Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay

As she trotted round the room in the arms of Adrian, Catherine felt again the comic strangeness of this handful of modern western persons tripping with their ordered steps to mechanical music round a rococo ballroom erected on a Spanish monastery, on an Indian palace, in the heart of the primeval forests.  Round the villa jungle creatures prowled and roared, Indians and Spaniards and half-breeds slept and waked, and a strange stone army crowded up against the house, Maya gods, sixteenth century Spanish missionaries and saints, and eighteenth century beings in togas or cocked hats.

But it was not really stranger than anything else, thought Catherine.  All the world is strange.  Strange looks passed from eye to eye, strange touches, strange half-phrases.

Rose Macaulay's Staying with Relations emerges from the same Anglo fascination with the non-Anglo world as The Towers of Trebizond, which was my favorite surprise read of last year.  Like that novel, Relations skewers the provincialism of the English traveler, who skips halfway round the world to drink the same tea, read the same books, and talk to the same white people as in London; trading only the Turkey of Trebizond for Guatemala.  In that way both books are comedies, but they simultaneously recognize that the obsession with travel emerges from something near horror; we are fascinated by the Other but terrified to embrace it.  The alienation of the traveler, for Macaulay, is a stand-in for all kinds of alienation: from others, from ourselves, from God.

Catherine, a young popular novelist goes to visit her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Guatemala, where they live in the renovated hacienda of the Imperial Spanish.  Guatemala is a wild place; the jungle is dotted with Spanish ruins that speak of Nature's power over Western civilization.  Her uncle is a dilettante archaeologist, constantly poking around his own residence for the mysteries it might contain.  Her cousins are blithe, cultured, and utterly bored by Guatemala.  The jungle's threatening nature becomes suddenly literal when Catherine's cousin Isie is kidnapped by native Guatemalans in return for a mysterious "treasure" which the hacienda may or may not contain.  Until this point the book seems like little more than a bland travelogue; once the kidnapping is proved to be a ruse by an untrustworthy white friend, the novel veers again, as Catherine and her cousins pursue the culprit through Mexico.

The villain had to be white in the end.  It's okay, in the latter half of the twentieth century, to write about white heroes in a non-white world, but the only permissible subtext is we were the monsters all along.  That's probably a fair standard, and as Conrad proved, even that is enough to save your narrative from being morally questionable.  For Macaulay, the perfidy of the white neighbor shows that we cannot trust each other, because we do not know each other.  Even the relations of the title, are, in the end, unknown to us.  Catherine, who is known as a novelist with an eye for character, is constantly misjudging her own family--surprised that this one is having an affair, or that that one isn't, etc.:

Catherine thought, perhaps if we travel together, I shall get to know them at last, for so far I have been all wrong, and they have turned out different to what I thought.  How is one to know what people are like?  I wonder what Julia would say.  Perhaps one can never know; perhaps people are uncapturable, and slip away like water from one's hand, changing all the time. 
But still, as a novelist of human character, she felt that she must try to understand it.  After all, there it is; people must be like something, if only one can discover what.  How does one penetrate through the idea that they give of themselves into the elusive spirit behind?  Can it be that one never can do that?

The Guatemalan jungle becomes, rather than merely a symbol of unknowability, a source of misdirection for human bewilderment.  In the end, the jungle is what it is; it is other people who contain mysteries.  Conrad's error was that he mixed up people and the jungle; the Londoner, the African, and the jungle were each as inscrutable, and possibly evil, as the other.  It's only the Londoner he expected to surprise you.  The native Guatemalans turn out to be as banal and ordinary as anyone else, but even banality proves not to be penetrable.  As Catherine notes, "All is strange."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

I drove to the doctor's office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching--windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.  When I stopped at the red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward.  Who is she? people might have been wondering.  Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?  I strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing 12 with a casual, fun-loving finger.  The kind of finger that was up for anything.  Once the doors had closed, I checked myslef in the mirrored ceiling and practiced how my face would go if Philip was in the waiting room. Surprised but not overly surprised, and he wouldn't be on the ceiling so my neck wouldn't be craning up like that.  All the way down the hall I did the face  Oh! Oh, hi! 

I first encountered Miranda July during college, when Netflix recommended that I get the DVD of Me and You and Everyone We Know.  I was really into indie comedies back then, and when Netflix said I would rate something five stars, it was never wrong (indeed, it was a simpler time...).  Netflix was spot on with Me and You and Everyone We Know; it's one of the few indie films from that time of my life that I still remember and rewatch occasionally.

