Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Cover courtesy of pantheon

Agggh! This book has sat on the floor of my bedroom since September of last yearbasically for my entire senior year thus fargoing unread! I made one cursory pass at it sometime during the fall semester, wasn’t really hooked by it, was kind of put off by the art style, and then abandoned it. Well, good thing I didn’t just return it to the library, because now I have read it, and it’s fantastic. (SIDENOTE: I am not a monster. Although my honors student status allows me to check out books for the entire school year without having to renew them, I normally don’t do so unless the book a. is incredibly obscure and clearly not in any demand or b. has multiple copies available. Radtke’s book [probably because she got her MFA here] has multiple copies at the UI library.)

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic novel memoir mainly focusing on a period of Kristen’s life starting with her undergrad career and ending shortly after leaving graduate school and moving to Louisville, Kentucky—the “stuck in them 20-somethings” period of life, to borrow a phrase from SZA. As the book moves between major decisions and life events in these years—moves, break-ups, illnesses—Radtke returns again and again to the themes of loss, deterioration, decay, the desire for something more, something new—and the way all these things conflict within her. Is it possible to hold onto the old and gain new relationships, new experiences? Is it possible to hold onto anything at all, when everything is so transitory? What is the value of preserving a ruin versus letting it fall into rot? The strongest through-line of the book is ruins. The urban decay of Gary, Indiana, the devastation of the Peshtigo fire, the volcanic destruction of a town in Iceland, even the mold and water damage in Kristen’s sad college apartment. These images hold the book together, link one event with another, and keep the book feeling cohesive despite the lack of any straight-shot plotline throughout the whole story.

I think one of the things that initially put me off about the book was Kristen and her boyfriend Andrew acting like such creeps (“Really, you can’t say the word ‘yes’ without invoking James Joyce,” Andrew opines at one point), and being unsure whether or not I was supposed to relate to them and feel like their grody behavior was romantic. Because I know these students, anyone getting a liberal arts education knows these students, and they’re the kind of students who I don’t care to be around because I can’t connect with them through their wall of irony and aggressively performed insightfulness. That said, it pretty quickly becomes clear that no, Radtke is not trying to romanticize (for example) the way these two descend on Gary, Indiana in the most exploitative, ruin-pornographer manner. It also becomes clear that a lot of their pretension and surety about the world is covering deep insecurities and internal tensions, which allowed me to relate to them in a way I’m sure I could never, I’m sure they would never let me, if I met them when they were that age at UIowa.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, April 2019

Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.

Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.

Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, December 2018

You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.

The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.

What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational problems, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018

Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whateverSpooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.

But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.

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What I’ve Been Reading, October 2018

It’s October, and for the past couple years I’ve taken this month as an opportunity to read some spookier pieces than I normally would. So while this post is only mildly spooky (featuring a flying bear, murder, and an enormous black cat), later this month I’m hoping to put out a 100% haunted “What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018” post, probably talking about The Grip of It and Universal Harvester and House of Leaves (if the library patron who has it now ever returns it), so look forward to that. In the mean time, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer — Wow this book is great.

Borne takes place in an unnamed city, which, along with the rest of the world, has been radically changed by civilization-ending climate change. The only power-structure in place is that of Mord, a colossal flying bear which protects the building of an old bioengineering company (always referred to as “the company”), and the Magician, an old employee of the company who is steadily taking control of various parts of the city. In the shadow of Borne, scavenging humans and escaped bioengineering experiments carve out an existence. One such scavenger is Rachel, the narrator of the book, who scavenges for her partner Wick, another ex-employee of the company. On one perilous scavenging excursion, Rachel finds an odd piece of biotech which looks a bit like a sea anemone, and she takes it back to her home and names it Borne.

