11/18/20 — Disappointed in my fellow man

I made a quick grocery store run after dinner: parchment paper, spreadable butter, cheez-its, cat food. It was the cat food we needed right away. But at my Safeway, when you walk through the doors, you’re looking down the paper goods aisle, and there, for the first time since April or May, were bare metal shelves again.

I felt the weight of it settling on my chest. One more thing to worry about. How much toilet paper did we have at home? Six or Seven rolls. How long would that last, now that Katie was back in the house? I wasn’t sure. When this happened in the spring we were living apart. I learned to use less, made what I had last a long time, and eventually the shelves were stocked again. Seven rolls will go at least twice as fast this time.

And I do all the grocery shopping. Katie hates it. I don’t mind. But the toilet paper will definitely be my problem now.

This is day 2 of “Purple Tier.” Probably everybody else who went shopping today did the same math. How much do I have, how long will it last, and probably most of them grabbed a package just to be safe. Every one of those households has someone whose job it is to worry about toilet paper. So this was all predictable.

And that’s part of what I’m spiraling tonight. All of this was predictable. All of it was preventable. But what we actually did was nothing, and even though this was the only possible outcome of doing nothing, I was still hoping for better. I am still let down.

I got back from the grocery run a little over three hours ago. I put groceries away. I fed the cat. I folded laundry. I thought about going down to the basement and cleaning out the dryer ducts. I wanted something to do. But nothing fun. Nothing I like to do seemed fun, or fair, or interesting. And what I felt like doing was nothing. Lying face down in the dark. And that gave me one more thing to do, not fun.

Six weeks ago my father died. Even before that, I wasn’t exactly bursting with energy. It’s been a long, awful year. But after he died, I had some days that just disappeared, where I didn’t want to do anything, didn’t have the energy to do anything. That’s a normal part of the grieving process, but in marriage counseling, our therapist told me I should write out what I was feeling when that happened, read it back later, try to understand the thought processes that led to that feeling. I told him that I didn’t feel like I worked that way — that if I tried to write down what I was feeling, I would force it into a logical structure or shape, the shape of words, and that what I wrote would describe A feeling, but that it wouldn’t be what I WAS feeling. But Katie was on his side — so much so that she gave me a big shit-eating grin, as if you say “see? I told you so,” so there was no winning that fight.

And tonight was the first time since that session that I’ve felt so at a loss. So restless and unambitious all at once. So here is my homework.

Best of the 00’s – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Terror, The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is Dog Breeder Hamlet. I genuinely mean that. “No one has written about the heart wrenching world of puppy breeding,” Wroblewski must have thought to himself, “and that’s the only life I know. But I’m not a professional writer. How could I possibly plot and outline a novel of my own?”

“Why don’t you lift all that,” asked his super intelligent German Shepard Eggshell, using dog sign language or maybe telepathy, “just straight up steal it from old Willie Shakes?”

“Cool idea, Eggshell,” D-man screamed, “but I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.”

Look it’s a fine book but once you see the parallels you know exactly how it will end

The Terror by Dan Simmons is a fictionalized account of a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. There are true-to-life elements, such as the final fate of the ships and crew, and some delightful make-em-ups, like an enormous white murder-demon that French kisses Eskimos. 

I was cold the whole time I was reading it, which I think is a testament to Simmons’ facility with language. It was also suspenseful and fairly engrossing. 

It wasn’t perfect, of course. A character is suddenly revealed to have a special ability about halfway through, for no really good reason except foreshadowing. 

The main flaw I found with the book was the passages of period writing, the overall sense that we were reading a period novel or account, but which contained some frank sexuality and other topics which never would have been written about in the 19th century. It was jarring.

Good, but long

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger has been a movie, so do you need me to explain it? Henry is an inadvertent time traveler who periodically warps back and forth in time, and Claire is the long-suffering title character. The premise is strong and interesting. The writing is solid. The central romance is a little sappy but not to distraction. 

