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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

"The feeling of my selfishness is absence: the absence from my life of the trash I leave behind, which becomes the structures into which others must live, the broken hearts, the warmer air, the slower fish: whatever I do not feel, that to others becomes the shape of their world."
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism - Kristin Dombek

Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others p 136

'The Girls' by Emma Cline

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

First thing you want to know is probably about the cult, and why wouldn't you? It's dramatic and different and the kind of thing that sucks all the air out of a room. It's the hook, it's what it said in the newspaper, it says it right there on the book jacket! But pretty quickly in reading The Girls you realize that Emma Cline may not have a lot to say about cults and what the story is really about  was spelled out right on the cover: girls. And girlhood. The cult is just how we get there.


The Girls centers around Evie Boyd, 14 years old in 1969 and in her late 50s sometime in the recent past. And yes, she ends up hanging around a cult that closely resembles the Manson Family, at least in the few facts I know from popular memory. "The Ranch" is a commune of hippie-like folks centered around a charismatic leader who really just wants to be a musician. It all ends in a home invasion and multiple-homicide, including a kid and a young mother.


That sounds really interesting and could carry a novel, I'm sure, but Cline here treats it as an accessory, a shiny bauble to draw our attention to more immediate experiences. It's nearly 100 pages before we even get to the ranch and while the murders hang over like a cloud — Cline reminds us periodically with a page or two of description adding more details to the grisly scene — what is striking is the ordinariness. Cline looks beyond the cult leader show and finds a community of women that joke and play and get annoyed with each other and make the whole thing run in the days when murder is as remote a possibility as it is at any high school party. It is women that carry out the murders and women that he mostly keeps around and while they are all attracted and devoted to him, it is how they are together that attracts Evie.



The story maintains many of the elements of a coming-of-age tale — losing innocence, finding new experiences, discovering sex, friction with parents and childhood friends — but it is also different for girls, more complicated. Where sex is an achievement for boys, for Evie it is a double edged sword. It can be a power to wield, but it also can invite violence. Sex is a thing men think they can possess, and they are not kindly to women who deny them.


Evie being 14 years old adds to the sense of danger and discomfort. Like in Lolita, her youth and the age of those around her colors everything. Experiences that might be valuable and enjoyable, even empowering, are tainted by how young she is, her lack of control over the situations. I don't think I need to say much past the fact that Russell is said to look about the same age as Evie's mother. We see some of these elements replayed for adult Evie watching the young couple that stays with her for a few days, recognizing the young girl's want to be like and accepted and how the older men take advantage.


Cline's scenes are these wonderful pieces of writing that seem to grow exponentially with each sentence, like one of those spiral toys as a kid that just guide your pen in circles that overlap and multiply into a stunning design. Her first lines are generally simple, straightforward, factual, and then the scene builds. She has an eye for the details that make the whole thing turn, that cause you to feel a twist in your chest and keep you turning to the next page even when the characters have all let you down.


I definitely recommend The Girls. Put it on your holiday list, the 2017 reading challenge starts soon.

Reading progress update: I've read 360 out of 768 pages.

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

After really being drawn in for the first hundred pages or so I've been slogging through this lately. It's a combination of having less reading time recently and perhaps a natural loss of momentum in a book this long, especially nonfiction. The first chapters resemble what the title literally means and match what I knew of "new historicism." Namely it tries to tell the story of people, and peoples. The tribes native to America in their first encounters with Europeans; Africans, how they were brought here and the lives they faced; and the less known of the settlers, the indentured servants, the debtors, the laborers.


I am reminded what someone said about a story they said on twitter, that it wasn't the whole story but the part we don't hear enough about. Seems pretty accurate for this.


I will say, after the Civil War we have moved almost exclusively into class struggles. There is little about the waves of immigrants except as providing member for a certain union, and feminism and civil rights are written mostly in how they intersect with unions and socialism. It's still good history, but it is a different history than we started on and that may be part of what has slowed me down.


"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matthew J. Bruccoli

Life has begun again as it got crisp in the fall (eventually) and I decided it was time to revisit Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, prompted by his 120th birthday and an event celebrating the occasion at the Free Library of Philadelphia.


