We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesby Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN 9780399162091

I started reading this on New Year’s Day, full of the enthusiasm that comes from kicking off a new year of reading. The enthusiasm that comes from the belief that this time, I really will read more, and I really will write about what I’m reading close to finishing it.

I chose well. I had to work on the 2nd, and could hardly wait to curl up with the little less than half the book I had left. That wasn’t about my enthusiasm for reading in general, but for seeing how this story in particular would play out.

I have read enough Fowler to know the unexpected and the seemingly strange would happen, but that it would make sense in the story. Also, that I would find myself admiring her use of language, the careful but not precious turns of phrase, the humor with a bit of dark twist.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves delivered on all these things. I sometimes wonder, given every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, if there are still new ways to tell the stories of that unhappiness, or rather new ways to tell it well. Fowler’s book proves there was at least one more.

There is one obvious difference in Fowler’s version of the unhappy family story — that in other hands would have seemed gimmicky, or bizarre beyond the bounds of even the familial bizarre — but it isn’t the only difference. Imagine a family’s story told mostly by looking back (not end of life looking back, this is barely middle aged looking back) not to beginning, not to the end, but to the middles we are all living in. There is regret, but the book isn’t so much about regret is it is about how family does or doesn’t define us; what we do or don’t owe to family members; how they shape us and how we shape ourselves in response. Then there the are tricks of memory, of perspective, and the tricks in connecting to other human beings.

What, in fact, does it mean to be human, a normal human being?

I suppose you can read almost any story as an attempt to answer that question. The way Fowler goes about it in her version, from her choice of siblings to the choice to somewhat conspiratorially address “you” the listener, probably shouldn’t work. But it does work, it worked so well I find myself continuing to think about it (it the book and it the question).

Recommended. My reading year is off to a good start.

The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller by Peter Heller
ISBN: 9780307950475

If Karen Walker Thompson’s The Age of Miracles is a kindler gentler end of the world coming of age story, this is a brutish yet not unreflective middle aged crisis apocalypse story.

In Heller’s story the end of the world comes about via mutated flu virus that wipes out 99% of the population, leaving only those folks (in some cases, families) with a natural immunity behind. We don’t see the collapse in real time as it were — this is years after most people have died, and most of those left are decidedly “Not Nice”. Not Nice means shoot first and ask questions later; it means assuming just about everyone left alive is going to try and steal your resources and/or kill you.

As if this weren’t all bad enough, the environment isn’t going make survival any easier. Climate change means drought, means more animals are gone, means things are just going to get worse. It isn’t just human life and society that turns out to be in ruins, the whole ecosystem is in turmoil.

Given this bleak setup, what’s the point? If civilization collapses, if the love of your life dies, if you are going to outlive your dog, why wake up in the morning? So maybe you can find connection again — and break your heart open again — before you eventually die? Because you are curious, about what really happened and might happen next?

Yeah, that is probably it.

It isn’t that I didn’t like the book. I enjoyed reading it, despite some of Heller’s quirks (the stunted sentences, the handling of dialogue) and occasional heavy-handedness (His dog, too? And of course, love again in the ruins).

I find it fascinating I stayed up well past my bedtime reading about the end of the world. In Heller’s book, the world as we know it is definitely over, and not going to return — it’s just that there are survivors left, some trying to be more human than others.

The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker by Karen Thompson Walker
ISBN: 9780812992977

When there’s a lot of buzz about a book, I can get contrary and think I don’t want to read it. Thing is, when I do decide to read a book getting a fair amount of attention, I usually like it. (There’s something to not picking up that many buzzed about books for this to be true, I think.)

The Age of Miracles is a different take on an end of the world story, both in how the world as we know it know ends, and who the story focuses on in the telling. What would happen if the world literally slowed down, spinning on its axis at a different and unpredictable speed? What does growing up look like to an eleven year old girl when the rules of world as she is coming to understand it are being rewritten?

I read this quickly — despite the obviously grim subject matter, it wasn’t a grim book. I was surprised it was a page turner, because, well, I knew how it wasn’t going to end: traditionally happy. This isn’t a story about violence, looting, and the utter collapse of society. It’s more about uncertainty inside and out, forces you can’t control limiting options, and the stubbornness of hope.

