Book Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk (the Nobel prize in literature winner) is an astounding novel.

Imagine an Agatha Christie like murder mystery (and that already is high praise, because Christie knew how to spin a murder mystery plot like few other writers do). Now set it in a “Fargo” like setting, including the hostile weather, the small town, the eccentric people, and the quirky, pragmatic and deeply insightful main character (if this is ever made into a movie, Frances McDormand would make a perfect Mrs. Duszejko). Now cast it all in fantastic prose, tie it to Blake, to Eastern European history, to morality plays and religious texts, and finally, to the ultimate revenge narrative, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Mrs. Duszejko isn’t a brooding sailor exposing the cruelty, corruption and foibles of upper-class French society, but she most definitely is woman in her 60s doing the same for the chauvinistic, cruel, corrupt, hunting neighbours around her.

Tokarczuk created a Character (with a big, bold, capital “C”) like no other. Mrs. Duszejko is the heart, the essence, the meaning and the end of “Drive Your Plow”. She is our way into the story, she maps out our way through it, and she judges us in the end. How we feel about her after the final page says more about us than it says about her. She is a character both full of contradictions and yet an integrated, believable whole at the same time. She is an engineer and a teacher, with a solid STEM background, that is also an astrology believer and practitioner. She is a non-religious person that constantly talks about God, a recluse that keeps making friends, a cynic that somehow manages to see good in people at their worst moments. She’s rational and pragmatic, and also deeply emotional and oftentimes impulsive. She’s powerful and fit, and a frail invalid. And she’s completely, utterly, with every molecule of her being, a real and believable human being. She’s a more believable person than I am, astrology and all.

The way that Tokarczuk ties the men’s treatment of Mrs. Duszejko (and other women) to the way they treat animals is masterful. “Drive Your Plow” could have been a parable, an allegory, a morality play, and yet it performs all that and so much more without driving the reader away. Like “Fargo,” it could have been a meaningless farce in less adept hands, and yet it manages to deal with issues that we have learned to be cynical about (the value of life, particularly as deemed valuable or useless by important men) with great earnestness and sensitivity.

There is much of Agatha Christie in the construction of the plot (particularly “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express”). There is much of Blake in the morality and moral outlook of certain characters. There is much of Dumas in the social observations tied to the revenge plot, and there are many post modern writers that are echoed in Mrs. Duszejko’s first person narrative. The result, however, is entirely unique, entirely Tokarczuk’s own, and well worth reading even if you have never enjoyed any of the authors echoed in the narrative. “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a modern masterpiece, and one that is deeply moving and thought provoking at the same time.

London Haul: Books

While I’ve really cut down on physical book purchases, especially while I’m abroad, I always end up buying a few books, and this last trip was no different. On Thursdays there’s a decent antique market in Spitalfields (it also includes several food carts and a good selection of vintage clothes stalls, plus it’s a few minutes away from Brick Lane), and I oftentimes find interesting things there. I’ll likely write a separate post about my haul there, but I did get three Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series books: We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea”, “The Big Six” and “The Picts and the Martyrs”. They’re hardbacks in decent condition, with the dust jackets and the original Ransome illustrations, and I’m very glad that I found them half hidden in a comics and book stall. Ransome is an excellent British children’s book author, and if you liked the Famous Five and the Secret Seven or Kipling’s children’s book writing you’ll likely enjoy Ransome’s work.

The other two books are paperbacks that I bought at Waterstone’s Piccadilly while waiting for a friend (I’m not to be trusted in bookstores). I’ve been wanting to read something by Lawrence Durrell for a long time and “White Eagles Over Serbia” seems like a good place to start. J.L. Carr is a superb writer, and although I’m not sold on “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup”‘s subject matter, “A Month in the Country” was good enough for me to want to give this a try.

I still have April’s book backlog to finish reading, but these two books are next on my list.

Book Review: Erebus: The Story of a Ship, Michael Palin

I enjoy reading Michael Palin’s (he of Monty Python fame) travel books. Palin is a good travel writer, combining keen observations of humanity, nature and location with a good sense of history and a sprinkling of oftentimes self-depreciative humour. “Erebus: The Story of a Ship” differs from his other travel writings in that it mostly isn’t his travels that are narrated, but those of the Erebus and its sister ship, Terror. These two former bomb ships spent the mid 19th century exploring the antarctic and then the arctic, with great success and to great acclaim. And then they disappeared for 160 years.