I admit I sit comfortably in the choir who sing the praises of The Great Gatsby. Even in it's slight 160 pages, it has so much to offer, be it your first, third or 78th reading. It's length also makes it an easy one to revisit. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the number of books you haven't read — as I've written about previously — this is a novel you can revisit in just a couple days.


The Great Gatsby is a devastating piece of writing — in style and form and substance. Even as I have grown in age and through multiple readings to see the characters as peers, I still find myself torn up at the end of each chapter. The closer I have gotten in age, the more human and touchable the characters seem, and the story is even more powerful for it. When I was young, I looked at these doomed loves the same way I watched horror films, substituting, "Just say you love him!" for "He's right behind the door!" But with experience came understanding of how terrible we can be at making choices in love. Would you really trade your whole life — friends, house, city, job, etc. — to be with someone?


And as a writer, how could you not be put on your ass by Fitzgerald? Some part of every writer celebrates seeing a successful piece that seems obtainable, that makes us say, "I could do that." Seeing Greatness is humbling and inspiring and daunting and euphoric and many other things at once. Greatness, like love, is complicated.


If nothing else, take from this post the chance to reread The Great Gatsby, especially if you have not touched it since high school. You may be surprised to find an entirely different story than you remember, different than the movie, different than the play, Gatz. This was at least my third reading of the novel and it is something I intend to read every year or so, as the British comedian Stephen Fry does, both for everything new it has to offer and the beauty of the art itself that never seems to fadeEvery time you read Gatsby it shifts, subtly, like a kaleidoscope. The colors and shapes, the characters and scenes, are all there, but it is never the same novel twice.

Jeremy Scahill at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield - Jeremy Scahill Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army - Jeremy Scahill The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program - Jeremy Scahill, The Staff of The Intercept

We live in a political world and I am a political girl (or boy).


Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist and author of books about the expanding boundaries of the war on terror (Dirty Wars) and the outsourcing of the military operations (Blackwater) faces a problem when speaking about his new book, The Assassination Complex: how to speak to people about a VERY political problem that doesn't stick to party lines in an election year.


Scahill, to his credit, didn't try to be apolitical in his appearance Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He didn't avoid the subject and he certainly was not tousling either candidates hair. He has serious issues to bring up about both the major candidates, either of whom will continue many of the military malpractices he has spent his career exposing. But he doesn't make a false equivalency either: One is a professional, the other a clown. That doesn't mean one gets a free pass on important issues (he would like to see more voices featured on the national stage, not you Jeb!).


Knowing this, Scahill speaks with the patience of people that focus on intractable issues. When you are working on poverty or healthcare reform or the military, you know progress comes slowly through many channels and it seems to take some of the panic out of presidential races. January 20 there will be a new leader and the effort will continue.


The focus of the evening was his latest book, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, which, as the library employee who introduced him pointed out, pretty much tells you what you need to know about the book. Since the very program which he spoke on is predicated on the authority of the president to carry out what he describes as assassinations, the election did come up and the candidates. 


For dark and potentially divisive material, Scahill was an affable presenter and willing to take any questions. He invited anyone, book handy or not, to go through the signing and ask him a question after he ran out of time in the presentation. At times, the talk was a bit conspiratorial, he frames the problem as pressure from the defense department when I think there is plenty of pressure from the electorate before a candidate ever gets a briefing. No one had to tell Trump that there are people we should bomb. But it's not tin foil-hat stuff, it's documented and obvious influence by donors and agencies, so it is bound to sound a bit paranoid, but as we learned in the last few years, it's not paranoia if the government is tracking your phone calls.


Scahill spoke about some of the history that brought us here and the process by which targets are chosen and some of the legal acrobatics that allow it. He doesn't lay blame on wholly on one side: While Republicans get the war reputation, having someone like President Barack Obama carry on this policy of firing bombs at target persons has legitimized it for much of the country. But there was so much to cover. Like why this is such a bad policy. There are the easy answers killing is bad and the legal justifications do sound very strained, but they come kind of cheap in war, for both sides. Fighting and killing, even for good reasons, is ugly business, but that doesn't justify everything.


