Having such trouble lately finishing a novel, I set about browsing for something entirely different for me. Dodgers pulled me in and kept me engaged (and talking about it) from beginning to end. What a great surprise!
I found Dodgers through my library’s audiobook app when browsing through the African-American Literature section. It wasn’t until today, novel completed, I discovered that the author, Bill Beverly, is a white man. That may say something about his ear or my ignorance, I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how that knowledge would have changed my enjoyment of the story. Just wanted to mention it here for context.
The novel follows East, a young African-American kid who runs a crew standing yard by a drug house in Los Angeles. (Take that, Henry James.) East is conscientious in the way you’d want your accountant or lawyer to be—focused on every detail and driven to accomplish his goals, although maybe a little humorless. East’s boss sends him and three other boys in a van to Wisconsin to commit a murder. No cell phones, no credit cards, no weapons (in theory), just each other.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Or it goes right in the very worst ways. The amazing thing about the narrative is that it’s mostly a slow, cross-country road trip that’s packed with tension. Knowing what they’re going to do, every encounter is spiked with risk. And seeing their amazement at what America outside LA looks like leaves the reader wondering how they’re ever going to know how to go unnoticed once they finish their mission.
The author must average one metaphor per sentence when describing the land that East and the others travel through, but it's effective. And staying as close as he does to East’s POV is effective too. East may not be the smartest character or the most fun or the most violent, and he likely has a concussion for part of the trip. But his eyes don’t miss much. He’s constantly analyzing every situation, sizing up the risks and guessing at others’ motivations. This is how he has survived in LA. But will it be enough for Wisconsin? Or Iowa? Or Ohio?
If modern crime novels have this sort of character-focused, slow-burn tension, I’ll start reading more of them!
I’ve continued to fine tune my novel—with the goal of sending it to agents before the end of the year—by integrating notes and feedback from a new round of readers. I also recently took a great workshop at the Thurber House with Kristen Lepionka about writing query letters, so I’m feeling confident and prepared.
At the same time, I’m beginning to stretch my short story muscles again. Drafting new, but also revising old stories that I never sent out. I’m seriously enjoying the rush of sending a completed story to a journal—the sense of accomplishment and patience that comes while waiting for a response. I got another rejection just today!
I went five years without sending anything out. During that time, I drafted several full re-writes of my novel, published a few issues of The Outbreak, wrote for this blog, and got a job where I write most of every day. Those have all been wonderful experiences, and I’m continuing most of them. But I’m thrilled to be back in the draft/submission/rejection/submission game. I've renewed my Duotrope subscription and even established a profile on Submittable for the first time!
Adding short stories back in, as well as the “final” push on the novel, has pretty much eliminated blog time. I’m spending all my severely limited personal writing time on those projects. But there’s one more reason.
Last summer, I spite-finished Ulysses. And I haven’t been able to hold my attention on a novel since then.
Let me back up. Years ago, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. I joined a charity group (we raised money for an AIDS clinic) that I trained with for six months, running progressively longer routes each weekend. At the beginning of that training, I jogged three blocks up my street, nearly collapsed into a wheezing heap, and walked home. Six months later, I finished the marathon at 5 hours and 10 minutes—not breaking any records but thrilling all the same. I did it! With such a sense of accomplishment, I even signed up for another marathon! After a week or two of rest, which is about how long it took me to comfortably walk down stairs again, I started my own training program. But within a mile or two, I knew. I hated running. Running is boring and painful. Even if someone was chasing me, I couldn’t imagine running 26 more miles—at some point, I’d turn around and fight.
So that’s what happened after Ulysses. Novels became boring. Of course, they didn’t change. But my attention span did. I have managed to complete a couple since then--The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Awake by Andy Havens, and even American Gods by Neil Gaiman—and I hope to get my thoughts about those up on this blog soon. But there were many more novels and longer non-fiction that I picked up and put down unfinished.