I didn't even know July wrote fiction.  During one of our camping trips Brittany brought the audio tapes for one of her collections of short stories, read by her.  Confession: I love the sound of her voice.  The short story collection was great (although, I don't think I finished listening to it).

So I was excited to see she'd written a novel (and even more excited when my friend lent it to me).

July has a talent for characters for whom regular interactions are very difficult.  These characters know that they are navigating a world that is easy to navigate for others, and so have a deep self-consciousness about the fact that they are different from other characters.  This novel is no exception.

The protagonist/narrator, Cheryl, works for a self-defense workshop not for profit; the group teaches women how to defend themselves against attackers.  She is full of insightful and hilarious observations about the people around her: "Dr. Broyard had Scandinavian features and wore tiny, judgmental glasses."

By the time we meet Cheryl, she is infatuated with Phillip, an older man who works on the board of her office; she works at home because her coworkers have decided she's better as a stay-at-home-manager.  Her life is disrupted when a temporary roommate is forced on her: where Cheryl is quiet, structured, and middle aged, her new roommate is loud, spontaneous, and young.

The novel is full of beautiful writing and imagery, and she successfully maintains an interesting plot throughout.  Highly recommended.

And because this is clearly the best cinematic moment in the all of time and space, I'm linking it here:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Minding the Law by Anthony G. Amsterdam & Jerome Bruner

But this does not mean our purpose in writing about these cases is to criticize their results.  We subject their texts to close reading; and where the reading shows that Supreme Court Justices have made undeclared categorial choices--or have chosen to take one narrative, rhetorical, or cultural direction rather than another without explaining why--we do not hesitate to say that the choices lack any justification in the text.

Anthony Amsterdam is a legend in the capital defense world.  He argued Furman v. Georgia, when the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.  He argued two of the five cases that brought the death penalty back.  See here and here.  He won a MacArthur genius grant, and teaches at NYU law.

To say I admire him is...an understatement.  So you might imagine my excitement when I learned that he wrote a book.  And not just any book, a book co-written with an accomplished psychologist, Jerome Bruner.  In it, they seek to explain how Supreme Court decisions make categorical, narrative, and rhetorical decisions without acknowledging them.  They throw in chapter about what they call the "cultural" dialectic. For purposes of this review, I'm only going to talk about "categories" and the "cultural dialectic," but only because they have the less intuitive interesting things to offer.

As to categories, they explain the basic human cognitive function of categorizing the information presented to us; this allows us to organize a lot of information more efficiently and also to rely on our generalizations of a category when presented with a specific instance.  However, though categories serve an important cognitive function, we forget that categories are "made, not found."  It follows that to categorize something, is an act of meaning-making.  The act of categorization also serves an end.  They write, "In general, we can say that category systems serve two major cultural functions . . . . One is to promote cohesiveness within cultural groups . . . . But almost by virtue of that function, category systems can also serve to dominate other groups: to impose your system on them."

Categories also present a danger.  Consider:
     When one raises a question whether any particular legal category, category system, or category placement is defensible by anything but fiat, one is more often than not met with the claim that there must be some substance to the challenged categorization because things within the category are more similar to one another than to things outside the category.  And often the similarity adverted to is undeniable, even glaring.  But beware the other similarities that were ignored when the adverted-to similarity was selected for attention.
     For the fact is that human beings have an exquisite, ubiquitous capacity to register endless sources of similarity.  And any judgment of similarity depends upon the criteria chosen to measure likeness or unlikeness.  Similarity for what? is the question.  Two dachshunds are more like each other than like a Doberman, unless one of the dachshunds belongs to me; then the other dachshund and the Doberman are more alike because they are "not mine."
When this analysis is applied to decisions of the Supreme Court, we see that they are full of decisions about how to categorize facts.  These categorizations can ultimately decide a case.  The authors take two Supreme Court decisions and go blow for blow, exposing and explaining every categorical choice.

I cannot decide which is
more righteous: the 
mustache or this portrait.
They do this kind of analysis for "narrative" and "rhetoric."  Those chapters are also full of insight into the unseen decisions within decisions.  I want to focus on the "cultural dialectic" because I think that section was more Amsterdam/Bruner than mere explication from other disciplines.

They explain what they mean by "cultural dialectic" by reference to ideas: "All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible" and "Whatever internal coherence a culture achieves is attributable, not to some natural process (as with homeostasis in biology, say), but to the dialectical processes inherent in negotiation."  Or to summarize, "cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality.  In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible."  Of course, this framing may not work for many purposes; however, in the context of legal decisions, it is very helpful.

