Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.
Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.
The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.
But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.
Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.
Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:
And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
Update, 1/31/2020: it should be noted that the abandoned Scrivener Linux beta, version 188.8.131.52 with no expiration date, is still a valid option. Scrivener 3 on Mac or Windows can export to the version 2 format, which the Linux beta version can read, so you can go back and forth between platforms. At least for now. You’ll want the AppImage version, available here.
Do writers actually need specialized “writing software” such as Scrivener? Or is the publishing industry’s standard word processor, Microsoft Word, sufficient unto itself?
The questions above have been making the rounds for a while now. When specialized software for “creative writing” first began to appear a decade or so back, there was a definite stigma attached to such software by professional writers. This piece in The Atlantic by Scrivener creator Keith Blount, from 2011, sums that stigma up nicely.
Even today, in the third decade of this troubling new century, the question is not entirely resolved. But I don’t believe it remains particularly relevant. Most writers have acknowledged the usefulness of Scrivener and its competitors, even if they stick with Word or (in some cases) don’t use a computer to write at all.
R. O. Kwon, whose debut novel The Incendiaries received very strong reviews, told me she investigated Scrivener but found its complexities too distracting and decided to stick with Word. For her, that was obviously the right choice. Michael Chabon, on the other hand, has credited Scrivener (along with iA Writer, DEVONthink, Nisus Writer and numerous Apple products) in the creation of his work.
The more relevant question today, then, is how can writers make sure today’s technology works for them, rather than the other way ’round. And this question was prompted by a recent experience I had with Scrivener itself, which remains the most popular (and capable) program of its kind.
When I reviewed Scrivener 3 a couple of years ago, I was running it on both macOS and Linux (via Wine). I continued to so until quite recently—the Windows beta ran fine under Wine until late last year (Beta 30, I believe). For whatever reason, the developers upped the .NET system requirements and I have not found a way to get the program running again on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. What’s more, I spent far too much time trying. This was time wasted, which I regret. One should never follow technology down a rabbit hole, and I did precisely that.
It’s true that, these days, every minimally conscientious citizen needs to pay some attention to the software they run, both for ethical reasons and to protect themselves from the surveillance state (and surveillance capitalism), to the extent this is possible. That’s why I recently moved from Android to iOS, and why my main computing platform will continue to be macOS. Apple is not without serious ethical flaws (Asian labor standards, tax policies, Chinese censorship, et al.) but they do seem to be the best commercial platform from the standpoint of privacy and security. And by and large, their stuff does “just work.” I run Linux to avoid being completely captive within Apple’s attractive walled garden.
But since my main focus these days is writing, I don’t have time to screw around with software configurations, as I mistakenly did trying to get Scrivener running again on Ubuntu. Past a certain point, the technology has to defer to the writing. No more Scrivener on Ubuntu unless or until it simply works under Wine, which may very well be never.
And that brings us back to the original question of whether specialized writing software is necessary for writers. From an absolute standpoint, the answer is of course “No.” But from the standpoint of convenience and flexibility, I find Scrivener to be invaluable. Syncing a story or poem from my Mac to my iPhone via Dropbox is an almost ideal way to proofread and revise—there’s something about the iPhone’s smaller screen that enhances focus wonderfully. And as Chabon noted in the interview cited above, Scrivener remains by far the best program for long-form writing.
I’ll still run Linux as an escape hatch now and then, and I’ll occasionally even write on my Linux laptop: LibreOffice Writer is more or less equivalent to Word on my Mac, and there are many open source writing programs that run fine under Linux. I’m disappointed in the Scrivener developers for abandoning their original intention to support Linux and then breaking compatibility with Wine after a long run of successful betas. Such is life; this is definitely a minor first-world problem.
For me, though, Scrivener in conjunction with Word or Writer continues to be indispensable. At least until something better comes along.
Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.
The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.
As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”
The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:
“Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
“[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
“It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.
Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:
The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.
Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.
If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.
Update, 8/5/19: see the footnote below regarding the Writers Studio.
Last Saturday, July 20, I had the pleasure of participating in the summer literary reading organized by the Writers Studio, Hudson Valley branch. The reading was held at one of the Hudson Valley’s best bookstores, the Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY. There was a good turnout, as there generally is (the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Reading Series takes place once each quarter).
