Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I remember one time you said your life made you feel so ashamed you couldn’t even talk about it to God, you had to write it, bad as you thought your writing was. Well, now I know what you meant. And whether God will read letters or no, I know you will go on writing them; which is guidance enough for me.

Initially, I wasn't that impressed with The Color Purple. I reached the midpoint and was discussing it with Chris, and I mentioned that it seemed to be covering ground too similar to other books I'd read recently--Beloved and Homegoing--without catching me in the same way. He observed that I'd probably read many other books on the same topics without complaint, but was kind enough not say "try harder". However, I did, and ultimately came to appreciate The Color Purple on its own, somewhat unusal terms.

So, to kick things off, there are a few unusual things about the book that set it apart. It's in epistolary form, with about half the book being letters from the main character, Celie, to God and about half being from (minor spoiler) her younger sister, Nettie, who disappears early on but reappears later to pick up the other half of the narrative.

The story itself is broken into two pieces: the first half of the book is primarily letters by Celie, describing her life in the Jim Crow south; the second half is dominated, though not monopolized, by letters from Nettie, who has connected with a family of black missionaries headed to Africa under a white-owned missions organization.

Celie's letters are written in dialect, but never in a way which overwhelmed me--I'm not a huge fan of dialect--and it provides a nice ironiic syslistic distinction between Celie's tales, in which white people hardly appear, and Nettie's, in which the white missionaries make only token appearances but whose presence is felt even in the much more "proper" way Nettie learns to speak.

Nettie's story covers a lot of similar ground as Things Fall Apart, but from the perspective of the missionaries. It was interesting and at times quite sad--colonialism was a real bitch--but the emotional heft of the story belongs to Celie and her emotional, spiritual, and romantic awakening. But I did want to include this excerpt, which resonated with me regarding the way that our unconcious nationalism can easily breed resentment toward those who don't accept what we think they need to hear:

The Africans never asked us to come, you know. There’s no use blaming them if we feel unwelcome. It’s worse than unwelcome, said Samuel. The Africans don’t even see us. They don’t even recognize us as the brothers and sisters they sold. Oh, Samuel, I said. Don’t. But you know, he had started to cry. Oh Nettie, he said. That’s the heart of it, don’t you see. We love them. We try every way we can to show that love. But they reject us. They never even listen to how we’ve suffered. And if they listen they say stupid things. Why don’t you speak our language? they ask. Why can’t you remember the old ways? Why aren’t you happy in America, if everyone there drives motorcars?

Which brings me to the other thing I didn't know about this book: it is, in large part, a lesbian romance. Or rather, Celie seems to be a lesbian while her lover, Shug, is bisexual. Their friendship develops so naturally into a physical romance that it almost happens without notice. There's certainly no fanfare or any particular fuss made about it, in Celie's mind or by those around her.

Finally though, The Color Purple is a deeply spiritual book, although it takes pains to demonstrate that it's not a pamphlet of colonial Christianity. The libertine Shug turns out to be the novels spiritual center, in spite of Celie's letters to God. At one point, Celie is faced with a tragedy that undermines her faith:

What God do for me? I ast. She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death. Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown. She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you. Let ’im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.

But Shug is there to give this lovely speech:

I is a sinner, say Shug. Cause I was born. I don’t deny it. But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be? Sinners have more good times, I say. You know why? she ast. Cause you ain’t all the time worrying bout God, I say. Naw, that ain’t it, she say. Us worry bout God a lot. But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like. You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that? But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.

I would like to write at more length about the treatment of God and spirituality in the book, but honestly, I don't feel qualified. Much of Walker's theology seems rooted in animism and pantheism, but she ties such a lovely bow on it that I'm not compelled to critique or dissect it. Celie's spiritual journey is something beautiful, as far as I can tell, and it doesn't need me whitemansplaining it.

So sometimes, I guess it's true that books require some extra work, not just on an intellectual level, but on a personal one as well. I feel as though recentering my focus on The Color Purple helped me root out some unconcious racist assumptions in myself--and if that's not a good takeaway from a book, I don't know what it. Also, the end made me cry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass Sunstein

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, attempting to vindicate the freedom of speech, warned that "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people."  If the American constitutional system is working well, or at least well enough, We the People can cast our votes and love our families and live our lives.  We do not need to focus on the impeachment mechanism.  But if we are going to keep our republic, we do need to know about it.  It's our fail-safe, our shield, our sword - our ultimate weapon for self-defense.

I picked up this book for no particular reason, no reason at all. .. 

