Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"The Power" by Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman’s The Power came at just the right moment. As #metoo is heard everywhere, Alderman’s novel posits a world where women’s physical strength suddenly surpasses--greatly surpasses--that of men. Her novel explores what would happen to our understanding of men and women if women could physically dominate.

The crux is, of course, whether men and women are biologically different, or if any difference stems from men’s greater physical strength and sexist socialization. Alderman’s answer appears to be simple: if women had the physical advantage, women would become “men,” and men would become “women.” It’s the simplicity of her response that both bothers me and is somewhat intriguing. In her speculation, absolute power does corrupt absolutely, and once women are given that opportunity, they dominate and destroy men as savagely as the worst male oppressors and tyrants.

Now, presumably there are some women who wouldn’t act this way (just as there are many men in history and modern times who treat women with respect). And in fact, the female protagonists of the story aren’t real villains. But, as the novel doesn’t follow any “ordinary” women who gain power, we don’t see typical married couples, for example, trying to navigate a relationship anew once one person’s position has changed.

Instead, the novel follows only the people with the most outsized influence on the changing world. There’s Allie, who becomes the spiritual cult leader Mother Eve; Roxy, a gangster’s daughter who takes on the family business; Margot, a politician with increasing aspirations; and Tunde, a journalist covering the uprisings in less developed areas of the world and the only male narrator.

The the three female narrators have largely negative relationships with men, so it’s not surprising when they use their power to take control from men. But, again, I wanted to also learn what would happen to women who had power but had had largely positive relationships with men.

Allie, who of anyone has the most influence on the changing world, felt undeveloped as a character. She’d had a rough upbringing, but becoming a cult leader overnight? Roxy made the most sense in terms of her character arc, and her end-of-the-novel connection with Tunde worked more for me than I would have thought.

One of the most interesting elements of the novel was Alderman’s take on physical strength and its connection to sex. Women’s newfound power almost immediately takes a role in sexual relationships, both as a tool for pleasure and torture. The graphic scenes of women raping men were grotesque and difficult to read.

The book was surprisingly violent and gory, perhaps done so to emphasize that any depiction of women as docile, sweet, or passive is socially structured rather than innate.

Ultimately The Power wasn’t quite what I was hoping to read, but in defying my expectations, it perhaps gave me more to think about.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: Year in Review

Well, I read less this year than last, but I wrote more, so perhaps all together I'll call it a tie. I had my second daughter at the end of July, and being home with her has (ironically?) given me some additional free time. Nonetheless, I really owe any increase in reading/writing to having a student teacher this past spring. I blogged because I was sitting around a classroom all day doing nothing. :) I also joined a new book club, which has given me an excuse (and reason) to read, and it's been fun to discuss books with other people.

Books read in 2017:
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (Jan)
Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson --a reread (Jan)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Jan)
Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (Feb)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Feb)
Slade House by David Mitchell (Feb)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Isiguro (Mar)
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (Mar)
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Mar)
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood (Apr)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Apr)
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (May)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (Jun)
My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Jun)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Apr)
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Sept)
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Sept)
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Oct)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (Nov)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Dec)

So twenty all together. Fortunately this year a number were excellent, with White Teeth and The Sympathizer being at the top of the list. White Teeth especially had not only compelling characters but such a strong voice. On the nonfiction side, Just Mercy was also captivating as it brought to light the injustices of our criminal system, and H is for Hawk was surprisingly interesting for a subject I don't have much inclination towards.

No book resolutions this year--read a little when I can. I pulled out A Wrinkle in Time from my bookshelf and am hoping it lives up to my childhood nostalgia.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy is everywhere. I'd been on the library hold list for it for months, as the word was that Vance's memoir would explain how Trump got elected. Beyond that, I really was interested in a sociological look at the white, Appalachia poor--a group that exists on the far fringes of my life in privileged suburban Ohio.

Instead, I got an straightforward memoir of Vance's hillbilly life, one far harder and more difficult than my own but also (by his own admission) less desperate than others' (e.g. he was never physically abused or malnourished). It wasn't a bad story, but it was a boring story. It's a traditional rags-to-riches tale, albeit with a focus on how hillbilly culture impedes upward mobility. As long-form journalism, I might have been engaged, but in book form, the challenges and lessons of Vance's upbringing quickly felt repetitive. Without any particular revelations--or at least some stunning prose--I wasn't sure why I was still reading.

