Berries Goodman

Like Emil and the Detectives, Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman was another parental library inheritance that was always just around the house, never fully absorbed either into my books or my brothers’. It made for a nice break from dusting bookshelves, as it turned out.

We start off in a conversation between teenage Bertrand “Berries” Goodman and his childhood friend Sidney Fine, who Berries hasn’t seen since he moved out of the fictional suburbs of Olcott Corners to New York City. Sidney is playing truant and heading off to New Jersey for the day, for reasons unknown, and has called on Berries in New York for help and to catch up.

Then we flash back to one year in Berries’ and Sidney’s elementary school lives, right after the Goodmans’ relocation to Olcott Corners from New York. Berries quickly befriends Sidney, while jokes and comments from the adults around him make it clear that there is a not-so-subtle strain of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. When other children, like Berries’ neighbor and frenemy Sandy, repeat similar talking points, Berries reacts in anger and confusion: anger at the insult to his friends (and by now it’s no spoiler that this includes Sidney as well as his friends back in New York) and confusion over the fact that anyone would even believe such stupid things. Everything comes to a head when the trio go ice skating and the bossy but well-meaning Sandy dares Sidney into a stunt that leaves him hospitalized. Sidney’s mother fears that the latent anti-Semitic attitudes are going to start escalating and pulls him out of their school in favor of the school in the nearby Jewish neighborhood and forbids Sidney from playing with Berries. For a while the two meet in secret, but after their fathers catch them out, they’re separated for good.

Not long after, Mrs. Goodman decides she’s tired of the suburban life and the Goodmans move back to New York. Years later this is where we catch up with teenage Berries and Sidney, who is trying to get a bus out of the Port Authority. Berries goes with Sidney back to Olcott Corners and things are eventually smoothed out between the two families.

The condensed version sounds like an anvilicious after-school special because I left out all of the slice-of-life incidentals. Everything in the actual book unfolds more carefully and casually than that and is interspersed with nostalgic unsupervised kids in suburbia shenanigans, and rather clear-eyed observations and criticisms of middle class American standards and parenting.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made just by looking at the difference in covers between Berries Goodman and another one of Neville’s young adult novels, It’s Like This, Cat. There are essentially two different covers for Berries Goodman, neither of which have been updated at all.

Screen shot of a Google images search for Berries Goodman. Only two cover images dominate: one with abstract color bars and one with an illustration of a boy on a bicycle in front of a house.
Berries Goodman

Meanwhile, It’s Like This, Cat seems to have been continuously updated and repackaged for a new readership.

Screenshot of a Google images search for "It's Like This, Cat." It shows a variety of covers in different art styles, seven in all.
It’s Like This, Cat

It’s Like This, Cat was on reading lists in my school years. I saw it in the library. But the only time I’ve ever seen Berries Goodman is in my shelves at home. Of course, I haven’t read Cat so I can’t make the comparison or even begin to guess at why that one has remained so popular and Berries hasn’t. But if you happen to stumble across Berries Goodman, you should pick it up. It’s a fun read and Neville has a fantastic ear for dialogue, especially between kids.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Hands up who read “The Lottery” for English class at one point.

Yeah, me too.

And that’s about where all of my Shirley Jackson reading stopped off. The Sundial was a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club a while back and I didn’t really care for it. Even now I barely remember it (which is why I like to keep this little book blog going). But We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a title people mention all the time; moreover, it was esteemed enough a book to remain in one half of my Austin hosting couple’s library after several years of purging and downsizing. Based on that, I figured the odds (please insert your own joke about odds and lotteries here) were pretty good that I’d enjoy the book. If nothing else, reading it would allow me to partake of a very particular moment of a friend’s life and a specific facet of their personality, and that alone is worth it.

A Tweet from @lastpages_ that says "'I read this book you recommended' is a love language."
Verily it is.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle did not fail to deliver!

