We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
Gourevitch went to Rwanda shortly after the 1994 genocide and his book is not just a detailed account of the tragedy’s context, players, and short-term aftermath, but a model of clear historical thinking and forceful argument. He repeatedly makes the point that Westerners tend to be disrespectful of other peoples’ wars, treating them like natural disasters unworthy of close scrutiny. We don’t take the trouble to sift through the reasons for these wars or assign culpability, almost the way we dismiss fights between unruly children. The long history of ethnic tension in the small country began when the Belgians made invidious distinctions between the tall, thin, “refined” Tutsis and the ostensibly less tall, thin, and “refined” Hutus. Accounts in the West following the genocide tended to point out wrongs on both sides, but according to Gourevitch there is no equivalency between what the Hutus and the Tutsis did. In 1994 the Hutus, egged on by unscrupulous leaders, committed genocide, killing one million Tutsis in three months, faster than the Nazis killed Jews. (If we didn’t already get it, Gourevitch’s trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. exposes the empty pieties of “Never again.”) What the Tutsis did later in reprisal does not fall into the same category. Some of his most interesting material involves the refugee camps that filled up with fleeing Hutus after the genocide, many of them murderers. The international community that failed to step in with military force to end the slaughter, rushed in with humanitarian aid to the slaughterers. Not uncontroversial, but an excellent book. Should read. 12/26/13
6. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed (1/22/13) Collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns from The Rumpus. Wise and big-hearted and brilliantly written and I think I might have to buy a copy after I return this one to the library. In the days after I tore through it, I found myself asking in minor daily crises, what would Sugar do? And behaving accordingly, which is to say, behaving better. Yes, I had some gripes. I got tired of hearing Strayed go on about her scrappy self-reliance as a young woman and how much she learned from her crappy jobs and lack of money, these tales usually directed at some letter writer she perceived as “privileged.” Good for her. After a while I just wanted her to shut up about it, maybe because we all know she is now very rich? If you were once very poor and scrappy and hard-working and had nothing handed to you etc., as soon as you become rich you should be quiet about all that, or expunge any hint of self-righteousness when you bring it up, because, it’s irritating. This is unfair, of course, because people who get rich and were once poor should still be allowed to talk about their lives. Though perhaps not use it in their advice columns? I don’t know. And I’m doubly unfair because Strayed wrote these columns before she got rich with Wild, so she couldn’t have known. So my gripe is unfair and it is also small. I loved this book.
5. Help. Thanks. Wow. Anne Lamott (1/22/13.) You can read it in an hour. I did. A long essay about prayer and it’s funny and it made me think, though in a few days I won’t think about it ever again, unlike Tiny Beautiful Things.
4. The Street Sweeper, Eliot Perlman (1/21/13). Big and muddled and uneven, way too flawed to recommend, but not without some long, powerful segments that had me postponing chores to read. David Gates sure hated this book. If I’d read his New York Times review before I started I never would have. I think he was too harsh and other reviews, the ones I did read before I started, way too kind. The book is about: The Holocaust, 20th century African-American history, academia. There’s a love story. There’s a historical mystery. Everything and everyone is glancingly connected, like in Babel or Crash, except it doesn’t come off.
3. Passion and Affect, Laurie Colwin (January 14, 2013). I liked this collection! Her stories are weirder and darker, less cozy and arch, altogether better than her long form fiction, which has never really worked for me. I liked “Wet” and “Mr. Parker” particularly. She does have her writerly tics that I don’t adore. One character is “thin as a ruler” while another is “impassive as an apple,” and yet another has eyes “wide as plates.” But I do finally understand why her fiction had a following.
2. Shine on Bright and Dangerous Object, Laurie Colwin (1/11/2013). Read this the old-fashioned way, on paper. Liked it. Didn’t change my opinion of Colwin as a novelist though. She’s breezy and charming and clever and all-on-the-surface and cozy and it’s very enjoyable but nothing more. Plot is: heroine is widowed at 27 and what happens next! Which is, predictably, new love. There’s a lot of summarizing and not much dramatizing. Strange final act that I didn’t quite buy. Likable, though. Colwin is always likable.
1. Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks (1/5/2013). First book finished in 2013. Listened to it and the narration by Scott Shepherd was quite excellent, although when Mark wandered into the kitchen where I was cooking and listening he would say, “WHY are you listening to this? WHAT are you hoping to learn?” And leave in disgust. Out of context all the talk of pornography, masturbation, and child molestation was disgusting. But in context? Essential and matter-of-fact and not especially disgusting. The main characters are a homeless convicted sex offender called Kid and an obese professor we know as “the Professsor.” They meet, build trust, talk, hatch plans, talk more, and then the plot implodes in the most bizarre way and the book ends. Banks proposes that humanity has fundamentally changed, that the way we live now -- connecting over the internet, hard-core porn available to all -- twists psyches and libidos. That the Kid would be “normal” if he’d been born centuries before. The thing is, he’s pretty normal once you get to know him. Banks seems unable to commit to creating a truly twisted protagonist. Margot Livesey was actually braver in her depiction of sexual deviation in House on Fortune Street, a more decorous yet darker novel. Less bleak, but darker, if that makes sense. And better. I was glad I read this, but I can’t think of anyone I’d recommend it to.