The reading was divided between Writers Studio faculty and students. There was a nice mix of fiction and poetry and, as you would expect, a reasonably high level of quality. The fact that some of the work was a little uneven—particularly my work—just made things more interesting, especially because hearing the work elicits a somewhat different response than simply reading it would. More on the read aloud-written page symbiosis below.
BTW, if any of you are contemplating the writing life, you should certainly put the Writers Studio at the top of your list for workshops. They’re well-established, well-respected and available in a number of venues: NYC, San Francisco and Tuscon, in addition to the Hudson Valley. Online courses are available as well.* The Writers Studio was founded by Philip Schultz, a Pulizer Prize-winning poet, and has nurtured and partnered with (especially in Craft Class) many fine writers over the years, including Jennifer Egan and James Lasdun.
I read five short poems in my allocated slot. A couple of them, this one and this one, have already been published; the rest are currently making the rounds. What I found invaluable about the reading, apart from the positive feedback of the audience, was the experience of hearing myself sound the words of these poems aloud while watching people receive them. It’s a different experience for writer and reader/audience alike, yet it’s closely linked to the way readers (and writers) experience words on the page.
While reading, some of my own lines suddenly sounded flat to me. (One’s delivery is important too, of course: you don’t want to drone on in a monotone and elicit reactions like this.)
Conversely, some lines in a recent poem that I felt worked well clearly resonated with my audience, too—a number of people came up to me after the reading and singled them out, along with the poem that contained them. That bodes well for publication, I hope.
The moral here, for aspiring writers, is this: even if it looks good and you think it works, if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not there yet. When it does sound right, you know it at once, and so does the audience.
Kudos to Therese Eiben and Anamyn Turowski, the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Co-Directors, along with the Spotty Dog, for organizing and hosting these fine readings, and for contributing to the ongoing development and appreciation of fiction and poetry in the Hudson Valley.
* 8/5/19 update: I stick to this general recommendation for newcomers, but not for experienced writers. The two-page exercises become repetitive and tedious over time, and the workshop students tend to have wildly varying abilities, which has the effect of slowing things down as outsized attention is paid to people with little chance of making much progress. Instruction can be uneven as well.
As the Fourth of July approaches, here is a brief, belated review of a book apparently inspired by our present dysfunction.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is a couple of years old now. It was widely reviewed when it appeared (the reviews were largely favorable, although some prestigious outlets—the Times, the Guardian—pointed out many of the book’s considerable flaws). There have been mutterings about a second American Civil War ever since Trump’s flawed and fraudulent election, but fortunately these have so far remained in the background. Nevertheless, the book has obvious resonance with our current moment.
I wrote a draft novel during 2016’s NaNoWriMo based on Trump’s election, but reality has since far outpaced the still optimistic plot strands in that effort (the book requires a complete overhaul). El Akkad errs in the opposite direction: his novel offers plenty of pessimism (war as the universal human language is a central theme), but has very little relevance to the state of the country today. Here are some of the reasons why:
The novel is set more than 50 years in the future. One of the causes of the second American Civil War is the South’s refusal to give up gasoline and other fossil fuels.
Fifty years is a long time from now. It is highly unlikely that gasoline could ignite a war that far into the future, especially since the novel notes that much of the South has been washed away by climate change.
The war is once again between the North and the South. Much of the West has been annexed by Mexico (this goes unexplained). There is a new, united Arabic superpower in Northern Africa and the Middle East (also unexplained, except by noting that the 5th Arab Spring succeeded).
The great divide in the country today is not between North and South (though remnants of that history still exist). It is between the cities and the countryside, between educated “elites” and credulous have-nots, between truths and “alternative truths.” American War has nothing to say about social media, fake news or the visceral hatred and contempt MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters and college-educated professionals in our major cities feel for one another.
The writing is just passable. Clichés abound and the characters are not fully realized. The plot is elaborate but full of unlikely coincidence. American War is fairly well-paced but never really takes off, never seems fully real.
Still, one has to give El Akkad some credit for writing one of the first novels built around America’s unraveling. Truth seems stranger than fiction in Trump’s America, so today’s writers face some large challenges indeed. But there will be other novels inspired by the country’s dissolution, and many of them will have more to offer than American War.
