Slow Horses by Mick Herron (and Dead Lions–Slough House #2)

After the last disastrous attempt to find a new mystery, I was still on the hunt late this spring and was intrigued when I found Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first in his new-ish Slough House series.  It traces the lives and exploits of the “Slow Horses”, MI-5’s rejects who for some reason can’t be fired but can be exiled to Slough House, where they push paper and scan computer screens all day.  The motley crew, led by the vile and disgusting yet surprisingly human Jackson Lamb, stumbles upon a supposed terrorist plot after an unexpected victim is kidnapped.  River Cartwright, the grandson of intelligence royalty and relegated to intelligence obscurity for accidentally crashing King’s Cross Station, leads the mission as the team races against time and the higher ups at Regent’s Park determined to put Slough House back in it place to save the victim, unmask the true masterminds, and prevent an international incident.

This was an interesting book.  I think the genre of “spy thriller” can be hard to pull off in novel form, unless you are John Le Carre, even more so when your spies are basically pencil pushers and desk jockeys.  On top of that, this spy thriller is trying to say something and something important.  It uses the frame-work of its terrorism and kidnapping plot to explore the radicalization of individuals and communities via the internet.  The novel argues that it’s not the radical voices that are necessarily dangerous but those listeners and readers who take the radical rhetoric to its logical–or, it could be argued, illogical– dangerous, and scary end.  Essentially the internet allows people to find community in a much broader, even global way than previously, particularly those who have been or feel victimized.  In some ways, this is positive–it allows actual victims and allies to find each other, provide support, and effect change, such as was seen with this year’s Women’s March.  In other cases, the internet also allows people to gather and turn something that’s not really a problem into a problem and themselves into victims, with fear, belief, and entitlement overtaking fact and critical analysis.  An example is the radicalization of young, straight, white men, seen recently in Gamergate or, in the case of this novel and world politics, as the drivers of the populist and anti-immigration movements in Europe and the US.  Whether or not you agree with the premise of Herron’s argument, research and, indeed, experience is increasingly showing us the effect of the dark side of the internet has on socio-cultural beliefs and human interaction.  (If you are interested in some of the psychology behind what makes humans lie and be susceptible to lying, fake news, and our current political and cultural climates, check out National Geographic’s excellent article, “Why We Lie” from their June 2017 issue.)

This is really important stuff to be talking about, and I applaud Herron for using a piece of popular writing to alert his readers to major societal concerns.  For genre-fiction as social polemic to work, however, the actual novel has to be really strong, and unfortunately, in this case, it’s not quite.  The novel begins in medias res and reveals character’s backstories slowly, as if Herron wants to spin out the suspense as longs as possible by just dropping crumbs here and there.  Oddly, though, this makes it extremely exposition heavy yet not a lot of the exposition is particularly interesting or helpful.

Additionally, the exposition doesn’t allow for much real character development, so it was hard to care for these spunky misfits who are the only thing that stand between us unsuspecting civilians and the next world war.  For example (and here be spoilers), two characters flip sides, and I hardly remembered who they were by the time I finished the novel, let alone now as I’m writing this review.  Another one was killed, and my response was not one of emotional connection but more of, “Oh, I guess that character is dead now.  I wonder why they were in the book at all.”  Even the main character was not well developed to the point that I did not realize who Herron was talking about when describing him at the end of the novel.  The most memorable character is the leader of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, but only because he is absolutely disgusting as a human being.

The pacing was a bit of a challenge as well.  The first 150 pages were super slow, but not bad enough to stop.  Rather it was just good enough to keep going to see if the pace would improve.  After that it picked up to near breakneck speed, and I didn’t want to put it down just because there was no point in stopping by then.  I must say, the last several chapters, alternating perspective between the Slough House team and the kidnapped victim, were incredibly thrilling and sickeningly horrifying and would make for an excellent film sequence.  And (here be more spoilers) the ending was really great–for the victim, at least.

This was just a really interesting reading experience.  I found the book to be extremely prescient, basically predicting (or at least recognizing early?) Brexit and extreme right-wing white/nationalistic anger.  But as a platform for a message, it undermined what it was trying to do by not meeting the high standards it set for itself in terms of novel structure.  But I liked how pulpy it was and its devil may care vibe.  It was fun at times.  I’m honestly not sure if I liked it, but I kind of want to read the next one.  So I guess I liked it enough, and you may, too.

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

So I read the second one, Dead Lions.  And I continue to not really know how I feel about this series.

In Dead Lions, we’re thrown back to the Cold War when one of Britain’s low level Cold War agents dies, and Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House, suspects foul play.  An impending visit from a Russian oligarch and whispers of a long-debunked fake Russian spy reappeared put Lamb on high alert and send the Slow Horses into action…sort of.

So Dead Horses fixes some of my character concerns from the first installment.  Herron doesn’t try to make a major social point with this one.  He’s just focused on spinning a good tale.  We also spend more time with characters other than River Cartwright and Jackson Lamb, getting to better know Louisa Guy & Min Harper, Roderick Ho, and my favorite, Catherine Standish.  Yes, that’s right.  The character development is enough this time that I now have a favorite, and I immensely appreciate that the most bad-ass Slow Horse is an unassuming yet imminently capable middle-aged woman.  She is absolutely the smartest person in the room, and you would never know it until she has you trapped.  Awesome.