Then, I remembered short stories. I started with a collection that was highly recommended to me: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. And even though I got impatient during some of the longer stories, I really enjoyed it. I could get into fiction again! After that, I tried crime and mysteries and became enthralled by PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder. Currently, I’m reading A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, a collection of short stories so moving that I arrive to work in tears with some frequency.
Although I’ve been quieter here and on other social media, I’ve been much louder in real life. It feels like I’ve been writing and reading constantly, and I’m excited by it. I interrupt friends mid-sentence. “Have you read Lucia Berlin? You MUST find her. This PD James story blew my mind! The Ray Bradbury story about the rain… yes!” I’m thrilled to the point of gushing. I’m falling in love all over again.
Episode 1: Telemachus
Ulysses opens on a sunny morning in June with the talkative, funny, and jovial Buck Mulligan getting ready for the day with his surly, rather emo roommate, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen’s cranky because Buck’s friend kept them up late last night, but also because Ireland is controlled by England, because the Catholic church exists, because he can’t make a living as A Great Poet, because he no longer lives in Paris, and because months ago when Stephen’s mother died, Buck said something thoughtless in Stephen’s earshot. And probably some other reasons. Stephen’s kind of a drag. Buck gives Stephen clothing and shoes, tries to cheer him up, forgives his overdue rent payment, and barely comments on the fact that Stephen hasn’t bathed since last October, and Stephen still acts like Buck is beneath him. Unfortunately, we follow Stephen, not Buck, for a significant portion of the narrative. But at least we’re still in a section that can be called a “narrative”!
Episode 2: Nestor
Remaining in a pretty straight-forward narrative style, Stephen heads to his day job shaping young minds. He’s a pretty terrible teacher, spending most of the class thinking about how clever he is. And it’s a half day, so after about an hour, he’s done. He talks with the school principal for a bit to collect his pay, and it’s exactly like talking to a conservative today who wants to tell you how everything really is and should be and would be if it weren’t for these uppity women or Jewish people or whatever. At this point, you’re thinking my dislike of this book is too harsh. But hang in there.
Episode 3: Proteus
This is the chapter that causes most people to walk away from Ulysses. And with good reason. The entire thing is Stephen wandering on a rather dingy beach, being self-pitying and snotty and composing poetry in his head. And, of course, still thinking about how clever he is. He remembers living in Paris, which seems to have been the highlight of his life, and he bitterly blames his family for pulling him back and keeping him in Ireland. He also ponders obscure Catholic philosophy and imagines himself debating fine points with dead scholars, then picks his nose. Take a moment to consider: is it worth continuing? If you found this chapter infuriating, give up all hope. There’s no reward for you here. Take back your time and read something more fulfilling.
Episode 4: Calypso
Okay, you get a short relief here. We’ve switched to Leopold Bloom’s point of view and, while not entirely relatable, he at least understands reality as something that exists beyond his own noble head. His relation to people and things around him seems maybe a little odd, but they develop him as a character. Then Joyce ends the chapter with a detailed first-person account of Bloom taking a shit, because we can’t have nice things.
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters
Bloom wanders around the neighborhood, killing time before going to a funeral. He gets a suggestive letter from a woman he’s not really having an affair with. He stops by a church and a drug store. He gets a bath. We learn that he’s a bit kinky in a submissive way. The beat goes on.
Episode 6: Hades
Bloom becomes more vulnerable here. We see him interacting with acquaintances who don’t treat him particularly well, although he doesn’t have much reaction. This is setting a pattern—Bloom tends to let things happen to him, and doesn’t react much to others in his own defense. Personally, I find this frustrating in fiction.
Episode 7: Aeolus
The first chapter where the writing style takes a turn. No longer are we diving in and out of characters’ consciousnesses in the same way. Now, we’re keeping up with the headline-driven bustle of a newspaper office, curated by an outside hand. It doesn’t seem too flashy yet, but Joyce is going to show off his versatility a lot more throughout the rest of the book. In this chapter, the characters talk over each other, bump into one another, mock and admire each other, and ultimately head off to the bar—before noon on a Thursday. This seems like a good idea to everyone but Bloom, who is, of course, marginalized.
