In the first chapter of The Psychology of Time Travel, we’re introduced to “four young scientists” (Margaret, Lucille, Grace, and Barbara) who have been working in an isolated laboratory and who manage, in 1967, to build a working time machine. The technology can’t take people back to any point prior to its own invention, but time travelers from the future can go back as far as 1967, and time travelers from 1967 can travel into the future (though only 300 years into the future, for reasons that are not fully explained). In the second chapter, which is set in 2017, we meet Ruby, a psychologist who happens to be Barbara’s granddaughter. (Barbara, we learn in the first chapter, had an episode of what was then called “manic depression” after her first forays into the future, and was forced out of the lab as a result.) And then in chapter three we meet Odette, who (in January 2018) discover’s a woman’s body in the basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering. The book takes up the mystery of who the woman is and how she died, with chapters jumping around in time and focus: some chapters are about Margaret and Lucille and Grace and Barbara; others focus on Ruby or Odette; still others focus on other time travelers, or people who are relatives of other time travelers. (Time travel, we learn, is governed by the Time Travel Conclave, an organization that Margaret founded and that she still directs as of 2017—Lucille and Grace still work at the Conclave as well.)

I like how fast-paced the story is, and how the different timelines and plot threads all come together. Early in the book, Barbara (or Bee, as she’s often called) gets a note from the future, which turns out to be a “notice of an inquest” for “the death of a woman in her eighties.” Ruby worries that the dead woman is Bee herself, and wants to figure out the mystery of the death so she can prevent it, if so. Bee, meanwhile, just wants to see if she can time travel again. And Odette, who finds the body, has her own reasons for wanting to solve the mystery. This isn’t just a mystery story, though: it’s a time travel story with a bit of queer romance, and it’s a whole lot of fun. I picked this up for LGBTQ book club at work and am glad I did—and it’s reminded me that I should really also read The Box of Delights (which I first heard mentioned in Fire and Hemlock).

I didn’t realize until the end that Scattered All Over the Earth is the first volume of a trilogy, but now I am very excited at the prospect of seeing where the story will go next and what the structure of the next two books will be. This one is told in alternating first-person narration by six different characters: two characters (Knut and Hiruko) get three chapters each; the others (Akash, Nora, Tenzo, and Susanoo) get one chapter each.

The book starts with Knut, who we learn is a Dane interested in linguistics. He’s watching a local news show where a moderator speaks to a series of “people whose countries no longer exist” (e.g. the former Yugoslavia) when someone on the show catches his attention. There’s a woman “from an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia, she’d come as a foreign student, planning to stay for just a year but then a couple of months before she was supposed to go home, her country disappeared.” What interests him is less the mystery of the disappearance of the woman’s country than “the language she was speaking,” which he understands, but can’t place. The moderator asks about the language too and the woman, Hiruko, explains how she came up with it after moving from Sweden to Norway to Denmark: “no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.” Knut is so excited he phones the TV station to ask if Hiruko will agree to meet him. She agrees, but she doesn’t really have time: she’s going to an umami festival in Trier the next day, hoping to meet someone there who is from her country and speaks her native language.

After they have dinner together, Knut ends up going to Trier too, which is where they start to meet the rest of our narrators. Akash is an Indian trans woman studying in Trier (who is frustratingly misgendered by all the other characters); Nora is actually the organizer of the umami festival, at which Tenzo, who’s meant to be on his way back from Norway, is meant to be teaching people how to make dashi. Susanoo, who comes later, is another person from what the book calls “the land of sushi.”

I don’t want to say too much about the various plot twists, some of which are surprises and some of which are telegraphed quite clearly in the book (which has a Shakespearean sort of feel in that way, that sense of a comedy of miscommunication and mistaken identity that we know will get untangled in the end, where we know the truth about some things before some of the characters do). But I found the plot to be a delight, and there is so much good stuff about language and culture and identity, too. I expect my enjoyment would have been even greater if I had been familiar ahead of time with Japanese fairy tales like the one about Urashima Tarō. This also definitely makes me want to read more by Tawada: I’ve been aware of her since I heard about The Memoirs of a Polar Bear in 2017, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her until this.