Palin starts the story with the crew, and the crew are at the heart of his tale. He could have focused on the tenacious people trying to piece together the story of the ship over the decades. He could have focused on Erebus’s last voyage and the long and oftentimes disastrous search attempts after it. But he chose to bring the ship to life through its crew, the era it was built in, and the state of the world around it. He masterfully weaves charming anecdotes of the ship’s daily life together with serious discussions of corporal punishment, racism, colonialism and the ecological damage mindlessly wrought by the Victorians. You get to hear about astoundingly brave and talented men doing the impossible, and about how ego and rigid thinking could be the downfall of their peers.

Palin traces the story of the Erebus from before it was built, through the story of its would be captain and crew and their Arctic exploits. He then goes through its creation, to its early days as a bomb ship with nothing to bomb, to its early retirement, and then its resurrection as an Antarctic explorer. He is sympathetic to its crew even as he pokes fun at some of them, and he always does his best to bring the daily life on the ship alive to the reader. There are a few well selected photos, prints and some excellent maps in this book, and they go well with Palin’s narration.

He also traces part of the Erebus’s journey himself, either by recalling past visits to certain key locations, or by actually travelling to remote places around the globe in the wake of this ship. He doesn’t sugarcoat its demise, the hardship its crew suffered, or the mistakes that they and their peers made.

“Erebus” was found in 2014 and “Terror” in 2016. They appear larger than life in many bits of literature, music and art, and it is worth learning their story. What Palin does in this book is not merely tell it as it was, but bring it vividly to life, and tie it inexorably to our lives right now.

P.S. I bought this book at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which is very apt, as a branch of the museum appears in this book, and the museum helped Palin with the research for it. If you haven’t visited this wonderful museum, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

This book languished on my kindle for a long time, and is one of the ones that I was most looking forward to read as part of my “getting through my kindle backlog” challenge.

It is a first and foremost a charming book, much like the charming gentleman at its heart. It will make you smile more than once or twice, even as it discusses one of the most brutal periods and places in Western History: Russia under the Red Terror and during Stalin’s reign. Towles plays a tricky game here, much like a clever juggler, as he never lets you experience the era’s cruelty at first hand, yet he at the same time never lets you forget it. Even as the count thinks of poetry and the best of human kind, there are asides that remind you what was going on at the same time in the gulags and the collectives, in Ukraine (even then suffering under Russia’s boot), and in the daily lives of Moscovites in bread lines.

If you are looking for realism, this is not the book for you. “A Gentleman in Moscow” has the air of a fairytale to it, an insistence on seeing the good in people, in noticing their nuances and making room for them, in forgiving them for their foibles. It’s an optimistic book and I think we could do we a few more of those in the world.

This is not to say that “A Gentleman in Moscow” lacks sophistication and polish – on the contrary, it may have a little too much of them. Here is my main criticism of this book: it doesn’t trust its reader enough. It isn’t willing to let them pull out their own chair, pour out their own wine. Every point must be made clear, with charm and grace, but with little room for interpretation. The points where you are left to your own thoughts are few and far between, and you are to arrive to them after getting a thorough nudge in the right direction.

All in all though, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a delightfully charming, accomplished book, with enough sophistication to its narrative to be satisfying without being opaque. It’s an enjoyable book to read, a book that I would gladly recommend, and it reminds me a bit in its overall theme and outlook of “Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris” by Paul Gallico (and that’s a compliment, in case you were wondering).

Book Review: “You Just Need to Lose Weight”: And 19 Other Myths About Fat People, Aubrey Gordon

“‘You Just Need to Lose Weight’: And 19 Other Myths About Fat People” by Aubrey Gordon is a short reference book that discusses 20 common myths and misconceptions about fatness in an attempt to equip the reader with facts, talking points and things to consider when addressing anti-fat bias (aka fatphobia).

As a long time listener and supporter of “Maintenance Phase“, Gordon’s excellent wellness and weight loss debunking podcast with Michael Hobbes (of “You’re Wrong About” fame) very little in this book was new to me. It was a distillation of many of the ideas and topics discussed in the podcast, formed into a book that is specifically meant to be a teaching aid of sorts. It is also much more of a “call to action” book than Gordon’s previous book, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat”.

