The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – Book

The Dreamers by Karen Thomas Walker is a story of a viral outbreak, think ebola, only without bodily fluids. This virus hits a small college in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town, one road in-one road out. Where did the virus originate? Some said a strange haze moved through their college town one day. The town is in the middle of a drought. Is that the cause? The author suggests that letters from earlier centuries hint at a similar infection.

The virus strikes in the freshman college dorm first. Mei is a new student at Santa Lora who is finding social life difficult, but her roommate Kara connects with the other students easily. Kara is the first to feel woozy, she is the first to fall into her bed fully dressed after a night of drinking and partying, and she is also the first to die from whatever this is.

Caleb is the only person in the dorm who has the social skills to deal with Kara’s grieving parents. When the students drown their seriousness in a party that is pure escapism Caleb puts the moves on Rebecca, child of a religious family, home schooled, but finding herself a social success at school When he wakes everyone up in the morning with his screaming there is Rebecca in his bed and she has the virus.

The author tells us, “The first stage of sleep is the lightest, the brief letting go, like the skipping of a stone across the water. This is the nodding of a head in a theater. This is the dropping of a book in bed. Rebecca falls quickly into that first layer. Ten more minutes. She sinks further, just the beginning of the deep dive. This is when a sudden dream floats through her. She is at church with her parents. A baby is being baptized,”

The virus turns people into dreamers who cannot be awakened. If they are not fed through tubes and given water through IV’s they die of dreaming. It seems just a gentle virus, and few discussions of gross bodily functions trouble that dreamy quality (although such care must also be required).

I enjoyed reading The Dreamers but it left me with more questions than answers. Is it symbolic that this happens in a college town? Is it symbolic that the woods are dying from an attack by insects, that the lake is drying up from a long string of perfectly sunny days – a drought? Is it symbolic that the college administrators house the dreamers in a library?

The author takes us through the disciplines of thinkers who have dealt with dreaming, with mental time travel, with the past, present and the future – the Classics, the Psychology section, the Philosophers, the Physicists, the Linguists. Time does seem to morph for these dreamers in subtle ways.

Is it symbolic that Rebecca sleeps with a “sleeper” – a baby growing inside unknown to all, a baby whose every stage of development is described. Why does Rebecca dream that she has a boy child and then lose her sweet boy when she is delivered of a girl. She goes through the rest of her life loving her daughter but missing her son, who seemed more real in that dream state than what turns up in her actual life?

As with any virus some who fall to dreaming never wake up.

Is the small fire that begins in the forest and is quickly put out a foreshadowing of another key fire in this story?

The isolation of the college perhaps stops the virus from becoming widespread. So many volunteers show up to tend to the dreamers. In spite of protective suits and masks some get ill anyway and take their place on a cot. Some defy their suits to offer some personal gesture to a dreamer and get infected. Once you come into the village you cannot leave.

I just don’t know if this book simply takes us through an experience, the way an epidemic does, or if it has a point, a meaning, is perhaps a conceit, an extended metaphor. It strikes me as a skillful exercise in writing, immersive, beautifully realized, but, except for the baby growing in the midst of all that sleepiness in that lovely dying landscape, it seems without relevance, especially since it happens in a place almost as remote in time and place as Brigadoon. Perhaps a deeper message will dawn on me at some later moment. However Walker truly created a dreamy quality and that is skillful, like a painter who can capture transparency.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile

There, There by Tommy Orange – Book

Cover photo of There There, by Tommy Orange

The acclaim There, Thereby Tommy Orange has earned is well deserved. I would think that there is nothing quite like it in the catalogue of the literature of indigenous people. There have been successful books, both fiction and nonfiction, by Native Americans, but this has a very modern sensibility and form.

Native Americans for the most part do not occupy their ancestral lands and we all know why. Although we cannot change what our nation’s forefathers did through arrogance, their misguided assurance of their supremacy as white-skinned people, their social structure which favored populated cities surrounded by farms, and their fear of warriors who were trying to make these settlers leave for reasons we can well understand, when Tommy Orange exposes the way we have turned a multiverse of Native Americans into a single stereotype we see that we are guilty.

Tommy Orange keeps these guilty realities sometimes in the foreground and sometimes tucked away in the background. We arrive early in his novel at the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. What seemed like a fine symbolic gesture and a bid for active resistance against being assigned to reservations without any choice proved to be an untenable situation, in terms of supply lines, the harshness of the island itself with its dilapidated prison, and interpersonal relationships that went off the rails without strong leadership.

Orange makes it a point to tell us that it was believed that Native Americans would either hate cities or be assimilated into American cities, but then he shows us that urban areas have actually allowed Indians to keep their culture alive. I use the word Indian only because the author does. In every city there are Indian Centers and the stories, songs, and dances are keep alive and shared. If they aren’t shared person-to-person, they are shared on the internet.

