Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald

'The object of the museum is to acquire and preserve representative specimens, in the interests of the public,' he said.

'You say that,' returned Sir William, with another winning smile, 'and I say balls.  The object of the Museum is to acquire power, not only at the expense of other museums, but absolutely.  The art and treasures of the earth are gathered together so that the curators may crouch over them like the dynasts of old, showing now this, now that, as the fancy strikes them.  Who knows what wealth exists in our own reserves, hidden far more securely than in the tombs of the Garamantes?  There are acres of corridors in this Museum that no foot has ever trod, pigeons nesting in the cornices, wild cats, the descendants of the pets of Victorian curators, breeding unchecked in the basements, exhibits that are only looked at once a year, acquisitions of great value stacked away and forgotten.  The wills of kings and merchant princes, who bequeathed their collections on condition they should always be on show to the public, are disregarded in death, and those sufferers trudging like peasants to the temporary canteen, to be filled with coconut cakes and lift plastic containers to their lips--they pay for all, queue for all, are the excuse for all; I say, poor creatures!'

This is a sad moment for me.  I was blown away by Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower when I read it in 2012; it was one of those times when you say, "I know I'm going to read everything this person ever wrote."  And now, four years later, I have.  Nothing was ever quite as good as The Blue Flower, which is one of my favorite books ever, but I enjoyed them all immensely.  At least two others, to my mind, are unquestionably great: Innocence and At Freddie's.  I would go so far as to say that Fitzgerald is one of the most underappreciated writers of the 20th century.

The Golden Child is Fitzgerald's first novel.  She was sixty years old (!!!!) when she wrote it.  It bears the hallmarks of Muriel Spark more clearly, I think, than anything else Fitzgerald wrote.  It's a book where Fitzgerald is still finding her voice, but at moments, the Fitzgerald of The Blue Flower shines through quite clearly.

The story is a murder-mystery inspired by the exhibition of King Tut in the 1970's.  (Doesn't that sound awesome?)  A museum, clearly modeled after the British Museum, is exhibiting a set of golden treasures from the made-up civilization of Garamantia.  The heart of the exhibit is the tomb of the Golden Child, a Tut-like mummy in a golden casket who is said, like Tut, to carry a curse.  Waring Smith, a junior-level officer at the museum, is alone in the museum one night when a phantom figure tries to strangle him with the Golden Twine, a relic meant to guide the Golden Child back to the land of the living--but also one that should have crumbled when touched because of its advanced age.  Later, the archaeologist who discovered the treasures, Sir William, is discovered dead, caught between the sliding steel bookcases of the musem library.

The Golden Child fails to offer the kind of highly individuated, interesting characters that make Fitzgerald's other books standouts.  The irreverent Sir William, who openly disdains the exhibition he made possible, comes close, but Waring is archetypically hapless and henpecked.  He's the kind of guy that Martin Freeman would play in a movie, and not much more than that.

It stops short also of developing really interesting observations on the nature of a museum, whose internecine power squabbles mirror the historical clashes the museum seeks to document.  (Sir William's monologue on power above is as close as the novel comes.)  Nor does it really pause to consider the question of what it means to be real or authentic, which are questions of huge import to the exhibition.  But it does capture a kind of lyrical sadness in the image of the British public, waiting in four-hour long queues for an exhibit for reasons that are obscure even to them.  And the middle of the book, in which Waring is sent to Moscow to authenticate a piece of the treasure only to find out that the entire exhibit is a fake and the Russians have managed to gather the real thing, is funny and frenetic in a way that shows just what a gripping author Fitzgerald would become.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nonfiction Animal Books: Soldier Bear, The Elephant Whisperer, The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

"A giant Pacific octopus - the largest of the world's 250 or so octopus species - can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male's three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific octopus has 1,600 of them. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, an octopus can take the opportunity to escape..." 
The Japanese word for octopus is tako which means the first time I ate octopus I thought I had ordered a taco. Beware of homophones! I didn't know too much about octopuses (or octopods - never octopi) before I read this book. I knew they're really smart and can get into and out of crazy complicated spaces, I knew they have three hearts, I knew they're good at predicting World Cup winners. 300 pages of Montgomery's amazing non-fiction book (written for an adult audience but appropriate and appealing for young adults) and I am now much more knowledgeable and a little obsessed. To be clear, I spent an entire day researching how to have a pet octopus and was a little devastated to discover that the black telescope goldfish I named 'tako' in high school is the closest I will ever have to owning my own tako. 

