The Reading Room: May '22
Things get gloomy
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Future is History, Masha Gessen
Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
It’s a very cold and rainy May here in Oregon, which makes for good reading time. A skunk sprayed in our crawlspace, which does *not* make for good reading time. So here we are, somewhere in between.
A quick follow up to last month’s reading list: Little Dorrit is now in the rearview mirror. It’s not about to knock off the top tier of Dickens novels for me, but it’s not at the bottom either. In typical Dickens fashion, I found that a lot gets pieced together in the last chapter — perhaps even more than usual — and I kept having to skip back Mr. Vance’s narration to catch all that exposition. Wait, so Mr. Clennam did what? And Mrs. Clennam was connected to Amy Dorrit how? And Mr. Clennam’s mistress was who? and so on. I was very much feeling Amy Dorrit’s consternation when Mrs. Clennam asks her if she understands the note of explanation she’s been given at the end of the book: “‘I think so. I am afraid so; though my mind is so hurried, and so sorry, and has so much to pity that it has not been able to follow all I have read,’ said Little Dorrit tremulously.” Same, L. Dorrit, same.
I’ve not been so far tempted to dig into any of the more recent BBC adaptations of these Dickens novels; I see there is one of Little Dorrit with Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen — who are both so great — has anyone seen it? Is it worthwhile? I did discover this podcast, Dickens in Quarantine; the last episode (and the one linked there) is all on Little Dorrit and features an interview with John Mullan, who wrote The Artful Dickens, which I have dutifully added to my reading list. The podcast episode serves as a really great post-read shakedown of the book, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.
I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative fiction novel, The Ministry of the Future, at the recommendation of my friend Jon Raymond. He has a new novel coming out soon called Denial and we were talking dystopic/utopic sci fi over dinner a few months back. Ministry For the Future came up as an example of a science fiction story that hews pretty close to facts on the ground — and that much seems true. Robinson has taken a bunch of present day ideas around climate change mitigation and sort of thought-experimented them out several decades to see how they would fare in a real world calculus. I found myself Googling a lot of the concepts and ideas that the fictional characters suggest in the book and found that many of them exist in real life; there are thinkers and scientists and nonprofits devoted to many of these ideas now. Fascinating stuff; I’d say if you’re interested in a crash course on current ideas around climate science and how potentially fucked we all are, this is the book for you!
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(On that topic — dystopic/utopic sci fi — another book came up at the same dinner: A Canticle For Leibovitz. I was all, “isn’t that about a mouse being experimented on?” and Jon’s wife Emily was all, “lol no that’s Flowers for Algernon.” Easy mistake: those two books seemed to occupy shelf-space in every grownup’s house when I was a kid. I read them both this last February and have lots of feelings about them which I will not share right now because it is May, and not February; I am mentioning them here because between those two books and Ministry For the Future, they make up a tidy trifecta of dystopian speculative fiction books with the word for in the title. Neat!)
I picked up Bloodlands many years ago because I like Timothy Snyder’s work and because I am particularly fascinated with that region and that era — Snyder writes here about Eastern Europe and the Baltic states and how they fared during the period of and between the two world wars. Spoiler: they did not fare well at all. I’m also a confessed Russophile, which is a weird thing to be right now, so this book seemed like a good fit. It’s a heavy lift, though, filled with very heavy subject matter, and for a very long time I found that I had trouble mustering the strength to do that. Current events have brought me back, however. Reading it alongside Masha Gessen’s excellent The History is Future does a fantastic job pulling away the curtains obscuring the country’s Soviet past and just what kind of grievances the people of Ukraine have toward Russia and why.
Gessen’s book in particular is super illuminating in the way it reveals the collapse of one kind of totalitarianism (the Soviet Union) and the eventual return of another kind (Putin’s regime) through the eyes of a handful of Russian citizens. You really get to know these people and their varied paths and interests and it presents this wild era of Russian history in a very human way. I recommend!
Having finished my audiobook, Little Dorrit, I found myself in a kind of audiobook vacuum. I couldn’t bring myself to pile on more Russian/Ukrainian fiction or nonfiction (I’m having a hard time as it is, taking on the page-by-page horrors of Bloodlands), so I downloaded a reading of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, Wise Blood, which I’ve never read. I’m only a few chapters in, so there’s little to report, but it is read well by Bronson Pinchot — who, as it happens, was the reader for my book The Whiz Mob And The Grenadine Kid. He’s a versatile reader — and a prolific one! It’s good!
So what are you up to? What’s populating your springtime reading list?