What I’ve Been Reading, December 2017

Another one! Already! Well, I’ve been reading a lot, and honestly the fact that this is being posted in December has more to do with when I got around to writing it all of it than when I read the books. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading, more or less around this time:

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison — Tar Baby is one of the most focused books by Morrison. The majority of it takes place in one house, on one island, with a core cast of just six. With long passages of just dialogue, the book often feels like a play. It’s also a break from Morrison’s typical MO in that it spends a lot of time focused on white characters. Those white characters are Valerian and Margaret Street, and the book starts out following them, a husband and wife, Valerian being the heir to his family’s massive candy business, Margaret a beauty queen twenty years her husband’s junior. Now retired, Valerian lives in what was once just his summer home, a manor on the caribbean Isle des Chevaliers, tended to by Sydney and Ondine. Christmas time is nearing, and Jadine Childs is visiting the manor—a successful young black fashion model, raised by Sydney and Ondine, and put through college by a generous sponsorship from Valerian. That’s five of the core cast I’ve just mentioned. The sixth shows up when Margaret finds him hiding in her closet—a black man named Son, a fugitive who jumped ship in the Caribbean and managed to swim to Isle des Chevaliers. Inexplicably, and to Margaret, Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine’s horror, Valerian decides to invite Son to stay with them, as a guest.

The majority of the book is the action that plays out between this major disruption in the house—the disruption of Son’s arrival—and the disruption which occurs around the Christmas dinner (right from the beginning its clear that Christmas dinner is not going to be the perfect gathering that Margaret is planning for.) Watching the reactions of these characters of all different social and racial backgrounds is fascinating, a thorough study in social hierarchy and perceived social status, and what people do when they feel their status is threatened or challenged—and the build up and eventual explosion of all the anxiety and pressure Son’s arrival has caused is masterful. It’s also great to see Morrison flex her considerable dialogue muscles here—dialogue is something she’s terrific with (is there anything she’s not terrific with?), but in this book it’s featured prominently, as the main means of propelling the story along.

A great book to read for Christmas! (jk jk jk i mean its great for anytime but lol this aint rudolph or whatever)

Under the Stone by Karoline Georges, translated by Jacob Homel — Under the Stone or Sous betón in the original French, is a dystopic novella, narrated by a character only referred to as “the child.” The child lives in number 804 on floor 5969 of the Tower, an enormous building which is a refuge against the devastation that has ravaged the world and made it completely uninhabitable. The child has a mother and a father, and no siblings (there were brothers and sisters before, but none now, the child tells us.)

The novella is an incredible portrait of profound claustrophobia and unending depression. Brutalist is the architecture of the Tower, brutalist is the whole world of this book. Almost instantly as I read it, I began to feel claustrophobia. It’s a physical claustrophobia, but also a psychological claustrophobia—the idea that the child tries to make themselves as small as possible to avoid their father’s beating, for example. The feeling Georges creates in the reader is one of hopelessness—no escape, no crack in the wall, nowhere to go if you could escape, no variation in any of the thousands of floors and hundreds of thousands of living quarters. I’ve just read Room, another claustrophobic sort of novel, and my god, Under the Stone makes Room seem like a Disney movie!

In addition to this feeling of dread, Georges raises a lot of fascinating questions with this book. How does a person understand the horror of their circumstances when they have never known, nor will they ever know, anything else? How does a person understand reality when they are told that the brutality they just witnessed isn’t real and was never a thing? One of the more unique, and intriguing aspects of this dystopia, is that there appears to be no leader—no Inner Party, no Capitol, no World Controller, no haves and have-nots. Just abject misery for everyone. There is no simple, smug interpretation—these people’s lives are miserable because the elites are taking advantage of them! These people’s lives are miserable because communism/capitalism/religion/technology/liberalism/conservatism/nationalism went too far!—no. So is it their fault that they live like this? Why don’t they do something about it? But then again, could these people, who have no experience of freedom or even sunlight, even conceive of a better world? And what does that say about our own world? Rather than pointing the reader in the direction of an easily hatable target, Under the Stone just presents its nightmare reality as it is. No escape.