I suppose that makes it a kindler, gentler apocalypse story: one where the humans are staying human, at least long enough for one girl to grow up.


Sum by David Eagleman Forty Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman
ISBN: 9780307377340

These tales are brief, each offering a different take on what happens after you die. (As a neuroscientist, Eagleman probably spends more time than most of us considering the intricacies of consciousness, and our seeming inability to let it go.) I don’t think the expectation is that you will believe one of the forty tales, but maybe they will give you pause to consider how you are living your life now or why you believe what you believe.

What if you knew you had to experience everything again, but as continuous pieces with so many months of waiting on line, or brushing your teeth, or arguing? What if you could choose to come back and live again, as anything? Maybe God is really a married couple. Maybe what we think of as punishments are really rewards. Maybe there is a limbo. Maybe God has a favorite book. Maybe the last time someone speaks our name matters. Maybe our sense of cosmic scale is all wrong.

And maybe we’ll never know, because we aren’t supposed to know.

My favorite of these vignettes was “Ineffable” which is about that sense of belong to something greater than yourself, and how it happens across scales. From that story:

And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end–they simply move on to a different dimension. They are things that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.

Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. The people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.

It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. but the underlying principle is simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you–instead, you gain independence from the pieces that make you up.

A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.

Feeling pensive? A bit curious? It’s not morbid, even though it presumes the end of a human life, probably yours. It’s as deep or as shallow as you interpret it to be. I found it to be a satisfying spend the afternoon in a quiet library in a comfy chair read.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan by Robin Sloan
ISBN: 9780474214913

This was a really fun read.

Combine an old bookstore with current technology, toss in an ancient secret society, mix with young people searching for answers in general and how could it not be fun?

The mysteries aren’t all that deep, even with sub sub basements. The questions on the surface are big, but there really isn’t emotional weight behind them. I didn’t really believe at any point that characters were in serious danger — though perhaps they did. These all sounds like complaints, and with another book, they would be. Here? Well, the characters don’t seem think themselves capable of deep feeling, so I shouldn’t be bothered by not finding any.

The book — and the characters — are clever. It’s funny, playing on old fantasy conventions (why does every quest need a wizard, a warrior and a rogue, anyway?) and current geek preoccupations (designers and fonts, obsessing about Google). Sloan’s preoccupation seems to be combining the best of both worlds (analog and digital) but he never gets annoyingly strident about it. The surprise for me in what he pulls off here is that he manages to write about technology without it sounding immediately, horribly, tin-ear dated.

It reminded me of Microserfs. Not because I loved it that much (I admit my deep affection for that book doesn’t make a lot of sense), but because so much of the territory is the same. Young people + technology + aimlessness + yearning for something more/bigger + belief in technology = some kind of quest with side of zeitgeist.

It isn’t world-changing, but it is page-turning fun.

Zone One

by Colson Whitehead
ISBN: 9780307455178

Yes, Colson Whitehead has written a zombie novel.

On one hand, this may seems strange because he’s not thought of as a genre writer but as a Serious Novelist. He’s written about advertising and branding (Apex Hides the Hurt), myths and history (John Henry Days), and accidents (The Intuitionist). On the other hand, who is to say that zombies are any stranger than ad executives? I mean, if you can write a compelling story about elevator inspectors, you can write about anything.

Whitehead can write, so of course he can write a zombie novel. That word might not appear in it, but it is quite clear what the infected are. It’s less clear what the remaining uninfected are — and that’s really the point of the novel. Do you want to live through civilization’s collapse? Really? What does survival even mean in that context? What do we bring back first? How absurd are we?

It’s creepy as hell. You might be thinking “of course it’s creepy, zombies!” but the most skin-crawling scenes for me were not so much about the infected, but about how everyone else behaved. If you are a Whitehead fan, read it. If you are a fan of smart but not pretentious novels, also recommended. If you are mostly looking for a good zombie story, there is a fair amount of shuffling, swarming, and skull destruction but possibly not enough zombies per page over time — though I think you might be happiest with the ending.