The reason is that, many Supreme Court issues fall within this fissure.  Fundamentally, when an important issue appears before the Court, the Court is presented with competing views of what it should do: maintain the status quo or aspire to something better.  Do we maintain marriage as the institution of yesteryear, or do we transform it into something all encompassing?  Indeed, one of the most enduring debates about the Constitution is whether it should be read as the same document it has always been or whether it should be read as an evolving document.  Their application of this analysis to actual Supreme Court decisions is fascinating because, fundamentally, and without acknowledgment, the Court is making a decision about which side of the dialectic the Court is on.

Why do we care that the Court is making decisions without acknowledging them?  As a lawyer, I care because professionally, I'm trying to persuade the court to do things, knowing what unstated considerations are at play are part of doing this job well.  As a person interested in ideas, this book has caused me to reflect on the layered nature of persuasion.  Yes, the logical is persuasive.  But, as this book shows, much more is at play than logic.  The implication is that our minds understand narratively, categorically, and rhetorically in a way parallel to logically.  And, lurking behind the shadows, is the cultural dialectic: our ability to understand is shaped by the questions of our day.

Obviously, of late, I've been reading what may be generally referred to as "legal theory" books  More so than any of the others, I'd recommend this to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  For the lawyers out there, this book explains the action of the law and problematizes what we easily take for granted.  For the non-lawyers, I think this book explains how being a lawyer is much more than applying straight forward rules to straight forward facts.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Broadway, the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; and narrow was the way that lead to life eternal, and few there were who found it.  But he did not long for the narrow way, where all his people walked; where the houses did not rise, piercing, as it seemed, the unchanging clouds, but huddled, flat, ignoble, close to the filthy ground, where the streets and the hallways and the rooms were dark, and where the unconquerable odor was of dust, and sweat, and urine, and homemade gin.  In the narrow way, the way of the cross, there awaited him only humiliation forever; there awaited him, one day, a house like his father's house, and a church like his father's, and a job like his father's, where he would grow old and black with hunger and toil.  The way of the cross had given him a belly filled with wind and had bent his mother's back...

I remember listening to a conversation, which I didn't feel like taking part in, where a woman, who was not black, expressed her confusion about the popularity of Christianity among black Americans.  Why adopt the religion of your colonizers, she reasoned, the religion of those who oppressed and enslaved you?  Considered from a distance, it's a fair point.  But I couldn't help wondering how absurd that reasoning might have seemed in an actual conversation with a black Christian.  As if people tried on religions like hats, rather than believing in them as truth.  And worse: as if black American Christianity, the cradle of abolition and gospel music, was nothing but a hand-me-down from European whites.  In the end, though, I didn't say anything, because it didn't seem like my case to make.

I thought of that conversation a lot while reading James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is all about the relationship between black Americans and Christianity.  Its protagonist, John, despises his abusive father, who is a preacher in Harlem, and secretly chafes under the assumption that, as the oldest, he must inherit his father's work.  In the novel, it's John's birthday, which is marred when his wilder brother, Roy, is badly wounded in a fight.  After unleashing hell upon each other, John, his mother, his father, and his father's sister go to church for a prayer meeting.  Baldwin dedicates a chapter to each of the adults' prayers, which serve as flashbacks, telling us that, among other things, John's father isn't really his father at all.

Baldwin treats black Christianity in all of its complexity.  Sometimes it's an excuse, as when John's father seduces and impregnates a neighbor; sometimes it's a torture, as with John's miserable relationship with his father.  Elsewhere it's a comfort, or a necessity.  Baldwin puts religion in context of the black American experience, not as a forced ritual (although maybe there's a hint of that in the way John is forced to it by his father), but as a vital response to historical inequity:

Yes, their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored, their very names were nothing more than dust blown disdainfully across the field of time--to fall where, to blossom where, bringing forth what fruit hereafter, where?--their very names were not their own.  Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire--a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!

Look how carefully Baldwin stitches together the familiar stories: the parable of the seeds, Proverbs' insistence that "[a] good name is more desirable than great riches," turned here into another instance of colonial plunder, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  Together, they become a narrative which finds the resonance between traditional Christianity and black struggle.  Baldwin's prose, consistently terrific, finds a source in the most beautiful parts of scripture, which are always about the marginalized, the frightened, and the lost.  And yet Baldwin recognizes, as in the great passage I posted up top, which cleverly associates the "broad way" of Matthew with Manhattan's Broadway, the way in which Christianity can also recycle the same injustices.

