied customer) of a young woman watching over the “increased sleep period” of an elderly neighbor who influenced her development as child growing into womanhood. Sometimes he blew her mind, sometimes she took him for granted, but all the time she was a loyal and willing convert to his avant garde and open worldview. Now, as he sleeps toward death, she reminisces, imagines new conversations with him, and joins her unreliable mother in bafflement as England takes steps toward leaving the European Union.
In a fascinating subplot, we join the protagonist as she uncovers the tragic story of Pauline Boty, an active artist in the British Pop-art scene whose story has been quickly forgotten and erased among art history enclaves.
The metaphor is a little loud: The UK as she knows it is dying along with the last breaths of this affable and artsy old man. As she observes change encroaching all around her, she takes stock of what she’s taken for granted, overlooked, and, possibly, misunderstood about her life, her home, and this enigma of a man for whom she feels sentimental, but never really got to know.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Thick and unhurried at 612 pages, this is a book that, much like its arboreal subjects, unfolds at its own slow pace. Powers’ deliberate, contemplative tone is ideal for this human-driven Secret Life of Trees-type exploration, where, although the trees shape the background of the narrative, they exude more life and purpose than their human actors ever could (try as they might to convey traits of the trees Powers has modeled them after, they’re still lacking that fertile, green quality that is so entrancing).
A multi-character story where most (but not all, which is a satisfying development) arcs come together by the end, it mostly follows the development, escapades, and ensuing growth of a handful of environmental activists–tree huggers, some literal– as they try, in their own individual ways, to protect the razing of old, rotting forests and god-like trees. Some work from the ground, risking their careers to research the activities–yes, activities–of trees, while others live twenty stories high in a sky-scraping tree, among an ecosystem independent of the earth’s crust. It’s spellbinding stuff, the actual tree stuff, and gorgeously rendered by Powers’ earnest hand.
The human characters, though, not so much, which, unfortunately, saddles the latter two-thirds of a novel that bursts with succulence in the first act, before the human characters start to dominate the narrative with their own plots. Even as the trees become more fascinating and enlightening as the tale goes on, the human characters drag the novel down through mediocre dialogue and narrator oversharing.
I think this is where the difference lies, and where my own disinterest in certain novels begins: it’s a question of mystery, of internal versus external portrayal. With the trees, internalism works, because Powers has no choice but to allow the trees to keep their thoughts to themselves. (Although, we do learn in the book that trees do communicate in brilliant and effective ways, it’s not something that can be effectively conveyed linguistically, and thank goodness for that!) With the humans, on the other hand, while they begin the novel with chest-facing cards, the narrator can’t help but flip them over until, by the end, everyone is a bald-faced, open book, giving the reader little reason to examine them closely, speculate on them, make connections.
Hearing him on the the Guardian Books podcast not long ago, it’s clear Powers initially intended to let the silence of the trees dominate the tale, but couldn’t quite make it work technically. Perhaps that led to some insecurity about the humans themselves. Or maybe this is just Powers’ M.O. (I’ve only ever attempted Orfeo, before abandoning for a similar reason.) Or, perhaps the meta-like reveal of the final chapter had some influence over Powers’ writing decisions.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
I’m working on a generalization that basically suggests that all non-genre novels with SF-y sounding titles are probably very good, while all SF novels with SF-y-sounding titles are probably not very good (and the ones with mundane titles are very good). It’s not valid in the least, but I do find myself, more often than not, swerving toward some books and away from certain other books, thanks to misleading first impressions. And sometimes swerving back again.
I’ll figure out what I’m trying to say about that observation another day.
The Mars Room is pretty fantastic, even though it is not inherently fantastic, or SF-y, or anything genre-like at all. Now, I have not yet seen Orange is the New Black, to which this might be similar, in the way it provides subtle, nihilistic commentary, while also being entertaining and enlightening, but, based on bad reviews of this novel, I suspect the difference would lie in the way Kushner avoids much of the drama and sentimentality you might find on TV (or, rather, streaming entertainment websites), which lends this novel a more realistic, jagged quality. This feels authentic: It reminds me of people I know, students I have taught, friends I grew up with. (My own childhood best friend has been in-and-out of prison–more in than out–for the past twenty years.)
