Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson (review #2)

I decided to do a reread of Orphan Master’s Son, which I read a few years back. It’s pretty rare that I reread a book, but I recommended the book to a student, and I realized that though I raved about how good the book was, I couldn’t really remember why I’d liked it that much. When my local library serendipitously had the book in stock, I checked it out--and nearly finished the entire thing in one weekend. Even though I already know much of the story (though it’s also shocking how much I’d forgotten), Orphan Master’s Son remains an entirely engrossing reread. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s as good a book as I originally felt.

There’s no need to retread old ground in a follow-up review, so I thought instead I’d cover some stray thoughts, inelegantly organized.

First, though the book is about North Korea, I’m reminded how much of an American story it is. Because, above all else, the story is about the triumph of the individual, the power of individual choice and sacrifice. In that way it’s implicitly also anti-Communist and directly challenges bleak tales like 1984. The book suggests that one’s identity--given and assumed--matters, and that we have power even in a world determined to strip away that strength. Though these qualities and messages are not uniquely American, they are the hallmark values of our national mythos. For this reason, though the book takes place almost entirely in North Korea, with Korean characters, names, and even words, it doesn’t feel nearly as foreign as one might imagine.

There’s also some interesting questions about sacrifice. Jun Do sacrifices everything, including his own life, to rescue his love (Sun Moon) and her two children. But in doing so, he also sacrifices the lives of others, such as Commander Buc and his family. His action is undoubtedly noble, and presented that way, but there’s also something wrong about seeing the most privileged members of North Korean society escape while others suffer. I do suppose learning about Sun Moon’s tragic upbringing makes her less elite and more “worthy” of saving, though, of course, the idea of who’s “worthy” to live is repulsive in itself.

And I also wonder if the novel doesn’t over-glorify pain (or the endurance of horrific levels of pain). Jun Do has had “pain training” that allows him to withstand even the most hideous forms of torture, and there seems something perverse in that “strength” being used as a measure of his worthiness. In this way, perhaps 1984 is a better way to go, in a similar way as I prefer Slaughterhouse-Five’s take on war to traditional war stories. By praising enduring pain, aren’t we, in some way, praising the infliction of pain itself? As if torture is a test of fortitude to determine the fittest, rather than simply a reflection of humanity’s capacity for cruelty and inhumanity.

You could go even farther and criticize the enormous amounts of violence in the book as a (more sophisticated) genre of the pervasive “torture porn,” which uses violence to entertain. The question makes me a little uncomfortable with my enjoyment of the novel.

And is there even an element of “culture porn,” the voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing a “backwards” culture? It’s obviously a good thing to learn about other cultures, but in this case does our enjoyment come from snickering at how blind they are? Of course, North Korea is batshit crazy, so maybe that whole “cultural appreciation” isn’t so significant.

And finally, I have some conflicting thoughts about the evils of the real Commander Ga. He’s cruel and sadistic, and the most potent evidence of this (from the point of view of the book) is his gleeful rape of men. On the one hand, rape is an absolutely despicable act, but on the other hand, this is the only mention (other than another man in charge who molested boys) of same-sex sexual acts. Now, I would argue that Commander Ga (and the child molester) are not “gay” in the sense of being attracted to men. They’re rapists and sadists, out for domination and control either in the most challenging way possible (Ga) or the most convenient/vulnerable way possible. But, again, with this being the novel’s only reference to same-sex sexuality in any form, does the book, indirectly, suggest homosexuality is deviant and cruel? I guess perhaps I wanted more emphasis on their desire for control rather than the same-sex angle.

Anyway, as noted, some unorganized thoughts. Still a book I’d recommend, but maybe a little less enthusiastically.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is a book that I'm of two minds about. On the one hand, it exposes an important and overlooked element of American history. I think, even today, the image of a "black woman scientist" feels foreign, despite the undoubtedly many black women working today (and in the past) in scientific fields. Hidden Figures effectively brings to light the work of a variety of black women in one particular arena: NASA (and its predecessor, NACA). The women worked largely as "computers," a term that reads oddly to us today, but that originally referred simply to "people who do computations." Though today we imagine any math job as high-level, the position was entry-level at the time, below that of the male engineers and scientists. Nevertheless, many of the women rose to become engineers and join engineering teams, making significant contributions to our nation's history.