Borne soon grows, and eventually begins to talk, revealing his powers of shapeshifting and his unnerving lack of waste—he only ever absorbs things, never excretes any waste. It’s hard to pin down the plot of the book to a specific archetype, because it plays off lots of them. It’s a coming of age story, and a kind of parenting story, and a kind of E.T.-esque story. So it’s peak VanderMeer, in it’s ineffability.Read More »

Review: Something New by Lucy Knisley

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Cover courtesy of First Second books

Something New is a graphic novel memoir by graphic novel memoirist Lucy Knisley. Although I’ve read all of Knisley’s travelogues and her terrific culinary memoir Relish (check it out, it’s got recipes!), I put off reading Something New because I knew it was about Knisley’s wedding and weddings in general, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest. I just feel very detached from weddings. I don’t have the kind of money to throw a wedding. I don’t have any attachment to the religious or cultural aspects of it. I don’t have friends who have been married. I don’t foresee myself being married anytime soon (ever?) I’ve been to tons of weddings, but only as an observer, never as part of the groomsmen party (or the bridal party, for that matter.) So even stories of really crazy disaster weddings don’t really connect to me. Like, okay. You did a weird thing with more money than I can ever imagine myself having in accordance with ancient ceremonies, and you put doilies all over it, and then it rained. Like … cool, fun story.

But! I listened to a podcast with Knisley, where she talked about this book as well as her upcoming memoir Kid Gloves, which will detail her pregnancy and fraught-with-difficulties childbirth. I realized that Kid Gloves sounded like a book I would enjoy, as it would present an honest, warts-and-all portrait of pregnancy. And I thought, well, how can I read that book without first reading Something New? Maybe it too will be a different story of marriage than I’m used to seeing. So I checked it out from the ICPL, and dug in. And then I pulled on my socks and shoes and proceed to kick the crap out of myself for not having at least glanced at the first few pages of this book sooner.

The reason I include all this preamble is that, it turns out, many of my feelings toward weddings were exactly Lucy’s feelings, too, before she decided to get married (and even during the process.) And here’s the thing: the wedding itself isn’t all that different from most weddings. It’s not that different from the classical wedding story. However, it’s Lucy’s skepticism and willingness to present the cold, hard facts of marriage that make it such an engaging read. It’s a testament to Knisley’s storytelling that, as she describes her coming to understand why people love weddings, why they are so special, as she sheds some of her skepticism, so did I, to the point that when she finally arrives at the wedding itself, rather than seeing just a bunch of dresses and strings of light bulbs, I was genuinely touched by the emotional sincerity of the moment.

Knisley achieves this in a lot of ways, but mainly by taking her time. The first 70 pages of the book is a love story, detailing the serpentine path that her and her husband took over the course of several years to finally become engaged. Learning who the principal characters (as it were) of this story are in this way is what makes all the wedding planning (which is the majority of the book) engaging, it’s what gives it all depth. And she isn’t messing around with the other 230 pages either, which she uses to address themes that are universal in weddings and marriage, and show how they manifested in her own life. In this way, she’s both informative on weddings in general (with lots of interludes that include facts or statistics about weddings) and insightful in how these things affected her as an individual. One chapter that I found particularly interesting was the one in which she described her experience being bombarded with targeted ads, and how these ads changed her internet experience (and how her fiancé wasn’t targeted at all.)

As for Knisley’s art, she has a very clean, bright style that draws you forward effortlessly, and occasionally provides some great visual gags. She pairs the images and scenes she illustrates perfectly with her narration, underscoring or complimenting the mood, theme, or idea of her words with her drawings. Also, her depictions of food are mouthwatering (another reason to check out Relish.)

Towards the end of the book Knisley writes, “The strangest part I’ve found of being an adult is that I kept waiting for my life to feel the way other people’s lives felt, viewed by me, the outsider.” And although she goes on to explain that we each have to experience our own lives, our own adulthood, for ourselves, I think that with this book she has, in part, granted the reader the ability to look into her life, and the life of a bride-to-be, from the inside—failed DIY projects and all. This book was a terrific, substantial read, and I cannot wait for Kid Gloves.

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2018

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.

Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.Read More »

Review: Rereading Great Expectations

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Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, June 2018

Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.

The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.

I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, June 2018

Splendor and Misery by Clipping — So I’m late to the party on this, but better late than never, right? Splendor and Misery is a sci-fi concept album by experimental hip-hop group Clipping—already, what’s not to love? The album follows the lone survivor of a slave uprising aboard a spaceship, who commandeers the vessel and attempts to escape his pursuers.

What I love about this album is the way it blends ideas and styles. For a start, it’s fascinating to see how Clipping renders common sci-fi motifs musically, making them fresh and fascinating again. It’s not just an album that utilizes sci-fi jargon and aesthetics (though it does that as well), it’s an album that is clearly born from an understanding of the genre and its tradition. A great example of this is the track “All Black Everything,” which communicates the oppressive nothingness of space through it’s skeletal production and Daveed Diggs’s continuous, monotone refrain of “All black everything.” The album also blends different musical genres, mixing in negro-spiritual-inspired songs, blending past and future to create a gritty world that’s nevertheless full of emotion, and deeply human.