In all seriousness, though, there has been, and likely will be, a lot of impeachment talk bandied about, and I wanted to have a historical/constitutional/legal framework for understanding those discussions.  Already you have politicians and commentators spouting a whole range of nonsense, from the cynical ("The only basis for impeachment is what Congress thinks is a basis for impeachment") to the misguided ("Only criminal actions are impeachable.")  Sunstein's guide, on the other hand, traces impeachment back to the founding fathers' views and reviews the few instances in which presidential impeachment has actually occurred in our history.  Sunstein also, helpfully, poses a number of hypothetical situations (none involving the Russians...) and opines on whether impeachment would be permissible in such situations.

After the Revolution and the Articles of Confederation disaster, the drafters of the Constitution still feared a monarchical executive, but also saw the need for a strong one.  Impeachment was critical to balancing those considerations.  On one hand, the framers recognized that making impeachment too easy would undermine the president's authority and diminish the separation of powers, making him depended on the approval of Congress, rather than the people.  On the other hand, even though there would be a chance to vote him out every four years, they were still afraid of a president coming under the thrall of a foreign power, and realized that there would be other situations in which a president needed to be removed immediately.  Thus, when crafting the impeachment clause, they created a high standard ("treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors"), and added institutional safeguards (the House votes to impeach, two thirds of the Senate must vote to convict) in order to ensure that impeachment was possible, but would not occur too often.

Though "high crimes or misdemeanors" is not defined in the Constitution, Sunstein argues that, based on the historical record, the framers considered them to be official acts, not personal acts.  For example, according to Sunstein, if a president committed tax fraud on his personal income taxes while in office, that would not be an impeachable offense, even though it is a criminal act.  This seems wrong, or at least it did to me before reading this book, but the framers weren't concerned with personal morality, they were concerned with abuse of power.  (If the president used his authority over the IRS to cheat on his taxes, that might be impeachable).  Sunstein even goes so far as to say that obstruction of justice, for which Clinton was impeached and Nixon was going to be impeached and....well...moving on....might not be an impeachable offense.  He argues that if the president obstructs justice by covering up an action that is in itself not impeachable, then the obstruction wouldn't be, either.  This makes sense when you consider his example of covering up marijuana use by White House staff, but is a little iffier when applied to "an investigation into the president's illegal investments before taking office."  As a result, Sunstein does not think Clinton should have been impeached.  Though perjury is unlawful, "[w]e aren't speaking of systematic violations of civil liberty, or acquisition of the office by unlawful means, or the grave misuses of official authority that triggered impeachment proceedings in the American colonies."

In one of the most helpful chapters, Sunstein includes a list of hypotheticals and opining whether they would warrant impeachment.  In addition, he includes thoughts on the 25th Amendment and statutory interpretation, as well as an impeachment cheat sheet chapter.  

Overall, I thought Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide was very helpful and well reasoned.  Even when I wasn't sure I agreed with him, I could see where he was coming from, and it was helpful to have a well constructed framework in which to analyze the issues.  It'll be interesting to see whether they have any practical implication in the near future...

Thursday, January 11, 2018

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

"The criminal doesn't escape," Dix said wryly.

Brub said, "I won't say that.  Although I honestly don't think he ever does escape.  He has to live with himself.  He's caught there in that lonely place.  And when he sees he can't get away--"  Brub shrugged.  "Maybe suicide, or the nut house--I don't know.  But I don't think there's any escape."

Dix Steele (I know) is bumming around Los Angeles when he runs into an old friend, Brub Nicolai (I know).  Brub and Dix are old pals from their stint in Europe during the Second World War, and they relish catching up.  Dix is in town writing a novel and subletting from an old Princeton friend; Brub is a detective in Beverly Hills.  He gives Dix the inside scoop on the investigation into a recent rash of murders: young women, strangled.  There are few clues; the murderer has been careful.  But what he doesn't realize is his old buddy Dix is actually the strangler.

In a Lonely Place is a pretty traditional noir, though an exceptionally stylish and cerebral one.  Unlike Hammett or Chandler it finds the killer infinitely more interesting than the detective, who's dogged but limp.  Dix is right when he says that Brub has no imagination:

The obvious reach of his imagination was, "He's insane, of course."  It would never occur to him that any reason other than insanity could make a man a killer.  That's what all the dolts around town would be parroting: he's insane of course he's insane of course.  It took imagination to think of a man, sane as you or I, who killed.

But Brub is right that even when a murderer gets away with it, he's ultimately caught in his own "lonely place."  More than anything, the novel is about the poisonously antisocial masculinity that leads Dix to kill.  Hughes pointedly makes him a Princetonian and a serviceman, acculturated in male spaces and bitterly obsessive and controlled toward women.  Dix can't look at a woman without evaluating her appearance--perhaps the truest-seeming detail in the whole book--and we come to learn that he makes his first kill when a woman literally tells him "no."  His undoing comes when he falls for a neighbor, a would-be starlet named Laurel Gray (I know) whose fiery personality and unpredictability stoke his lust and his loathing at the same time.  Hughes understands just how blurred the lines between a man's love for a woman and his hate for her can be.

