Thursday, February 22, 2018

2018 #2: Citzen: An American Lyric (Rankine)

Citizen: An American LyricCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't think anything I write here will adequately convey the torrent of feelings and thoughts that are stirring inside me. This is art. This is truth. This is pain.

Rankine quotes James Baldwin: "The purpose of to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers." (115) Indeed, this is an essay about answers. Answers fueled by imagination. And while that sounds grand and we usually consider imagination a positive trait, consider these three lines:

because white men can't
police their imagination
black people are dying

If that bothers you, don't read this book. No, on the other hand, read this book. Read about what it is to be invisible. To be unheard. It is an essaypoem on past, present, and future...understanding that the triumvirate we use to keep time manageable is really just a construct that fails to acknowledge our own responsibility to those three aspects of our existence.

"Memory is a tough place," Rankine writes. "You were there. If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie." (64)

Speaking truth to power is what Rankine does here. A colleague described this as a "quick read." It is not. It is a book that deserves deep attention to every word--not just the words themselves, but to see how Rankine has crafted her thoughts and bared them for all to see. This is an honest and important essay that casts our condition as citizens into high relief. It isn't pretty, but the song needs to be heard and the story needs to be told, until we all learn how to listen.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

2018 #1: The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will sit with me for a long time. As someone who studies the Cold War—that “experiment they call, with a straight face, the Cold War” (344)—I responded to this book both academically and personally.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s nuance is masterful—his pro-antagonist, if you will, is one of the more interesting characterizations I’ve come across in recent literature. While there are brief moments of heavy-handedness, most of the book is filled with stunning language, vivid imagery, and beautifully-crafted moments of sardonic humor.

This is the hero’s journey with a twist. As Nguyen said recently at a talk at Radcliffe, revolutions often lead to disillusionment, but that doesn’t mean they fail and can’t continue (paraphrase). In some sense, Nguyen highlights the sense of the word “revolution” as it appears in physics and makes a compelling case that we are often our own axis for that revolution—something I think the main character comes to understand.

This is an important book to read for multiple reasons, but specifically to understand, at least in some way, the many angles of being a refugee. While a spy, the nameless narrator is also a refugee, and Nguyen peels back the multiple layers of that relationship.

Friday, August 18, 2017

2017 #8: The Story of Sushi (Corson)

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket (P.S.)The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket by Trevor Corson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm sure that Kate Murray is a lovely and intelligent woman. It is unfortunate that Corson's attempt to interweave personal documentary and history is such a miserable failure. I enjoyed half of this book--the part that really did seem to be "the story of sushi" rather than the "misogynist story of Kate the sushi chef."

First, let me address the writing. A good portion of the narrative is written in "See Spot run" style. I'm not sure if that was supposed to be charming, but I don't pick up a history of sushi and expect a nostalgic look at my primary school reader. Not only did this lack of syntactical variety make the book a bore to read (in places), but it really infantilized Kate (in addition to far more egregious errors). I had no respect for her as a "character" in the "story" of sushi. This is how Corson believes we will connect to Kate's story:

"Kate was reasonably happy until partway into her senior year, when she broke her index finger. The injury prevented her from playing soccer. Without soccer, Kate got depressed. She stopped going to school. Then she got sick."

Kate got depressed. Huh. We go on to learn that "She lost a lot of weight" and it was sushi that set her on the road back to health. Seems like a good narrative arc, until the rest of the book spends time on Kate's fear of gross fish guts, sharp knives, and a preference for Monster Energy drinks over Red Bull (just one instance of gratuitous detail, page 197).

