The Children’s Bible

Despite the virus plaguing the globe, the climate disintegrating, and politics continuing to stress our boundaries, we all hope this is really not the beginning of the end of the world.  Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible offers a strong vision cautioning it may be, but also offering hope for the future with the next generation.

As the book opens with privileged children and the worst wealthy parents ever imagined on a holiday, I wondered if Millet was offering a treatise on spoiled brats and irresponsible adults.  Jack, one of the young children, is enamored with his illustrated book of Bible tales, and Millet uses them to cleverly lull the reader into a strong message about what will happen if we all don’t shape up soon.

In his review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says:

“A Children’s Bible” is ready to rain down God’s wrath on these hapless families. When a tremendous hurricane moves up the coast, their Gilded Age mansion is smashed by falling trees and then surrounded by polluted floodwaters. The adults panic. Confronted with gaping holes in the roof, a rising tide in the basement and no electricity, they get high, have sex, break down in fits of crying and fantasize about incremental steps they can take to fix everything. (To their credit, none of them thinks it’s a Chinese hoax.)

Amazingly, the book becomes a prophecy with stories becoming reality. Evie is the narrator (her name should offer a clue), and she tells the story with audacious humor and vicious asides. Through a flood (of biblical proportions) caused by climate change, pretty much everything in the area where the families have relocated for the summer is destroyed. To complement the Noah reference, the children save small animals in an arc. As the disintegration continues, a baby is born in a barn, a modern day crucifixion with a staple gun and a savior with a SWAT team in a rescue helicopter are among the many other biblical references.   The children morph into responsible beings as the adults continue to sabotage what world is left.

Just in case the reader has not yet connected to the message, Jack notes:

“God” is a code word. When the people in the book say God, they mean nature. What’s more, if God equals nature, then Jesus equals science. Jack makes a chart for comparison between Jesus and science: heals the sick — check; makes blind people see — check; “turns hardly any food into lots” …

“And the proof is, there’s lots the same with Jesus and science,” Jack says. “Like, for science to save us we have to believe in it.

In these days when wearing a mask can be controversial and the President of the United States claims science doesn’t always know (what causes climate change), Millet’s message could not be more timely.  And not by accident: Millet has a degree in environmental policy, and works for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The Children’s Bible is shorter than I had anticipated – under 300 pages.  I’m glad Libby challenged me into reading it before my short library loan called it back, and now I understand its accolades as finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, one of New York Times’ ten best books of the year, one of Time’s ten best novels of 2020, and a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2020.

It’s not too late for activism or a return to science – or is it?

 

 

From the Top Ten Books of 2020

Nothing is quite the same this Christmas.  I tried an Iced Gingerbread energy bar with a glass of cartoned egg nog for breakfast.  The bar smelled somewhat like what I remember gingerbread did, but the taste was just like any old energy bar – a little like cardboard.  The egg nog could have used some rum to perk up the flavor, and a little whipped cream on top – but I am out of both.  Substitution is the next new normal as the year grudgingly tries to finish with snow falling on the East Coast, and virtual classrooms calling for a virtual snow day.

Although I still have a few hard cover books on my shelf I have not read, I received a “skip-the-line” offer from Libby, the library’s online manager; the online library is my latest substitution. Without the availability of the hallowed halls with stacks of books and timeless opportunities for roaming, the ebook library must suffice.  With only four days left and not a lot of motivation, I’m not sure I will finish Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. The editors of the New York Times Book Review chose it as one of the ten best books of 2020, so I should try.

“In Millet’s latest novel, a bevy of kids and their middle-aged parents convene for the summer at a country house in America’s Northeast. While the grown-ups indulge (pills, benders, bed-hopping), the kids, disaffected teenagers and their parentally neglected younger siblings, look on with mounting disgust. But what begins as generational comedy soon takes a darker turn, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. The ensuing chaos is underscored by scenes and symbols repurposed from the Bible — a man on a blowup raft among the reeds, animals rescued from a deluge into the back of a van, a baby born in a manger. With an unfailingly light touch, Millet delivers a wry fable about climate change, imbuing foundational myths with new meaning and, finally, hope.”