Sci-fi aside, the production on the album, by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, and Daveed Diggs’s rapping are just fantastic. The beats manage to suggest the environment, with beeps and clicks and staticky whines, while also effectively establishing different moods for each song. Diggs’s lyrics are great, punchy and complex, and his flow is phenomenal. Splendor and Misery really shows the range that this group has, from songs like “Air ‘Em Out,” a braggadocious gangster-rap-in-space type track, to “True Believer,” a song with a driving industrial beat, a spiritual-inspired chorus, and some wildly imagistic verses detailing a creation myth that offers some clues as to how these people have ended up enslaved.

The album is short, and has a lot to offer with each replay.

The Terror — This AMC series just wrapped up a few weeks ago and my god did it stick the landing. I love a good, one-season series, and The Terror does not disappoint (it may come back for a second season, though with a completely different story, American Horror Story-style.) The show, David Kajganich’s debut as a show-runner, is based off the Dan Simmons book of the same name, which tells a fictionalized account of the lost Arctic Expedition of Captain John Franklin. What little is known about the expedition’s fate after becoming trapped in the Arctic ice in 1846 is faithfully reproduced, and indeed everything that happens in the show could’ve plausibly happened in real life—except, that is, the strange, enormous bear (is it a bear?) which seems to dog the sailors wherever they go.

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A shot from the second episode, courtesy of AMC.

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Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”:  “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.

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Cover of the 1st edition, vastly superior to the latest edition’s cover, which is just a glacier, honestly it’s stunning how mediocre that new cover is. Courtesy of Ace Books

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.

So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.

I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, February 2018 (Southeast Edition!)

Hey wow, two books published in 2017! I’m only a little late to the party, for once! Also, two books that take place in the US Southeast! I could’ve broken this post into two separate review posts, since I have a lot to say about both books, but they kinda sorta pair I guess not really but whatever here we go!

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard — I happened upon this book just by browsing through my local library’s non-fiction ebooks, looking for something to occupy my time over the winter break, and man am I glad I did. Sunshine State is a collection of essays mainly dealing with events, recollections, and social issues in the Tampa Bay area. Though the title comes from the nickname for Florida, Tampa Bay and Pinellas County are really the central locations of the book.

What I enjoyed most about these essays was Gerard’s ability to pierce through these very specific, or at times very personal, topics, and reveal something more universal, especially in essays like “BFF,” “Going Diamond,” and “Sunshine State.” “BFF” is the opening piece of the book, and is written as an address to an old, unnamed friend of Gerard’s. The writing is visceral, and the description of their painful, years-long parting is captivating. It’s a level of emotional, personal intensity that the collection never really returns to—at least not in full (it would be impossible to sustain anyway.)

This intensity is certainly sprinkled into most of the essays though, like in “Going Diamond,” an essay about AmWay, the direct selling (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) company. The essay describes the history of the corporation, as well as the Gerard family’s time as members of AmWay, interspersed with descriptions of Gerard and her husband posing as prospective homeowners, and touring enormous mansions in South Florida gated communities. The blend of all these elements creates this feeling of surreality around AmWay, a cloying, saccharine vision of country clubs and indoor pools and saving the earth with warm, honest capitalism. The American Way.Read More »

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This was originally going to be just part of a “What I’ve Been Reading” post, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this book, so now it’s just its own review post.

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Cover courtesy of DAW

The Name of the Wind is the first book in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, and it describes the early life of the first-person narrator and alleged Kingkiller, Kvothe. To describe the plot generally would paint this novel as clichéd. I guess that’s because it is, in its broad strokes. An exceptionally talented, fast-learning child lives a comfortable life as a player in his father’s troupe of traveling performers. When the troupe takes on an arcanist, young Kvothe is mentored by him in Sympathy—a kind of magic based on intense concentration and mental gymnastics. Eventually the arcanist leaves, and soon after the Kvothe’s father begins work on a ballad involving the mysterious Chandrian—mythical superhuman superevil beings, probably just fables. Then the Chandrian murder the entire troupe, leaving only Kvothe alive. For years Kvothe survives by the skin of his teeth, hitchhiking, begging, stealing, though he eventually determines to go to the University, to utilize its massive archives to research the Chandrian. Demonstrating exceptional intelligence and knowledge of sympathy, Kvothe is admitted to the University, where he spends the remainder of the book having adventures and misadventures, and trying to gain access to the archives.

