Thursday, December 31, 2020

Favorite reads of 2020

It was the best of years; it was the worst of years. 

I think we can all probably agree that this was the worst year in our memories for all the obvious and well-known reasons, but for me, it was also the best year in my memory and that is all down to the books that I read. I read 91 books this year, of which 41% received a five-star rating from me. 

Now I'll be the first to admit that I may sometimes be too generous with my ratings. On the other hand, sometimes I take a dislike to a book and I may be hypercritical. So sue me! 

Anyway, I say all that to explain that it has been extremely hard for me to narrow down a list of the best of the best of 2020. I've tried to limit my final list to books that were actually published this year or last year, even though that means I've left out a few terrific books. Here then, in the order that I read them, is a list of my favorite reads of 2020, with links provided should you want to look at my review.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anaparra

Weather by Jenny Offill

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

The Searcher by Tana French

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - My last read for 2020 which I haven't reviewed yet, but trust me when I do it will get 5 stars.

I am so grateful to all of these wonderful writers for taking me out of myself and showing me other worlds and other ways of being in a year when this world was too much with us. I hope that your reading year has been equally enjoyable and worthwhile and here's looking forward to an even better year for all of us on every level in 2021. Happy New Year! 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Burning the Old Year by Naomi Shihab Nye

If ever there were a year that was ripe for burning, it might be 2020. What a thoroughly disastrous year this has been in so many ways. The pandemic, of course, but climate change that has contributed to making Nature's storms so much worse, as well as fueling wildfires and raising ocean levels to threaten many coastal areas - all of that plus, in this country, an attempted coup by a disgruntled reality television personality, an attempt supported by the spineless and seditious members of one of our major political parties. We look forward to 2021 with the hope that the coronavirus vaccines will begin to do their work and that at noon on January 20, the government will again be in the hands of people who believe in the role of government in making people's lives better.

As for 2020, burn it down! Happy New Year.

Burning the Old Year

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy: A review


“The only true threat to birds that has ever existed is us.”

Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations takes place at some time in the not-too-distant future when the sixth extinction has almost run its course. Most of Earth's animals are gone. The last known wild wolf has died. All the big cats are gone. The monkeys, the elephants - all gone. There are, however, a few survivors. Some birds, the ultimate survivors (just ask the dinosaurs), still fly. In the ocean, some fish still swim. And thereby hangs this tale.

Among the surviving birds is what may be the last colony of Arctic Terns. These amazing birds are the Olympic champions of long-distance flight. Twelve inches long, with a wingspan of 31 inches, and weighing less than four ounces, these birds make the longest migration in all of the animal kingdom. Each year, they fly from the Arctic to Antarctica and then back again.  

Franny Stone, a young Irish-Australian woman with a mysteriously damaged background, is fascinated by the Arctic Terns. The origin of her fascination is slowly revealed to be from her biologist husband who studied them. But it isn't clear at first just why she is so obsessed with them. She travels to Greenland where she will electronically tag some of those (possibly last) Arctic Terns. Then she hopes to find passage on a boat that will allow her to follow the birds on what may be their final migration.

In her search, she encounters the captain of a fishing boat, a purse seine herring boat, called the Saghani. The captain, Ennis Malone, is enigmatic and mostly silent and seldom leaves the bridge of his boat. But Franny somehow manages to convince him that allowing her to track the birds will lead to fish because the birds must find fish to sustain them on their long journey. He wants to believe that perhaps following the birds will lead them to a big catch of herring. And so he agrees to take her on board.

Once on board, Franny must earn her keep. She swabs the decks. She learns to tie knots, all kinds of knots, and repeats and repeats the practice until blisters form and pop and her hands bleed. And all this time the boat is pitched about by North Atlantic storms. As she becomes part of the crew and establishes a kind of camaraderie with them, we also begin to learn about her traumatic and troubled past. We learn that she's spent some time in prison and there is a mystery about her husband: Are they merely estranged or is he dead? And did he die by her hand? Her story as it is revealed to us is replete with gaps and omissions.  

As her life on board settles into a routine, there comes a time when the Arctic Terns they are tracking land on the boat to rest on their journey. The crew is intrigued by their presence and full of questions for Franny.

