Collected Miscellany

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Phase Six by Jim Shepard

I saw Phase Six in the “New Fiction” section of the library and was intrigued.  But the first time, I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to read a book about a pandemic, albeit mostly written before COVID-19, during an actual pandemic. But I changed my mind and went ahead and read it.

Publisher

In a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, frequent trespassers at a mining site exposed to mountains of long-buried and thawing permafrost, carry what they pick up back into their village, and from there Shepard’s harrowing and deeply moving story follows Aleq, one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak, through his identification and radical isolation as the likely index patient. While he shoulders both a crushing guilt for what he may have done and the hopes of a world looking for answers, we also meet two Epidemic Intelligence Service investigators dispatched from the CDC–Jeannine, an epidemiologist and daughter of Algerian immigrants, and Danice, an M.D. and lab wonk. As they attempt to head off the cataclysm, Jeannine–moving from the Greeland hospital overwhelmed with the first patients to a Level 4 high-security facility in the Rocky Mountains–does what she can to sustain Aleq. Both a chamber piece of multiple intimate perspectives and a more omniscient glimpse into the megastructures (political, cultural, and biological) that inform such a disaster, the novel reminds us of the crucial bonds that form in the midst of catastrophe, as a child and several hypereducated adults learn what it means to provide adequate support for those they love. In the process, they celebrate the precious worlds they might lose, and help to shape others that may survive.

My Take

It turned out to be both tender and frightening with an, at times, odd mix of science and relationships.

The pandemic aspect is all too realistic and unsettling in the era of COVID. The tender part deals with the relationships of those looking to solve the science behind the pandemic; particularly two CDC researchers. It was spare and episodic with little vignettes highlighting the challenges of maintaining relationships as a doctor, researcher, etc. with the added push-pull of the pandemic. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it.

In many ways the emotional heart of the story is about female relationships, despite the male author. I think what threw me a bit was that the book starts almost like a thriller (SPOILER ALERT: mysterious pathogen leading to the deaths of almost an entire village) and then switches to a focus on relationships and interior lives. Plus, for me, too much science talk, even if it made sense given the characters, gave it an odd feel too.

Interesting and well written but not quite my cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fictional account of those on the front lines, to use a cliche, of fighting a pandemic this is the book.

The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

I have suddenly found myself on something of a short book kick and really enjoying it.  The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett caught my eye and the local library and since I am on said short book kick, I added it to the pile.

Publisher

The Ransomes had been burgled. “Robbed,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Burgled,” Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though “burgled” was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.

This swift-moving comic fable will surprise you with its concealed depths. When the sedate Ransomes return from the opera to find their Notting Hill flat stripped absolutely bare—down to the toilet paper off the roll, they face a dilemma: Who are they without the things they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating? Suddenly the world is full of unlimited and frightening possibility.

My quick take

I read it in one sitting and found it a little gem. Witty and clever and yet dealing with deeper issues just under the surface. Quirky and obviously British but dealing with human nature so universal.

Others

New York Times:

”The Clothes They Stood Up In” was a best seller in Britain, where Bennett, the author of the plays ”Habeas Corpus,” ”Forty Years On,” ”The Madness of George III” and countless other films and television shows, is rightly thought of as a national treasure. The book will probably not do quite so well here, for the traits personified by the Ransomes — emotional constipation on the husband’s part, an almost pathological diffidence on the wife’s — are English vices and not American ones. (Our own run on quite different lines.) But it is a witty, dark piece of work, a happy evening’s read and a tantalizing mental challenge to those of us who, like the Ransomes, find their lives encumbered and their senses blunted by too much stuff.

Kirkus

Short, pleasant, witty, and melancholy, though—á la Garrison Keillor—perhaps a richer treat for those who know and can hear the radio voice telling it.

PW

Bennett carries off his terse, surreal comedy with witty aplomb, adding to risibility with apt comments about the foibles of contemporary society and the consumer economy. Forecast: English readers familiar with Bennett’s plays (The Madness of George III, etc.) snatched up this novella to the tune of 140,ooo copies. The premise of being left without any possessions is provocative enough to entice readers on these shores, and the small size of the volume reinforces the idea that simplicity can be liberating.

Complete Review

The world Bennett describes here is a benign, bumbling one. From the well-meaning but hapless police (and the counselors they send to assist in the grieving process) to the Ransome’s own domestic life and little secrets Bennett offers a wealth of rich, simple detail that lift the text far beyond the ordinary. A pleasure to read, The Clothes They Stood Up in is a fine little book.

