Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

April 22nd, 2020

This book, subtitled “A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,” is largely but not entirely about automata, and also about the experience of the uncanny—often as it relates to the distinction between humans and robots or humans and dolls. The five chapters proceed chronologically from Jacques de Vaucanson (born in 1709) to the four siblings who performed as the Doll Family (the last of whom died in 2004), with chapters on Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess player (built in 1789), Edison’s talking doll (which he worked on in the late 1800s) and Georges Méliès’s films (from the late 1800s and early 1900s) in between.

I liked learning more about things I’d heard of but hadn’t read about in depth, like Vaucanson’s mechanical duck or Kempelen’s chess player, and it was neat to read about their creators and the larger context in which these objects were made, and also to read about what happened to these objects after their creators’ lifetimes. I was more interested in the straight-up historical sections, less interested in things like a psychoanalytic interpretation of the game of chess, and Wood’s style sometimes struck me as overly sensationalistic, like when she makes much of a letter one of Edison’s employees sent saying he would have a Parisian doll-maker send some doll bodies to “experiment with”: “Sinister overtones impose themselves on the practical matters detailed in these letters,” Wood writes, and goes on to ask “what kind of ‘experiment'” the letter-writer had in mind (145)—though it’s pretty clear the experiment was about whether the phonographs Edison wanted to use for his talking dolls could be fitted into the normal papier-mâché bodies made by European doll-makers. The chapter on Edison was interesting overall though, particularly the descriptions of Edison’s 1887 laboratory, which is now “a museum, a frozen piece of industrial life, all wheels and pulleys and vices and clocks” (107). (Meanwhile, you can hear Edison’s doll online: yikes. Less alarming: The Man with the Rubber Head, which was probably my favorite of the Méliès pieces I watched as a result of this book.) The chapter on the Doll family felt a little out of place, but it was interesting too, and I’m generally happy to read about circus history and Coney Island (that chapter has a great description of Luna Park in it).

The Starless Sea is a sprawling book full of stories, and it’s about stories too, about how stories work, though for a novel about how stories work I think I prefer Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. As a book in which to lose myself right now, though, The Starless Sea was a total delight. I like Erin Morgenstern’s writing for the lush descriptions, the startling and perfect images: this is definitely more of a setting-driven book than a plot-driven or a character-driven one, and I’m fine with that. I mean, there is also a lot of plot: Zachary, a grad student who studies video games, finds a mysterious book in his university library, and is shocked to find that he’s in the book, though it seems older than he is. The book leads him, eventually, to a vast subterranean library, which used to be full of visitors but is now nearly empty. Figuring out why the library is the way it is leads him to other stories, which interconnect in various ways. There are quest elements and fairy tale elements and video game elements, and there’s danger and romance and humor, but I was really there for things like: a hallway in which doorknobs hang on ribbons from the ceiling; a dumbwaiter that can bring you any kind of food or drink you ask for; a candy that is also somehow a story—that makes you taste/experience a story in some weird synesthetic way; a lavish party in another time in an ornately-decorated ballroom; a whispering hallway that tells stories; a boat that is itself partly made of stories. And oh, sentences like this: “A dense forest of cherry trees in full bloom fills the cavern, all the way up to the edge of the river. Twisting tree roots disappear below the surface of the honey while stray blossoms fall and float downstream” (366).

In There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee uses chapters organized by theme and structured as sets of questions and answers (with some graphs and charts to accompany them) to explore issues related to climate change and the question of how humanity can survive/thrive/take care of our planet in our current era and beyond. The first chapter, on food, was especially interesting: I think I’d known but had forgotten how big the environmental impact of beef is compared to chicken or to vegetarian protein sources, and it was good to be reminded of that. I learned that agriculture is estimated to cause 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that 20% of food waste is caused by consumers, and that feeding animals on food (like soybeans) that could be eaten by people is a big problem because it’s hugely inefficient. In this chapter, and elsewhere in the book, Berners-Lee reminds readers that “everything we spend money on is an investment into one type of future or another,” so we should all be conscious of where our money is going and what kind of future we’re shaping (48).

Striking facts and figures I learned elsewhere in the book: humanity has produced 9 billion metric tons of plastic, 5.4 billion metric tons of which “has been chucked into landfill or scattered onto land and sea” (55). Also, “over a third of all our plastic is used for disposable packaging” (58).

