Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Plot summary, gleaned from the book jacket flap:

“A recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America—‘Wainscotia, Wisconsin’—that existed eighty years before. Cast adrift in time in this idyllic midwestern town, she is set upon a course of ‘rehabilitation’—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constraints of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.”

I don’t quite get what Oates is trying to do with this novel. Every time she provides something, some question or scene that leaves the narrator confused but that has significance to me as a reader, she has another character provide the analysis. She doesn’t let me fill in the blanks, and that’s profoundly frustrating to me. For example, our narrator, Adriane/Mary Ellen, recalls something she’d witnessed on a television monitor as proof for the way she understands the world. “Hadn’t I witnessed?” she asks. “Hadn’t I seen?” I read this on a day rife with news about deepfake videos, and I thought, “Aha! This is what Oates means! In the world of her novel, people can’t trust their senses, just like in our reality!” I was just getting excited about this when another character fills in that blank: “There is absolutely no way for an ordinary citizen to distinguish a ‘virtual’ staging from an ‘actual’ event.” (219-220)

Interesting point, but it would have been even more interesting if I’d had the chance to get there on my own.

Oates is saying something very important about conditioning and learned helplessness and how we willingly keep ourselves contained in imaginary cages, how difficult it is even to determine whether the cage is real or imaginary, but she doesn’t let this just happen. She gives our narrator a psychology class and an interest in reading about B.F. Skinner beyond the curriculum, thereby spoon-feeding the reader the significant points. She also has the turning point in the development of the dystopian future/present be 09/11/2001 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and while the quick acceptance by the voting public and elected officials on both sides of the aisle of the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of those terrorist attacks was alarming and probably symptomatic of an inclination of the public to accept a consolidation of power contrary to The Constitution if it’s framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” us, drawing a direct line between that event and Oates’s future feels too simplistic.

One thing that intrigues me in the novel, however, is what Oates thinks of protests. She’s set up the place of exile as a mundane location, a place that celebrates mediocrity, a place where people with ambition spin their wheels without any hope of accomplishing anything of importance. The people who are content here include mediocre poets, professors who are uninterested in exploring beyond their own ideas, artists who accept limitations on their art because they want/need to receive commissions, and activists who engage in protests on the campus of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Lumping all of these things together suggests that each is equally futile. As someone who attempted to engage in activism on the campus of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, this seems an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of such activism.

What isn’t futile in Oates’s world? Is there an actual cage, or is it only imagined?

Good, interesting questions, but the novel fell short of being interesting in itself.

I’ve been attempting to read novels with an eye for how they might help me build my own character. This one’s a tough one, but I think the lessons are fairly basic: When I feel constrained, are the barriers real or am I imagining them? When I feel content and free, is this freedom real or am I imagining it? And the more dangerous question, the one that easily leads to an existential abyss: Are the things I’m doing of lasting significance? It’s a good question, but one that I’ll approach with caution.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

There’s an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” about counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are basically a reimagining of past events, an answer to “what if?” and all of the events that cascade from a different choice or circumstance.

The episode is specifically about counterfactual thinking in the wake of tragedy. The woman whose story they share talks about how just before she and her husband ascended the mountain on which he would be killed in an avalanche, he told her that he had a bad feeling about the day. Together they’d decided to continue with their plans. If nothing had happened, she might not even have remembered that conversation. But because something did happen, something very bad, she reviews that instant and imagines what would have happened if she had suggested that they just skip the trip.

The Third Hotel is essentially an account of Clare’s counterfactual. What if Richard hadn’t died? What if she’d acted on the signs she’d been noticing in him for months? What if they’d both been more open with each other from the beginning of their relationship? She takes the trip to Cuba they’d planned to take together, and she replays their relationship, digging into details she and he had never addressed during their life together, trying to put the pieces together into a narrative that makes sense, and trying to come to grips with the unknowable.

The woman in the podcast was seeking some locus of control, something she could have done to change the outcome, and she focused in on that moment before their trip that seemed like a crossroads. This led, to one degree or another, to a sense of responsibility for her husband’s death. Clare feels a similar sense of responsibility and blame but without a single moment to look at, she sees her husband’s death as an accumulation of poor choices and in some ways even a result of a flaw in her own character. She imagines not just that she could have stopped his death, but that she was the one who killed him, and neither she nor the reader can be certain that this isn’t the case.