Episode 8: Lestrygonians
Bloom thinks about food a lot. He stops in one tavern and decides the people eating are too disgusting. So he goes somewhere else and has a sandwich and a glass of wine. People talk about him, kind of like they already have been, but different people. He also pees. You’re less than halfway done.
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis
You’ve been doing well. You’ve made it this far. You’re making connections—sometimes slippery—between Ulysses and The Odyssey. Welcome to an interminable analysis of Hamlet! On the recording, this chapter lasts more than three hours. Yes, fathers and sons and the life of a poet. We get it.
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks
It took me a while to get into this chapter—I was still angry about the Hamlet thing—but it ends up being one of the more memorable in the book. Imagine a camera in a single-shot careen through Dublin, dropping in on conversations with major and minor characters and strangers. Pretty much none of this advances the plot, but if you’re still holding on for that, save yourself the effort of finishing the book. Oh, and some of this is in Italian, so good luck.
Episode 11: Sirens
The opening of this chapter is like an orchestra warming up, playing disconnected fragments of the pieces before the concert. But if no one tells you this, it sounds like the jumbled ramblings of a madman. There’s a lot of music in this one, and a lot of Bloom acting weirdly standoffish to one of the only characters who seems to want to spend time with him. Jingles, pats, taps, and farts throughout. Always farts.
Episode 12: Cyclops
And suddenly, we have a nameless first-person narrator we’ve never met before. Because that’s what you’d want an author to do, right? He heads to a bar to hang out with some nationalistic racist who also has no name. And, because this isn’t enough, the narrative starts taking on dramatically different tones, like old Irish myths, the Bible, Renaissance writing, early scientific studies of the supernatural, newspaper celebrity columns, etc. This game will be repeated later, with more intensity.
Episode 13: Nausicaa
Apparently, this chapter had a lot to do with the book’s banning in the US. It’s written in an overwrought, romantic style popular at the time, which actually makes it clearer than most chapters. But it does gloss over Bloom masturbating in public, and the girl, Gerty, who apparently gets a thrill out of encouraging this from afar. But that’s only because her period has just started, and you know how randy women get when they’re bloated and cramping and bleeding! Farting, pissing, pooping, menstruating, and now climaxing into one’s clothes on a public beach. A classic, I tell you!
Episode 14: Oxen of the Sun
A quote from SparkNotes: “The narrative technique of Episode Fourteen is meant to represent the gestation of the English language.” Is that a sentence you ever thought you’d read? It also calls this chapter “one of the most difficult in the novel.” Indeed, various sections of this chapter take us from old English (think: Beowulf) through the Middle Ages, Defoe, Dickens, and up to the twentieth century. All these words are describing Bloom and Stephen getting drunk in a hospital with a bunch of doctors and medical students while an unseen minor character gives birth upstairs. They say lots of crude things about women and pregnancy. Why are they getting drunk in a maternity hospital on Thursday night?
Episode 15: Circe
Oh god. The chapter that only works if you imagine John Waters and David Lynch as co-writers and directors. Stephen and Bloom have both had absinthe, which has apparently made them hallucinate. This makes their trip to the brothel… unsettling. Bloom mostly hallucinates, in long and vivid detail, about being humiliated, mostly in sexual ways. Stephen, naturally, hallucinates his dead mother’s rotting corpse. This smut takes up the longest chapter in the book.
Episode 16: Eumaeus
Well, Bloom and Stephen have had an adventure together, finally, so how will their relationship blossom? They sit in a cab shelter, talk past each other, and hear a sailor show off his tattoos. From SparkNotes: “The error-ridden and banal narrative is the main device by which this climactic meeting of Bloom and Stephen is rendered anticlimactic.” If someone ever writes that about a story of mine, I will know I have failed.