Yes, with the exception of a few creative flourishes, the book traces a familiar arc. Where it stands out, or at least justifies its position as one of the most popular fantasy novels in the past decade, is in the execution. The book reminds me of a 19th-century serialized novel, like Great Expectations or Count of Monte Cristo—both of which, in their broad strokes, also rely on clichés, despite being terrific works. The pacing is tireless, each chapter lurches into the next as new dilemmas arise and Kvothe sets his sights on new goals. There’s a large cast of characters, but they’re all memorable, and you love to love the ones you love, and love to hate the ones you hate. Name of the Wind manages the great trick of being long and reading fast.Read More »

Review: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

imaginedcommunities
Cover of the first German edition, courtesy of Campus Fachbuch

I heard about this book around the time I was starting to form my own ideas about why people identify themselves as Americans, Porteños, Quebecois—and why other people don’t. Essentially, what does it take to convince people that they belong to a group? Why did US citizens identify more with their states than their nation, in the early 19th century? When does state building fail, and when does it succeed? Imagined Communities does not examine those specific questions, but it effectively answers them, and provides a whole bunch of tools for understanding nationalism, and, I ‘unno, separatist movements like the one that is happening right now. Might be worth picking up now for that reason.

The central conceit of Imagined Communities is that nationalism, even the concept of clearly delineated nations as the ultimate form of legitimacy, is recent, and that it was only possible with the rise of print capitalism. When reading newspapers based in Venezuela, inhabitants of the country could imagine other “Venezuelans” reading the same text as them, reading about the same political appointments, the same market changes, the same marriages of nobility. This “imagined community” is the nation. Of course, there are other imagined communities (Anderson describes religious community as the greatest precursor to national community), but because of the insularity of nations, and a host of other factors which he delineates in the book, this imagined community becomes one that people are willing to die for.Read More »

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)Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, November 2017

I’ve been reading all kinds of Toni Morrison and all kinds of mystery books, because those are the two English classes I’m in this semester. So you can expect more Morrison and more mystery in the next What I’ve Been Reading post—but that’s actually What I‘ll Be Reading. Let’s get into the ‘ve Been.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley — This was one of the books in my Mystery/Detective Fiction class, and one of my two favorites that we’ve read so far. My other favorite is Big Little Lies, which I’ll discuss below—the two are sort of tied. Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins mystery, and damn if it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them. In this book, Easy isn’t yet a PI—he’s just a working-class African-American man who’s moved to Los Angeles in the Second Great Migration, after serving in World War II. A day after being fired from his job, a man approaches him offering money for him to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who often visits black jazz clubs. After some reluctance, Easy takes the job—and spends the remainder of the book trying to work his way out of the dangerous web he’s put himself in.

It doesn’t really have the precision and clarity of a detective story, mainly because at various points Easy doesn’t give a shit about solving any kind of mystery. It’s more like what would happen if an ordinary person wandered into the middle of a hard-boiled detective world, bumping into various rackets and intrigues, but not doggedly pursuing any hidden truth. Easy does end up solving some mysteries, and does so well enough that by the end he decides to become a professional PI, but the plot of the book is really about him trying to survive. To that end, it’s a great book. Well-paced, fun characters painted in many different shades of sinister, and a first-person narrator with lots of attitude.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2017

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – March is a trilogy of graphic novels co-written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, detailing Lewis’s involvement in the African-American civil rights movement, up to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Powell’s art is gorgeous and expressive. It captures the weight of small interpersonal moments as well as enormous, historical turning points. To borrow a word from Martin Luther King, it dramatizes the movement in a way that is visceral and inspiring.

For the most part, the books do a good job of interweaving narrative and history—partly because John Lewis’s personal narrative is so wrapped up in the historical events of that time. The mixing of scene and summary is effective, not bogging the reader down in prose, nor abandoning the reader without any through-line to grasp onto. Book two may be the weak link of the trilogy, with long sections of historical events in which Lewis didn’t personally play any part. These passages feel a bit dry and distant, without the narrative thrust or intriguing insights that Lewis offers in the other sections. However, I only really noticed this in book two, because the fact is, John Lewis truly was involved in so many important events at the time.

