Thursday, August 20, 2015

Gloriously diverse Regency era fantasy

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
If you remember my post about Zen Cho's short story collection Spirits Abroad, you'll know that I was super-stoked about Cho's full-length novel coming out, Sorcerer to the Crown.  I got an advance copy of this book through the help of fate and magic and pure luck, and so now I can tell you ALL OF MY FEELS about the novel!

I am probably the prime target for this book because:
1.  It is set in late 18th/early 19th century England.
2.  It is a fantasy novel.
3.  The main female character is half Indian, and that half is from southern India.
4.  The main male character is a former slave.
5.  The other kind-of main character is an old Malaysian woman.

Actually, now that I review the list, I feel like those are five things that would probably make ANYONE want to read this book, though I understand some people don't love fantasy and some people don't love historical fiction, and even though that is my ideal combination of all sorts of books, I know that is not the case for all of you.  In general, I feel sorry for all the amazing stories you are missing, but I get it!  I am probably missing BOATLOADS of awesome stories because I veer away from "literary fiction" and women's fiction.

Anyway, back to Sorcerer to the Crown.

The story centers on Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave with super-impressive magical abilities who, much to everyone else's chagrin, becomes Sorcerer Royal of England.  But magic seems to be leaving England, and Zacharias faces opposition and threats from everywhere, not least from some tiny island nation in the Pacific where vengeful female ghosts are attacking the populace.  Luckily, he meets a beautiful and amazingly talented woman, Prunella, who technically shouldn't practice magic but is really good at it, and the two set off to make everything better.

I admit that if I had a slight problem with this book, it was in the character development.  There are just a lot of people in this book.  And while I enjoyed spending time with both Zacharias and Prunella, and I think they were both awesome, I wouldn't say that they were fully fleshed out, complex people.  I would have liked to dig a little deeper with them.  But maybe Cho just had so much going on in terms of setting the scene and introducing the magical elements and explaining the class/gender/race relations between everyone that there just wasn't enough time to also develop the characters that well.  What I knew of Zacharias and Prunella I liked, but I hope that in future books, they are more full-fledged oil paintings than pencil sketches.

But seriously, I liked so many other things about the story!

One of my favorite things about Spirits Abroad was the way Cho infused all her stories with Malaysian culture, from using dialect to describing food to incorporating folklore and so much else.  She does the same thing here, even though the book is set in London and the main characters are not Malaysian, and I love that.  THIS IS WHY DIVERSITY IN PUBLISHING IS SO IMPORTANT.  How many people would think to combine Indian history with Malaysian folklore, add a healthy dollop of English Faerie, and then make light but awesome references to equal rights for women and people of color?  Not many.

And the feminism, it is awesome.  There so many different women, most of whom wield different sorts of power that complement and contrast with one another.  And Cho doesn't just hit you over the head with the feminism, she really just kind of pokes fun at history and pokes holes in its rules, and it's a lot of fun.  And then she also shows how women in different cultures (English, Malaysian, Indian and, er, faerie) push against their boundaries even while working within their cultures.

And then there's the race stuff, too!  I think Cho maybe could have gone further on the race component than she did, but this is a pretty light book, so I can understand why she didn't.  Suffice it to say that Zacharias (and, to a lesser extent, Prunella) never forgets that he is different, and so much of his personality and actions are informed by that fact.  He's always a complete gentleman, and utterly polite to everyone, so that no one knows just how frustrated and angry he is.  All because he doesn't want to give them any reason to remember how different he is.  It's subtly done but so powerful when you catch on.

All in all, this book is great!  I think you should read it.  And then tell your friends to read it!  Perhaps for A More Diverse Universe :-)

Note:  This review is based on an advance reader's copy.  I received an e-galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The consequences of swiping left

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari
I waited (im)patiently for weeks to get Aziz Ansari's book Modern Romance on audiobook from the library.  Rather than going the route most comedians take, of writing about how they got their start, or basically writing a stand-up routine down on paper and selling it as a book, Ansari decided to do some research on modern dating.  And, luckily for us, he shared his research and findings with us in a really entertaining book.

