Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Cold Millions: Jess Walter is Back, and Really Freakin' Good!

Jess Walter is one of a very few "phone book" writers to me — by that I mean, he could write the phone book and I'd still read him. So a new Jess Walter book is an EVENT. It's been a long wait since his last novel — Beautiful Ruins was 2012! So yeah, The Cold Millions hitting shelves (today!) is a big deal. 

And even more exciting than all that: It's really freakin' good! There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, and a whole lot of anger. In a lot ways, though these events took place more than a century ago, this novel seems like a distant mirror to our current unsettling times.

The story, which takes place in 1909, is about two brothers, Gig, 23, and Rye, 16, "tramping" around the Pacific Northwest, looking for work, and getting swept up in the contentious labor fights of the day. Gig supports the Wobblies — the shorthand name for the members of the new "labor union for all," the Industrial Workers of the World. And Rye is sort of along for the ride. Things go south quickly when they're both arrested as part of a labor rally. Rye has to spend several days in a crowded, disgusting holding cell, not knowing the fate of his older brother. 

Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — 19 years old, beautiful, and an absolute force of nature in the labor movement (and a real person — she cofounded the ACLU!). Flynn takes up the brothers' cause and after Rye is sprung from jail, gets him to travel around the west with her, telling his story of injustice, and fundraising for the Wobblies. Meanwhile, a rich industrialist whose interests (that of becoming MORE wealthy, at the expense of "the cold millions," the labor that makes him rich) are put at risk by the labor unions pulls some strings in the background to try to destroy the movement. Chaos further ensues when an anarchist with allegiance to neither side enters the fray. His only goal is to wreak havoc...and havoc is indeed wrought. 

I loved this book! It's pure reading fun — you can't turn the pages fastest enough here. If you're one of like four people who read Karl Marlantes' long novel Deep River, that came out last year, this is a really good (though much more entertaining) companion piece to that novel, also about the birth of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest. But Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. This is a favorite of the year! 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom: Science vs. Religion, but Make It Entertaining as Hell

I expected Yaa Gyasi's sophomore novel Transcendent Kingdom to be heavy. It's about a Stanford neuroscientist named Gifty who grapples with many of life's most transcendent questions. It's certainly as thoughtful, intelligent, and measured as I was hoping — one of the more interesting examinations of science vs. religion I've ever read. And it is, indeed, heavy at times. But what I did not expect was it to be entertaining as hell. It's a plot- and character-driven family saga that just reads so smoothly and enjoyably, you actually forget you're even weighing these big ideas. 

At the start of the novel, Gifty is finishing up her doctorate at Stanford when her depressed mother comes to live with her. Her mother, who had lived by herself in Huntsville, Alabama, has been clinically depressed since Gifty's drug-addicted older brother died of a drug overdose several years before when he was in high school. Gifty's mother has even tried to kill herself once, resulting in teenage Gifty having to spend a summer with her Ghanian relatives. This trip included a meeting with her father, who abandoned his family in Alabama to move back to Ghana when Gifty was a child.

Now, Gifty has made it her life's work to try to understand these psychological illnesses, depression and addiction, that have so dominated her family. "Could (science) be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?"

Then, there's religion, too. Gifty's mother raised her to be religious, and throughout her childhood, she was devoted to being the best Christian she could — that is, until cracks started forming in her faith, as she was introduced to some of the cornerstone contradictions of evangelical Christianity. For instance, if the Bible is "God's word," and is to be interpreted literally, but it's been translated many times over, and therefore open human to interpretation, then...what gives?

Even at Harvard, though, Gifty clings to a somewhat modified version of her religion, despite derision from her friends and classmates. For her, personal belief becomes a long and winding road, especially as she considers, evaluates, and incorporates new information, new thoughts, new ideas, etc. She describes how fundamentalism inherently rejects change because learning new information requires you to reject what you thought you knew before. For instance, discovering that the world is round means you must reject the formerly held idea that the world is flat? And then when you begin incorporating new information, what other views do you start to reconsider? "If the earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change," she says. 

So yes, science vs religion features prominently in this novel, as you'd expect in a novel about a scientist who grew up in a strictly religious household. The main question here is this: Does one preclude the other? Gifty concludes, "I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately, both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning."

Whether or not you agree with Gifty's conclusion, it's more the seeking that's important, isn't it? And that's partly what makes this novel fascinating, beyond the really entertaining plot about a family saga. You're not going to find a more astute writer than Gyasi. She just...gets it. I don't know how to explain it better than that. You're just constantly nodding your head as you read. "Yes, that is something I've always thought, but never been able to put into words as well as this" — that type of reading experience. There is certainly a lot here: It's a novel about the dangers of addiction and depression, the horrors of racism, the family ties that fray and break and can or can't be repaired, and just how we find our places in the world. 

You sometimes see writers who achieve as much success with a debut as Gyasi did with Homegoing to slump a little bit in their second book. That is definitely not the case here. This is one of the best books I've read this year.