Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press ISBN: 0802124941
on April 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

four-stars

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy BrillThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 1594487448
on April 18th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill’s writing reminds me a bit of that of Tracy Chevalier, though perhaps not quite as deft. As the inspiration for Brill’s Hannah Price is Maria Mitchell, I wonder why Brill didn’t just write about Maria Mitchell. I assume she wanted to take some artistic license with the story, especially perhaps in bringing in Hannah’s student Isaac Martin. I might have appreciated the storyline the more if Hannah had continued to view Isaac as a friend a pupil. I didn’t necessarily need a love story. And the love story was impossible for their times in any case.

Brill explains in her author’s note that she changed some dates. For example, Maria Mitchell met Mary Somerville in 1858, but Brill placed the meeting between Somerville and Hannah Price some eleven years earlier. Hannah’s friend photographs Mizar and Alcor in 1847, but the real photograph was taken a decade later. After I read that, I wondered if the technology to take the photograph even existed in 1847. If not, that’s a pretty large issue. Brill paints the setting of Nantucket well, and I enjoyed her characters, especially Isaac.

I initially started reading this book some time back and put it down for a while. It had been a long time since I’d put it down, so I just started over again. My reason for reading it now is that the Monthly Motif Challenge theme for April is “Read Locally.” I couldn’t really find much of anything to read that’s set in Worcester, but Worcester does get a mention in this book when the third-person narrator explains that many Nantucketers had moved to find work in the Worcester mills. Close enough!

four-stars

Review: The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo

Review: The Poet X, Elizabeth AcevedoThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Published by HarperTeen ISBN: 0062662805
on March 6th 2018
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 357
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

I picked up this book for a couple of reasons: 1) all of my English teacher friends on Twitter were talking about it, and 2) Elizabeth Acevedo is keynoting at an English teachers’ conference I plan to attend. This book is a great addition to my classroom library in that so few books feature a Latinx protagonist. Representation is critical. Aside from that, it’s a great story as well. I passed it along to a colleague who will be teaching an English elective on the coming-of-age story or bildungsroman, and this novel is a perfect example of the genre with the twist of being written entirely in verse as well.

This book underscores the power of poetry and a good English teacher in helping young people find their voices. Elizabeth Acevedo has been both a teacher and a slam poet. The book also wrestles with the complicated question of finding one’s identity down a different path than that chosen by parents. In addition, Xiomara discovers her brother is struggling with issues of his own. I hope he gets a sequel because I sense his story could be as powerful as Xiomara’s, if not more so.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially to teenagers (its intended audience). This is the kind of book I think I would have loved to have had when I was a teenager, but people were not writing books like this when I was young. I’m grateful my students will have access to it.

four-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Nearing the End of the Challenge

I’ve waited a few weeks to do a write-up of my progress with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Since my last post I’ve read:

  • “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”: Sir James Damery consults Holmes on a delicate matter. Violet, daughter of General de Merville has fallen in love with a rogue, and Damery needs Holmes’s help to unmask his evil ways before Violet marries him.
  • “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”: This story is narrated by Holmes (one of only two). James Dodd seeks Holmes’s help because he hasn’t seen his friend and fellow soldier Godfrey Emsworth, and he fears for the man’s life.
  • “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”: John Mason, head trainer at racing stable Shoscombe Old Place has noticed some odd events, and he calls on Holmes to investigate.
  • “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”: Professor Presbury’s secretary and future son-in-law Trevor Bennett is concerned about the professor’s unusual behavior and seeks Holmes’s help to get to the bottom of it.
  • “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”: Holmes may be at death’s door, but he calls on Watson help him bring in Culverton Smith.
  • “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”: The second story narrated by Holmes. Set after Holmes has retired to Sussex, in this case, Holmes examines a local man’s mysterious death, only to see the same strange attack repeated on a dog and another man.

