Numbness & Human Recklessness: Stanley Middleton’s “Holiday” & Jeff Goodell’s “The Heat Will Kill You First”

I have been reading very short books in this heat: anything over 300 pages seems too demanding. A little Barbara Pym here, a little Margery Allingham there. And I reread Cranford, which I cannot revisit too often.

And then I perused two more short books, one a novel, the other a nonfiction book. They do not fall short of excellence, but they made me think, which I had planned to avoid till the temperature drops. I do recommend both of these books, with the following caveat: the former may depress you, the latter will scare the hell out of you.

The English novelist Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.  I am enthusiastic about most of Middleton’s  novels:  oddly, this is the one I like least. The dispassionate protagonist, Edwin Fisher, a keen observer and an intellectual education  professor,  has recently left his wife, Meg, and is on holiday alone.  Out of nostalgia, he visits the seaside town where he vacationed as a child with his family. 

Not much happens in this slight, if beautifully-written, novel about a man benumbed.  We first meet Fisher in a church. He is the last person one expects to find there, but again it is from nostalgia.  He notes humorously that the congregation “were almost all middle-aged or elderly, and the majority women, in flowered hats, bonnets of convoluted ribbon and pale summer coats.”  And though he doesn’t necessarily set out to meet women, his warmest encounters are with women.  He enjoys chatting to three charming sisters on the beach, though it is clear they have no sexual interest in Fisher.  Then he begins going to the pub with two working-class couples he meets at the hotel:  on a walk with the two wives, he feels them up.  One wondered if there would be a menage a trois

His father-in-law repeatedly visits him in the seaside town to persuade him to go back to Meg.  Fisher seems indifferent about the future.  He doesn’t particularly want to return; he and Meg have had some hellish, violent fights. His father-in-law is adamant about saving the marriage, but admits that Meg is ambivalent about the situation.   Perhaps it is Fisher’s encounters with the kind women on holiday that make him consider reuniting with Meg. 

Whatever the future, the marriage or the solitary life, we gather it may be bleak.  Fisher does not seem capable of deep emotions. As for Meg, we don’t know her.  We wish that Fisher had some strong emotions, but he seems to prefer living on the surface.  This could be a fascinating book, and yet I found it irritating.  So is this because I dislike Fisher?  I seldom judge a book because  I dislike a character, but in this case it’s probably true.  The novel is perfect in its way, but should Middleton have won the Booker for Holiday?  I prefer Valley of Decision, a stunning novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.   

Jeff Goodell, an award-winning environmental writer, describes the human recklessness destroying our beleaguered planet in his smart new book,  The Heat Will Kill You First:  Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.  Goodell knows how to shape a story: this dramatic nonfiction narrative about climate change is laced with statistics about the impact of rising temperatures, interviews with survivors of killer heat waves, a report of the death of a young couple and their baby from hyperthermia on a hike on a hot day, the impact of the tragic heat waves in Phoenix, the Pacific Northwest, and Delhi,  and  the limits of technology.

People assume that turning on the air conditioner will solve the problem of rising temperatures on Earth. Ironically, air conditioning warms up the air outdoors. And not everyone can afford air conditioning, though people now die without it in the intense heat. And then some have AC but can’t afford to pay the electricity bill. Even for the middle class and the rich, air conditioning depends on a fragile grid of power lines:  when the grid is overloaded and crashes. there is no air conditioning.

Goodell emphasizes the cause of the rising temperatures:  the human predilection for burning fossil fuels.

The Earth is getting hotter due to the burning of fossil fuels.  This is a simple truth, as clear as the moon in the night sky.  So far, thanks to 250 years of hell-bent fuel consumption, which has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2), global temperatures have risen by 2.2 degrees since the preindustrial era and are on track to warm up by 6 degrees or more by the end of the century. The more oil, gas, and coal we burn, the hotter it will get.


Every politician should read this lucid, well-organized book.

Holiday Cheer & Recent Reading: Satire, Surrealism, & Gothic Realism

Give the gift of books!

I was surprised when my husband said that Christmas is eight days away.  I exclaimed, “My God, I haven’t been thinking about that at all.” 

I feel no pressure about the holidays this year.  Perhaps it is because I’ve been online less. I have often felt competitive with holiday bloggers and amateur Instagram photographers, with their polished pix  of hand- knitted nativity scenes (links to yarn stores), tablecloths woven on their own looms (links to looms), and centerpieces made from a few sticks, some dead grass, and a petrified squash found in the garden.

I tried to be perfect once. The holidays of the early 2010s were frazzled.  After my mother went into a nursing home,  I tried to fill her role, so I decorated and shopped for the perfect gifts.  I have never gone to so much  trouble with so little success. My mother was gracious, but the the pajamas with Scottie dogs fit like leggings:  not her look, so I took them back. Stony-faced relatives barely thanked me for paint-by-number kits (it was ironic: something to do while the men watched football) or Fellini movies on DVDs. I went back to our simpler, happier Christmas routine:  exchange books or give a sweater! 

Enough about the holidays.  Here’s what I’ve been reading.