"'s not really answers they want, it's simply remembering what it feels like to love creatures that aren't human. A nameless sadness, the fading away of birds. The fading away of the animals. How lonely it will be here, when it's just us."

The passage is never easy. The boat and its crew run into all kinds of problems from legal to climate-related and the crew finds itself in the position of shielding Franny from the gaze of the police. Through it all Captain Ennis Malone is singularly focused on pursuing his "big catch," possibly his last. I think it is not a coincidence that he reminds one so strongly of Captain Ahab, but Malone's white whale is a gigantic school of herring. Just as in Moby Dick, the subtext is humankind against Nature. 

Not to reveal any spoilers of the plot but in the end, only Franny and Malone make it to Antarctica, not on the Saghani but on a stolen yacht called the Sterna paradisaea, the Latin name of the Arctic Tern.

Franny muses:

"My life has been a migration without a destination, and that in itself is senseless. I leave for no reason, just to be moving, and it breaks my heart a thousand times, a million. It's a relief to at last have a purpose. I wonder what it will feel like to stop." 

Migrations is in many ways an amazing novel. It is McConaghy's first voyage into the sea of literary eco-fiction. Her previous writing has mostly been of the young-adult fiction genre. Her descriptions of the near dystopian landscape with its animal populations going extinct are heart-wrenching for anyone who cares about our planet. As Franny's husband once despairingly commented: "What happens when the last of the terns die? Nothing will ever be as brave again."

It's a sentiment that lingers long after finishing this extraordinary book.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

White Ivy by Susie Yang: A review

Ivy Lin was born in China and while she was still a baby, her parents emigrated to the United States, leaving her with her grandmother, Meifeng, to be raised. By the time she was five years old, her parents had become established enough to send for her. She joins her parents and a baby brother, Austin, in Massachusetts. A few years later Meifeng also joins them and starts teaching her granddaughter how to shoplift and to take things without paying for them and without suffering the consequences of her actions. Ivy becomes quite proficient in her newly learned skills. 

In school, she develops a crush on a golden boy named Gideon. She follows him around, even though he never seems to notice her. Eventually, he does notice her enough to invite her to his birthday party. She attempts to shoplift a camera to give him as a present, but another boy, Roux, a neighbor with whom she had been romantically involved works at the store and sees what she is doing. He pays for the camera so that she can give it to her crush. 

Ivy lied to her parents, saying that she was going to spend the night with a girlfriend, in order to go to the party, but her lie is discovered and the parents show up in the middle of the party to haul her home. She is humiliated.

Following this, her parents send her back to China to visit her aunt and while she is gone, they move to a new town. When she returns, it is to a new home, a new town, a new school. Her connection, tenuous as it was, with Gideon, as well as her connection with Roux, is broken.

Years pass and her life continues in the same vein. She is a liar and a thief. She becomes an elementary school teacher, not because she likes kids or feels any calling for the profession but simply because she has to do something to get her parents off her back. She lives and teaches in Boston and one day, she accidentally runs into Gideon's socialite sister, Sylvia, and through her is able to once again make a connection to Gideon. They begin dating and when Gideon invites her to the family's seaside cottage to meet his parents, Sylvia is also there, along with her boyfriend Roux who is now quite wealthy.  Small world, isn't it?

These are the basics of the plot. Everything plays out from this point. Ivy again becomes involved with Roux in a sexual relationship that is very satisfying. Gideon, to whom she eventually becomes engaged, is not interested in sex with her, but he has a very close relationship with his friend, Tom. Ivy is utterly clueless.

This is Susie Yang's debut novel and it is billed as an immigrant coming-of-age story. In fact, it doesn't seem that her immigrant status actually plays much of a role in Ivy's life. She is a thoroughly unlikable character, a social climber whose only goal for her life is to marry into a blue blood family in society. She shows no redeeming values at all. She is disloyal, petty, an inveterate liar, and continues to branch out in her thievery. She will do anything - literally - to rise socially and achieve the place in life that she believes is her due. She is a self-destructive narcissist. 