This book is part non-fiction information about octopods, part philosophical wonderings about consciousness, part memoir about Montgomery's personal life. I find all three of these genre appealing, and I am now completely in love with octopuses, so this will surely be one of my favorite books of the year. 

Montgomery gains access to the behind-the-scenes area of the New England Aquarium, allowing her to meet and befriend the different octopods that call that space their home. I found the information fascinating, but someone who already loves octopuses might find it a bit remedial. She is even allowed to touch the octopuses, and these descriptions were some of my favorite in the book. 
"I stroked [the octopus's] head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me. Clearly, each of us wanted the other's company, just as human friends are excited to reunite with each other. With each touch and each taste, we seemed to reiterate, almost like a mantra: 'It's you! It's you! It's you!'"
Montgomery includes the other New England Aquarium volunteers and employees in her narrative, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about their personal lives and how they ended up with their arms stuck in a very cold tank letting an octopus use her suckers to taste them. The only part of the book I didn't love was Montgomery getting her SCUBA certification to join research expeditions to study octopuses in the wild. I had already read details about that research in the excellent picture book The Octopus Scientists (also by Montgomery), so that was a little redundant since I read both in the same week. 

Last week I found myself at the Aquarium of the Pacific and I spotted a gorgeous giant Pacific octopus in a tank in front of a line. 'Of course a person would want to wait in line to stare at this majestic creature,' I thought, and dutifully waited in line with all the 10 year olds. I stood off to the side of the tank so the littlies would be able to see and just sighed and marveled at this incredible being. She turned white and striped, changed her texture from smooth to spiky, and her color undulated between bright red and dark red. She moved around her tank, and I watched her for about 15 minutes until she tucked herself into a corner to hide. 

When I finally let my thoughts disentangle from her tentacles, I realized that the line was not for the octopus tank at all, but for a petting tank. The octopus was the opening act, the preshow. I felt miffed on behalf of the cephalopod - no sea star can compete with the soul of an octopus. 


The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

"She got straight to the point...would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephants?...
'They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants.'
'As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, she's also learnt how to unlatch gates with her tusks and the owners aren't too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don't take them, they will be shot.'"

Lawrence Anthony, like Sy Montgomery, is not a scientist by trade. He does, however, run a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa (the kind of reserve where you take pictures as souvenirs - not heads). He is a wild animal lover who truly believes that animals should be wild in their natural habitat with as little human interference as possible. When presented with a free herd of 9 elephants that included babies, (well, free except for transportation, adding a giant electric fence around the whole reserve, chopping down all trees near the fence so they can't be used to take down the fence, creating a holding area that is elephant proof and also electrified, getting all these structures approved by the powers that be, and of course, feeding the elephants while they were in their elephant proof holding area which involved Anthony at one side of the area and another ranger at the other side as they alternated distracting the herd and pushing up to 2,000 pounds of alfalfa through the fence - other than that they were totally free!), Anthony couldn't resist saving them from certain deaths.

Incorporating a herd of elephants is very very complicated because elephants are giant and destructive and this particular group was pretty angry at the world. Their first night on the reserve, they break out of their elephant proof holding area, out of the electric reserve fence, and go on the run. Several days of helicopter chases later, they're back on the reserve but even more dangerous because now they know they can escape. Anthony wrestles terribly with how to keep the elephants and keep them safe (as soon as they're outside of the reserve, they're a danger to people and villages, and poachers can legally kill them).
"Then in a flash came the answer. I decided there and then that contrary to all advice, I would go and live with the herd. I knew the experts would throw up their hands in horror as we had been repeatedly instructed that to keep them feral, human contact...must be kept to the barest minimum. But this herd had already had too much human contact of the very worst kind, and their rehabilitation, if such a thing was even possible at all, called for uncommon measures...I would remain outside the [structure], of course, but I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them, but most importantly, be with them day and night."
Here begins the story of the elephant whisperer desperately trying to figure out how to balance saving the herd with keeping them wild. The story of the elephants is the main narrative that runs throughout this thick book, and it is certainly what readers will expect and want, but the subnarratives and anecdotes that don't involve the elephants are just as interesting and entertaining. Cowriter Graham Spence has done an excellent job interweaving stories about running the reserve, anecdotes about funny or dangerous animal encounters, and the politics between the white reserve owner Lawrence Anthony and the Zulu tribes and clans as they attempt to co-create an even larger game reserve that involves lands owned by many different people.