On the other hand, Shetterly's detailed attention to chronicling this overlooked aspect of history means the book itself often reads like a history book. She eliminates much of the personal narrative style you tend to see in especially engrossing nonfiction (an issue the movie seems to go the exact opposite direction in, for better or for worse). Undoubtedly this makes her book more accurate, but it also makes it more of a slog, the slew of names and dates and scientific terms creating confusion and glazed eyes.

But, to the history: what's surprising about the history of the black women scientists is just how little overt discrimination they faced. They faced discrimination, for sure--segregated work spaces, lunch tables, and bathrooms; unequal pay and job titles; a lack of upward mobility--and those injustices are incredibly important. However, they also were welcomed at NACA/NASA in a way they often weren't in other fields. First, the demand for employees with scientific backgrounds during WW2 and later the space race was so high that ability and experience often trumped racial prejudice. Within the organization, other employees were more concerned with output--are the numbers correct?--than who was doing the work. And despite Langley being located in heavily segregated Virginia, many of its employees were from elsewhere, including the North, where their prejudice was less strong (though obviously still present). For this reason, the book features few (or really any) of the dramatic showdowns you might imagine. Instead, the women work incredibly hard and are incredibly dedicated to their work; they earn their peers' respect and over time are siphoned off from the large computing pool to join individual engineering teams, where many go on to become engineers and computer programmers.

The dramatic showdowns tend to take place outside NACA/NASA. The black women are working alongside white co-workers, calculating the path to the moon, while outside Langley black high school students are physically barred from integrating schools. That juxtaposition had to be incredibly difficult--seeing simultaneously the possibility and the barriers.

Ultimately, Hidden Figures is a valuable contribution to scientific and American history, though not packaged in the most accessible manner.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: Year in Review

2016 was a better reading year than 2015, even though it wasn't an especially improved year for blogging. I read 23 books, which averages to nearly two a month, so I'm pretty proud of that. Like before, I'm having trouble finding books that truly excite and engross me. There were a few I really enjoyed, but far more that I finished without enthusiasm.

Books read in 2016:
Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Jan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Feb)
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (Mar)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Mar)
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan  (April)
Euphoria by Lily King (May)
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins (May)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (May)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (June)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (June)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (June)
Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan (July)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (July)
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (Sept)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne (Oct)
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Oct)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oct)
Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Nov)
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Dec)
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Dec)
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (Dec)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Dec)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Dec)

My favorite book was probably Underground Airlines, as it fit the incredibly-engrossing and thought-provoking category. I'd follow that up with Keenan's Sex with Shakespeare for its pure audacity. Her connections between Shakespeare and BDSM might have been stretched (she admits as much herself), but it was fascinating the whole way through.

Other books get a solid "decent" rating: Euphoria (for reinterpreting the life of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead); The Girl on the Train (for a decent but not that shocking mystery); The First Fifteen Lives...(for an interesting take on reincarnation); Everything I Never Told You (for a look at family through the lens of a dead sister); and Lab Girl (for making a science memoir pretty engrossing).

One of the downsides of not reviewing the books is that I'm quick to forget them afterwards. In fact, there's a couple books on the list that I can't remember a thing about. I'm not a resolution-maker, but I have started to rediscover the joy of writing, so I'll try to write more about my reading--or teaching or what have you--in 2017.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Company Town" by Madeline Ashby

Company Town is the kind of novel I should like--a sci-fi dystopian, an independent female protagonist.

The novel follows Hwa, who lives on rigs (of some sort--truthfully the setting itself was confusing for me) now owned by the Lynch corporation. She's a body guard for the legalized and unionized prostitutes who work there. When Lynch officially moves in, she's hired as bodyguard/trainer for Lynch's son and heir, Joel. But then many of her old prostitute friends are dying, and someone's after Joel, and also she's feeling all squishy for Daniel, her boss at Lynch.