Following the death of their family from an unsolved case of arsenic poisoning, Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, sisters, have secluded themselves in the ancestral home together with their Uncle Julian. Constance no longer leaves the property beyond her garden, leaving Merricat in charge of going into the village—whose residents have long been hostile to the Blackwood family and who are all convinced of Constance’s guilt in the arsenic case—to fetch groceries and items as necessary. This comfortable norm is interrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, who has decided to reach out to this estranged branch of the family after the death of his father (brother to Uncle Julian and to the late patriarch of the Blackwood family). Charles and Constance strike up a relationship while Merricat immediately dislikes this interloper and does everything she can to drive him away.

Now that I’ve finally read the book once, I’d love to read it again and chart exactly how Jackson manages to ratchet up the spooky and the tension. (How appropriate that this review is going up as we gear up to enter Spooky Season!) I think the two hardest things to write are comedy and horror, because what people find funny and what people find terrifying are pretty personal at the end of the day. When a book succeeds in one of those genres, I think it’s worth paying extra close attention to figuring out why.

Turkish Tag Team: Requiem över en förlorad stad during Cold Nights of Childhood

I was debating whether to make this one post or two, and in the end decided to make this a single post for a variety of reasons:

  • In terms of sheer practicality, my posting schedule and reading schedule are such that my usual rate of posting will have me bleeding 2023’s books into 2024, which I emphatically do not like.
  • These are authors that are in a kind of dialogue with each other, or rather one of them is clearly inspired by the other.
  • The books themselves were even very similar in terms of mood, themes, structure, etc.
  • I didn’t have much to say about either book on their own.

So, first of all, which books are we talking about?

The first was a Swedish translation of Aslı Erdoğan‘s Requiem över en förlorad stadI read an interview with her in an old issue of Karavan that I brought with me on vacation for airplane reading; in the end I was so taken by how insightful and interesting and brainy she was that when I got back to Stockholm I immediately grabbed what book of hers I could from the library.

The second book was a recommendation from a American friend now residing in Turkey that served to underscore an author I had apparently added to my Storygraph TBR (probably mentioned in the same issue of Karavan): Tezer Özlü. An English translation of her Cold Nights of Childhood was published this year, which I was able to track down at the Stockholm library.

My process was something like this:

  1. Read Erdoğan
  2. Solicit an opinion on her from a bookish American friend in Turkey, who recommends Özlü
  3. Read Özlü

As you might guess from that turn of events, I wasn’t entirely taken with Requiem. It’s a lot of mood and imagery and lovely turns of phrase, but nothing I could really sink my teeth into (or that I can remember now, at the time of writing, a week or two later). Trying to summarize the book is a struggle: “unnamed woman wanders around an unnamed city at night”? I guess?

My best explanation is that Requiem functioned as a sort of literary therapy for Erdoğan, and therefore concrete experiences are abstracted into an etheric dream world rather than relived in all their terror. Art as a process rather than a product, written for Erdoğan and not for an audience. The end result is that I would finish each chapter unsure of what happened and without any sense of the human being behind the words, and that last point is ultimately the make or break thing for me.

As Bookish American friend in Turkey tactfully put it, Erdoğan’s literary reputation might be overstated due to her (obviously important and brave and impressive!) political activism. But I also get the sense that Requiem is a very different beast than her earlier books, so perhaps I don’t have an entirely fair picture of her work. The same bookish friend also tipped me off that Tezer Özlü had finally been published in English for the first time, in an off-the-cuff follow-up to her estimation of Erdoğan that implied a comparison in Özlü’s favor.

What bookish American friend couldn’t have known, or maybe she did, was that Requiem reads like a riff on, and a response to, Cold Nights of Childhood. Both books ground a woman narrator in a city (or several cities) as she wanders not only through space but also through time, emptying their memories on the page the same way you empty your pockets before throwing a pair of pants in the wash. But if Requiem is an etheric and abstract dream world, then Cold Nights is waking life, or maybe better put a lucid dream. Instead of fuzzy, surreal abstraction, Özlü names everything with precision and clarity: people, streets, cafes, flowers. The same clarity holds throughout, even as the narrative skips through time or across space; she eschews poetic metaphor and favors stark depictions of her external circumstances and experiences, whether it’s stays at psychiatric wards or adolescent sexual desire or family gatherings in their cramped rural home. I might not have learned anything about Özlü by the end of Cold Nights, but unlike Requiem I still felt like I had met her. All of the English summaries make comparisons to The Bell Jar and it’s honestly a pretty apt one.

