Victoria Jelinek


Mother Night

indexWe are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve been re reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and “Mother Night” to contend with the global absurdity of the world and the need for humour…just ordered his book “A Man Without Country,” which I’ve never read before…

As is expected with Vonnegut, “Mother Night” is an acute observation of the spectacle and hypocrisy of human behavior and society…it’s darkly humorous and irreverent.

A few quotes from “Mother Night” that I’ve found especially interesting/resonant:

“All people are insane,” he said. They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”

“The people she saw as succeeding in a brave new world were, after all, being rewarded as specialists in slavery, destruction, and death. I don’t consider people who work in those fields successful.”

(Regarding how Armistice Day changed to Veteran’s Day in the USA) “oh, it’s just so damn cheap, so damn typical,” I said. “This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn’t keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it’s torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.”

“I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”

If there is another life after this one, I would like very much, in the next one, to be the sort of person of whom it could truly be said, “Forgive him – he knows not what he does.”
This cannot be said of me now.
The only advantage to me of knowing the difference between right and wrong, as nearly as I can tell, is that I can sometimes laugh when the Eichmanns can see nothing funny.



Covid-19 August 17, 2020

I read this posted somewhere and think it’s very well said:

Those who flock to beaches, bars, restaurants, and gatherings,

who act as though life hasn’t changed,

who are putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom;

they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it.

Kermit



Covid-19, 13 août – Rentrée à l’école

Bonjour Monsieur,

J’ai lu (Le Monde et Les Echos) qu’il n’y avait pas de précautions de sécurité Covid-19 pour les enfants des écoles élémentaires de moins de onze ans dans toute la France au retour des écoles le mois prochain. Est-ce vrai? Si oui, comment est-ce possible? Il a été largement démenti que les enfants ne peuvent pas attraper le virus (100000 aux États-Unis cette semaine, Reuters), il est largement admis qu’ils peuvent le propager, et l’immunité collective signifierait 60 à 70% de la population testée positive pour Covid -19.

women revolutionMon enfant de neuf ans comprend certainement le protocole de santé, mais c’est un enfant qui est impuissant face aux autorités adultes, et qui ne pourra par la suite pas maintenir des distances de sécurité, se laver les mains régulièrement, garder ses effets personnels des autres enfants, ou aérer le salle de classe dans laquelle il est assis toute la journée (ou insistez pour que les classes soient à l’extérieur lorsque cela est possible) s’il n’y a pas de règles en place que les adultes doivent exécuter et suivre pour le bien-être de tous. Comme nous l’avons déjà vu avec le port de masque «obligatoire», de nombreuses personnes ne suivent pas ce protocole, même s’il est défini par la loi, mais nous devrions essayer de définir des paramètres.

 

L’Organisation mondiale de la santé et divers syndicats d’enseignants (y compris le mien) conseillent d’étaler les salles de classe pour permettre la distanciation tout en permettant une fréquentation régulière en classe et le port obligatoire de masques par les enseignants et les travailleurs pour assurer un retour en toute sécurité, ainsi que des fenêtres ouvertes, un lavage régulier des mains (il n’y a jamais de savon dans les salles de bain de l’école de mon fils!), des entrées / couloirs se déplaçant dans l’un ou l’autre sens, et une désinfection régulière des surfaces. Ceci afin de permettre à la fois d’aller à l’école mais aussi de ne pas infecter notre population avec Covid-19 peu de temps après avec une augmentation des «clusters».

De plus, nous vivons dans un endroit très touristique, et cet été a de nouveau été extrêmement occupé par les voyageurs – à la fois ceux qui viennent et ceux qui sont en vacances dans d’autres pays. Je connais plusieurs familles dont les enfants fréquentent l’école locale et qui ont voyagé à destination et en provenance de différents pays avec peu ou pas de respect des protocoles de sécurité. En conséquence, leurs enfants pourraient être asymptotiques, ou malades, et nous ne le verrons pas complètement se manifester avant la fin septembre, après le retour des enfants pendant deux ou trois semaines.