As may already be apparent, somehow the novel never came together for me. First, there's Hwa herself, who had too many past traumas for any of them to feel real. She has a large (port-wine-type?) stain over her body, and thus is "ugly" in a society where most people are medically augmented. Her mother, a famous singer/prostitute, hates her and didn't want to have her. Her idolized older brother died in a rig accident several years back. Oh, and she also has a weird seizure disorder! But all of these traumas weave in and out without a clear trajectory or purpose, and I couldn't even really see what her mother, brother, and seizures had to do with the book.

Then there's the love interest, Daniel, whom I was supposed to swoon for but instead hated on the spot. Because he is: the most perfect man alive. The most caring, most thoughtful, most in-tune, most whatever idealized romantic figure you can imagine. Never angry, mean, or selfish. Totally in love with Hwa. But why? I couldn't understand how their relationship developed--he was just suddenly completely committed. Also, he has some weird backstory--he only has 10 years of memory because Lynch sort of "recreated" him after some accident (?). But apparently that doesn't really matter because we never learn about his past.

And let's not forget the serial murders of Hwa's prostitute friends, described in graphic, grisly detail. Apparently they couldn't just be killed--they had to be butchered in Saw 16 fashion. For no reason! I mean, at the end we're given a reason why they were killed, but no reason why it needed to be so grotesque.

Truthfully, I felt like I was in a fog most of the novel, always feeling like I was missing some key point/characterization. But even once everything was "revealed" in the end, and I had no further plot-comprehension questions, I still felt lost.

In the end, it's probably the characterization that most did Company Town in for me. An over-loaded hodgepodge protagonist and  Ken-doll love interest just aren't my thing.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"The Sellout" by Paul Beatty

I began Beatty's The Sellout awhile ago, but never got hooked and eventually put it down. I returned to it recently after running out of things to read and learning that Beatty became the first American ever to win Britain's Man Booker Prize.

So, I finished The Sellout, but I'm truthfully still unsure what to say about it. It's clearly a biting commentary on race in modern America, and I get that, but while reading I constantly felt like I wasn't getting the novel itself. I felt perhaps like my students do when we read Huck Finn: I know there's satire there, but it's too over my head to talk about it.

And that realization makes me wonder how insulated I am from racial politics in America. I read and listen to the news, and I consider myself a generally thoughtful liberal educator, but am I only giving serious racial issues lip service?

Regardless, I'll cover what I did get. The key point is that the narrator, Bonbon, seeks to address racial issues in his town of Dickens by re-instituting discriminatory practices: segregating public busing and schooling, even taking on a slave (albeit an unwanted volunteer slave). As a result, his black community of Dickens actually improves.

Here's what I got from it: racism and discriminatory practices still exist today, but they're much less blatant than they were in the past. After all, we're no longer legally barring African American children from attending all-white schools or shouting racial epithets in the street. Because we've abolished much of the most overt racism, there's often a sense that we've "solved" racism--that it's no longer an issue. But it's still present and harmful. What Bonbon's action do, then, is make overt what's become covert, and it's that bringing out to the surface that allows change to happen.

In skimming over some of the Amazon reviews, I noticed that many compare Beatty's structure to a stand-up comedian's routine, and thinking about the novel like that, rather than a traditional literary narrative, probably would help a reader enjoy it more. The opening section, in which Bonbon philosophizes as he waits for his case to be heard before the Supreme Court, can be draining on readers expecting plot and characters.

Ultimately, I'm not left with a good verdict about The Sellout. I think it's a book best enjoyed in small chunks followed by discussion, rather than an "absorb yourself in a read" kind of way. I missed too much, though ultimately I blame myself rather than Beatty.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters

Occasionally I read a book that terrifies me. And often that terror doesn’t come from a real (for me) place. I suppose I don’t read books about suburban moms or English teachers much. Instead, the terror comes from books that speak to my greatest fear: a lack of control, an inability to have agency in my life. So that’s perhaps why, despite my incredibly privileged upbringing as a white, middle-class woman, I find books about slavery scarier than most horror movies.