Writers often challenge their readers by presenting them with unlikable main characters, particularly women, who can be layered and complex in their makeup and for whom one can feel some empathy even though they are flawed and even dangerous. That's not Ivy Lin. She's a bad one and even though I kept hoping for her redemption, it just wasn't going to happen. I found the plotting interesting enough to keep reading but, in the end, I found it quite unsatisfying.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Christmas Trees by Robert Frost

When our kids were little, they looked forward to going to the Christmas tree farm to pick out a tree. I admit that made me a bit uncomfortable even then, but today it just makes me really sad to see a perfectly good tree cut down to serve as a few days' decoration. Yes, I know it is a legitimate business that brings joy to a lot of people. But in a world that is losing its forests and where trees, the lungs of the planet, are becoming scarce in some places, to see a bunch of dead trees waiting at the big box store to be taken home and decorated just seems so wasteful like so much else in our materialistic lives.

That's what I thought of when I read Robert Frost's poem last week. What is the worth of a tree? Must everything finally come to a "trial by market"?

Christmas Trees

by Robert Frost

(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

                                                     “You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2020

This week in birds - #431

 A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

A male Northern Cardinal shells a seed he just picked up from the feeder. Cardinals are without a doubt one of America's favorite backyard birds and, thank goodness, there are still plenty of them around.


On its way out the door, the current administration is rushing to do as much damage to the environment as possible. Here are twelve such actions that have been taken since the election.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is underfunded and much too busy to take the trouble to add Northern Spotted Owls to the Endangered Species List, even though the birds are eligible for listing. 


The U.S. FWS uses the same excuse for rejecting a petition to give protection to Monarch butterflies, again even though the butterflies meet the test to need Endangered Species protection. I wonder where all the money appropriated for FWS has gone. It couldn't be that it has been channeled into building someone's vanity wall, could it? 


Rupert Murdoch and his international "news" (for which read propaganda) organization continue to deny or cast doubt on the reality of human-caused climate change, and in his home country of Australia, they are fed up with it.


The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only facility in the state that performs rehab of aquatic animals, thus giving them a second chance at life, but the facility's future may be in doubt.


New research shows that fossil fuel power plants in America will reach the end of their expected lives by 2035. This should make it easier to transition to clean power as the new administration promises to do.


The listing of the Black Rail as a threatened species will give impetus to conservationists seeking to restore habitat areas for the birds. Loss of habitat is the main reason for the bird's decline.


A trail camera positioned along the Bronx River in New York has recorded the image of a bobcat exploring the area. This is heartening evidence of the improving health of the environment. 


President-elect Biden has announced his selections to head the EPA and the Interior Department. Both have gained widespread praise and the appointment of a Native American woman, Deb Haaland, to head Interior is indeed a historic choice. Both of these people will have their hands full attempting to reverse the damage of the last four years.


A few of the irruptive Evening Grosbeaks. (Image courtesy of Audubon.)

According to news reports, this fall has seen one of the biggest irruptions of boreal birds in recent memory, but I haven't seen much evidence of it in my yard yet.  


Wetland areas in Australia have been reduced due to long-term drought conditions. This has resulted in a reduction in the numbers of several waterbird species that rely on such habitat. 


Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have announced that 156 new plants and fungi have been discovered and described this year. Among them is "the ugliest orchid in the world."


Ivory from elephant tusks that were found on a Portuguese trading ship that sank in 1533 was found to have preserved genetic traces of whole lineages of elephants that have vanished from West Africa.


Several previously unexplained power outages in Scotland have now been blamed on the large murmurations of European Starlings flying in the area.


This is an artist's rendering of what surely must be one of the strangest dinosaurs yet discovered. The Ubirajara jubatus lived about 110 million years ago along the shores of an ancient lagoon in what is now northeastern Brazil.


Researchers believe they may have discovered a previously unknown species of whale in the waters off Mexico's western coast. If it is confirmed it would definitely be a significant discovery. 


There is also good news for a well-known species of whale, the bowhead. Researchers have found that the species seems to be making a recovery in spite of the warming of the Arctic waters which are their home. 


Karen Attiah shares with us her anger and despair at the wanton destruction of her favorite fig tree. Anyone who has ever lost a beloved tree to an inexpert tree trimmer will feel her pain.


