Monday, December 15, 2014

Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, an activist, journalist and lifelong atheist now in her 70s, looks back on her teenage self in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything. In particular, she examines the meaning of a mystical experience recorded in her journal in 1959, when she was 16.

Everyone else in my book group hated Living with a Wild God. I was taken aback by their reaction, because I loved it so much that I read it twice. I listened first to the audiobook [Hachette: 9 hr] performed by the author, which is always a treat with autobiography. Then I read it in paper. Only one other person - the lone scientist in our group - had even finished the book, and while she admitted that the ending was worthwhile, she found most of it a slog.

At our book meeting last month, my library copy was bristling with flags. I'm going to quote some here for future reference. If you like this sort of thing, I invite you to join me while I revisit a selection of passages. It's somewhat of a marathon. If you haven't yet read Living with a Wild God, these excerpts should make it clear whether or not this book is for you.

  "But if you are thinking this is the usual story of dysfunction and abuse, then I'm doing a poor job of telling it, and projecting my own standards as a parent onto a time, and a class, when children were still regarded as miscreants rather than the artisanal projects that they have become today. It's not easy to explain my parents' complicated role in repressing and inspiring me, clamping down and letting go."

  "In the 1950s, when I hit my teens, the 'central developmental task' that psychologists had devised for this phase in the lives of young humans was gradually to put away existential angst and unrealistic ambitions for the benumbed state known as 'maturity.'"

On pondering the meaning of life:

  "The reason I eventually became a writer is that writing makes thinking easier, and even as a verbally underdeveloped fourteen-year-old I knew that if I wanted to understand 'the situation,' thinking was what I had to do."

Family outings on Sunday afternoons:

  "Sometimes there would be a touristic destination or at least a roadside tavern as a turnaround point, where the grown-ups would have a few beers while we kids waited out front. If I had known that drunk driving carried the risk of maiming and death, these Sunday afternoon enterprises might have been more successful at holding my interest."

Ehrenreich's first mystical experience:
  "And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that's what I would have said I was doing, but the word 'tree' was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language."

  "If this was a mental illness, or even just a particularly clinical case of adolescence, I was bearing up pretty well."

Friendless, but not unhappy:

  "On the whole, despite family tensions, social isolation, the ongoing horror of puberty, and intermittent philosophical despair, I was not unhappy, or if I was, I did not see fit to write about it. There was too much going on for that, too much to find out and absorb, and emotions were not my natural beat."

Like Ehrenreich, my favourite subject in high school was chemistry. The next passage is another example of why I identified strongly with Ehrenreich as a teenager. She was required to take a "course brazenly entitled 'Life Adjustment'" at a new school after moving to Los Angeles:

  "On about my third session in this course we were given a 'personality test' to fill out, featuring multiple-choice questions about our eagerness to spend time with friends (of which I had none at the moment), eventual interest in marriage, and general satisfaction with the status quo. I filled it out quickly and guilelessly, prepared to learn something about that mysterious doppelganger, my 'personality.' But no, as soon as we had finished the tests, the teacher instructed us to exchange papers with the person sitting across the aisle from us, so that the test could be corrected.
   I stuck up my hand to raise the obvious, even platitudinous question: How could there be 'right' answers if, as had just been explained, each person has a unique personality? [...] I got some kind of patronizing answer about my being new to the class and how everything would be clear soon enough. So I stood up without saying another word, picked up my books, and walked out, taking my potentially incriminating test with me."

(At book group, I was surprised to find myself alone in sympathetic outrage over the previous passage. The other women found fault with teen Ehrenreich for not being willing to trust the teacher's process.)

On a skiing trip at age 16 with her school friend, Dick, and her brother:

  "[Dick's inexplicable] anger shamed me into silence, suggestive as it was of some sort of intimacy. As far as I had ever been able to determine, anger was the principal emotional bond between husbands and wives and possibly the only thing that held them together."

  "I should have stayed home and read Kafka, whom I'd just discovered in a paperback bookstore and found agreeably disorienting."

