Sep 28, 2016

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

In 2005, Robinson's novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize. Nearly ten years later, she returned to the small Iowa town of Gilead and its elderly preacher, Reverend John Ames, but from a very different angle. This time, we follow the story of his wife, Lila. (Full disclosure: I've not yet read Gilead.)

Lila is representative of a certain class of people who lived during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Born to a family that cared little for her, Lila was stolen away from them by Doll, who saved her life, named her, and treated her as her own. Doll was a hard woman in her own way, though not to Lila; she carried an ever-sharpened knife in her skirts, and bore a blood red mark upon her face. She attached herself and the little girl to a small band of itinerants led by a man named Doane. They were good enough people, looked after each other and worked together when there was work. They followed the seasons, slept outside, lived off the land when payment in money or kind could not be found. They were proud, in their own way. But the dust killed the farms, and the Depression broke the group up, until even Lila and Doll could no longer stay together. Left to herself, Lila survived and eventually made her way to Gilead, Iowa.

The writing in this book is without compare, though it did drag a bit at the very end. I flew through it, devouring every phrase. Lila's voice rings so honest and true; she is as complex and nuanced as any person, smart enough to know what she doesn't have and feel shame because of it. The story slides back and forth from the present, wherein Lila is pregnant with the preacher's baby, and the past she is both proud and ashamed of. It's impossible for me to exaggerate how good this novel is and how enthralled I became in Lila's small world. This is masterful storytelling, a gift to literature.

Sep 25, 2016

Without You, There is No Us, by Suki Kim

North Korea: the black hole of international politics, the unknowable, confounding, belligerent nation that pops up on our radar every once in a while when seismographs register another nuclear test, or a lucky defector manages to tell his or her tale of unending woe. For most of the world, North Korea is a minor, albeit slightly worrying inconvenience, more notable for its various humanitarian crises than anything else. China is its only ally, and Japan its most nervous antagonist. But for South Koreans, the North is a source of constant pain, a reminder of families torn apart and a war that destroyed a generation, along with its parents and children.

Kim's memoir is notable for many reasons, the first of which is drawing attention to this pain that is largely unknown outside of Korean communities. She writes of her mother and grandmother and their flight from Seoul, from which Kim's uncle never returned. He could have been killed in the war, or taken to the North to work in a gulag, or alive with a family. For so many Koreans, this ripping apart of families remains a wound that cannot possibly heal because there is no way to know what actually happened to their loved ones. This scar is passed along the generations, so that Kim feels her mother's pain, and her grandmother's.

Even if this book were terribly written, it would be fascinating for its unprecedented look inside North Korea. Kim spent a year teaching young men English. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is hardly any of those things: funded and staffed entirely by Christian missionaries, the students at PUST are taught only one subject - English - and are nearly all the sons of North Korea's elite. Their worldview is so utterly different from our own, stunted and limited, not to mention completely warped by the propaganda they live with. Even that's an understatement; propaganda is their way of life, there is nothing else to compare it to. To list even half the ways in which these children grow up with misinformation would take pages and pages; I encourage you to read the book, as it defies expectation.

I only have two qualms about the writing, one general and one specific. Generally, the writing is (and I wish I could think of a better word for this) slightly childish. While this is partly a good thing, in that it puts us into Kim's fragile state of mind, it also becomes a bit repetitious. Again, this might be her intention, to echo the inane repetition of each day, but the writing is just so emotional that it becomes annoying. Specifically, I absolutely detest her usage of the word "lover." She's referring to a man back home, someone she used to date and had reconnected with shortly before leaving for North Korea. He's not a boyfriend, and she doesn't want to use his name, so I understand her need for some other label, but in today's language, "lover" is a strong word that denotes an extra-marital affair, and very few people use it at all. So every time it cropped up in the book (which is fairly often), it jarred me and completely took me out of the reading experience. I wish she had just picked a pseudonym for this man, as she did with all the others in the book.

Still, if you have any interest at all in this enigmatic country, I strongly encourage you to pick this up. It's a quick, enthralling read, one of very few like it that can educate you about one of the world's last unknowable places. Writing this book was an act of bravery for Kim, and I thank her for it.

Sep 18, 2016

The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt

There is a certain reserved quality to A. S. Byatt's writing, very British in its bearing, that I enjoy but have a hard time reading quickly. Byatt's books are always meticulously researched and beautifully, deliberately written. It makes for a heady combination and you don't want to miss anything. Every fact is important, every descriptive detail plays a role. This does, however, make for rather slow reading, though it is always enjoyable.

The Children's Book follows a group of children and adults from the late 1800s through the end of World War I. The adults are artists, writers, Fabians, and socialists; they live mostly in the country and let their children, for the most part, run wild. Their parenting methods are perhaps confusing to their young, and their relationships with each other are just as muddled. The main family is the Wellwoods of Todefright: Olive writes children's books and Humphrey works for the Bank of England while writing socialist articles under pen names. They have seven children, but not all of them are both of theirs, though the children don't know it. We also follow Humphrey's brother's family, the family of a famous potter, and several outlying relatives and acquaintances thereof. As the children grow up, their relationships with their parents, each others parents, and each other shift and reform like the dunes of England's coast. They are intelligent, artistic, and driven, one way or another. One becomes involved in the brutal women's suffrage movement, another becomes a doctor, another a scholar. And then, with utter abruptness, they are each destroyed in some way by WWI.

It seems a cheat to spend 500 pages with these characters, watching them grow, only to have them decimated in the last part of the book. But that, I believe, is the point. WWI's cost of life was staggering; there was not a soul in Europe unaffected. It is a plea, a testament, to juxtapose such sudden, brutal loss of life and hope with young lives searching for meaning and connection. The English boys didn't want to kill the German boys anymore than the Germans did them, but the human bond was subjugated to money and land and power. What a sad thing, and what a beautiful novel.