The Sister Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
I loved Deadwood and True Grit (Coen Brothers version) and expected to love this novel more than I did. Eli and Charles Sister work as hit men in the Old West and wander trough a landscape of grizzly bears, whores, gold miners, “weeping men,” and con-men. Eli narrates. He uses super-precise, poetic language (Deadwood, True Grit) and some of it seemed gratuitous. Gratuitous poetic writing, gratuitous Western color. Also, the story was dark all along, and then ended soft. Cheat. 4.22.12
When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson
So ardently do I admire Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels that I’m on my second reading of all of them. Ranking: 1. Case Histories 2. Started Early, Took My Dog 3. When Will There Be Good News? 4. One Good Turn. The best thing about WWTBGN: Reggie Chase, though she’s my second favorite supporting character, trailing Tracy Waterhouse from Started Early. As usual in a Brodie novel, you get crimes against children, crimes against women, dogs, the tortured inner life of a handful of characters. Wobbles toward the end, but still tremendous and I’ll probably read it again in 5 years. 4.22.12
Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman
The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka. Otsuka writes about a group of Japanese mail-order brides who came to America roughly a century ago. She uses the first person plural, as in “We came from small farming villages, from big cities. . . “ and keeps this going throughout the book to create a powerful, if impersonal, group portrait. The novel reads less as fiction than as an imaginative presentation of social history. Very impressive and engrossing, but don’t expect characters or a gripping traditional narrative. 4.22.12
Are you My Mother? Alison Bechdel. This graphic memoir came unsolicited in the mail and I dropped everything the minute I opened the package. Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home, about her late father’s tortured life, was a perfect book, one of my all-time favorites. This book is imperfect. I don’t mind that Bechdel writes about therapy and writer’s block, both of which interest me, but I can see how they clog the storytelling. The subject of this book: Her complicated relationship with her mother. Which sounds, to me, not that complicated. In fact, it sounds quite warm and loving. Bechdel is always smart and funny and I enjoyed this book a lot, but definitely read Fun Home first. 4.22.12
A Kipper with my Tea, Alan Davidson. I found this used at the Green Apple and bought it because Elizabeth David (I've been on a kick) was such a champion of Davidson's work. It turns out I like Davidson's voice even better than Elizabeth David's, which I find a bit too cold and vinegary. The topics in this essay collection include Thai funeral cookbooks (my favorite piece of writing in the book, as well as a fascinating topic), Welsh cheese, Laotian food, and why yogurt is never (or seldom) served with fish. Entertaining, droll, and informative. I would go on a Davidson binge, if most of his books weren't about fish. 3.29.12
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David. A grab bag of David's published magazine and newspaper pieces covering topics ranging from an antique Welsh cookbook to her search for an elusive stew of pork and prunes in the Loire Valley and what to do with gooseberries. It's not a book you'll want to sit down and read cover-to-cover. The very thing that makes it wonderful -- David's tart opinions, imperiously expressed -- is the very thing you'll need the occasional break from. 3.24.12
The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis. What have I been doing with my life? Why didn’t I read Middlemarch or The Screwtape Letters until I was in my mid-forties? This book is very short, very funny, very brilliant, very relevant to our world today, will probably make you wince in recognition, and must be read. 3.21.12
People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry. A young British woman working as a “bar hostess” in Tokyo vanished without a trace. Parry recounts the story of her life and and -- spoiler, but not much of one -- death. I could not put the book down. It’s a cut above the usual true crime page-turner, offering a window into Japanese culture -- though not the loveliest part of that culture. For instance: what is a “bar hostess?” The book will answer that question and many more and you won’t necessarily be inspired to book a trip to Tokyo. Occasionally, Parry goes into too much detail. The victim was not as interesting to me as she was to him. The villain, however, was one of the worst and most fascinating I have read about in decades of thriller and crime book consumption. 3.21.12
Writing at the Kitchen Table, Artemis Cooper. Competent biography of the great British food writer Elizabeth David. If you are interested in David or food writing you will find this book engrossing. If not, not. Trivia about David: she had lots of love affairs, she drank Nescafe, her eyes were likened to "prunes in brandy." 3.21.12
Yellowthread Street, James Marshall. Short, deft, dark police novel (first in a series) set in Hong Kong. No mystery to speak of, but plenty of grimy atmosphere. Whores, gangsters, chopped-off body parts, gunplay, hard-boiled dialogue, black humor, a homicidal Mongolian. Well written. Very enjoyable. Lots of typos in my copy, though. More than I’ve ever seen in a published book. 3.14.12
