Our Country Friends

Our Country Friends

Do you want to read a novel about the pandemic?

That’s a tough sell for a lot of people but Gary Shteyngart does his best to craft fiction from horror in Our Country Friends.

In this novel set in the early covid days of 2020, a Russian-born novelist (much like Shteyngart himself) invites friends to escape the disease-ravaged city to his bucolic country retreat.

At least it seems bucolic at first. But the novelist is under financial pressure and juggles contractors and payments to keep his estate going, too proud to ask his friends for financial help.

And his friends bring their own troubles, dragging behind them a swirling mix of fears, resentments and past slights. Cooped up together, in rural isolation, conflict is inevitable.

No one is better at mixing the wildly comic and heartrendingly tragic like Shteyngart. He’s my favorite contemporary author (Super Sad True Love Story is his best book), with a keen eye on the absurdities of American life, in all its waste and splendor.

A refugee from a dead empire, he sees parallels between the rot of the Soviet Union and our current state.

What he gets wrong about this country is our fundamental optimism: like the main character in a movie, we always think that things will work out for us. This may be a deluded belief but one that shapes our national character.

In Our Country Friends, covid is waiting for all of us. The bill must be paid for our follies. But before it arrives, Shteyngart tells a comic tale of misunderstanding and misadventure in the dark woods of the country.

Little Free Library Find: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins

I had seen Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters in my local bookstore in a stack of paperbacks where they kept the popular fiction.

Glancing at the cover, with its sunny shot of the Italian Riviera, and the blurbs from from famous people, I instantly put it in the category of “Live, Laugh, Love” books, dismissing the novel as a piece of feel-good, literary fluff.

I didn’t have to read the back cover. I was sure Beautiful Ruins was some silly nonsense about rich people going to Italy for some spurious reason (a marriage, perhaps) and then rediscovering the joy of life among the simple Italian peasantry.

But seeing it in the Little Free Library, and needing something to read, I took it.

How wrong I was!

Instead of light fare, I got a weighty and complex tale told from multiple viewpoints, spanning from World War II to today. A story that encompassed combat fatigue, post-war poverty in Italy, the making of Cleopatra and even the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Beautiful Ruins was a literary page-turner, full of surprises.

And full of profound questions on the life of an artist. If you write one perfect chapter, is that enough? Will becoming famous really change anything? Is it more important to make money from your art or pursue your own vision?

Jess Walter’s novel left with me a lot to ponder. And it came from a novel that I dismissed as fluff, based solely on the cover. There’s a lesson there somewhere….

We Need a Butlerian Jihad

Dune cover While the novel Dune by Frank Herbert has its science fiction elements, it’s really a book about politics and manipulation.

I’ve read it three times, having just finished it again in anticipation of the upcoming film by Denis Villeneuve. At first glance, the novel appears to be the classic Hero’s Journey in which a young man loses his father, gains new skills and allies, and then defeats his enemies to restore the world.

Herbert presents and subverts this familiar tale. As he says in the book, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

The novel is a warning about charismatic leaders, though that’s easy to miss in this exotic story of Fremen, sandworms and spice. Herbert is telling readers to think for themselves, and to ponder the way that leaders manipulate their people.

Masses Manipulated by Rulers

The Dune universe is one in which the masses are manipulated by their rulers. Even the good Duke Leto brags that he has the best propaganda corps in the business.

We see this most notably in the way that Paul and Jessica Atreides adopt the myth of a redeemer to cement their hold on the Fremen people and restore the House Atreides to power. The Fremen were seeded with this myth by the Missionaria Protectiva, an arm of the Bene Gesserit that plants superstitions among primitive peoples for later exploitation. Jessica knows the myth and rituals and is able to use them to make Paul the divine leader of the Fremen.

Yet, chaos is the rule of the universe. The Kwisatz Haderach comes too soon for the Bene Gesserit and is beyond their control. And even this omniscient being cannot control the jihad that the Fremen will wreak upon the universe.

Stagnation is the greatest enemy, according to Herbert, and humankind must be periodically refreshed by the kind of wild mingling of genes that occurs only during wartime.

Butlerian Jihad

This jihad is an echo of an earlier one: The Butlerian Jihad. While this is often characterized as a revolt against machines, it was a rebellion against the rulers who controlled the machines. As Herbert states early in Dune:

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.

