Somehow, despite inserting a trip to my daughters' school in the middle of the day, I have managed to charge 6 hours of paid work today. I consider 7-7.5 hours of "chargeable" work to be a full day, so I will do some more work later. But I'm going to reward myself by writing a blog post before I move on to the next item on my to do list.
(If you're curious: I went to school to see Pumpkin receive an award. She and Petunia both got awards for "responsibility" this week. On different days, of course.)
I want to write about books, and also about how our lives are made of choices, some ours and some other people's, some large and some small. But mostly about books.
I also have to write a tiny bit about the US election. Sorry, people who are tired of it. This part will be short. I find myself obsessing about this election more than I usually do. I always have a preference for who wins, but this year is different. I am reading much more election coverage than usual, and thinking about it more.
This is because of Trump, obviously. I have a settled on a preference in Democratic primary, and it is cool to have a woman so close to securing her party's nomination, but we've been here before. I suspect I'll feel more emotion on that front when the nomination is actually hers (which it looks like it will be, unless Sanders has a truly remarkable run in the rest of the primaries and caucuses.)
But Trump is something different, at least in my lifetime. One benefit of reading so much coverage is that I'm starting to understand that we've seen candidates with some of his characteristics before. Or more properly, remember, because I had an excellent high school history teacher and much of what the commentators are pointing out sounds vaguely familiar in that "I haven't thought about that since high school" sort of way.
We've definitely had openly racist candidates in my lifetime. I remember Strom Thurmond's last two decades in the Senate, after all. But by the time I remember him, he'd toned it down to dog whistles. I've been aware that the less subtle form of racism was not gone from our country for quite awhile, but it is a bit breathtaking to see it so openly on display at the rallies of someone who is the frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination.
I think, though, what fascinates me about this election is that it is our chance to answer the question "what would you do if a fascist tried to gain power in your country?" We're not doing so well on that question right now, but I still have hope for us.
I don't want to get into the details of whether or not Trump meets the textbook definition of a fascist. The man has studied Hitler's writings. He is running rallies that are bringing racial and political violence into our political process. He has stated he wants to curtail press freedoms. He bars members of the press he considers unfriendly to him from his rallies. He has said we should bar all Muslims from entering the country. I could go on.
Bear with me, I'm almost to the books part.
I have long been fascinated with the question of what I would have done if I was living in Germany at the time of the Nazis. I am not convinced I would have recognized the danger. If I did, I am not convinced I would have known when to fight and when to flee. I think it is hard to recognize when the situation has tipped from "bad but worth trying to fix" to "the way your world works is being upended and you need to adjust to the new reality."
And this is why I loved The Dream of Scipio by Ian Pears. It follows three storylines in a particular part of France. One storyline is at the end of the Roman Empire, one is in the time of the Black Death, and one is in World War II. In each storyline, people have to decide what to do as their communities and way of life and indeed the very rules by which they are living their life crumble around them. I enjoy Pears' writing, but I love the book for the exploration of the period of time when everything is just starting to fall apart.
I sincerely hope we aren't heading for one of those periods, but this is the first time in my life I've ever felt like we could end up in such a period, depending on the choices we make. And I think that is why I'm so fascinated by this election. What will "mainstream" Republicans do if Trump gets enough delegates to secure the nomination? Will they try to hold their party together, or will they abandon it and start a new one? What is the "right" thing to do? (I don't know.) What if Trump has the most delegates but not enough to win? Again, I don't know what the right thing to do is. It feels like we're heading towards an inflection point of some sort... but who knows what choices will put us on the best trajectory? Who can even say what the best trajectory is at this point?
It has been many years since I read The Dream of Scipio, and I have forgotten many of the details of the plot. But I retain the sense that all of the characters were faced with choices, whether they recognized them as such or not, and that it was not always easy to say what the "right" thing to do was, even from the safe position of knowing how the historical events in which the story is embedded turn out.
So, sticking with the theme of choices, the second book I want to talk about is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This is an amazing book, in which the protagonist keeps reliving her life, but each time the trajectory is slightly different, based on choices she makes or things that happen. It is set in the lead up to World War II, during the war, and immediately after the war, mainly in England. The protagonist experiences the Blitz in London, and in a couple of the timelines, she experiences Nazi Germany. It is such a good book on so many levels. If you're only going to read one of the books I talk about in this post, this would be my pick.
The final book I want to talk about also explores choices, and what we make of them, but in a much more subtle way. It is a memoir called Orchard House, by Tara Austen Weaver. The author's mother decides to buy a house with a really large yard and overrun garden, and the author joins in—and takes ownership of some aspects of—creating a beautiful garden in this space. The garden is metaphor and learning experience, and also helps frame her quest to make peace with her life and the limitations of the people in it. She's not unhappy, but she's not really happy, either, and the garden helps her understand why, and move towards a life more like what she wants. Again the elements of choice (her decision to make the garden a large part of her life) and chance/other people's choices (her mother's decision to buy that house) come together to create her life. Ultimately, though, it is her choice how to respond to her circumstances, and in the end, she learns that it is that response that really determines how she'll experience her life.
I think there are limits to that final lesson. There are some things—the Blitz, for instance—that are pretty much horrible no matter how you choose to respond to them. But then again... if you read Life after Life, you'll see that decisions the main character make do influence how she experiences even that overwhelmingly terrible time. The details are obviously fiction, but the larger conclusion strikes me as true, and it is an interesting thing to ponder. Atkinson doesn't take the easy way out: there is no obvious rule about how to respond to bad things. In general, things seem to turn out better when the protagonist takes action in response to the situations in which she finds herself... but not always. It is really a thought-provoking book.
And now, it is after dinner and I have promised my kids a trip to the ice cream shop to celebrate their awards, so I will close this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of it in the comments!