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.

Advertisements

“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

o-AMERICANAH-facebook.jpg

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.

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.

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.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

When A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967, the New York Times Book Review said: “Fiction survives through minor novels like this one.”Reading this book fifty years later, I’m testament to that statement. 

With a reputation in the writing community as a “writer’s writer,” each of James Salter’s sentences reads like an instruction guide for how to write the correct sentence. IMG_3318.JPGWhile reading this book, I experienced a similar sensation to how I felt while reading John William’s novel Stoner, also published in the 1960s. In both of these novels, the prose is controlled and very hemmed in. They wrote before the days of “show, don’t tell.” Williams and Salter tell — and they do it well. “Telling” lends the story even more of an element of control. The novel is, under no pretense, a real life. It’s a controlled narrative.

And the concepts of narrative and control couldn’t be more applicable in the case of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is technically about the love affair between a young Yale dropout and a French girl. But things aren’t that straightforward in this book, which is just as much about memory & construction & archetypes & the way we mythologize people as it is about romance (and lust). The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who, aside from some brief lunches and dinners, is not actually present during the novel’s action. Instead, it’s constructed from his imaginings. As the unnamed narrator simmers and stews in his lonely apartment in Autun, Phillip Dean is driving through the French countryside with Anne-Marie. As the narrator longs for the woman who lives across the street, Dean’s raw sexuality lands him straight into the heart of every woman he encounters. Dean becomes an amalgamation of everything the narrator wishes he was. He is not a real person. But the narrator is. And the narrator creates a warm garret where Dean and Anne-Marie briefly carve out a world — the numbered days of a love affair ticking down with the thuds of a beating heart.  So accurately and perceptively does Salter document the rise and fall of a connection that I questioned the uniqueness of my own experiences! Fiction: to know we are not alone.

“His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like the answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it.”

So, in addition to having some lurid and beautifully rendered sex scenes (it turns out the 60’s were pretty racy if you know where to look), the novel is chock-full of philosophy about the act of remembering. To make the story more complicated, the narrator is telling this story from years in the future. In the end, we find that the inspiration of the story comes from a place of memorial.

“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.”

I won’t say that this is an easy book to get into, because it’s not. The novel’s written in immediate present-tense, a sea of choppy sentences that convey the exact weather and place and time. Then, interjected throughout this immediacy is the narrator’s long-winded admissions that this whole thing is a dreamscape, a projection of his own inadequacies. Luckily for us — or for me — what I am left with is not the cold, sterile narrator who says no to life. Instead, there’s Dean. Dean in the car, Dean the Jack Kerouac of France, Dean cold and wandering, a sieve to emotion, a life without constraint.

It’ll stay with me, this book. Quietly, yes, but it’ll be there.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.

In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengThat’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.

Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.

While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan: The Day My Shakespeare Class Finally Paid Off

Fall semester, senior year. The real world and its rapid shift in values was a-coming. My college bliss could not hold. Might as well, I decided, get really serious about academics. Take the classes not for the grades, but for the knowledge. Radical idea, I know. Lucky for me, class I took on Monday and Wednesday mornings of that semester was one of the most challenging — and rewarding — courses of my life: Shakespeare I with James Shapiro. As any Shakespeare aficionado can tell you, Shapiro is the leading Shakespeare academic, and one of the rare few who’s crossed over into trade book relevance. In class, Shapiro was an animated, leaping, terrifying maniac. He’d prowl at the lectern and pick off actors from the seats.  We’d drag ourselves onto the stage to play Romeo, Juliet, King Henry — dredged up that mortification I thought I left behind in 6th grade. Some arrived stiff with self-consciousness; others, the ones I admired, spooled out soliloquies earnestly, and with a dash of goofiness. As for when it was my turn? It turns out out all your past yous are still there, waiting for James Shapiro to call you on to a makeshift stage and pretend to be Anne in King Richard, about to be seduced.

The most electrifying and excruciating moment in class was the Hamlet unit. Shapiro drilled in his point for Hamlet: that each Shakespeare play is bursting with limitless possibility, that the execution of one line — one word in one line — can have significant reverberations for character and plot, that the decisions a director makes on stage are what make the play. While reading Hamlet, then, we tried to envision the impossible number of Hamlets contained in the play. Wussy Hamlet, vengeful Hamlet, noble Hamlet. Hamlet who loves his mother. Hamlet in love with his mother. Hamlet with an overactive imagination. Hamlet gone mad by betrayal. Hamlet the academic, Hamlet the boy, Hamlet the man. An ending gone sinister. An ending gone peaceful. It was overwhelming: there was no “right answer,” there was no one Hamlet.