However, a few problems still remain.  The pacing demonstrates different challenges this time: it moves more quickly than Slow Horses but takes much longer to charge into gear, so long, in fact, that the ending feels a bit sudden and perfunctory.  And even with the improved development, I still cared very little for most of the characters.  The stakes felt lower in this one than the first, and at the end, I didn’t really feel the need to continue the series.

The problem is that it’s not a terrible series, though.  Not great but not terrible.  And Herron does know how to write a thrilling near-end action sequence.  So even though I’m not really feeling it, there is a part of me that’s like, “Hey…you’re two books into the series…it’s fluff, so why not just continue when you’re looking for something light?”  We’ll see how powerful that voice turns out to be, but for the time being, the effort it will take to get the next book is outweighing the desire to keep reading.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

One of the reasons that I read is that there is so much about this world and the people in it that I don’t know, and books, even novels, offer a window on the world, to crib my local PBS station’s motto.  In fact, I particularly love a thoroughly researched and well-crafted historical fiction novel because it allows me to learn about a time I may or may not have much knowledge of within the context of a personal experience I most likely have not experienced.  It highlights why storytelling has been such a huge part of human culture since ancient times; we tend to learn and apply more when we feel a personal connection to the story or lesson or event.  So to that end, I continued my effort to be a more diverse reader and read more diverse literature and learn more about our world and my fellow humans this year with Min Jin Lee’s gorgeous Pachinko.

Pachinko tells the story of teenaged Sunja, who falls in love with a mysterious, wealthy gentleman in her small Korean village in the early 1900’s.  When she finds out not only is she pregnant but her lover is married, she risks societal dishonor and refuses to be his kept mistress.  She ultimately accepts an offer of marriage from one of her mother’s borders, a kind, gentle, sickly minister on his way to Japan to minister to the Christian Koreans making their way to a new land of opportunity.  Her decision sets off a four-generational saga of a family experiencing love, joys, and loss and struggling to find their way in a new country where they don’t fit and exiled from a country most of them don’t know or remember.  The choices Sunja, her sons, and her grandchildren make takes the story careening from the Korean ghetto and street markets in Osaka to the most elite Japanese universities and the mafia-fronted pachinko parlors (the parlor game of pachinko representing the randomness and lack of randomness of life) and explores the role of the family, culture, and society in forming individual identity.

First, let me say this book is near 500 pages but you should absolutely not be daunted.  It is absolutely gorgeous, as I said before, but not sprawling.  Instead, the narrative is very contained and controlled, much like Lee’s characters strive to be.  As a result, the book is quiet yet intensely emotional.  These moments of emotion, whether joy or sadness, fear or courage, were unveiled so purposefully, intentionally, and beautifully, like a rose unfolding, that as a reader, I felt the emotions as intently as the characters–or at least as close as I could without actually being them.  There was a particular moment when a fissure of tension finally cracked and pushed the family apart, that I was left breathless with the very real pain of it.  It has been a long time since I have read an author who writes the everyday, human emotions we experience with such depth, grace, and truth.

Structurally, this is the second multi-perspective book I’ve read recently, and this one fared much more successfully.  The characters weave in and out of the narrative and the timeline much more naturally, and Lee uses the character’s perspective to help signal major time period shifts.  Her mastery at this really emphasized the flowing nature of time and how much life can pass before we realize it.  A few of the characters, however, only had 1 section in a near 500 page book, so unfortunately those sections felt more forced and out of place in the larger narrative.  They weren’t necessarily unnecessary, but the information (or major plot points, as was sometimes the case) could have probably been conveyed differently by an existing character and to greater effect.

Finally, as mentioned above, I learned a lot about a piece of world history that I frankly knew nothing about.  I knew a little about the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korean from Simon Winchester’s Pacific, but I knew nothing of Korea before that point: the large immigration of Koreans to the more economically stable Japan in the hopes of finding opportunity and growth for their families, the discrimination faced by both immigrant and Japanese-born Koreans once in Japan, and the inability of many Koreans to go back home due to the challenges, violence, and economic instability of both North and South Korea post-WWII.  Lee masterfully educates her reader on this time period by using her main family to explore the cultural history of displaced Koreans and the impact of socio-political policies in Japan, all within the dichotomies experienced by her main family: the tugs of war between past and future; the older and younger generations; Korean-ness and Japanese-ness; Asia and “the West”; rich and poor (and new and old wealth and even acceptable and unacceptable wealth); real family and “real” family; obligations to one’s self and to one’s family and culture.  I could go on, and it’s a lot, but Lee does it without rancor or blame or anger toward any of her characters or the cultures and country.  Instead she presents this history and these tensions with an openness that allows the reader to connect with many facets of this history and the characters’ representative experiences, ultimately coming to one’s own conclusion about the story presented.

Honestly, it was an honor to read Pachinko, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I feel like the NPR review describes it nicely.  “In fiction we seek a paradox, the familiar in the foreign, new realities that only this one particular author can give us. Pachinko is the kind of book that can open your eyes and fill them with tears at the same time.”