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. A meditation on how we tell/interpret/fabricate our own life stories. The complacent sixtysomething protagonist of the novel turns out (midway through the action) to be a deeply unreliable narrator of his own life story. This is the first turn of the screw. But even when he resolves thereafter to own the checkered past he had so blithely rewritten (second turn of the screw), the truth still proves unwieldy, elusive, hard to interpret. Maybe impossible to interpret. Third turn of the screw. I finished the book and immediately started it again because there was much I missed and didn’t understand. It’s very short and very powerful. You should read it. 3.13.12
Golden Boy, Martin Booth. After he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, Booth wrote this memoir about his childhood in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. What comes through: his ardent love for the city, for Chinese culture, and for his spirited mother. What also comes through: his loathing of his priggish naval officer father whom he mocks and derides on more or less every page. This was initially amusing, eventually grated and made me like Booth -- not his father -- less. Also, for a boy of 8 or 9, Booth consorted with an awful lot of opium addicts, gangsters and homeless crazy people. Either his parents were negligent, or he has fictionalized a bit. Which is forgivable. The portrait of Hong Kong is generous and vivid and he was a novelist on his deathbed, which isn’t the moment to fret about scrupulous adherence to dry facts. 3.8.12
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Not for me. Partly because I’ve never read Moby Dick and partly because I have zero interest baseball, but mostly because I didn’t believe the characters. Not a single one of them, but particularly not Owen. Every time this character opened his mouth, I rolled my eyes. Owen is brilliant! And sexy and soulful and gorgeous and kind and stylish and droll and really really neat. He’s an outrageous nelly -- but also an amazing college baseball player totally accepted by his jock teammates! Everyone just adores him! Harbach most of all. I can see that the novel is well written and I know people who loved it, but this one was a struggle for me. 3.4.12
The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre. Couldn’t put this down. However much I loved Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and however much I think he deserved that Oscar (he deserved that Oscar!), he isn’t quite George Smiley. Le Carre created such a vivid character in Smiley -- tubby, myopic, cleaning his glasses on the fat part of his tie -- that no actor can ever vanquish my longstanding mental image of the mild little spy. Plot summary: sub rosa Cold War dramas unfold in Hong Kong and other steamy Eastern locations and actors include drug traffickers, drug addicts, party girls, tycoons, slimy bankers, journalists, and, of course, spies, including Smiley. That’s not much of a plot summary, is it? Le Carre’s knotty books don’t lend themselves to summary. That’s their strength. Two weaknesses in this novel: First, the central femme fatale is supposedly very fatale, but Le Carre never adequately conveys her allure. (Not an accusation of sexism, as Le Carre can write females well when he tries; Russia expert Connie Sachs -- “a huge, crippled, cunning woman” -- is one of his greatest creations.) Second weakness in the book: The ending. Everything falls apart at the climax. A common problem in the thriller/spy/mystery genre, so I forgive. 3.2.12
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo. A minutely detailed portrait of Mumbai slumdwellers who survive by recycling the trash dropped in and around the city’s sleek airport. The people Boo writes about are variously complex, fatuous, shrewd, shallow, attention-hungry, funny, lovely, ambitious, and monstrous. Their lives are basically tragic and there are no easy solutions to their problems. Sadly, as Boo points out, instead of banding together address judicial and economic injustices, the members of this benighted community tend to turn on each other, hoping to gain some small advantage. The book is brilliant, depressing, a must-read. 3.2.12
Middlemarch, George Eliot. Reading Middlemarch made me wish I’d gone to graduate school and become an Eliot scholar. Is it pity or blessing that I didn’t read this book 20 years ago? Come to think of it, why didn’t I read this book 20 years ago? Never required by a single English class! The novel is wonderful for both the wise authorial asides and the sharply drawn characters. Like Casaubon. Like Dorothea. Like Rosamond, the one character in the book whom George Eliot -- usually so generous -- really, really hates. If you haven’t read Middlemarch, you should get off the internet right now and go read it. 2.28.12
Savor, Thich Nhat Hahn I liked bits and pieces of this quirky weight loss book by a Vietnamese Buddhist master. I like the concept of “habit energy” that leads us to overeat, have practiced some of the recommended breathing meditations, and know I would be happier if I treated negative emotions like naughty but beloved children. However, I also know from long experience that weight loss is more complicated than cutting out sugary soft drinks, turning off the TV, and embracing a plant-based diet. It is also, I’m happy to say, simpler. Becoming a thoughtful and mindful human being who respects the planet is a worthy goal, but to drop a few pounds, try South Beach. Also: I found Hahn’s anti-television lectures tiresome. I doubt you burn any more calories lying on the bed reading a book, even an interesting Buddhist diet book like Savor. 2.28.12