The jihad began when the people discovered that their choices were being manipulated. Free will was an illusion. The course of their lives were being altered by men with computers.

Sound familiar?

Men with Machines

Frank Herbert had his own kind of prescience.

Writing in 1965, he could see our future, in which our decisions are manipulated by social media algorithms through the reinforcement and discouragement of certain behaviors.

What path are men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos subtly sending us down? It’s not the golden path of the Bene Gesserit, seeking to better humanity. Instead, it’s all about the likes. Hate likes, love likes, fear likes – all that engagement adds up to greater wealth and power for the social media titans.

In the Dune universe, people rebelled against this kind of manipulation, though it plunged thousands of worlds into chaos. Shorn of their computing devices, humankind was forced to develop its innate potential, producing human computers like mentats, Guild navigators for safe space travel, and the Bene Gesserit with their exquisite mind-body control and limited prescience.

Butlerian Jihad 2.0

Back in the 1990s, I believed that the Internet was a democratizing force. Anyone could create their own web site – even me. This exciting new medium was a way to get around the traditional gatekeepers and let human creativity bloom.

Yet, the diverse and funky Internet that I was a part of is no more. Instead, the network has been taken over by global social media conglomerates with very different agendas from connecting the world’s people.

Why would you connect the world’s people unless you wanted to control them? Even the noblest soul would be tempted to manipulate users during a crisis (for example: now). You might think you’re doing something good, by raising some voices and silencing others, but it’s still manipulation.

A situation that Frank Herbert would instantly recognize. The machines themselves are not bad; it’s the men who control them that we should suspect. We’ve all been impacted by social media – consider your attention span – and we should ask how these men with machines are controlling our lives.

The Butlerian Jihad did away with thinking machines. There was a new commandment, with the penalty of death for anyone who violated it:

Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.

Frank Herbert had a healthy skepticism for leaders of all types. His view was that we are too ready to surrender our will to others, whether they be a charismatic hero or a powerful man with a machine.

Maybe it’s time for our own Butlerian Jihad.

The Three-Body Problem

Sunset for Humanity
A typically upbeat section of The Three-Body Problem

It’s hard to describe The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin without giving away the plot. And I don’t want to spoil the surprises in this sci-fi novel.

Instead, I’ll describe the three emotions I felt reading the book:

  1. HORROR

There’s the commonplace anxieties that make up much of life (and are mined endlessly for literary fiction) and then there’s the cosmic horror when you consider that your life is a mere speck in the universe.

The Three-Body Problem engenders that feeling, especially the more deeply you read into the book. If H.P. Lovecraft studied astrophysics and quantum theory, then you’d get a novel like this one, full of very real and plausible terrors existing in deep space. Things to worry about that you’ve never worried about before, I guarantee it.

It makes you feel unimportant. What is one life, even if it’s yours, compared to the broad sweep of galaxies and the mysteries of space and time?

Matt Haig in The Midnight Library believes that every life is precious. But in Liu’s cold and unfeeling universe, individual lives matter little, compared to the needs of collective humanity.

Which brings me to my next emotion:

2. GRATITUDE

After putting down the book, I had never been so happy to live on a stable planet orbiting a single, predictable sun.

With covid and coup attempts, I thought I was living in a dystopia now. Hah! The problems of 2021 are mere trifles compared to the world-ending dilemma of The Three-Body Problem.

3. IRRITATION

Is it the author or the translator? Did Liu Cixin write these clunky sentences (the dialogue in parts reads like a bad police procedural) or was it the translator, Ken Liu?

This isn’t a book with sweeping prose to thrill the heart. Instead, it plods along with long discursions on radio telescopes and nanoparticles. At times, I paged ahead to see if the plot got going again or if I should give up.

I kept going because it’s a really good mystery that Liu Cixin has set up. It’s a book about ideas – big ones – and not about characters, which are just clumsy pawns set against an unfeeling universe.

So, would I continue? Am I going to read the rest of the trilogy?

No!

While the ideas in the novel are fascinating (and troubling on a human level), I can’t read another huge book of clunky prose. Instead, I’ll wait for the Netflix series.








The Plot

the plot book cover

You can’t copyright a plot.