When Dix is finally caught, as of course he must be, it's two women, Laurel and Brub's wife Sylvia who rely on their suspicions.  Sylvia especially recognizes something amiss about Dix.  I couldn't help but think about the stories we've all heard recently amid the #metoo movement from women who have had to rely on their instincts to protect themselves from violence and harassment.  When something about a man seems off, those instincts can be self-preserving.  As determined as Brub is, it seems right that it's his wife whose imagination is well-honed enough to recognize who Dix really is.

Chloe's Top 10 of 2017

Year two of fifty books and blogging is in the books, and while I didn't quite blog everything I read, I came close (I omitted a handful of YA novels that I now kind of wish I'd done, but I waited too long and couldn't come up with anything good to say). I met my goal of more women (37/50!) and a few more authors of color (I can definitely afford some growth here). As I get older and farther away from school, I notice that nonfiction appeals more and more. Reading is still a luxury and an escape, but it also has become basically my primary source of information. Moving from New Yorker articles to full-blown books was a big jump, but it's one I've enjoyed. More nonfiction in 2018, perhaps! I continue to find that writing about reading is a fabulous way to process and remember what I read; I've loved being able to refer back to two years' worth of reviews when recommending books to friends. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorites from this year:

  • A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Okay, I said in no particular order, but this was the best book I read this year. The characters were fabulous, it was beautifully paced, and it made me think and cry and laugh. Everyone should read this book. 
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Multigeneration spanning novels often feel awkwardly paced, but this one (and Wilkerson Sexton's for that matter) was artfully done. Her prose is so powerful and her ability to interweave storylines incredible.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Men Explain to Me by Rebecca Solnit: I've always loved essays as a genre, but I've never been big on collections of essays (at least read in one go). Both of these books blew me away. Solnit can expound on a theme better than anyone I know and her phrasing is so gorgeous that her extreme whiteness can be forgiven. 
  • Only The Little Bone by David Huddle: This wasn't so much a novel as a loosely held together collection of vignettes, but it was hauntingly beautiful. I've picked it up a few times since reading it just to re-read the last few pages. 
  • The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg: This is the only graphic novel I read this year (surprising for me!), but it was really fantastic. Feminist fables deserve more airtime, and Greenberg has spun a handful of really beautiful ones here. As is often the case with really good graphic novels (and regular novels too, I guess...), she walks the line between tragic and comic really well, and her drawings are whimsical and pulled the whole thing together. 
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: This was a re-read, but I had almost forgotten how beautiful Ondaatje's prose is. I lost myself in this book more than any other I read this year, and it made me want to read more of him.
  • Shrill by Lindy West: God, this woman is funny. I laughed out loud in public several times reading this, but I also actually literally cried at least three times. I made my husband read it, and I tried to make my dad read it (probably a mistake). This would be have been poignant and relevant a few years ago, but in the era of Trump and Weinstein it felt especially important.
  • The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand: This wasn't particularly earth-shattering or mind blowing, but it was a really well-written, engaging piece of non-fiction. I tend to like my non-ficiton sciencey, and this struck just the right balance of science, social history, and biography. 
  • Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: Ward writes gorgeous, heart-wrenching fiction, so it's no surprise that her memoir followed suit. This was a tough read, but an important one. 
Honorable Mention:
  • Expecting Better by Emily Oster: This was probably the most helpful book I read this year. It was rational and calming and was basically my bible throughout my pregnancy. 
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: This is one of my top ten favorite books of all time, so it seems like cheating to leave it off the list, but it also was not a new discovery (or re-discovery), so I kept it down here. 
2018 is going to bring with it a new addition to the Pinkerton household whose demands may make reading (or at least writing about reading) hard, but I'm going to naively aim for fifty again and see what happens.

I'm extra grateful to my book club who brought me three of these favorites and provides me with badass lady thoughts and insights on a monthly basis. 

Also...shout out to my sister who gifted me 2/10 of my favorites this year, and who is 1/3 people who actually read my blog posts!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I've read 5 or 6 Spark books now, and I never cease to be amazed at how cold she is to her characters. Not just in the way that many authors are mean, putting characters through their plot-required paces for some grand purpose. Rather, Spark treats so many--maybe most--of those who people who novels with barely contained contempt. A particularly worthy supporting character may earn pity. Unless you're Fleur Talbot, if you find yourself in a Spark story, prepare to get the sharp end of the stick. Everything is fair game: appearance, weight, intelligence, dreams, naivete, being too kind, not being kind enough. Anyway.