In her blurb on the back cover, Lauren Groff writes that “you read [Laura van den Berg’s] work always a bit perturbed.” This was definitely my experience. The novel is dizzying, the line between reality and Clare’s imagination blurred. I oscillated between “I love this book!” and “Do I love this book?”

In addition to the main story, the novel addresses the three-way relationship between the author/artist/filmmaker, the story itself, and the audience. One character talks about the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the audience of a horror film, a genre of which Clare’s husband was a scholar. “The screaming was only pleasurable because the audience knew the terror had an end,” he asserts.

Throughout the book, Clare is trying to place her life with Richard and his death into a narrative, a story with boundaries to comfort her with the knowledge that “the terror has an end.” As she traces her marriage back to its beginnings, Clare sees that the decision to marry someone in the first place carries with it the knowledge that, either through death or divorce, that relationship will end. A beginning implies an ending.

I’ve been reading everything lately with an eye for how I can use it to develop character in myself. In applying that filter to The Third Hotel, I’ve identified a primary idea with character-building potential: We can’t run from ourselves.

Like in a horror film where the victim is running frantically from a killer who walks steadily, methodically behind, no matter how fast we move whatever truth or pain or past we’re trying to evade will eventually catch up with us. It’s difficult to escape our patterns of behavior, difficult to stop running, but it happens whether we do it by choice or let it happen on its own. Sometimes (most times?) it boils down to being there in our relationships, with those we love and who love us, holding their hand, looking them in the eye, making physical contact while they cry, and allowing them to do these things for us. Our culture doesn’t encourage this simple but profound connection. It promotes independence and transactional relationships and solving problems by buying things rather than through the cultivation of family and community relationships. When it appears that our corporatocracy is encouraging us in these directions, take a closer look and you’ll generally find it’s actually an ad for a car or a credit card, an eyeliner or an app. It might look an awful lot like personal connection but peel back the veneer and it’s a ploy to get us to give away some aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, our preferences, our photos—that can be sold for someone else’s profit. And along the way we become convinced that we’re the mere sum of our parts, a collection of likes, dislikes and moments curated for public consumption.

So my takeaway is to maintain constant vigilance, to be aware always of who’s offering a solution to my particular problem and of who’s defining the problem in the first place. What are they selling and who stands to profit if I buy it? Does it bring me closer to people I love, closer to people in my community, closer to myself, or does it just offer the illusion of closeness? If all it costs me is money, it’s guaranteed to be the latter.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Reading this novel, I asked myself, why would the Nazis ban this book?

Because at first, it’s just a story of young men going to war narrated by Paul Bäumer. Boredom, irritation at rules, pulling pranks. What’s dangerous about this?

Soon it got more real, bodies and exhaustion and terror and blood. So, maybe this is what the Nazis, gearing up for a war and hoping to stir up young men enough that they’re willing to kill not only foreigners but their own countrymen. But don’t young men know what war is about? Killing and being afraid and dying? This reason seemed inadequate.

Later, though, came the passages that I think must have been the biggest reason this book was banned.

“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.” (140)

Remarque threatens the propaganda machine necessary to bring young men into service.

In Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of growing up in Germany between the two World Wars, Haffner describes how the government promoted in schools the glorification of World War I, getting young boys to focus on maneuvers and strategy (something in which my own son is very interested) rather than on whether Germany should have been fighting the war in the first place. By hooking them with strategy and numbers and warcraft, the government got these children fired up about war so that, in a few years, they would enthusiastically enlist. The government at the time needed these young men to see World War I in terms of strategy with a motive so black-and-white it didn’t even warrant considering. Remarque’s novel does the opposite. It questions the reasons for war and the things those making the war say about it.

The men, during a moment of quiet, are discussing the relationship between “home-country” and “State.”

“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it’s merely the rulers.” […]

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

All Quiet on the Western Front, pp 205-206, Ballantine Books Trade Edition, 1996

In order for these young men to kill, they have to see those in front of their bayonets and hand grenades as not human, or at least as not worthy of life. They must not reflect on similarities between those in front of their rifle and those behind because the necessary conclusion would either be that none of them deserves to be killed or that none of them is worthy of life.

“We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” (113) If they don’t believe their own lives are worth defending, there’s no need to keep moving forward against the enemy. But there’s a safeguard against that: If one man finds it difficult to see the value in his own life, there’s the comrade next to him to defend.