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has been on the lips of everyone I know, it seems.  It was recommended to me at least 3 time, the last recommendation a very a passionate one, before I decided to pick it up.  And once I started, even more people who had read it started to emerge from the woodwork.  They all loved it.  They were sure I would love it.  They were mostly right.

In 2044, the real world has devolved into an over-populated, poverty-stricken, corporate-run wasteland where most of humanity spends their time in a virtual reality world known as the OASIS, designed by a tech genius, James Halliday, who is a composite of every major tech genius of the modern digital age (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, you name it) and his best friend, Steve Wozniak.  (Or rather, Cline’s imagined virtual reality version of Steve Wozniak, Ogden Morrow.)  Wade Watts, our Player One, and most of humanity have spent years trying to find an Easter Egg built into the OASIS by Halliday right before his death.  The player who finds the Easter Egg will win Halliday’s fortune.  Unfortunately, no one has figured out the first clue…until Wade and a few of his friends.  Suddenly he is the main target of all Egg hunters, and it’s a race against time to save the world from the evil corporation willing to kill to find Halliday’s fortune.

Honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time.  Ernest Cline is a master world-builder, and the world he creates in his novel is as thorough and immersive as it must be for the characters in the OASIS.  The level of detail and exposition did make it a bit slow through page 59, but on page 60, the plot took off and never looked back.  It does help if you either lived in the 80’s or are a fan of 80’s pop culture because it is everywhere.  Most is explained but some is pretty referential.   PAC Man, Matthew Broderick’s entire teenage output (especially Ladyhawke, one of my favorites of his), you name it.  For me, I know just enough about the 80’s that I was pretty pleased when I got most of the references but didn’t worry or feel confused when I didn’t.  The whole book is incredibly detailed.  Cline’s love of and care for the decade is palpable, and it really makes you want to spend the next month revisiting all of your 80’s favorites.

It is also extremely well-written.  Cline is fantastic as establishing and maintaining character through distinct voices.  This is vital, especially as we meet and get to know so many of the characters through their virtual avatars through most of the story.  There was the occasional contrived or cliche emotional situation, but for the most part, one of the most impressive things was how real the characters and relationships felt in such an artificial world.  That being said, the plot is not sacrificed–it’s very lean, nothing is gratuitous or not taken into account, and the pacing is near perfect.

My only quibble is that the ending just ends.  Loose threads are hanging all over, the bad guy just disappears, there’s no real sense of closure…but when you think about it, that’s exactly how a video game ends.  And that’s what this is–an account of playing and winning a giant, classic good-vs-evil, real-world video game.

Ready Player One is an Arthurian quest set in a virtual future and infused with 1980’s pop culture, and it is a rollicking good ride.  Like I said, it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long time, and I highly recommend it, even if it’s not what you’d normally read.  You won’t regret it.

Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

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Earlier this spring, I was feeling a mystery.  I like to read mysteries when I’m feeling unsettled, un-moored, or chaotic.  That may seem counter-intuitive, given that mysteries often are built on chaos, violence, and even murder.  However, there is a structure to mysteries: there is always a clear solution, and order is brought from the chaos.  Unfortunately, none of my favorite mystery series had a new book out, my Agatha Christie novels weren’t calling to me, and I was feeling in a bit of a mystery rut.  Suddenly in all of my book-related e-mails, Lili Wright’s thriller, Dancing with the Tiger, began to repeatedly appear, as if the book-iverse was responding to my need for a new mystery.

Wright’s novel traces Anna’s travels to Mexico to track down the recently unearthed death mask of Montezuma in order to restore the reputation of her father, a formerly world-renowned and now disgraced art expert and alcoholic, and to get back at her posh (and cheating) museum curator ex-fiance.  She quickly realizes she is not the only one looking for the mask–a powerful drug lord, a suave and sinister American ex-pat collector, a Mexican museum curator, her sexy new boyfriend, and the meth-addled looter himself are all after this priceless and historic discovery.  What follows is a mishmash of sex, hyper-violence, drugs, adventure, bribery, art, and a battle for honor, family, and identity.

Sounds cool, right?

Wrong.

This book was…meh.  Disappointing.  Blah.  An Edgar nominee who did not live up to its designation as “suspenseful” and that the Kirkus review called, “well-written but seriously undisciplined,” which I feel is highly accurate.  (It is also one of the most delightfully snarky reviews I’ve ever read and is much more concise than this one will be.)  Honestly, there is no mystery, no suspense.  Everything is shown–you know exactly who has the mask at every point throughout the novel, and even the murders contain no surprise.  Nothing surprises.  Maybe it should be classified more as an adventure thriller, but it’s not really thrilling nor adventurous, so maybe I’m just suffering from dashed hopes amidst false advertising.