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern
ISBN: 9780307744432

I haven’t had this much fun reading a novel in a long time. It was one of those completely absorbing reading experiences — where I found myself thinking of the book when I wasn’t reading it, getting impatient when I had to put it down and attend to other things (like my job), and wanting to talk about it with other people.

Magic should feel overdone, but this doesn’t. I don’t like romances. I don’t read them and don’t see the word romantic appearing on the book’s cover as a plus in any way, but this was a love story than I really, really liked. The book creates its own reality so convincingly, you want it to be real. Surely, somewhere, there is a circus only open at night? With amazing, wondrous things? Morgenstern even manages to write a subculture following into the book in a way that feels like a shout out to any geeky fan who ever loved something enough to be made fun of for it and makes sense for the plot.

I loved this book. I suspect I will love whatever Morgenstern chooses to work on. Not long after finished the book I attended an author event sponsored by JP Reads, a “community reads” type of event that I usually think of as a good idea but don’t actually attend. She was funny, charming, and remarkably humble and honest. I waited in line afterward to get my book signed, and told her my favorite line in the book: “I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark.”

If you have doubts as to whether or not you’ll like the book, try it. It would be terrible to miss the experience because you didn’t think it would be your cup of tea. (There are, I can promise you, no clowns.) I wouldn’t be surprised if you wound up wanting it to be real, too. And you won’t look at red scarves the same way this winter if you do — you may even find yourself wearing one.

Tenth of December

by George Saunders
ISBN: 9780812993806

I’ve loved reading George Saunders since I first came across his work; a trip to the blog archives tells me this was eight years ago, when I picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I thought he wrote sick, funny stories. He does. Whether he’s writing for (in theory) children, actual grown ups, going way over the top to make his point, or introducing hope and redemption into the mix, I always find him worth reading.

Tenth of December is his latest collection of stories. Satire? Check. Suburban madness? Yup. Bizarre yet frighteningly recognizable alternate versions of reality swimming in misery, yet it makes you laugh? Definitely.

In one sick — in the world it of the story it seems ordinary, but the Milgram experiment taught us cruelty can seem normal and ordinary — experiment, a so-called scientist explains, “Contrary to what you might think, there’s not much data in crying. Use your words.”

I’m grateful Saunders uses his words, to ask hard questions, to poke holes in complacency, to give life in stories to questioning, bitterness, confusion, despair, and yes just enough hope.

South of Broad

by Pat Conroy
ISBN: 9780385344074

This book is not my kind of thing. I’d call it a pot boiler. I know Conroy has legions of fans and sells well, and I suspect if you like one of his novels, you’ll like the others. I probably won’t bother to put this to the test.

I will say it was a fun read. I zipped through it (a sprawling 500+ pages) while on a business trip to Charleston, where the novel is set, so that gave it some added interest. Conroy seems to be in love with big groups of characters, messy friendships, and social themes. At one point it reminded me of Forrest Gump, in that I was wondering how many events/trends/themes it was going to touch — not saying this is good or bad, but after awhile, it does feel predictable. I should have seen the hurricane coming.

I’d say this is good for: business trips, long flights, or down time lounging reading sessions when you aren’t looking for anything too taxing.

Daniel Fights a Hurricane

by Shane Jones
ISBN: 9780143121190

The writer who brought us a war against seemingly endless February (in Light Boxes) now brings us a battle against another unlikely opponent: a hurricane.

Not that the hurricane is really Daniel’s biggest enemy (or is it?) — that has got to be his mind, and his struggle to decide what is real. Ex-wife as pretend therapist? Strangely tattooed man? A writer that reveals your feelings? A two-second dreamer? Yeah, he’s got those. Bizarre construction, unlikely pipes, living underwater in bizarre constructions made of unlikely pipes — got those, too.

The same dream-like logic at work in Light Boxes is at play here, and I’m tempted to say “even more so” because Jones makes both more sense (the world is more recognizably ours) and even less sense (the pipes, the village by the volcano) at the same time. This will either intrigue you or make you mad; if you want linear logic from your novels, don’t read this. If you want imagination and puzzling things out and unexpected pokes in the feelings, get thee to a bookstore or library post haste.