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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories: Academics Being Academic-y

I love campus stories — Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of my favorite comic of all times — and so when I read about Rebecca's Lee's short story collection Bobcat and Other Stories (published summer 2012) being mostly about academics or students doing academic-y and/or student-y things, I was all over it (2013 is unquestionably the year of the short story for me. And it is good.)

Of course, then, my favorite story in the collection — the title story "Bobcat" — is the only one in the collection not specifically about academics. It's about a dinner party where the hosts are trying to decide whether a their friend knows that her husband is cheating on her. The guests are an eclectic group — there's a book editor waiting patiently for a call about a Salman Rushie memoir, a woman who wrote a memoir about being attacked by a bobcat and who annoys the other guests by talking about nothing else (the other guests wonder if her story is even true), and a woman who is a descendent of the members of the infamous Donner party. It's a riot!

Another highlight is the longest story in the collection (but they're all pretty short, no more than 20 pages) titled "Fialta" about a small group of students studying at an artist colony under a famous architect named Franklin Stadbakken. Here, at Fialta, romance between the student is strictly forbidden, but there may be a romance between the hallowed architect and the woman (oddly named Sand) for whom our narrator develops a massive crush. I loved this story. I didn't realize it until just now as I sat down to write this and learn a little bit more about Lee (she's a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington) but this story actually won Lee a National Magazine Award in 2001. Impressive, but not surprising!

The other five stories in the collection were mostly interesting in their own ways — one titled "Min," which I thought just bizarre and am still not sure if I liked or not,  was about a woman who goes to Hong Kong with her good friend after they graduate college, where her friend has promised her that his rich father, a Hong Kong big wig, will give her a job. The job isn't what she expected — she has to help her friend's father find him a wife by culling through hundreds of applications to marry him. And then there's a tangent (or is it?) about Vietnamese refugees possibly being deported. One of the cool things about these stories is that you're never quite sure where we're going — you'll think it's pretty straightforward, but the a minor detail becomes a major issue, and you have to stay on you toes to figure out what the story is actually "about." It's pretty cool. Another titled "The Banks of the Vistula" is about a freshman who cheats on a linguistics paper, but finds herself forming a bond with her professor anyway. "World Party" is about a college campus that is the victim of lots of student group protests, and amused me because it reminded me a little of the movie PCU.

So it's a solid collection — not my favorite of the year, but I enjoyed these stories as short snacks between longer reading sittings. It's not a huge investment in time, and it was chance to read a new-to-me writer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Americanah: An Honest Novel About Race in America

"You can't write an honest novel about race in this country," says a character in Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah. Adichie is winking at her readers, in some ways telling us it's her devout hope that she has done just that.

Honestly, I don't know if this book is "honest" regarding race — that's probably not for me, as a "privileged white" to judge. It's funny at times, glib at others. It seems too earnest and too generalizing at times, but deeply profound and thought-provoking most often. But what I do know is that, overall, this novel is fantastic — I absolutely loved it! It's a substantial novel (just picking up the hardcover gives it that feel), but an easily readable one you'll fly through (if you're like me). It's easily one of my favorite novels of the year. And it's one of the rare novels I wish we could just make everyone read, so that they, too, could learn as much as I did from this book.

The story is about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who comes to America in her early twenties to attend college in Philadelphia. She struggles to understand American-ness in general (why do Americans say "excited" and "wonderful" so much, and why is everything infused with irony?!) but race in American specifically. She doesn't understand the hypersensitivity to race by some (why does a student in her class consider it offensive when another student asks Ifemelu if she likes watermelon?). It seems to her as an over-correction. But what's worse, of course, are the people who treat her differently because she's black. She's Nigerian, so she's never before thought of herself as black. Why do people speak more slowly to her when they hear her accent? Do they assume she's stupid? Why does she have such difficulty getting a job? In general, why do people treat her differently?

After graduating, Ifemelu begins a blog about race, which quickly earns her a wide following because of her unblinking, honest examination. The blog (full posts are included in the novel at the end of many chapters— and they're awesome) becomes the thematic cornerstone of the novel, and the jumping-off point for many of the conversations throughout the novel between Ifemelu, her boyfriends (one, a white rich man, another a liberal black Yale professor) and their friends. These conversations are fascinating as well, adding dimension to the questions (some much stupider than others) of race — Are we ready for a black president? Why are whites automatically on top of the American race hierarchy, and blacks on the bottom? And why are non-American blacks "different" than American blacks?

But there so much more to this novel than just discussion of race — there's a strong (and seemingly justified) condemnation of how we treat immigrants in this country, as well as how England treats immigrants. One whole section of the novel is about Ifemelu's former lover's (Obinze) experience trying to make his way as an immigrant in London. (Obinze, by the way, is an important character in the novel, as one of the underlying questions is, after Ifemelu breaks off contact with him, will he re-emerge? Is he really her soulmate?) And Adichie doesn't forget to tell us how different life is in Nigeria as well — and to me the sections that take place in Lagos are some of the most fascinating in the novel.