I specifically wanted the audiobook version of this one because Ansari narrates it himself.  While he engages in some good-natured ribbing at the beginning and the end of the book about how lazy people are if they listen to audiobooks rather than actually reading books, I would say that it's absolutely worth it to go for the audio here.  Ansari is a great narrator, and he also hilariously gives everyone quoted in this book a really strong southern accent, which made the book even more entertaining to me.  That said, there are a lot of photos and graphs that I missed out on in the audiobook version, so just keep that in mind.  I didn't really feel like I missed much, but then I don't know how amazing those graphs were, so I could be wrong.

Ansari teamed up with a sociologist and conducted a lot of focus groups and online discussions around the world to populate this book, and the result is really interesting.  As a single woman in my early 30s, I'm right around the same age of Ansari and I found a lot of the insights he shared to be very relevant to my life and my experiences.  He did make sure to talk with people who are older and younger than me, though, so I think that you would find the book beneficial regardless of your age or relationship status.

Ansari discusses how Tinder has moved from a hook-up app to one that people use for legitimate dating purposes, the rise and prevalence of sexting (particularly among younger people, who apparently do it ALL THE TIME), the way people use their phones and text conversations as crutches vs actually talking to someone, how complicated it is nowadays to actually schedule a date, and mostly, how people feel so spoiled for choice in dating that they really never want to get to know anyone.

One thing that stood out most to me was that most people these days will go on a date or two with a person, decide that person is boring or weird or awkward, and then end it.  (I myself am very guilty of this behavior.)  However, you can't really tell what a person is really like or how much of an outlier a particular comment was until you know a person a bit better.  So he said rather than go on a lot of first and second dates, maybe we should stick it out to the fifth or sixth date with a person and we'd probably like them a lot more.  I found this a very refreshing take on dating (though I admit it's hard to get excited about someone that you already think is boring after date 2), so I think I may try it.

Ansari also shared his own dating experiences, and how he has moved from casual dating to now living with his girlfriend.  It was really nice to hear from a guy just how excited he was to find someone he wanted to commit to, and all the steps along the way it took for him to get there.  It added a lot to the book, and I'm glad he included his personal stories here.

If you're single now or have ever been single, I highly recommend this book as a fun and insightful look at dating now and in the past.  It's a great way to put your experience into perspective and realize that it's really hard out there for everyone, not just you!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oh, to be young and rich and free!

E. Lockhart
Many bloggers read We Were Liars when it first came out last year, but I admit I didn't have much desire to read it myself.  It was only when I was in the library check-out line several months ago that I became interested.  The woman in front of me had it to check out, and the librarian said, "Oh, you'll love this one!  Especially if you're familiar with King Lear."

In my experience, librarians rarely, if ever, comment on your reading choices, so her burst of enthusiasm was pretty unexpected.  And really, King Lear?  Who knew?  (To be fair, I have never read King Lear, so it's highly unlikely I would have ever realized this connection if I hadn't overheard this conversation.)  So, while waiting for all of my audiobook reserve books to come in (surely the fates will align as they always do and make all five available to me at the same time), I scrolled through my wish list and decided on this one.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that I chose this one solely because it's the shortest and I didn't want to invest in a long book in case one of the aforementioned reserve titles came in.  But then it didn't matter, anyway, because I quickly became addicted to the story and pretty much listened to the whole thing in about 36 hours.

We Were Liars is set mostly on an island where the very wealthy Sinclair family goes to "summer" every year.  Cadence is one of the eldest Sinclair cousins, and she loves every summer she spends with the family.  While her mother and her sisters play all sorts of complicated games with each other for their father's favor, Cadence and her cousins enjoy idyllic days in the sunshine.  Except that there's one summer that Cadence can't remember, and no one will tell her what happened.

Ok, so I think that's really all I can tell you about the premise of the book.  And first off, I should say that the premise is a little off because Cadence and her family all have cell phones and computers to email each other, so why can't Cadence just Google herself and find out what happened that summer instead of upsetting everyone by asking about it constantly?  But, if she had done that, we would never have had this book, and if you're willing to accept that small inconsistency (and a few others that are related to that one), then you're in for a pretty entertaining read.