On the subject of energy, Berners-Lee is optimistic about solar energy, but only if “we can succeed in deliberately limiting our energy growth,” which we haven’t managed to do thus far (68). Meanwhile, we need to cut fossil fuel use in a hurry, but the only way to do this is to have “an enforceable global deal to leave the fuel in the ground,” which we also haven’t managed yet (88). That need for global cooperation is a factor in the chapters on “growth, money and metrics” (if we’re just measuring things like GDP, we may be measuring/incentivizing the wrong things) and “thinking skills for today’s world” (in which Berners-Lee points out that we need to be cultivating and emphasizing things like “global empathy” if we’re going to get anywhere).

This was a quite different book from my usual diet of novels/kids’ books/narrative nonfiction, but I’m glad I picked it up. (Disclaimer: this book is published by my employer, and I decided to read it after a talk that Berners-Lee gave to staff members, but I got it from the library like anyone else, and kept reading because I was interested.) The Q&A format keeps it from being too dense, and it was interesting to read an evidence-heavy book on this topic.

Terrible, Horrible Edie is the third in E.C. Spykman’s quartet of children’s books about the Cares family, but it works as a standalone—which is good, because the other three books are out of print. This was a delightful read though: I love it in the same way I love Elizabeth Enright’s “Melendy” books or Jeanne Birdsall’s “Penderwicks” series.

At the start of the book (which was published in 1960 but is set in the 1910s), the Cares family is packing up to go to the beach for the summer. There are six kids, ranging in age from three to eighteen, plus household staff, plus a bunch of animals (a bird, a goat, a monkey, and two dogs), so it’s quite a production. Ten-year-old Edie is traveling in one of the family’s two cars with her sixteen-year-old brother, Hubert, at the wheel, and their trip from inland Massachusetts to the coast is a wild ride in more ways than one.

This sets the tone for a summer full of adventure: Edie’s father and stepmom are off to Europe, while the kids will be staying at their aunt’s beach house with a cook, a maid, another kitchen helper, and a caretaker to look after them. Edie, who’s six years younger than her youngest older sibling, and five years older than her oldest half-sibling, is often too young for whatever the older kids want to do, but too old to be bothered spending time with the younger ones. So she often has to amuse herself, which she does by getting into various adventures and more than a few scrapes. She’s a plucky kid, and a good sailor, though she’s also impulsive and sometimes lacking in manners, and reading about her summer is always entertaining.

I like how this book manages to be full of action and humor and also manages to capture the feeling of a summer vacation by the water. There are so many great descriptive passages about Edie’s aunt’s house, like this: “On a good day all the big open high-ceilinged rooms were filled with a kind of sunny air that smelled of tea and pine needles and, on bad days, when everything was shut up, you were shut in with fog and the smell of a ship” (52). Or this:

Waking up at Aunt Louise’s was almost always a good sensation, no matter what kind of day it might be, because of the sounds that the wind, light or strong, brought in before your eyes were even open. There was particularly the clock chunk of boats and the chuck, chuck, chuck of Captain Grannet’s lobster launch setting out steadily and firmly to visit the pots. These made you part of everything to do with salt water, so that you saw the wet piles of the wharfs at low tide, barnacles, mud flats or the brimming harbor, quahogs under boulders, scurrying fiddler crabs, and screaming gulls. (148)

The poems/prose pieces in SoundMachine are largely concerned with writing and parenting, and as a result I think I liked this book a bit less than I liked the other book of Zucker’s that I’ve read (The Pedestrians). But there’s still a lot of interesting stuff in SoundMachine, even if I find it less personally relatable. Writing and parenting, as Zucker talks about them, share a concern with/anxiety about attention: paying attention or not, what things we pay attention to or don’t, how we pay attention or don’t, speaking vs. listening, communicating or failing to communicate. I like how other books find their way into this book: Zucker talks about reading Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to her kids, and about reading Tommy Pico to herself; she talks about To Kill a Mockingbird and the work of other poets. And there are pleasing phrases throughout: “The cars on Amsterdam Avenue are long waves of sound” (3). “What I like is the long, underwater glide as I push off from the wall” (34), “I watch the ride go on & on knowing it will stop” (48). “There’s a now to write into, a continuous present that the act of writing stretches across a canvas so to speak” (252). I mostly like the longer pieces best: the first piece, “Song of the Dark Room”, about a child who can’t sleep, is one of my favorites, as is the last piece, “Residency.” I find the diaristic nature of these and pieces like “Seven Beds Six Cities Eight Weeks” satisfying; I like how they incorporate so many everyday moments alongside the larger themes.