“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”

At first we seem to be reading a series of essays and short stories about Orange’s characters, but we can feel the pull of some event that ties all the elements together. Opal Viola Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are sisters (to understand their non-matching surnames, read the book). Around these two revolve the stories of many other characters, mostly men and young boys. Overall looms the Pow Wow planned for the Oakland Coliseum towards which everyone moves to finally meet on a single fateful day.

I would have wished for a more upbeat ending, for more hope and the promise of positive outcomes. But this book, while it invites us all to read it, may not be something all of us can understand in a soul deep way, at least not without some time and thought. The ending, along with other factors, is what makes this book literature instead of just fiction. I may not belong at the pow wow, but we all may be headed for some sort of urban apocalypse, after which life will probably still go on, for good or ill.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain – Book


Paula McLain wrote about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson in her novel, The Paris Wife and, this time, in Love and Ruin she writes about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn. I can understand the fascination with the women who married this literary giant. What kind of woman does such a legendary figure find himself attracted to? Hemingway was a handsome guy. Women found him desirable. It is almost tempting to wonder why only four women. But Hemingway sounds like he was not really a “ladies man”. He spent most of his social hours with men. He also seems to have seen women as occupying pretty traditional roles in a marriage, although he seems to have treated his wives as companions some of the time. Everyone in Hemingway’s world had a nickname.

Some readers do not value a fictional account of a Hemingway wife as they would a nonfiction one, but Paula McLain does do her homework, which she describes after the novel ends. So Love and Ruin is grounded in fact. But the day-to-day exchanges in a marriage are usually private business between husband and wife, although friends are privy to some of it, and can only be imagined in fiction.

Martha Gellhorn and her mother were recovering from the death of Martha’s father when they made a trip to somewhere as different and faraway as they could get without complicated travel arrangements. They fled to Key West and who should they meet in a bar almost immediately upon their arrival but Ernest Hemingway.

Both mother and daughter were pretty, long-legged and not at all shy. Ernest, married to Pauline Pfeiffer (Fife) with three boys (two from his first marriage) had his home, with his wife, right there in Key West. But he offered these two Gellhorn women a tour of the island. It was then he found out that Martha Gellhorn was a published writer. He began their relationship as her mentor. She was quite a bit younger. It seemed innocent enough.

If they had never gone off to report on the Spanish Civil War (Franco) at the same time (together) they might never have fallen in love and broken up Hemingway’s thirteen year marriage to Pauline. But Martha Gellhorn was not a “little wife” type of girl. She always wanted to be at the center of the biggest storm. She wanted to live life and she insisted that involved covering events like wars that only men generally wrote about. She and Ernest began as fellow war writers; she for Colliers, he making notes for a novel. Both felt more alive when death was everywhere around them.

When they needed to get away from the war they fled to Cuba, a place that Hemingway loved almost as much as Key West. They could not go to Key West because Hemingway was still married to Pauline. Martha found an old Cuban farm and when her book sold she used the money to restore it. It became the famous Finca where Hemingway still resided at the end of his live.

Martha imagined a sort of nirvana, with two writers living and sharing their craft, but Hemingway did not cooperate. He was demanding and selfish, and loving and ardent, and a partier and a hard drinker. Martha often found him exasperating. But just before World War II began Hemingway and Pauline divorced and Martha and Ernest married. They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon but trouble already was brewing. Martha had an independent streak that Hemingway despised and when she wanted to go off on her own to work or visit home he pouted and acted out. Although they both went off to London to cover the war they were more like rivals than sweethearts by then. Their marriage barely survived the war.

Martha Gellhorn went on to have her own career as a writer of some fame and Hemingway wrote one of my favorite books Islands in the Stream. Hemingway remarried to Mary Walsh, a bond that lasted until they both died in a plane crash in Africa. We leave Martha behind when her marriage to Hemingway ends which belies the contention that this is a book about Martha Gellhorn. It is a book about a Hemingway wife, but one stamped out of such an independent and adventurous mold that the marriage was doomed to end in ruin. It made me aware of her as a writer and a dashing person who was ahead of history, and an admirable person in her own right.

You will have to decide about the fiction/nonfiction choice for yourself and also about whether or not this is a “chick” book. But Martha Gellhorn is worthy of our attention and Paula McLain made her quite real. A worthwhile read.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson- Book

01-The-Orphan-Masters-Son big pulitizer prize edition guide

In Adam Johnson’s book The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, you immerse yourself in the North Korea of Kim Jong-Il. You will often want to leave but , as awful as the story is, it is fascinating as well. Adam Johnson did not grow up in North Korea or have any special knowledge of North Korea. He had a grant, and he used his time to read all the best books on the matter. He reads his essay about this to us at the end of the Audible version of this book. He tells us that while this research gave plenty of detail about Korean principles of economics, farming, militarism, and governing, there was little in these references about the people of North Korea. So the book is fiction. The people are characters Johnson has created. How close to the realities of life in North Korea this novel comes I cannot say, but there are defectors from North Korea and yet there have been no denouncements of the general truthfulness of this book. It seems that readers can put some faith in the descriptions of the fear we suspect lies at the heart of this strange, secretive nation.