Both of these books raise the question of I’ve been taught to expect in stories, not only through school and writing advice, but also in the kinds of stories available for consumption in popular culture. Building expectations through repetition is another way of teaching, after all, and the stories in most conventional media usually have story arcs, character arcs, conflicts, changes, a sense of narrative unity. By the end of the story, situations and characters should be different from how they started, and we should be able to clearly trace the progression of those changes. How many of these expectations can go unmet and a story (a book, a movie, a TV show) still be satisfying? How else can we look at stories? What other shape can they take? What other purpose can they serve?

State Tectonics

State Tectonics marks the first time I’ve finished an entire new trilogy since I finished The Obelisk Gate back in 2017? 2018? (And we’ll overlook, as well, A Desolation Called Peace, which is so bound up with A Memory Called Empire  that I’m pretty sure the two novels started as one gigantic tome.) Genre fiction as of late has the bad habit of turning everything into series of some kind or another, and when my reading life is already navigating the tension between the scope of my ambitions and the limits of my time, series are the last thing I need. But I was so taken with Malka Older’s cyberpunk-y political thriller and the complex electoral near-future she had imagined that I went ahead and finished the next two books, though at this point if she comes out with further installations I will declare myself done. Not because I doubt they’ll be good, but because I only have so much time on this earth.

Like she did with Null States, Older jumps ahead to a few years after the previous book left off. It’s election time again, the same as in Infomocracy, and this time the sprawling tech giant Information itself is under attack. Rogue physical assaults are being launched against Information servers and hubs around the world; unsanctioned communications channels designed to go undetected by Information have been figuratively as well as literally unearthed; mysterious individuals are roaming around cities and handing out self-destructing paper copies of “local guides” that claim to be better sources of information than Information itself. Who is responsible? What’s their end game? Is it an inside job? How will all this affect the upcoming election? Again, like in Null States, Older expands perspectives to include secondary characters we haven’t spent much time with before—Maryam, a Muslim lesbian techie who first appeared on the side in Infomocracy; Amran, a young and inexperienced Sudanese Information employee introduced in Null States—while touching base with previous perspective characters like now-married, now-pregnant Roz from Null States and Mishima from Infomocracy.

I would recommend reading all three books in pretty close succession, if only to keep the rather large cast of characters straight in your head, particularly the side and secondary ones. My timing didn’t quite work out, so while I read Infomocracy and Null States back-to-back, I took six weeks off in the middle of State Tectonics to go on vacation (and I wasn’t about to bring a hardback library book with me in my carry-on luggage). Whatever nuance I failed to grasp because I forgot who was a member of which political party who had broken up with whom wasn’t enough to make the broader strokes of the action impenetrable to me, and quite frankly I just plain have fun spending time in the world to which Older has obviously given an incredible amount.

Without getting into serious spoiler territory, I will say this: State Tectonics is an incredibly satisfying ending that is on brand with how the geopolitics in the series have developed and shifted across all three books. People who are better at intrigue than I am might be able to guess where the story is going, but for me the ending was well-earned. Older sticks the landing, no doubt about it.

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

One of strongest pieces of evidence that, contrary to Leibniz’s assertion, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds is that somehow Richard Dawkins is still tottering around while we lost Stephen Jay Gould to cancer in 2002.

Or maybe there’s a parallel universe version of me lamenting a Gould who lived long enough to become the villain. Who knows!

While today I try to make a point of reading as many authors as possible, my default reading position up until maybe ten years ago was to focus obsessively on single authors and suck the marrow out of them—by which I mean, read every available book, article, essay, whatever. The only hard limit I drew for myself was posthumous publications, and only because I know from firsthand experience how utterly embarrassing all of my unrevised writing is. Stephen Jay Gould was one of those obsessive focal points for me, though the volume of his writing ultimately outstripped my attention span and, thus, much of his work remains for me to read. Hooray!