I guess I will just have to read the book to learn more!


'1984' by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell, Erich Fromm

Is it bad that I had low expectations for this book? I do really love George Orwell's writing, and to be fair it exceeded them easily. I had the same question going into Brave New World: school's teach these just a year or two after you are reading YA dystopias and everyone conscripts them to make political points. The impression just stuck that these are books making a point and whenever a piece of art has a point to make there are so many traps.


1984 does fall to these traps at times. It gets really involved in the mechanisms of power and tends to drag, not the least because these things become a red herring in the real world. We've constantly got our eyes on technology but any number of books out of the former Soviet Union show the much more usual and practical terror that is other people.


Orwell does grasp this better than most. He does away with the baby farms and shining towers and puts terror in the normal setting of run-down streets. People still present the greatest danger but we do get plenty of description about deeply convoluted government controls. When he gets to the story 1984 really stands out. Because the world is closer to ours, because the people are not cheery zombies but also because they may as well be, the stakes seem higher. Winston Smith isn't some glitch with magic powers, he may not even be that unusual, but like in the Soviet states, snitching is the culture and by design. Not reporting something unusual is punishable and thus nobody can be trusted.


Also, considering 1984 is the standard bearer of dystopian futures, it's a surprise so few have the guts to follow that ending. From the arrest which seems to come so early — too early I thought, surely there will be an escape and then the real conflict — I was completely off balance. Only the movie Brazil has even ventured down this road and, while I loved how that ended, Orwell truly pulls no punches in the finale here. Smith is completely and utterly defeated. There is no opening for hope here except to not reach this world. Smith is playing chess at the end and the analogy is apt, chess doesn't end in a strike, it ends in a trap. Checkmate is when all routes of escape have been cut off.


Why only 4 stars? I couldn't get over the impression that this was more ~important~ than Great. It dragged at points, it was just bad at others and though most of it was very good I just couldn't place it among the books I really admire.


"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale is the reason they tell you not to judge a book by its cover. Nothing, not the cover art, not the blurb, not the recommendations of friends, set me up for what the story I read, even though all were in some way or another accurate. This story is one all its own, so I decided to look at it through the three themes you will surely hear mentioned in relation to The Handmaid's Tale.




Offred lives in a new society where the roles of women are highly regulated and enforceable by law. They wear a uniform dictated by their roles and are permitted only very specific tasks. Marthas take care of the housework, upper class wives bear children and oversee their house, handmaids bear children for wives who are past the age of conceiving and have not had children (there is an environmental undertow here that many are infertile and only one out of four pregnancies delivers a viable child due to nuclear meltdowns, chemical spills and superviruses). The city is lousy with spies and higly patrolled. There are dire consequences for any who refuse or fail at the role they are assigned.


This is all in a near future, however. Unlike Bradbury or Huxley, Atwood is little interested in new technologies. There are no jet cars or baby farms. If anything, at this point it is an alternate history since it was written in the 1980s and does not venture much beyond the technologies of the time. I found it a relief since technology tends to be a distraction for writers from the human story of the novel or even the description of structures that keep them down.




The new government, the new society we see in The Handmaid's Tale is a Christian fanatic sect. The authority of men, the strict observance of chastity until marriage, and the role of the handmaiden are derived from Bible passages and reinforced through "Pray-vaganzas" home bible readings even the language of greetings.


It had to be biblical, how can you talk about sex and gender in America without talking about the bible? Again, this was the 1980s, much closer to the battle over the equal rights amendment and the evangelical congregations leading the charge to keep women in the home. Of course it is a bastardization, the bible is rubik's cube that each church and sect arranges to fit their pleasure. This is why the husband, conveniently "the Commander" by military title in this story, is the only person in the family allowed to read or write and the bible is kept locked away from curious eyes. Which brings us to the main point.




The chorus of internet commentators awakens when I hear this word and I want to explain how this isn't a story of activism, except it is. Of course it is. Because its the woman's voice and a woman's story it is necessarily feminist. Because you can't read a woman's story without thinking about the forces, legal and social, that bear down on them in a society when women still aren't fully represented and their presence in professional setting is still somehow debated.