I also often experience a viscerally negative reaction against the trope of “edgy, hard-drinking girl who needs to get her shit together so she goes on a quest and finds she only needs love from a good man as opposed to a bad man.”  That is absolutely what I experienced here.  Anna is not at all likable.  She makes perpetually bad decisions, despite knowing she shouldn’t make those decisions.  She makes snap judgments, says stupid stuff that actually gets her abducted, and falls into the cliche of assuming her new boyfriend’s beautiful sister is his other girlfriend and refusing to talk to him about why she’s mad.  Not that a character has to be likable.  I have loved completely unlikable characters before.  The problem here is that she is so tropey and inauthentic that she’s just irritating.  I don’t want to spend a whole book with her.  I want her to stop being an idiot and go home.  Every choice she makes is somehow born out of needing to prove to a man (her ex-fiance, her father, her boyfriend) that she has value, but there is nothing to latch onto behind that lack of self-worth.  And so her behavior, her choices, her whole self just feel superficial and edgy for edgy’s sake.  (Kirkus agrees with me.)

The other characters all feel very superficial as well.  Wright alternates the perspective of each chapter from character to character, but there are so many that it’s almost impossible to get to know any character, let alone Anna, in any real way.   Everyone feels very shallow, very archetypal as if they are filling a pre-determined role.  In fact, Wright gives only some of the characters names, instead defining the characters and their chapters by their role or job: The Looter, The Gardner, The Housekeeper.  Some of them just disappear with no explanation.  Others come out of nowhere.  The looter gains a girlfriend about 2/3 of the way through who really has very little impact on him or the story, and their coupling feels more like Wright decided she needed to fit that in rather than an authentic relationship.  Maybe Wright was trying to do too much with the plot and various motivations, but for everything that happens and every character we meet, this novel feels so surface-level and stereotypical.  Even the Spanish interspersed throughout the text feels more Spanish language primer than natural language use.

The novel moves very quickly, but I honestly didn’t want to read it.  It was well-written–Wright knows her structure–but it often read more like a writing exercise than a well-crafted novel.  It felt like a chore to read, and I was glad when I was done.  So why finish it?  I don’t really know.  I guess I read it so you don’t have to.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

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When my friend, Matthew, tells me to read something, I usually read it.  When Matthew physically hands me the book and tells me it’s the best, most important book he’s read all year, I definitely read it.  Such was the case with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.  On the surface, it’s not the kind of book I gravitate toward: a contemporary memoir by a young man detailing his and his family’s experiences growing up poor and white in middle America.  But in my effort to diversify my reading this year, it’s a perfect example of the kind of book I wouldn’t normally think to pick up but absolutely should.

J.D. Vance is a lawyer, former marine, and Ohio State and Yale Law School grad building a life with his wife in the Bay Area and only a few years older than me.  In terms of privilege, he checks all the boxes: straight, white, Protestant, male.   J.D. is also a child of the Rust Belt, grandson of hill people, son of a single, troubled mother, and near high-school drop out.  He is the symbol of his grandparents successes in social and economic upward mobility, but as he shares, those successes were fraught, hard-fought, and sometimes nearly lost with alarming ease.

His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, grew up in the hollers of Kentucky, got married young, and moved to steel-town Middletown, Ohio right after World War II to escape the abject poverty of Appalachia and build a better life for their family.  And that they did.  They bought a house and a car, had 3 children, and worked up to become solidly middle-class.  However, they also brought with them the attitudes, traditions, values, and culture of their poor, white, Appalachian upbringing, which created extreme challenges and even failures in maintaining both those values and their middle-class life.  Honor and family pride are paramount, and they would defend them to the point of violence, even death.  The hard work valued by his grandparents’ generation combined with the entitlement and privilege of whiteness led to a next generation that struggled with drugs and alcohol, job instability, unhealthy relationships, violence, and accountability.  And for many, the cycle continued spiraling down in subsequent generations, leading to increasing alienation and fewer ways out.  These are generalities, of course, but generalities identified and experienced by J.D. himself.  On the flip side, the fierceness of the hillbilly mindset also led to J.D.’s grandparents providing him as stable a home as possible while dealing with their own challenges and his grandmother essentially browbeating him into finishing school and becoming the Yale-educated, Bay Area-living lawyer he is today.  As experienced by J.D., it is a culture in crisis desperate to right itself.

J.D.’s memoir is his attempt to make sense of that clash and that crisis, while providing a sensitive, honest, and discerning “sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion” (Senior, NY Times).  J.D. peppers his anecdotes with statistics, research, and expert analysis on the crisis of the white working poor and the effect that it has had on American society, particularly politics, as a whole.  This book was not written to explain how Trump happened, but I certainly have a much clearer understanding for why and how Trump happened and, I hope, more compassion for those very real people who found in him an answer to their plight.

As I was writing this review, I found this blog post by Joshua Wilkey on his blog, This Appalachian Life.  Wilkey, like J.D., grew up the child of a poor, white, single mother in Appalachia who never quite achieved the success and stability she worked so hard to get. He takes umbrage with J.D.’s assertion with the fact that in order for the plight of the rural white poor to improve, they must not rely on the government but instead examine themselves and work toward a shift in culture.  He likens J.D.’s analysis to almost-victim blaming and questions J.D.’s methodology and factual support.  I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions regarding JD’s process or his accusation of victim-blaming.  J.D. and Wilkey are, in essence, making the same point regarding the need for accountability, just locating that need differently, and I suspect the most effective actual location is multi-located including individuals, cultural centers, and the government.  I think of Wilkey’s blog as evidence of the differences and nuances within seemingly similar cultural experiences that provides a good counterbalance to J.D.’s admittedly specific account of his own family’s experiences.