And Symposium is definitely not a kinder breed. Bookended by a dinner party involving all the novel's principals, it's a nasty, intermittently funny piece of work that delights in tearing the characters to shreds. To a man or woman, everyone--Hurley Reed, philistine painter; Lord and Lady Suzy, crushing boors;  the Utzingers, mutually involved in a bisexual cuckold; the Sykes, who I don't actually recall; and Margaret and William Damien, cheery, wealthy newlyweds--has something singularly unpleasant to hide or to flaunt.

The conversation at the dinner party is dominated by the unbearable Lord Suzy, who is quite distressed that the burglars who robbed his house also peed on the walls ("It feels like a rape", he says repeatedly, uncomfortably) and we are mercifully pulled from the dinner part to the weeks before, where we get background on everyone, but most especially Margaret Damien, the closest thing the book has to a protagonist.

Margaret is unlucky, always in the vicinity when bad things happen, and, tired of the blame, she's decided to get a piece of the action, by way of poisoning her new mother-in-law. How we get to this point is a masterful exercise in spare but clever plotting, spanning Italy to a convent with unusally profane and media-saavy nuns.

And is this funny? Well, sometimes. But much like The Finishing School, the mood here is so bleak and unsympathetic that you can hardly read for the characters, so the plot, twisting and unfolding, is the real draw. I laughed at the cursing nun, but what is one to make of a story in which everyone is a fool, and the last event is the only decent character being murdered by Suzy's gang of roving burglars? The tragedy is the irony, as Margaret is once again close to ground zero without being the bomb--but I can't say I really laughed.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I slide open a glass door and go onto Lou’s balcony. I’ve never seen San Francisco from so high up: it’s a soft blue-black, with colored lights and fog like gray smoke. Long piers reach out into the flat dark bay. There’s a mean wind, so I run in for my jacket and then come back out and curl up tightly on a white plastic chair. I stare at that view until I start to get calm. I think, The world is actually huge. That’s the part no one can really explain.

A Visit From the Goon Squad initially turned me off because of the guitar on the cover. It's silly, perhaps, but my experience with books that prominently feature rock and roll has been that they tend to be goofy pangyrics aimed straight at baby boomers. And the fictional songs... they make Lost's You All Everybody look like I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

But the acclaim Jennifer Egan's novel got everywhere convinced me to pick it up, and its accessible writing sucked me right in when I finally started it. That, and the opening section, about a cynical pickpocket named Sasha. I was immediately impressed at Egan's ability to sketch out a believable character quickly--a real benefit for a novel with as many wide-ranging characters and stories as this one has.

As the cover indicates, music does play a large role. Most of the players who get their own sections are connected in some way to a band called The Flaming Dildos, a band fronted by Bennie Salazar and his enigmatic friend, Scotty. But in reality, the book really works in practice more like a collection of short stories revolving around a recurring cast, of which Sasha, Scotty, and Bennie form only a small part. They're joined by a skeezy record executive safari-ing in Africa, a closeted gay football player in rural America, and dozens of others.

If there's a recurring theme in these stories, which jump in time between the 70s and the near future (maybe 2020 or so) and place (Africa, New York, Italy), it's the way time has a way of changing, crushing, flattening out, and sometimes, rarely, even fulfilling dreams. I won't lie--a lot of the characters have arcs that end in less than cheery places. There is a technique, which seems to me to be uniquely Sparkian, where Egan will sometimes spell out a character's entire future in the middle of a story that ends when they're still a teenager. In a way, this is depressing--learning that a bright young teen grows up to commit suicide at 20, or that a young girl ends up hooked on crack has a way of bringing a reader down--but at the same time, Egan skillfully uses this narrative irony to highlight the eternality of the good moment that is currently happening. Whatever happens going forward, those shining moments can't be snuffed out.

There's also the recurring question of image. Is Scotty an amazing guitarist or a burnout? Is Sasha a housewife or a wild child? Is a Mugabe-like dictator really so evil, or is it all a matter of perspective? And does it matter?

And if Dolly could get people to ask [if he was dating a starlet], the general’s image problems would be solved. It didn’t matter how many thousands he’d slaughtered—if the collective vision of him could include a dance floor, all that would be behind him.

And there is a hope, something just out of the grasp of these characters, elucidated near the end by Bix, who will go on to a reasonably happy ending himself:

“We’re going to meet again in a different place,” Bix says. “Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us.” “Where? How?” Drew asks. Bix hesitates, like he’s held this secret so long he’s afraid of what will happen when he releases it into the air. “I picture it like Judgment Day,” he says finally, his eyes on the water. “We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We’ll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.”