That said, what makes this story so powerful is not the force with which Atwood makes her points, but fact that she doesn't, that she lets the story tell you what you need to know. It's the story that carries the day, that illustrates what it means to be a woman without freedom, without a society, without ownership of even her own body or identity.


Offred is an imperfect victim/hero, she can be careless and selfish. She does stop fighting at times, she falls in with the crowd sometimes, the belief that you just have to make the best for yourself, and for a while things can seem okay, but there are no happy endings in this world. There is no escape route and that is what brings the story home. We love the heroic escape story, we had presidential candidates talk in a cavalier way about how they would take down a mass shooter if they were ever in that position. But there is no way out. There is no route to success that doesn't cross with sexism, harassment and misogyny and it is not on individual women to have to find their way out, it's on our society to stop enforcing rules meant to keep women out of power.


The afterword:


I was worried this would be just a conceit to tell us how Offred/June lived happily ever after, and I wonder if that is how it started, but instead we got a brilliant satire that deserves it's own post, really. Atwood takes a shot at academia in the form of a lecture nearly 200 years in the future, one in which June's story is completely submerged in the man's game of history. Where she is mentioned it is only as a question of if she existed at all, and how we can determine that. The lecturer jokes about the treatment of women by the Gilead Regime and, naturally, refuses to pass judgement on another culture's behavior or norms, something that turns your stomach after 300 pages of subjugation and horror. The two commanders the lecturer believes could be the "commander" of the story are noted for their brilliance in respectively designing and selling the new order that made women into slaves and pitted them against one another.


Like the rest of the story, it's cold and absurd and cruel and very definitely the way things would go in our world, which is exactly why it is so tragic.

On Translation

Crow with No Mouth (Old Edition) - Stephen Berg

I was turned on to the 15th century poet an Zen master Ikkyū by the writer Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard and a practitioner of Zen himself. When he died in 2014 the Paris Review (which he helped found) printed an Ikkyū quote from one of his books with his obituary. I was struck by the quote and have incorporated it into my own life:

"Having no destination, I am never lost"

I used it recently in my employee profile at a new job and decided to look further into the original poet. I took out the only book they have at the Free Library and on the first page came across this couplet:

"if there's nowhere to rest at the end

how can I get lost on the way?"

It is terribly obvious that translations will differ, and this is hardly the most striking example but it stuck with me all week and now I have to learn Japanese so I can understand the original. It will go on the queue with Italian, French, Russian, Spanish, and ancient Greek and Roman. I must know!

What's your favorite magazine for fiction or longform?
What's your favorite magazine for fiction or longform?

I'm taking a few days between books, which feels like a statement on a site where books are treated as the basic unit for reading. I have a few magazine subscriptions I want to catch up on and there are super interesting things that happen in magazines. The New York Times Magazine just did a huge history of the middle east since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Rachel Cusk's book Outline was serialized in the Paris Review last year. The New Yorker regularly turns out great nonfiction and fiction from George Saunders, Evan Osnos, Stephen King, Elizabeth Kolbert. These are just the big players, in small zines around the country the next generation of writers are working out their own styles.


Where do you turn besides books for stories, interviews, journalism, etc.? Have reading challenges and social media made it tougher to look for short pieces and magazines you don't get "credit" for?

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

— feeling evil grin
American Gods - Neil Gaiman

American Gods is pretty much everything I expected from Neil Gaiman. It's a bit of a crisis for me, I am a writer after all, and I don't have a lot to add to what has already been said, but I'll add this piece to the pile. If you are familiar with his writing or have already heard of this book second-hand, not a lot of surprises in this review, but maybe you'll like one of my jokes or clever references! If not, then there is still hope for us both, read on and enjoy.