Side note, I love this, which Hiruko ponders at her job helping “immigrant children to learn about Europe through fairy tales”: first she thinks about how “drawing isn’t an everyday thing here the way writing is” and then there’s this: “Europeans must think of handwriting and drawing as two completely separate things. If not, why are they so ashamed of a lousy picture when their terrible handwriting doesn’t bother them at all?” I also love this, when Akash is thinking about Germans and walking: “My German friends all love to go for a walk and often ask me to come along. Not just for fifteen or twenty minutes, either. They’ll keep going for an hour at least, and in good weather as long as two without a rest. What’s more, about forty minutes into our walk a friend will finally open his heart to me and confess, “I broke up with my girlfriend”: without strong legs, you can’t even make friends in this country.”

This is the second book by Modiano I’ve read, and I liked this one more than The Black Notebook, though maybe I’m just more in the mood for this kind of atmospheric novel at the moment. The themes (and plots) of the two books are similar, and I get the impression this Modiano’s thing: a mystery that is as much about the larger mysteries of life (the workings of memory, the passage of time, how a near-stranger can take on importance to someone, how different periods blur together or are subsumed or changed, in our minds, by subsequent periods or events) as about the specifics of the plot (in this case: a man who briefly worked at a detective agency reflects on the case of a missing woman). As with The Black Notebook, I feel like I would have loved this book even more if I had a better knowledge of Paris and its different neighborhoods, but even so I enjoyed the descriptions of the streets and cafés and the ways places change (“They had knocked down the buildings facing the river and, in their place, all that remained were empty lots and heaps of rubble. It was as if there had been a bombardment on this no-man’s-land that they would later baptize the Front de Seine. And it hadn’t spared the first building on the quay after the bridge, of which all that remained was the concrete façade.”)

At the start of the book, our narrator notes that “There are blanks in this life, white spaces you can detect.” These blanks are literal in the mostly-empty datebook he finds, a datebook that belonged to Noëlle Lefebvre, the woman who’s gone missing, the woman his employer has tasked him with investigating. There are blanks in narratives, too: blanks in what someone tells you or doesn’t, and maybe blanks in what someone remembers. Jean Eyben, the former detective who narrates most of the book, thinks about how “present and past blend together in a kind of transparency.” Time can be compressed by perspective: I love this description of Noëlle’s time in Paris: “That stay, which had lasted only a few months, had gradually faded from her memory. The few months had become a few hours, as if she had spent them in a waiting room between two trains.”

I’m curious to read more by Modiano, and might eventually try to read something by him in the original French.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

April 12th, 2022

My experience of reading Assembly felt a bit like my experience of reading little scratch last year, in that I picked it up because I’d heard it was inventive in form/structure, but didn’t realize ahead of time that it was also going to be pretty bleak. This, from page 3 of Assembly, gives a sense, as we see our unnamed protagonist at work: “He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts).” Yeah. Oof. The protagonist/narrator of Assembly (after a brief opening section, the book switches from third-person to first-person narration) is a Black British woman who works at a bank; we see her at work, and giving a talk to schoolgirls, and on her way to her white boyfriend’s family’s country estate for a party (and at that country estate, before the party starts), but the book is more about voice and mood than setting or plot, per se. The narrator is having not just a crisis of identity, but an existential crisis: she knows “the things to want, the right things to reach for,” and she’s pursued those things (a good education, a lucrative job, a wealthy boyfriend) but it’s all hollow: whatever she achieves, people think she’s “given” things because of her race, e.g. given a promotion because it looks good for the bank to have a Black woman in a managerial position. And what she truly wants, or might truly want if she had more space to be herself, isn’t even something she can ask herself. Other people’s assumptions get in the way: “Born here, parents born here, always lived here – still, never from here,” she thinks. And she describes the bind she’s been in her whole life like this: “Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience.” She thinks of experiences where other people’s racist assumptions have become apparent: a security guard following her in a store, an airline employee directing her to the economy check-in rather than business-class. In an interview on the Penguin website, Brown says she “was interested in how language manages to appear neutral, even when it’s not,” and that comes through at various points in the book, perhaps most when the narrator considers what she could say to improve things, and feels stuck: “My only tool of expression is the language of this place. Its bias and assumptions permeate all reason I could construct from it”—and then comes a page of dictionary definitions of “black” and “white”, proving the point.