Upon hearing his friends’ voices when he was lost in the dark, Bäumer says, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” (163)


If the bonds of country and the instinct for self-preservation are insufficient to keep a person fighting, there are the bonds of friendship to fall back on.

Remarque’s Bäumer is stuck. He sees the human in those in front of him, but he also sees himself and his friends as human. To believe both and still fight is incompatible with sanity. And yet he has to keep fighting because that common man over there is trying to kill him and the only way out is to kill the other man first. His choices at this point are severely limited.

This is how war is set up. Those in power put into motion something that is self-perpetuating. They exploit the instinct for survival to get people with no real reason to kill each other to do just that.

This, I suspect, is why the Nazis banned this novel. Not because it describes the horrors of war, but because it lays bare the reasons the war is happening in the first place.

I’ve been trying to focus, when I read anything, on how the lessons in each book/article/poem can help me develop my own character. What in that piece of writing can I use to become morally and ethically stronger?

If I apply this question to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are a couple of takeaways, neither of which is particularly new to me.

One is that the way you get one person to kill another is either to make that other person seem not human or not worthy of life or get the other person to attack first, reducing the first person’s choices to “kill or be killed.” This applies to situations outside of war. It applies to Stand Your Ground laws. It applies to police killings, both those in which police do the killing and in which police are the ones killed. It also applies, I think, to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking and other crimes that don’t necessarily end in the taking of life. It applies to border security and how to respond to a refugee crisis.

Related to this is the knowledge that seeing another person as human or not, as worthy of life or not, isn’t usually, or perhaps isn’t ever, simply a matter of the perspective of an individual. This dehumanizing is systemic, and it’s centuries, millennia old. Someone finds this structure useful to maintain. While there are those few whose benefit is obvious, we all share to one extent or another in the benefits of a system that dehumanizes other people. Because those benefits are so diffuse, it doesn’t work just to identify and remove from power those who obviously benefit, although this is a start. To reform the structure, we need to remove or neutralize the benefits themselves.

Having identified these points, I don’t really know what’s actionable in either of them. The development of character isn’t necessarily about action; it’s about readying oneself to make the most moral and ethical choices possible when the opportunity for action arises. But still, writing a book review or a blog post feels entirely inadequate, like maybe doing nothing is better.

“How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies or of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.” (263)

Does the fact that this appears in his novel mean that Remarque is arguing that his novel itself is senseless or “of no account”? If this is true, where does this leave us? I suppose it leaves us—or me, at least—with an existential crisis, as usual.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics challenge.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

525

Perhaps as a mother I could read this as a story of children abandoned on an island and left to survive in any way they can.

I could read it as a story illustrating that children, unsupervised by adults, revert to a state of nature, which, because of the inherent violence of humanity, ignores all logic and reason for the allure of superstition, tribalism, and destruction.

I could read it as a story of how a crowd of children can be influenced to follow a despotic ruler, who offers chants and fun, and who jeers at those over whom the crowd would like to feel powerful rather than following the boring logic of democracy and the drudge of working toward a common, rational goal, while the majority, unnamed, unnumbered, and unconsidered, sit by without using their voices outside of mindlessly echoing the words of those in power, without action besides the basics of human existence.

I could read this story and think how tragic it is that children left to their own devices might act in a way contrary to their own self preservation.

I could wish that someone from a rational civilization that’s above the squabbles of a handful of boys on an island would come and save them.

I could wish that there were anything left to be saved.

I could wish that I believed in salvation.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics, Round Two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

A bit of background: The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. It’s very, very old. So old, it’s more than a little amazing that any of it has survived, let alone enough to put together a cohesive narrative.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also bizarre. A bizarre, old story. It’s got elements common to familiar creation myths—a flood, a descent from a state of nature precipitated by a wily female—and a really close friendship that seems to be based on the fact that both guys are the biggest and strongest guys around and on their shared interest in gratuitous deforestation.

Perhaps my favorite part is Gilgamesh’s journey after Enkidu’s death. After all of the wanton violence, I appreciate the self-doubt Gilgamesh shows and the wisdom of Uta-Napishti, which the sage delivers with just a little smugness.

I’ve not read any other translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but this one by Andrew George worked for me.

I read this as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

Bookends: October 2018

October brought cooler weather and a much-needed readathon, which helped me make a good dent in my Cavalcade of Classics list. My goal was to read at least one title from my list each month, and this month I read four. Starting strong and hopefully not burning myself out too quickly.