Episode 17: Ithaca
Nearly done. Only two chapters to go. Joyce rewards your endurance by framing this chapter in the form of more than 300 questions (asked by who to who?) and painfully detailed, often irrelevant answers. Stephen and Bloom go to Bloom’s house, sip a little cocoa, pee together outside, and then Stephen leaves. Bloom goes upstairs, notices evidence of Molly’s daytime affair, kisses her literal ass, and chats with her about his day. They go to sleep, he upside down on the bed. Ulysses has returned from his Odyssey, the day is complete.
Episode 18: Penelope
Molly, who has spent most of the day in bed, either sleeping or having sex, stays awake after Bloom’s return and thinks. She thinks of the men in her life, how men perceive her, how men perceive other women, and what she likes and doesn’t like about men. She farts, pisses, and also gets her period, which obviously explains why she’s always thinking about sex, according to Joycean logic. But it’s finally over: yes!
One does not simply *read* Ulysses. Because Ulysses is not simply a book. It’s in the format of a book, but I think that has more to do with the technology of the time than a conscious attempt by Joyce to find the medium that best expressed the artistic vision he had. Today, I imagine it would be some kind of interactive website or even museum space, filled with video, lights, music, and maybe some hallucinogens.
One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!
In this deeply honest book, Evan J. Peterson introduces and defends PrEP while laying bare his sexual anxieties and exploring how PrEP has helped them. Through short personal stories, we learn about his experience of being a gay man born into the era of AIDS and the relief of seeing a way out of the nightmare. Many readers, I suspect, won’t have much knowledge of PrEP before reading this, and it serves as a great introduction.
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Evan since we met at Florida State University, and I’m a straight cis woman, and I didn’t know about PrEP (or even HIV-pos undetectable status) until Evan started writing about it.
Why didn’t I know about PrEP? Evan points out that HIV has become un-newsworthy as treatment options have improved. HIV is not the death sentence it was when Evan and I were growing up. Our attention on disease has moved on to Ebola and zika, our fundraising efforts to cancer research, our demographic judgments to opioid addiction. In the straight community (still dominant, despite concerns that Pride celebrations have become too mainstream), there’s just not much concern about HIV anymore. And in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing! Thirty years ago, few of us imagined that medicine would have come so far in treating—and now preventing—HIV. What we gave up is keeping the disease in the conversation so we’d know of advancements like PrEP.
Beyond PrEP, this is a sexual memoir. To a straight, cis girl like me, raised in the same era and similar culture as Evan, gay sex was one of those things that all the kids joked about, but I doubt that most of us knew exactly what was involved. With other shaming prohibitions against porn, masturbation, and sexual experimentation, there wasn’t a lot of room to even ask questions. Evan’s open and honest narrative covers not only the technical details of his sexual experiences, but also the anxieties, awkward moments, and uncertainties that formed his understanding of what it meant/means to be a gay man.
I highly recommend this book. Share it with your friends. Use it as a conversation opener to talk about PrEP and HIV. Use it as an opener to talk about sex. Let it help you work through those questions you were too shy to ask. And enjoy Evan’s open—and often funny—take on the experiences that have shaped his life.
One Summer provides a rather comprehensive view of America in 1927, with a special focus on New York, Boston, and Chicago. Bryson does a great job of providing the background information you need to make sense of the summer's news stories, and he lets you know how things turned out in the long run.
The book includes a lot of details that feel very well researched. The narrative-style stories are supported by data--pounds of food served, tickets sold, money made, hours in flight, home runs hit by various people and teams, etc.--that got a little overwhelming in the audio version, but probably work better in the print version.
The two men that really anchor the book (and who had incredible summers) are Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Jack Dempsey as well as, to a lesser extent, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone, and many more.