Pourquoi agir de manière à ne répondre qu’à la crise? Pourquoi ne pas anticiper la crise et agir en conséquence? Encore et encore, les professionnels de la santé et les scientifiques disent que NOUS AVONS LE CONTRÔLE avec ce virus si nous avons simplement un leadership clair et la discipline pour adopter des mesures de sécurité. Quelle excuse avons-nous pour ne pas faire ce que nous pouvons?

Enfin, à part une brève communication en mai du bureau du maire disant que la fréquentation serait obligatoire pour tous les élèves, nous n’avons reçu aucune information de l’école ou du bureau du maire local concernant les protocoles de sécurité pour nos enfants ou les attentes pour nous parents. C’est négligeable. Si nous n’avions pas eu l’incroyable professeur de classe que nous avions, nous n’aurions rien su, et de nombreux amis se sont retrouvés dans cette position, s’appuyant plutôt sur des ouï-dire (ce qui équivaut à la désinformation et à la panique).

Nous devons faire mieux si nous voulons éviter un autre confinement ou, bien pire, une société très malade et contagieuse qui entraîne la perte de nombreux êtres chers.

Merci d’avoir pris en considération ce que j’ai écrit ici en tant que parent, professeur, et membre de votre électorat très préoccupé.

Veuillez recevoir, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées.

 



Covid – 19, July 2, 2020

Courtesy is only a thin veneer on the general selfishness. Honore de Balzac

 

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Email correspondence with a dear friend in London:

A worker in my mom s retirement community tested positive, so they’re on strict lockdown again. My poor mom has barely left her flat in five months. I know that numbers are climbing again everywhere, but I can’t help but marvel/be stunned at how countries like England, the USA, have botched this so completely, and why folks still refuse to simply follow minor safety precautions. And, liberal countries, semi-socialist countries such as Germany, Italy, France, are the ones that hit down hard when they needed to even as the more right-wing-leaning countries that are supposedly ‘tough’ waffled so much. And even in Western Europe, where folks are generally aware of the danger and governments have been clear and precise, folks refuse to wear masks, etc. Can people truly be so selfish? Or is it that they’re truly stupid? I simply don’t understand…(and, of course, for me, understanding the “Why?” of something is key to some semblance of control).

I’m sorry to hear that. It’s hard on your Mum. As to why Britain and the USA have handled the crisis so badly, I would say that both countries are not being run by governments at the moment but by ‘anti-governments’: populist leaders who repeatedly declare their contempt for experts and civil servants. Long before he started insulting Dr Fauci, Mr Trump was insulting everyone from the FBI to climate scientists whilst Dominic Cummings has a long standing hatred of civil servants and his puppet Mr Johnson was elected to ‘get Brexit done’ rather than to actually govern a complex post-industrial country. Covid-19 caught both these ‘anti-administrations’ on the back foot and neither has ever recovered. Britain just lurches chaotically towards an inevitable second wave – the return to lockdown is already underway – whilst the death count in America is increasing so fast it almost defies belief. On the plus side it surely spells the end of Trump come November, and indeed Mr Johnson will be replaced before the next election (much as Mrs Thatcher was in a previous era). In the meantime we must endure the consequences of their rank stupidity.

Well said. I do hope you’re right about the removal of Boris and Trump, though I am skeptical as the powers-that-be are one-and-the-same (moneyed interests wanting to avoid taxes, unfettered profiteering, Russian collusion…). Add to that, I think that Trump has a following akin to a cult who will ‘walk through fire’ to vote for him in November. The ‘left’ will have to vote en masse to counter the weight of the (archaic) electoral college, propaganda, targeted social media misinformation campaigns, ballot tinkering, and voter repression. Not to mention the ‘left’ is often divided in their beliefs about a candidate’s attention to their ‘pet’ interest and consequently don’t vote…but, I’ll hope I’m very wrong in my prediction.