Finally, Visit includes a lot of structural play--there's a chapter that's a clear piss-take/homage to David Foster Wallace, complete with endnotes that are longer than the text. There's a section, surpsingly affecting, that takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation. There's a chapter in 2nd person. But in all the play, Egan never loses the emotional thread of the stories she tells. And that's a lot more rare than finding someone who can put together a tricky sentence.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

--I'm sorry it's over.
--So what, I'll tell you another one.
--No, it's not that.  You're going to laugh at what I'm going to tell you.
--Let's have it.
--I'm sorry because I've attached to the characters.  And now it's all over, and it's just like they died.
--So, Valentin, you too have a little bit of a heart.
--It has to come out some place... weakness, I mean.
--It's not weakness, listen.
--Funny how you can't get along without becoming attached to something... It's... as if the mind had to secrete affection without stopping...
--You think so?
--...same way your stomach secretes juices for digestion.
--You really think so?
--Sure, like a leaky faucet.  And those drops continue dripping on anything, they can't be turned off.

Two men share a cell in an Argentine prison.  One, Valentin, is a young revolutionary who has given his life to the Marxist cause.  The other, Molina, is a gay windowdresser who often slips into describing himself as a woman.  They are an unlikely pair, but thrown into the cell they form a connection, you might say because they have no one else to connect to.  But that's not quite right: they form a connection because the cell, though a place where a grave injustice is committed upon each of them, is a self-contained world in which they are free to discover each other unencumbered by the obligations or social pressures that circumscribe them in the outside world.

Kiss of the Spider Women is written almost entirely in dialogue.  Most of that dialogue is Molina recounting to Valentin, with a detailed memory and a sense of flair, movies that he has seen.  It's through these films that Molina and Valentin process their own ideas of themselves, and come to know each other.

It's a brilliant setup that succeeds because the films that Puig invents are generally gripping.  The first is a supernatural thriller in which a woman enters into a sexless marriage because of an old legend that her ancestors turn into panthers when they kiss a man.  This film lets Puig explore the contours of both Molina and Valentin's sexuality, and foregrounds the hope and dangers of sex as a transformative experience.  (This is echoed by Molina's obsession with the films themselves, which offer a kind of transformation-by-proxy, which is passed on to Valentin as well.)  The second is a beautiful romantic drama that alienates Valentin because it is also a thinly-veiled piece of Nazi propaganda.  Molina doesn't care; its beauty is his highest principle, but Valentin cares quite a bit.  It's easy to share Valentin's disappointment when the movie is over because we, too, are drawn into the synopsis.

Puig slowly introduces more elements.  At times he reports the characters' thoughts in the middle of their dialogue; and he includes, footnote-style, a strange synopsis of the medical arguments surrounding the source of homosexual behavior.  A coda at the end is framed as a secret police report.  The novel overall is a masterpiece of control; Puig seems to know exactly when and how to tinker with the minimalism we're made to expect.  But there's never any real narrative, and the distance that creates permits us to appreciate scenes whose physicality otherwise might be alienating: when Molina helps clean off Valentin, whom has become very sick and defecated himself, or the moment when the two men have sex for the first time.

Kiss of the Spider Woman does become a gay romance, but a lucid and clear-eyed one. It neither asks us to believe that Molina drags Valentin out of some closet, nor dismisses Valentin's choice as one of expediency or desperation.  It asks us to imagine the way in which emotional and spiritual connections can become physical ones, and the way in which those connections can transform us in ways that defy our narrower conventions. 

Brent's Top 10 of 2017

Like the last couple years, finding reading time in 2017 was often a challenge. But I tried to read more women and POC this year, and it was rewarding. It was really my theology reading that kept me from closer parity--I guess finding good women writing about God is a priority for next year. My favorite books, though, reflect the type of diversity I'd like to aim for on the whole next year.

I certainly didn't expect to have a year where Marilynne Robinson didn't make my top ten, but besides Home being a weaker effort, this was just a really solid year of reading. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

Yaa Gyasi
The multigenerational, continent-spanning novel really took me by surprise with its scope and ambition. In spite of an ending that didn't quite pull everything together, it was one of the most compelling books I read this year.

Alice Munro
My third Munro book and by far the best, every story in this book is fantastic. It's cliche to say so, but reading a good Munro story is  like reading a novel in 1/10th of the time.

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
In another year, I doubt this would have made the top ten; in a year when everyone I grew up respecting somehow justified voting for Donald Trump, Scout wrestling with whether or not Atticus was a good man carried some extra weight.

Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison
I can't believe it took me so long to read this. Without question one of the greatest novels I've ever read on a stylistic level, its a tour de force that sucks you in and makes you feel every racially-charged page.