At the end of the novel, John has a kind of vision at the prayer meeting, and a conversion experience.  Are we meant to feel happy, that John has finally reconciled to the religion of his father?  Or sad, that John's chances of true freedom seem to have diminished?  Baldwin is too nuanced, and perhaps too conflicted himself, to give us the easy answer.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

“My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right…I know there are ways to match [my brain and body] up, though I have no access to any of those ways right now, plus everything costs a ton of money, which sucks...I also know people think I'm an ISSUE, and that gets really old. Any time THOSE SCARY TRANS PEOPLE come up, everybody flips out...I get it, it's the craziest thing in the world, but it's not gross and wrong, it just is, so why do people lose their minds over it?"

This Stonewall award winning novel centers on Gabe at the end of his senior year of high school. He has recently come out as transgender (he was born female but identifies as male) to his family and best friend, but is still trying to navigate coming out to his radio mentor, John, and the rest of his small town community.

The novel is a self-aware first person narrative, which is helpful for people who may be less familiar with being transgender. Gabe’s coming out process is the center of the action, so the tension between not wanting to care what the world thinks of him with actually facing society – a society that is often scary, violent, prejudice, and ignorant – is central. Being in the middle of coming out and transitioning allows the reader to gain knowledge as Gabe discovers more about himself. For example, Gabe describes using a chest-compression binder, buying a stand-to-pee prosthetic, and thinking about the gender presentation of his voice and mannerisms. The most insightful part of the novel is Cronn-Mills’ various depictions of people’s reactions, particularly Gabe’s mother. After calling Gabe "Elizabeth" (it’s unclear whether it’s accidental or purposeful), they get into an argument that shows the pain his mom is feeling and the misunderstandings about each other they have each been holding inside.

It also has all the things familiar to all YA novels: loving the wrong person, not understanding how sex works or if one should be having it, picking a path for the future, and trying to escape a small town. For a reader looking for a realistic young adult novel, there are definitely better ones out there. For a reader looking for a realistic young adult novel about a FTM trans guy, this is a great one to pick. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

"And that brings us to you, Sunny...Your name reflects the sun, like the color of your skin, no? ... An ugly, sickly color for a child of pure Nigerian blood. Everything about you is 'wrong'...What has the Supreme Being endowed you with, eh?" 

"So, because I'm a Leopard albino, I can - "

"Yes. Certain attributes tend to yield certain talents. Very, very tall people tend to have the ability to predict the future through the stars. Very, very short people tend to make plants grow. Those with bad skin usually know and understand the weather. Abilities are things people are able to do without the use of a juju knife, powders or other ingredients like the head of an ebett. They just come naturally." 

I have read 20 young adult novels this year - some for Teacher Land, some for myself, and some for Library School. Akata Witch is one of my absolute favorites of this year.

Sunny is between worlds. Nigerian, but American-born. Igbo speaker, but English is her first language. Black, but albino. Then she discovers she is even more inbetween than she ever realized: she is a Leopard Person, one with the ability to perform magic, in a Lamb (non-magical) family. Some people have called this the Nigerian Harry Potter, and while the description is apt, it also fails to give this novel and the world Okorafor created its fair due. Sunny's character is initiated into the Leopard world by Chichi (a powerful loudmouth who is homeschooled by her magical priestess mom) and Orlu (a quiet respectful boy who steps in when Sunny gets jumped). They are quickly joined by Sasha, the American bad boy sent to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble. 

As Sunny starts leading a complicated double life with academic school with uniforms and corporeal punishment during the day in sharp contrast with dangerous magical school at night, she and her friends must learn to work together while avoiding the ritualistic serial killer who has been taking children and mutilating their bodies. 

The world-building is incredible and the characters are engaging and relatable. Although I read a fair amount of Nigerian literature, this is my first young adult and/or fantasy novel that takes place in Nigeria, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can't wait for the sequel, Kola Nut, to come out in 2016.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.