When Politics is Personal…

I grew up through the 1970’s with a small group of girls in a town on the Western coast of the USA. We went to elementary school, middle school, and high school together. A couple of us moved away, but we always kept in touch and saw each other regularly over the decades. I flew back, in fact, to spend my 50th with them just before Covid-19 hit. We have a chat group in which we talk about the banalities within our lives as well as big issues – marriage, expectations, addiction, disappointment, fears, and motherhood. I always suspected one of these friends supported Trump, but I adopted something akin to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then, a few days ago, in response to video I sent of peaceful protests in our home state and things, perhaps, not being as violent as they’re purported to be, she told us about her vehement support of Trump and her plans to vote for him again in November, etc.. Moreover, while she has struggled to suppress her staunch support of him in order to be friends with me, she will cut off the friendship if I have a problem with her political affiliation. I was shocked and hurt. I can understand why she may have voted for him in 2016, but after everything that has happened during the last few years stateside, for her to vote for him again left me utterly stunned.

Below, is an email I sent to another member of our ‘gang,’ and my dearest friend in the world – the sister I have never had. That said, she and I have never really discussed politics because I felt she wasn’t particularly interested. Also, I know that her parents are Trumpsters, as are other members of her family, so I didn’t want to put her in an uncomfortable position and potentially have conflict with her (too). But, since the ‘breach,’ if you will, from the other friend, I wrote an email to her, below, because I can’t carry the confusion and unhappiness I feel about our mutual friend alone, and I feel the need to find out where she stands – to ‘lay it all bare’ and to ‘throw the dice’ (and a number of other platitudes), hoping that our friendship will bear the burden of potentially diametrical political perceptions.

I share it here because it illustrates how politics has become personal, and questions whether we can reach over (under, above) political divides to those who hold fundamentally different views from our own in our personal lives…

stack-of-newspapers copy

“In politics, the middle way is none at all.” John Adams

Hello my dear,

I want to address what you said on the group with * and *, about beliefs and finding common ground and what-not. I absolutely agree that divisiveness and power struggles aren’t productive, and there is reason to trying to find shared values in order to collectively progress…and, actually, thinking about * and her vehement support of Trump, I find myself really evaluating how information we each look at, and the people we tend to ‘bond’ with and to hold close, generally do share our values and beliefs, and so it is like we’re all operating in a vacuum, including me, by gravitating and engaging with like-minded folks…and then, it only takes cynical would-be and actual political leaders to accentuate the natural separation between milieus…aided and abetted by targeted ads and ‘news’ stories on social media to encourage and perpetuate one’s biases.

And, I realize I was ‘indoctrinated’ by my father to certain political ideologies :).

However. As you may know :), I question things a lot. I truly try to be honest with myself, even with the ‘dark’ corners of my person. I remedy false ideas and admit when I’m wrong or don’t know enough about a subject to proffer an opinion. I also teach sociolinguistics and comparative linguistics (oh yes, the teens dig it :))

And, with my identity having undergone a seismic shift in 2018, I’ve deeply evaluated who I am and why I am and what I value most of all, etc. Add to that the very disturbing global politics and trends ‘forcing’ me to consider where I stand on political and social issues and why. Perhaps current events have done this for a lot of us?

The following points are not in an effort to persuade you to a certain view, but are offered, instead, as proof that I have thought carefully about my view of Trump and this current administration. That my dislike of him is not a ‘leftist’ ‘knee-jerk’ response to him or his party, but carefully considered reasoning.