Of these stories, “The Creeping Man” and “The Dying Detective” left the most impression. I barely remember reading the first three on this list, and the final is fresh in my mind only because it’s the most recent read. Only “The Dying Detective” has made its way into the storytelling of BBC’s series Sherlock in the guise of “The Lying Detective.” In this episode, Culverton Smith is a philanthropist who has committed murder through the use of a secret passageway in a hospital, where he kills anyone being treated in a specific room. Holmes starts taking drugs again so he can fall ill and be committed to Smith’s hospital and lead the man into the trap of trying to kill Holmes. The episode is actually a pretty good one, with Toby Jones playing Smith. One of the reasons “The Creeping Man” left an impression is it’s so far-fetched. Really? Injecting yourself with an extract obtained from monkeys is going to make you act like a monkey? Come on, Conan Doyle. One might be tempted to believe Conan Doyle was more or less phoning it in toward the end of Holmes’s career, given the fact that the stories are not as memorable.

“The Illustrious Client,” “The Blanched Soldier,” “Shoscombe Old Place,” “The Creeping Man,” and “The Lion’s Mane” Rating: ★★★☆☆

“The Dying Detective” Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 54th-59th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is the final story in the challenge, “His Last Bow.” I plan to write a wrap-up post when I review that story next week.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

Review: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’EngleA Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet, #1) by Madeleine L'Engle, Anna Quindlen
Published by Square Fish ISBN: 0312367546
Genres: Classic, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 247
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four-stars

Meg Murry and her friends become involved with unearthly strangers and a search for Meg's father, who has disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government.

I first read this novel in elementary school, probably fourth or fifth grade. I decided I wanted to see the movie, but since it had been so long since I had read the book, I thought I should read it again.

Wrinkle in Time Old Cover
The cover of the copy of A Wrinkle in Time I had when I was a kid.

Things I remembered:

  • Meg Murry is pretty badass.
  • Charles Wallace is an awesome character.
  • Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are a lot of fun.
  • There is this thing called a tesseract, and Meg has to save her father.

Things I had no memory of whatsoever:

  • The religious overtones.
  • Wow, Meg and Calvin got really close fast, didn’t they?
  • Just how long Meg’s father had been gone.

New observations:

  • Meg and Charles Wallace might be on the autism spectrum. My children are, and Meg and Charles Wallace remind me of them.
  • The storyline really moves fast. I mean, much faster than I remembered. Almost too fast (see below).

I haven’t read a middle grades novel in a long time, and I kept thinking, hold up! You’re going too fast! You need to develop that a bit more! I thought maybe, well, this is the speed you need to go with middle grades fiction, but after finishing the book, I’m not so sure. I think some parts were just unevenly developed. As a result, I didn’t buy Meg and Calvin’s friendship. Too fast, even for a kids’ book. I forgot how creepy Camazotz was. In the end, IT was not as scary to me as the spreading darkness. Plus, hold up: what parent leaves a child behind on Camazotz like Mr. Murry does? Unthinkable. I will probably read the other books in the series because I never did read the whole series. I think I read A Wind in the Door. That’s probably it.

I’m counting this book as my children’s classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

four-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Six Stories Catch-Up

The Three Garridebs
Illustration from “The Three Garridebs” by Howard K. Elcock for The Strand

I have been keeping up with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, but I haven’t posted reviews for the stories I’ve read since my last update in January:

  • “The Problem of Thor Bridge”: Holmes investigates the mysterious “murder” of Maria Gibson. Things look bad for her husband, especially when Holmes discovers Neil Gibson had fallen in love with his child’s governess and the alleged murder weapon was found in her room.
  • “The Adventure of the Priory School”: School principal Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable seeks Holmes’s help in finding a missing pupil, Lord Saltire.
  • “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”: Robert Ferguson, believing his Peruvian wife is a vampire, writes to Holmes for help after he believes his wife has tried to suck their baby’s blood.
  • “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”: Shattered busts of Napoleon might not seem to be of much consequence, but Lestrade is puzzled and seeks Holmes’s help on the suspicion that there is more to the odd cases of vandalism. He’s right.
  • “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”: Nathan Garrideb writes Holmes seeking his help. If he can find a third man with the last name Garrideb, he stands to inherit a lot of money.
  • “The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax”: Holmes sends Watson to continental Europe to start searching for Lady Francis Carfax. Holmes fears for her life, but Watson is quite out of his element without the help of the detective.