Romy Hall is a serving two life sentences for killing a stalker who took interest in her at her former place of work, the Mars Room, a strip club from San Francisco’s lesser known seedy side. Her daily ruminations are sometimes interrupted by the first-person accounts of other inmates, or peripheral men, but all of it comes together to convey the injustice and inhumanity of the US justice system, the neglect of women’s stories, and the obtuse cushioning of men’s stories (especially when compared to women’s stories, which the juxtapositions of the story variations, including the Unabomber Ted Kazynski’s, within the narrative are intended to convey).
The women in the story feel so real and authentic, it’s evident this is a well-researched portrayal of women trapped in the US prison system long before the epilogue explains Kushner’s interviews and relationships as the real-life inspirations for the novel. While some readers take issue with the lack of emotionality, the matter-of-fact attitudes and bleak humor convey survival skills resulting from shock and resilience of women who wind up in the system, making this an empathetic portrayal, without being unrealistically dramatic. The non-linear-ish semi-plot, the juxtaposition of landscapes (San Fran and its surrounding red woods) with prison yard life, and occasional commentary about political events occurring in the real world support the author’s efforts to convey the broken, insulated, and oppressive world inside prison life without overwhelming the depiction with sentiment, while the interwoven male sub-stories work to demonstrate the external forces that shaped these women’s lives and their thought processes.
It’s a divisive book among readers, not due to any controversy, but because it seems to have attracted an audience of linear plot-type readers who were clearly out of their comfort zones with the darting POVs, symbolism, intertextualism, and ambiguous ending.
I thought it was pretty fab, not just for the story, but Kushner’s way with words, including this riff on William Gibson’s old line: “The sky was the color of old kitchen appliances.” (I’m paraphrasing, probably, because I borrowed this book from the library–thinking I wouldn’t like it that much– and forgot the write down the exact wording before I returned it.)
NOT BOOK STUFF
I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t yet caught Netflix’s BoJack Horseman yet, I highly, highly, highly recommend it. It’s an alt-world Hollywoo (the ‘d’ is stolen at one point in the show) where animal people live alongside human people (based on the weird concept art of Lisa Hanawalt), and while that alone generates an endless amount of awkwardness, ethical questions, and background jokes, it’s really the central figure: washed-up 90’s sitcom star BoJack Horseman, who drives the story. His destructive narcissism and self-loathing is as compelling as it is incisive.
It could be just another show about a self-destructive male with wealth and privilege, and it is, really, but unlike many shows about male anti-heroes, BoJack is not propped up as a sympathetic character. What’s delightful about it (and maybe ‘delightful’ is the wrong word) is the cartoon medium that allows BoJack to always go too far, disturbingly far, hurting the people around him while simultaneously damaging himself and his career, making it more relevant and realistic than any live action show. It’s deep and somber and hyperbolic, and chockfull of continuity jokes, and it only grows more intelligent as the seasons go on (the first and second seasons are solid, but the third season is where it really becomes brilliant). From what I’ve read, the just-released fifth season takes no prisoners as it uses its central character to troll many of #MeToo’s recently fallen stars.
What adds to the novelty of the show is hearing the voices of actors and comedians I’ve long adored (Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tomkins, Kristen Schaal, Cedric Yarbrough, Angela Bassett are all wonderful, while Patton Oswalt voices more characters than I can count). It’s not without its problems: most notably, for me, is the casting of two white actors to play non-white characters, which is just a weird call, especially because the actors are famous enough to be distractingly obvious poor selections for the characters.
The opening sequence and song, with BoJack’s spooked horsey face overlaying scenes of Hollywoo schmoozing and chaos, is almost as rewarding as the show itself.
If you enjoyed Peep Show, The Office, Daria, or Arrested Development, this might be worth your time.
We Croak app
Feeling like you need to be more mindful of how you spend your time? Download the We Croak app and your phone will remind you five times a day that whatever you’re doing is bullshit because, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” Modeled after the Bhutanese belief that contemplating death will bring happiness, the idea is a morbid, but probably effective, take on the mindfulness trend. Each reminder comes packaged with a grim (yet mindful!) quote for you to contemplate and shock you back into the present moment. And they just launched a podcast!
Morbid curiosity is my damage (and I was looking for creative ideas to help my clients), so I tried this out for about three days before I found myself going, “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna die” *swipe*, but not before encountering this bleak gem:
Life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth.
death of leaves and flowers Autumn, everyone!