Due to it’s popularity, there is a danger of people holding up Hillbilly Elegy as “THIS!  This is THE book!  The key to understanding the rural white working poor!”  And that’s not the case.  It can help and certainly has helped thousands of people, including me, attempt to better understand a home grown culture that feels incredibly foreign in this day and age.  However, it is not the key, as Wilkey’s post shows.  That is not to say you shouldn’t read Hillbilly Elegy.  You absolutely should.  However, it is incumbent upon us to read works like Hillbilly Elegy and take them as a starting point for further learning, conversation, understanding, and growth.  We live in scary times, but in nurturing rather than destroying relationships and approaching our fellow human beings with openness and humility, we can find a way forward.

 

 

Senior, Jennifer. “Review: In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html?_r. Accessed 12 May 2017.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

IImage result for the moor's account‘ve set a goal for myself this year to read intentionally diverse literature: male and female authors, books set in or about different cultures, books by authors from different cultures, books about different American subcultures, books in translation.   I feel like I generally do a pretty good job in some of these areas, partially due to authors, genres, and parts of history that I tend to gravitate towards, but I could do better.  And what is reading for if not learning more about both the world and yourself at the same time?

To start the year, I’d run across Laila Lalami’s stunning The Moor’s Account several times in my book list perusals and finally asked for it for Christmas this past year.  A finalist for the Pulitzer, nominee for the Man Booker, and winner of the American Book Award, I should have asked sooner.  Not that awards are everything, but in this case, they are well-deserved.  And now, after finishing it in February, I am finally getting around to reviewing it.

Lalami’s tale tells the fictionalized story of the real Mustafa al-Zamori, a North African merchant who sells himself into slavery to support his debts and becomes the first black explorer of the Americas as part of the doomed Narvaez expedition to La Florida.  Known to his master, Dorontes, as Estebanico, Mustafa tells his story in alternating chapters–his past and his present–until the two converge as he and 3 other men, including the legendary Cabeza de Vaca, struggle to find a way back to Spain as the sole survivors of the Narvaez expedition.

This was a really interesting book for me.  I found it to be incredibly dense in terms of what was packed on the page.  The plot moved incredibly quickly, but I would be shocked at the end of the train ride to find I’d only read 15 pages.  It’s not a long book–only about 320 pages–but each page is chock-full of important details, events, interactions, and characters.  Nothing is excess; everything is necessary.  In support of that, Lalami structures each chapter as a story told by Mustafa, most with titles like “The Story of Fill-in-the-Blank.”  Mustafa alternates between telling stories of his past as the child of middle-class North Africans with ambitions to be a merchant, gaining wealth and power, to his present as slave of the Spanish explorer Dorontes.  These chapters alternated until past and present converge about 2/3 of the way through, and we begin to experience Mustafa’s life along with him.  Because each chapter is itself a self-contained story that combines with the other chapters to create an overarching narrative, it really emphasizes this economic density of Lalami’s language.

Do not mistake this for a short story collection, though.  It is most definitely a novel, one that ruminates on the importance of owning one’s story, the differences and overlaps between one’s story and one’s identity, and the sometimes itchy relationship between one’s story, one’s truth, and one’s experience…and even “the” truth.  As the title of the novel suggests, Mustafa is intent on controlling the telling of his personal story, and so we the readers get to experience his hopes and dreams, his successes and failures, his loves and losses.  We get to know him as a fully-formed human being, which is not as common as it might seem in literature.  Yet in all of this, Mustafa jealously guards his story from those around him.  It is his story that grounds his identity as Mustafa rather than “Estebanico” as the Spaniards call him.  It is his story that contains his personhood, even when what is visible to those around him is his slave status.  It is his story that helps him maintain his humanity, his faith, and his hope when all those around him are losing theirs.  For if we cannot control how we tell our stories, what can we control?

I do have to say that I had some trouble understanding geography and distances while the characters were in La Florida.  For a long time in reading the novel, I thought they were spending years wandering the length of Florida and that the fabled “Isle of Doom” was somewhere off the east coast of the now-state.  Turns out, the “Isle of Doom” is Galveston Island, not an hour and a half from where I grew up.  (And those less charitable among us would argue that Galveston still is the “Isle of Doom”.  I enjoy Galveston myself.)  Silly me.