What struck me throughout American Gods is that Gaiman simply refuses to grow up, or let his stories grow up, and that may be my favorite feature in his writing. Don't get me wrong, the subject matter is very mature, and he is a very good writer, but his approach has a quality that is rare in adult genre fiction: he suggests that his world is ours. Or something very much like it. I touched on this feature in my update about wonder and I thought about it more since then. Harry Potter, Animorphs, most ghost stories, some spy stories (or were they programs I just barely remember now), they invite you into the world they created. Harry Potter is the best example, Hogwarts and the wizarding world were constructed in a way that it could exist alongside the reality you experienced. That you could go to school, deal with bullies and imagine a magic world behind some curtain that other people don't see.


We don't feed those illusions as adults so our fantasy tends to be self-contained. A Song of Fire and Ice is a discrete universe. We may write fan fiction or theories that allow us to contribute to that world, but not very many adults are running around the park after school playing Red Wedding. Gaiman gives us a familiar setting for his world, juxtaposing his tired, old-world gods in the preparations for war, the curiosities of the American road, and the very common problems of a man in grief, spending hours in the car, getting used to a new town. It makes this story compelling in a way I don't usually find fantasy books to be. Something in how it rewards the readers imagination more than it revels in the author's.


American Gods is a long haul for a story that doesn't feel like it is aiming at epic status. It is being made into a series for Starz which makes more sense to me. The structure is episodic, Gaiman sets up conflicts and resolves them neatly in what seems like 6-8 shorter parts, though they are all headed in the direction of the main conflict. It helps the 500+ pages move along quickly and it keeps you engaged. This structure also makes it easier to establish the stakes in this universe. When you're watching a police procedural you can guess the outcome of a scene by looking at the timestamp, in a novel you just have to look at how many pages are in your right hand, but in this story you realize quickly that you can't take anything for granted.


Set aside some time if you plan to give this a read. Even a quick 500 pages takes time to get through, but unlike other doorstoppers, American Gods isn't particularly difficult. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane which came out a decade later and Gaiman's style seems to be pretty consistent so if you liked something else by him you will probably enjoy this, one of his most notable works.  

Favorite SciFi trope?: I've read 300 out of 541 pages.

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

"'Trouble. Do you know any alternative routes?'

'Not really. This is my first time in South Dakota,' said Shadow. 'Also I don't know where we're going.'"


The enigmatic man with the plan, except he can't reveal it or you'd ruin it. Invariably, his own ally will scatter the plan in a way he could have easily avoided if the head guy didn't withhold information.


Note: in this quote, Shadow is the driver and he isn't even allowed to know where they are going. You can catch this trope all the time in anything where the personality of the hero is a major trait. Sherlock Holmes is a good example, most Harrison Ford characters for some reason, Burn Notice.


In any case, it is a major thread in American Gods, it can be kind of frustrating until you put together that Neil Gaiman's definitely made a decision that the heroes will make this mistake over and over and poor Shadow is going to fuck up royally in some novel way that he couldn't have possibly guessed at. After you realize this, it's just funny.

Wonder: Reading progress update (215 out of 541 pages)

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

I tried watching the X-Files for the first time recently but I didn't get past a couple episodes (I can hear dozens of you closing this post immediately). For 20 years I remained on the fringes of conversations about the X-Files and I has this idea of what it was: a mysterious, out there, genre-defying experiment. The opening credits were all I had actually seen and what I know stemmed from them and the iconic "I WANT TO BELIEVE" poster. The poster was a declaration, a desire to find an end you already decided on. I imagined inexplicable coincidences, hints of the fantastic and two FBI agents applying rudimentary tools to discover something that is beyond our understanding of the universe. What I got was UFOs and werewolves.


Aliens exist and there is a labyrinthine government conspiracy to ... something, but obviously we can't know about it, or other things.


As I have begun to read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, I am reminded what it is I thought I would find in the X-Files that never materialized: the feeling of wonder. Gaiman is not coy about including the supernatural in his work, but it is always super-natural. The worlds he writes step outside of our own, but are somehow still compatible with it. It is as if there is some spectrum that we don't even know to look for but would reveal that nothing is really how we see it. The reader, along with the protagonist Shadow, learn names, some sketches of a back story for the gods, some glimpse of what this all is, but the best parts remain a mystery. What are full powers of these gods? What do they do? What does it mean to live in this world? How does this affect anyone besides Shadow and the occasional superstitious immigrant?