So, anyway, I don't really want to tell you any more about the book because it may spoil it, but I will just say that I got completely absorbed in it.  I don't think I even realized how wrapped up I was in the characters and the story until I noticed that I had only about an hour of the book left because I had been listening to it while I cooked, while I ate, while I cleaned, while I got ready for bed in the evening, while I got ready for work in the morning... pretty much constantly.  I don't know that I can give any stronger praise for an audiobook than that.

Also, after reading the story and digging a little deeper into the King Lear story, I think E. Lockhart did a good job of bringing that story to the modern day.  I absolutely want to go and see King Lear performed onstage now.  Actually, I would like to see multiple Shakespeare plays performed onstage.  I have a feeling I would enjoy and appreciate him much more as an adult than I did as a high school student struggling with the language and all the symbolism.

I've just spent a lot of time telling you very little about this book.  But really, if you read any young adult novels at all, this would be a good one to try!  And if you like modern adaptations of classics, this would be a good one to try.  And if you enjoy fantastic audiobook narrations, this is definitely one to try.  And then we can discuss the twist at the end, which was huge!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Gaiman's superbly atmospheric short fiction

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman
Do you ever read a book and think to yourself, this is why I love reading so much, for the exact experience of having this book in my hands and seeing these perfectly-chosen words in this exact order and understanding just how beautiful language can be?

For me, that's pretty much par for the course on any book I've read by Neil Gaiman, but I am particularly struck by how great his short stories are.  Trigger Warning is a collection of stories that Gaiman himself feels are not very tightly connected with each other, but that come together brilliantly.

I received a free copy of Trigger Warning when it came out, but I admit that I waited a while to read it because Neil Gaiman himself narrates the audiobook version, and I really wanted to listen to him narrate the stories.  So, apologies to William Morrow for the delay on this review, but I have zero regrets about waiting for the audiobook because it was very, very good and 100% worth the wait.

There are several short stories in this collection ranging from short and funny to longer and creepier to pretty much everything in between.  Most of them are in the mysterious/creepy/spooky camp, so this would be a great read for Halloween.  I read it in July, though, and got some delicious shivers up and down my back, so I suspect it would work at any time of year.

One of my favorite things about this collection is the introduction.  In it, Gaiman gives readers short descriptions and backgrounds for each of the stories he included.  So many of his stories are in appreciation of other authors or cultural figures - Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Bowie, Doctor Who... the list goes on and is so varied.  Apparently, Gaiman is pretty much invited to write a story for everyone famous who ever interacts with him, and he often obliges.  And sometimes, he writes stories for non-famous people, too.  Or just because.

One of my favorite stories in this collection is "The Sleeper and the Spindle."  It turns the story of Snow White on its head a bit, gives Snow White the agency and gumption that is so often lacking in fairy tale heroines, and is, to my delight, being published as a storybook all on its own, with illustrations.  It's the sort of storybook that I would give to all my friends' children as a gift to make sure that the next generation knows that girls can be powerful HERoes, too.

There are also stories about loss and heartache, the importance of family and friends to combat loneliness, and the search for love and redemption.  I love Neil Gaiman's stories because he so often writes about people who think of themselves as uncomplicated, unexciting folk, but then he gives them the courage and the power to do extraordinary things.  And they do.  And sometimes it's for the good and sometimes it's for the bad, but it's always a beautiful story and a huge treat to read.

Note:  I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 3, 2015

SIGN UP POST: #Diversiverse is coming October 4-17!!

It seems that I get progressively later each year in planning the A More Diverse Universe event.  I apologize for the lapse on my part!  Suffice it to say, it will be a bit later this year, but it's still happening!

Please SAVE THE DATE(S) for October 4th - 17th for A More Diverse Universe!  These are the weeks directly after Banned Books Week in the United States, which I think works nicely.  Hopefully, you can read a book that has been challenged during Banned Books Week and then write it up for review during A More Diverse Universe.

This is the third year that I'm hosting A More Diverse Universe.  The criteria for participating are the same as they were last year:
  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the first two weeks of October (October 4th-17th)
That's all!  SO EASY, right?  It's what you'd probably do, anyway, right?  It's basically the lowest bar for participation of any reading challenge you've ever participated in, right?  In which case, there's really no excuse to not sign up, right?