A More Christlike God
Brad Jersak
I intentionally kept this list theology-lite, but this was the book that finally turned me away from the angry-God theology I grew up with and introduced me to the Gospel in Chairs which radically reoriented my perspective. I'll always be thankful I read this book.

Patrick White
I don't know if I can say that I deeply loved Voss. But then, it's a hard book to love. Still, it's so singular and fantastic (in all senses of the word) it could hardly miss the list. Also: the hardest thing I read in 2017.

Under the Net
Iris Murdoch
This is the movie the Coens never made. It somehow wrings poignancy out of absurdity, and was probably the most fun I had with a book this year.

The Medusa Frequency
Russell Hoban
I know Chris is going to jump on me for choosing this over the likely-superior Kleinzeit, but this one got me in the gut in a way Kleinzeit didn't. They almost seem like sister books, with their twinned preoccupations. Hoban is such a gift.

The Towers of Trezibond
Rose Macauley
It's hard to imagine a book more tailor made for my interests. Macauley's mashup of travelogue, theology treatise, and madcap adventure story works wonders, and turns on a dime near the end to become something else entirely.

Brighton Rock
Graham Greene
My favorite Greene is The Power and the Glory, but Brighton Rock might be even more singular. Far darker than anything else of Greene's I've read, this is a bracing examination of evil and God, and who's really in charge. Spoiler: the answers aren't at the end.

And that's another year in the books! Thanks so much to everyone who participated, especially Chloe who absolutely killed it with her reviews. And here's an ever better 2018!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Amatka by Karen Tidbeck

Vanja emptied a box of pencils, lined them up on the shelf, and pointed at them one by one.  "Pencil, pencil, pencil."

It wasn't long before the words flowed together.  "Pencil-pencil-pen-cilpen-cilpen-cilpen-cilpen-cilpen--"

The last pencil in the row shuddered.  As Vanja bent closer to look, the shiny yellow surface whitened and buckled.  Then, suddenly and soundlessly, it collapsed into a pencil-shaped strip of gloop.  Vanja instinctively shrank back.  Her stomach turned.  She had done it.  She had said the wrong name, and the pencil had lost its shape.

In Amatka, as with the three other colonies that exist in the whole world, language keeps things together.  Not metaphorically, but literally: good citizens are reminded to frequently "mark" their belongings, both with writing and with speech, so that they remain intact.  Doors say DOOR, shoes say SHOE.  Vanja, a visitor from the capitol researching the locals' usage of hygiene products, is more careless than most.  In the first week of her visit to Amatka, she lets both her toothbrush ("TOOTHBRUSH") and her suitcase ("SUITCASE") dissolve into gloop.  It's suggested that someone who lets things fall apart that way has, deep down, a resentment toward the current order of things.

In many ways, Amatka is a conventional dystopian novel.  Vanja slowly comes to feel alienated by the repressive nature of the world government, which manages the lives of its citizens with a heavy hand and a close-watching eye.  But the odd circumstances give a heightened urgency to a tired plot.  If allowing laziness or subversion means the world will dissolve into gloop, aren't a heavy hand and a close-watching eye what's required?  Vanja is reminded that the committees are elected positions, and represents the will of the people to keep the community thriving.

Despite its clever premise, Amatka took a long time to catch my interest.  Vanja's story checks off a lot of the familiar boxes: a hidden past trauma, a sudden love affair.  It's notable that her love affair is with Nina, and that the book makes no special fanfare about the centrality of a lesbian relationship.  After all, reproduction in Amatka is divorced from its romantic and familial trappings: Nina and her male friend Ivar have children who spend the week at the Children's House, and the time they spend together on weekends seems more like duty than love.  Doing this allows Tidbeck to dismiss the historical pressure that we might expect to be exerted on a gay relationship in a repressive, community-oriented society, but it doesn't exactly make it seem more repressive, or more interesting.  And it certainly doesn't help that Nina's single noteworthy quality is a slavish sense of duty toward the community--which isn't a characteristic so much as an obstacle for the plot.

For most of its length, Amatka is weird, but not really weird enough.  I couldn't help thinking about Philip K Dick's evocative "gubbish," which is so much more terrifying than "gloop."  But by the end, when Tidbeck really lets shit get strange, I liked it more: A series of pipes and tunnels begin appearing, as if by magic, around Amatka.  Vanja deduces that a famous poet who left Amatka years ago with a band of 100 disillusioned citizens has returned, to save the colony from itself.  The poet knows that when you free yourself from repressive ideas of language--from the idea that words and their objects are inherently linked, and that words themselves can be pinned down dictionary-style--you can do almost anything.  And then you can speak pipes and tunnels into being, and change the very fabric of reality, the very fabric of your own being.  This notion leads to some really terrific, chilling scenes of visual sci-fi-horror.  The ending doesn't totally land, I think, but Amatka works because it finally trusts its own message.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Brittany's Top 3 of 2017

We Need to Talk About 2017
At the end of 2016 I wrote, "I thought I would die if I read one more book for grad school (I did read more books for grad school and did not die)." It is true that I did not die. And yet. It appears I could barely read another book or I would die. 