Here’s another step forward in humanity’s slow, steady march toward … our future. Google, which recently vowed to make privacy a paramount concern, has enlisted the UK artist and stage designer Es Devlin and its own formidable artificial intelligence capabilities to come up with a demo they call Poem Portraits.
It’s actually kind of fun.
The execution is straightforward enough—visit this page, enter a word of your choice (be creative!) and give your device’s camera permission to take a selfie.
Voilà! Your very own Poem Portrait! Poetry courtesy of Google AI in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture; facial mapping inspired by the art of Es Devlin. Have a look:
The word I chose was “fluid,” and the resultant poem reads:
This fluid beauty of the sun is broken on the sun, A sea of stars, where the wild bees are blind.
Hmm. I might have chosen to write a somewhat different couplet. But this does have a certain resonance, doesn’t it? (All “generated” poetry does, if you’re receptive.) Not to mention the ability to imprint itself across one’s face, like tire tracks. I’m impressed, Google!
Actually, this venture is a very clever move on the company’s part (as is the whole arts and culture effort). It makes one prone to regard Google with friendly affection, as I’m sure it wants us all to do.
Cynicism and privacy concerns aside (does AI analyze, tag and catalog all those selfies?), this is really quite an interesting exercise. And in fairness, it should be noted that Google gives you the option to skip the portrait and simply generate a poem if you’re concerned about privacy.
Try it. You may come up with something that speaks to you and matches your own uniquely identifiable face.
Update, 1/31/2020: the Organon plugin for LibreOffice Writer no longer works with the current version. Development has been paused.
It’s been just over a year since I reviewed some open source writing apps, so I thought it would be a good time to check back in and see what, if anything, has changed in the interim. It also gives me an excuse to take a break from my own work, and from America’s ongoing national crises.
Last time, I stressed the importance of open source code (and the Linux OS) in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation, and privacy. I continue to believe in these criteria. Eric S. Raymond famously wrote about the importance of openness in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and there’s no doubt that open source software has become enormously influential since then—the Internet runs on it. Yet many people, writers included, remain only vaguely aware of the distinction between open source and commercial software. What’s more, to the extent that they are aware, many people believe commercial software to be superior.
There’s little doubt that a dedicated commercial team, properly motivated, can accomplish wonders. In this field (writing software), Scrivener is the outstanding example. But as I argued a year ago, I think Scrivener is the exception. Its developers seem to be at least as motivated by the desire to serve writers well as they are by the urge to make money. Quality is the preeminent focus, and it shows. iA Writer is another proprietary program that fits this model; unfortunately, they do not plan to release a Linux version, and the newish Windows version will not run under Wine.
However, commercial imperatives drive some decent software right off the rails. I’m still incensed by the decision Ulysses made to employ a subscription model—there is no justification for it, apart from a naked desire to maximize profits. And I note that sometime over the past year, the mystery-shrouded Write! application has made the same greedy decision. The latter case is especially telling in terms of the vulnerabilities you may encounter with commercial software. Write! has always been coy about who the developers are and where they are located (they are located in Kiev, the Ukraine), and the program requires you to log in in order to use it. You can save your work to their servers, which are also vaguely described. Write! is a potential privacy nightmare, and their decision to start charging a monthly fee after purchase only adds insult to injury.
OK, then. Rant over. Let’s take a look at what’s new with open source writing tools.
First off, there’s a new writing application to report, or rather the revival of a previously languishing application. It’s called UberWriter and it was directly inspired by iA Writer. Its young creator, Wolf Vollprecht, wrote the app for an Ubuntu App Showdown and it was named one of the Top 10 Ubuntu Apps of 2012. Vollprecht charged $5 for it at the time, but then the program was idled for several years (this happens in open source development, especially with young programmers). Now the software is being actively worked on again, with the addition of a second developer, Manuel Genovés, and it’s licensed under the GNU GPL v3.
UberWriter is written in Python and it’s quite nice—you can definitely see the iA Writer inspiration in its look and feel. Like iA Writer, it has an optional “focus” mode which greys out all but the sentence you’re actively working on. (I hope the developers will also try to implement something like iA Writer’s Syntax Control, where adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions and/or conjunctions can be highlighted; this is extremely helpful for brief, concentrated writing like poetry.) UberWriter uses Markdown and it can export to .odt and .rtf, along with .pdf and .epub, among other formats. I’m glad the app is back. It seems very promising, and it’s already quite useful for shorter work. The chief downside: it’s only available for Linux.
