September Bookshelf: Descent into Idiothood

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Philip Pullman

September was spent on a train, I feel. I commute almost an hour to work in the morning, and though it eats up a lot of my day I find myself not really minding (though I at least partly credit it for the increase in colds I’ve had recently). I’ve a lot of time to read and get some work done. I’m writing this blog post on the train! And I’m lucky to be commuting on the Derry line, supposedly one of the most beautiful in Europe. Apparently it’s Michael Palin’s favourite.

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I can believe it.

And this month, the commute-reading was good. I started with a childhood favourite. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was an oasis to a high-fantasy loving tween Danni in the late nineties, and though I’m not massively into revisiting children’s literature as an adult, it felt like such a balm to slip into the world of Lyra and Pan once more. This re-read of Northern Lights was inspired by the news that a new BBC television programme based on the stories is coming to screens in 2019. Hopefully this version will be better than the dismal, defanged 2007 film version, which omitted the source material’s radical secularity (and was still boycotted by Catholic Americans; appeasement rarely works). In fact the book seemed even braver and more subversive to me now. Can it simply be that a decade of dedicated English study has honed my critical reading skills, or is just that the world needs a little scepticism just now? A mixture of both, I expect. Either way, I’m excited to dip back into The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass before they reach the telly.

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I like my sci-fi as high and conceptual as my fantasy, so Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender Volume One: Tin Star was a really welcome find in my local library (the difficulty has been finding the sequels…). This graphic novel, rendered in stunning watercolours, is about an interplanetary society which has been decimated, apparently by a terrorist attack perpetrated by robots. In response, organic life across the universe turns on the robots, beginning a genocide that drives them into the shadows. A robot boy companion, who survived a gas explosion on a moon outpost, is one of the few left. I was so excited by this book, not least because the ethics of artificial intelligence and robot technology is a new frontier of morality that fascinates me. It’s wonderful to see art, and particularly fiction, respond to these upcoming dilemmas in real time. Serendipitously, I also watched Stephen Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence this week, which deals with the same themes, also centred on the emotional anchor of a small robot boy. I’ve got to have more Descender in my life, now.

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I picked up Elif Batuman’s The Idiot in a Waterstones BOGOHP offer because it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I know, I know; they’ve got my number. I feel I’ve been reading rather a lot of coming-of-age fiction recently and I’m going to give it a rest now, because much as I enjoyed Batuman’s breezy, truthful, often (appropriately) cringe-inducing prose, I found this book a little tiresome. I suppose that says more about where I’m at than where the books (and films, and television, and podcasts, and…) are at; I’m twenty-seven, married, with a PhD and a job I love, and I feel like most of my coming-of-age is kind of…. done. I’m not coming, I’ve arrived. But I don’t yet have the distance required to look back on the process of arriving with fondness, or even gentleness. As such, I often read books like The Idiot with a very self-critical eye. ‘You did that,’ I accuse myself. ‘You were just like this protagonist, who knows nothing.’ Maybe it’s good to be perpetually reminding oneself of the path we’ve been on. I liked this book, but I wish I’d had it five years ago, or five years in the future.

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Finally, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I’m pleased to say is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Just as The Idiot felt slightly out of time for me, Motherhood could not have been more prescient. As I have just mentioned, I am twenty-seven; sounds like the right time to get started on the old genetic legacy, no? Except… I don’t really care to have children. Children are find, but mothers are a different story, and I’ve no interest in finding out what it’s like to be one. Heti’s most recent novel, picked up after loving her short story ‘My Life is a Joke’ on my favourite podcast, struggles with the philosophical weight of motherhood in the world today. Do I agree with her thesis that adult women see themselves either as mothers or as daughters? I think I do, in fact. I feel I have more in common with my mother than I ever could with anyone. In Motherhood, Heti writes that if as a child she knew nothing about the world, then she would imagine travel, and boyfriends, and careers, but would never imagine children. It’s wonderful to feel so seen by a text, particularly one as confrontational as this. I recommend it to all mothers, and to all daughters for that matter.

October is for scary stories, obviously. I’m starting with Stephen King’s The Shining; after the mixed bag that was Insomnia earlier this year, I’m hoping that something more psychological will do the trick and get the spookiest month off to a flying start. What’s your favourite scary story?

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