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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

"The Woman in Cabin 10" by Ruth Ware

I read The Woman in Cabin 10 for a book club, and I went in to the novel wary. Whodunit thrillers aren't typically part of my reading repertoire, and I was unexcited to wade through a couple hundred pages of stupid fluff. Yet, while The Woman in Cabin 10 certainly isn't literary or ground-breaking, I did find it to be a fun and enjoyable distraction.

The novel is narrated by Lo Blacklock, an up-and-coming travel reporter booked to cover the maiden voyage of a small luxury cruise ship. A few days before the trip, Lo's apartment is broken into; shocked from the attack, she begins the cruise nervous and sleep deprived.

[an aside: Did I miss something, or was Lo's break-in never explained? We learn later that {spoiler} the original cabin 10 occupant's home was also broken into shortly before the trip in order to keep that occupant from attending the cruise--thus leaving cabin 10 empty. I had assumed we'd discover Lo had also been purposefully attacked for the same reason, only it didn't work out? But I don't believe that was the case? Is it really supposed to just be a coincidence it happened right before the trip?]

The first night of the trip, Lo is awakened by a sound and is convinced a woman has been thrown overboard. She's even more convinced when the woman in cabin 10--whom she had borrowed mascara from earlier that evening--never appears again and her existence is denied by everyone else on board.

At first (and, okay, perhaps throughout) I found Lo rather grating. She's utterly sleep-deprived the entire novel, yet she continues to nervously drink heavily. It drove me crazy. STOP DRINKING AND GO TO SLEEP. I know that sleepy/drunk haze is supposed to color Lo's (and the reader's) understanding of what is happening, making us both question her judgment, but still, wouldn't any sane person STOP DRINKING?!

Then there's Lo's "mental illness," i.e. (medicated and controlled) depression/anxiety, which is so common as to be utterly unremarkable yet somehow is used as justification for her unreliability. Ware can't seem to decide whether she wants to argue that depression and anxiety are totally normal or that they're a matter of deep concern. Given how many people healthily function on a regular basis with both, I found the inclusion of it problematic.

[aside #2 since I don't feel like this fits appropriately anywhere: one night, Lo is accosted at her room door by Ben Howard, a former boyfriend. They've both been drinking, but Lo is clear and insistent in rejecting his advances. He continues anyway, roughly groping her, until she has to physically attack him back to get him off her. Yet they both end up in her room, apologizing, and later team up to investigate the murder {okay, she also thinks he is the murderer for awhile, but still}. Like in so many books, we have clear sexual assault depicted as nothing more than annoying and forgivable drunken behavior.]

But despite the fact that Lo would NOT GO TO SLEEP, the mystery at the heart of Woman in Cabin 10 is still fun, even when laughably silly. I mean, the "killer" sneaks into Lo's spa room while she's (conveniently) asleep after a massage to write "Stop digging" in the steam on the bathroom mirror (so, [insert evil cackle] all evidence of the message is gone once the steam dissipates! Hahahahah!). The killer is suitably evil, and the ending is suitably adventurous, and though I was no more enlightened about the world when I finished, I had passed the time enjoyably enough.

Monday, February 27, 2017

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

By my quick count, this is my fifth David Mitchell book. It's a bit surprising I've read this many since I'm often not especially attached to particular authors. But Mitchell's always combined strong storytelling with unusual structure and character voice, which is right up my alley, so it's easy to return to his novels.

Slade House is perhaps one of his weaker offerings, though that doesn't mean the novel was not enjoyable. I didn't realize going in (and perhaps that was intentional) that the book is a sort-of companion book for Bone Clocks, which I read last year. At first I just though Mitchell was just making sly "aren't you an observant reader?" kind of references to his earlier work until a major character from Bone Clocks reappears for the last chapter.

Slade House is a somewhat typical haunted house story, with the only real twist being the reappearance of the Bone Clocks character. That it treads somewhat familiar ground isn't inherently a fault, however, as Mitchell still makes the evil villains and their entrapment menacing. Like with other books, Mitchell relies on changing narrators over a period of years, including a young autistic boy, an arrogant police detective, and a smitten college girl. Though the characters are distinct, the chapters don't feel especially different (unlike, say, in Cloud Atlas), mostly because the characters similarly fall for the villains' trap each time.

However, it was a quick and fun enough read for David Mitchell fans.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald

Somehow I’ve ended up reading several memoirs recently, which is a little unusual for me, mostly because I tend to find memoirs sappy or over-indulgent. Or maybe I just don’t read good memoirs. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Lab Girl, probably because it gave me insight into a field in which I have little knowledge, and the same goes for H is for Hawk. Because, I mean, who knows anything about falconry?

The subject matter--and Macdonald’s take on the practice--is of course what gives Hawk its allure. Though Macdonald is a modern-day practitioner, the practice obviously evokes bygone eras of British countrysides and gentility, and so the vision of a modern woman flying a hawk feels utterly anachronistic.

Hawk is many things at once: an introduction to falconry; a memoir of a woman coping with the loss of her father; a reflection on author T.H. White’s disastrous attempt to train a goshawk. Somehow all three disparate genres come together into a book that feels cohesive, though perhaps slightly muddled when her grief over her father starts to drown her.

I was recently discussing the book with a friend, and she remarked that it made her want to be able to train a hawk. I felt the complete opposite: it made me feel like hawking was an utterly wrong endeavor. And I don’t mean that as criticism of its practitioners, as it seems like modern hawking is (or can be) done humanely, but as a recognition that the hawk is a wild and feral creature, and taming it for our personal enjoyment seems somehow unjust to its power and independence. On the other hand, Macdonald argues that by training hawks she has an appreciation and understanding of them that I, as a casual observer, can never have. Point taken.

I think H is for Hawk is likely to be appreciated by a broad swath of people: falconry novices and experts; nature lovers; and literature devotees. It’s a bit of a weird book, down a path rarely taken.

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.