How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.

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“Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope, Or: A Poem My Momma & I Love

In honor of Mother’s Day, a few days late.

My mom and I happened to be reading the same book of poetry the other day — a hokey anthology of love poems. Amidst 16th Century sonnets and dreary modern odes to love lost, our thumbs grazed this same poem by Wendy Cope. Later, we showed the other the poem, and exclaimed with glee.

I assume we were both drawn to Cope’s vernacular tone. That she sounds like someone talking to you in a bar, voice gravelled with experience. That she sounds like you might sound in a few years, if you get on the wrong bus. The poem’s both a warning, and a conspiratorial nod. We’ve all been at that bus stop. We’ve all boarded the wrong bus. And even when you think you’ve boarded the right one, you realize there is no right one, there are just buses, and views, and you.

You are the variable. You make the journey and the views as what you will.

So, without further ado: here’s “Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope.

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destination,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.

 

The Left Hand Of Darkness, Or: Maybe I Don’t Like Sci-Fi, After All

A25837084.jpgbout halfway through Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and about halfway through a snore, I realized that maybe sci-fi wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d read fantasy as a kid, and now and then read some sci-fi short stories. I gobble up dystopias; anything that whiffs of magical realism is added immediately to my queue. I like dabbling in the fantastical. The real world is real enough, thank you!

But The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole ‘nother ballpark. It’s not fantastical so much as it is scientific. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a different planet, LeGuin sketches out a world wildly foreign from planet Earth. Nothing is comfortable or easy on the the planet Winter, for Genly or for me. First, it’s essentially always winter (hence the name). LeGuin invented a new calendar, and a different name for each day of the week. In the limited inhabitable latitude, two countries with radically different philosophies and societal structures compete. For diplomatic reasons, Genly traverses the border. All that is just accompanies the juicy bit, though, and the one part that made The Left Hand of Darkness an interesting thought experiment.

What makes Winter so unique, though, is its inhabitants. While human, the population isn’t gendered. They are both man and woman. Once a month, during the “kemmering” mating process, they become sex-crazed and shack up with whomever else is in kemmering, be them a partner or stranger. This leads to some situations that seem askew: The king gets pregnant; characters embody both typically “male” and female” traits. LeGuin has fun skewering the notion of gender, and how it boxes us into learned behaviors. Genly flops around, not understanding. A typical man!

To be honest, I picked the book up because I thought it would be juicy (I know! Naive). I wanted LeGuin to really explore life without gender. And for the most part, she did. I guess my big complaint is — there is no sex in The Left Hand of Darkness! The characters, when not in kemmering, are completely subdued and almost behave as if they have zero sex drives. HellLO Ursula, why didn’t you take us into a kemmering sex den? While the rest of us down here are stewing in monogamy and trapped in our bodies, you could’ve showed us an alternative.

As a result of LeGuin’s chaste writing, Genly’s diplomatic trip is just that: Diplomacy. No snogs. No watching alien genitalia shift and morph. No trips to the kemmering houses.

I’ve realized now that sci-fi is more interested in world-build ing than in making out. While I respect the genre, I’m going to retreat to my erotic thrillers, thank you, where authors are more interested in warm-blooded planets than winter.

While I’m happy The Left Hand of Darkness exists as a thought experiment, I can’t deny its effect on me. Alas, it was to snooze.

“Call Me By Your Name,” Or An Aching Love Story That Will Become An Aching Movie This Fall

418NXgCbb8LI’ll be lucky if I can get Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman out from under my skin at some point within the next year. I’ll also be lucky if my fellow commuters forget that, one Thursday afternoon, my face involuntarily contorted into a sob on the last page of a slim novel. What Call Me By Your Name lacks in pages, it makes up for in sheer psychological depth.

Welcome to the landscape of an all-consuming first love. A kind love that you forgot about after you turned 20, because frankly, that kind of full emotion is almost exhausting to remember. And it’s sad to remember, too — that state of pure awareness can only be sustained for so long.

Elio is 17, and if I could describe him in one word, it would be inflamed. He’s inflamed because of his sudden, unexpected attraction to the American scholar staying at his family’s Italian villa for the summer. And he’s inflamed because he’s realizing that he’s capable of such extreme emotion, emotion so viscous action seems impossible. Essentially: he’s just realized what love is.