This is one of the few books I've read recently that is not young adult and not for any classes. When I picked it out at the airport, I felt like I was giving myself the gift of a good book, and luckily it lived up to that idea expectation perfectly. I also really really really want to go to the Thula Thula reserve where you can stay for 9 all-inclusive nights for under $2000 USD (airfare not included).


Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak illustrated by Philip Hopman

" 'You bad bear, what have you been up to now? And what on earth are all of those things doing on your head? What do you think you are? A clothesline?' The bear put his paws back over his eyes and started rocking slowly backward and forward. The unsuspecting bear had wandered into the women's quarters...'Hello,' [the woman] said to him, in a friendlier voice. 'Aren't you a funny bear!' 'Nice to meet you,' the second soldier said. 'I'm Stanislav, that's Peter, my best friend and the bear's master. And the bear? Well, he's Private Voytek - and it's about tie we started chaining him up.' "

This book tells the true story of Private Voytek, a bear and a member of the 2nd Polish Corps during WWII. A group of Polish soldiers find a boy carrying a baby bear in a sack in Iran. They trade a few things for the bear and find themselves in various hijinks which include the repeated scene of the group of soldiers going to a new place or being under a new command and having to explain, justify, beg, and plead to keep the bear. The soldier's menagerie grows until at one point they are begging an officer to let them take a Voytek, a monkey, a dalmation, a mutt, a parrot, and pigs on a ship as they get transported from the Middle East to Italy. While the story is interesting and provides a good introduction to WWII, the audience is hard to determine.

At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
Less than a hundred pages later, the Polish soldiers share the traumatic horrible things they've witnessed:
"Do you know what it feels like to see two boys standing there and then getting blown to pieces the next second with bits of them hanging from the trees?" ... Then Peter said, "I saw a boot a while ago and it still had a chunk of someone's leg in it." ... "And do you know what I saw the other day?" Pavel said. "A dead soldier with a cigarette in his mouth. And it was still lit. He was lying on his side, like he was having a nap, but there was a fresh bullet in his head." 
Most of the book seems like it's written for grades 3-6, but that scene (which is definitely the most graphic in the novel) would make me a little uncomfortable sharing it with the younger crowd. Overall, the book was okay or a little less than okay. I know part of my disappointment is because I don't usually read books for this age range (I enjoy picture books and books for grade 6+ but I do not and have never wanted to work with elementary school kids), but I think another part is because I had just read two really great non-fiction books about animals that I was mentally comparing it to. There's no information about bears in general, bear life, or why this bear was so tame when pet bears are generally a really bad idea - we don't even find out what kind of bear it is until the very end. Private Voytek is an interesting anecdote that kept soldiers' morale up in horrific circumstances, but I would have been satisfied with a single podcast or a long news article about him.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult.  Flesh will burn, photos will burn, and memory, what is that?  The imperfect ramblings of fools who will not need to see the need to forget.  And if we can't dispose of it we can alter it.  The dead don't shout.  There is a certain seductiveness about what is dead.  It will retain all those admirable qualities of life with none of that tiresome messiness associated with live things.  Crap and complaints and the need for affection.  You can auction it, museum it, collect it.  It's much safer to be a collector of curious, because if you are curious, you have to sit and sit and see what happens.  You have to wait on the beach until it gets cold, and you have to invest in a glass-bottomed boat, which is more expensive than a fishing rod, and puts you in the path of the elements.  The curious are always in some danger.  If you are curious you might never come home, like all the men who now live with mermaids at the bottom of the sea.

