R90. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Year Published: 2018
Pages: 93

First Sentence: There is a secret buried beneath the mountain's grey skin.

I got this book (which I have to admit, is classified as a novella pretty much everywhere i've looked) as a free ebook from Tor.com. I've gotten a few of these now, but The Only Harmless Great Thing is the only one that I've really wanted to make time to read before I get to the end of The List. So here it is on my Random list.

Anyway, this book is hard to explain. It's a fantastical alternate history novel in which we follow a few different threads.

First, there are elephants. This thread concerns a sort of cultural history among elephants that I found really intriguing, and that you might as well, if you're interested in animal culture. Author Brooke Bolander does a great job with this part of the narrative, imagining a culture that is alien to our own, with different values and assumptions.

Next up is Kat, who exists in the "middle" thread of the narrative. She is a scientist, and she wants to make elephants glow as a warning against the presence of nuclear waste. In this thread we learn that elephants in this world are capable of using a trunk-based sign language and have been communicating with humans this way for many years. Kat has an interview with one of the elephant matriarchs to pitch her plan.

And finally, we have Regan and Topsy. Regan is a former Radium Girl who is now riddled with cancer and teaching an elephant to do the job she can no longer perform herself. Topsy is the elephant Regan is training, and we get glimpses of each of their perspectives.

Topsy, by the way, is also a real historical figure. The real Topsy was publicly executed at Coney Island in 1903. The reason for her execution was not, as is popularly believed, a whim of Thomas Edison's, but rather happened after she killed a spectator and earned a reputation as a "bad" elephant. This is a fascinating and bizarre story on its own without any speculative fiction trappings.

Beyond leading to my looking more into Topsy's story, this book unfortunately failed to make much of an impression on me. I do have to say that I think that's more an issue of my own personal preferences though. For the most part, I need more time with a world and its characters to become really invested, and that's why this will be the last of these short novels/novellas that I read for a while.

I will say that even though I failed to really connect with the material, this was a good book. There are good distinctions between all the different characters' narrative voices. And it definitely makes you think about human responsibility for environmental destruction. I just with that I could be more enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Five Years Ago This Month: September 2015

Five years ago this month...

...I looked back at September 2010. Seems like it was a fairly unremarkable month.

...I reviewed The Tin Flute. This book was extremely sad, even for CanLit. I've since read more Gabrielle Roy, and fortunately she isn't always that dire. I'd like to try some of her works in the original French next.

...I was distracted. Both of the things I wrote about were mass gatherings, which are in short supply these days.

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I've implied in some recent posts that I was going to do some kind of thoughtful reflection in advance of the Top Ten. I also had this planned into my list of upcoming blog posts. Unfortunately I'm lazy (and also eager to get through my backlog of reviews), so I'm skipping said reflection. There'll be more than enough of that to go around when I actually finish the project. -M.R.

Year Published: 1939
Pages: 464
First Sentence: To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

So, here we go. The book that the Modern Library Board of the late 1990s called the tenth best English language novel of the 20th century.Also one of the very last books that I'm reading from The List. I feel like I need to review this both as a List book, and as a Top Ten book.

So, what is it?

Everyone knows the title The Grapes of Wrath. Less people know that John Steinbeck wrote it. Even less know that it's about a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers who become migrants during the The Great Depression. Or at least, that's my impression of what people know about the book. Certainly it's about all I knew about it before finally picking it up. Imagine my surprise the first time I read the name Tom Joad (so this is where it comes from).

Tom Joad is the first member of the Joad family we meet. He's young and has just been paroled for good behaviour, after ending up in jail several years before for killing a man in self-defense. Having been in jail, he's been insulated from what's been going on among the Oklahoma farmers, which is to say that thanks to the combination of an ecological disaster (drought plus nutrient depletion of the soil) and modern innovation (tractors, basically), his family and many others are being driven off the land. And that's literally driven off by the way, with their homes being knocked off of their foundation by farm equipment, so that they have to load up whatever belongings they can in a makeshift truck, planning to drive to California. THey've been promised plentiful work in California by handbills distributed by various large farming companies.

Anyway, Tom finds his family on the very brink of leaving for California, and joins them even though it means breaking his parole by crossing state lines. There are a ton of Joads, by the way, and Steinbeck develops them all, but I'm not sure I need to introduce everyone for the purposes of this review. Basically just know that this is really a whole family, 3.5 generations (Tom's sister, Rose of Sharon, is pregnant with her first baby, and her husband Connie is along for the ride).

The book alternates back and forth between the story of the Joad family and the story of the Depression and the migrant people writ large. It is absolutely harrowing. These times are long gone but I couldn't help thinking of similar things going on today, like the thousands of oilfield workers losing their jobs, or young people with enormous student loan debt being unable to get ahead, or huge, profitable corporations laying off workers, cutting benefits, etc.

I'm getting sidetracked. The Joads move cross country and simultaneously their situation goes from bad to worse. They lose members along the way. The first to go is one of their dogs, who gets killed by a car only a day or so into their journey. This isn't a very plotty book, so I can't really say much about what happens outside of listing the various episodes that Steinbeck chooses to show us.

In case it's not obvious by now, I loved this book. I've had a feeling that I would ever since reading East of Eden a few years ago. East of Eden is more quotable and has a "better" villain, in the sense that moustache-twirling psychopath Cathy is more fun to read about that moustache-twirling psychopath Capitalism, the villain in The Grapes of Wrath as well as The World in 2020*. The book doesn't end on a high note when it comes to the Joads' well-being. It does end on a note of intense human generosity and tenacity, though, and I won't be forgetting it anytime soon.

More articulate writers than I have already written many many words about this book, and so I'm going to leave off her for now. Just know that as far as I'm concerned, The Grapes of Wrath deserves its reputation.

* I wrote this review in January 2020. Capitalism is still a villain but there's a bigger one that's kind of taken over in the meantime.
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You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard. 
And now the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here. There in the door—our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised. 
We know that—all that. It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster.
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