There is a certain school of Sci-Fi that revels in the technicalities; Gaiman is not of that school. Shadow has been told several times in my reading so far that he doesn't get paid to ask questions, and each instance feels like a gentle rebuke of the reader: This is not a world to understand. There will be no rules about how one kills a god, or some mundane scientific explanation (midichlorians!). You're on a road trip with a god, what you need to know is that he needs to raise cash. It seems like a strange thing for a god to want, but then, why would a god need a car, or a valet, and why would he be on a road trip anyway? If you wanted to answer some of these questions you would probably have to answer them all, but Gaiman opts to answer none and moves on with the story.


The effect is to leave the reader off balance. It is a whole movie with the camera tilted slightly askew. Balls roll across level surfaces and men stand comfortable straight on apparently steep ascents. So our gods act: petty and grand, magical but always short on cash, ancient but unmistakably American. The facts are beside the point, this is a world beyond what we understand, it is strange and magical, but no practical explanation could do justice to how it makes you feel. It just sort of makes you wonder...

'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs' by Chuck Klosterman

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto - Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is a clever guy. That much I can say unequivocally, everything else is up in the air.


Here is the thing. Mr. Klosterman is willing to take on some weird questions    How is Pamela Anderson a reflection of our changing attitudes about sex? How has The Real World changed how Americans view themselves? Can you write 6,000 words about Saved By the Bell?     and it is mostly fun to watch him consider these things. But if I sound underwhelmed it is probably because my expectations were high. This looked like a perfect match, the idea of Mr. Klosterman seemed directly in my wheelhouse. I have been told I look like the guy and I probably write like him a little too . I read an essay he wrote about an unofficial goth day at Disneyland and laughed, but Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs felt just a little flat to me.



Mr. Klosterman worries in the introduction that all the work will become immediately dated by the pop culture references, which will probably happen unless Saved By the Bell enjoys a major comeback, but what looms most now is the rise of the think piece. He may have been groundbreaking at the time, admitting how he watches the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape    but not that he derives anything but intellectual stimulation from it     and writing about TV shows through a strange and personal lens, but everyone is doing that now. Kanye West doesn't change T-shirts without a dozen blogs ruminating on what it means that a rap atrist wears $120 cotton tees. It is hard to come at Mr. Klosterman with fresh eyes after 10 years of the 24-hour churn cycle.


What got me, however, is that the questions were generally the most interesting parts of the essays. As he got into the weeds he either digressed or stopped making sense. In fact, here is the one most interesting passage in the book:

...When discussing any given issue, always do three things. First make an intellectual concession (this makes the listener fell comfortable ). Next make a completely incomprehensible  but remarkably specific— "cultural accusation" (this makes you insightful). Finally, end the dialogue by interjecting slang lexicon that does not necessarily exist (this makes you contemporary). 


He follows with some examples. These are his tips for being — or at least projecting yourself as — interesting in conversation, but they might be his tips for writing too. While I probably can't find a statement that exactly fits the formula, it is definitely the recipe for this whole book, a swirl of unexpected conclusions from very specific pop references, self-deprecation and a fresh turn of phrase for garnish.


That realization might have been fatal if I didn't think he realized that himself. Like how Mr. Klosterman enjoys tweaking the very people he knows are his probable readers. He is clever enough to see these features in himself but being meta isn't the same as being good. At parts Cocoa Puffs felt like that first day at college where some professor blows your mind by suggesting there is no such thing as truth, or that porn makes no sense because there is nothing pleasurable to a woman about licking her own tit, but he doesn't want to really get at the answers. The answers are boring and technical and we were having a lot of fun just watching Tommy Lee steer a boat with his dick together and all the ways that is weird. So maybe it is just me, maybe I ruined Chuck Klosterman. 

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

Native Speaker - Chang-rae Lee

I cannot believe this novel is 30 years old. I don't know how Chang-rae Lee made a story so steeped in the specific experience of Korean-american families feel so personal to very different audiences. I can't believe he did it all in a spy story. But, here it is, his first novel, Native Speaker and it is phenomenal.