We meet Pak Jun Do, reared in Long Tomorrows with the orphans, but not actually an orphan. He is the son of the Orphan Master and a beautiful singer who is taken away to the capital to serve the Dear Leader. Jun Do seems to have a lucky life for a while, avoiding assignment to hard labor, or being sent to a prison camp. He is taught English. He listens on a radio aboard a fishing boat, the Junma, he is chosen, as a hero of the people (a lie) to go to Texas with a group of North Koreans, perhaps because he speaks English. He goes to Japan (to kidnap Japanese people to bring to North Korea). He travels to South Korea to kidnap an opera singer for the Dear Leader. (Why doesn’t he ever defect, we wonder.) There is more. He has been tattooed with the image of the lovely Sun Moon, Kim Jong-Il’s favorite actress. She was stolen from the Dear Leader by the ferocious martial arts champion Commander Ga.

Jun Do loses his lucky life (or gets really lucky) when he ends up killing Commander Ga and when Kim Jong-Il makes him the new Commander Ga, replacement husband to Sun Moon. His Captain on the Junma once said to him, “It’s not because no one ever taught you about a family and sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to protect your own.” He reminds Jun Do that the Captain and crew are his family. When he is assigned a real family we will see what sacrifices he is willing to make.

For some unknown reason we find that Jun Do as Commander Ga is also in a prison interrogation unit and we hear this part of his story in flashbacks and flashforwards. How did he get there? What happened to his luck? Did love make the difference?

Every day in Pyongyang and throughout N. Korea loudspeakers give encouragement and tell pretty lies to Koreans. The speaker also tells each day a new installment in the best story of the year. This year they are telling the love story of Commander Ga and Sun Moon – not the real one – the Dear Leader approved one.

“Citizens, we bring good news! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors – wherever you hear this broadcast, turn up the volume! The first success we have to report is that our Grass into Meat Campaign is a complete triumph. Still, more soil needs to be hauled to the rooftops, so all housing-block managers are instructed to schedule extra motivation meetings. …Finally, the first installment of this year’s Best North Korea Story begins today. Close your eyes and picture for a moment our national actress Sun Moon. Banish from your minds the foolish stories and gossip that have lately swirled our city about her. Picture her the way she will live forever in our national consciousness.” (pg. 218)  (On Audible these announcements are read in a voice that is perfect for the role.)

We meet Jun Do’s/Commander Ga’s interrogator. He is a creature more typical of North Korea, determined to do his assigned job producing “biographies”/confessions from his subjects to file in the “library” and hooking subjects up to the autopilot (now that lobotomies are out of style) for electric shock treatments. He is opposed by the old-school pubyok (pu-bi-oks) who are more thuggish and who learned to perform lobotomies with #20 nails. They laugh at the idea of biographies and make our unnamed interrogator’s life complicated. Cans of peaches play a big role in the dark side of Johnson’s story.

The Orphan Master’s Son is a detailed and layered story of a place run by a truly pathological (bipolar) autocrat, where life has no stability, no predictability, and no sweetness (except for one lucky Orphan Master’s son). It would be poignant but we are not allowed to dwell on that. It would be horrific, but we are not allowed to dwell on that either. It was strange to read this novel at a moment in time when the newest Dear Leader is trying to rejoin the community of nations. It’s a novel, but it speaks to everything we suspect about the “Hermit Kingdom.” Perhaps it will be disappearing forever. We can only hope.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Book

We live in a time when civility and charm seem difficult to find and tempers are on a short fuse. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem like negotiating a mine field of human hostility. People disconnect from fellow shoppers and single-mindedly rush to get items crossed off their errand list. All they long for is to get home to their personal sanctuary. In times like these, Amor Towles is just the antidote required to inspire introspection and self-evaluation. Perhaps he will even help us change the way we relate to the world. A Gentleman in Moscow, although just a fiction story, makes a point that could transform us all.

Our gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is 33 years old when we first meet him in 1922. He is a man caught between two ages in Russian history so disparate as to induce whiplash. He is an aristocrat who returns, to his peril, to Russia from Paris in 1918, which if you know your history, is just after the Russian Revolution when Russian society gets turned over like a compost pile. What was on the bottom is now on the top and what was on the top is now, for the most part, either dead or in Siberia.