Aug 26, 2016

The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson

It's pretty fascinating to read Stephenson as he writes now and as he wrote twenty years ago. This is the second early book of his that I've read, and having read SEVENEVES, his latest, just recently, the evolution of his writing is obvious. While The Diamond Age and Snow Crash center around futurism and technology, Stephenson clearly delved much deeper into hard sci fi as time went on. His later novels contain a hefty dose of detailed mathematical and scientific descriptions, while his earlier work has little of that. Science fiction fans who aren't as interested in hard science will prefer this novel and other early works.

The conceit of this novel, as evidenced by the title, is that after internecine warfare and dwindling resources, human society reorganized into self-determined tribes, or phyles, all sustained by the Feed - nanotechnology-driven matter compilers - with three major tribes dominating: one of these is the Neo-Victorians, adopting Victorian morality and ethics, as well as social structures, clothing, beauty ideals, etc. Chapters begin with veiled descriptions of what we're about to read, and the narration adopts a wry, British-like humor.

As for the plot, I'll paint only very broad strokes, as Stephenson's books are complex and evolving. John Hackworth, a Victorian, is tasked by a wealthy, powerful man with creating an interactive book to teach said man's granddaughter to think for herself. Hackworth does his duty, but creates a copy for his own daughter, which then falls into the hands of Nell, a poor, abused little girl without a tribe. With three Primers instead of one, the future suddenly becomes much less assured.

Like all Stephenson's books, I loved it. I didn't get sucked into it like with some of his others, but his masterfully built plot, wonderful characters, and always wry narration are still a true delight.

Aug 22, 2016

The Arab of the Future 2, by Riad Sattouf

The New York Times calls this graphic memoir "a disquieting yet essential read," and I must agree. Sattouf grew up in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s; his father was Syrian and his mother French. Blond and sensitive, little Riad has trouble adjusting to life in a small Syrian village after his father moved the family there, though not nearly as much trouble as his mother, faced with intermittent electricity, cooking over a camp stove, and no Arabic language skills. Riad loves his family and his two closest friends from school, but school itself is a source of confusion and fear. The teacher is prone to hitting the students' knuckles with a ruler, and the lessons are learned by rote without any comprehension encouraged. Riad's father loves Syria and seeks to further his social standing by hobnobbing with generals and other elites, but it's clear that the assistant professor is out of place, and the children of these society men are often cruel to Riad.

When a shocking event occurs, the Western reader, persistently a bit uncomfortable with this strange Syrian life, is jerked out of place and made to look straight at the cultural gap between them and us. Riad's summer vacations in France put this prominently on display: in France, he goes to vast shopping malls and grocery stores and his grandparents are not concerned with what he will be, while in Syria there is only Syrian food and a father who insists his son will be a doctor. We feel for Riad, with his blond curls, caught between two worlds, and wonder what will become of him in a land so different from our own. Part 3 is eagerly awaited.

Aug 5, 2016

Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig

Ah, the pig...reviled, beloved, abstained from, engorged on...the pig is many things to many people, a complicated animal with a complex history. Essig's well-researched history of hogs delves into the biology and evolution of swine, their domestication and the development of how humans live with and raise them, and of course their varied cultural associations. Moving essentially chronologically, Essig explains how pigs most likely domesticated themselves several different times in several different places, and how the consumption of their meat has fluctuated wildly, though usually for the same reasons. Feeding on anything in their path, including human corpses and excrement, pigs developed a reputation for being filthy, unclean animals, suitable only for poor people who had no other meat available (the notable exception to this rule being Rome, whose ruling class had a serious love affair with pork). This association fed on itself (pun intended), to the point where some societies outlawed eating pork as a means of social control over the lower classes. We find the vestiges of this in the kosher and halal laws of Judaism and Islam, respectively. Even taking religion out of the picture, the association remains very strong, and wasn't helped by the unveiling of horrific meat processing conditions in the early 1900s, nor by the revelations of modern agro-business's indoor meat-raising plants.

For the most part, this is a relatively unbiased look at the animals some love excessively and some despise passionately. Essig's eventual conclusion is the simple exhortation to make an effort to know where your pork is coming from and to support farmers who choose to forgo huge industrial operations in favor of treating their pigs well, in comfortable, natural environments, the side benefit being that the well-treated pig almost always makes better tasting pork. The book is easy to read and engaging, though it does occasionally get bogged down in numbers. I certainly feel more educated about the biology and history of the pig, though I wish at times I hadn't been eating as I read it. Despite the occasional gross out moment, this is a noble work on a "lesser beast."

Jul 27, 2016

The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr

Yes, this is the same Anthony Doerr who gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. The Shell Collector is a short story collection, and Doerr's first major published work, so I expected some of the usual "first work" awkwardness. There is none of that here. My only complaint with this book is that it ended far too soon; the last 30 pages of this edition are sneak peeks of Doerr's yet-to-be-released titles, so I thought I had at least one more story left when I finished the last. It was devastating. I felt cheated and robbed.

Doerr is a wordsmith, a one-of-a-kind talent that leaves me breathless and tearing up and so deeply affected by each story as to make it impossible to continue onto the next story after finishing the one before. His is a language to languish in, to soak up and read fully, not to skim through and seek out plot and dialogue. These stories are mostly about people in failed or failing relationships, and sleep is a theme that recurs in each - the hibernation of winter, sleep so deep it cannot be disturbed, the inability to sleep. They feature one Liberian man's attempt to regain control of his life by burying the hearts of whales washed up on the Oregon coastline and growing a garden over them; a retired man's indiscretion; a wife who can glimpse the pathway between life and death. This is not a book to be read, it is an experience to be grasped. Do yourself a favor and read The Shell Collector.