"This week in birds" will be absent from this space next week as I enjoy holiday celebrations with my family. It will return in two weeks. I hope all of my readers are enjoying a healthy, happy, and safe holiday season.   

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi: A review


This is a unique entry in the "murder mystery" genre. The idea is that a professor of mathematics named Grant McAllister had long ago devised a theory about the rules that must apply to a murder mystery. For example, there must be a victim; there must be a perpetrator, at least one suspect; and there must be a detective, someone trying to figure out and explain what happened. To illustrate his theory and all the possible permutations of it, he had written seven stories to go along with the theory part and the book had been published thirty years before. Since then McAllister has retired to the seclusion of a remote Mediterranean island.

Then one day, his seclusion is interrupted by an ambitious editor named Julia Hart who had come across his book and who wants to republish it, possibly with more commentary. She wants to discuss the old stories with their author and prepare to edit them for the new book. McAllister, in fact, needs the money, so he agrees to the project.

The form of this book then is that Julia reads each story aloud to McAllister and then they discuss it. What becomes painfully obvious early on in the process is that McAllister doesn't really remember the stories very well and if Julia tweaks them or changes parts of them he doesn't seem to notice. She begins to wonder if he even wrote the stories or the theory at all. By the end of the seventh story, Julia has herself become a detective in search of the truth. She is, one supposes, The Eighth Detective.

This was a bit hard for me to get into at first because I just wasn't really sure what I was reading. Once it became obvious that it was a story, or a series of stories, within a story, I started thinking of the book as a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other in decreasing size until you get to the tiniest doll of all. A kernel of the truth?

It is certainly a clever idea for a novel and the writer makes the most of it and manages to maintain our interest throughout. The ending contains a bit of a surprise, although the foreshadowing was there. Pavesi gets points for coming up with what may be an entirely new take on a well-worn genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

A Burning by Megha Majumdar: A review


“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”

This sentence is at the center of the plot of Megha Majumdar's first novel. It is a Facebook post that is written by Jivan, a young Muslim woman who lives in a Kolkata slum. Jivan had witnessed a horrible, unbearable act. A group of men had set fire to a stalled train and the fire burned alive almost 100 people. Perhaps the most unbearable part of the scene was that the police had looked on while it was done and did nothing to stop it. Jivan shared her outrage in the Facebook post and hoped that she would get a lot of "likes." The unintended consequence of the post was that it brought her to the attention of the police. Appallingly, she herself is arrested for the crime and her post is part of the evidence - in fact, the only evidence - against her. 

Majumbar's story is set in modern-day India and it sounds only too plausible based on the news we hear out of India today. She gives us the story from the point of view of three characters: Jivan; her former physical education teacher who is referred to only as PT Sir; and Lovely, a hijra which is a third gender that is recognized in India. The three have relationships of one kind or another and PT Sir and Lovely will be called as witnesses when Jivan comes to trial.

PT Sir comes under the influence of a right-wing political party and his desire to rise in that party begins to affect how he sees things, including how he sees Jivan.

Lovely wants above all else to become a movie star and she focuses on everything that happens through the filter of that ambition and working toward achieving it.  

As Jivan languishes in prison and the narration of the story goes back and forth from the perspective of one character to the next, one begins to intuit very early on that Jivan is in a world of trouble and that she cannot expect very much help from her "friends." Each of these characters is well-drawn and we get to understand them and their motivations even if we can't admire or even like them.  Jivan earns our sympathy simply because we can see the action she took in posting on Facebook was born of honest anger and despair but it is clear that she was incredibly naive and had not the slightest inkling that such a post might be brought to the attention of the police. She never really understands what she is up against and even though she has a well-meaning lawyer who tries to help her, we can see from the start that this is not going to end well for her.

This is a very powerfully written novel and one can understand why it has been included on some of the "best of the year" lists. It's hard to believe actually that this is the writer's first novel. I must admit that I found it really hard to get into at first. The structure of it was a bit offputting for me, but I decided to get over myself and just accept the book for what it is. The writing is authoritative, self-assured, and, overall, it gave me a lot to think about.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Chanukah Lights Tonight by Steven Schneider

We are in the midst of the eight days of Hanukkah and so it seems appropriate to feature a poem about the holiday. 