Some of my disappointment is probably not with the book itself. As far as I know, Vance never claimed to reveal the truth of Trump voters (his book was published before Trump won). And in the introduction, he clearly states that although he references some research, his book is first and foremost a personal memoir. So my real complaints are with the hype surrounding the book, not Vance himself.

However, even taking the book solely for what it is, Hillbilly Elegy still feels hollow. Many of his main points--that success is difficult in an unstable home life; that addiction destroys families; that having a reliable and loving support network is key to breaking out--won't come as a surprise to anyone. I suppose the point did reinforce to me another way in which I'm privileged. I rarely saw my parents argue, and I never saw them yell, name call, or be violent. So it's no surprise that I conduct myself similarly in my relationships. And even when I do argue with loved ones, it's with the full understanding that no argument will ever end the relationship, a belief that would be hard to sustain if I was on husband #5.

Vance does make some interesting points about the ways in which our country tries to help the poor. He suggests that our single-minded focus on job creation often obscures the fact that many poor haven't learned how to be successful in a steady job. Or that emphasizing college entrance doesn't ensure the poor can complete college. In fact, it's likely that without Vance's four-year military experience, he would not have had the discipline to be successful when he later went to OSU and Yale Law. And he points out that knowledge that's obvious to me--that, for example, high-achieving, low-income students pay less to attend a prestigious school than a mid-tier school--is often not obvious to hillbillies like himself.

But these ideas are confined mostly to the single story of Vance's achievement, which limits their impact on a broader conversation about how to combat poverty. At its core, Vance's book suggests government intervention will do little without cultural intervention, but he's not able to name how that would happen. Some of his most interesting theses--particularly his short section on why national pride is so important to hillbillies--are especially relevant now in light of the controversy over the National Anthem, but again there was much too little.

In the end, I wanted research and statistics; sociological and psychological analysis--not a single individual's story. I recently finished Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, which used one person's story as a narrative thread to connect research and others' stories. That's what would have made Hillbilly Elegy work for me.

Stray thought: Vance included what is now one of my favorite sentences, from a professor's critique of one of his essays: "This is a vomit of sentences masquerading as a paragraph."

Monday, September 11, 2017

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Reading is often an exploration into "historical events I don't know much about," and The Sympathizer adds the Vietnam War to that category. However, appropriately for our times perhaps, The Sympathizer is much less about the war and more about the immigration experience. That the story takes place decades ago does little to change its message about the pull and push of assimilation and nationalism.

The narrator is a communist sleeper agent "hidden" in South Vietnam's special forces. He immigrates to America with the General and other South Vietnamese military, though he continues to act as a spy, sending intelligence back to his communist contact back home.

The novel is first and foremost a story of duality, of split loyalty (always a "sympathizer" with both sides). Beyond his communist/South Vietnamese split, the narrator (the Captain) is the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French Catholic priest. The pairing makes him a bastard, an outsider. Secondly, he's a Vietnamese man who went to college in America before immigrating with the army. In that way, he's also split between cultures, able to understand and communicate in both but rejected by each as being "too much" the other. Such "outsider-ness" wherever he goes makes the Captain a keen observer, less biased by personal loyalties. In that way he's able to criticize American culture, particularly its treatment of immigrants, but he also sees the failings of the Vietnamese (both the communists and South Vietnamese).

Anyone expecting a spy thriller will be disappointed, as there are a few deaths but relatively little daring action. Instead, we see a man at war with himself, pledging loyalty to the communists but spending most of his life with the South Vietnamese army. Ultimately, his only real loyalty appears to be to his childhood friends, Bon and Man, who themselves are on opposite sides.

I enjoyed The Sympathizer, though it was a slow read that took me several weeks. At times I could have used less introspection, especially because so much time was spent in the Captain's head that I began to have a hard time believing his continual commitment to the communist cause. He just didn't seem to have a fervent political ideology.