I acquired Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin during the period of hyperfocus, but then somehow kept on putting off reading it. I have a vague sense that I was holding off on it to save as a reward for other, more onerous reading, until that went on so long I just moved on entirely. Then, during my trip to the US, I uncovered the book in a cache I had packed up to make ready for shipping to Sweden and decided now was the time to read it and evaluate if I wanted to ship it across the ocean.

The argument Gould makes in Full House is basically one against the teleological framework of evolution: that things evolve for some higher purpose, or more specifically deliberately towards complexity; that complexity is somehow the best, most special, or most desirable form of life. Rather, Gould argues, we should look at it in terms of variety. Really what’s fantastic is that we have such a range of complexity! The basis of the book is his article “The Median is Not The Message,” originally published sometime in the early 90s, in which he points out how misleading (or not) the various statistical averages (that is, mean, median, and mode) can be.  In Full House he expands his focus from cancer prognoses to batting averages and bacteria.

In a way it would probably be interesting to read this alongside Taleb’s Black Swan, which focuses on the extreme tails of the bell curve that Gould alludes to, but I don’t particularly feel like going back to re-read Taleb (I’m hoping that If Books Could Kill will one day cover Black Swan) so that essay will have to wait another day.

Full House is an interesting read, and a relaxing one. Gould had principles and politics, and much of his fame stems from publicly taking very specific stances. Here he isn’t addressing creationism or Charles Murray; the paradigm he’s looking to shift here is much more benign and so Full House is a much less stressful book. (Yes, it’s good that someone is debunking Murray, but then it’s stressful to remember that Murray is out there needing to be debunked.) But because it’s so relatively light and uncontroversial, it’s not the most essential Gould book for a personal library. Will I need to look anything up in here in order to prove a point on the Internet? Nope. Will I want to quote anything from this in order to better express my opinion on a topic? Again, probably not. The Mismeasure of Man, Rocks of Ages and The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox are more the kinds of Gould books with a permanent residence in my shelves. Nonetheless a worthwhile read, and another book crossed off the to-read list.

The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay

I read a lot during my American vacation, enough that I hit my annual book goal early in September. This was due in part to revisiting children’s and middle grade books while staying with my parents (Emil and the DetectivesBerries Goodman) and also to reading very short volumes, of which The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay is one.

The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay was part of a care package from a friend in Texas; I’d never heard of Erik Evensen or any of his work before this. Thus I had no expectations going in and, as a result, had a fun time reading it. I’m also not as well read in The ClassicsTM as I should be, since I didn’t twig to the Beowulf structure/retelling until reading the afterword from the author. No, not even the title tipped me off.

My only criticism is a point of taste, and one that I think most of the people who enjoyed the book will disagree with. I’m as steeped in teeaboo geek pop culture as the best (or worst?) of them, but when other works start laying on the references with a trowel—specifically when the author leans extra hard in making it clear to the audience that a character is That Kind of person—it becomes a bit much. There were lots of conversations that felt, to me, like cringe-inducing pandering.

Gags like license plates or t-shirts are one thing, and actually are a great way for a visual medium to be subtle in a way that pure text can never be. (Think of all of Roy O’Dowd’s t-shirts in The IT Crowd. Now reflect on how it would be impossible to make the same off-hand reference in text without tediously describing the t-shirt in question and, in doing so, drawing extra attention to it.) Evensen includes these sorts of visual references, and if that had been his only approach I would have thought them well done. But the references to Star Trek or Red Dwarf in conversations have nothing at all to do with the story, or even the characters, and feel shoehorned in just for the sake of showing off to the audience that “I like your favorite geeky thing!”

For all the words I just spent on it, though, it’s really only a minor criticism; nothing ever took me fully out of the story. Like I said, a matter of taste.

If your favorite X-Files episodes were the monster-of-the-week stories, or if you’re really into collecting Beowulf translations and retellings, this is exactly the little one-shot for you and it’s worth throwing a couple bones at the author. As for me, I won’t be revisiting The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay, but I’ll put Gods of Asgard on my TBR.