There are more interesting characters at the California Sushi Academy! We get a reasonable glimpse of Zoran, the instructor and source of Kate's fear and trembling. Takumi and Marcos make token appearances so that we can remember there are other members of the class, but doubtless they would not have provided the narrative opportunities that Kate did. Witness:

"When she'd finished, she changed into tight jeans and a tank top..." (212)
"The top of her pink thong underwear showed above the waistline of her pants." (212)
"She sailed off to the ladies' room and slipped out of her uniform into a pair of pants and a tight shirt." (269)

But Corson's fixation on Kate's apparel isn't the only problem. Pages 281-2 seem to make a point that sushi chefs are perverts, with discussions of female customers with "ample bosom[s]"...Toshi tells us that "Working at the sushi bar really is the ideal angle for viewing breasts." The discussion of breasts fills up a page. This section is completely gratuitous and serves absolutely no purpose except to show that Toshi likes to oggle and objectify women. Super--I'm glad I learned that as part of "The story of SUSHI."

What frustrates me is that I'd love to keep roughly half the book as a reference. There's a lot of good stuff there, and Corson's actual FOOD and history writing is far more fluid and interesting than his portrayal of the humans in the story. If I'm being charitable, I think he bit off too much (pun intended) here--the history and sociology of food are enough without the soap opera. Corson makes several references to Jiro Ono, the master sushi chef made famous in the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It is a shame that this book predates the documentary, because Corson no doubt would have learned a lot about how to honor a documentary subject without sensationalizing.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

2017 #7: St. Mungo's Robin (McIntosh)

St Mungo's Robin (Gil Cunningham, #4)St Mungo's Robin by Pat McIntosh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, if you like to read about people standing in a room talking to each other in a variety of dialects, this book is for you! If, however, you feel mysteries should have a modicum of suspense and intrigue, this book may disappoint. I understand that this is the fourth book in the series, so there is clearly an audience for it. The character development is minimal, although I'm willing to grant that I may be feeling the distance as I haven't read the first three books in the series. Alys seems like a smart woman and a far more interesting human being than Gil Cunningham (the protagonist), yet she is given a ridiculous subplot (which I will not spoil for you here). I was torn in giving this two stars, as the last 20% of the book did seem more interesting both in terms of narrative and character development, but that isn't enough to give it three stars. I love medieval mysteries (e.g. Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries, Eco's The Name of the Rose), and was looking forward to investing in medieval Glasgow, but I'm afraid this book really didn't give me that glimpse into history.

Monday, July 3, 2017

2017 #6: Lost Worlds (Bywater)

Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost & Where Did it Go?Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost & Where Did it Go? by Michael Bywater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a real love/hate relationship with this book, which is why it took me a year and a half to finish it. There are times when the author seems so completely self-involved and enamored of his own intellect that he forgets there is a reader at the other end. There are more instances, however, of sardonic humor and moments that remind us that nostalgia is indeed the rust of memory, not its steel. This isn't a book to read cover-to-cover in one sitting, but instead to be taken in small doses. The cross-referenced "entries" are a plus, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the idea that this would ever really be a reference book.

In some ways, it is true--we are defined by what we have lost. And lest you think this a frivolous book, the last three entries solidify its street cred as a philosophical examination of our existence.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

2017 #5: Experiences in Translation (Eco)

Experiences in TranslationExperiences in Translation by Umberto Eco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In truth this was the first book I read this year, not the fifth, but it took me awhile to digest it enough to write a passable paragraph.

This is a fascinating read for anyone who reads books in translation. Eco's explanation of translation vs. interpretation is central for any thoughtful reader, and it actually should trigger a re-read of some of his classic works (e.g. The Name of the Rose). While heavy in linguistic theory, the book is in keeping with Eco's advocacy for cultural literacy. He notes, "...translating is not only connected with linguistic competence but with intertextual, psychological, and narrative competence" (page 13). One might say the same of reading.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

2017 #4: While I Was Gone (Miller)

While I Was GoneWhile I Was Gone by Sue Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a bit to decide that I liked this book. I almost never read the "Q & A with the author" at the back of the book, but in this case, I'm glad I did. I was happy to read that Miller had trouble warming up to her own protagonist, and it never occurred to me that it is actually an essential part of the book. It is also a frustration--not with the narrative, but because I think most of us can recognize the places in ourselves that we don't love. In some ways it is a tough book to read, but the slow "wisdom" that "creeps up" on the characters (as one reviewer put it), is perhaps more real than your typical fictional arc.