Bibliolepsy by Gina Apostol

April 11th, 2022

Bibliolepsy is one of those novels where I loved the beginning and loved the end, but found my attention flagging a bit in the middle—which I think is probably more due to my life/schedule in general right now than to any flaws of the book itself—though maybe it was also because I paused a lot to look up cultural references or words I didn’t know (Estrella Alfon, lechon manok, retoke, ibagsak, ophidian). A brief review in the New Yorker prompted me to pick this up, because of course I wanted to read a book described as a “hypnotic coming-of-age novel” about “a young Filipina who becomes obsessed with literature, to the point of illness.” I was won over by the quirkiness of the narration and the playfulness of the language: at one point the narrator talks about the “semi-feudal, slightly futile system of education” of the Philippines; earlier, she talks about how the Oxford English Dictionary “wrote down sisters and fathers and cousins of words: it treated words like people with a personal history, the sentences like mysterious pasts you did not have to understand.”

I like the narrator, Primi, and the glimpses we get of her family—her cartoonist father, her taxidermist mother, her older sister, their rich grandmother. I like how we see Primi at age eight, at age twelve, and then in college at sixteen, at twenty. And I like how Primi, in telling her story, tells the story of Manila in the 1980s too, most notably in the descriptions of the People Power Revolution near the novel’s end. Primi seems more interested in poetry than in politics, but even so she finds herself with the crowds on EDSA, wondering: “Would it eliminate the days’ strange glory if it turned out to be a mere piece in the puzzle, a blip in a more difficult history?”

Winter in Sokcho is the kind of book I very much enjoy: the chapters are small vignettes, the language is simultaneously spare and atmospheric. It’s also sometimes a bit uncomfortable, edging on grotesque, with a mysterious ending, but I think it all works. At the start of the book we meet the unnamed narrator, who’s 24 and works at a “run-down” guest house in Sokcho, a beach resort near the North Korean border. It’s winter, and there are hardly any guests, but then an unusual one arrives: an older French cartoon artist named Yan Kerrand. The narrator and Kerrand have a relationship that’s both magnetic and prickly: she studied French literature but only speaks English to him (we learn that she’s actually half French, though she never knew her father, who had “vanished without a trace” after having “seduced” her mom).

We see the narrator and her interactions with her boyfriend, Jun-oh, who is hoping to start a modeling career in Seoul, and her interactions with her mom, who works at the fish market, and her interactions with Kerrand, who invites her out to dinner and asks for her help at the supermarket. Kerrand wants to see the DMZ and the narrator goes with him; they go together to a temple, and to a nature reserve. He “doesn’t like spicy food” and never eats the dinners she prepares for the other guests; he says “Italians [a]re the only ones who really kn[o]w what to do with noodles,” then apologizes. He says he’d “been married” but doesn’t elaborate. The narrator watches him draw, and thinks about wanting him to see her, to draw her; Jun-oh, who suggests maybe she could get plastic surgery in Seoul, doesn’t really see her either. The narrator doesn’t eat enough, then eats too much; she freaks out about how much she’s eating, nearly cries at a meal with her mother, who tells her she’s too thin but also says “you’ll need to watch your figure.” (The narrator’s relationship with her mother seems claustrophobic: they’re both a bit removed from the rest of their community due to the narrator’s French father and his absence; the narrator grew up in a small apartment above the fish market with her mom, with just one bed. At one point Kerrand asks the narrator why she studied French and is surprised when she replies, “So I could speak a language my mother wouldn’t understand.”)