Adichie is a luminous, profound writer. (On the night Obama is elected, as Ifemelu celebrates with her friends, she's overcome with emotion, and Adichie writes "And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America." It's simple, but that passage gave me all the goosebumps.) You may have first heard of her from her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which was also fantastic, and may have been one of the reasons she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008.

I can't recommend Americanah more highly. (Don't just take my word — it has a 4.20 average over more than 4,200 ratings on GoodReads.) It's an important novel, but one that's still fun to read. It's the rare novel that combines profundity in subject with profound entertainment as well. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's INTERPETER OF MALADIES: Swift Shot Right To The Feelings

The first story in Jhumpa Lahiri's first published work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, absolutely killed me. Talk about announcing your presence with authority, this story, titled "A Temporary Matter," is absolutely heart-wrenching — a theme-setter for most of the rest of the collection.

The story is about a young-ish married couple in the midst of one of those long lulls that plagues every relationship — but this one is a result of a tragedy. They'd recently had a child die soon after birth, and now both have retreated into themselves and their routines. Then, a breakthrough: A nightly hour-long power outage gives them occasion to talk again, to reconnect, and they begin sharing secrets they'd never revealed before. At first, these are harmless, mundane, almost humorous — but they soon become more consequential. Ostensibly, this secret-sharing brings them closer — but we soon learn the wife had a very different reason for re-building her ability to share than the husband does. And, as I said, the conclusion is just numbing. It really laid me out.

And again, this story sets the tone for many of the other stories about marital problems and the consequences of not communicating, or of keeping secrets. The title story is about a wife who shares a sordid secret with a tour guide while on vacation in India. Another story "Sexy" is about a young woman who has an affair with a married Indian man, all the while hearing one of her co-workers complaining about her cousin whose husband left her to take up with a younger woman. It's an incredible story about how difficult empathy is sometimes, and how we often willfully ignore consequences of bad things we do until we have full and terrible understanding of how they affect others.

Another of my favorites in the collection is titled "This Blessed House." I'm not sure if this story is supposed to be funny, but I thought it was. It's about a newly married couple who move into a new house. As they clean and paint, they keep finding Christian relics — like posters and prayer cards — hidden (or just forgotten about) all over the house. The wife — whose name is Twinkle — is a bit flighty, and loves the novelty of the items, and wants to display them prominently (in some sense, ironically) all over the house. But the straight-laced husband hates this idea, and starts to wonder — especially during the couple's housewarming party — whether he's made the right decision with this marriage.

Again, this collection was Lahiri's first book, published in 1999. And, sadly for me, it's the last of her published work I've gotten to read. I won't cliche and say I saved the best for last (I'm still sorting it all out, but I think The Lowland is my favorite of her four published works), but I really loved most of this collection. These are stories that hit you right in the feelings.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Tips On How To Enjoy Dave Eggers' The Circle

David Foster Wallace once said something to the effect that a good book teaches you how to read it. That is precisely the case with Dave Eggers' hilarious new dystopian satire The Circle — about a young-20s woman named Mae, and her meteoric rise through a Google-like company dedicated to making everyone's lives better and more efficient. (Or, taking over the world. Whichever.)

From signals very early on in the novel (and over the course of the rest it, as well), we learn quickly not to take this too seriously. It's a novel that's very much intended to be funny. And it really, really is. From the ultra-cheesy product names that "Circlers" introduce with pure earnestness — like a camera called SeeChange, or (my personal favorite) a way to vote electronically called Demoxie (democracy + moxie, natch) — to the goofy slogans like "All that happens must be known," and "Privacy is theft," this is less like Orwell's 1984 and more like Bill and Ted's 1984. 

But so, the novel has been getting somewhat mixed reviews, which, to some degree I guess I understand. If you read it as a serious cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, then, yeah, I can imagine you might push back and label Eggers a Luddite and his novel a clunky mess. But I don't think that's the case. I loved this book. And think you will too, especially if you keep in mind these five tips:

1. Don't go in expecting to dislike it — For whatever reason (I'm at a loss to explain this), Dave Eggers has become a target of cynicism, so some readers have gone in to this novel sharpening their hatchets. I don't get this — for Eggers or for any novel. It's a lot more fun to go in expecting to enjoy a novel. So do that.