As a writer, people sometimes approach me with book ideas. They have the idea, they just need someone to “write it up.”

Sometimes, they even offer to split the profits with me. They’ve done the hard part, after all – thinking up the idea – and just need someone to put the words on the paper.

But an idea is nothing. It’s like saying that you have an idea for a bridge and just need someone to build it for you.

Which is why the central dilemma of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz didn’t resonate with me. In the novel, Jacob Finch Bonner steals the plot for a novel from one of his students.

Bonner turns the idea into a best-seller. And then is blackmailed by an anonymous figure who accuses him of being a thief. Bonner then desperately tries to cover up his “crime” while trying to figure out the identity of his accuser.

But it’s not a crime. As Bonner himself says, plots are in the air. They’re narratives we’ve heard a million times before, from the Odyssey to Star Wars. They’re stories we hear from friends. Things we read about in the newspaper. Tales we overhear on the bus.

All these plots – they say there are only seven of them – slosh around in the culture and get recycled time and time again.

Where would we be if we couldn’t use the material around us? My short story collection, Likes, is based upon things I experienced, heard about or read about. I take the stories that are in the air and refashion them into tidy short fiction.

Which is why I didn’t understand Bonner’s guilt in The Plot. Or why he was trying to unmask his blackmailer.

It’s the expression of the idea – not the idea itself – that is the real thing. Jacob Finch Bonner took a plot and turned it into a novel. He did the hard work. He did nothing wrong.

So, if you’re around a writer, be careful. We may steal your stories. And not feel guilty about it.








36 Images of DC at Exposed DC 2021

me and my photo at Exposed DC
Me and my photo at Exposed DC

Go see 36 images of DC from local photographers (including me) at the Exposed DC 2021 Photography Show.

Now in its 15th year, this outdoor exhibit of photos can be found in the alley next to Ellē restaurant at 3221 Mt Pleasant St NW.

My photo is of Cupid’s Undie Run, in which people race around the streets in their skimpies to raise money for charity. I took the photo in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic struck.

During the dark days of covid, I’d go days without talking to another human, my only interaction with others at a distance, our mouths covered. It was surreal to look at photographs like this, with people not wearing masks or much else. It gave me hope to see humans doing something great together. Very together!

Exposed DC is one of my favorite things about Washington. I’ve been in the show before but what I love about it is all the different photographic takes on the city. I always discover places to visit and new ways of seeing DC from the show.

Check out these unique visions of our nation’s capital at the Exposed DC 2021 show until July 11. Free and in an alley – how cool is that?








A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships

If you liked Circe by Madeline Miller, then you’ll enjoy A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

This is a novel about the Trojan War, but from the women involved, from meddling goddesses to ordinary mortals, all caught up in a civilization-ending cataclysm.

I love contemporary takes on Greek mythology. For this book, it helps to know a bit about the Odyssey and the Iliad. If not, there’s a guide at the beginning of the book to the characters.

In this novel, the muse Calliope sings, but of the women. The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena who forced Paris to make a fateful judgement.  Hecuba, enslaved, with her city destroyed. Clytemnestra slowly plotting revenge against her husband.

My favorite part was Penelope musing as she hears increasingly fantastical tales about her long-missing husband, Odysseus, and his wanderings through the known world after the fall of Troy. Supposedly on his way home, he sure gets kidnapped by beautiful women a lot.

Like Circe, this is another book where the man of twists comes off badly.

Which is why I liked Circe and A Thousand Ships so much. Both novels deconstruct Greek fables and force us to look at them with modern eyes. Maybe The Odyssey isn’t a tale of adventure and perhaps Penelope wasn’t as faithful as she appears. What woman wouldn’t get impatient with a man who goes out of his way to piss off Poseidon?

These stories have endured over the centuries because they are complex, with many layers, and contain dilemmas and challenges that even modern readers can appreciate. A Thousand Ships breaths life into these ancient tales to create a beautiful novel of women’s voices.








The Midnight Library

the midnight library

A review of The Midnight Library on Amazon is entitled, Like many things in 2020 this book is awful.

Books exist in context, being a product of their times. The ones that take off, like The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, succeed because they resonate with readers, expressing feelings that they possess but are unable to articulate.

