BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers

Richard Powers does not need the accolades plastered on the beautifully designed cover of his novel, Bewilderment, published by Hutchinson Heinemann in 2021.

It is an astonishingly wonderful read that takes us through what could be a bewildering array of journeys with the easy guidance of a master storyteller, who keeps the reader on track throughout by sticking to short and manageable routes.

We explore unbelievable worlds on planets way beyond our ken; relationships that are deep and entwining; the long-term effects of both politics and the economy on the environment; as well as shortcomings of conventional education:

The father and son regularly fall foul of education rules and battle with the idea of Robin being home-schooled as a possible solution. He [Robin] was calm as a skiff on a windless pond. I was capsizing. I wanted to shout, Give me one good reason why you can’t sit in a classroom like every other child your age. But I already knew several.

As the narrative unfolds, we explore the short-sightedness of some laws; the ethical boundaries pushed by scientists ever eager to find out more and to gain funding for their projects; as well as the intrusion of media in its many forms in a bid to satisfy the ‘hunger’ of the public mass for the unusual and interesting events of life – no matter how short-lived or what impact this might have on the individuals concerned:

There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness.

Throughout this bewildering array of paths, is the love of a father for his unusual son which supports his determination to do his best for him whilst trying to protect him from the worst this planet has to offer:

I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from non-existent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

I highly recommend this novel that will open your mind to all sorts of possibilities and leave you pondering deeply over the way it ends.

THREE UPLIFTING BOOKS

Among the many books I have read recently are these three that remained in a pile – clearly awaiting further attention before being put away. All three are worthy paying closer attention to.

Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon is possibly one of the most delightful gifts I have received for a long time. I have always enjoyed words and find it fascinating to delve into the etymology of interesting words, so the idea of exploring the ‘lost words’ of the English language holds great appeal – so great an appeal that I couldn’t keep them to myself and ended up reading this book to my husband!

The day’s jaunt begins at 6 a.m. waking to an alarm clock and then checks in every hour of the day until midnight, when we make too much noise upon returning home before finally falling asleep. Why oh why have we lost words such as splashing our faces with a gowpen (a double handful) of water in the morning? Then there is the hour between one and two, called the amell, when we take time off from our labours to enjoy lunch. Once the sky obnubilates (darkens) we turn our minds to plans for the evening, which might include having supper, drinking, wooing and so on before stumbling home. If you enjoy words, this is an absorbing, light-hearted, and very informative read.

Having thoroughly enjoyed skipping through a day while discovering new words every hour, I needed no persuasion to borrow A Short History of Drunkenness by the same author.

What a treat! From the prehistory of drinking, we visit Sumerian bars, peep at Ancient Egypt, attend a Greek Symposium and drink with the Ancient Chinese. We explore the Bible, find out about the Roman Convivium, make our way through the Dark Ages, and go drinking in the Middle East. We then find out what the Viking Sumbl is and visit a Medieval Alehouse. Mark Forsyth tells us about the Aztecs, the Gin Craze, Australia, and takes us to a Wild West Saloon. We also visit Russia and learn about the Prohibition. This is another marvellous romp through the history of how people have over-imbibed from the Stone Age to the present – with plenty of read-aloud passages to entertain.

In a completely different vein comes the end of your life bookclub by Will Schwalbe.

This is a second-hand book which has languished near the bottom of my to-be-read basket since before Covid-19 reared its head and ruined our social lives. Even the bright golden affirmation that it is a The New York Times Bestseller didn’t move me for all of those months. I picked it up and returned it, turned my back on it – shunned it completely. Who wants to read about someone dying of pancreatic cancer when our entire world as we knew it was being turned upside down – or so I thought! Some books, I find, simply wait patiently until I am in the right frame of mind.

Of course it’s not about his mother dying – rather this simply forms the background to the focus of the book which is on the many books Schwalbe and his mother read and discussed during the period before she dies. It is a fascinating account of what they read, their differing views of books, and how each of these discussions led onto talking about some of the more difficult issues in their lives. As he puts it, he and his mother formed a sort of two-member book club during this time – and what a lively book club it turns out to be!