I don't think I can say much more about the many reasons that exist for reading diversely than I have already said before.  Hopefully I don't need to convince anyone.  But if I do, try me.  I am happy to engage in the discussion as privately or as publicly as you would like.  The main point I'd like to make is:

Reading diversely is important because we live in a global world.  Period.  If you read books only by white authors, you are limiting yourself to less than 30% of the world's experience of race and culture.  If you read books only by Christian authors, you are limiting yourself to only about 33% of the world's experience of religion.  If you read books only by authors in developed countries, you are limiting yourself to a very privileged view of what the world has to offer you.  If you read books that focus only on Western thought, history, and philosophy, you are missing out on many rich and varied traditions and worldviews that have informed and continue to enrich the way we view the world today. 

And, to continue reiterating my own points, I would like to make super-duper, extremely clear that reading diversely is not difficult.  IT WILL NOT LIMIT YOUR READING SELECTIONS.  This I promise you.  If you take nothing else away from this post, please remember this:

Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.
Authors of diverse backgrounds write books in every genre, from science to romance, from urban fantasy to graphic memoirs.  It may take you a little longer to find these books as they don't always get the same amount of hype and press, but you absolutely can find them.

Still feel intimidated and want some help?  I'm here for ya.  Seriously, I would like to make this as easy as possible for you and all your friends and all the world to participate, so here's what I suggest:
  • You can check out the #Diversiverse tab on this blog, which has EVERY SINGLE REVIEW from A More Diverse Universe since the event started in 2012.  Find your favorite blogger and see what s/he recommends you to read.
  • If you click on the #diversiverse label here on this blog, you will find even more books that qualify for the A More Diverse Universe tour that I read and reviewed.
  • I have a list of links in this post that direct you to different websites and public library lists that focus on reading diversely.  
  • Last year, I did a #diversiverse deep-dive of suggestions for two genres, non-fiction and historical fiction.  Check out the comments section for even more suggestions.
Last year, I gave people one month's notice on #diversiverse and got over 100 people to sign up.  So this year, I am giving everyone two months' notice in the hopes that even more people sign up and participate.  Please spread the word and get reading!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Joint Musings: The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira
Ana and I read The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagahira, together a few months ago, and then spent quite a bit of time writing to each other in ALL CAPS and with lots of exclamation points.  Then Eva joined in and added a whole new level of complexity to our discussion, and the result was that we dissected this novel to a huge extent and the below discussion is full of massive spoilers.  You will probably only want to read it if you have already completed the book, or if you, like me, don't really care about spoilers.

The People in the Trees is based on real events.  The main character is Norton Perina, a brilliant but disturbing doctor who goes to a far-off, isolated island and discovers the secret to incredibly long life.  But long life comes with a price, as so many things do.  The novel explores Perina's life, the impact of colonization, the politics of power, and so much more.  All with the help of two extremely unreliable narrators.  It was one of the best books I've read this year and by far the most disturbing one to date.

Below is our detailed discussion.  We hope you weigh in with your thoughts, too!

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yangihara is written in the form of the fictional memoirs of Dr. Norton Perina, a once renowned scientist who won the Nobel for seemingly uncovering the secret of eternal life, but who has now fallen into disrepute. Perina has been convicted for sexual abuse; in the introduction, written in the voice of Perina's friend and defender Dr. Ronald Kubodera, we're told he's writing his memoirs in prison. The narrative then goes back to young Norton's life, particularly focusing on his expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu, the discovery that followed, and its far-reaching consequences for the islanders.

In the discussion that follows, we try to make sense of this novel's fascinating horrors. Be warned that some spoilers will be inevitable.

Ana: The People in the Trees has not one but two unreliable narrators, and I found it as troubling as it was accomplished and difficult to put down. I've seen it compared to Lolita on more than one occasion, and now that I've read it I can see why that's apt. Shall we start by talking about the two narrators, Perina and Kubodera, how their biases show, and what they might be hiding from the reader?

Aarti:  Yes!  I’ll start with Perina, since his narration is more apparent to the reader.  It’s always tricky with an unreliable narrator as you don’t know what he’s misconstrued or left out completely.  What was interesting to me about Perina was what he chose (I assume) not to leave out or misconstrue.  For example, he had no concerns about sharing with readers his treatment of his children because he didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.  He also seemed to feel no guilt about his treatment of the original Ivu’Ivuians that he brought to the US, even though their treatment was horrific.  It all ladders up to him coming across as a complete sociopath, so I wonder if there were any key scenes that he did present to us inaccurately (the gang rape ones immediately leap to mind, particularly as Esme reacted so differently to them).