The only thing I found off putting about the writing was the narrative structure. It is written almost as a series of diary entries, though they are not. It is almost in chronological order from Claire’s point of view, though again, not quite. When you put the two techniques together, it becomes obvious at every moment that these sections are fictions, and that their presentation order was chosen for emotional effect. 

The worst thing about this book is its format, though. There is no kindle edition. There are a couple of articles about the book becoming available as an ebook on some new, third party ebook service, but frankly this is a stunningly bad decision. Niffenegger said some things once about waiting until ebook a were mature and beautiful and holding her masterpiece against that happy day, but I read the book in paperback, and there isn’t a god damned unique or special thing about the typesetting. It isn’t full of pictures or tables, or crazy House of Leaves style annotations. You could read this as a .txt file without losing anything. Net result: instead of an ebook sale like everything else on this list, I checked out a beaten old paperback from the library. Enjoy your no dollars, Audrey. 

It’s fine but the author is a real piece of shit

Best of the 00’s – Gilead, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Never Let Me Go, and The Road

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of the outliers on this list. It takes the form of a letter from an old man, married late in life, to his young son, to be read after he is dead. The author is a preacher in the midwest, and the letter is a recounting of his life, his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life in the context of the abolitionist movement before the civil war, all the way through the depression. Gradually, something like the story of a novel emerges in the letter, having to do with the family and family friends during the writer’s life.

I spoke of the text as a letter, though it is written as a diary, over the course of several weeks or even months, and the attitude of the author changes with his health and with time. It makes the text challenging at times, as does the author’s choice not to break up the text as chapters.

The context of the story is one of race relations, but the theme that emerges is one of forgiveness. It’s a charming theme and the author’s voice is charming also, and I think that’s why people love this strange little book. It is written by a character you like and who holds likeable viewpoints. The themes are big but the action is small. Everything stays believable and real.

A little tough to read, but worth it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a story about the revival of magic, which is really real, in Georgian England. It’s well written and fun.

But it’s not about much, at least compared to the other stories on this list. It doesn’t tackle big themes. One character gets into a little trouble when he sacrifices his principles for career advancement, and then another character works with him to get him out of trouble. Maybe it’s about students and teachers. Maybe it’s about the quest for knowledge. But it isn’t revelatory. It’s just a nice fun fantasy novel that’s well executed.

But this list is “Best of the 2000’s,” not “Most Edifying of the 2000’s,” so maybe there’s a place for that here.

Most people liked it and I liked it too.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian future novel… set in a slightly alternate present… where only one small aspect is dystopian. It’s kind of… bummer sci-fi?

The story revolves around the lives and education of clones bred for organ harvesting, from the point of view of one of them, in a society that half-heartedly tries to give them human dignity before ultimately requiring them to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of real, full humans.

It’s well written, and moving. The reader has mounting horror about what will happen to the characters while they themselves remain willfully ignorant of their fate, avoiding thinking and talking about it the way we all avoid thinking about our deaths.

It’s not going to be a pleasure to read, of course, because of its subject matter, but it was a good book, and I recommend it.

It was a good book, and I recommend it.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a post-apocalyptic survival story, in which a father and son team trek down to the coast to survive the winter, on the run from the worst aspects of the surviving human race.

The cheeky book review I could give is “just play The Last of Us,” and it applies, but I think we can do better.

First, I don’t care about this genre. I liked Alas, Babylon well enough when I was in middle school, but survivalism and disaster preparedness aren’t particularly interesting to me. The general idea of all of these books is “you do what you have to do and try to stay a good person in a world where some people won’t try at all.” Even in zombie versions of this scenario, everyone knows the real monsters are the other humans. Humans are the worst.

Second, this is a book about emotions and not about ideas. That’s fine. The emotions feel authentic and worth exploring, but I’d rather read about ideas.

In the current climate, where post-apocalyptic survival is the single biggest fantasy concern of the culture, these stories are going to keep coming up. Most will be a lot worse than this. Maybe one or two will be better, but I won’t be the guy to ask about that. I won’t be reading them.

Fine for them that likes the genre.