learn by going

Reading with a felonious mind, cross-genre. Also, I read contemporary poetry, and so should you.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what's a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn't because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters' situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can't think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.


In addition to Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that "family sagas" can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.


There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.


I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that's a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude. 

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

More a novel of ideas than a "yarn," The Book of Joan's characters exist primarily as symbols, vehicles for ideology. This quality brought to mind older modes of storytelling, such as ancient Greek and Roman epics, fairy tales, and didactic poems. Everything is heightened--the language, the stakes, the characters. At first I highlighted many passages, dazzled by the prose, but the lyric language reached a critical mass about a third of the way through, and I became distracted by linguistic tics such as the overuse of "wrong" as an adjective. It could also be hard to read some of the graphically violent passages.


Nevertheless, I applaud this novel's ingenuity, its reworking of Joan of Arc's story and interesting notions regarding gender and sex.

Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Little Star: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist

After seeing the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, I was inspired to delve into a big, fat horror novel (I already read It a few summers ago); plus, 'tis the season. John Ajvide Lindqvist has been referred to as Sweden's Stephen King, and I can see why. What I like most about King's writing is his characterization: characters feel like real people, no matter how fantastical, or evil. Little Star is my second Lindqvist novel, and he has a similar gift for creating engaging characters.


In some ways, though, I find his horror even more frightening than King's. He has a way of providing the details that are often skipped over in horror movies, such as the way the human body reacts to terror. Acts of violence are shockingly brutal (early in the novel a husband savagely breaks his wife's kneecap). He also appears to be interested in children as protagonists, especially girls. Little Star, like Let the Right One In, the other Lindqvist novel I read, features two children as the characters who drive the narrative. One (Theres) does not seem to be quite human (like the vampire in the latter novel), while the other (Theresa) is a human who is an outcast (like the boy who befriends the vampire). Each one's story is told separately at first, including their parents' points of view, until they meet--virtually and then in person. At this point we know the two will be frightening together.


Much of this novel details the angst and alienation of young girls, which can be painful to read if you're a woman who felt like an outsider at some point during your childhood. That alienation is weaponized; it's a freight train whose collision you can't stop but also can't look away from. It reminded me of Dietland, which I read a while ago and is not a horror novel, or even Kill the Boy Band and The Girls. I suppose I'm drawn to stories where patriarchal suppression erupts in violence.


I was left with a question or two, including Theres's origins (she's left to die as an infant in a forest before being discovered) and the red smoke she and the girls feed on. I also wanted a bit more of Theres's adoptive mother's perspective at the beginning.


Despite these questions, this novel shocked, disturbed, and awed me. I tore through it. AND I learned about several Swedish pop stars!

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello, Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.


I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.


Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.


The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 


There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.


After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.


The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).


Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house--in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she's deceptive but because her mind isn't what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?


Ruth's narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.


Not so delightful is the nature of what's going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother--the smartest person in my family--lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.


I also found myself thinking about Frida's race and physicality--she's a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What's being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author's own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I'm still wondering about Frida's size.


Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who's even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.

The Accusation, Bandi

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith, Bandi

As tensions rise with North Korea, my sympathies remain with its citizens, those who truly suffer under the regime and the sanctions placed upon their country as a result of their leaders' actions. This collection of short stories--written by a North Korean, as far as can be verified--puts a face to the individual lives living there, like a present day dystopia. Each story reveals characters disillusioned or betrayed by a system that punishes even those who believe in it and live according to its rules. The stories are often heartbreaking, yet they didn't beat me into submission with desolation. Somehow the fact that these characters come to recognize their situation lends them dignity, though that's not to say suffering is noble. People suffer around the world, but the mystery under which North Koreans live seems to compound the appearance of that suffering when we get glimpses of it.

A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf

A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf

For lovers of Virginia Woolf, but also those interested in writing itself, as well as history (Woolf details the approach and beginning of World War II, including the bombing of her home in London). This "writer's diary," edited by husband and first reader, Leonard Woolf, comprises those entries where Woolf discusses her writing and reading as well as encounters with literary acquaintances.


There is a pattern to her writing process whereby she's excited about a new idea (which sometimes comes while she's working on another project) and rides a sort of high until she completes it. This is followed by depression and ambivalent feelings about reviews. Some books come easier than others, but the overall pattern remains the same. Every one feels like it might be a failure or badly reviewed, and she attempts to convince herself she doesn't care. The ups and downs in her mood suggest bipolar disorder, which contemporary psychologists believe afflicted her. Knowing her fate (she drowned herself not long after the last entry of this diary) made reading portions very sad.