Towards the end the book gets more abstract, and starts bringing up questions about self, what-is-self, etc. that I wasn’t as interested in—though there are still some exquisitely gruesome passages along the way. I highly recommend the book. It’s a short read, but one which has left me with ideas, concepts, images, that I’m sure will stick with me for years.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson — A graphic novel about Nimona, a shapeshifting new sidekick to the supervillain Lord Blackheart. Nimona and Blackheart set out to cause mayhem and expose the unscrupulous secrets of the Institution, a law-enforcement organization best embodied by the heroic knight Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin—Blackheart’s arch-nemesis. As they progress, Blackheart starts to realize that Nimona is not just some shape-shifter, and it becomes unclear who’s the sidekick to whom.

This book is a delightful read. Stevenson’s simple art style is wonderfully expressive, and I often founding myself laughing just at the posture and facial expressions of the characters before even reading the joke. Blackheart, more reserved and cautious, and Nimona, more reckless and passionate, are great foils, and their bantering and fighting keeps everything moving at a steady clip.

As well, although composed of recognizable archetypes, the story takes unexpected turns, and recombines and presents these elements in a new light. For example, one thing that struck me as particularly refreshing was the fact that the subjects of the kingdom do not put a blind faith in the Institution. Often in stories which make use of the The-Apparently-Good-Organization-That-We-All-Love-Is-Actually-Evil trope, the general populace will remain totally trusting in the organization until the very end of the story, even in the face of the Villain-Who’s-Really-A-Hero’s attempts to show them evidence of the organization’s wrongdoing. I’ve never really thought about it until now, but that may be one reason I dislike this trope so much—it presents the general public as mindless sheep who cannot think on their own until their whole world blows up, at which point they instantly begin mindlessly following the person who blew it up. People ain’t like that! In Nimona, as rumors of shady dealings begin to emerge, the subjects of the kingdom grow wary of the Institution, the way any population is wary of its law enforcement or military. There isn’t this intellectually bankrupt idea that you can control the people in the book, the idea is more a political, Machiavellian concept of appealing to the people, having them on your side.

So yeah that was a long dissection of just a small aspect of this book. That aspect is great, and the book is great, all throughout.

Room by Emma Donoghue — Hey, speaking of Room, here’s what I thought about it—it is phenomenal! Room is narrated by Jack, a boy who has just turned five, and has spent his entire life confined, along with his mother, to “Room”—a sound-proofed, inescapable space created by “Old Nick,” the captor of Jack and his mother. As far as Jack understands, Room is the entire world. Outside is outer space, and anything he watches on TV—cartoons, news, Animal Planet—isn’t real. But turning five, Jack’s mom starts to reveal the truth to him, and to plan an escape.

Oh my god it’s so good. The book is incredibly immersive, and Donoghue does a great job with Jack’s voice. It could be very easy to just endlessly run the kid thinking an idiom is literal or kid misunderstanding an adult euphemism thing into the ground, but Donoghue circumnavigates this; first by having having Jack and his mom have a kind of shared language (makes sense, given that they’re each all that the other has); and second by having Jack be fairly aware of adult situations (at least re: death, cruelty, etc.) So the only things that Jack misunderstands, or struggles to understand, aren’t just kid things, they’re the things which would be hard to understand if you’d lived your first five years in one room, interacting with only one real person. Donoghue also does a good job of portraying the mom’s emotions through Jack’s observations of her—again, they’ve been in the same room with one another for years, so it makes sense that Jack would be able to tell when she’s lying, or exasperated—or “gone,” as he describes some of her depressive episodes.

The result is an incredibly bold, beautiful portrayal of human needs, of worldviews, of growing up, elicited by the extreme circumstances the characters are placed in. And, because of Jack’s cheerful voice (he likes Room, it’s his home, and he loves Ma), it’s not just a miserable experience—you only get occasional glimpses of the bleakness through his Mom—and there are plenty of humorous moments. Also the escape plot line had  me more tense than I have been while reading a book in a while. I can also strongly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Michal Friedman, which I listened to over the course of four days. I am definitely going to reread this book at some point, probably in book form—it’s my favorite thing I’ve read all year (and it’s the end of the year, so, you know. Pretty fucking good.)

Well, that’s all for this month, and that’s all for this year! I’ve been reading a lot, and there are a few books which I read this year that I’ll post reviews of separately, cause I have a lot to say about them—namely The Name of the Wind, Imagined Communities, and The Left Hand of Darkness.  Those’ll post in January and February, I’m thinking. Which is good, cause I actually won’t be reading too much for the next few months—not in English, anyway—cause I’ll be studying abroad in Spain. But we’ll see. Quizás escribiré un puesto de “lo que leía” en español, quien sabe.

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