But Count Rostov is such a benign style of aristocrat that he manages to wend his way through the anger and revolutionary righteousness of the new Communist state, not completely unscathed, but as a permanent resident of a luxurious Russian hotel right near the center of Moscow. Rostov has never held a job, has never been a worker, but he is trained by his former lifestyle to have skills that are quite useful to have. He is a great judge of human interaction and he knows how to arrange people at a state dinner or in a well-run restaurant so that any strife is defused and affairs run smoothly. Besides this talent he is charming and amenable and flexible in the face of change. His good nature is adaptable but he is not a chameleon; he is always himself.

Count Rostov’s punishment for coming back to Russia at exactly the wrong time is that he is imprisoned in the lovely Metropole Hotel where he has been living for four years. When asked by the tribunal why he came back he says he missed the climate and they all shake their heads in understanding. He has to give up a large suite of rooms with excellent views that he has been occupying and move into servant’s quarters in the attic. If you think that once sentence has been passed this tale will turn gloomy and scary then you have not yet met our Alexander. He’s in a hotel. Things happen. You may find that you have to “suspend your disbelief” a bit but it will be well worth it.

Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility writes like times that are past and gone, like one who is on earth to remind us of slower times when people were kinder and more (heaven forbid) socially correct. It was a balm to my spirit to read A Gentleman in Moscow at this particularly pugilistic moment in the history of our nation.

No Scientific Evidence Favors Social Darwinism

There is no scientific evidence that proves that social
Darwinism does anything to lift up the people at the bottom. The only evidence
I know of that suggests that a government social safety net robs the citizens
of a given society of initiative and keeps these citizen on the bottom comes
from a theory described in a fiction book read by sophomores, (The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand) which is
being construed as proof and offered up as such by Paul Ryan and the Republican
party and by some wealthy Americans (who don’t even accept Darwin’s theories).
Although I like fiction and I do feel that it often explores philosophical themes
and points of view, fiction is not usually mistaken for science. I not sure
that there is even any evidence from the social sciences, which explore issues
with too many variables to be classified as pure science, to suggest that
offering supportive services to the poor keeps them from climbing the
socio-economic ladder.

We already know what the world was like when the poor had
no safety net beyond the kindness of strangers. The poor had little or nothing
to fall back on for centuries. Did it make them more innovative? Did it give
them incentive to become entrepreneurs?

In most accounts I have read poor people often turned to
crime to pay their way; petty theft, picking pockets, robbing homes or rich
people. Some starving people stole bread or food. People could be sent to
prison for stealing bread. There’s a whole classic novel about this social
trend too (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo). Is it possible that some people rose
above their abject beginnings and moved their families slowly up that
socio-economic ladder? Of course it happened, but not reliably.

Is it possible that people who know they can rely on their
government for money, income and/or food, etc. will hug the bottom of the
socio-economic ladder because they are basically lazy, or the assistance has
robbed them of their pride and their fighting spirit? I suppose it is, after
all, there are all kinds of people. I suspect, though, that even with
government assistance, life at the bottom is not all that appealing. Do we
think that most people will lose all ambition if they have enough free money to
survive, even though their survival level is way less comfortable than that of
others in the society? Do we think these are the same people who would rise to
the top if they weren’t given “free” money? Spending even more money and
putting it into a really effective educational system that meets the needs of
the poor would seem more effective than taking away money that is keeping
people from lives filled with hopelessness.

Isn’t it quite possible that rich folks are using this
theory taken from the pages of a fiction book because they feel burdened by
increasing numbers of poor folks at the bottom of our culture, even though it
this very culture which has skewed its financials to favor these rich folks for
so long that they are able to convince themselves that they earned all their
wealth with no help from the laws of our nation or from those same people who
used to work in their factories and who are now unemployed. The burden of the
poor has gotten heavier since the recession but the taxes on those who “have”
have only been raised once. The poverty at the bottom of America is dragging
the federal budget down into greater and greater debt because the wealthy
refuse to pay more and because they want the federal government to fail. They
still are trying to convince us that if we are kind to the people at the top of
the ladder they will shed crumbs that can be collected by those at the bottom
of the ladder and that these crumbs, wisely used, can bring those at the bottom
closer to the top (this is trickle down which has never worked – there have
always been poor people – this is also a theory that cannot be proven

I just don’t buy this self-serving, untested theory; this
theory which flies in the face of centuries of proof that the opposite is true.
In a system with no social safety net the poor stay poor and the effects on the
society as a whole are more negative than in societies with a social safety
net. We may reach a point where we actually have to pay people not to work in
the same way we pay people not to farm. There seem to be plenty of goods and
services around even given the number of adults who are not working. I just do
not see any evidence that getting rid of or drastically cutting back on the
social safety net will benefit either society or the poor.

Saying something over and over does not in any way
constitute proof that what is being said is true especially when this idea
comes from the pages of a book of fiction.


This is the view from the cheap seats.

This blog post is also available at