Apart from the books, both fiction and non-fiction, they read, there is an inspiring thread of the dignity with which his mother faced her illness: Mom’s appointments [for treatment sessions] were usually first thing in the morning – she liked to get them over and done with so she could get on with her day. Even when she was feeling “really not great”, Mom always took care with her appearance.

They argue about books, have different opinions about issues and deal with her having exhausted all the traditional chemotherapies – enough you might think to turn you off. Not a chance with these two: he points out that Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe we can all do better. The Appendix lists their reading material – it is satisfying to go through it to see what you might have read and to note from it what you would still like to read.

So, no fiction this time but three uplifting non-fiction choices to blow away any Covid-variation blues.

VYGIES BY ANY OTHER NAME

The ice plant family is better known in South Africa as vygies (little figs), or even as mesembs (from Mesembryanthemacae). There is a bewildering array of these flowers, some of which have been hybridised, so that trying to accurately identify them from the different guides I have is problematic – each one covers only a limited range. Looking at the photographs accompanying the names and brief descriptions of the plants can be confusing too. The Carpobrotus acinaciformis – which I think this one might be – grows along dunes and coastal sands in the southwestern and southern Cape. This means I should rule it out for these flowers blooming in the veld close to Cradock.

Yet, these magenta flowers have a pale centre. Mmm, the actual petals do not have a pale base – so perhaps it is not this one. After all this site is some distance from the ocean. Now the Carpobrotus deliciosus, which has similarly shaped leaves, not only grows on sand dunes but also in rocky grassland in both the southern and Eastern Cape. This would make it a more likely candidate except … those centres do not look pale. On the other hand, Carpobrotus dimidiatus has a flower that matches the one in the picture above and it grows along the coast of the Eastern Cape … only we are not at the coast and the leaves of this species appear to be tinged with purple. Perhaps this might help you to appreciate the dilemma of a non-botanist who is fascinated by the myriad wild flowers we are blessed with in South Africa.

There are similar flowers growing in my garden:

At least I have discovered the etymology of Carpobrotus is a combination of the Greek carpos (fruit) and brotos (edible). Certainly the fruits of these flowers turn brown when dry, and have juicy centres scattered with seeds – reminiscent of a fig and hence the Afrikaans name, vygies. These fruits can be used to make jam or to add to curry dishes, which brings to mind that another common name for these plants is sour fig.

Note: Neither my camera nor my cell phone are able to accurately reflect the gorgeous colour of these flowers.

Guides referred to:

SMITH G.F AND VAN WYK B: Guide to Garden Succulents. Briza Publications 2008.

MANNING J: Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa. Struik Nature 2009.

SMITH G.F, CROUCH N.R AND FIGUEIREDO E: Field Guide to Succulents in Southern Africa. Struik Nature 2017.

RECENT READS

Compared with the relative famine at the start of the pandemic, I have enjoyed a feast of fiction this year. My latest pile of books – two bought and two borrowed – have seen me travelling around Ireland, with a brief sojourn in Brighton.

Marian Keyes can be relied upon for a good family saga that will take one’s mind off the restrictions imposed by the current pandemic. Grown Ups contains the right interesting ingredients for this: two brothers and their families, lots of money (and not so much), social manipulation, individual desires – and secrets. There are other aspects such as the desire to lose weight: “But Cara was afraid of wine – not just the calories but how it weakened her resolve.” This makes her easy to identify with, but what about the murder-mystery weekend? The various events lead to the realisation that we all need to take charge of, and lead, our own lives. This is a fun way of finding out why.

I have not come across Faith Hogan before, but was intrigued enough by the cover of What happened to us? to purchase this Irish story. The by-line “Sometimes the end is only the beginning…” draws one quickly to the travails of a couple dedicated to running their restaurant. One cannot help sympathising with Carrie when her partner is bowled over by their new waitress from Brazil and leaves her. Predictable? Not really, for in her determination to salvage what she can, Carrie finds herself helping others and a delicious sense of community develops – shocking us again with the intrigue wrought by the Brazilian interlopers. There are opportunities to smile, such as when Carrie’s former partner complains “How in God’s name can you spend a thousand euros on a pair of shoes?” when the level of his girlfriend’s spending reaches a peak. Rituals, such as Christmas, have to change as the dynamics between the characters shift. This is a quick, light, yet satisfying read.