Most of the novel is Elio parsing through his own thoughts, squeezing meaning from his David’s daily paths, searching for layers of truth behind innocuous lines of dialogue. He’s a thinker, not an actor. Eventually, after pages and pages spent analyzing passion, he acts. Thank god — now we get some juicy bits involving peaches and unforgettable innuendos.

There’s a lot I love about this novel. Italian villas. Literary crowds. Literary snobs. Sexy sex. Coming of age. Persistent great love that nags and nags throughout a lifetime. The idea of soulmates. The exploration of sexuality, bisexuality, and loving someone for their “core.”

Most notably, I loved the pressing, inespecable presence of time in the novel. Time functions on three levels in the novel. There’s the slow-moving Mediterranean Summer Time that I, having spent summers in Cyprus and Greece, know so well. Waking up with the sun, the mornings stretch, then the afternoon meals stretch, then night turns into a terrain of desire. Sleep’s an afterthought in the long, languid days that seem to go on forever, but when sleep does come, it knocks your sun-drenched body out. 

In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.

On the other hand, time is inevitably pulling Elio and David towards an ending. David’s fellowship at the villa lasts only six weeks. Once the boys finally get together (no spoilers) Elio must make a choice. Does he give himself fully to the moment as if there were no ending, or does he stay aware of time?

Contrasted with this furious love affair is Elio’s ten-year-old neighbor, who’s dying of leukemia. Her days in the Italian sun are numbered, and she’s very vocal about the fact, to an off-putting degree. David and Elio are never able to confront their own limited days in the sun with language. Rather, they twist, they ache, they twist the minute hand but it doesn’t slow down. We’ve all been in those time-sensitive love affairs. They’re even more passionate because they have years of passion to cram into days. The roar of a love that can’t live out its due is deafening. It’s sad to think that the little girl won’t ever feel that love.  

And then, finally, there’s Love Time. Just as with the book Americanah, time doesn’t erode the connection between David and Elio, and that’s almost the worst part. The optical illusion of time passing — that circumstances change but people don’t.

Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.

All that praise doled out, there’s also a lot that drove me crazy about this novel. I’m happy I’m not a 17-year-old boy in love for the first time. There were many instances I said, yo, Elio — just go to him! While Aciman’s language is supremely exacting, it’s also maddening. How much time can we spend in the whirling dervish of adolescence? No longer than the number of pages that this book is: That is the absolute maximum.

I also took one large plot detail with a grain of salt. David is 24, and Elio is 17. In a book, I don’t care. But in real life, if my 24 year old boyfriend left me for a 17 year old, I’d be…well — inflamed.

I’m hoping that the movie, which has already garnered praise at Sundance, will strip some of the mental game of one-person ping pong, and inject more searing stares. Yum, Armie Hammer, yum.

Americanah, or The Book That Got Me Blogging Again

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Three months ago, I started a job as a writer. And then, I stopped writing — for fun, that is. In fact, I doubt I’d even be writing this were it not for my long commute. Each day, I’m on the train for about two hours. That means I read voraciously, averaging about a book and a half a week. About 20 books’ worth of ideas have been rattling around in my brain for the past few months. And while I write about the Kardashians and the Best Movies To Watch With Your Boo (for example), I think about my friends between the pages.

So, why did Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bring me back? Is it because Adichie’s sprawling book was the first to bring me out of myself in a while, to make me feel empathy and guilt and awe? Or could it simpler: That the protagonist, Ifemelu, makes her living as a blogger, and I was jealous? I used to do that too, I thought, and I should do it again.

So, here’s me, talking about Americanah, easing myself back into books.

Here’s the gist. Obinze and Ifemelu fall in love as teenagers in Lagos. But since the course of true love never runs smooth, their paths disperse in far-flung, foreign places. The city count in Americanah adds up: Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, London, Nsukka.

Geography alters Obinze and Ifemelu. By the time they meet again in their 30s, they have to talk through the years— chisel away the calcified history — until they’re strangers no longer.  Something I especially admire about Adichie’s characterization is the notion that still, after all these years, Ifemelu and Obinze are fundamentally the same. Yes, they are enlightened and jaded and burdened by experience. But their chemistry persists because their core essence, the personality traits that cling stubbornly throughout their lives, still remains.

Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is a very good love story. It’s good in that it’s true: I believe they have what we all yearn for in a genuine way; they’re a good model for love. But that’s not why I’ll remember Americanah — after all, I’ve read other good love stories. It’s their time apart that was more eye-opening than their time together.

