Three Great Books #7
A love letter to a flawed world, a dating-site mystery, and a powerful abbess.
The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green
This heartfelt, obsessive, clarifying, cathartic book about “falling in love with the world,” as Green writes in the introduction, makes me want to try harder to do the same, even when it’s not easy. His goal was “to understand the contradiction of human power: We are at once far too powerful and not nearly powerful enough.” (See: climate change, the suffering of others, the pandemic.) He investigates that contradiction through a collection of short essays, many originally podcasts, on topics as varied as the yips, plague, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Lascaux cave paintings and Academic Decathlon. Each one ends with starred rating of the subject at hand. (IMHO, he gave the game Monopoly one star too many, but I really, really hate Monopoly.) Some of these pieces are funny and light, while the quiet emotional wallop of others stopped me in my tracks. His essay about Googling strangers starts off where you’d expect and then takes a turn that had me weeping on the sofa. And the wistful piece that peels back the layers of the 1914 August Sanders photograph “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” has stuck in my mind for weeks. I don’t do starred reviews, but you can probably tell how many this book would get if I did. (Thank you to Kate for the recommendation!)
The Verifiers, by Jane Pek
Claudia Lin loves detective stories, enjoys biking around New York City, and prefers women as romantic partners. That’s the stuff of an online dating profile, but Claudia isn’t interested in online dating. Nor is she interested in following the traditional life and career paths that her mother wants for her. Unbeknownst to her family, she has quit the boring financial industry job that her brother procured for her, and despite her personal lack of experience with dating platforms, has started to work for Veracity, best described as a “dating detective agency.” (Though Komla Atsina, her enigmatic boss, prefers “personal investments advisory firm.”) The pitch: If you’re not quite sure the person you met online is who they say they are, you can pay Veracity to data-mine an answer. A new client who says her name is Iris Lettiste asks for a verification of a match with whom she’s only ever chatted online — an unusual request, considering the relatively low stakes and high cost of the investigation — and soon after, disappears. That’s when the mystery — of Iris’s real identity, her actual mission, and what really happened to her — begins. Your level of enjoyment may depend in part on your interest in dating platform algorithms and the philosophical questions that they raise; I’m intrigued by those questions, and more importantly, I thought the book was a hoot. I’m hoping for a sequel.
Matrix, by Lauren Groff
Marie de France was a 12th-century poet whose true identity is unknown. Groff takes one theory of authorship, that the poet was really Marie, the Abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey and the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and runs with it. The book does mention Marie’s poetry in passing, but really it focuses on the daily business of the abbey, a place where women were constrained — literally locked away from the rest of society — but where they could find a form of power not permitted in the outside world. “Women in the world are vulnerable,” Groff writes. “Only reputation can keep them from being crushed.” Marie is initially reluctantly exiled to the abbey, and then, over the years, embraces its expansion of size and status — projects fueled by her own religious visions — as a means to do things usually reserved only for men. (Most daringly, Marie takes on some priestly duties.) And yet, the real status of Marie and of the nuns she oversees is always lurking just outside the abbey walls. As Groff writes: “Her actions always in reaction to the question of what she could have done in the world, if she had only been given her freedom.” The topic doesn’t seem like it makes for a page-turner but I ripped through it, stopping only to write down passages like this one: “Open your hands and let your life go. It has never been yours to do with what you will.”
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