If you haven’t listened to “Maintenance Phase” I highly recommend it. You can either start with the first episode here, or jump in with one of their best episodes, on Goop. If you are looking to get into Gordon’s writing, I recommend reading “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat”. It’s much more of a reading book than a reference book. Once you’ve read that, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to keep a copy of “You Just Need to Lose Weight” around, if only to squelch tiresome Karens who tell people that “you just need to lose weight, it’s for your own good, I’m just concerned about your health”.

On a more personal note, just to highlight why I find this topic personally important (beyond me wanting to be a better, more accepting person in a better, and more accepting world):

My mother was misdiagnosed by a whole phalanx of very good doctors because all they could see is a fat person standing before them. They ignored her blood work, they ignored her biopsy, they ignored her medical history and our family’s rich and varied history with blood cancers. She nearly died because of their insistence that her problem was that she is fat. Well, she is fat, but her problem was that she had two types of blood cancer and one of them was going for her liver. The only two doctors that actually gave her a proper diagnosis were a resident that didn’t even see my mother (she just looked at the actual tests and you know, read them), and a liver doctor who is himself fat.

Bias kills. Learning about it is a moral duty, regardless of whether the bias is tied to race, gender, gender expression, size, age, disability, social class or anything else. It literally kills.

Wrapping Some Books

I just finished wrapping some children’s books for my friends’ children and I really like what I got out of some brown wrapping paper and Posca paint markers.

The books are all by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre and they’re a delight that’s fun to read even as an adult (the mark of a good children’s book in my opinion).

Can you guess which book is under which wrapper?

Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

“Murder on the Orient Express” is justifiably one of Christie’s most famous and well-regarded mysteries. I’ve read it several times before, seen more than one adaptation of it, and still it fascinates me how she got such a complex and outlandish idea to tick.

Christie created the perfect setting, both mundane and exotic, one that is designed for constant movement and yet is at a complete standstill, a small and confined location that is at the same time expansive and cosmopolitan. Here duchesses and servants mix, and Poirot moves deftly among them, not as his pompous self, but as a man in his element: efficient, kind, sharp and thoroughly enjoying himself. He is on his own, cut off from any outside information or help, with only his “little grey cells” to aid him, and he performs magnificently and with great heart and great human understanding.

If you are starting your Agatha Christie journey, this little gem full of dozens of well placed and well considered details is a good and very satisfying place to start.

Book Review: The Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie

Last year I bought a few Agatha Christie mysteries on sale for my kindle, mainly to serve as travel reading books. I love Agatha Christie, despite her outdated politics and attitudes and her slow pacing (relative to more modern authors, particularly mystery writers). She has the power to evoke a scene and a character with very few words, to weave fantastically improbable circumstances into believable narratives, and she is very readable and entertaining.

There are authors whose work I pick up whenever I really want to get my mind off things, and Christie is forefront among them.

“The Murder on the Links” is a Hercule Poirot novel, his second appearance after “The Mysterious Affair in Styles”, and the Belgian detective is here at his best. He is pompous, he is fastidiously neat, he is arrogant and manipulative, and yet he is a warm and kind person, much like his counterpart Marple.

This is not a golf book, despite the name. The Links here are almost an afterthought, and the plot largely doesn’t take place in them. A wealth man tries to hire Poirot to help him deal with a secret in his past, and yet as Poirot and Captain Hastings arrive to the man’s French coastal villa, he has been found murdered and the local police are investigating. There are several generational battles going on here, and Christie cleverly intertwines them: the young, coarse and cocky French detective Giraud of the Sûreté against the aging, polite and equally cocky Poirot; the older actors Paul and Eloise Renauld, Madame Daubreuil, Captain Hastings, against the younger ones, Jack and Marthe, the mysterious “Cinderella” and her equally mysterious sister. The plot revolves a lot around chance, as many of the genre do, but it revolves more around the pairing and contrasting of these characters, of the past to the present.

It’s a fun and light read, entertaining without being too problematic to modern readers. One of the Christie mysteries that survived the test of time pretty much unscathed.