On the other hand, Woolf felt she had just begun to know her own mind in her 40s, which gives me hope! Elements of her process and the way one negative review overrode all the positive responses created a sense of affinity for me as a writer. Woolf changed literature, and I'm glad she kept such a diary.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel - Amor Towles

I'm putting this one aside and may not come back to it. Much praise has been lavished on it, but it has too little narrative thrust for me, and I find that its charm can be overbearing to the point of preciousness.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I'm struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it's packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band's steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It's necessarily sad yet not depressing--there's the humor, and there's wonder and hope. There's not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I've taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

Reading progress update: I've read 83 out of 355 pages.

A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf

It's fascinating to read Woolf's reports on how her books were doing in terms of numbers sold and reviews (especially negative ones) when we know how esteemed they became and how they continue to sell. Time always tells.

The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She's 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn't have long to live.


This is not one of those novels of illness where there's redemption ahead or that's supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say "you can beat this thing" if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it's not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can't.


One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it's clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she's plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn't blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she's able to have any agency during her illness.


If this sounds grim, it's not, or not only! Dahlia's voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it's about gender.


The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I'm always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

My Letterboxd Profile

In case some of you are also movie buffs, here's a link to my newish account on Letterboxd, a film site that so far is way cooler (and less of a cesspit) than IMDb. There are free accounts, and you can rate, review, and make lists of movies. You can follow other users and comment on others' reviews, too.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)


Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it's written from Philip's (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel's. I've started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he's childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.


I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip's godfather. She's clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He's also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel's character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it's more nuanced, thankfully.


My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women's roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

What would you do if the laws of physics, of the universe, turned out not to be laws at all? Imagine you're a scientist confronted with this realization. This is one of the more disturbing realities that characters must contend with in The Three-Body Problem, the first of a trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin.


The book does an excellent job of making the scale of the universe, from its immensity to its sub-atomic particularities, conceivable and real. One of the scientist characters has a gift that allows him to visualize numbers, and in a note the author reveals that he has a similar gift. The book is very intelligent and detailed in its explanation of science; I can't say I could follow it all, but I understood the larger picture and was fascinated by the minutiae.


The book begins in China's cultural revolution and fast forwards to the present, shifting perspectives from the scientist daughter of a persecuted university professor to a man working in nanotechnology. Most of the significant characters are scientists, with the exception of Da Shi, a corrupt, wily policeman who became my favorite character. The protagonist, Wang, learns of the deaths of prominent scientists and starts seeing strange things, such as a countdown that appears visible only to him. He is tasked with helping to investigate a shady scientific organization, which involves his playing a strange video game called Three-Body. Nothing is what it seems, and Wang falls down a rabbit hole (more like a black hole) that leads to knowledge of extra-terrestrial life.


This Chinese SF novel was something unique; I found its different style of storytelling often engaging, though sometimes odd. The translator explains in a note that there may be narrative techniques unfamiliar to Western readers, and I could sense them. For example, much is explained through pages of dialogue, and the narrative can feel interrupted by the video game chapters, as much as I enjoyed them. I struggled with the fact that, after a brief appearance earlier in the book, Wang's wife and child do not re-enter the narrative, not even Wang's thoughts. His thoughts themselves are often unknown--for a time I wasn't sure where he stood in the quiet war going on.


Nevertheless, I do look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy (after a break) and to seeing the movie adaptation.

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Novels and Memoirs, 1941-1951: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight / Bend Sinister / Speak, Memory (Library of America #87) - Vladimir Nabokov, Brian Boyd

(Review for Speak, Memory only: four stars)


It was a pleasure to read Nabokov after so long. I forgot how easy it is to get carried along by the flow and particularities of his prose, sometimes to the point of losing the meaning of what's being expressed. Speak, Memory is a kind of memoir of Nabokov's childhood through his family's exile in Europe following the Russian Revolution. I learned (or was reminded of) a lot that sheds light on his writing, such as the fact that he had synesthesia (syllables and letters had colors). He read and wrote English before Russian but later lamented that his English skills did not match those in Russian (if only I read Russian!). At one point he states that once he used a detail of his life for his fiction, it felt like it was no longer his.


If you're familiar with Nabokov, you'll enjoy the passages detailing or referencing his passion for butterfly hunting. In fact my favorite line in the book concerns it: "America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have--perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand." Lol, indeed.


I was less interested in some of the earlier chapters that focus on his extended family, but there were still fascinating stories to be had, and his prose is always worth it.

Currently reading

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