Here’s what’s up with the other open source writing software reviewed last year. LibreOffice Writer remains a superb (and I believe superior) alternative to Microsoft Word. I’ve noticed that more literary publications are open to accepting .odt files these days, but even for those that continue to insist on .docx or .doc format, Writer’s compatibility with Word is such that this is a non-issue. Writer is very actively developed (as is the entire LibreOffice suite). The Organon plugin for novelists that I mentioned last year has seen no development since then, but it still works fine with the current version of Writer.
Writer is cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows), as are all the programs that follow below. I think it’s essential for any writer.
Graeme Gott’s outstanding FocusWriter is also actively developed, and I still intend to provide a full review of this wonderful application at some point. FocusWriter has multi-document support when you need it, though it’s not really intended for lengthy projects like novels (that’s what the next three programs do). It can be customized to look exactly as you want, and it really shines for short-form work of all types. I think FocusWriter is an exemplary open source program, and it’s well worth adding a tip for the developer when you download it. This “tip jar” approach is far more appropriate for open source projects that offering a handicapped free version and a full paid version, as some apps do.
Bibisco is one of those apps, and I tend to rule it out for its payment model alone. It hasn’t changed much over the past year—there is still no distraction-free mode, for example. And I actually find the program to be quite homely. In addition, I think its character-driven approach is overly rigid.
Plume Creator is still under development, but slowly. Its creator, Cyril Jacquet, states that an entirely new version is underway. The current version (0.67) is available to download from SourceForge for Linux, Mac and Windows. Since the interface hasn’t changed, I’ll refer you to last year’s review for an overview. Plume Creator is helpful and usable now and I look forward to an eventual new release.
Manuskript, my favorite Scrivener-inspired program from last year, has been updated: it’s now at version 0.90 (ever closer to that key 1.0 release). The look and feel of the program are much the same (again, see last year’s review for a more complete description) but the application’s exporting capability has been noticeably improved. It’s now possible to export directly to .docx with fairly decent results. You can also, as before, export to plain text, then use a program like LibreOffice Writer to export to the format of your choice.
Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is very usable now and it’s growing more so. Scrivener remains the preeminent tool for long-form writing, but it’s good to see these open source programs striving to provide some of the same functionality.
Before I sign off, here’s one more news item for your consideration. It involves the longtime Windows writers’ program WriteMonkey, which is not open source. However, there is now a new beta version of WriteMonkey 3 which is available for Linux and Mac, as well as Windows. I downloaded the Linux version and was very pleasantly surprised by how capable the program is. WriteMonkey 3 (WM3) is a complete rewrite of the original Windows program, which has been around since 2006. To quote the WM website description, the app is:
—simple yet poweful,
—plain text only,
—keyboard friendly (an understatement!) and
That list barely scratches the surface. Don’t be fooled by the text-only aspect; this is a very powerful program. It is largely keyboard driven, so there is something of a learning curve. And while it can handle files and directories, I wouldn’t classify WriteMonkey as Scrivener-inspired. Instead, as the Scrivener website itself says,
“WriteMonkey is a free app that presents a stripped down and isolated space for pure writing. Although plain text, it supports Markdown, making it easy to export formatted documents. Its focus is on writing rather than editing, based on the idea of reducing distractions to increase writing quality and speed.”
I would add “enormous flexibility” to that description.
Although WriteMonkey is not open source software, it is free. It follows a donation model, much like FocusWriter—the free version is in no way stripped down, as it is with Bibisco. And if you decide to donate you can unlock bonus functionality with various WriteMonkey plugins. This is a fair arrangement, in my estimation, particularly when you consider what the basic program can do.
Unlike the questionable Write! application, WriteMonkey doesn’t hide its source or location: it’s developed by Studio Pomarancha in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you’re put off by the Balkans origin, you shouldn’t be—WriteMonkey has been around for well over a decade and I’m not aware of any sort of security or privacy issues that have arisen with it. It’s a very capable and polished free program that deserves to be used alongside the open source apps recommended above.
This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.
None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times100 Notable Books list.
Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.
If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?
The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.
The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.
Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.
I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.
As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”
People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.
R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.
I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.
The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.
Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.
The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.
Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.
“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.
To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.
Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.
Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.
I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.
(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)
To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.