I found Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines absolutely terrifying and thought provoking; Winters has combined a tension-filled “adventure” story with sardonic commentary on race relations in America. Underground Airlines exists in an alternative history of the U.S., one in which slavery was not eradicated but rather continues in the “Hard Four”: the Southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and the Carolinas (combined as one state). The main character, “Victor” (we don’t learn his real name), is an escaped slave turned fugitive-slave hunter. He does his job with brutal efficiency, avoiding thinking about the number of fellow slaves (209, he repeats quietly, as a self-reproaching aside) he has returned to slavery, all in the name of keeping himself free. The novel follows Victor on the trail of Jackdaw, as escaped slave with an odd file, and whose case goes deeper than originally appears.

The novel straddles the worlds of thriller and social commentary so that, even though both elements are well-done, you’re often wanting more. In fact, I think I could have read an entire book purely on speculation of what our country would look like today without the abolition of slavery. There are hints to our position within the world stage (a country sanctioned for human rights violations) or the way in which our economy would suffer and thrive from continued slave labor. More significantly, Winters explores how our American psyche would have to adjust to continue to allow such an atrocity into the modern era. The answer is widespread, tacit hypocrisy: I disapprove of slavery, so I’ll ignore it and pretend I’m not quietly benefiting from it. All characters, from Victor to the abolitionist priest Father Barton, get such psychological scrutiny, suggesting that while slavery is evil, people are ambiguous. And in that ambiguity, people are able to justify most any action.

There are some parts that feel somewhat underserved, particularly the convenient character of Martha. She’s described as a hot mess at the beginning of the novel, but she then becomes incredibly assertive and put-together, capable of pulling off a high-stakes heist of sorts with Ocean’s Eleven-level efficiency. Her relationship with Victor also felt too broad even though they ultimately put complete trust in each other.

But the flaws are relatively minor and don’t detract from the book’s effectiveness. It’s the kind of book that calls out for discussion for its reflection on our past and observations about our present.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Bagels and Teaching

Note: I've largely stopped writing book reviews. Motherhood and teaching are just too much for me. But I have occasionally written some informal essays. My students are currently writing college application essays, which means personal narratives that "sell" them as a student. This is my "adult" college application essay.

When I was in high school, I worked at Einstein Bros. Bagels. It wasn’t a great job, and my primary accomplishment by the time I quit before leaving for college was that my salary had increased from $6/hr to $6.25/hr. Over the course of those two years, however, I came to have strong opinions about bagel operations, including the application of cream cheese.

Most customers came in for a straightforward bagel and cream cheese, which meant we schmeared those two items together regularly throughout the day. The large tubs of cream cheese came with ice cream style scoops, and many employees simply scooped up some plain, plopped it in the middle of the everything bagel, closed the bagel, and handed it to the customer.

The downside of this type of serving is obvious: the cream cheese is not spread throughout the entirety of the bagel but instead oozes out through both sides of the hole.

Conversely, I always used our flat schmearing knives to evenly spread the cream cheese over the bagel before firmly pressing the bagel together. It took a little more time, but the customer had a ready-to-eat breakfast rather than a mess needing cleanup.

I’ve not thought much about that job since, but looking back, I realize that my extra effort was a result of my belief in doing the best at whatever it is I did. I didn’t have a passion for cream cheese, but I’d chosen to take on the responsibility of a job, and because I valued myself as a person, I was going to do that job well.

Fifteen years later, I’m in the middle of my tenth year as a teacher. My students--tired and overworked high school juniors--often plead for a “chill day.” Or ask why I assign them writing assignments when I’m only “punishing” myself by having to grade an enormous stack of essays.

I always have the same answer for them: I do so because I value myself as a person and as a professional. Because I couldn’t come to school and teach each day if I thought my contribution to the world was so meaningless that we might as well have a “chill day.”

I became a teacher for all the traditional reasons: a love of reading and writing; a feeling of satisfaction in working with young people and seeing them grow. But there are days when I groan at re-treading Huck Finn another year; days when the blank stares coming from twenty-some 17-year-olds suggest I could just as well be reading the phone book.

On those days, what drives me isn't an all-consuming dedication to today's youth or the English language. Instead, it's self-respect. It's a belief that what I do reflects me as a person. And for that reason, I can't half-ass it.

I didn't care about my customers' breakfast enjoyment; those customers got well-schmeared bagels because I cared about myself. And whether I adore my current students or not, they get the best education I can provide. I don't do it out of altruistic, self-sacrificing devotion; I do it for me.