In a way, it seems like no one can ever read Proust the right way. The books, thick and numerous, which make up In Search of Lost Time are really the work of a man’s entire life—he never really did anything else of note, because he spent so much of his existence on this one narrative. But also, it feels like an attempt to capture a life in its totality, not just what happens within it, but the various impressions, images, feelings, and ineffable sensations that really characterize what it is like to be a human being. Seeing some of that stuff in print—stuff that you never imagined it was even possible to even put into words—is what makes Swann’s Way so fulfilling. Proust meditates on these experiences as he describes how a piece of music reminds Swann of his beloved, Odette:

Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind the same way as certain other notions without equivalents, like the notion of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical pleasure, which are the rich possessions that diversify and ornament the realms of our inner life. Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will fade away, if we return to nothingness. But as long as we are alive, we can no more eliminate our experience of them than we can our experience of some real object, than we can for example doubt the light of the lamp illuminating the metamorphosed objects in our room whence the memory of darkness has vanished… Maybe it is the nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing. We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.

The famous symbol of Swann’s Way is a cookie—the madeleine which the narrator eats which brings the memories of his childhood, flooding back. The first section, “Combray,” is a compendium of these memories, which are as much feelings of the “divine captives” of impressions as they are of people and places. The second section, “Swann in Love,” is a more traditional narrative, which abandons the consciousness of the unnamed narrator to tell the story of his parents’ friend M. Swann, who falls deeply in love with an unsuitable woman named Odette. “Swann in Love” is one of the realest depictions I’ve ever read of what it’s like to be really in love. It seems undeniable that

[o]ur belief that a person takes part in an unknown life which his or her love would allow us to enter is, of all that love demands in order to come into being, what it prizes the most, and what makes it care little for the rest.

I read once that the best literature puts words to ideas you possessed but had never articulated—I think that’s true here. That’s from “Combray,” but it’s proven true in “Swann in Love” when a friend tells Swann he saw Odette walking around Paris:

This simple sketch was greatly disturbing to Swann because it suddenly made him see that Odette had a life which did not belong entirely to him; he wanted to know whom she had been trying to please with that outfit, which he did not know she possessed; he would promise himself to ask her where she had been going, at that moment, as if in the whole of his mistress’s colorless life—almost inexistent, because it was invisible to him—there had been only one thing apart from all those smiles directed at him: her walking under a Rembrandt-style hat, with a bunch of violets in her bodice.

In a way, Swann’s Way reads like an attempt to make real the lives of others, which are so often colorless and inexistent. We know the narrator, and we know Swann, not because what they do or say is plausible—the discerning eye of realism—but because their inner lives seem as rich, mysterious, and conflicted as our own. The prose is overstuffed, circuitous, digressive, but only because people are that way. Swann’s Way, you could say, is more real than realism.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Volcano by Shusaku Endo

It was because of what had happened last night that this sombre emotion swept the heart of Jinpei.  He was loath to say it, but the fact remained that he considered the mountain to be the only one deserving his trust.  Because the mountain too had grown old in sympathy with him.  He blinked his eyes and gazed forever at the ugly wrinkles on the decrepit volcano, the dark grey of the hazy mountain foot.  Never before had the mountain so perfectly mirrored the loneliness and isolation in his own heart.  No doubt it was simply because he had never been so utterly obsessed with lonely depression as he had since the night before.  Akadake moved in rhythm to match his heart.  As he grew old, the mountain too went senile.

Jinpei Suda has spent a lifetime monitoring the volcano Akadake, which looms over a small town in southern Japan.  Conventional wisdom, to which Jinpei subscribes, says that the volcano, which has killed thousands in the past, has not gone dormant, but died for good, and become nothing more than a mountain.  When he retires, Jinpei believes that his diligent stewardship of the local weather bureau has brought him a middle-class respect and prestige.  But when he suffers from a stroke, he learns that his son and daughter-in-law see him as a burden, his wife resents him, and his friends and colleagues are all too happy to forget about him.

The only sympathetic figure he finds is the volcano itself, who seems as old and utterly spent as Jinpei himself.  But to maintain this pathetic fallacy, the illusion of sympathy, Jinpei must ignore the suddenly troubling signs that Akadake is set to erupt: the animals dying, perhaps from the release of sulfur gas, the opening fissures in the side of the mountain.  Sneaking into the weather bureau when everyone else is gone for New Year's, Jinpei even swipes a troubling bit of ticker-tape from the seismometer.  Akadake is very much alive, but if that's true, it means that Jinpei is left to slip quietly into death, alone.

