"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Sunday, December 31, 2023


The clock is ticking. There are just a few more hours of 2023. Just enough time to scrunch in one more review of the books I read in 2023.

Back in the fall the National Book Award Committee announced its list of finalists in five categories. Among the finalists for the fiction award was this book, THIS OTHER EDEN by Paul Harding. I try to read at least one of the winners/finalists in two of the categories each year. I selected This Other Eden for the most mundane of reasons -- It was the shortest book of the five, at 221 pages in length.

Harding sets out to tell the story of Malaga, an island off the coast of Maine, and the multi-race families inauspiciously evicted from the island in 1912. Harding reimagines history by renaming it Apple Island and giving names to the inhabitants in 1911 -- some with biblical-sounding names like Patience, Theophilus, Esther and Zachary-Hand-to-God-Proverbs. The story begins with the first inhabitants who nearly lose their lives in a huge flood caused by a hurricane, bringing to mind Noah's flood, and the tree they climb for safety as Noah's ark. Patience envisions the parting of the storm like Moses did when he was leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. To add to the Biblical allusions there are apple trees all over Apple Island. Later in the story the idea of being expelled from Apple Island like Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden becomes a climax of the story.

I've only read one other Paul Harding story, The Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. I wasn't a big fan of that book at the time I read it, but on delayed contemplation I keep thinking about how the author played around with time in a very tangled story of three generations, making it genius. Just like in Tinkers the prose in Eden is mesmerizing. Through the inhabitants of the island and in shifting perspective, we learn the history of Apple Island and learn how come the residents of Maine decided to evict them --eugenics and racism.
In the 1800s, the Honeys face a flood; in the 1900s, they face Matthew Diamond, a white missionary and schoolteacher. Matthew comes to the island every summer to teach the children, but admits to feeling “a visceral, involuntary repulsion” when he’s around Black people. He’s disgusted by the island’s adults but enamored with the children who prove themselves smart and talented. When Matthew escorts a government committee around the island to study its inhabitants, he passively assists in the destruction of the colony. It’s his immediate regret and feeble attempts to delay what the committee plans for Apple Island that make Matthew so complex and fascinating a character — he is at once an embodiment of white supremacy and white guilt, a conduit for white power that would like to excuse himself from his responsibility in the episode of violence his well-meaning intentions made possible (NYT).
Oddly, prior to their expulsion from the island, the residents of Apple Island all seem to be completely oblivious to the racial politics of the times. They acted as if things just happened to them so this expulsion, as odious as it was, was taken in stride. The book is full of love for family, for nature, for home, for life. "Harding has written a novel out of poetry and sunlight, violent history and tender remembering. The humans he has created are not flattened into props and gimmicks, instead they pulse with aliveness, dreamlike but tangible, so real it could make you weep" (NYT).

I'm ending my year of reviews on a good one. I hope you can find your way to it someday soon.

Happy New Year.


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