A delightfully strange, unflinchingly surreal novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic government worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that most often comes to mind at random moments.
There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme
Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.
If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.
Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.
The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?
In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s fun to read it as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.
Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. He utters a few words to her at a bus stop, and she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for and Lars’s outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a richer character.
What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, the Tribulation, which Evangelical Christian envision as hell on earth, may very well come to pass.
In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide.
In the warm, practical style that her fans have come to expect, Gretchen Rubin explains why habits matter, and how to make them work for you, in her new book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Rubin begins by breaking people down into four groups: upholders, obligers, questioners, and rebels, providing checklists to help you decide where you fit in. She then goes on to delve into the psychology of habit formation, peppering her personal narrative and a good dose of self-help with quotations from the likes of St. Augustine and Benjamin Franklin.
Better Than Before is light but inspiring reading for anyone who wants to adopt a few new good habits, or discard some bad ones. If you’re like me, you’ll be very glad to have Rubin’s book in your hands, and equally glad that she isn’t your neighbor or sister, and that she hasn’t set her sights on your dietary habits. While the author often comes off as judgmental or meddling, her keen awareness of these traits in herself makes her more likable than you might expect.
Despite a tendency toward repetition, Rubin’s prose strikes a nice balance between engaging, informative, personal, and practical. Readers who loved to hate the author of Happier at Home–who came off as stingy with her money and her affections (she doesn’t like buying gifts and had to make an effort to kiss her husband before he left for work)–will likely find more common ground with the voice behind Better Than Before. Here, we get a glimpse of the author as committed friend, sister, and daughter, someone so passionate about exercise that she buys her sister a treadmill desk, and so intent on the benefits of de-cluttering that she spends hours cleaning out a friend’s apartment, only to realize that clutter doesn’t really bother him much. One gets the feeling that Rubin really likes to help people, and that all that busy-bodyness comes from a genuine mix of passion and compassion.
Readers who started their own happiness projects after reading The Happiness Project are likely to enjoy Rubin’s latest effort. While there is something slightly grating about the author (she hates travel and interesting food and never misses an opportunity, in any of her books, to remind readers that she once clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), there is something inspiring about her as well. Although it sounds like a line from a bad romcom, she really does make you want to be a better version of yourself. If it’s any indication of just how practical this book is, I’ve already started keeping track of three new habits, and I’ve even started researching DIY treadmill desks.
A wonderful glimpse inside the mind of a stunningly prolific and intensely imaginative writer. Recommended for Bradbury fans, of course, but also for anyone interested in pursuing the writing life. Great inspiration for writers at any stage in their career who are feeling unproductive or uninspired. Read with Bradbury Unbound to get a full picture of the writer’s habits and the challenges and successes of his very long writing life.