  "Dick's looks were not lost on me, but I didn't aspire to be his or anyone's girlfriend. If anything, my secret, inadmissible craving was to be a boy like him or at least some sort of gender-free comrade at arms."

On her relationship with her father:

  "I know I was not his actual son, only a botched reincarnation in which his magnificent genius mind had been misplaced in a female body, where it was dragged down and eroded by the hormonal tides. I was supposed to be smart, like him, but never as smart as him. I was supposed to ask questions, but only answerable ones that gave him a chance to demonstrated his superior logic and education."

Later, Ehrenreich writes of her fear of "the dark, swampy side of female existence."

Ehrenreich, an atheist from childhood, writes about a key mystical experience in 1959:
Interior column in
Les Jacobins, Toulouse,
reminds me of a
burning bush.

  "Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like 'ineffable' and 'transcendent.' For most of the intervening years, my general thought has been: If there are no words for it, then don't say anything about it. Otherwise you risk slopping into 'spirituality,' which is, in addition to being a crime against reason, of no more interest to other people than your dreams.
   But there is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the 'burning bush.' At some point in my predawn walk - not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time - the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with 'the All,' as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze."

Then there was a "post-epiphany crack-up."

  "Would religion have saved me, if I had one or could have adopted one? Years later, as an adult, I read in one of the women's magazines I wrote for at the time an article that actually dealt with the subject of 'mystical experiences.' These could be unhealthy, even shattering, the writer averred, unless a person had a religion in which to 'house' them. This was the function of religion, in fact - to serve as a safe storage space for the unaccountable and uncanny."

God is not good: 

 "If there was one thing I understood about God, it was that he was not good, and if he was good, he was too powerless to deserve our attention. In fact the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all good is a logical impossibility - possibly a trap set by ancient polytheists to ensnare weak-minded monotheists like Philo and Augustine, and certainly not worth my time."

Ehrenreich gives thanks that her grandmother sent an electric frying pan as an early wedding gift, because its implications made her rethink the realities of an impending marriage when she was 19, and to call it off. Her fiance, Steve, took the news "fairly stoically, for which I count myself lucky, because he later received a twenty-three-year prison sentence for the attempted murder of the woman he eventually married, who had, according to the local Eugene newspaper, made the mistake of asking for a divorce."

  "I spent the first few months of graduate school pretending to be a student of theoretical physics. This required no great acting skill beyond the effort to appear unperturbed in the face of the inexplicable, which is as far as I can see one of the central tasks of adulthood."

On remaining open to mystic possibilities:

  "Mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. The obvious solution would be to admit that ethical systems are a human invention and that the Other is something else entirely."
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
(via National Institutes of Health)


"Monotheism inhibits us from imagining anything involved with the 'numinous' or 'holy' as part of a species, since a species generally has more than one member. But if the hypothesized beings are 'alive,' that is, technically speaking, what we are dealing with.

   As for those who insist on a singular deity, I would note that the line we draw between an individual and a multitude is not always clear: Slime molds can exist as individual cells or join together to form a single body; bacterial colonies can exhibit a kind of intelligence unavailable to individual bacterial cells. [...] If there seems to be some confusion here on the subject of case - whether to say Other or Others, deity or deities - it grows out of the limits of our biological imagination."

Living with a Wild God is a powerful book for the right reader, especially one who felt the tension between logic and faith from an early age. My book group experience reveals that it isn't for everyone, but I recommend it anyway. It sparked discussion about spirituality, about memoir in general, and about women in science.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Bleak and optimistic at the same time: that's my kind of book. Many other people agree, because Station Eleven is ubiquitous on "Best of 2014" lists. There are lots of dynamic characters, the story is compelling and the writing is crisp. The setting moves back and forth between now and the future: before and after a flu pandemic wipes out 80% of the world's population. It is on my "Best of 2014" list too.

I listened to the audiobook [Penguin Random House: 10 hr 41 min] performed with Shakespearean aplomb by Kirsten Potter. She does an exceptionally fine job of differentiating the wide cast of characters.