I love the descriptions of Sokcho in the off-season in the book, the empty beach and the restaurants empty of tourists. And I like the narrator seeing how Kerrand sees this place she lives and the surrounding area. The narrator describes it like this when she and Kerrand are on the guest-house roof: “Before us, a jumble of orange and blue corrugated roofs, the burnt-out ruin of the cinema. Further off, the port and fish market.” And then there’s this, from their drive to the DMZ: “Late afternoon light. Skeletal remains of villages on either side of the road. Cardboard boxes, plastic waste, blue metal sheets. No urban sprawl. Gangwon Province had been left to rot since the war.” Later, when Kerrand says beaches in Normandy have their own scars from the war, the narrator says this: “Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment.” And then this, about Kerrand’s art: “I recognized the hotels in Sokcho. The frontier was a scribble of barbed wire. The cave with the Buddhas. He’d lifted them from my world and planted them in his imaginary one, in shades of gray.”

It’s satisfying when I pick up a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and end up feeling like I appreciate it more now than I would have if I’d read it when I first heard of it, thanks to other things I’ve read now that I hadn’t read yet then. This book made me fondly remember reading Piranesi by Susanna Clarke in 2020, and also made me think of this passage from the most recent thing I read (LaserWriter II by Tamara Shopsin): “ponder Nietzsche’s thoughts of eternal recurrence. Imagine this life you live now, you have lived before. Life is a loop that repeats infinitely and exactly. Every pain and pleasure shall return to you. Do you want to be a coward immortal?”

I liked this book a whole lot—the fugitive narrator, the island and its strange vegetation, the image of the sky with two suns, two moons. Abandoned buildings, halls of mirrors, echoes, tides and floods, a room where the floor is an aquarium, mysterious machines in a mysterious basement.

At the start of LaserWriter II we’re introduced to Claire, who’s 19 and applying for a job at Tekserve, an old-school, pre-Genius-Bar computer/printer repair shop that used to be on 23rd Street. We learn that Claire grew up in a household loyal to Apple from the start: they had the “first Mac, and an Apple IIc before it, and then whatever computer Apple made next, forever.” I grew up in a PC family, so my earliest computer memories are of a black screen with the C prompt, but I relate to the sentiment nevertheless: my first Apple computer was one of the clamshell iBooks, which I got just before I started college, and I haven’t bought a PC since. (And I definitely remember bringing a computer to Tekserve, though I can’t remember if it was that first laptop or a later one.)

So, right: Claire gets the job, and the rest of the book is the story of Claire’s time at Tekserve, interspersed with other things: we get Tekserve’s origin story (which is pretty great), and references to the early days of Apple itself, and little bits of other parts of Claire’s life, and also some sections from the point of view of some of components of the printers that Claire is working on. I think the parts of the book that are directly focused on Claire and her experiences are the strongest, as opposed to the snippets we get of the lives of other Tekserve employees: I like the way that the events of any given day at Tekserve prompt recollections of other places, other moments. Like: working on a computer mouse makes Claire think of an experience with actual mice when she was younger, or taking in a repair from someone who works at Columbia makes Claire think of a philosophy class she snuck into after she found someone else’s student ID.

I like the descriptions of Tekserve as a space “full of people and machines, old and new” with “pressed tin ceilings and wood floors” where “wooden theater seats snap open and shut.” I like the descriptions of a pre-gentrification East Village of squats and Food Not Bombs and basement punk shows. And I love this description of Columbia’s campus: “Black iron gates opened to a perspective drawing of green lawns and white columns. Students sat in circles under sun-dappled light. The air was clean and weightless. Shadows were cast not from skyscrapers but from sundials, sculptures, and sycamore trees.”

I also like this book’s sense of humor, which is understated but excellent. Like this, about a band named Hookworm68: “The “68” was to suggest the French Situationists, not the sex act minus 1.” Or how the PRINTER FAQ used by Tekserve is “spiked with tiny jokes”, leading to this: “Joel replaces the LaserJet’s fan. The PRINTER FAQ told him to do this because the fan (much like capitalism) has a design flaw that makes it eventually fail.” Or how a bottle of Snapple is described thus: “The flavor is iced tea, with a plot twist of fake lemon.” I didn’t love this book the way I loved Mumbai New York Scranton or Arbitrary Stupid Goal, but I did like it, and I’m glad I read it.

