learn by going

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

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.

Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, by Sarah Rees Brennan

Unspoken - Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass lives in a small town in the Cotswolds of England where the Lynburns, an old family with deep and mysterious roots in the community, have just returned. People are unhappy about it, including Kami's mother, but Kami doesn't care: she's an aspiring reporter on the trail of a story for her high school paper (founded by herself and reluctant best friend, Angela), which becomes even more fascinating (and dangerous) when she comes across an animal sacrifice in the woods.

 

Kami has a secret of her own: she has a sort of imaginary friend with whom she communicates in her mind. This (male) friend has his own problems, and the two "reach" for each other psychically in times of need. This friend, of course, turns out to be real and a Lynburn. I anticipated as much but was still surprised by whom it turned out to be and when the reveal was made. The two struggle with the reality that the other is an actual person; their strange intimacy is not always welcome. Their bond turns out to be magical in nature and tied to the Lynburns and Kami's family.

 

Threats in town escalate, and Kami's at the center. In the meantime, she's also at the center of love triangle involving the two Lynburn boys. The triangle isn't terribly emphasized, but Kami's relationship with her former imaginary companion yo-yos between easy repartee and angsty denial of feelings. It got old.

 

Somehow I didn't feel involved enough in the mystery, and the tension didn't come across as it should. In part this may be because, as in other YA I've read, the story is somewhat rushed or condensed, including the quicksilver of the characters' changing emotions.

 

There's some fine prose, one of the book's saving graces, and lots of banter. It's not quite as successful as Whedon dialog or Veronica Mars, but it can be funny. It also got to be a bit much.

 

Kami's also one of those typical YA heroines whose friends are gorgeous, and she's supposedly less pretty but still somehow at the center of a love triangle involving the new hot guy. One of the most sincere moments is when Kami observes how each of her younger brothers is a favorite of her parents', leaving her odd person out.

 

I like YA but am coming to find it has to be exceptional to even be okay for me. Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood!

Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink

It was hard to put down this impressive work of journalism that focuses on events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As hurricane season approaches it begs the question: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters in the U.S.? The epilogue to the book, written a few years ago, suggests in some ways we are, but in important ways we are not.

 

Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order (belatedly) given by the mayor of New Orleans as Katrina approached. Many staff, patients, family members, and even pets sheltered at the hospitals (lesson the first: evacuate before the storm hits), including Memorial. As the title indicates, it would be five days before all were evacuated. After power loss, the generators eventually failed as they were in the basement, where the water levels rose once the levees broke. Though they had food and bottled water, the hospital went without running water, air conditioning, working plumbing, and the power needed to run vital medical equipment.

 

Evacuation aid via helicopters and boats was erratic or turned away by staff at points. Communication at all levels was unreliable; rumors swarmed, including that New Orleans was under martial law and looting and violence were everywhere. The staff went without much sleep as they continued to care for patients. The bad decision was made to leave the sickest patients, including those with DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, last for evacuation, with the exception of neonates. Healthier patients (though some still critical) left first. Family members were encouraged and even pressured to leave their loved ones, assured the patients would be cared for.

 

Soon after the disaster, there was a reckoning. Or, I should say, an attempt at a reckoning. Troubled reports of irresponsible and ethically questionable decisions being made at hospitals and nursing homes arose, including euthanasia at Memorial. 40-some patients had died there, and about half were later found to have high levels of morphine as well as Versed, a sedative, in their systems. Were they euthanized, and by whom?

 

In addition to covering events at the hospital as reported by those who were there, Fink covers the development of the legal case against a particular doctor and two nurses accused of second degree homicide. Reading about what happened at the hospital, the good and, mostly, the bad, is heartrending and horrifying, impossible to look away from, like a car accident. Learning what does and does not happen afterwards infuriated me; my sympathies were with those who'd lost loved ones, who don't quite have closure. I sympathized also with nurses so traumatized by those five days that they could no longer practice.

 

Fink contextualizes Katrina as well as the ethics of decisions made. She profiles key players, letting their own words speak for them. I don't pretend to read much non-fiction, but it seems to me her work is exceptionally well researched, every effort made to fact-check and communicate with those involved. The book evolved from a piece she did for ProPublica and the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer. Regardless, I'm sure there's been a range of reactions. If you google the topic, you'll find a website by/for the doctor arrested who continues to deny wrongdoing, with a link to another site that proclaims "the truth" of what happened. I didn't bother clicking.

 

Mostly I think about the contrasting example of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, who lost fewer patients despite having more, with additional patients delivered to them. I think of proposed (and adopted) legislation or protocols that would shield physicians from legal ramifications of unethical decisions made during a disaster. I think of the following quote, with which I agree:

 

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

 

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can't let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It's a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

 

I'm surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she's lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She's bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

 

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn't been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he's just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he's doing and why. He doesn't seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he's another character I found I couldn't care about.

 

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He's been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

 

I won't spoil how the three characters' stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn't enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I've waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author's fault or mine. It's silly to assign blame when one doesn't like a book; I suppose this one just wasn't for me, and I wish every book was.

 

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much "me." The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator--I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to--borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious "accident." The game also embodies what I understand to be the book's major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

 

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn't until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean's "accident," though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery...except it's not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you're even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don't have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

 

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn't. A book can be about roads we do and don't take, how our choices don't always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

Currently reading

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