In many ways, hearing the stories of 1927 put today's news stories in perspective. Things have been worse in America. Racism and antisemitism ran rampant. Prohibition was still the law of the land. Floods overwhelmed both sides of the Mississippi. Bombs regularly blew up public officials' homes, and the murder rates were higher than they are today. But most criminals went free because forensic science was not nearly as advanced. Journalists desperate to increase circulation printed whatever sensational story they thought would sell, regardless of the truth. Although most people didn't know it yet, the economy was about to crash devastatingly. In 1927, most people had grown up in an America that was constantly lagging behind Europe in innovation and cultural importance, even though America had most of the gold. And yet, the faceless throngs, which seemed to gather spontaneously around any notable event, feel optimistic.
If you know anyone who's been alive since 1927, think of all they've been through, of everything that has changed in the last 90 years.
And, next time the world feels like it's ending, look at how far we've come and how far we could still make it in the next 90 years.
Best. State. Ever. is a very funny book that taught me a couple important things.
Well, now I'm one of them (grown-ups, that is). My eyes have stopped rolling quite so dramatically when Margaritaville comes on, and I can crack up while reading Dave Barry. Life goes on.
The funniest part of the book by far is the Introduction. Hearing him explain exactly what makes Florida great had me laughing so frequently that my husband put in headphones so he could focus on a much more serious book across the room.
After covering a brief history of Florida from the state's emergence from the ocean through the 1980s, when the Wikipedia article trails off, Barry offers brief travel essays from some of the more Florida-specific activities still available today. The best essays are the ones in which Barry is along for the ride: Key West, LIV (Miami nightclub), and Lock & Load Miami, but also Weeki Wachee, Spongeorama, and even The Villages. The essay on Cassadaga seemed like a missed opportunity, because Barry wasn't able to suspend his disbelief enough to enjoy himself. This is also a problem when he's hunting for the Skunk Ape, except that he obviously develops a deep respect for the person leading the hunt, and the essay becomes a reflection on a nearly extinct way of life unique to Florida.
I think, but I'm not sure, the humor of this book would translate to people who aren't from Florida. After all, I've only actually been to two of the places he visits. But I can tell you that everything in here rings true and gives a good picture of "Real Florida." And that's coming from someone who voluntarily moved away from the state and has no plans to move back! Every state should support a resident Dave Barry.
I wish we could make George required reading for all potential parents, or at least for all teachers. I loved it.
I don’t often read middle-grade books, but I received my copy at ALA Annual 2016 when I accidently found myself in line to have Alex Gino sign it. As they signed it, I told them I wasn’t familiar with it, but it sounded intriguing. They were gracious and wrote something kind inside the cover.
The plot of George is incredibly simple, focusing on George—a 4th grader who knows she’s a girl even though everyone else thinks she’s a boy—and her desire to play the part of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Although George is told she can’t play Charlotte because she’s a boy, and although she undergoes some bullying related to her gender identity, the story of her coming out to those around her is one of the most inspiring and beautiful I’ve heard of. When I grew up, even gay kids didn’t have such an easy time (and I’m not *that* old, but the area where I lived was quite “socially conservative”). The idea that a young, transgender kid could get as much support as George does from her parents and teachers and peers is so hopeful and wonderful.
Not every transgender kid has it so easy, even these days. But the fact that this book can present this picture of life and make it feel real, I think, can inspire kids and the adults who love them to be fearlessly authentic. George reminds us not to question what’s “wrong” with transgender people, but to encourage them to be who they are, the same way you might encourage someone who shows an early aptitude for playing the violin or solving math problems. If every boy was a high school quarterback and every girl was a cheerleader captain, the world would be a terribly boring place. George celebrates our diversity, even the diversity within a family.
I’m not sure how I would have discovered George if I hadn’t wandered, dazzled, into that line at ALA. But I’m so glad I did, because now I can share this beautiful story with everyone.
Plum Wine starts with an interesting premise: a young American woman teaching in Japan in the 1960s loses her closest Japanese friend and inherits a collection of homemade plum wine and pages of writing in kanji, which she can’t read. Why did her friend leave her this? How did she die? What mysteries are contained in these papers? The American, Barbara, comes to realize that the papers are the first writings of the year by her friend and her friend’s mother, and there’s one for each year going back to the 1930s, skipping a few years during World War II. She also comes to understand that her friend survived Hiroshima. Interesting!