2. These are serious issues, but a not-very-serious novel — As Jon Stewart and The Simpsons say, "Mmmm...that's good satire." Yes, the issues Eggers brings up — disappearing privacy, addiction to social media, one company ruling the world (?) — are real issues, and if you do a thought experiment (which, in some ways, this novel is) about taking all these issues to the worst possible place, then yeah, shit! This is scary. But Eggers isn't really worried about that. And we know he's not because he has too much fun making fun of all these possibilities to believe he actually thinks things like cameras literally everywhere could really happen. Here's another random example of how funny this novel is: Mae has just been recorded getting frisky with her new boyfriend. She's furious, and asks him to delete the video. But he won't, and her friend Annie explains why: Because, for the leader of the Circle, deleting information is like killing babies. "He'd weep. It hurts him personally," she explains to Mae. Mae replies: "But this baby's giving a handjob. No one wants that baby. We need to delete that baby." I mean......

3. This isn't OUR America. It's a dystopian version of our America — "My God, Mae thought. It's heaven." That's the opening line of the novel, and it's quite the ironic tone-setter. Dystopia is only dystopia to those who aren't on board. But what really indicates that this story doesn't take place in the real world is that almost none of the things that happen in this novel could realistically happen in real-life (politicians wearing cameras 24/7 so that they're totally transparent, for instance). Oh, and one point there's a reference to the demise of Facebook. Yeah, this isn't the real world.

4. Of course, the technology is ridiculous. Of course it is — Eggers has gotten dinged a lot for not understanding technology, being way too simplistic, and writing about totally unrealistic tech products — like the product the Circle is founded on called TruYou, an online profile which allows you, from one profile, to comment on blogs, zing (the Circle version of Twitter), pay bills, store passwords, find love, and do just about everything else on the Internet. Of course, it (and many of the other products the Cirlce has created) is ridiculous. But you don't think Eggers knows that? Give him some credit. He's not a stupid guy.
  
5. Accept that it's far from perfect. But it's still pretty good — At some point, all the product presentations start to get a bit repetitive and silly. Eggers has made his point, but he continues to hammer it home. What's more, there's a lot about kayaking. Mae kayaks. A lot. The kayaking parts were boring. And I can certainly see how women would be annoyed by Mae — she's a bit flighty and constantly finds herself in the thrall of lust for no particular reason. Eggers doesn't write female characters well, that's for sure.

But so, to conclude, I'd definitely recommend The Circle — as long as you can laugh with it, not at it. It's a fast-paced, fun read.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Alice Munro For the First Time

Reading outside a comfort zone doesn't get much more outside a comfort zone than Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women was for me. But this is a perfect case study for why reading outside a comfort zone is almost always a good thing. This is a phenomenal book, and I'm surprised it's not more widely read.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and since over the last two years or so, I've been reading a ton more short stories (sad to think what I'd been missing all these years by not reading short story collections), I was embarrassed that I'd never read the newly minted Nobel and oft-described Queen of the Short Story.

I chose Lives of Girls and Women because it was Book Riot editor and Alice Munro fan Jeff O'Neal's recommendation for where to start. (Well, the title story anyway.) Though this is often billed as Munro's only novel, it actually consists of a group of connected short stories with the same character, Della, who is telling us about growing up in a small town in rural Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s. These are, for the most part, quiet stories where nothing earth-shattering happens. Della's neighbor answers an ad in the paper for a housekeeper, marries her, and then she leaves. At a funeral, Della bites a mentally challenged woman who tries to drag her in to see the body. Della participates in a school pageant and has her first crush. She has a very weird experience with a male friend her mother's boarder. And finally, she has her first boyfriend and sexual experience.

What's most interesting about these stories — beyond just Munro's prose, which, of course is sparklingly clear and just so easy and enjoyable to read — is how a theme introduced in a previous story becomes the central focus of the next. The stories are in chronological order, but it seems clearer that they're arranged in a thematic progression, which is more important than the chronology. For instance, Del has the typical early-youth struggle with what death is and if there's an afterlife. Then, a later story is focused solely on Del's "quest" to understand religion. In one of the funniest moments in the book, she prays to God to get her out of sewing class as a sign that He exists. But then she realizes the folly here:
"And surely too it was rather petty, rather obvious of God to concern Himself so quickly with such a trivial request? It was almost as if He were showing off. I wanted Him to move in a more mysterious way."
Later, when the older man performs a sex act in front of her (he's a pervert and this is NOT okay), the next story tells of her first relationship, and her trying to come to terms with normal sexuality — whatever that is. In some ways, it's a power struggle.
"Sex seemed to me all surrender —not the woman's to the man but the person's to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility. I would lie washed in these implications, discoveries, like somebody suspended in clear and warm and irresistably moving water, all night." 
Man, how good is that?! So, yes, I really enjoyed reading Munro for the first time. Jeff suggested in his Reading Pathways post that this a "female, Canadian cousin of Catcher in the Rye," and that feels right on the mark to me. So if you've never read Munro, this is, indeed a great place to start. I'm excited to move on to some of her other collections now!