But that’s a small quibble and does not diminish the splendor of Lalami’s tale or the enjoyment of her writing.  I found this book to be incredibly beautiful, heartbreaking, horrifying, honest, and hopeful.  In short, it is a masterful account of a universal need within a unique and uniquely human and experience.  I urge you to read The Moor’s Account.  I don’t know how you will enjoy it, but it will certainly be a thoroughly worthwhile experience.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires by Simon Winchester

I finished up 2016 with a beast of a non-fiction work, Simon Winchester’s Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, a sprawling, comprehensive history of the Pacific Ocean since January 1, 1950.  Besides winning Clunkiest Subtitle of 2016, he traces the social, cultural, and political histories, as well as the geologic and ecologic histories, of the ocean and its peoples through 10 major events, their lead-ups, and their aftermaths.  Seems like a lot, right?  Winchester spends quite a bit of the prologue exploring how to tackle a history of the Pacific Ocean because the ocean, by its very nature, is amorphous, inconsistent, unknowable, and immense.  He finally settles on his 10 vignettes, essays, really, exploring major themes through the lens of particular events that all happened in the latter half of the 20th century.  Though at first seemingly arbitrary, he uses January 1, 1950 as his starting point because that is the date that defines “present day” in carbon dating.  As such, this is a history of the Pacific Ocean in “present day” as the West begins its “pivot toward Asia”.

And with that, we were off, exploring nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1950’s, the health of coral reefs, the impact of the movie Gidget on surf culture, the birth of the Sony Corporation, the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong, the formation of North Korea, and the eruption of Pinatubo in the Phillippines and its effect on American military strategy in the region, among many other things.  And though each chapter is ostensibly about its main event, he uses this structure to cover all of the history he “tried” to filter out: for example, his discussion of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands gives a platform to discuss the history of Pacific Islander migration, methods of boat construction, the sociology of island life pre-and-post-nuclear testing, a brief history of international nuclear science,  and the ethical and moral responsibility of the 21st century American government to the people still living there today.

As I said earlier, this is a sprawling beast of a book.  However, I quite liked it.  I like learning about a lot of things and how they connect, so Winchester’s structure worked for me.  Each chapter was just focused enough around the theme that I stayed focused, but it was almost like going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole on a particular topic with a thoughtful, funny, and intelligent guide.  In short, he contextualized extremely well, and I felt like I learned a lot of new things and gained new perspectives on information I was more familiar with.  And Winchester is a lovely writer.  Conversational, witty, and someone who clearly appreciates a good story, his style is like having a conversation with a great storyteller.  There were definitely moments where the topic was not of great interest to me (though I know people who would LOVE the chapter on deep-sea hydrothermal vent formation and the life forms associated, I personally struggled a bit more with that one), Winchester handles a great many topics with skill.  I have seen some reviews that call him out as being a better science writer than history writer (and I do have to say I never thought I would find Pacific high-atmosphere weather patterns quite as interesting) because he allows more of his own experience into the travel section.  And while I do agree that sometimes his perspective or commentary is a bit (and perhaps surprisingly so) flippant, I don’t agree that his subjectivity is necessarily a bad thing.  Winchester is not writing an authoritative text.  Like Bill Bryson, he takes a subject he is interested in, learns about it, and shares what he learned, along with his reactions, with his readers.  So take that as you will.

That’s not to say Pacific is a perfect book.  It is long.  It does jump ALL over the place.  It is dense and can be slow going when it’s something you are not interested in. (I’m looking at you, deep-sea hydrothermal vents.)  As engaging as much of Winchester’s writing is, he loves an exemplifying series and lists to a fault.  And I say that as someone who loves lists, series, and long, convoluted series.  It led to an occasionally disorienting reading experience at times.  And honestly, I think it needs stronger editing.  Because of its structure and length, I’m sure it was a challenge to edit, but there was sloppy proofreading throughout the book, and it detracted from the experience.

I don’t necessarily think Pacific is for everyone, but I think there is something in it to interest almost everyone.  I struggled to push through the density at times, but I learned a lot, good and bad and everywhere along the spectrum.  And I also feel like it is a beneficial, contextual read as we shift our focus more and more toward Asia and the world gets smaller and smaller.  There are lessons to learn and mistakes to not repeat, and this book reminds us to think critically about the effects of our decisions.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

After almost 2 months of not posting (yet continuing to read all the while), I finally have some time to review my last two books of 2016, starting with Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility.  Now, you all know my undying love of his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, and so I did something I rarely do: I immediately read another book by the same author.

Rules of Civility tells the story of 25-year-old Katey Kontent, a young secretary in 1938 New York.  In a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937, she and her glamorous roommate Eve make the acquaintance of Tinker Grey, a handsome banker who’s charm and devil-may-care attitude change Katey and Eve’s lives forever.  As the threesome wind their way through New York nightlife, Katey is able to leverage her way into an editorial assistant position in the Conde Nast offices; befriends a myriad of  characters in the upper echelons of society; and learns the gritty, nasty, often violent truths hiding under the shimmering facades of money and glamour.  It is a novel of friendship, love, ambition, coming into adulthood, and finding oneself, and the joy and sadness that often accompany those experiences.

I liked this.  I liked this a lot.  But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should have.  This book was my mom’s favorite book her book club has read.  I heard similar reviews from others.  And so I wanted to love it.  I mean, Love it with a capital “L”.  But I didn’t.

