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.