I’m glad I read the Melville House “Art of the Novella” edition of this book: the “Illuminations” at the end of the book added some much-needed context, as it’s been a while since I studied transcendentalism in school. Having both “The Transcendentalist” and “Civil Disobedience” included with Bartleby the Scrivener felt really useful in terms of placing this novella in its American political/philosophical/literary moment.

As for the novella itself, before reading it I had known Bartleby’s catch-phrase of “I would prefer not to”, but I didn’t know much more than that and wasn’t really expecting the book’s mix of humor and pathos. I like the NYC atmosphere Melville evokes: I can picture the area around Trinity Church quite well because my office is very close to there: I’ve walked along Wall Street from Broadway at lunch breaks or after work, and I liked imagining those streets in centuries past as I read.

(Relevant quote from Emerson: “Unless the action is necessary, unless it is adequate, I do not wish to perform it.” And from Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”)

I don’t usually read “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” or “romance” or “romantic comedy” or whatever you want to call this, but I got this ebook for free via Amazon First Reads last May and figured I’d give it a try. In the first chapter we’re introduced to Dylan Delacroix, a corporate productivity consultant in Houston: her job is to turn things around for companies struggling with management issues, PR issues, or both. Her last assignment went really well, and she’s expecting a sweet gig in Paris as a reward, but is dismayed to learn that instead, she’s been given an extremely difficult placement with a company called Technocore in Seattle, where she grew up. Dylan is polished and put-together: someone who wears Manolos and has to cancel all her “standard appointments” before flying to Washington: “eyebrow threading, manicures, blowouts, and waxing”. She thinks of herself as nothing like her family: her parents and both of her sisters (one of whom lives in New York, the other of whom lives at home still) are all artists. Dylan isn’t thrilled about the idea of staying in her childhood bedroom, but her boss makes it clear she doesn’t really have a choice: she’s expected to stay with her family to save the company money. She’s also not thrilled about being away from her boyfriend, Nicolas, and all their routines. (We learn they have a “nighttime ritual: email, dinner, more email, then bed.” Yeah, not much heat there, but Dylan’s fine with it.)

Since her job is what it is, Dylan packs her bags and heads home, where she arrives to find her dad’s latest sculpture “glaring at her from the dead center of the yard”: it’s an “eight-foot-tall tiger clutching a beach ball,” and the Robinsons, who live across the street and are always dismayed by the Delacroix family’s art and chaos, are not pleased. Dylan’s parents, meanwhile, are not pleased by the “new motion-sensor light” over the Robinsons’ driveway, which shines right into their bedroom. They send Dylan over to complain, and she finds herself not talking to Patricia Robinson or her wife, Linda, but to their son, Mike, who’s grown up to be even more handsome than he was in high school.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s fun watching Dylan navigate the craziness of her job (as Technocore’s CEO keeps doing tone-deaf things and as her boss in Houston continually undermines her), the slow-dawning realization that her boyfriend sucks, and the dynamics of family and friendship, all while low-key flirting (and then more) with Mike. The dialogue is clunky in places (it feels like the characters use way fewer contractions than actual people do) but by the end of the book I was willing to overlook that because I was so charmed. I also like how Woolridge writes about Seattle, a city I’ve never been to but would like to visit. There’s this, when Dylan and Mike visit a museum together: “The Seattle gloom had a living quality to it. It had shifted while they were inside, and the gray now made the world look like it was bathed in a bright smoke. It wasn’t anything close to sunny, but it was as close as the city was likely to get. The familiarity of it made Dylan feel at home.” And this, when Dylan picks Nicolas up from the airport for an ill-fated weekend visit: “The drive into the city from the airport was one of the most gorgeous views from any airport ever. Even on the wettest days, the picture-postcard skyline, complete with cranes and the Space Needle, seemed to reach out of the water, its lights twinkling like rare gems. It was always stunning. No matter what, she always felt like she was home the moment she saw it.”