Regular TBR reads (including those that weren’t on my TBR until I picked them up):

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier (audio)

The Traveling Bag by Susan Hill

The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín (audio)

Maggie’s Door by Patricia Reilly Giff (read-aloud)

Ghostland by Colin Dickey

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From my Cavalcade of Classics:

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (audio)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (audio)

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (on audio)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Currently Reading:

Gilgamesh Among Us by Theodore Ziolkowski

The Ramayana by Vālmīki ( I’m working on the shortened modern prose version by R. K. Narayan. I can’t tell if it seems weird because it’s just weird or because it’s from a mythology that’s unfamiliar to me or if it’s just the version I’m reading. I might try another version to find out.)

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (audio)

To-Read in November:

November is going to be a challenge. I decided at about 2:00 pm on October 31, to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo. I reached the 50,000-word goal in 2010, attempted but didn’t reach it in 2011, and haven’t tried since. A friend is participating this year, and I figured this would be a chance to show her some support and to try to get something down from a novel idea I’ve been poking around at for a few years.

I figure it could go one of three ways:

  1. I write a lot and meet my daily word count goals and don’t have time to read, or
  2. I read a lot to distract myself from the fact that I’m not meeting my daily word count goals because I’m reading, or
  3. I really nail time management, make the most of the extra hour the end of Daylight Saving gives me, and meet both my reading and my writing goals.

Anything’s possible, but there’s precedent for only two of those possibilities.

Reading goals for November, in addition to completing the books I’m currently reading:

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation)

Circe by Madeline Miller

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What books have your read recently that speak to you? What books are you excited to read in November?

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

13784569I listened to this on audio, and I have to admit, the first few hours were pretty brutal. I listened to the first three hours while taking a long walk and nearly cried from the boredom (it wasn’t all the audiobook’s fault, though; I’d picked a particularly blah section of suburban sidewalk along which to amble while listening). But as I stuck with the novel (at 1.5x) it grew on me. Dreiser brought things together in a satisfying way towards the end, allowing Carrie to grow and change throughout the novel and dealing with his characters with compassion even when it was clear that he didn’t approve of their actions.

I kept forgetting that this novel was written before the stock market crash of 1929, before both world wars, even before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I need to look back at this time in U.S. history for more context.

I’m definitely getting this one in print so I can read more deeply—and underline. There are some parallels between themes in this book and other books I’m reading/have read recently, and I need the book in front of me to catch them.

This is another title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics. Here’s a view from my otherwise boring walk during the first hours of the audiobook. Not so bad when I look back on it now.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

22890386A letter from an old friend and the opportunity for a road trip leads Mr. Stevens, a career butler of the Downton Abbey era, to reflect about his life and his actions both past and present, and Ishiguro brings us along on both this literal and figurative journey with skill and precision. Mr. Stevens may be one of the most authentic, realistically written characters I’ve read in a very long time.

I’ve never been a butler for one of the distinguished old houses of pre-war Great Britain, but I can very much relate to Mr. Stevens’s habit of revising and reframing memories of his actions that don’t fit with his image of himself. It’s the kind of story crafting that we all do, I think, whether consciously or not, as we try to assemble a narrative for our life that is consistent with how we want to view ourselves.

One thing that seems to elude many authors is the art of showing character development over time, but this is something else that Ishiguro does with quiet finesse in this novel. Mr. Stevens’s evolution is subtle but significant. At the beginning of the novel, he holds firmly to his accustomed way of remembering his actions in the best possible light, brushing aside the reactions of others that might provide evidence that his way of looking at the situation isn’t consistent with how it actually happened. As the novel—and the road trip—progresses, we see Mr. Stevens begin to question himself and to confront the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of some of his actions.

This is the first book in a long time that had an ending that felt satisfying to me. By the end of the novel, Mr. Stevens hasn’t sloughed off all of his old habits, but he’s much better able to look at himself more realistically and more holistically, admitting his shortcomings with fewer rationalizations and excuses. His transformation isn’t dramatic—there’s no Extreme Makeover for this butler—but it’s rather the kind of slow opening of the eyes that one hopes life has in store for us before night falls.

This novel I hope to revisit as a masterclass in character development and in the crafting of language that is subtle, economical, and powerful.

This is the first title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics that I’ve completed. I listened to this novel on audiobook during one of my weekly Epic Walks around San Diego. As a result, below is one of the sights I now associate with this novel. That and mountain bikers playing “American Woman” as they nearly mowed me down.

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