The other nine on the list included only two I plan to read, when Libby sends an alert:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet
  2. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half
  3. Ayad Ahktar’s Homeland Elegies
  4. James McBride’s Deacon King Kong
  5. Barack Obama’s A Promised Land
  6. Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us
  7. James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America
  8. Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road
  9. Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley

Have you read any on this top ten list?

 

 

 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

In making a Faustian deal, an eighteenth century young woman escapes an arranged marriage. But the devil is in the details.  

Addie LaRue gets her freedom and her wish to be her own person, even gaining immortality, but no one she meets remembers her.  In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E. Schwab cleverly spans three centuries across Europe and the United States in a time travel fantasy examining the value of a legacy.

Addie initially struggles through the hardships of suddenly being without family or any means of support, but she does have her freedom, including the ability to steal what she needs and being instantly forgotten for doing it.  She makes it through the plague (not the current one), fashions herself into a well-read and astute thinker when women were not expected to do more than marry and bear children.  As she gallops through the centuries, her accomplishments are bittersweet because no one knows about her, forgetting her almost instantly.  Later, this talent to reintroduce herself to the same person gets a little strained.

Known by her seven freckles resembling  a galaxy of stars across her face, she discovers she can make her mark through others as artists use her as their muse. She fills art and music with the memory of ideas she has planted. Her devil appears occasionally over the years to taunt her with difficulties but she is never willing to surrender her freedom and her soul.

Suddenly, after 300 hundred years, she finds a soulmate in Henry, a bookstore owner who has made his own deal with the devil.  To her surprise Henry does remember her, and for the first time she can hear her real name from her lover. Although Schwab nurtures the romance, true love really does not lie with these two characters.  Addie’s true love is her freedom and, despite the devil’s machinations, she finds a way her to leave her mark and be remembered.

As I finished the story, with its unlikely and clever ending (I won’t spoil it for you), I remembered my own much shorter journey so far, and the marks I’ve left behind.  Like Addie, most have morphed into an amalgam of pieces leading to others’ adaptations.  The ideas I created may not have the same name, but most are still viable and progressed with the times, as they should.  Yet, we all want to be remembered.

Caitlyn Paxson for NPR said: “Addie LaRue manages to pull off like the prestige of a particularly elegant magic trick, leaving us with the feeling that we too have been a part of Addie’s long and invisible life. I for one will most certainly remember her.”

So will I.

 “Strive not to be a success but to be of value.” Albert Einstein

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Imagine you are in a small theater (not likely these days).  On the stage the scene is set like  Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks; small and dark with a woman in white seated at the end of the counter.  The setting stays the same and a small cast of characters come and go in four scenes.  Crucial to the plot – a time portal carrying the time traveler back to an important event or conversation they want to rectify within the minutes before their coffee gets cold.

Toshiikazu Kawaguchi’s short novel was originally a play in Japanese, and it is easier to read if you imagine it still is.  The themes of regret and anger are tempered by the possibilities of hope and change in the future, and these days we could all use a lesson in hope.

The novel is told over a series of small vignettes, each revolving around a specific trip one of the regulars of the cafe takes.  The stories follow a theatrical setup – single location and only a handful of characters.  Forgive the awkward translation and be open to the message.

What would you do if you could travel back in time for only a few minutes – until the hot steaming coffee poured into your cup got cold?  This premise connects four chapter stories with related characters who each have different motivations to see their worlds again in the past.  The cafe, named Funiculi, Funicula, has the reputation of being able to transport willing customers to another time, but only if the rules are followed.  Only one seat in the cafe serves as the vehicle, and it is usually occupied by the same patron absorbed in reading her book; the woman in white fiercely guards her territory and only leaves her seat to go to the bathroom. She is, in fact, a ghost who did not follow the café’s most important rule – to finish drinking before the coffee gets cold.  The time ravelers may only stay a short amount of time before being whisked back to their own time, but if they fail to drink the coffee before it gets cold, they will join the ghostly chorus.