I am giving up the 11th grade next year and going back to teaching the 10th.  That means goodbye, American Lit, goodbye Invisible Man and The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby.  Our 10th grade curriculum is much more eclectic--I can't say I'm looking forward to re-reading The Odyssey, but it'll be nice to come back to The Metamorphosis again.  We're also probably the only school in the country that teaches Jeanette Winterson's coming-of-age gay novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

When I read it last, I dreaded it because I really hated Winterson's novel Sexing the Cherry.  I was surprised to find that Oranges wasn't bad, and on this second reading (really more of a fourth, considering I read it along with two sections of the tenth grade in 2013) I was surprised to find that I genuinely liked it.  Without Sexing the Cherry darkening the corner of my vision, I was able to enjoy the humor that pervades the novel.  Most of it is mildly at the expense of Winterson's Charismatic Pentecostal upbringing:

I felt a bit awkward so I went to the Sunday School Room.  There was some Fuzzy Felt to make Bible scenes with, and I was just beginning to enjoy a rewrite of Daniel in the lions' den when Pastor Finch appeared.  I put my hands into my pockets and looked at the lino.

'Little girl,' he began, then he caught sight of the Fuzzy Felt.

'What's that?'

'Daniel,' I answered.

'But that's not right,' he said, aghast.  'Don't you know that Daniel escaped?  In your picture the lions are swallowing him.'

'I'm sorry,' I replied, putting on my best, blessed face.  'I wanted to do Jonah and the whale, but they don't do whales in Fuzzy Felt.  I'm pretending those lions are whales.'

'You said it was Daniel.'  He was suspicious.

He smiled.  'Let's put it right, shall we?'  And he carefully rearranged the lions in one corner, and in Daniel in the other.  'What about Nebuchadnezzar?  He started to root through the Fuzzy Felt, looking for a king.

'Hopeless,' I thought, Susan Green was sick on the tableau of the three Wise Man at Christmas, and you only get three kings to a box.

I left him to it.  When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I'd seen Pastor Finch.

'He's in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,' I replied.

'Don't be fanciful, Jeanette,' said the voice.

That's funny.  On another level, you might read it as a statement on the restrictiveness of Jeanette's upbringing, and her mother's religion.  And you wouldn't be wrong.  But you might also read it as part of a kunstlerroman, a novel about the development of an artist, and consider the way that Jeanette plays loosely with the structures of Biblical narrative, but doesn't abandon them.

The problem I had teaching this novel, and the problem I anticipate having once again, is that students are happy to sit at the first few levels.  Representation of gay characters is important, and I'm glad we teach this book.  But to some extent, it can be calcifying--instead of encouraging our students to push the limits of their thinking, it can encourage them to confirm the things they already think and believe.  I don't particularly care what my students think about religion.  But I hope that I can get them to see how even the chapters are named after books of the Bible, and that Jeanette uses the religious stories and structures to help understand her life even long after she has been chased out of the church for being gay.  That's what makes Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit so powerfully tragic, but it's difficult to appreciate if you have never felt the need for a religious community in the first place.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

Both Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot and Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home are coming of age novels that follow women as they find their place in the world. Bank's novel does so over a 25 year span while Brunt follows her protagonist over the course of a very tumultuous few months, but both women emerge, like all protagonists, as new, more complete humans.

By late August, I’m on my second sublet, and I’ve been working as a copywriter long enough to know I’m not good at it. I seem to be reliving the life I had when I was twenty-two, but I’m about to run twenty-eight, which feels like the opposite of twenty-two.

The Wonder Spot was a fun, quick read. Each chapter puts us inside Sophie Applebaum's head a different stage of her life, starting with a Bat Mitzvah ("When I pulled [my mother's] wrist over to look at her watch and made a face that signified, I'm dying, she posed her mouth in a smile. Then she held my hand as though we were in love") and ending at party in Brooklyn in Sophie's 40s ("I tell him that a party in Brooklyn is a commitment. It takes effort. It's like a wedding: You can't just drop by."). The chapters in between are full of Sophie's attempts to find a man and a job, and packed with a cast of characters befitting a quirky rom com set in New York City.

The book had more of an edge than your average beach read romance; Sophie is smarter, funnier, and more sarcastic than your everyday heroine. Her sense of frustration with the world around her and her observations on life, first as a teenager and later as an adult, are cutting and astute: "Like most adults, my mother seemed to believe that a nearby birth date was kids required for instant friendship. I told her I hoped she got to sit with the other forty-one- and forty-two-year-olds."