Kubodera is a tougher nut to crack because so much of his work is invisible to us.  He claims that he only made grammatical changes and removed that one section near the end (which was then provided to readers later).  But is that true?  Considering the hero worship, I think it unlikely.  But, again, if Kubodera wanted to show us Perina in a positive light, then he probably would have edited more heavily.  What was his motivation?  Perina never once mentions Kubodera in his whole narrative, and Kubodera admits that he only recently learned that Perina had a brother, and yet Kubodera claims to have known Perina very well.  And, based on the way the book ends, the two clearly had a strong enough relationship to elope together.  So did Kubodera edit himself out of the story?  Or is Perina just so self-absorbed that he would leave out someone so integral to him?  Or is Kubodera just not that important to Perina except as an escape mechanism?

Ana: I do wonder if Kubodera's feelings for Perina are meant to echo Perina's feelings for Tallent, the anthropologist he follows in his first expedition to Ivu’Ivuians.

Aarti:  Oh, that’s a brilliant suggestion!  I never thought of that but it would be a nice parallel.  The aloof, just out of reach mentor.  Though Kubodera was more successful in pinning his unicorn down vs Perina losing Tallent forever.

[I do think Tallent would include Perina in his narrative (not very positively).  We’ll have to talk about Tallent later, too.  So many things to talk about.]

Ana: The fact that Perina never mentions his most ardent defender in his narration suggests that he's far more important to Kubodera than Kubodera is to him, and I wonder if there's a side of unrequited love in there along with the hero worship. At the end of the book I almost felt sorry for Kubodera -- his rape apology is of course horrifying, and in his own way he's as unpleasant a character as Perina. But it does seem to me that Perina is using him to escape, and I can't imagine they have much of a future together.

To go back to your earlier questions, I do wonder if Kubera's lack of heavier editing is as much a reflection of his worldview as Perina's casual admission of his atrocities towards the Ivu’Ivuians or his children (or his recurrent misogyny, which I'm sure we'll discuss in more depth later). I wonder if, because he's a contemporary man, he's more aware than Perina of how those admission would be judged by the world at large. But his decision to include Perina's descriptions of how he sexually assaulted Victor in the end makes it clearer than ever that he still thinks he's in the right. The fact that these two men don't see much wrong with what they admit to shows readers how pervasive their worldview is, and how convinced they are that treating people as things is simply your prerogative if you're a supposedly brilliant man.

Aarti:  Yes, exactly!  This whole belief they justified that science must move forward regardless of any associated costs was just horrifying to me.  The guiding principle of medicine is “do no harm,” and yet all Perina ever did, to everyone he came across, was harm.  For example, note how he completely skims over the work he was doing with pharmaceutical companies to achieve immortality, so that it comes across like he was only ever after the science (even though he clearly had enough money to adopt so many children).  And the way he withheld the information about long life being accompanied by a complete degradation of mental faculties, which I assume is the main reason he kept the Ivu’Ivuians imprisoned.  

And when you think about it, really, what impact did Perina have on the world?  Kubodera describes him as a genius, almost too good for the world at large, but nothing he did had a positive lasting impact.

Ana:  I remember reading in a comment somewhere that it was interesting that Perina was the only one to report the Ivu’Ivuian rape ceremony. We have Esme's reaction to his account of it, and then he takes her to see it another night, but he claims that afterwards she "refused to talk about it" and made no mention of it in any of her books about the island. So all we have is Perina's word that Esme was there at all. For a while I was convinced that what would happen in the end would be that Perina would use the ceremony to "break" Victor, and justify his sexual abuse to himself to his readers that way. But he doesn't even feel the need to justify it -- and to be honest, I can't decide which one of the two would be worse.

Aarti:  I was expecting that, too.  That he would say he was keeping the culture alive for his children in as many ways as he could and ignoring the fact that he was not, in fact, part of that culture, and watching one event with zero context does not make him an expert in it.