The writing is wonderful.  Towles, in his first novel, has really established himself as a writer for the ages.  His settings are evocative, his characters fully formed, his plots complex and inventive while still being beautifully subtle.  I appreciated Katey as a modern heroine, a woman ahead of her time.  So often men write female characters to fit tropes: the “ambitious career girl”, the “edgy girl who has to get her life together”, the “nerdy girl”, the “blonde girl out for sex and booze”.  And, honestly, Eve feels a little tropey at times, with her tumultuous relationship with Tinker, her flakeyness belying inner cunning, yadda yadda.  But Katey is fully-formed, an inherently good yet familiarly complicated woman striving to find her place in an ever shifting world full of contradictory societal expectations, family obligations, personal and professional desires, and the ever important question of who to trust and who to really befriend.  In short, she is me, she is you, she is every woman, every person really, who has grappled with these questions, obstacles, and goals.  Katey is a character you want to follow.  She is a character you want to spend an entire book with.  And so I appreciate Mr. Towles for getting it right with Katey.

I also think Towles is a master of setting and atmosphere.  His New York feels Gatsby-esque without being derivative or referential.  It’s a real place, a place where the glitz lives next door to the grime and what you see out in the world is not necessarily what can be seen at home.  He gets the juxtopositions right: the feel of society parties vs. the working-class parties; the feel of Tinker’s palatial condo vs. Katey’s old studio; the tensions between the past, present, and future.  And again, the characters who inhabit the various facets of this world are real, too.  It could be so easy to tip over into kitsch or fetish of this time period and its culture, but Towles toes the line just right: just enough to be enticingly scandalous without feeling tawdry or over the top.

So what’s the problem?  Well, honestly, it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow.  I think if I had read Rules of Civility first, I might have been waxing completely rhapsodic in this review, following it up with how Gentleman is even better, a rare second novel that improves on the first!  Instead, I read them in the wrong order, I guess.  Instead, my love of Gentelman and expectations for Rules led to a slight feeling of disappointment.  But that’s not to say it’s not excellent.  It’s just that Towles keeps getting better as a writer.  And if these two are anything to go by, I absolutely cannot wait for his third!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Ok, my absolute favorite book I read this past year was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  I discovered it before it really hit through the Book of the Month Club (great idea, not really my thing, oddly) on a special deal for first time customers.  One of my main issues with BoMC is that few of the monthly options pique my interest enough to make the financial commitment, but A Gentleman in Moscow did, and boy, am I glad I went for it!

The novel tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat deemed unrepentant by the Bolsheviks and saved from the Gulag only by a pro-proletariat poem he wrote in his youth, is sentenced to house arrest at his beloved Metrolpol hotel, a grand imperial-style hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922.  A man of leisure, he is unconcerned by his imprisonment until he is evicted from his sumptuous rooms and escorted to a small room in the attic–former servants quarters now used as storage.  As Rostov’s geographic world contracts, his emotional world expands, and we have the joy and honor of experiencing subsequent decades of Russian history through the charming, witty, and erudite eyes of the most congenial of men and the windows of his elegant hotel.

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I loved this book!  I suspected it might be good because Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility seems to be everyone’s favorite book club book they ever read.  Certainly that was the case of my mom, cousin, etc.  I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading Rules of Civility when my copy of Gentleman arrived in the mail, so though I had high expectations, I didn’t really know what those expectations should look like.

Well, it was a dazzling read.  From the beginning Rostov, who should be mildly off-putting due to his presumptuousness and absurdness, is completely charming, the kind of man who is genuinely kind and curious behind his aristocratic veneer.  And behind that veneer is also a man who is fiercely loyal to his grandmother, sister, and best friend;  well-educated and well-mannered yet more pragmatic than one might think; equal parts adaptable and rigid as appropriate; a problem solver rather than a wallower; and above all one who values love, friends, and human relationships.  The other characters are equally fully drawn, from the little girl who spies on Bolshevik dinners from the ballroom balcony and the sinister waiter who slithers up the ranks without knowing the difference between a Rioja and a Beaujolais to Rostov’s new compatriots of the maitre’d and the head chef and the hotel seamstress. Each one has his or her own fully-formed backstory, goals, fears, and loves, all teased out and revealed in asides and conversations over the course of the novel.  We fall in love with them as completely as Rostov does.

For me, one of the most extraordinary parts of the novel is Towles’ beautiful prose, particularly in his control of tone and atmosphere.  Honestly, the first part of the novel felt a bit slow to me until I realized that Towles was creating for us the readers the same feeling of constriction and claustrophobia that Rostov felt as his life was pulled out from under him.  As Rostov evolves, his world, and so the feel of the novel, grows, too, with his new (or perhaps first would be more accurate) job as waiter in the hotel restaurant, his re-examined and re-negotiated relationships with hotel staff-turned-colleagues and friends, his adventures with the mischievous girl, and his secret room expansion up in his attic home.  Rostov’s adaptation to and growing satisfaction with his new life is captured in the tone, the pace, and the ultimate expansiveness story as a whole, and we feel even more than explicitly read his personal journey.  It’s simple and breathtaking prose.