I am a reader. It is a core part of my identity as a person. I have two Master's degrees that make it very clear how I feel about books (an MA in English and an MS in Library and Information Sciences). I am a librarianIn 2013 I read 36 books (13 for grad school), in 2014 I read 37 books (no grad school and that year I described my reading as "a binge on the candy cornucopia of Young Adult Lit"), in 2015 I read 67 books (30 for grad school), and in 2016 I read 74 books (43 for grad school). In 2016 I read 20 books. I wrote 0 book reviews. In terms of books, 2017 will be remembered as the year I fell out of love with reading.

I am hopeful that in 2018 I will fall back in love. Re-reading all my end of the year blog posts reminded me to check if Rajiv Joseph has anything new out (he does), if anymore Pierre Lemaitre books have been translated into English (they have), and that Phoebe Robinson has a book that I have been wanting to read for a while.  

By the Numbers

  • 20 complete books read (10 audiobooks, 9 young adult, 5 non-fiction or memoirs, 2 about dead bodies, 1 graphic novel)
  • 15 authors (the only repeat was JK Rowling)
  • 10 women authors, 5 men authors
  • all living
  • 8 nationalities/ethnicities besides white American: Japanese (Kabi Nagata), Lebanese (Rabih Alameddine), Vietnamese American (Viet Thanh Nguyen), African American (Shonda Rhimes and Angie Thomas), Nigerian American (Nnedi Okorafor), Jewish American (BJ Novak), Puerto Rican American (Gabby Rivera and Lin-Manuel Miranda), and British (JK Rowling).
Things that stand out compared to previous four years: I read fewer books than ever. The percentage of women authors continues to increase (2015 was the first year I read more women than men at 57% women, in 2016 it was 62%, and this year it was 66%). Even though I stopped running and have a new short commute, I still managed to listen to a lot of audiobooks - almost as much as last year when I read almost four times as many books.

In 2015 I noticed a pattern of unofficial categories in my top lists and while this year's top list only has three books and thus cannot have six unofficial categories, I did want to acknowledge that my reading still follows this general pattern. I'm always looking for recommendations that fit these since they are the books I tend to love the most. I also think it's time to add an LGBTQ category since only one year is missing a book in that category in my top lists. 
A Book About Race: The Hate U Give, Juliet Takes a Breath, The Sympathizer
A Fucked Up Book: The Chemist sort of fits in this category but just barely
A Classic I Should Have Read Already: n/a
A Non-Fiction Book About a Topic More People Should Know About: Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers and Working Stiff: 2 Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (with the caveat that I don't actually think everyone should read this books as they are graphic, but for those who don't mind that, they definitely should)
A Book of Interconnected Stories with Shifting Narrators: Before the Devil Breaks You
Pulitzer Prize Winner/Nominee: The Sympathizer
LGBTQ: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, Juliet Takes a Breath

Top Books
Constructing this list was very easy, but writing about the books has proven to be difficult (see above).

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is the book I couldn't stop recommending to every person in 2017. This young adult novel opens on Starr witnessing her friend Khalil get shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop. It is a heartbreaking book, a moving book, a beautiful book, and one that our country really needs right now.

2. The Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
Yes, I am putting this memoir by Shonda Rhimes (aka queen of ShondaLand, aka showrunner of Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder) in front of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. I love Grey's Anatomy. Yes, it's still on TV, 14 seasons and counting. One of the great highlights of 2017 was rewatching it for the xth time while my best friend watched it the first time and texting back and forth about how much we love Christina. My Grey's Anatomy love alone would have made this a top book because there are some fun behind the scenes tidbits, but it is a wonderful book totally outside of that. Shonda is a powerhouse. A single mom by choice of three children with an amazing career who decided to spend a year saying yes after her sister muttered under her breath, "You never say yes to anything." I really needed this book in my life right this year, and I think everyone could use the chapter on accepting compliments. 

3. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel opens on the fall of Saigon and centers on a half-Vietnamese half-French undercover communist agent. Historical war fiction is not really my genre, but the author was coming to my university to give a talk and I wanted to read it before he came. I ended up not reading it in time, missing the talk completely, and then absolutely regretting it when I finished the book. The novel is darkly funny, very quotable, and required me to read many wikipedia pages.