I disagree with your comment that Perina didn’t feel the need to justify his behavior, though, at least for that one moment.  To clarify, I agree with you that he didn’t feel at all guilty.  But I feel like the way he described the incident (and I’m going from memory, so I may be off), he talked about how much fear and resistance the boy (what was his name?) put up against him, and then how he covered the boy’s mouth to stifle his screams and explained how much he loved him.  Based on that behavior, he knew he was doing something evil, and that by sharing the story, he had to account for why.  From what I recall, it was almost like a corruption of the white man’s burden - he was trying to tame this boy, and the only way he knew how to do it was with this savage, brutal behavior.  Kind of like Heart of Darkness, instead of sharing the polite, civilized world of western civilization with the boy, he had reverted and become more beastly himself to establish his own superiority.  Does that make any sense?

Ana: Yes, I see what you mean, though his account of it is so horrifying that it takes a sociopath to think it could come across as anything other than what it is. Of course, that's exactly what Yanagihara is doing -- to give readers a glimpse of what the world looks like through the eyes of a sociopath like Perina by making us engage with the story from his perspective, and then read between the lines for what he left out.

For example, all through the novel I wanted to get a better sense of what the other characters might be like without the mediation of Perina's perspective, and without his no doubt countless omissions. To go back to Esme, Perina makes it sound like her view of the Ivu’Ivuians is shaped by "Noble Savage" ideas, which in the end are of course as racist and dehumanising as his own. He strongly implies that this is why she leaves the rapes out of her books and refuses to discuss them -- they don't fit with her preconceptions of a peaceful and idealistic "primitive" society, and so she edits them out of her reality. But of course we don't know whether that really is the case, because all we have is Perina's word. Perina's perception of Esme is distorted by many things, particularly his possessiveness towards Tallent and his blatant misogyny. Here's his description of Esme at one point during their first excursion:

I did not look at her, but around her seemed the sickening scent of menstrual blood, a tinnily feminine smell so oppressive that it was a relief finally to begin the day’s climb and to find it vanishing slowly into the odors of the jungle. And from then on I was unable to look at her without thinking of oozing liquids, as thick and heavy as honey but rank and spoiled, seeping from her every hidden orifice.

That right there tells us everything we need to know about his worldview, and about how much his assessment of a woman anthropologist's work can be trusted.

Aarti:  Yes, I completely agree.  It’s frustrating that we don’t get a sense of the facts at all, just his interpretation of them.  It’s like trying to drive in a heavy fog; you really have no idea of the context.  I wish there were more women in the book that we could use as a gauge, but of course, there are none because Perina pretends they don’t exist.  The only one we get is his mother, and he was quite cruel to her, too.  

His relationships with Esme and Tallent was very difficult to unravel.  Esme completely disappears from the narrative after that first trip to the island (except for that brief meeting back in California), and Tallent is more present in Perina’s dreams than in the flesh.  But then, everyone seems to disappear from Perina’s narrative.  We never hear about the original Ivu’Ivuians except for their horrible mistreatment, we barely know the names of any of the children Perina adopted (and I doubt that the adoption stories happen at all in the way that he describes them), Kubodera is not mentioned at all, and Perina’s brother is just a voice on the phone more than a tangible being.  It’s almost as if the further Perina goes into the science, the more he forgets about the human element and just leaves it behind.  I don’t know if I am explaining this well at all, but at the beginning of the book, many more characters had distinct personalities and physical descriptions; by the end, that seemed to be hardly the case at all.

Ana: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And I think that's something Yanagihara is probably doing deliberately, because one of the key themes of The People in the Trees is dehumanisation and what happens when it's taken to its final consequences. Perina sees his co-workers, the Ivu'Ivuians and ultimately his children as things he can use and then cast aside; as tools as his disposal to help him achieve his goals rather than as human beings. For example, here's a revealing and disturbing passage about his adoptions that I bookmarked:

Shall I tell you how with each new child I acquired, I would irrationally think, This is the one. This is the one who will make me happy. This is the one who will complete my life. This is the one who will be able to repay me for years of looking.
Shall I tell you how I was always wrong--eighteen, nineteen, twenty times wrong--and how although I was always wrong, I didn't stop, I couldn't stop, I was searching, searching, searching.