This may not be the first image that comes to mind when thinking of the holiday but Steven Schneider writes of Hanukkah on the prairie with "the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks."  Wherever it is observed, the Hanukkah, or Chanukah, lights drive away the darkness and offer hope.

Chanukah Lights Tonight

by Steven Schneider

Our annual prairie Chanukah party—
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.
Friends arrive from nearby towns
and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,”
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.

The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors’ Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.

The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and potato knishes.

No delis in our neighborhood,
only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks.
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,
waiting for the Messiah to knock,
wanting to know if he can join the party.

Friday, December 11, 2020

This week in birds - #430

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment

A Sora searches for his dinner among the reeds.


The current administration has refused to tighten rules regarding soot, even though scientific research shows that particulate pollution contributes to thousands of premature deaths annually and has been linked as a contributing factor in covid deaths. 


Here are some ideas about how a Biden administration could do more than simply restoring the environmental rollbacks of the current administration.


The Environmental Protection Agency has been utterly decimated over the last four years. Restoring it to its former strength will require steadfast effort and staffing up an agency that has been allowed to languish.


A Red-cockaded Woodpecker sits on a biologist's hand as it is being released back to the wild. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to upgrade the status of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker from "endangered" to "threatened," but even though the little woodpecker has made notable strides toward recovery, many conservationists are of the opinion that it still requires the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.


The Pantanal region of Brazil continues to be devastated by wildfires and there seems to be little effort by the government to contain them.


The Audubon Society has a list of five threatened wild spaces that could be saved by the Biden Administration to the benefit of the overall environment. 


The deadly California wildfires this year have devastated some of the state's most beloved trees. Countless ancient redwoods, hundreds of giant sequoias, and more than one million Joshua trees perished in them. 


Federal and state authorities are pushing plans to increase government-subsidized logging in national forests, claiming such logging would protect spotted owls from wildfire. Many ecologists disagree.


2020 will be remembered as the pandemic year, of course, but it was also a year in which Nature struck with record-breaking and deadly weather- and climate-related disasters. To name just one instance, there were thirty named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season.


Hawaii is known by birders for its endemic species of birds, many of which are endangered, but it is also the land of endemic species of land snails, also endangered.


If you were guessing what is the largest migration of mammals in the world, what would it be? I bet it would not be Africa's second-largest fruit bat, but there you are!


Sadly, another casualty of this year's California wildfires were the eleven precious endangered California Condor chicks that were killed and others that were injured.


Scientists have discovered that many birds have a sensory power in their beaks that can be traced all the way back to dinosaurs. 


I'm guessing it won't be a surprise to you to learn that another month, November, was the hottest ever, breaking records set in 2016 and 2019. 


A federal court has blocked an offshore drilling plan for Alaska, saying that the review of the plan had been inadequate, among other reasons because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not assessed the non-lethal impact that drilling would have on polar bears.  


Conservationists in Brazil have noticed a worrying increase in the trafficking of two endemic species that are emblematic of the country's biodiversity: the Hyacinth Macaw and the golden lion tamarin.


A new index of the world's forests has found that only about 40% of them are intact with high ecological integrity. They are found mostly in Canada, Russia, the Amazon, Central Africa, and New Guinea.


You may remember reports of a mass mortality event of birds in New Mexico back in September. Lab reports of the condition of the birds have now been released. There was no single definitive cause of the deaths identified but nearly all of the birds were severely emaciated which may have left them unable to cope with an unexpectedly harsh weather event.


Although honeybees and their problems get most of the attention, the decline among native bees has been devastating and scientists are adapting the methods used to monitor and conserve bird species to the effort to save the bees.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet: A review

Lydia Millet's book tells the story of twelve children - teenagers and some of their younger siblings - who are taken to a sprawling lakeside mansion for a summer vacation. The kids don't necessarily want to be there but nobody asked them, of course. The parents are a debauched lot who spend their time in a stupor of liquor, drugs, and sex. The kids are both neglected by their self-centered parents and suffocated by the parents' insistence on their being in this place all summer. They organize their lives and their time to be away from the parents as much as possible.