A married couple, Kei and Nagare, are the current owners, while Nagare’s cousin, Kazu, a university student, helps out when she’s not in school. Regular customers include: businesswoman Fumiko who is desperate to be more open and vulnerable during her last meeting with her boyfriend Goro before he relocates to the U.S., nurse Kohtake wants one more opportunity to talk to her husband Fusagi before Alzheimer’s made him forget too much – including her. Bar owner Hirai needs to talk to her younger sister Kumi, whom she’s been avoiding for too many years. Finally, co-owner Kei, who is pregnant, bends the rules to go into the future to meet her unborn child.

Each chapter ends on a bittersweet note with the time traveler returning to the present, knowing it has not changed.  And yet, Kawaguchi does offer a change of perspective to each from their brief experience reliving a past moment; they return with renewed hope for the future. Perhaps reworking a significant turning point in the past would not change the present, but recognizing its impact can affect the future and how we live in the present.

Kazu notes at the end of the book,

“No matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair (the time portal) can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.”

I made myself a cup of coffee to time how long it took to go cold.  Not long. Better “Drink the coffee before it gets cold.”  No time to waste.

 

Frustrated Ramblings and The Archive of the Forgotten

Have you ever tried to remove the battery cover with a coin slot for turning it open?  Those devilishly difficult  covers are on cameras, fit bits, and in my case, the remote for a window shade.  I persevered in this exercise in frustration – because what else do I have to do these days.  I seriously considered keeping the shades where they had landed.  It wasn’t so bad; I could move to another chair when the sun beat in, or just avoid the room altogether.

I tried every coin I could find – a penny, a dime, a quarter.  I dug through my sewing supplies and found a quilting pin.  I pressed a toothbrush and a pen into service to no avail.

I asked google. Surely someone else had had this problem.  Turns out many had posted complaints but no solutions.  But I persevered.  Finally, in an obscure corner of the internet I found a note to use a Euro coin.  I still had one from my travels, and – it worked!

This morning I could finally raise and lower the shades, but the clouds are covering the sun, so the shades remain dormant.

Between my furious attempts to solve my shade problem, I read the ebook the library threatened to take back.  Libby, the online master of library books, had offered me a “skip the line” to a book with a six month waiting list.  The caveat was to finish the book in seven days, not an insurmountable problem, except I forget about it until it was due in two days – thanks to Libby’s threatening reminder.

The Archive of the Forgotten is A. J. Hackwith’s sequel to The Library of the Unwritten, a fantasy story with books in hell, a dead librarian/author with unachieved ambition, and a cast of other worldly characters with issues, mostly concerning stories in books.

If you are a fan of the irreverent “Good Place” series, you will relish Hackwith’s Library of the Unwritten.  A librarian who was human but didn’t make it past the pearly gates, Claire oversees books not yet written; the library is in hell.  When one character escapes from his book to meet with his author on Earth, and another soul offers stolen pages from the devil’s Coda in exchange for living among the angels, the action starts, and never falters.  An exciting ride through different worlds where the devils are more fun and the angels tend to be judgmental and arrogant, the book swerves through lives and characters.  Noting the cautionary note to all procrastinating authors (me included) – “there’s nothing an unwritten book wants more than to be written” – I listened to the book on Audible and found myself speeding up the narrative to get to the next chapter.

The Archive of the Forgotten has the same characters with Claire, Hero, Rami, and Brevity continuing the battle to protect the library, while facing a new threat. More of Hell’s Library is revealed – the Dust Wing, where the books that humanity has forgotten end up, and the Unsaid Wing, full of letters and confessions that were never sent. Although the storyline gets more or less resolved, it also leaves points to be addressed in the next book.

I can’t wait for the next fun adventure with books in Hell, and my next challenge with assorted mechanical malfunctions.