In another year, I’d probably dislike The Midnight Library, too. A book recommended by Good Morning America? It’s probably mainstream and inspiring. Yuck! That’s not reality – give me a dark comedy that reveals the bitter truth that most people can’t grasp.

But 2020 was different. I did not want to read something dark and despairing in this long winter of disease and disunion.

Give Me Sunshine

Instead, I was drawn to something sunny. And I picked up The Midnight Library in a very sunny place: Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, FL.

I love this little indie bookstore next to a coffeeshop in the Kenwood neighborhood of the city. Sitting in the sun-soaked courtyard with my new purchase, I felt a world away from dark and boarded-up Washington, DC.

The Midnight Library has an intriguing premise. Between life and death, there is a library. Each volume in it contains a variation on your life, full of possible versions of you to explore as you linger between the worlds.

In the novel, Nora Seed gets to experience different paths she might have taken in her life, from rock star to Olympic gold medalist, while she decides whether she wants to live or not.

No Surprises

It’s not a book that will surprise you. Reading Nora’s adventures as she tries on different lives, you pretty much know where this is going. Also, it’s a tad too long.

Yet, all of this is overwhelmed by the hopeful spirit of the novel. It’s an antidote to regret. It’s an affirmation of life. You’re being manipulated, of course, with a feel-good parable that hits you across the head at times.

In another time, I would say: yuck.

But in this pandemic year, The Midnight Library is essential reading for reminding us that life is full of possibility. It is ever-changing and shaped by our choices. Good times could be right around the corner, as long as we keep moving.

Pick up The Midnight Library. Set your cynicism aside and dive into the spell of this uplifting novel.








LIKES: A great clever little nonstop book

Likes cover imageI wrote LIKES because I wanted a little book of short stories about the dark world of social media.

In my book, I explored how social media addiction is warping all of us, from cyclists in pursuit of digital crowns to drunk tweets leading to online humiliation.

Above all, I wanted LIKES to be approachable. A short book of short stories that anyone could pick up and read.

A friend of mine left a copy of my book out to see if her mother would read it. She did and loved it, marveling over the variety of short stories in the collection, drawn from different people and parts of the world. Each story was different and well-told.

She called LIKES:

“A great little nonstop clever book!”

Which is better marketing copy than anything I was able to come up.

It’s hard to describe something you spent so much time on and have such a personal relationship with.

Looking at LIKES, I don’t see finished stories but, instead, I remember the experience of writing and editing them, recalling what I wrote but also what I took out. There were stories I loved to write, like “Twitter Famous,” my tale of viral humiliation in Florida, as well as stories that I wrote and rewrote, such as the first story in the book, “Avocado Toast.”

I don’t see the finished product, instead I see the process of getting there, all the messy backstage business that the audience never observes. That’s why it’s so hard to describe your own art. Only after time and distance do you start to appreciate what you created.

“A great little nonstop clever book!”

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.








The Glass Hotel

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it’s felt like we’re in the wrong timeline. History is supposed to move forward toward greater equality. Instead, we fell into the abyss, with a clumsy fascist at the helm and a deadly plague in our midst.

Emily St. John Mandel is an interesting writer to read during these strange times. The Glass Hotel is ostensibly about a Ponzi scheme that goes awry. But that doesn’t happen until halfway through this lyrical, meditative novel.

The book is about the idea of the counterlife, what your life would be if you didn’t make that choice. For some, it’s backdating a stock transaction. For others, it’s deciding to go out on New Year’s Eve. Choices (and dumb luck) propel some characters toward wealth and others toward poverty. They question their lives, whether they deserve their fates, and if things would be better in the counterlife.

Interestingly, characters from her earlier novel, Station Eleven, make cameos in The Glass Hotel. In this version of reality, the pandemic that devastated the world of Station Eleven was swiftly contained.

Ranging across time and space, The Glass Hotel considers the idea of reality, as worlds and lives blur together into a melange of possibilities.

Station Eleven is a better novel, since it has a definite before and after. The Glass Hotel is a more challenging read, with less of a fixed point to hold onto.

But if you like complicated, literary fiction, check out The Glass Hotel. Emily St. John Mandel is a wonderful writer that I would follow anywhere. She’s written a kind of ghost story for the mind, one with a particular resonance for those of us stuck in the horrible year of 2020.