Both characters have terribly alienating experiences as immigrants in America and Britain. Ifemelu discovers race, as she says, when she’s first perceived as Black as a college student in Philadelphia (Adichie has said the same thing of her time in America). From her vantage point as an outsider, she’s able to observe race. To process her thoughts, Ifemelu converts her wry observations into blog form and begins a highly successful blog on race in America. Obinze, on the other hand, cleaning toilets in London, doesn’t have time for a blog. His time as an illegal immigrant in London is b l e a k, full of paranoia and green card weddings.

For me, so much of the immigrant’s motivation to move was succinctly explained when Obinze is at a dinner party with well-meaning but completely out-of-touch posh Londoners. Obinze, the son of a professor, had grown up comfortably in Nigeria. There was no pressing need for him to migrate, no blazing gunshots, no famine. And yet: He wanted to go elsewhere, desperately. This passage was the clincher.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Adichie’s book dealt with two MASSIVE topics, race in America and the influx of migrants in Europe, with such truth. At no point in the book can you read the words and decide to ignore some bits because they’re unpleasant. She makes you face the truth of the book on each page.

Seriously: No one could read this book and think anything but, “Wow. We should take care of immigrants.” No one could read this book and react with anything but tremendous empathy. On so many levels, the book was a major wake up call. I recommend people of all races and backgrounds to read it, absorb it, and let it make you as uncomfortable as possible.

Americanah does what fiction SHOULD do, especially in divisive times like these: It reaches out and says, come, let me teach you what you might not have already known.

The Books of 2017 (So Far)

2017’s been a slippery creature to pin down, in terms of blogging. While I’ve been writing up a storm for work, the same prolific tendency has NOT appeared on my little project. That said, I’ve been reading quite a bit. Here are the books I should have been writing about, and will be in the future.

  • Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
  • The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin
  • A Sport and a Pasttime by James Salter
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman
  • Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • The Girls by Emma Cline
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  • Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
  • Pond by Claire Louise Bennett

And I may be forgetting some, but I think that sums up 2017 so far! I’ll be writing more soon.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.

9780571326105.jpgThen, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.

On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.

That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.

In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.

Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.

 “The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”

The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.

As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.

 “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”

My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.

In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.

For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.

Why I’m Reading Dear Sugar Today

There are some books that you pass on like good deeds. In fact it’s almost a crime to keep these books on your shelf, because they’re working books (as opposed to leisurely books that are ruined on beach vacations, their soggy carcasses left in hotels). Worker books shouldn’t be lying around unread. Their pages should be turned, their words making people stop pause consider and change. One such book is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

tiny_beautiful-330For years, Cheryl Strayed fielded questions from the “lost, lonely, and brokenhearted” under the guise of Sugar for The Rumpus magazine. Her empathetic, personal responses gained a huge following, and add to the myth of Cheryl herself.

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

Since reading that book the summer before my senior year of college, I’ve bought about 10 copies to give to friends. There is no inappropriate time to receive this book. Even if none of the advice columns directly relate to situations you find yourself in, Strayed’s responses are universal. They’re about striving to be a better, kinder person. She makes the specific apply to everyone.

Right now, many Americans find themselves in a surreal situation, something universal that feels like it’s also rocking your whole personal life. While the same footage of Voldemort getting sworn in is aired on TVs across the world, it’s all still very specific. I found myself this morning shaking my head and just being like: what the…

Then I caught myself. I caught myself because once, someone wrote Cheryl Strayed a letter that said, “WTF, WTF, WTF.” That’s all the letter said. Apathy and nihilism personified. Apparently that letter haunted Strayed. She didn’t know how to answer it. Then, she figured it out.

I give you her response. Read it the whole way through.

Yes, I’m Angry: Reading Men Explain Things to Me By Rebecca Solnit

The last time I attracted this many glances while reading on public transit was my sophomore year of college, when the entire sophomore class had to read the Bible and the Qoran as part of Contemporary Civilization. Naturally, being maniacal about schoolwork, I brought the books along on subway rides. So there I was, flipping through the Bible on the 1 Train41r8yICXM-L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg, attracting the stares of people who though they knew me.