This essay collection, whose subtitle is “On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books,” is from the 1960s, and while there are aspects of the content and style that feel a bit dated, I still found it to be an interesting and satisfying read now, and came away from it with a whole list of new-to-me kids’ books that I now want to read. I like Cameron’s evocations of her own childhood, as when she talks in the foreword about going to the library with her mother on Saturday mornings (library trips with my mom were a big part of my childhood too!) or when she talks in the book’s final essay about her friendship with her landlady’s father when he was in his eighties and she was a child. That final essay is one of my favorites, actually, though it’s largely about Eleanor Farjeon, whose work I’ve never read: I like the way that Cameron brings together a biographical sketch of Farjeon and really pleasing quotes from Farjeon’s writing about her childhood and Cameron’s own childhood memories.

My absolute favorite piece, though, is the title essay, which is about “time fantasy”, from books I’ve read and loved (like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe books) to books I should have read by now (E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet) to books I’d never heard of before. I love bits of writing like this, where Cameron is talking about how she feels like maybe British time fantasy is the best time fantasy because of the sense of history one has across “the whole of the British Isles, as if layers of Time, or innumerable dimensions of Time cutting across one another, were crowded thick with all the centuries that have passed and none of them really lost” (74). Elsewhere, I like how Cameron describes the experience of being a child as including “delight in the simplest, most secret, sometimes the oddest things” and also “sadnesses and fears and terrors one could not or would not explain” and also “a continuing wonder about much that seems drab and familiar to adults” (14). And it’s interesting when Cameron (who wrote children’s books herself) talks about her own experiences as a writer, particularly in the essay “A Country of the Mind,” where she talks about a sense of place as having been central to the successful creation of one of her novels, which she rewrote after being unhappy with how it ended and realizing a lot of her unhappiness was related to the book’s setting. From that essay, I love this, when Cameron is talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books: “Place moves and breathes within the story; it is not simply background, not a backdrop, never static” (171).

I imagine this book would be extra-interesting to people who write for kids or teach kids or have kids, but even as someone who falls into exactly zero of those categories, I found this book thought-provoking and engaging.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl was such a delight to read: it’s a magic-realist picaresque journey from the middle of country to one coast and then the other, set in early-1990s queer social circles, with a protagonist who has the ability to change his body from male to female, and in other ways as well. It’s smart and funny and poignant and I enjoyed following all of Paul’s adventures, from college in Iowa City to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to Provincetown to San Francisco, and I also liked the way that Lawlor intersperses fairy-tale interludes with Paul’s story: a Hansel and Gretel story, a selkie story, a Little Red Riding Hood story, and others. I also love how many great little details there are in this book—the track list of a mix tape Paul makes, how a girl sends Paul a postcard that quotes “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, how Paul’s friend Jane thinks about writing a paper only using theorists with last names starting with the letter B, how Paul goes on an acid-fueled disquisition about cover songs. And the writing, gah, I’m so into prose like this: “Paul watched the traffic lights change from red to green in the blue-gray dusk. The contrast made him think of Nan Goldin photographs and he wanted to tell someone, to marvel at the beauty with someone at whose beauty he could also marvel” (319). A cold night is described as “the blue night of snow and streetlights, air like paper cuts” (12). And then near the end of the book there’s this, when Paul is walking in San Francisco, “looking up at the attic windows and roofs of renovated Victorians, the treetops, a congregation of pigeons on the web of train wires over Market Street, the big western sky” (353).