While I do tend to favor newspapers and magazines that share my general sensibilities, I actually read a lot of information from ‘both sides of the aisle’ regularly. So, while I get a regular influx of “Harpers” Magazine and “Foreign Affairs” and “The Guardian” newspaper and “Le Monde” and “Mother Jones” (left leaning intellectual bias) I also regularly read Reddit, “Huffington Post,” David Brooks, “The Sun,” and Fox News (centrist & right leaning bias). Moreover, I’m quite well versed in global history and politics. Luckily, to understand literature and to teach a given book well, one must understand the context in which it’s written and so I’m forever researching and cross referencing various time periods and societal perspectives/values/expectations/political occurrences and undercurrents. And, while I concede that most things are arguable, as you note, and that even statistics, themselves, can be read and understood from different angles, there are some things that are my ‘line in the sand’ and that it would be very tough going to change my mind about. And which, consequently, leaves me in some distress as to whether I can, in fact, be friends with *, or she with me, without a degree of self-consciousness or falsehood…

So, for example, I’m a devout Social Democrat. I’m not an American type of Democrat at all, whom I see as centrist and still adhering to big business and the almighty sway of capitalism (in this, I can understand why Trumpsters are disenchanted with the system stateside. That said, I know that USA Democrats created Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and free school lunches, for example, so they are different). I believe that taxes should be paid equitably by all in order to secure the infrastructure of society. That it is our civic responsibility for our children, as well as for our neighbor’s children, and ourselves. This is not to say that I don’t believe in capitalism – I do. BUT, I think unfettered capitalism is destructive, corruptible, and will ultimately lead to hyper inequity and corporate fascism (meaning that corporations and business interests ‘own’ the governments of the world and motivate their interests and dictate their respective policies). Again, sort of like a Trumpster, I suppose, I think that it’s arguable as to whether it’s even possible to operate outside of that system anymore in the USA. I mean, for example, it takes SO much money to RUN for office – which means you’re giving favors in return for said money no matter how you look at it – that I think it’s a colossal feat to be able to operate outside these moneyed interests there…

It’s so strange to me, though, that Trumpsters see Trump as ‘outside’ the system, when he is born of it. Literally. He inherited 240 million dollars from his dad, attended private schools, did poorly in university but wasn’t flunked due to donations from his father. He’s the type of student I (hypocritically) might teach in a private school in Switzerland.

Anyway.

I believe in universal healthcare. I don’t see it as those paying taxes taking care of those who don’t or who are lazy, etc., and the odd sense of exceptionalism and individualism and personal convenience in disdain for universal healthcare. I see it as a mark of a collectively oriented society. A civilized society. The Trump administration is hell bent on rolling back even the ‘kind-of, sort-of universal healthcare’ the Obama admin. enacted.

I believe in a strong public education system, with heavy investment in teachers, schools, administrators and students. This goes for elementary through university. I believe that a solid, democratic, functioning society comes from investment in public education and the possibility that anyone who has merit and interest can go to school and not pay for it for their rest of their lives. It’s the long view, not short-term planning. I find it saddening and appalling that in the USA, for example, more is spent on maintaining a single prisoner in a penitentiary than on a single student. The current Secretary of Education stateside has never worked in education, donated 30 million dollars to the Trump campaign in 2016, and is an advocate of charter schools and private faith-based schools. Despite what American founding fathers said about the separation of church and state in order to have true religious freedom and to avoid a conflict of interests.

I do not believe that anyone should be prejudiced against because of the color of his or her skin. And in the USA, blacks have been actively and systematically repressed since their arrival as slaves over two hundred years ago. The Trump administration has commended white supremacists, invited them to the White House for visits, and has condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as created the narrative that Antifa is a “terrorist” organization even as the KKK is not.

I believe women are equal to men. Different, but equal. I also believe women have a right to make choices about their bodies, and this means birth control and abortion. Trump has openly insulted women, bullied female congressional leaders, incited his followers to violence against female political leaders who disagree with him, has had numerous harassment cases against him, paid off a call girl during his admin., and speaks in a sexualized manner about his own daughter. What HE has said is what I’m going by, not what others have said about him. His administration has made it difficult for women to have reproductive care covered by their insurance, even as sexual ‘aids’ (sic) are now available to men under general insurance policies.