It’s all commercials. We live in and are commercials.

To spell it out as plainly as I can, there is no longer a way to post online without the implied desire to grow and cater to an audience. Every social media platform now functions on the basic idea that having a platform is good and having a large one is better. Sure, you can still attempt to grind out a career for yourself within a niche but appealing to base instincts is where mass appeal is born and mass appeal is what keeps the likes rolling in and the algorithm in your favor. It’s all about finding your audience and making them angry, horny, nostalgic, or if you’re truly skilled, all of the above. Most importantly, the purpose of these platforms has not been focused on facilitating communication between people that actually like each other for over a decade. Pretending as though receiving a dopamine hit that would make a medieval king declare himself a personal friend of Christian God isn’t the desired effect of these websites is disingenuous.

There’s an old adage about cooking frogs in boiling water. It’s said that you can straight up tell a frog that you want to boil it so long as you also tell the frog that it might get famous in the process. The delineation between Brands and human beings online has always been stark, but its purpose on the 2022 social media feed is mostly ornamental. When it comes to questions like “why did brands weigh in on West Elm Caleb?” the answer is simple: we told them to. Discourse is started, signal boosted, and sustained because it generates revenue for two groups, influencers and brands. The passive viewer receives nothing aside from a day’s entertainment, a weird headache when they try to read books, and maybe someday getting doxxed themselves. We log into the Commercial Zone every day, and we tell it what has our attention and then we have the audacity to ask why there are so many commercials in the Commercial Zone. It’s all commercials. We live in and are commercials.

Dan Sheehan

Book Review: Trust by Domenico Starnone

Trust by Domenico Starnone is the second of a handful of short books that I picked up at the local library (the first was Comfort Me with Apples).

Publisher’s Blurb

Pietro and Teresa’s love affair is tempestuous and passionate. After yet another terrible argument, she gets an idea: they should tell each other something they’ve never told another person, something they’re too ashamed to tell anyone. They will hear the other’s confessions without judgment and with love in their hearts. In this way, Teresa thinks, they will remain united forever, more intimately connected than ever.

A few days after sharing their shameful secrets, they break up. Not long after, Pietro meets Nadia, falls in love, and proposes. But the shadow of the secret he confessed to Teresa haunts him, and Teresa herself periodically reappears, standing at the crossroads, it seems, of every major moment in his life. Or is it he who seeks her out?

Starnone is a master storyteller and a novelist of the highest order. His gaze is trained unwaveringly on the fault lines in our public personas and the complexities of our private selves. Trust asks how much we are willing to bend to show the world our best side, knowing full well that when we are at our most vulnerable we are also at our most dangerous.

My take

Like the Valente novella, Trust is a short work of fiction that I enjoyed but wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it.

The kernel at the heart of the story is the secret shared between Pietro and Teresa. Never revealed, but a thread woven through the entire story. Sometimes the tensions builds and it feels like everything will come crashing down but it never quite does.

I enjoyed the story as a mediation on the way we create stories and perceptions of ourselves and our lives, about who we are and why we do what we do, etc. At the heart of the story is the idea that shared risk can bind people together but also push them apart. There is a sort of magnet effect of both attraction and repulsion and love is the wrestling with this effect.

But I also felt like there was a layer or level or the story or writing that I was missing. Particularly after reading the afterward by Jhumpa Lahiri which is really a musing on language and translation.

Quick Take On A Short Book: Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

During a recent trip to the library, I picked up a couple of intriguing short works of fiction.  I finished the first, Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente.

Publisher

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze…

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

My quick take

I enjoyed it for the odd novella that it was but, like many, wondered if it delivered on its promise.

It was creepy and atmospheric in some ways; a sense of building panic, of something wrong just off page. Not sure I would call it horror or even a thriller (the book cover says “terrifying new thriller”). And the language and prose is wonderful in that unique Valente style. But the mystical feminist or anti-men ending with its Biblical language and imagery was both weird and a little unclear.

I read it in one sitting. Can’t imagine buying a copy unless I was a big time Valente fan, but I did find it an interesting diversion on a cold Monday night.

For me the quickness of the read, and the fact that I checked it out from the library made it a low risk.  Others have reacted differently. Check out Goodreads to get a flavor.

For other reviews see below.

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