And that’s what’s terrific about these books—they aren’t just a third-person, documentarian presentation of history—they’re the story of a man who was at the heart of the movement, and who ended up straddling the lines of multiple factions within it. What I found most fascinating was not just the external conflict against people like Alabama Governor George Wallace or Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, but the internal conflict of the civil rights movement. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and over the course of the books, we see it change, growing much larger, becoming more impatient, and we see Lewis pushed further and further out of it. There’s also the internal conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties, as they struggle to reconstruct their agendas around the civil rights movement, and make massive shifts toward becoming the parties we see today.Read More »

Recommendation Dump September 2017

Oh, Hello On Broadway — Oh, Hello is a comedy act created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney—two comedians who are terrific on their own, and dynamite together. Kroll plays the child-like Gil Faizon, and Mulaney plays the near-psychotic George St. Geegland—two seventy-something New Yorkers who are tantalizingly delusional, pretentious, and mean-spirited. The two have a terrific dynamic that doesn’t smack of the usual straight-man funny-man schtick, since they’re both ludicrous caricatures of elderly Upper West Side residents. Mulaney and Kroll have been refining these characters for over a decade, on Kroll Show, on podcasts, at live shows, and countless other places. Don’t take my word for it—you can watch them on youtube here here here and here, and actually a bunch more places if you like, but those are just a primer.

So, the show itself. The show is part stand-up routine, part parody, and part variety show. The conceit is that Gil and George are performing one of the many plays that George has written, though there is constant fourth-wall breaking throughout, including a long opening segment in which the two introduce themselves, and send-up various Broadway tropes. The play within the play is essentially autobiographical for George and Gil, although the characters in it are much more successful versions of themselves. In the middle of the show is a segment where, embedded as a prank show within the play-within-the-play, the two interview some celebrity—during the run of the show, it was a different person each night, but for the Netflix special it’s Steve Martin. It’s a nice little breather in the middle of the non-stop barrage of jokes and gaffes, where Kroll and Mulaney get to exercise their (practiced) improv chops, and the audience gets to see a different person making jokes on stage.Read More »

Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a classic contemporary play by Tom Stoppard, which follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters, courtiers in Hamlet, as they are called to the palace to find out what’s wrong with the Prince, and then sent to deliver a message to the king of England. As they are led from one task to another, they catch glimpses of the great Shakespearean tragedy unfolding around them, and wonder at what is going on.

The play explores time in two ways, both of which are fundamentally tied into the medium of theatre—theatrical fatalism, and the conflict between finite time and eternal time.

Now . . . And Now . . . And Now . . .

Life and theatre are eternal and finite.

Life is eternal (or appears so), because it is impossible for a person to really grasp the fact that they have an end, the way they can grasp that a day or a season has an end. As Rosencrantz puts it, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. … And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all.” (71-72)

And life is finite because people are born and they die.

Theatre is eternal because every play can be performed an infinite number of times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about two characters invented by a writer that died dozens of generations ago, and the play is still being performed (in fact, it’s currently being revived at the theatre at which it premiered exactly fifty years ago.) It’s also a very immediate medium, not something you can put down and stop like a book. The play is continuing, going from one line to the next, without end. And, especially in a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which languishes in long scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, this can give the impression that the thing is boundless. “One is, after all, having [a future] all the time . . . now . . . and now . . . and now . . .” (70).

And theatre is finite because, some exceptions aside, most plays last just a few hours or less.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern addresses this dissonant experience, the simultaneous feeling that we are immortal and knowledge that we are not, both through dialogue and through the form of the play. Of course, it being a play alone emphasizes the themes discussed by the characters, but there are some other formalistic aspects peculiar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that reinforce the concept. To start, there’s the title—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a quote from one of the last lines of Hamlet, and as a title it seems paradoxical. For the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Those final lines are another formal quirk to the play, and to Hamlet as well, because they’re recursive. The ambassador from England tells Horatio that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” (Hamlet 5.2.371) and Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the royal family, tells the ambassador that he will “speak to the yet unknowing world / how these things came about” (5.2.380-381). The end of the play could be the beginning, and the whole thing could circle around on itself endlessly as Horatio tells the story over and over again—but the title, which comes from that same scene, declares how finite these characters are.Read More »