However, the story fails to deliver on this idea. The main focus of the plot is Barbara’s relationship with a Japanese man, Seiji. Seiji, who knew the dead friend, translates sections of the writing for Barbara. From the beginning, Barbara suspects that Seiji is hiding something about the writing, and she even gets some of the pages translated by other people. But she doesn’t continue to get these translations because she fears… hurting Seiji’s feelings? Many of her other acquaintances warn her to stay away from Seiji, but instead she gives him all the wine and the writing. Unsurprisingly, he betrays this trust and actually destroys a lot of the writing.
It's not clear from the text exactly why Barbara feels so drawn to Seiji and places so much trust in him. Maybe she’s lonely and looking for some connection, but she has other acquaintances that reach out to her after her friend’s death, and she either avoids them or hides large parts of herself from them without explanation. It seems likely that it’s mostly about the sex, but since this all happens off-screen, the reader isn’t really let in to that passion. We’re told that Barbara feels passionate toward Seiji, but she doesn’t seem to understand anything about him, his emotions, or his motivations. So her repeated and increased trust in him, despite many alarm bells, feels misplaced.
Barbara talks a lot about wanting to know more about her friend’s life, and we realize that she knew so little about it, it’s hard to imagine that they were actually even friends. She didn’t know about the woman’s daughter, for example, who had died only about a year before Barbara met her. She didn’t know she was a Hiroshima survivor, or that she knew Seiji’s family, or really anything else. So what was that friendship based on?
Also, I was kind of shocked that Barbara didn’t think twice about opening and drinking the wine she inherited, which her friend had saved unopened for decades. No hesitation about drinking the last of this wine that will ever exist, alone and in a bad mood or casually with Seiji. Really?
The author includes some really engaging detail about life in Japan at this time and about living in Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Barbara remains purposefully ignorant of the ongoing Vietnam War, and doesn’t seem particularly informed about World War II, aside from her America-based memories. Because of this, the most interesting character is Rie, a young Japanese woman from a low caste who survived the bomb, is politically involved, wants to tell her and her father’s story, and works at the American Air Force base rebuilding the faces of dead soldiers from Vietnam before their bodies are shipped home to the US. If the story had followed Rie more closely, I think I would have found it much more interesting.
Instead, the narrative sticks close to Barbara, who’s biggest conflict is whether she should continue to allow Seiji to translate these invaluable manuscripts slowly, dishonestly, and entirely at his convenience instead of just handing them all over to literally anyone else she’s met in Japan and having them all done at once. I was never convinced by her reasoning, and so most of the plot felt like it had a huge hole. Even so, those glimpses into Japanese life at this time—balanced between traditional social structures and the recent shame of World War II—were enough to keep me reading through to the end.
I expected The Soul of an Octopus to be a philosophical look at what we know about octopuses’ inner lives compared to what we know about humans’ inner lives. I expected to be faced with some tough questions about what defines and differentiates humanity from other creatures and to be surprised by the depth and oneness of all life.
This book, while good, isn’t that. The author touches very briefly on the philosophy of the mind in a few different places, but skirts the really hard questions. Mostly, the book is a detailed memoir of the author’s research for this book, centering on her experiences with the New England Aquarium in Boston. And, although I was disappointed not to get the book I was expecting, her experiences over this year or two were still quite interesting.
The author gets a pretty incredible opportunity to visit with a series of octopuses at the aquarium before they are put on display for the public. She gets to know their personalities, and she gets to watch their incredible bodies work. I definitely learned a lot about octopuses through this book, and now I really want to go somewhere where I can watch them interact with their environments. (One thing I learned is that they’re hard to keep in captivity, and my local aquarium doesn’t have one.)
Overall, this is a good, entertaining way to learn about this incredible animal and a couple of the people the author meets at the aquarium. It’s just not a deep dive into what it means to have consciousness and the ability to empathize with other creatures.
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