A similar dynamic happened on the mornings I brought Men Explain Things to Me on the crowded train I take each morning to work. Only this time, I didn’t mind being typecast. I didn’t mind that men were looking at me reading a bold blue book with a bold white title. I’m happy everyone got to watch me nod righteously, be righteously angry, know that I wasn’t alone. I hope that all the men who gawked at me googled the book.

The essays are about how the cards are stacked against women, always have been. The essays are about the patriarchy and history and domestic violence, about power struggles and how individuals can be crushed under forces of apathy and cruelty. Such violence against women is structurally embedded into the system: how men behave, how law enforcement works. Such violence is allowed. Solnit is angry, yes, but her essays are based with facts and with proof, not emotion. This, of course, makes the essays scarier.

On the one hand, reading this book was satisfying because Solnit identifies a pervasive concept: mansplaining. But mostly, reading it made me angry. Putting a word on “mansplaining” doesn’t make it go away. Listing the awful statistics about domestic violence doesn’t make domestic violence go away. Lately I’ve been inarticulately angry — an anger so looming and large I’ve never been able to gather it into my hands, but like vapor it swirls around me as I walk through the world. I’m angry at the Big Powerful Forces, at having to live through this. How are we going to endure when Voldemort becomes president?

This book came out in 2014, back when I still thought we were headed towards some glittery land in the horizon called “progress.” In the essays Solnit concluded that while feminism has come a long way, there is so much longer to go. But she assured me that we were going there.

And yet. It’s 2017 now. Voldemort, tomorrow, will become the leader of the free world. In light of this, many of Solnit’s optimistic pronouncements ended up reading remarkably dated, like the whole book has been dipped into the present-day situation and came out dripping cruel irony.

Take an excerpt from this essay that she wrote condemning Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of a maid.

“The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the police believed this woman and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country that has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and well-being. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.”

And yet. It’s 2017, and 20 women have accused Voldemort Trump of sexual assault. A recently married Voldemort Trump said that grabbing a woman “by the pussy” was an acceptable means of seduction. All of this came out before November 8, and yet he still got elected. And to think — we could’ve had a woman in the White House. It’s not just that he won — it’s who didn’t win.

So, yeah, I’m angry. And confused. And want to reread this book and give it to anyone I know so they don’t fall asleep on what is happening and what will keep happening if we keep falling asleep.

Pond by Claire Louise Bennett & Why Likability is Overrated

Let me be honest with you: I struggled to get through Pond. Not because it wasn’t brilliant. It was totally brilliant. In this book, Claire Louise 1-0fuwyaqn8bbil2ihjukppwBennett does what the best writers do with language: reinvent it. She slams together such strange pairings of words together that, while reading, I felt my brain sweat and pant to keep up. It is a thrilling, dark little gem of a book. And yet I struggled to get through it.

Maybe that’s because the book is so deeply rooted in voice, not in plot. The entire success of the novel is predicated on her narrator being entertaining enough to entertain us through perspective, not moment. And it works! In strange, detailed, exacting language, the narrator constructs her world and her body through words. The narrator’s rural Irish cottage becomes enchanted through her unique perspective. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s utterly genius.

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”

But though it’s a thrill, it isn’t a pleasure. And that’s probably my own close-minded fault. It isn’t a pleasure to read because, well, the narrator is — gasp! — unlikable. Sometimes I thought to myself, oh god, if I have to spend another moment in your cold witty grasp I’ll just have to binge an hour of the Kardashians to recover.

Yet the narrator’s “likability” doesn’t get in the way of my judgment of the book. Because guess what? That shouldn’t matter in determining the merits of a book. In fact, I recommend you all to go pick up Pond and read it. Because the narrator isn’t likable, but she’s herself. She’s just a person whose rich, twisted inner life is made penetrable by the page.

“I only wish you could spend just five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

There’s such a glaring double standard when it comes to unlikable characters in literature. We delight in Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. We gladly skip along journeys with the most curmudgeonly, horrendous men we’d never want to be friends with in real life. And hey, that’s because books aren’t real life. They’re windows into lives that aren’t hours. What a joy to read, if ever briefly, the story of someone who’s brave enough to be unlikable.

Take this quote by Claire Messud, which sums this up quite succinctly: “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?”

So even if I cringed while reading this novel, cringed at a narrator so unabashedly (and occasionally disturbingly) herself, I celebrate her right to exist. I celebrate the idea that a character doesn’t have to be “likable” to land on the page. Put simply: if books were entirely composed of likable characters we would have a lot of boring books.