There aren't any groundbreaking thoughts or hugely moving moments in the book, but it was just what I needed at the end of the school year when my brain was totally fried. It was smart enough to not feel too much like a guilty pleasure, but easy enough not to take too much work.

It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn't be a mother and it was likely you wouldn't become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You'd become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you'd have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.

I love the opening sentences of novels, and for some reason I especially love the first sentences of dark coming of age novels. The opening of Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding is one of my all time favorites, but the start of Tell the Wolves I'm Home is pretty damn good too: "My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying." From there, Brunt takes us through six months in the life of June Elbus, a delightfully strange and impressively insightful 15 year old. We follow June as she wrestles with the death of her uncle (whom she loved so much she worries that she may have been in love with), her estrangement from her gorgeous, talented sister, and a new taboo friendship with her uncle's lover whom her family blames for her uncle's death. 

June is by far the best part of the novel. She is is sad and lonely and odd--she spends hours wandering through the woods behind her high school pretending to be in the middle ages--and just off enough to make you frustrated with her from time to time and keep things interesting. I usually don't have patience for characters who wallow, but Brunt manages to make June grow just enough through her grief that her process is both believable and heartening. The lessons June learns throughout are tinged with enough sadness that it never feels saccharine or trite.

Often books centered around grieving can stagnate, the primary movement is internal, so there isn't space for too much action elsewhere. Brunt, however, keeps things moving; June builds new relationships, solves mysteries, and works to fit her new sense of the world into her pre-existing sense of her family. The book, like June, is constantly moving forward (or trying and sometimes failing to). There isn't just one central problem of grief to be resolved, but many interconnected problems; you care enough about June and about everyone else to care how they work out. 

Maybe the most interesting relationship in the book is between June and her overachieving sister, Greta. Greta comes across as truly horrid at the start. In one opening scene, she threatens to make June kiss their uncle (who has AIDS and whom June secretly may have feelings for) by dangling mistletoe above them, and she continues to terrorize June about her feelings for their uncle, even after his death. Then, as the story progresses, we see flashes of humanity and weakness from her, and June is left to reconcile her childhood memories of their close, loving relationship with the mess they have now. Greta is a little bit of a caricature of the hyper successful older sister, but the interactions between them feel real and genuinely painful. It also doesn't come to a neat, perfect conclusion, which I appreciate. 

I couldn't put this one down. It's sad and riveting and full of characters that are satisfyingly imperfect. The realizations June comes to feel real and relatable, and they give you hope for yourself, no matter how screwed up you feel at the time. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

He himself, Sam, had had the pleasure of being a father, five times already, and imagine the joy when he found that at one birth he had twins!  He could never have it enough.  Each time, he explained to Naden, he felt an immense pride, a belief in a limitless future, in an unfolding universe, a hope for the proliferating human race in that shadow of dust, and infinitesimal corner of dimensionless space, even so.

Oh, man.  Some books are just sui generis--completely in their own category, impossible to ever reproduce, even by the same author.  I can't imagine even Christina Stead writing another book like The Man Who Loved Children.  How could she?  The family that she writes about--a fictionalized version of her own, you're horrified to find out--is so unique and irreproducible that it can only exist once.  It's like Tolstoy's thesis that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," expounded on for 500 pages.

The title character is Sam Pollitt, a low-level bureaucrat in the Fisheries Department of some division of the federal government.  Sam is a classic early-20th century Progressive Rationalist, full of far-flung ideas about the future and mankind, a patronizing attitude toward foreign races and a keenness for eugenics.  Sam loves children, especially his own, and sees them as an extension of his own fine feelings about humanity.  He has a private language with them, a mish-mash of pet names and baby-talk:

'Bring up your tea, Looloo-girl: I'm sick, hot head, nedache [headache]; dot pagans in my stumjack [got pains in my stomach]: want my little fambly around me this morning.  We'll have a corroboree afterwards when I get better.  Mother will make the porridge.'  He was begging her, yearning after her.