Not as light is The Brighton Mermaid by Dorothy Koomson, another new author for me. The narrative begins in 1993 when two teenagers find the body of an unidentified young woman on the beach and continues through the next twenty-five years. It is the determination of one of the teenagers to discover the identity of the woman that leads us into more family secrets, intrigue, and the changes in relationships that follow until the rather fast-paced and thrilling end. I will be looking out for other novels by this author, who knows how to bring loose threads together without leaving her readers wanting.

Talk about being left wanting: I raced through The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley, having followed the saga of the seven sisters from the beginning. Some novels in this series have been more authentic than others; all have alluded to a mystery relating to Pa Salt that readers ‘know’ must be revealed at the end. It isn’t, and with the death of the author in June, I wonder if it will be. This is nonetheless a quick and interesting read that moves quickly from New Zealand to Ireland via some quick visits to other places. The identity of the ‘missing sister’ proves to be curious and, perhaps, unexpected; the backstory of Ireland’s turbulent past is intriguing; the healing of relationships is fairly satisfying … yet the novel ends with an array of pressing questions still waiting to be answered.

ARE BOOKS STILL RELEVANT?

To most of my readers this question may seem irrelevant. I nonetheless ask it after having attended a meeting of mostly young parents about the need or otherwise of creating a school library at a relatively new primary school. Naturally, the cost of both this and the future role of technology in the school were foremost in the minds of those present. You might not consider these aspects mutually exclusive, but here are a selection of comments aired in the meeting:

Books are too costly, referring to text books, non-fiction and fiction, you can download them at a fraction of the cost whenever you need them.

Books take up far too much space and quickly become outdated. [I know my home is groaning under the weight of books we have collected over many years, yet I have fond memories of books we have referred to over and again – even some we have reread for the sheer joy of doing so – and of the many books our children enjoyed and have been enjoyed all over again by their children. Each of our grandchildren have expressed wonder at seeing the name of their parent, uncle or aunt emblazoned on the inside of the cover … “Wow!”].

Children need to use the technology available to get the information they want. Books are no good for that.

One of the parents, who works in the telecommunications industry, was adamant that primary school children should be shielded from ‘too much’ exposure to computers in any form: I, of all of you here, know the dangers of radiation, she announced boldly. Books are there to be treasured and to be loved [a woman after my own heart]. Some stories never date and if they do, donate them to children for whom they will be new.

The real shocker for me was the confident confession from a mother of a three-year-old boy: I have never unfolded a book, she declared. I could see that some of the slightly older parents in this particular discussion group were as taken aback by this statement as I was. The woman could sense the negativity around the table and spoke more loudly: What? I’m a Millennial, what do you expect? She went on to explain that she has never introduced her son to a book, but assured us that she has several stories suitable for him stored on her iPad. He can see the menu, clicks on the one he wants and then the story is read to him. The words are even underlined as they are spoken, so he can follow them! She sounded so proud of this achievement.

I cannot help thinking of the special feeling of reading stories to my children and later on to my grandchildren; of turning back the pages or pausing so that they could have a good look at the illustrations; of reading the same story over and again; and the delicious feeling of a small child cuddling ever closer to me while I read.

Presentations were made by the various discussion groups to the parent body as a whole as the meeting drew to a close. No firm conclusions were drawn as this was part of an ongoing discussion about changes to and the expansion of the school. During the hubbub of tea and sandwiches, a mother approached me with I have only read books to my two children, she confided quietly. Some of them have become really tatty, but the stories are favourites.

I drove home that night thinking of the book waiting on my bedside table; of our vast home library; of my grandchildren’s enjoyment of bedtime stories; and was left wondering if that Millennial’s sentiment is one that is gaining traction.

Do you think books are still relevant?