I believe that global treaties are necessary to avoid world war. Again. This administration has condemned NATO, the EU commission, and pulled out of the Paris Agreement. It has actively antagonized China and Africa, at the same time that it has openly invited foreign intervention in the USA federal elections. Again, I’m going on what HE says and what a tribunal in the USA found, as well as what various INTEL agencies in the USA and the UK have said. I understand the USA has given a TON of money to these organizations, bolstering them up, and led them, but it’s spending a nickel to save a dime if history is anything to go by, and it is.

I believe that climate change is real and that there is a new future possible in clean energy and sustainable practices. It’s economically viable to boot. The Trump admin has, again, pandered to fossil fuel interests and the agricultural industry in order to ensure campaign donations and practical support. Meanwhile, bolstering rhetoric to working class souls who rely on these jobs in fossil fuels. BUT, they could be retrained with a modicum of investment and then have jobs that are more secure. But we go back to economic interests.

I believe vaccinations are a godsend, so to speak, but it’s not faith based at all. Science has eradicated polio, measles, and mumps — made it possible not to die of pneumonia or an infection, for example. Not to vaccinate your child is willful ignorance and negligence for the rest of society as well as your child. Any ‘research’ on the possibility of autism with any vaccine has been repeatedly debunked through extensive quantitative research. Similarly, not to wear a mask or maintain a distance during a virus pandemic will hurt those around you. Yet, the Trump administration has repeatedly berated and ridiculed “experts” and “scientists,” long before Covid-19 came to visit. Why? Because a lot of education is not the profile of his base.

I don’t think Trump believes even half of what he says. I think he says whatever he needs to say to please the 36% of Americans who believe in him. To them he says Mexicans are rapists and drug addicts (let us not get into the historical creation and political interests of drug cartels in South America). To them, he calls the press ‘the left wing media,’ when he knows that without the media he wouldn’t have gotten the office AND the majority of the news outlets/radio/TV stateside are corporate owned, so they like Trump in office ‘cause he’s giving their owners tax cuts and profit-making incentives, and he, simply, SELLS newspapers/magazines, etc. He makes them money any way you look at it.

Always follow the money for answers, no? It’s the same everywhere. While I can understand/it’s logical that many people support Trump ‘cause he has cut taxes exponentially for the wealthiest and he operates in the interests of business, I do not understand why poor, working class Americans support this man.

So, while I agree with you that we need to find shared ideas and values to make peace and progress, I’m not sure how we do this now when there are such spectacular divides… I’ve lived abroad a long time (and some USA admins were harder than others to live through here with my Yankee accent) but in 20-odd years, I have never seen the fear, pity, and contempt that Europeans appear to feel about America and Americans now. It breaks my heart. It’s like watching a fatal car crash in slow motion. To them, it’s the inevitable fall of yet another empire that begs the question of who will fill that vacuum?

And, I’m actually very confused about maintaining a relationship with *. I love her, I respect her. I know her to be practical, wise, kind, and funny – qualities I admire and hold to be ‘true’. I trust her in a way that I don’t most. Perhaps in a way that you can only trust someone because you’ve grown up together?

But. Too much is at risk today and politics is personal for me. Particularly with such an explosively divisive man in office in the USA (and, again, I don’t for ONE second think that HE is the problem – only the lightning rod – for what has been happening to a great extent since the inception of the USA, and in an acute sense for the last fifty years). What he represents and what he does and says is abhorrent to me and I truly fear for the world if Americans don’t vote him out in November.