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson. A breezy account of Stevenson’s youthful ramble through rural France with a stubborn donkey named Modestine. Stevenson admires pretty girls, sleeps under the stars, sleeps in rustic inns, sleeps in a monastery, eats chocolate, eats bread, opines about religion, battles Modestine, philosophizes. I wouldn’t seek this out unless you have a special interest in either travel literature or Robert Louis Stevenson, but you could do a lot worse. 2.28.12
Hong Kong by Jan Morris. Excellent portrait of the city, packed with digestible history, sharp opinion, anecdote, and terrific writing by the grandmotherly transsexual. The book was published before reunification so there’s some outdated speculation about the region’s political and economic future. Needs foreword or update. Still, this is essential reading for the first-time visitor to Hong Kong. Enjoyable reading for anyone else. 2.28.12
Wacky Chicks, Simon Doonan. If you’re just delving into the floral print world of the former Barney’s window dresser, you might want to start with Eccentric Glamour or Gay Men Don’t Get Fat and see how you like the schtick before you tackle this volume. Here, Doonan profiles and celebrates a handful of extraordinary women, but we’re not talking Madeline Albright or Meryl Streep. We’re talking about some unusual ladies who sell junk at flea markets, live with reptiles, and wear outlandish clothes. One of the joys of Doonan’s small (but growing!) oeuvre is his infectious disdain for boring societal norms that constrict us all. His books are exciting and inspiring and funny and I think his advice to lighten up and embrace your quirks is 100% salutary. However, sometimes while I was reading this particular book I felt that the women he chose to profile are not so much charmingly wacky as . . . clinically insane. I suspected that I have met their soul sisters and they were the self-centered divas in college who dyed their hair pink, sucked all the air out of a room, got really drunk and cried a lot, broke down, dropped out, and were, in the end, impossible. As a shy chick who struggled to keep her act together and mostly did, I can’t totally share in his admiration for the pink-haired sloppy drunks. Still, I relished this book, as I do everything Doonan writes. 2.13.12
Old Filth, Jane Gardam. A colleague recommended Old Filth a few years back so it was on my list, but hadn't made it to the top. Recently, though, I was looking through a Hong Kong guidebook in anticipation of an upcoming trip and saw the novel recommended for background reading. Off to the library! Well, my colleague was right: smart novel. The guidebook was wrong: it offers no insight whatsoever into Hong Kong. Why are guidebooks so feeble? The elderly protagonist is nicknamed Filth, which stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. But the novel actually unfolds in Britain, where he spent his dismal boyhood and is now retired and reflecting on his past. Very staccato storytelling, but also sharp and insightful with some startling and dark plot twists. A beautiful ending. This isn’t exactly a page turner; for literature lovers only. I liked it immensely.
11/22/63, Stephen King. Over six weeks I listened to all 30 hours and 44 minutes of this behemoth while driving, walking, folding laundry, and scrubbing the kitchen sink. Plot: King's narrator discovers a staircase that leads from the 21st century back to 1958 (just go with it!) and starts exploring “the land of ago.” He eventually decides to travel back and “fix” the world, first by preventing a small-town murder and later by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Unintended consequences predictably ensue; ghouls and hammer-wielding thugs abound; King meditates at length on the butterfly effect, which I find truly fascinating. The book is crepuscular and sentimental; smart and overstuffed with cliches; twisty, preposterous, thought provoking, engrossing, and way, way too long. Classic King. Not as good as Salem’s Lot, but what is? People who think they don’t like Stephen King can’t be convinced that they might actually like Stephen King, so I won’t even try. I enjoyed this audiobook thoroughly and highly recommend it for speeding through chores.
The Fury of Rachel Monette, Peter Abrahams. Peter Abrahams is my favorite thriller author by a wide margin. I've read the novels he's written for children (the excellent Echo Falls series), for adolescents, and a wacky series told from the voice of a dog that is not nearly as awful as it sounds. But my favorites are his straight-on adult thrillers, like Oblivion and End of Story, which are cool and smart and, unlike most thrillers, peak -- rather than crumble -- on the very last page, sometimes in the very last paragraph. Those are the titles you should start with. The Fury of Rachel Monette, published in 1980, is a good read, but it's really for Abrahams completists. You can see some of his signature narrative techniques beginning to emerge, but they haven't been honed. Plot summary: Rachel Monette is a middle class American wife and mother whose professor husband is murdered and young son abducted one snowy day. The crimes appear to be connected to long ago Nazi atrocities in North Africa and the troubled state of Israel. Juicy! Rachel solves the crime and proves herself a badass. Would I recommend the book? Sure. But not as heartily as I recommend almost any other Peter Abrahams novel for adults. (I started this writeup at 8:38 a.m. and am declaring it done at 8:56 a.m.) January 31, 2012