Readalikes: The Dog Stars (Peter Heller); MaddAddam (Margaret Atwood); Finder (Carla Speed McNeil) and Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell).

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests surprised me because I expected to adore it, which I did at first, and then I nearly gave up on it when I was three-quarters of the way through. I despaired for the protagonists in their situation that seemed hopeless. In his recommendation of The Paying Guests, Slate columnist Simon Doonan wrote: "How can one book be so dismal and so utterly unputdownable?" Well, I was ready to put it down, so I asked a friend who knows my tastes if I should continue. I'm glad I asked, because I'm glad I finished it.

Sarah Waters is a fabulous author and I've read every one of her books. (Affinity is my favourite, but they are all delicious in their own ways.) The atmospheric 1920s London setting and vivid characters drew me immediately into The Paying Guests. Frances Wray and her mother rent rooms in their house to a married couple in order to make ends meet, then Frances begins an affair with the wife.

"The door was open, and she and Lilian were inching towards it. More smiles, more handshakes, more apologies ... And then they were free, going out of the house like swimmers. Or so, anyhow, it seemed to Frances, for directly the door was closed again and the clamour of the party was behind them she lifted her arms, put back her head, feeling unmoored, suspended, lapped about by the liquid blue night."

Waters is a master at getting me into the skin of her people. That moment of leaving the party feels so real - the undercurrent of attraction between the two women, and that open feeling of possibilities.

The pace in the early part is measured, with the feeling of being drawn inexorably toward some fateful event:

"But the end, Frances wanted to say, was impossible to imagine. It was like the idea that one would grow old, when one was thrumming with youth; like the knowledge that one would die, when one felt full to one's fingertips with life."

Sarah Waters signing at
Vancouver Writers Fest 2014.
The ending of the book is not what I had imagined and it is very well done. No spoilers. I will, however, mention something that came up in the New York Times. In their 100 notable books of 2014, The Paying Guests is described as: "Hard times, forbidden love, murder and justice are the themes of this nevertheless comic novel, set in London after World War 1." Comedy is different for everyone, but I didn't notice any of it in this particular book.

Another note: I read up to page 282 (out of 566 pages) in my friend Kathy's copy of The Paying Guests (while I was visiting Vancouver in October), and then I started again from the beginning with the audiobook [Books on Tape: 21.5 hours] narrated by Juliet Stevenson. Either way is good.

Readalikes: Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood); Apple Tree Yard (Louise Doughty); The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters); and Slammerkin (Emma Donoghue).

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Love Enough by Dionne Brand

Elegant, thoughtful and life-affirming. Dionne Brand's Love Enough is so good that I found myself reading more and more slowly, wanting to make the 180 pages of her newest novel last as long as possible.

Brand also writes poetry, short stories and essays, but I love her novels most of all. In Another Place, Not Here (1996), has long been a favourite, with its searing opening page and simmering rage throughout. Battling injustice is a central theme in Brand's work.

In Love Enough, the central character is a social activist in Toronto. June has had both male and female lovers.

"Beatriz was clearly passing through and this explosive impermanence was precisely what June wanted at the time. Not love but the fissive encounter, the intense ideas and intense sex and the hypersense that every moment was atomic and defining. Of course one cannot live at that pitch forever, although naturally one wants to."

June's current lover, Sydney, weathers the storms of June's prickly contrariness. Their relationship is part of what makes this book so full of hope: that there is indeed love enough to survive through difficult times.

There are other characters with intersecting lives. Bedri and Ghost are two young men on the run from a violent encounter. Bedri's father and Ghost's mother have their own troubles. Ghost's sister Lia is hoping that her friend Jasmeet will return to the city and find her. Paying attention to beauty is how Lia survives. Every morning, she studies the colours of the lake view outside.
View from the house where I've been staying for the past week in Victoria, BC.
"She ought to buy a camera, then she could set it at the window and take shots each minute. But then again, that would not quite do for what she needs. The camera would take the picture but she needs the moment to sink into her, to somehow become chemical, to metabolise, to reconstitute, yes, reconstitute her heart."