The nineteen essays in this book are a bit of a time capsule, by which I mostly mean that it’s funny to look back on the US presidential election of 2000 from 2020. (That election, incidentally, was the first one in which I voted/was old enough to vote, and I, like Sarah Vowell, rode in a car from NYC to DC for the protests that accompanied George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001.) A lot of the essays are about US politics or US history in some way, which means this isn’t totally the book for me (I’m not a politics nerd, unlike some people I know) but I do like Vowell’s style, and even if the essays resonated with me less than essays on another topic might have, this was an enjoyable read. Vowell is good at the snappy first line, like this, from “The First Thanksgiving,” which is one of my favorite pieces in the book: “When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes” (9).

My absolute favorite piece in the book is “God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass,” in which Vowell talks about historical walking tours and why her favorite parts of US history are “Puritan New England and the Civil War” and why she likes visiting/learning about places where terrible things happened in the past. I also really liked “California as an Island” (about how Vowell lived in San Francisco when she was in her twenties and worked at a gallery that sold old maps, and about California vs. elsewhere) and “Underground Lunchroom,” about the cafeteria in Carlsbad Caverns.

Howards End by E.M. Forster

January 25th, 2020

I read Howards End after seeing Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance”—which is in part a homage to this book that uses a lot of the elements of its plot, except transposed to modern New York/with the majority of the characters being gay men. I think seeing the play (which I loved) enhanced my enjoyment of the novel: it was interesting to read the novel already knowing a lot of the plot, and interesting to see the places where Lopez chose to structure his story differently from Forster’s original. As far as the novel itself, there were parts I loved and parts I found to be a slog. I love the moments of humor in Forster’s writing, as when he describes one character as having “one of those moustaches that always droop into teacups” (110) and another character as being “one of those who name animals after the less successful characters of Old Testament history” (120-121). Near the beginning of the book, there’s a great funny description of two of the main characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, attending a concert with various relatives/other people: the way Forster describes each character’s thoughts and behavior, the way everyone’s inside his or her own head in some way, is perfect. And I like the way Forster considers big themes: what to do about the gulf between rich people and poor people; what to do about the gulfs that can arise between friends or family or partners; what it means to connect, or to fail to connect, with other people or with a place, or what it means to succeed or fail at connecting the disparate elements of a personality or of life; what it looks like to make a life with other people; what we owe to others. (These are themes Lopez explores in his play, too, and it was interesting for me to think about the similarities and differences.) I like other things, too—how Forster describes arguments as “inevitable at the time, incredible afterwards” (18); how Helen fervently proclaims that “personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever” (23) (and how Margaret, later, makes that true in practice); and this, about Helen and Margaret being close again after a period of estrangement: “And all the time their salvation was lying round them—the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future” (255).

Permission by Saskia Vogel

January 15th, 2020

Much of this novel is narrated by Echo, who’s in her mid-twenties and grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, though she now has her own apartment in LA. She’s adrift: she started acting as a teen and has been trying to build a career in it, but she’s not been getting any parts lately; she has an ongoing hookup situation with a dude who’s a musician who lives with his parents, but finds herself thinking about her high school best friend, Ana, who she had been hooking up with when they were in school together (until Ana’s dad walked in on them), but from whom she’s now estranged. We don’t get a sense of the shape of Echo’s normal daily life—her routines or lack thereof, her friends or lack thereof—because her life is up-ended near the start of the book by her father’s unexpected death. She goes to stay with her mom in her childhood home, and the two of them are stuck in their grief (not that her parents’ marriage had been particularly happy; not that anyone in the family seems like a particularly easy person). Meanwhile, she meets Orly, who’s in her thirties and has just moved in across the street with a slightly older male housemate, Lonnie, also known as Piggy. It turns out that Orly works as a dominatrix, which intrigues Echo, and a lot of the book ends up being about Orly and Echo’s quick/newfound intimacy, and also the strain that this puts on Piggy, whose normal routines are interrupted by Echo’s presence. The writing is lush and often lovely, but there is a whole lot of unease in this book. I like the descriptions of the coastal California landscape, though: the threat of earthquakes, but the beauty of whales; jasmine and honeysuckle and roses; jacaranda blossoms. And I like how Echo is trying to figure out how to navigate desire and grief, and how part of doing that, for her, is finding comfort in the physical in a way different from what she’s known in the past. Also: the final two pages of this book, in which Echo goes to the beach at night, are so beautiful and so good: such a perfect ending, not a resolution but a sense of possibility, of more.