Then an apocalyptic storm hits and everything changes. 

The children have been thoroughly disgusted by their parents' behavior and now they decide that their best option is to run away. One of their number knows of a ten-bedroom house owned by his family that is apparently empty and where they might be able to find shelter from the apocalyptic chaos and so they head for it. They don't make it, however, instead ending up at a farm somewhere in Pennsylvania that is run by a caretaker and owned by an absentee rich woman. 

The ringleaders of the group include a teenager named Evie and it is through her that we see events. Evie has a younger brother, nine-year-old Jack, of whom she is super protective. Jack is a sensitive and precocious child, a voracious reader, and at some point, one of the parents had given him a book called A Children's Bible

Jack has no religious consciousness or training and no context for the book other than as a book of interesting stories. He loves that book and reads it constantly. After a while, as things are beginning to fall apart, Jack starts to notice consistencies between what is happening around him and the stories in the book. He interprets God as Nature and Jesus as science. Jack says that the proof of this is that there is a lot that is the same between Jesus and science. "Like, for science to save us, we have to believe in it. And same with Jesus. If you believe in Jesus he can save you." It won't exactly come as the force of a revelation to most of us that in order for science to save us, we have to believe in it and follow it. But Jack insists that it is right there in his book. And now it is right there in Lydia Millet's book for those with eyes to see.

At their new location in Pennsylvania, the children learn that the storm that battered them was not merely local but has caused death and destruction all up and down the eastern part of the country. Things are falling apart in the aftermath and more and more of the events in Jack's bible find their counterparts in that which the group is experiencing; this includes everything from a birth in a stable to a plague and even a crucifixion. But these events are just depicted; there is no attempt to fit them together in some kind of grand metaphor.

Lydia Millet has a master's degree in environmental policy and a day job working for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. A Children's Bible is her thirteenth book of adult fiction. It seems to suggest an intelligent, all-encompassing theory of everything. Everything is related and everything that we do has an effect on the world we live in. For Jack, his Bible is just an old book full of puzzles for him to try and figure out and make sense of and it is not at all surprising that he would see analogies from the lost world described there to the rapidly disintegrating society in which he lives. Millet seems to be striving for the same kind of effect with her "bible." She reports on what is happening so that whoever comes after us might be able to solve the puzzle of what has happened and perhaps how we went so wrong. There is a lot to think about here, but it is all delivered without preachiness and simply as a scientist might deliver a report. But that is in no way to denigrate the literary value of Millet's accomplishment which has landed her on many of the "Best Books of the Year" lists.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Poetry Sunday: I Refuse to Report Bugs to Their Creator by Brayan Salinas

 I maintain that you can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to six- and eight-legged creatures. There are those who reflexively smash them without thinking and without regret. And then there are people like my daughters and me who carefully gather them up and release them. I do admit that I draw the line at cockroaches and fire ants, however. There are limits to my benevolence!  

I Refuse to Report Bugs to Their Creator

by Brayan Salinas

During roll call
a black beetle
wanders to the sink,
near my toothbrush,
and I say,
“Poor thing,
I better let you go.”

                                 My father says,
                                 “You better smash that thing
                                 before it multiplies.”
                                 I think he says the
                                 same about me.

I lie awake at night
and think
about crunchy leaves
crushed in the autumn.

                                 My mother sees
                                 six red ants
                                 running around
                                 the loaf of bread
                                 anticipating their breakfast.
                                 She says to me,
                                 “Get those things off
                                 the table.”

My sister panics
at the sight of a spider.
She runs to the kitchen
and screams bloody murder.
I remind her,
“We don’t find
scary things
scary anymore.”

                                 My mother flicks
                                 the grasshopper off  her book.
                                 She asks how I am doing.
                                 I lie to her
                                 and say,
                                 “I’m doing quite all right,
                                 I smashed a bug
                                 with my shoe.
                                 We all do
                                 what we don’t want to do.”

I see a cockroach
on the ground.
“Gregor,” I whisper,
“you better run fast.”
He says to me,
“I only need to run faster
than you.”