A review on NPR describe this novel as light, airy, charming, Eloise at the Plaza if Eloise were set in Stalinist Russia, NKVD and all.  And yes, Rostov is breezy and his story is episodic and much time is spent on he and his friends collecting ingredients to create the perfect bouillabaisse, unheard of in a time of deprivation.  But I feel that misses the heart of the story, which is the capacity of the human heart to grow, adapt, and change to meet the needs of its person and those important to him or her.  This is not a flashy story of self-realization and major growth, the kind of story that would be turned into a huge Hollywood movie with Will Smith or Robert Downey Jr. or Bradley Cooper giving a major public declaration of change to get back the girl/his family/his job/whatever while standing in the middle of a street backed by sweeping strings and sparkling percussion.  This is a quiet story of a man who had and lost it all…well, lost a lot…and finds new purpose, new family, new reasons to love in the simplest, most unexpected places.  This is a story of being reminded why life is worth living, and that should not be dismissed, no matter how much shimmer it’s hiding behind.

This is the book I want everyone to read.  I know that I am not adequately capturing my feelings for it, and I fully recognize you may not like it as much as I did, but I strongly feel you’ll be doing yourself a disservice not to read it.  Even if you don’t like the story, Towles is a master writer, crafting some of the most evocative and beautiful language of anyone writing today.  So take a weekend and travel through Russia’s history with Count Rostov.  It will be an utterly delightful journey.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

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Like many this past fall, I fell into the Upside-Down and binge-watched Stranger Things over the course of several days.  (My binge-watching stamina is a little low, with the exception of the first 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, much to Michel’s extremely mild frustration.)  Upon finishing, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the Guillermo-del-Toro-esq world of menacing demagorgons, alternate dimensions, talking Christmas lights, and the delightful kids (especially Dustin) in this wonderful homage to 80’s sci-fi.  And so I’m pretty sure I googled “books like Stranger Things” and came up with Sylvain Neuvel’s completely different yet equally weird, inventive, and mostly fun first novel. Sleeping Giants.

One night, Rose Franklin is riding her bike near her home in South Dakota and disappears.  When she is found just a little bit later, she is discovered siting on top of a giant silver hand at the bottom of a square shaft with glowing, carved walls. 17 years later, Rose is now a top physicist leading a top-secret team trying to crack the mystery of the giant hand and the hole it was in.  All the while, Rose and her team are being interviewed by a nameless investigator whose allegiances and motivations are unclear.  As Rose and her team make progress, it becomes clear that the mysteries of the hand are not of this world and could have greater and longer-lasting ramifications for humanity that ever imagined.  Along the way, the relationships between this group of incredibly disparate people form and are tested, some surviving and some breaking, both with potentially disastrous consequences.

Ok, so not really Stranger Things, except for the kid on the bike disappearing near the woods at night piece.  But the vibe was very consistent: a little bit exciting, a little bit creepy, and completely compelling with a lot more at stake than everyone realizes.  What’s really interesting, though, is the form of the novel.  It is told entirely from the point of view of this mysterious interviewer, and the text is transcripts of every conversation he (I think it makes clear at some point the narrator is a he) has with the other characters.  So this sets up a really interesting situation for us as the reader: we meet every character through a specific, heightened, not normal situation and get to know them through the lens of someone studying them.  As a result, it is almost impossible to tell which characters, including the interviewer, is reliable or not.  Interestingly, this supposedly objective, emotionally unattached, morally ambiguous interviewer breaks from his persona a few times, indicating clear allegiances to certain members of the team and clear aversions to others.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has clear allegiances and aversions based on how well various characters’ goals and motivations align with his unstated higher goals and motivations.  Either way, while we are never entirely sure who to trust, we are certainly nudged toward who to like.  And I liked our unflappable investigator–especially in moments where he was, in fact, flapped.

The other element that I particularly liked about this novel is the focus on language.  Neuvel is a Québécois linguist (with a PhD from the University of Chicago), and a lot of the major themes revolve around the role and power of language in this investigative process, whether it is deciphering the glowing glyphs lining the sides of the hole, understanding and following the “instruction” (or what they think are instructions) for the giant hand, or the simple and not-so-simple human to human communication that is basis for the narrative.  The role of language and communication has always been a part of sci-fi, but I feel like recently it’s been gaining a new focus.  Communication between our world and the Upside-Down was a key element in Stranger Things.  The new movie, Arrival, is all about an alien invasion that is more an invitation to talk rather than a typical invasion.  (Though as far as I know we don’t really know what a “typical” alien invasion would be.)  But what all of these have in common is not just the focus on language but the focus on the power, danger, and value of language in communication and miscommunication.  For in all 3 of these examples, our human language is not enough, and the characters are forced to find new ways to not just to communicate but to listen and understand.  And that it right there: humans as a species already have enough trouble listening, understanding, and really communicating among ourselves.  How can we be trusted to do so at a higher, perhaps more galactic level?

I shan’t say any more lest I completely spoil it, but I really enjoyed Sleeping Giants.  I thought it was incredibly inventive, thought-provoking, and well-crafted.  And don’t be afraid of the “sci-fi” designation.  It’s really not traditional sci-fi, but it’s very much about the human experience and our role in the larger world.  Lucky for me, it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which, Waking Gods, is already out.  But lucky for you, if you don’t go in for series, it’s a very satisfying read on its own, and the ending is crafted beautifully for those readers who wish to continue and for those who don’t.  I encourage you all to check it out; even if it doesn’t knock your socks off, it will certainly make you think.