This stuff is hard to read, even when Stead gives bracketed translations; but it seems true to life.  All books teach you how to read them, but The Man Who Loved Children requires you to study really hard.  ("Corroboree," by the way, gives away the Australian Stead's scrupulous Americanizing of her own father.)  Sam's child-language, and his childish behavior--indifference toward money, even when it's short, his selfishness and laziness--drive his wife Henrietta to madness.  He calls hims "Sam-the-Bold," she calls him "The Great-I-Am."  For most of the book, they are not on speaking terms, except to shout and claw at each other violently:

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncollectible round its edge, the thousand storms of her confined life would rise up before here, thinner illusions on the steam.  She did not laugh at the words 'a storm in a teacup.'  Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman's life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress: all the civil war of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened, at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

And if these two powerful characters weren't enough, Stead adds a third in the child Louisa, or Louie, Sam's daughter from a previous marriage.  Louie is a dark and troubled genius, literary where her father is scientific, gloomy where her father is sanguine, and sensitive to the dismay of others, like Henrietta, when Sam blithely ignores them.

Sam's love for his children is really a kind of narcissism.  He loves them to the extent that they are reflections of himself, and when they fail to live up to his fantastic ideals his fine feeling turn to cruelty.  This happens over and over, in scenes that are funny, grotesque, and vivid.  Louie writes a play in a made-up language called Tragos: Herpes Rom (Tragedy: The Snake-Man) and has the children perform it for her father, with the aid of a translation.  ("Did Euripides write in English?" she asks).  The play is about a father who wants to hug his daughter, but she feels threatened by his constrictor-like embrace, and refuses.  Louie wants desperately to show her father how he mistreats her, and with the play Stead shows cannily how we crave the approval of our parents even as we want to overthrow them.  But Sam cannot hear this, he only sees feminine silliness: "I did not expect you to be so silly," he says, "you were the child of a great love... I never heard so much idiotic drivel in my born days.  Go and put your fat head under the shower."  When another of his sons complains that the smell of the fish they have been boiling for oil is making him sick, Sam forces him to carry the fish's rotting remains to the shed piece-by-piece while he vomits over and over again.

The novel has the downward-hurtling trajectory of a great tragedy.  Halfway through the book, scandal forces Sam out of his job at the Fisheries Department, and he refuses to recognize evil by responding to the accusations.  His idealism forces them into a rundown shack in Annapolis, where they live in increasing squalor and tension.  Henrietta is forced to steal money from her own children to make ends meet, while Sam prattles about the nobility of poverty, until his own petty wants are not addressed:

Sam flushed with anger.  'Why aren't there any bananas?  I don't ask for much.  I work to make the Home Beautiful for one and all, and I don't even get bananas.  Everyone knows I like bananas.  If your mother won't get them, why don't some of you?  Why doesn't anyone think of poor little Dad?'  He continued, looking in a most pathetic way round, at the abashed children, 'It isn't much.  I give you kids a house and a wonderful playground of nature and fish and marlin and everything, and I can't even get a little banana.  And bananas are very healthy.  Who here likes bananas?'

Such selfishness is hard to believe.  And yet, Stead makes us believe it: Sam, Henny, and Louisa are each in their own way fully bizarre, but they are believable in every respect.  Making the absurd seem plausible is one of a writer's great achievements, I think.  At the same time, Sam is not wholly unsympathetic: perhaps he cannot help his ignorance, can never see that his daughter hates him and his household is falling apart; maybe his own private idealistic universe is just too powerful.

When the novel comes to its expected tragic and and grisly end, it seems almost too commonplace.  The Man Who Loved Children is so bizarre, so awful, so fantastical, that there is a double sadness in the ordinariness of its tragic climax.

The Man Who Loved Children is one of those books that was a financial and critical failure when it came out, only to have its reputation resurrected by a single fan, in this case, the poet Randall Jarrell, although Jonathan Franzen has also written about his love for the novel.  In his introduction, Jarrell compares it to Moby Dick, another novel that was unloved at its publication.  And there's something Moby Dick-esque in the fullness and variability of Stead's prose, though that's not the way that Jarrell meant it.  In truth, I can think of very few people that I would recommend this to.  It requires a lot of patience and thick nerves.  The kind of reader who complains about characters not being "relatable" should steer clear.  But for a certain kind of person, this is an unforgettable book.