A SATIRE BY A NOBEL PRIZE WINNER:  If you liked Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, co-written by Wenders and Peter Handke,  you will appreciate The Revolt of the Angels, by the Nobel Prize Winner, Anatole France: it was doubtless one of the film’s inspirations. In France’s bizarre but charming novel, the library of an old French family is under attack.  The fussy librarian, Monsieur Sariette, who  hates to let anyone borrow a book, has a breakdown because books go missing and then mysteriously return. One day a book floats across the room and knocks him down when he chases it.

It turns out that a rebel angel, Arcade, is borrowing the books so he can read up on philosophy and theology. He wants to recruit an army of the angels on Earth and fight a war with God.  Centuries ago, when the earth was made from chaos (see Ovid), Lucifer and other angels descended to Earth. They brought fire, clothing, culture, knowledge, and civilization to mankind. They were worshipped as Greek gods.  

And then the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on self-hatred, immolation, and sacrifice,  ruined civilization, the angels think.  The Christians burned the libraries, and knowledge was lost.  And God – who was not always one god, by the way, and certainly wasn’t a favorite until Christianity – is quite a bungler.

This novel is a satire on Christianity, but it is also whimsical and fun to read.  

ALTHOUGH SURREALISM MAKES ME GRUMPY, I admit that New and Selected Storiess, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and others, is one of the best  books of 2022.  In “Nostalgia,” a man travels to an unknown city in his dreams:  the dreams become more real than life.  In “City of Men, ” a woman journalist arrives in the City of Men to write an article from a woman’s point-of-view.  From the beginning, the arrogance of the men is off-putting,  and eventually she is terrified by the atmosphere of the city.  A young waiter reveals that none of the women journalists have ever been allowed to leave. The reader knows and does not know what happens to them.   

And let me mention one more story,  “Offside.”A  woman runs out of gas in a city that is always wintry. Her car disappears in the snow.  She walks into town and lives with a man and has children by him.  But he begins to take them on long excursions:  she never knows where they go.  Like the journalist in City of Men, she begins to wonder if she has been lured.  What is the explanation?  

This book is published by Dorothy, an excellent small press.

A BRILLIANT NEW(ISH) BOOK (2020): The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld.  I loved this strange, eerie Gothic novel, which begins with the narrator Vivienne’s childhood memory of finding a corpse on the beach.  Viv is an unstable adult, who guiltily slept with her nasty brother-in-law, had a breakdown when her father died, and constantly picks at a patch of eczema on her leg until it bleeds.  Now she has been hired by Uncle Christopher  (a made-up job, she realizes ) to house-sit at Mrs. Hamilton’s big house and to archive papers and other belongings.  Mrs. Hamilton was Christopher’s alcoholic, invariably kind stepmother, and Viv’s mother, Bernadette, grew up the house with Christopher and his brother Michael (Viv’s father), and her  great-aunt, Betty (a servant).  

Every character in this novel deals with violence.  It is an everyday sickness, as in the society we live in now, but like all societies, as Wyld shows.  When Viv comes out of supermarket one night, a sex worker, Maggie, standing outside the store, saves her from rape or murder by warning that a man is hiding behind her car.   In an earlier time, shortly after World War II, Mrs. Hamilton (Ruth) accuses her husband Peter of having an affair.  Not only will he not admit it, but he threatens  to incarcerate her in a mental hospital.  Then there is Katherine, Maggie’s sister, whose  violent husband stalks her after she leaves him.  There is another less effective narrative, involving an accused witch, but I have little to say about that.  

I call this Gothic realism, for lack of a better phrase, but the gorgeous writing and unusual voice holds these eerie scenes together.  Not everything  meshes till the end of the book, but  it is well worth reading.

Game of the States: The Three-Day Weekend Version

The hot ’60s board game everybody’s playing!

It’s a three-day weekend. Yes, another freezing-cold holiday to spend with loved ones.

There are, in my opinion, too many winter holidays. First there’s Christmas: OK, we enjoy that moderately. By New Year’s Eve, everybody is restless. Despite our grown-up status, there is regressive whining: “What can we do now?”

And then the three-day weekends start. First it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. And then it’s Presidents’ Day weekend. Forget the people we’re honoring: long weekends aren’t always good for your mental health. Yes, experts say you get more family time, but whether that’s a good thing or not depends on the family, doesn’t it?

A friend and I made a pact that if things got too crazy we’d meet at the coffeehouse. We went, we saw, we conquered. The line was almost out the door. She sniveled, “I was literally moving a plastic truck across a ’60s board game when Josh threw a tantrum about the rules.”

Oh, lord.  Don’t get me started. Her husband Josh is forty, not four. In his defense, he was arguing with their four-year-old son. It’s not much of a defense.

As for me, I’d watched an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and then I’d cleaned the kitchen. And it turned out I was allergic to the strong cleanser, so my hands were red and bleeding. I decided not to go to the gym since my hands were open wounds. I could have placated my husband by pretending to go to the gym, but I’m neither four nor forty, so I told the truth: “I’m going to the coffeehouse.”

Tidying up with Marie Kondo

Did Milton-Bradley know that  Game of the States, a cute board game where you buy and sell “products” and haul them in plastic trucks from state to state, would cause such a ruckus? Did Marie Kondo know she was dooming me to eczema and Band-Aids?

I can’t take another holiday. Tomorrow I’m staying in bed.

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