Wednesday, August 22, 2018

4 Recent Reads: Memoir, Literary Fiction, German Translation, Mild Disappointment

Here's another round-up of a bunch of recent reads.

The Blew-Me-Away Memoir 

Educated, by Tara Westover — You may have just seen this terrific memoir on President Obama's summer reading list. And it deserves every accolade it gets. Just amazing — I read the last 200 pages of this in one breathless sitting. Westover grew up in rural Idaho to strict Mormon parents. As she grows up, her survivalist father becomes increasingly erratic, constantly working on his bomb shelter and making all his children, Tara included, help out in his junkyard, which is a literal deathtrap. Her mother, supposedly the "normal" one, believes in all kinds of "alternative medicines" and begins a business mixing oils and herbs. Westover never set foot in a classroom because her parents didn't want to submit her to the brainwashing of government public schools. But eventually she goes against their wishes, gets a good score on the ACT, and enrolls in Brigham Young University at age 17. To me, this was when the memoir really picks up steam, as she begins to learn both how little she knows of the world and also how crazy everything she'd thought she'd known really was. And still, she can't quit her family — even wondering if her memories are flawed. It's just a wonderfully, beautifully, massively intelligently written book, topped off by this quote near the end: “I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”

The Terrific Literary Fiction

A Terrible Country, by Keith Gessen — Putin's Russia may be a terrible country, but this is a terrific novel! It's 2008 (so well before any of the current Russian meddling conversation) and a mid-30s, failing academic named Andrei travels to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. Andrei (like Gessen) was born in Moscow, but his parents emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy. Now, in post-Soviet Moscow, Andrei is flabbergasted by Russian culture — the head-scratching wealth mixed with the remnants of the communist era mixed with the culture of distrust. Coming from New York City, Andrei still marvels about how everything in Moscow is a hassle, how everything is just so much harder than it has to be, from finding a reasonably priced cup of coffee to making friends to play hockey with. But Andrei slowly begins to figure it out, and starts to embed himself in Russian culture, fall in love, and even take up a cause. But is it really a cause, or is it a way for Andrei to kickstart his failing academic career? How much loyalty does Andrei have to this new Russia and his family, as opposed to his "former" life in the U.S.? Gessen's writing is subtly funny and super smart. I didn't expect to like this as much as did — highly recommended!

The Profound, Heart-Breaking German Novel

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck — This understated, but glint-sharp novel is about the absurdity of government policy toward refugees. The story takes place in Berlin in the early 2010s. A retired classics professor named Richard stumbles upon some African refugees living outside in a plaza in Berlin. These people are basically just stuck — their freedom (and thus humanity) has been stripped from them. These aren't people who crossed borders illegally on purpose. Instead, for one reason or another, they found themselves caught up in the violence and unrest of the Arab Spring, and were shoved onto boats and set adrift. They are willing to work. They try to learn German. They want to be good citizens. But none these things are available to them because of the idiotic red tape of the EU migration policy. Richard finds himself empathizing more and more with the plight of these people, and as he learns more about how few options they have, giving up his own time and resources to help them out. Throughout the novel, Erpenbeck provides these short, profound set pieces about the limits of freedom, about the necessity of common sense and humanity, and many others. I loved this book. It helped me see things in a new way: The mark of any great novel.

The Book I Should've Loved...But Didn't

Ohio, by Stephen Markley — Markley's debut is set in a small town in Ohio in 2013. It's about a group of now-late-20s, former high school friends and enemies who have a complicated relationship with their hometown. I'm from a small town in Ohio. I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. I should've loved this. But I didn't. The main reason is that this nearly 500-page novel tries to be about 15 things at once. That in itself isn't a bad thing, but Ohio fails to live up to this prodigious ambition because only a few these themes are successful. Most feel superfluous or just tossed in, and winding up being distractions to what could've been an impressive character-driven novel with a cool structure. At once, Ohio is a commentary on the opioid crisis and small-town drug addiction. It's a sort of Hillbilly Elegy-esque explanation of the Trump voter, and their prejudices and politics (including what might drive someone to an extreme act of violence). It's a look at the devastating effects of the Great Recession in the Rust Belt. It's a novel about high school that too often strays into cliche — think a combination of Varsity Blues (oh yes, there are drunken football jocks) and Mean Girls (oh yes, there are plotting, vindictive high school girls). It's an Iraq war novel, a murder mystery, a bro comedy, and much more. Despite this identity crisis, I really enjoyed the structure: Starting after the funeral of a high school classmate who died in Iraq, the rest of the novel, is told in four sections from the perspectives of each of four characters who all knew each other from high school, and for different reasons are returning to their Ohio hometown on the same night in 2013. Their paths all cross, amidst backstories of their high school days and what they've been up to since. There are bar brawls and meth, war scenes and PTSD, broken hearts and even more broken people. It's a sprawling novel that almost worked, but didn't quite. Many readers have liked this more than me, so I may be in the minority. If you're on the fence here, give it a shot!