The City Where We Once Lived

The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes

In the abandoned North End of a once thriving city, the narrator makes his home in an apartment high up in an empty hotel. The few people who didn't move when climate change and urban decay sent most looking for a better life in the more prosperous South End, live quietly, satisfied that for now they still have water, electricity, and a little food. 

Nothing grows in the North End - all that was green is dry and brown - and rising water levels are swallowing more of it every week. The area, mostly empty, is no longer served by fire or police departments because the city considers it not worth any of its resources. People still come, some only to cause trouble, but some to escape their troubled lives elsewhere. All of this the narrator records in his notebook as he watches the deterioration continue around him. After a violent storm causes severe damage to both areas and people begin coming from the South End to find shelter, a decision has to be made: let those people in or send them away. 

This is one of the better dystopian stories I've read. It's a little less dramatic than some in that there's been no global nuclear disaster, no deadly disease to wipe out most of the planet, just the gradual but unmitigated effects of climate change. Infrastructure destroyed by brutal storms and rising water have forced people and businesses to abandon houses and office buildings, and to relocate. This is the story of one man who stayed behind. 

A few chapters in I realized that none of the characters had been given names. The narrator is known as The Writer, another man as The Minister, some were The Scavengers, others The Gardener, the Woman and the Boy, etc. I was uncomfortable with this at first, but in the end it works. I think I may have gotten to know them better without names. I felt so involved in their lives that when I wasn't reading, I missed them, and just writing this has given me the urge to read it again.

The writing is good and the plot and characters interesting, and even better, the story ends with hope, and there's not a lot of that going around right now.   

House of Silence

 House of Silence by Linda Gillard

Gwen Rowland, with no family after losing hers to alcohol, drugs, and aids, convinces her boyfriend, Alfie, to take her with him to his family Christmas gathering. He warns her she might be sorry she asked, but agrees and they head off to his family's slightly run down old country house. There she meets his four sisters and his mother, a famous author who stays in her bedroom unable to quite distinguish between the past and present. 

Gwen sees a change in Alfie once he is around his family and is a bit unsettled by how he treats them. When she finds and reads some old family letters, she realizes that something is not right. The family story she's been told appears to be a cover for things Alfie and his sisters don't want her to know. 

It's a  mystery/family saga/romance with lots of twists and turns and interesting characters. It maintains a good pace, moving perhaps a little too quickly in the latter part where the revelations all come out at once, but staying, if just barely, within the realm of credibility. After hurtling toward the end, it stops suddenly with everyone, including the reader, wondering what's next. In spite of that, maybe even a little because of it, it was a good read and one I recommend.

I just wish there was one more chapter.    

The World According To Garp / The Year of Magical Thinking

 The World According to Garp by John Irving

I started this a few years ago and gave up on it because I found it depressing. I remember I set it aside for a few days, then picked it up again only to find the next chapter starting with a kidnapping and rape. That was just too much, so even though I was three quarters of the way through and I'd never given up on a book after reading so much of it, I quit. A couple of weeks ago I was finishing up some of the books on my Guilt List, saw the dnf next to this one, and decided to try again. I did finish it this time, but can't say I enjoyed it. And yet there's something about it that I can't quite put my finger on. The overall tone, the funny with the tragic, was appealing in some way even while I wasn't liking what I was reading. In the end I was half glad I read it, and all glad I was done and could put it away.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
This is one of the best portrayals of grief I've ever encountered. I listened to an audio version performed by the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave, whose wonderful dramatization was so vivid and heartfelt I don't think I'll ever forget it. Even if you've already read the book, do listen to this. It's less than 2 hours long and very much worth your time. Heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful.

Confessions of a Bookseller and Brave New World

 Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Oh how I hated to come to the end of this book. About half way through I mentally moved into the little cottage out back and I'm not yet ready to leave it or this bookshop or this town. I'll remember it as one of the best vacations I've never had.

The book is a year's worth of journal entries from the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland's National Book Town. The author has a dry sense of humour, a wonderful way with words, and a bookshop with 100,000 books organized in 9 different rooms. I want to be there. 

His wry observations on everything from his cat, Captain, to his parents, his staff, and the many quirky people who frequent his shop, are funny and but eye-opening, too. He writes about the difficulties with humour but it's clear that running a bookshop now, against all the online competition, is not for the faint-hearted.

I loved the writing, the people, the stories, and the literary references. Book nerds, you will eat it up.  

Update: I re-read this (June/24) and feel the same way about now as I did then. It's incredibly entertaining, and inviting. He draws such a warm, comfortable picture of his home and workplace that it's sad to close the cover and leave. Excellent reading.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A dystopian world where people are produced in a factory and conditioned from birth to believe that they are happy no matter what class they've been assigned to or what kind of work they have to spend their lives doing. There are five classes: alpha, beta, etc. with alphas at the top being the tall, attractive upper class and epsilons at the bottom being the short, ugly menial workers. There is no freedom, no privacy, and no opportunity for personal relationships, but neither is there any worry or pain. If anxiety begins, a drug called soma is freely distributed to lull you into not caring anymore. "Everyone belongs to everyone" means everybody has sex with everybody, but there's always somebody keeping tabs to make sure no deep relationship develops. Outside the major centers there are places where "savages" live, people who still have life partners and children are born in the old way. The two worlds collide when a "savage" is revealed to be the biological son of a new world director. Trouble ensues. 

The story is a less than subtle warning against living for pleasure and letting technology control our lives, timely cautions in these days. It's an interesting scenario, but one that doesn't allow us to imagine a happy outcome for anyone.