Even his choice of verb -- "acquire" -- is immensely revealing. You acquire things, not children. He describes the growth of his family as a shopping compulsion, and that alone tells us everything we need to know about how he sees his children.

We haven't yet said much about how the novel deals with western imperialism, though there's plenty to discuss. There are the consequences of Perina's discovery on the island and what he sees as he goes back year after year; there's Victor's rejection of his westernized name; there's the horrible fate of the Ivu'Ivuians when they're forcibly removed from their home. Do you have any thoughts you want to share?

Aarti:  Oh, I have so many thoughts, but I probably can’t share them all!  Probably anyone who reads my blog or knows me will know that I have pretty strong opinions on imperialism and its effects on cultures and lifestyles, both good and bad (but mostly bad).  I don’t know that I can say much that is new except that Yanagahira makes her views on imperialism pretty obvious in this book.  Not only is there the destruction of an entire culture and way of life, there’s the extinction of a beautiful and peaceful animal, all the vices and problems that come when one person becomes very, very rich at the expense of other people, and all the rest of the horrible baggage that comes along with imperialism.

But I think what was most telling for me (and is particularly relevant now, especially given recent events in the US) was Perina’s COMPLETE lack of accountability.  He refused to accept that he had anything to do with the the stampede on Ivu’Ivu, even though he was a pretty direct cause, and he kept setting himself up as some sort of savior rather than a culprit.  It’s as though he was telling a very different story than the one I was reading, and I think that explains colonialism in a nutshell.

What do you think of Yanagahira’s strategy in doing this?  She seems to have set up Perina as the human embodiment of colonialism - a man who thought only of the benefits to himself and not of the consequences to other people.  Do you see anywhere that she gave Perina (and perhaps western Imperialism) the upper hand or the benefit of the doubt?  Or was everything just completely corrupted?

Ana: I really couldn't see anything about it that wasn't awful: what we see in what happens Ivu'Ivu is a perfect example of unshackled greed at work, be it for money (in the case of the big corporations who come in search of the turtles) or, in Perina's  case, greed for glory and recognition.

Since we started this discussion, Eva shared an interview with us that possibly casts Yamagihara's authorial intent in a different light:

Gajdusek’s story fascinated me. Here was an indisputably brilliant mind who also did terrible things. It’s so easy to affix a one-word description to someone, and it’s so easy for that description to change: if we call someone a genius, and then they become a monster, are they still a genius? How do we assess someone’s greatness: is it what they contribute to society, and is that contribution negated if they also inflict horrible pain on another? Or—as I have often wondered—is it not so binary?

What do you make of her statement, particularly in relation to how Perina is portrayed in the novel?

Aarti: Ohmigoodness, so much inner turmoil after seeing that statement.  I agree with Yanagahira that nothing is binary, but I also don’t think Perina had any redeeming features, so for him, I think monster is a pretty accurate term.  He did nothing to improve anyone’s lives, and did much to ruin many people’s lives.  As Eva said in our offline discussion:

“What’s weird to me is that her fictional scientist *doesn’t* help millions of people. Like, if his research had provided a cure to Alzheimer’s or dementia or cancer or something, that would provide a bit more of an argument the other way. But my impression from reading is that the island was wasted, and the people destroyed, and nothing came of it.”

Which, YES, exactly.  Personally, I see nothing redemptive there to tip him into the “genius” category.

Ana: Yes, it's a challenging one to make sense of. I don't want to dismiss the ambiguity Yamagihara hints at entirely, because I know it's possible to have a meaningful relationship with the work of someone whose actions you absolutely don't condone. My experience of this is in the arts more than in the sciences, but it's fundamentally the same thing: there are books that were important to me before I found out awful things about their authors. My relationship with their work continues to exist, even if I choose not to support them in the future (and that's always going to be a very personal decision -- different people draw the line differently). It's not so much that I separate the two in my head, but the two sets of feelings can exist side by side.

However, like you I had trouble seeing it here, for a few different reasons. First because I was also at a loss when it came to identifying a positive side to Perina's work; secondly and even more importantly, because his work is impossible to separate from the colonial impulse that does so much damage to Ivu’Ivu. It's not that the latter was an unintended consequence of his intellectual curiosity and quest for knowledge -- it's that the two are one and the same.

