Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

buried

I started devouring this book the second it came in for me, but didn’t get far the first night. Then I got on a plane at an ungodly early hour last weekend, and I read from chapter 3 to the end before I reached the east coast. It’s that good. Among all of the other things it does, this book asks the question: is it possible that forgetting your past is not only not a bad thing, but sometimes one of the better things that could happen to people?

Our protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, are an elderly married couple who live in post-Roman Britain. Everyone in their town suffers from what they have come to call “the mist” – no one can remember many details of their lives, or recent events, or hold any one thought for long. Axl and Beatrice decide to go visit their son, even though they have never been to his village, and can barely remember what he looks like or why he left them in the first place. (They vaguely remember that they once had a reason not to visit, and that they disagreed about it, but can’t remember what the reason was or which of them refused to go.) They get as far as a neighboring village before they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior and an orphan he is protecting, and they wind up joining in on a quest to slay a dragon who may or may not be responsible for the forgetfulness that plagues their land. They meet a knight – Sir Gawain of Arthurian legend – whose mission is supposedly to slay the dragon, but….it’s complicated. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it comes down to the party deciding – are the people better or worse off because they have forgotten their pasts? Should they slay the dragon and restore everyone’s memories, or try to keep her alive to keep the past at bay? There are compelling arguments made for both sides.

There are so many layers to this story that I can’t do them justice. I started the book because I enjoyed Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but this book really isn’t like either of those. (It’s as if Ishiguro has a different personality with a different writing style for every one of his books.) If you like dreamy, symbolic fairy tales and/or have philosophical questions about war, life, memory, forgiveness, love and/or marriage, you might like it. Try it!

Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

codex

This is the best book I have never read. If you don’t have the serious bucks necessary to buy this book, get it from your library and just sit down with a favorite beverage and thumb through it. It’s confusing, and it makes no sense, but it’s so interesting and beautiful that you will forgive it and keep looking anyway. Amazon sums it up pretty well: “While its message may be unclear, its appeal is obvious: it is a most exquisite artifact.” I described it to a friend as the encyclopedia of the imaginary land where Hieronymus Bosch’s consciousness lived when he was happy (as opposed to when it was unhappy and he was getting all medieval on the canvas).

You can get an idea of the contents by doing a Google image search or doing the “look inside” thing on Amazon, but most of the pictures you find are small and/or blurry, and half the joy of this book is the creamy, heavy textured paper it is printed on, so only do that if you can’t get the actual book. Really, go look. It’s pretty. And weird. I want to meet the artist and see if he has flowers growing out of his ears or a third eye in the middle of his forehead or huge frog feet. (Or maybe he dreams that he does?)

The Unpersuadables : Adventures With the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

unpersuade

I confess that I picked this book up because I thought it would be a staright-up debunking of what I personally am convinced are the erroneous beliefs of science deniers. It was so much more than that. Will Storr spent some serious time with all sorts of people around the world who believe in some pretty unbelievable things, trying to figure out how it can be that people retain certain beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. He visits creationists who deny evolution, skeptics who deny anything they call “woo woo”, a group of people who believe that they have a disease their doctors say is imaginary, a meditation retreat that claims to cure all…he even tours Holocaust sites with David Irving. No matter which side he himself was on in each case, he tried hard to remain as objective as possible and collect as much actual evidence as he could, to see if he could figure out why people cling to the side they’ve picked.

What he learns is disturbing. This book is fascinating, but now I am depressed because I can’t help thinking every time I form an opinion how I am not actually in control of my brain like I thought I was before I read it. Basically, Storr demonstrates time and again that people form opinions about issues intuitively right from the beginning, and then accept information that reinforces their belief while rejecting information that contradicts it – even while they are convinced that they are critically examining the facts and rationally choosing a side. In other words, you believe the things you believe before you even realize that you’ve adopted the belief, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for you to change your mind no matter what evidence you find. And even if you know you’re doing it, you can’t stop doing it.

The book is helping me to be more patient with other people’s partisan opinions, so I guess that’s something, but I sure wish I could continue believing that I’m rational (and that my partisan beliefs are the right ones). Sigh. But as Storr points out, what we each accept as truth may or may not be what others accept as truth. And if we assume that we are right and people who have different truths are wrong, well, that can’t be true for everyone, can it? (But we are right, we know it. Trouble is, “they” think this too. And they are not interested in our evidence, they have their own – which we don’t believe because it’s theirs.)

As a side note, this book is worth reading simply for the parts in which Storr ruminates on the ideas of sanity, rationality, and memory. He keeps coming around to the conclusion that no human is ever completely sane or rational, and that no one’s memory records the literal truth. This may not be what he set out to discover, but it seems to me the most important revelation of the book. We are beings who need stories, whether the stories we tell ourselves are true or not. We need heroes, we need villains, we need a struggle, and we will find them and wedge them into our narratives to make our world make sense. The trouble is, not all people are going to agree on the identity of the hero, the villain, or even agree on the events in the plot. And even when we know that this is how our brains work – even when it is pointed out to us, we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are somehow the exception, and that we would never be fooled this way. But we are.

 

 

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

godinruins I heard that Kate Atkinson was going to write a “companion novel” to Life After Life, and I got excited. Then I forgot about it for a while…until I found out that librarians can sign up for Advance Reader Copies. So I did. And I read it. And now I am slightly sorry that I have to wait until it comes out (May 5 – place your holds and Amazon preorders now, people!) to tell patrons about it. Anyway. If you read Life After Life, the main character in this book is Ursula’s brother, Teddy. Unlike Life After Life, which allows us to see hundreds of different possible outcomes for Ursula, A God In Ruins has only one plotline for Teddy – his life unrolls, told from his own memories or flashbacks from his daughter and grandchildren’s perspectives. Ursula is only mentioned in passing – she dies in her fifties in Teddy’s version of the story, and Teddy often regrets her absence from his life (he lives on into his nineties). There is a minimum of the usual Kate Atkinson weirdness where you can’t tell what is real and what isn’t, so those who don’t like her fanciful treatment of reality will like it just fine…until the end, where reality takes a raincheck and ha ha, fooled you, it really is a Kate Atkison book after all. But I won’t tell you about that and spoil the surprise. The best part about this book is the characters. We get to see all of the family members we met in Life After Life through Teddy’s lens rather than Ursula’s, and the differences are interesting. (For instance, it’s very apparent that the siblings’ experience of their mother differs greatly. You would think that Teddy, being his mother’s favorite, would love her more than Ursula does – but you’d be wrong.) Even more interesting are Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and her children, Sunny and Bertie. (Teddy of course marries the girl next door, Nancy, who Ursula saved from a murderer in one of her lives.) Viola is a difficult character. I wanted to feel sorry for her, and sympathize with her sorrows, but couldn’t help wanting to slap her silly for her self-obsessed insensitivity. Viola is truly a rotten person. By contrast, Bertie is almost too good to be true, and her brother Sunny will break your heart. By the end of the book you love Teddy’s grandchildren as much as he does.

If you like historical fiction about World War II (from the British perspective), or psychological fiction about parents and children and the ways our families make us who we are, or if you liked Life after Life, you might like this book. I know I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters and this setting again.