All this Hamlet talk led to quite a bit of Hamlet memorization.

So you can’t imagine how delighted I was when, reading Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, I realized the entire book was littered with little variations on Shakespeare’s plays. McEwan’s book is unabashedly clever. Narrated by an unborn fetus made privy to his mother’s and his uncle’s schemes to kill his father, the very premise is clearly a spin on Hamlet. Take the characters’ names: his mother, Trudy (Gertrude) and his uncle, Claude (Claudius). Claude orders Danish food after he kills his brother.

Of course, there’s more to this book than allusion. But for an English major, catching allusions in words of literature is akin to catching coins in Mario. Who cares, in the end, if no one is keeping track but me. After finishing this book, I wanted to award myself a Level Up and stomp around like Big Mario after eating a mushroom. Reading this book was an utter blast. First, there’s the title, an obvious reference to a Hamlet soliloquy: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Or, when Claude, the fetus’s unimaginably dense uncle, says, “So we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever,” a botching of Lady Macbeth’s “Screw your courage to the sticking place” — my favorite motivational line, spoken by a true snake 🐍..  I don’t even care if the Shakespeare references were overdone or heavy handed. I was too busy playing “gotta catch ’em all” to be critical on the art as a whole.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”  (This quote stopped me on my vigorous plowing through the pages. I even took a picture.)

I can just imagine Ian emerging from the shower, wiping down his legs with a towel, and thinking — wouldn’t it be funny if a baby narrated a book? And, since he is Ian McEwan, he probably sat down, and out came a devastatingly clever stunt of somersaulting soliloquies. While I found the book to be lacking in elements of character (Trudy is slippery and impossible to really know) and plot (the most ill-conceived murder in history), the book achieved great heights with its clever language and its novel take on Hamlet. For people as amused by literature as I am, read the book, and pat yourself on the back for being part of the club.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Two paragraphs into Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I decided I had to cancel all my weekend plans. There were 255 pages in between me and the conclusion of the story, which seemed like a much more necessary journey to take than anything else I had to do those next two days.

28214365.jpg

Of course, I didn’t cancel my plans. I’m not that crazy. But as I socialized and concertized and ate and laughed with friends, part of my mind was back with the Cousinses and the Keatings, and the great question at the heart of all my favorite books — what the heck is going to happen next?

As John Irving suggested in the novel The World According to Garp, we read because we want to answer that question. But what Irving didn’t mention in his book is that the story ought to be carried out beautifully. Because as any fiction reader can tell you, good prose makes life digestible. That’s why we read, of course. A book is the great Chipping Away, that knife’s edge that separates the gunk from the things that matter. Writers take proverbial marble of life and distill it to something that is almost truer than life . But unlike sculptors, authors chip away at the marble by “building up.” What does an author pay attention to? Who gets the spotlight, and who gets perspective? What the heck are all these slow nature descriptions there for? These are the questions you wade through on your way to the heart of the book. Life is shown through the accumulation of the right words.

ANYWAY.

I always end up philosophizing instead of writing about the book. By that long-winded paragraph I mean to say, Patchett just CHOSE THE RIGHT WORDS! And boy does she pull off a story. The story’s inciting incident happens only twenty pages in, so I won’t be spoiling too much (it’s on the jacket cover, for all you skeptics). Bert Cousins, an L.A. district attorney, shows up to police officer Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party. Amongst the crowd of cops and their wives getting slowly drunk and drunker on the gin Bert Cousins brought, Bert decides that Beverly Keating, Fix’s young wife, is the start of his future. They kiss — and so it begins. Bert’s four children and Beverly’s two children and forever orbiting one another as their families pull a switcheroo. But the kicker happens when, years later, Franny begins an affair with a famous author with a decades-long inspiration dry spell. And when he hears the crazy story of Franny’s upbringing, he has his next novel.

The novel is very ambitious in scope, spanning multiple perspectives, jumping around in time. Ann Patchett manages this by embedding news of the “big events” into the casual vignettes that make up the book. She’s juggling the entire lives of so many characters (Franny’s storyline goes from her christening party to when she’s middle-aged!) so there’s not enough room for each momentous occasion to be described in scene. Patchett masterfully ties up entire progressions in people’s lives in one sentence, and chooses to focus on smaller moments that actually define lifetimes. It reminds me a lot of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse.

This book is also so appealing because it’s about a dysfunctional family, but written by someone who clearly believes in family. Each character is redeemable. And they all love each other.

Anyway, this is the book I’m going to be urging everyone I meet to read for the next few months. Move over, Elena Ferrante (sorry!)

Read Commonwealth and then come talk to me about it!