As I read Love Enough, I could feel my heart expanding to make room for June, Sydney, Bedri, Ghost and the rest, with their human frailties so tenderly portrayed. Yes. Thank you, Dionne Brand, for this beautiful book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

When two creative rock stars join forces, great books happen. Author Mac Barnett and artist Jon Klassen previously collaborated on the delightful picture book Extra Yarn. Their latest creation is the playful and subversive Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. It's about two boys doing what kids like, accompanied by their dog who appears to know more than they do.

Readers know more too. Barnett plays the straight man here with the words.
   "When should we stop digging?" asked Sam.
   "We are on a mission," said Dave.
   "We won't stop digging until we find something spectacular."

Klassen's illustrations provide both the real story and the humorous contrast with the text. The earth shown in cross-section reveals that the boys decide to change directions every time they get close to treasure (increasingly massive gemstones, a bone).

Sharp readers will spot the differences when the boys return home empty-handed. The surreal ending makes Sam & Dave Dig a Hole satisfying for all ages.

Look for other wonderful picture books by these talented guys, including Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett & Adam Rex), House Held Up by Trees (Ted Kooser & Jon Klassen) and my all-time favourite, I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

I'm not a big fan of straight psychological horror, but mix black humour with creepiness and I'm hooked. Author Grady Hendrix hits the perfect satirical note with Horrorstor. Bizarre acts of destruction have been noticed by the opening shift at an American box store that sells Ikea knockoffs. A handful of employees are conscripted to stay overnight to find out what's going on. It's a night from hell. And it's funny too.

The book is designed to look like an Ikea catalogue. Each chapter starts with some pseudo-Swedish type of furniture, getting more and more odd as the novel progresses. It's irresistible.

Readalikes: Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris); The Blondes (Emily Schultz); Worst. Person. Ever. (Douglas Coupland); Afterlife with Archie (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa); Zombies Calling (Faith Erin Hicks).
"Unwind on the cushion-firm mattress as this elegantly designed wheeled stretcher transfers you to the destination of your choice. Whether it's a fast-paced trip to an urgent care center or a more leisurely cruise to the coroner's office, GURNE delivers you in style and comfort" 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dublin Impac Longlist: So Much Good Stuff!

When the folks at the Dublin Impac Literary Award say "long" they mean it. Their longlist announced today contains 142 nominees from 39 countries. I'm always excited to see what's on this list because:

  • Finding out about new books and authors, especially from other parts of the world
  • Seeing which of my favourites are included
  • Reminder of great books that I've already read
  • Nominations are all from libraries
  • Big money prize (100,000 euros) celebrates literary endeavour

Two books that caught my eye are by Australian Indigenous authors:
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko and The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. (I reviewed Wright's Carpentaria here.) I hope that these are available in Canada, because I want to read them now!

It was good to be reminded of a couple of other titles that I've been meaning to read for a long time: On Sal Mal Lane by the fabulous Ru Freeman and For Sure by Canadian France Daigle. (Note to self: less time on twitter = more time to read books.)

I noticed that two books have single letter titles: S by Doug Dorst and K by Bernardo Kucinski. Interesting. Surely it isn't often that a book gets that kind of title.

The book that intrigues me most based on title alone: Mr. Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson (because Charles Darwin and horticulture).

The book covers that most attracted me: The Humans by Matt Haig (because font and dog looking at night sky) and Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist (because magpies).
Here are some excellent titles on the list that I've previously reviewed:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Harvest by Jim Crace
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Eyrie by Tim Winton
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara

There are a bunch of other books on the list that I've read and haven't reviewed, so the Dublin Impac longlist is also a kick in the pants reminding me to write my thoughts on this blog before moving on to another book. Aside from Instructions for a Heatwave, these are all titles that I listened to in audiobook format. Every one of them is worthwhile:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

If you're looking for something new to read, check out the Impac list. Pick your favourites and see if they make the shortlist that will be announced in April 2015.