I read Endo's Silence a couple years ago because I had heard him referred to as the "Japanese Graham Greene."  As a practicing Japanese Catholic, Endo is a rare bird, and his outsider status surely does align him with Greene, who never seemed to feel like his Catholicism connected him to a larger community.  Volcano becomes even more Greene-like than Silence by introducing an apostate French priest named Durand, who might have been cut wholesale out of a Greene novel.  It's Durand who voices the idea, prevalent in Silence, that the Japanese character is incompatible with Christianity.  To this outsider, Jinpei seems like a criticism of a specifically Japanese way of living, characterized by extreme politesse and an outsized pride in semi-respectable, bureaucratic achievements.  Durand's insistence that the Japanese character is foreign to guilt or sin sometimes seems designed to indict Jinpei's inability to face the possibility that he has been a bad husband or a bad father, or that his self-delusions about Akadake threaten the lives of others.

But Endo never contrives to put the two characters together in more than a perfunctory way, and the connection between them is really just my speculation, spun out of pretty thin cloth.  Are we supposed to wonder what Jinpei might have done, or been, if he had been a Catholic?  Endo's cynicism about Catholicism in Japan seems to preclude that.  More often, Durand seems like a character dropped in from another universe, Greene's maybe, who only touches the main plot in oblique ways.

That's one of the big flaws of Volcano, which I generally enjoyed.  The other is that it never seems to build on the big idea it begins with: Jinpei is wrong about the volcano, but he can't face it because it would involve learning something frightening about himself.  Endo hammers that point home, but does little with it beyond that.  Unlike Silence, whose characters are forced to face difficult questions about their own faith and character, Volcano seems as committed as Jinpei to not facing anything at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave...I simply did not let myself become afraid." 

I first heard of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, and Dear Sugar from an article on Jezebel Did Vogue Photoshop Sugar From Dear Sugar? (For the record, she was legitimately pissed about it: "I was furious. I didn't get to see the picture until the magazine was on the stands. I was grateful that they ran an excerpt of my book, but I was so incredibly disappointed by what they did to the photograph of me...frankly, I thought these would be the prettiest pictures ever taken of me. But what they did with Photoshop obliterated that.")

I didn't know who Cheryl Strayed was, I was not a Dear Sugar reader, and I had never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, but in 2012 I was just outdoorsy enough to be very annoyed by Vogue's photoshoot. I thought "Hm, I should read that" and then it went on Oprah's List which I actually like fine but pretend to be annoyed by and then it was turned into a movie and I totally watch movies that were books but also pretend to be annoyed by them. So I'm reading this book 3 years late. 

Because it was on Oprah's list and turned into a movie, I assume most people know the basic premise. Cheryl grew up on a crunchy farm, was a high school cheerleader, and lost her mom at age 22. Her life fell apart with everything from a mundane divorce to a heroin addiction. She decided to hike the PCT as a way to figure her life out.

The outdoorsy part of me loved the trail stories. The feminist part of me loved the fact that she was doing it alone when many women are afraid to adventure alone. The nosy part of me that loves memoirs loved that it covers her whole life, not just the trail. Cheryl is a perfect example of one of my favorite quotes: by virtue of being human we are wonderfully imperfect and flawed. She sucks sometimes, but she's honest about it, and it makes for a very moving and satisfying story. Like most women, I have a complicated relationship with my mom, and page 151 made me cry and call my mom for a chat. 

One of the worst things about losing my mother at the age I did was how very much there was to regret. Small things that stung now: all the times I'd scorned her kindness by rolling my eyes or physically recoiled in response to her touch; the time I'd said, 'Aren't you amazed to see how much more sophisticated than I am at twenty-one than you were?' The thought of my youthful lack of humility made me nauseous now. I had been an arrogant asshole and, in the midst of that, my mother died. Yes, Id' been a loving daughter, and yes, I'd been there fore her when it mattered, but I could have been better.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

Alex is not a book to quote from, not a book to analyze, not a book to summarize. It's a book that some people will love and a lot of people will really dislike. I first heard about it two years ago from the podcast Books on the Nightstand, and the description of it was enough to keep it on my mind for the two years it took me to track it down. 

It starts like a horribly boring cliche. Pretty girl kidnapped, stripped down, shoved into a crate by a man. Detective who doesn't want to take the case since his own wife was kidnapped and murdered. His old team gets back together - can he save her? If he does will he forgive himself for not saving his wife? It's almost laughable...until the plot takes some turns that are really not funny. The novel is clever, exciting, and surprising - which is really difficult to do in this genre.

It has a lot of graphic violence, some of it sexual in nature. For readers who enjoy books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I would absolutely recommend it. Be aware that there is a note in the back explaining the French legal/police system and a glossary of French terms. I didn't realize this until the end which made for some confusion. Lemaitre has continued to write novels about the detective and he has the same translator working on them. Irene is already out and next on my list - hopefully Sacrifices will come out in English soon.