In a summary this book makes no sense. Henry Park is a first-generation American of Korean parents. He is separated from his wife. He is a corporate spy of sorts, a job that conveniently represents the way he feels slipping between the Korean of his family and the American of his upbringing; it also serves to bring those sides into conflict. Henry is dealing with recent deaths in his family, including that of his father, with whom he had a troubled relationship — an experience we can trace through generations and cultures as far back as Telemachus and Odysseus in ancient Greece. He lives in New York City, a setting that cannot help but become a character in any book that takes place in its boroughs. 


Native Speaker should have been a pleasant story about the Korean emigrant experience in America that could be adapted into a nice rom-com or nationally endorsed book-club selection. Or it could have been a fringe experiment in genre-bending (the cover suggests the latter). In execution we get something smart and transcendent.


Lee finds new ways to explore questions of identity that have been a part of nearly every immigrant story in American history. Henry Park, after all, isn't the immigrant who worked his way up from poverty, he isn't even the passive child admiring the struggles of his parents — though that is part of the book as well. He is a man, at odds with both worlds, and, as a spy-of-sorts, is called to face these opposing forces in unexpected ways.


Lee's novel succeeds in large part because of his willingness to dwell in the details, but the right details. There are a few moments where you see a time-stamp — some telling detail that places the book firmly in the early 90s, like Vanilla Ice on the radio — but they are sparse and only visible if you are looking for them. The details Lee dwells on tell us about the characters. He presents their gestures and reactions, their tics and features. These details further the story, they reveal something new, they fill out a living world. Because of this he is able to straddle the line, painting a world that is vivid in the reader's mind but still eerily close 31 years on. Phones change, people stay the same.


It is not a short read and, despite Henry Park's occupation, Native Speaker is not a spy thriller. It is definitely of the literary bent, and for people of that bent, it is a book you will definitely enjoy.


Bloomsday: the Novel

June 16, 1904 is the day James Joyce famously went on the first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Famously because that date later served as the setting for his novel Ulysses, that bastion of modern--and Modern--literature that has challenged, delighted, frustrated, alienated and inspired readers for going on 100 years now. The day itself has grown to the status of a cult holiday, celebrated by a very specific set of book nerds around the world.


The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang is, naturally, set on June 16, 2004, the celebration of 100 years since the story of Ulysses was set, but it is not strictly about Ulysses or Bloomsday to my great relief. For a difficult and smart book Ulysses has inspired a lot of kitsch in the Bloomsday celebrations in particular, but Lang avoids the rocks of a Bloomsday book, like Ulysses itself it is more in conversation with its source than mimicking it. The Sixteenth of June is heavily allusive in language and structure but it is also a distinct story. Lang uses the celebration and book as a launching point to explore the ways in which people interact with literature: as an academic exercise, as an escape as a way of understanding the world and ourselves, and sometimes just as a badge.


We follow three people in alternating chapters. Nora, a singer trained in opera but performing at a jazz lounge, is in an extended mourning over the death of her mother and dealing with the pressure of being engaged. Leopold is her fiancee and his brother Stephen is Nora's best friend.


The men reflect the personalities of their counterparts in Joyce. Leopold is domestic, workmanlike in his taste and outlook. Stephen is thoughtful and paralyzed by doubt. Nora escapes such caricature, which may be why she inherited the name of the real Nora instead of the invented Molly. Leo is ready for marriage. Stephen is not ready for anything and is worried about Nora's settling. Commitment, vocation, grief, all the keystones of a good quarter-life crisis.


It took me a few days to warm to the book. The first chapters are packed with allusions to Ulysses. It reminded me of online fan fictions where every popular trope and reference is crammed into the first paragraph, as if audiences will turn away if we don't see a crossed mirror and razor blade in the first 20 pages. The names might have pushed it over the top. I GET IT! Once I got over the names and things settled into a more reasonable pace the references were more clever and fit more naturally into the story and the story itself was able to stand on its own.