The ending was also somewhat disappointing. From the beginning, we know the Captain is retelling his story from a prison cell where he is being held by the communists, accused of betraying the cause. At the end of the novel, he is tortured into revealing a dark suppressed secret. It all felt very 1984--aiming for a similar gut-impact "truth"--but the message felt less sincere here.

In the end, I'd still recommend the novel, though both 1984 and the more recent Orphan Master's Son do some of the same things (and do them better, in my opinion). But its insight into the immigrant experience separates it from the other novels, and the beautiful prose makes reading worthwhile.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

The narrator of Kitamura's A Separation is a translator, a profession that has little impact on the story itself, but everything to do with the novel's overarching theme: the way we "translate" others' lives into a reality of our choosing, similar to the real people but ultimately clouded by personal bias. And, furthermore, the way we "translate" ourselves into a self we imagine until "the emulation bec[omes] the thing itself" (228).

The theme of A Separation is clear even when the plot is largely missing--intentionally, but perhaps deceivingly so for readers expecting some sort of mystery/thriller (I blame the blurb writer for phrases like "fiercely mesmerizing"). The general plot is that the narrator is on the verge of divorce from her husband Christopher when she gets a call from Christopher's mother, Isabella, who says Christopher has disappeared in a small town in Greece. Isabella is unaware of the impending divorce and asks the narrator to travel to Greece to find Christopher--something the narrator needlessly agrees to. Once in Greece, she's much without purpose: Christopher is no longer at the hotel he was staying at; she's unsurprised to find he's had an affair with a hotel staff member. Not long after, she learns Christopher has been killed (the narrator and the reader never learn by whom), Christopher's parents arrive, and then they leave. The book ends, and the narrator never publicly admits that she and Christopher were nearly divorced.

If any of that sounds exciting or mysterious, let me disabuse that notion immediately. This is not a suspenseful book. The narrator lies--or is, at least, misleading--about her separation from Christopher, but it's not a heart-pounding will-she-get-caught lie. It's an easy lie, a natural lie, the easy way out. Assuming the role of grieving widow is expected of her, and so she (naturally in many ways) becomes that grieving widow.

Much of the novel centers on the narrator's "translating" of the people around her, imagining Christopher's experiences and thoughts, drawing out the relationships between people like Maria (the woman with which Christopher had the affair), and Stefano (a driver who has been pursuing Maria). These thoughts aren't mere fantasy, but Kitamura also seems to emphasize that they're colored by the narrator's understanding and expectations, "stories" to help explain her place in the world.

Ultimately A Separation is a boring book--which I don't mean entirely as criticism--as it's about the way we think and interpret, not about narrative. The story itself is banal, and the prose is so calm and measured that you almost want to kick the narrator into an interjection. It's powerful for what it is, but maybe not enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Stone Mattress" by Margaret Atwood

It's interesting that, on Amazon, the book's subtitle is listed as "Nine Wicked Tales," though my library copy is just titled "Nine Tales." My copy's subtitle is probably more accurate because "wicked" connotes some kind of horror or perversity that really isn't present in these fairly straightforward stories. Sure, the characters aren't kind and gentle souls, but they didn't seem especially wicked either (okay, there are murders and blackmailing, etc., so maybe I just have pessimistic view of society). Nevertheless, as someone who's a fan of Atwood and her speculative fiction (Handmaid's Tale, the Oryx and Crake series), Nine Tale's primary focus on aging adults and their regrets just didn't live up.

I wondered throughout if my apathy towards the stories is a result of age-ism, as all the stories are narrated by elderly (is that the right term? I'm feeling ageist already...) adults reminiscing about their younger lives. Maybe, as a "young" person (I mean, I'm 33, so I'm not exactly young) I just can't appreciate a book that doesn't focus on my generation(ish), a prejudice developed because so many books do. On the other hand, I enjoyed Atwood's other recent entry, Hag-Seed, the re-telling of The Tempest that's also about an elderly man reminiscing, so perhaps I'm off the hook?

In addition to the similar narrators and the singular focus of the stories' topics, the stories are also so ordinary. At best, they might vaguely tickle the edges of magical realism, but that's about it. Again, I realize my disappointment is partially a result of my expectations that the stories would enter the sci-fi/fantasy genre when they didn't.