Yet * has said she will vote for him. Again. That he’s the “best candidate.” (Keep in mind, I get that Biden is no great shakes – yet another old, white, rich dude – but he won’t do what Trump has done in terms of all mentioned above and the attitude – and actions – of being ‘above the law’). She has been my friend since I was seven-years-old. We haven’t kept in close touch consistently over the years, but I always saw her when I’d go back and I hold her very dear. And our group chats through this terrible time, through the confinement especially, has been the MOST comforting thing for me truly (thank you). It’s very confusing and I’m very sad. I also know that I’m a ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ person and find it easiest to not confront…to ‘simply’ withdraw and have yet another piece of pain and confusion and disappointment to try to unravel.

Again, I absolutely agree that divisiveness and power struggles aren’t productive, and there is reason and logic in trying to find shared values in order to collectively progress…and I am – even more in the last 48 hours –evaluating the information I look at, and the type of people I tend to ‘bond’ with and hold close, and who generally share my values and ‘beliefs,’ and so it IS like I’m operating in a vacuum…and this violates the truest definition of what it is to be ‘liberal,’ which I consider myself to be…

Know that I’m considering it all. And I’m sorry for such a loooooonnnnnngggg missive (damn Home Ec class taught me to type quickly). And, I apologize if I have unwittingly offended you in any way with this note. Please forgive me if so. I did not write this to you to incite, to convince, to cajole, to persuade or any other number of verbs for manipulation. I simply wrote it to share my confusion and the intensity of my own opinions with YOU. I feel as though it may seem ‘preachy’ to you, but I want to illustrate to you that I HAVE thought about each-and-every element of why I find Trump loathsome – and, again, that it’s not a knee-jerk thoughtless “Trump sucks” kind-of thing from the “left” side of the playing field without consideration for WHY he might be appealing to many.

Thank you for ‘listening.’

Unicorns Noah Arc copy 2



Hostile Witness by William Lashner

Hostile Witness book coverDown-and-out Philadelphia lawyer Victor Carl yearns for the opportunity to sell out. Get rich. Be respected in the legal community. Have hot women begging to date him. Then William Prescott III, upper-cruster from one of the city’s most distinguished firms, comes knocking at his door. Prescott wants Victor to represent a councilman’s aide who is, along with his boss, accused of extortion, arson, and murder. It’s a high-profile court case that promises everything Victor longs for, and all he has to do is turn up and do whatever Prescott tells him to. But Victor can’t be quiet when it’s clear someone is setting him and his client up to take a nasty fall. He may be desperate, but he’s no one’s patsy.

I read a Victor Carl short story by this author, which inspired me to buy a book about him ‘cause it was well-written, I like the hard-boiled detective fiction genre, and characters such as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. These guys were tough mavericks in violent, double-crossing milieus, who were unflinching in their determination to achieve justice. This book doesn’t disappoint in terms of its main character, plot, and setting, but it is overly long and consequently repetitive, while Hammett and Chandler’s novels are concise and to the point – just like their (anti) heroes.



The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

indexIn 1708, a fleet of French and Scottish soldiers almost succeeded in landing the exiled Stuart prince in Scotland to reclaim his crown. In the present day, author Carrie McClelland wants to turn this story into her next bestselling novel. Settling into the shadows of an ancient castle in the highlands of Scotland, she creates a heroine named after one of her own Scottish ancestors, and begins to write the tale. Soon after, she finds that the details she’s including in the book are more fact than fiction, and she ponders whether she’s dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only person alive who knows the truth about what happened over 300 years ago.

I was skeptical about reading what looked like a tome of historical fiction, but my doubt was quickly allayed. The concept is great – a writer has characters and their actions, circumstances, and dialogues, coming to her as memories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The locale is vividly, but not overly described. The characters – both in the present day and during the 18th century – are compelling. The story is suspenseful (and there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Finally, I learned a great deal about the Jacobites, the feuds between Scotland and England, and the alliance between France and Scotland, which is immensely interesting and explains a lot about the social politics between these three (Scotland, England, France) countries today.

 

 

 



Plainsong by Kent Haruf

shoppingA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ of the USA is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

indexThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

 



Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

41x9l+9rpDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

The novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on the day that, the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!