The friend who gave it to me never read Ulysses so you don't have to be a Joyce fan to enjoy The Sixteenth of June, but it helps. It is a clever novel, and much less intimidating than its inspiration. It is more enjoyable than groundbreaking. It is like fan fiction in its appeal but Lang has found a way to engage with her literary forebears without resorting to cheesy mimicry. If you don't get too pretentious about your fandom, and, yes, favorite books are a type of fandom, you should enjoy the way she brings Joyce's work into the 21st century. You may also want to go back and dive into Ulysses again and I am glad for any work encouraging that.

10 Questions (BL Meme)

I don't indulge many of these surveys on social media but, since this site actually has a subject we all take interest in, this quiz seemed more interesting to me. More like one of those short magazine features than random notes about people. Plus, unlike FB, I don't know anyone here IRL so it is more revealing. H/t BrokenTune on getting it to my eyes, and apparently Bookloving Writer for starting it.


1. What book is on your nightstand now?


Singular? HA! Primarily it's Zone One by Colson Whitehead, though it is sharing space with Native Son by Chang-Rae Lee and Hemingway's short stories which I've been chipping away at between other books and moments where I just want a complete experience in one sitting. I also keep a lot of my poetry in my nightstand and regularly reach into there. Recently I have been picking Charles Bukowski out a lot.

2. What was the last truly great book that you read?


I recently read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage both of which I think are great, but the last one that really floored me was The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Her writing is always sharp and brought to one of the most basic human experiences, grief, it cut especially deep.


3. If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be? And what would you want to know?


I've wrestled with this question before since writing and personality are such different things, in fact I worry that some of the reputedly larger personalities would be off-putting to me either because of the aspect of performance or just because it would kind of cheapen the thoughtfulness that I know from their writing. Zadie Smith seems my speed. I've heard her speak before and she came across just as thoughtful and interesting as she is on the page and she seems mostly uninterested in being a personality. I feel it would be a real conversation and what could be more rewarding than that?


4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?


The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories my books generally have more, you know, WRITING, but I found the little flash pieces and illustrations cathartic. 


5. How do you organize your personal library?


First I split fiction and nonfiction, then group it in a loosely chronological order, so like all the Fitzgerald books are together in the 20s and before Hemingway despite the particular release date of any given book. The contemporary works are more strictly chronological since there are more in a shorter frame. There are some pullouts, I have a James Joyce shelf, another for old looking books and a whole shelf of TBR. Also one section of small books I can fit in a coat pocket to grab when I go for a walk.


6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?


Most books in the canon probably! If there was something I felt that strongly about I'd just go for it but I have not read any Dostoevsky yet and I have two of his books so that. Also The Road by Cormac McCarthy has just been this big part of the larger literary conversation for a while, it comes up a lot on interviews like this and I feel I ought to be a part of that.


7. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?


I just put down a book about the drinking habits of the presidents. It wasn't drawing a narrative it just seemed to be a collection of random drinking references for each president, but I got it as a gift and probably just because it had a cool title. I will say I thought Rabbit, Run  was really weird. Updike writes really well and I loved his short stories, but the plot was just weird, especially when he ran from the funeral, I just thought, yeah, he was going pretty literal with the title there. 



8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?



Difficulty. If it has a reputation of people not finishing it I'm into it. It is a challenge and I think reading is best when it is a challenge. I read a lot of books just for enjoyment too, it would be exhausting to launch from masterpiece to masterpiece, but the people, the stories, the experiences that really change your life are the ones you invest time and effort and emotion. 


9. If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be?


Can I say president? Is everyone else here British? I would say George Saunders. He seems to make it a point to break down expectations, to make you sympathize with characters you don't like. He kind of breaks down the idea of a happy ending, the story structure is there but there is this kind of darkness that there is no destiny and things don't all get resolved with a nice bow. His stories are among the most directly empathetic I think. More classic works I think people can be stubborn enough to pull the wrong message from.

10. What do you plan to read next?


I just took a job at a nonprofit providing information and resources to women with breast cancer so I wanted to pick up The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee and I'll be throwing myself into the subject, I always take responsibility for really getting to know my subject as much as I can.