The first three stories have interconnected characters, exploring the narrators' earlier relationships from the point of view of the end of their lives. I liked the differing perspectives on similar events, and thought the references to Aphinland, a popular fantasy series written by one of the narrators, showed promise, even though it didn't really go anywhere. Nevertheless, these first three stories were my favorite since they explored the ways we see ourselves and the ways we see others.

Other stories just fell flat for me. The title story, "Stone Mattress," is a traditional revenge fantasy and "Lusus Naturae" is an I'm-becoming-a-vampire-and-am-confused tale.

The final story, "Torching the Dusties," again shows potential, about a sort-of dystopia where the young people have decided to kill off the aged. Told through the point of view of two people in an assisted living facility, it's an interesting idea, but ends suddenly. But the message (of this story and the others) is clear: our society disregards the contributions, wisdom, and even personhood of the elderly. And, perhaps too, the stories suggest that the elderly aren't so "innocent" and "dithering" as we might think. Maybe that's Atwood's primary goal, given that she's 77 and still churning our successful books, whatever my opinion may be.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Dark Matter" by Blake Crouch

After finishing The Woman in Cabin 10, it's a little interesting that I went next to another immensely readable (but ultimately somewhat forgettable) novel. With Dark Matter, I took a sci-fi turn, devouring the modern-day Sliders (with a slight twist) in a single day.

What ultimately, for me, places Dark Matter into pleasurable "fluff" sci-fi rather than what I consider compelling science-fiction is that it treads little new ground in its technology, view of the world, or analysis of human behavior. The novel centers around Jason Dessen, a brilliant scientist who gave up the academic pursuit for a stable home life with his wife Daniela and teenage son. On the way home one night, he's kidnapped by a masked man and transported to a parallel universe--one in which he gave up the family life to pursue an academic career. He's determined to return to his home universe, particularly once he realizes the parallel universe's Jason (whom he calls Jason2) has taken up the original Jason's place with his family.

The first part of the novel follows the familiar "disoriented protagonist" line as Jason attempts to figure out where he is and what's going on--and then escape the clutches of Jason2's lab. I was a little surprised how easily Jason2's lab becomes textbook villainous, even murdering several people in an attempt to capture Jason. I mean, I get that they've invested a lot of time and energy into their parallel universe machine and are desperate to preserve their work (and get information from the new Jason), but casually arranging outsiders' murders? It also immediately implies Jason2 is straightforwardly evil, erasing any chance of nuance with his character.

Once Jason escapes and re-enters the machine, we kick into the Sliders zone as he attempts to find his home world. We're told that the parallel universes he visits are close off-shoots of his own world, yet he manages to visit the most extreme scenarios: an infectious disease apocalypse; a weather apocalypse; a lot of apocalyptic scenarios. I mean, how likely is a zombie-esque apocalypse in any of our futures? The fact that he seems to mostly explore these highly treacherous parallel universes rather than a universe where he chose tan curtains over brown is partially explained by the fact that his mental state (highly agitated, obviously) is supposedly "choosing" worst-fear scenarios, but I still don't totally buy it.

Though the rest is plenty fun, it's only once Jason reaches his home world that the book takes its most interesting turn. All of Jason's time in the parallel universe box has resulted in many parallel Jasons, meaning that he's not the only "Jason" from his home world to return home. Instead, dozens of Jasons, identical to the narrator Jason except for differing Slider experiences, all reach the home world, and they're all seeking to depose Jason2 and retake their place with Daniela and Charlie. So which one "deserves" the family life? Finally, an intriguing question (albeit one that's somewhat glossed over at the end).

[an aside: Jason2 also traveled inside the box seeking the parallel universe he eventually kidnapped Jason from. Wouldn't his travels also have resulted in dozens of Jason2s being created? So shouldn't there be tons of Jasons and tons of Jasons2 all fighting it out?]

Ultimately, Dark Matter is fun but not exceptional, good for someone seeking a fairly fast-paced and action-filled--but not especially complicated--sci-fi adventure.