So to me this was one of those cases where I reminded myself that books belong to their readers. I don't know what Hanya Yanagihara intended when she wrote The People in the Trees, but to me it reads like a chilling denouncement of a worldview that costs people their lives, and of all the internal justifications that accompany. That's what I found so powerful, and that's what's going to stay with me.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee
There has been a lot of drama and speculation around the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  It began with concerns around whether Harper Lee was taken advantage of; did she even want to release this book?  And then, once the book came out, it erupted into consternation that Atticus Finch was not the beloved hero we all know and love and name our kids/dogs/cats after, but was actually... well, kind of racist.

Luckily for readers, Atticus' daughter Scout is also appalled at learning that her dad's a racist.  Misery loves company!

It took a lot of effort for me to crack open the cover of Go Set a Watchman.  I really wasn't sure I wanted to read it.  I'm glad, now that I'm done, that I did read it, but I don't think I want to read it ever again.  I wouldn't say it is a very tightly-written novel.  The lack of editing is pretty obvious; a lot of conversations seem to swirl around without getting anywhere, and there is a very frustrating lack of resolution at the end of the book.

I want to believe that Harper Lee had some agency in the book's publication.  That she is aware of what's happening in the United States and thought, "Now's the time!" and thus published this book.  I want to believe that To Kill a Mockingbird was the book we all needed in the 1960s, with the white male hero swooping in with a grand (failing) effort to save the day.  And now, what we need is Go Set a Watchman, a way for us to see that ideals need to be cared for and tested for them to last long-term, and to show us just how hypocritical and ridiculous some of our arguments are.

But even if I do believe that Lee had agency in this whole situation, I just don't think she was very successful in her attempt.  There are a lot of important points made in this story, but hardly any deep discussion or introspection.  And everyone in the book is so unaware of their own privilege, it is almost laughable.

That's what ultimately frustrated me so much about this book.  It just doesn't challenge the status quo enough.  And maybe in that way, it's very much a product of the time it was written (in the 1950s and 1960s), and not a product of the time it was published.

I knew I was going to have trouble with this book as soon as I read the following:
Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, [Scout] may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her:  she was born color blind.
Seriously?!  The only people who ever say (and believe) they are color blind are white people, but Lee never once questioned Scout's flawed logic here.  Even later, when Scout's semi-boyfriend Hank (whom she now distrusts because he's racist) tries gently to point out her own privilege as a member of an old, wealthy and respected family in Maycomb, she is completely unwilling to accept it.

"Hank.  That is untrue and you know it.  It's unfair and it's ungenerous, but more than anything in this world it's just not true... you've got some kind of complex."
This story could have been so much stronger if later, Scout considered her own biases.  For example, after taking her high moral ground as "color blind," she goes to visit her nanny, Calpurnia, whose grandson is going to jail for manslaughter (great timing, Scout).  While there, she never once considers the fact that maybe she is not quite as color blind as she thinks she is, or that maybe it's easy to be blind to color when you are in a place of privilege.  Similarly, she never thinks about privilege as someone from a very wealthy Maycomb family.  She just assumes that everyone else is wrong and assumes that her kicking and screaming is evidence of her being a better person than they are.

Most people focus on Atticus' fall from grace in this book, and he does say some vile, miserable things that were very hard to stomach.  But Scout was a moral compass and strong character in To Kill a Mockingbird, too, and one that was far more approachable and real than Atticus probably was.  And so her fall from grace was even harder for me.  She says she's color blind but she uses the same ridiculous story about the federal government encroaching on "states' rights" that people have been using from the days of slavery to the days of civil rights to today.  And goes on to say, "Well, it seemed to me that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could - that could affect the vast majority of folks.  Adversely, that is."

But she's not racist.  She didn't care that it was black people who were the small portion of the population the Court "set up something horrible" for.  She would have felt the same way no matter which tiny population came barging into the schools, adversely affecting the lives of everyone else already there.

Can you see why I was so frustrated?

Honestly, Go Set a Watchman felt very much like a long-winded internal monologue without any resolution.  All that happened was that Scout realized her dad wasn't perfect (and yet had no such similar epiphany about herself), but that she loved him, anyway, for teaching her how to make up her own mind.  And that was that.

And it was just not even close to enough.


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