Honorable Mention 
Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy McCarter and Lin-Manuel Miranda
In 2016 I had a student aide who was obsessed with a musical and wanted to play songs from it in the library (only school appropriate ones she promised). That was my introduction to Hamilton, and for me, like for a lot of America, it came out of nowhere. I, like a lot of America, am obsessed. This non-fiction book is only interesting to us, but for us it is amazing.

We Need To Talk About Harry Potter
I went on a three week trip to China. It included a lot of time on planes, trains, and buses. Picking out books for my three week trip to China was really really hard because I wasn't reading much anyway and I crave less serious books when I travel. I have been wanting to do a complete Harry Potter reread for a while. The last time I did one was when book 7 came out - since then I tend to only read 5-7. But reading all 7 Harry Potter books is a lot of time reading (the audiobooks are over 100 hours total). China was a perfect opportunity, so I loaded them up on a borrowed Kindle* and finished just in time to find an English bookstore in Beijing to get books for the plane ride home. It was as wonderful as I hoped it would be. I'm old enough that all my Harry Potter experiences happened well after childhood, so there was no risk of a childhood memory being sullied, but I still wondered if it would feel magical after all these years. It totally did. I laughed and read too many lines out loud to Randy and cried a lot. A lot. My favorite Harry Potter used to be Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but it is now Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I don't know if I will ever love a book again the way I have loved Harry Potter.

*To every person who has told me "Once you go e-reader, you can't go back" - ha! They are the best thing for travelling, yes, but as soon as I was back in America, I was back to paper books.

2017: Randy's Reading Retrospective

What the hell happened, 2017? When I reflect back upon you, and my (narrow) Fifty Books Project participation, what sordid tales will my stats tell? Seventeen books? Only seventeen books?

Three of these "books" were The Paris Review--which has always had a dubious-at-best status as a "book." Six of them novels, of which half I was re-reading (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Satanic Verses, and The Gunslinger). Five--nearly one third--were in an amorphous and unexpected business self-help category (I am excluding these from consideration for my best-of because, well, because I can and it's a free goddam country goddammit. Don't tell me how to live my life.)

Setting aside the re-reads, The Paris Review, and the self-help books, I have three novels and three non-fiction. A measly six books. (Notably, of these six, I did manage to review five).

So, WTF, 2017? I'll say simply that the year has been busy in a way that made the Siren's song of my PS4 very difficult to resist. When I reflect back, I will see the forgiving arms of an understanding game console in a cold year.

With only seventeen books, a top-three feels right. Here they are:

<drum roll>

Bronze Medal: Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States

LaChance's book changed the way I think about the death penalty by causing me to think, for the first time, about what the death penalty represents culturally. It had never occurred to me to think about the death penalty culturally, so that merely engaging in the thought experiment would have accomplished much. However LaChance's insight also provided answers about the death penalty. The death penalty's role is clearer to me now than before. But the book did more than change the way I think about the death penalty, it also changed the way I think about our society. Die Hard is a different movie for me now because of this book, and I suspect many other movies or cultural phenomena will be different too.

Silver Medal: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Pinker's a book, which was a spontaneous purchase based on a half-remembered shadow memory, was a surprise strong finisher for the year. I expected to read a book that offered some helpful thoughts, but which would largely repeat truisms about writing I'd encountered over and over again before. Instead, I got a thoughtfully crafted book about the craft of writing and why good writing is good writing (and why bad writing is bad writing). In addition to the forest, though, I also got trees: Pinker gave not just the big-picture of good writing, but details too. For putting into words what I intuitively understood about good writing, and giving me the conceptual tools to be able to describe good writing, this book will have a lasting effect on my own writing.

Gold Medal: Don Quixote

Don Quixote was, reading-wise, a game changer. I became, and still am, obsessed with this book. I read Nabokov's lectures about it; I watched the musical Man from La Mancha; I am excited about this documentary; I am even more excited about this movie. I got Monsignor Quixote for Christmas. I cannot now get enough Don Quixote, and I am not sure I ever will. What is the nature of Quixote's madness, and what does it say about us? This question eats at me and the various versions of media playing with Quixote all allow me to think about it more. Are we all engaged in quixotic quests that we don't recognize? What (self-)deceptions guide us? Quixote will be back in 2018, this I believe.

Speaking of 2018: what windmills will I tilt at in the new year? I am two volumes behind in The Familiar: I will continue to review them as I read them. I think I am going to try reading the two volumes back to back to see if that helps with my relapsing memory of the plot and characters. There are some famed female writers who I'm ashamed to admit I've never read (Atwood, Munro, Bender), who I really would like to get to this year (Brittany gave me quite a look when I realized all my authors over the last year were male). So, only vague aspirations.

Still, looking forward to another year with Fifty Books.