I liked all of these stories. Two dealt with the friction between older siblings and younger siblings. Yet again, Conan Doyle can’t seem to write about people from other countries without being racist or inaccurate. I think he should have avoided trying to write about Americans. He just can’t get them right. And it seems like anytime he has a black or brown character, they have some “primitive” qualities. Two women in these stories come from South America, and Conan Doyle’s description of them made me roll my eyes. Laying those issues aside, though—not to say they’re insignificant but more a sign of the times in which they were written—I’d say pretty much all of these stories are four-star stories. Two stories are mentioned in BBC’s Sherlock: “The Three Garridebs” comes up in “The Final Problem,” when Sherlock has to identify which of the three Garrideb brothers committed a murder or his sister Eurus will kill them all, which she does anyway after Sherlock determines which one is the murderer. “The Six Napoleons” is referenced in “The Six Thatchers,” though the reason for the smashed busts of Margaret Thatcher are more interesting than the reasons for the smashed busts in of Napoleon.

“The Three Garridebs” is interesting for another reason. Watson is wounded, and Holmes freaks out and betrays the tiniest bit of concern. Watson thinks he could probably live on that little glimmer of emotion for the rest of his life.

It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

Get a grip, Watson.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 48th-53rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.”

 

Review: Stonewall, Martin Duberman

Review: Stonewall, Martin DubermanStonewall by Martin Duberman
ISBN: 0525936025
on May 1st 1993
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.

I wanted to read this book after watching the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s longtime friend and a fellow Stonewall veteran, is one of the six gay rights pioneers profiled in Stonewall, alongside Jim Fouratt, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Craig Rodwell, and Foster Gunnison, Jr. While not all six were present at Stonewall the night of June 28, 1969, each contributed in their way to the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement in the wake of Stonewall. The book is structured as a profile of each of these six people’s lives leading up to Stonewall, their participation (if any) in the events at Stonewall, and their lives post-Stonewall.

If you watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it’s difficult not to become fascinated by Sylvia Rivera. As a trans woman of color, she landed on the streets of New York at the age of eleven and had a difficult life, often homeless and combatting drug and alcohol problems along with the dangers of living on the street and hustling for money. And yet, her commitment to the Gay Rights Movement is real and heartfelt. Jim Fouratt has claimed that Sylvia was not at Stonewall the first night, but other participants (including Sylvia herself) claim she was. Some have even claimed that Sylvia threw the first bottle or Molotov cocktail, though Sylvia herself denies these accounts. I imagine the scene was chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell who exactly did what and where they were. In any case, Sylvia threw herself into the work of the Gay Rights Movement, founding STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Marsha. STAR House took in transgender kids, offering them food and shelter. Sylvia advocated for the poor and marginalized in society. At the time of her death, she was directing a food pantry at her church.

Transgender people have been sidelined in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1973, Sylvia left the movement after leaders in the movement attempted to silence her at the annual celebration of gay pride that grew out of Stonewall and has become the annual Pride Parade.

I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t know anything at all about the Mattachine Society, and none of the figures, aside from Sylvia Rivera, was familiar to me before reading the book. Jim Fouratt was not only an early leader of the Gay Liberation Front but also a friend of Abbie Hoffman’s and one of the Yippies. He later became a music journalist. Karla Jay is a writer and college professor emerita. Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which finally closed its doors in 2009, unable to compete (like so many bookstores) with online outfits. Two figures who are still somewhat enigmatic to me are Foster Gunnison and Yvonne Flowers. Gunnison was a founding member of NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations) and died shortly after Stonewall was published. He was more conservative than the others profiled and wasn’t involved in Stonewall, though (uncharacteristically for him) approved of what happened there. Yvonne Flowers participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (which I think later became the annual Pride Parade) and was friends with Audre Lorde. Neither she nor Gunnison has a Wikipedia entry, and I couldn’t find much available information without doing some real digging online, though it’s there. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was for lesbians and transgender individuals to be involved in the early movement. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, but one might think if you are marginalized in some way yourself, it makes you more open to empathy for other marginalized groups. Not so much. White males dominated the early movement to the extent that many women and transgender people felt shut out.

Stonewall was published in 1993, and the information may be quite dated. Jim Fouratt and Harry Beard, a Stonewall waiter, both claimed that the catalyst for the uprising came when a lesbian dressed in men’s clothing was cuffed, complained the handcuffs were too tight and was then hit with a nightstick. Craig Rodwell insisted that “There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group—of mass—anger” (197). Duberman quotes collective eyewitnesses who “skeptically ask why, if [the lesbian] did exist, she has never stepped forward to claim the credit” (197). However, Stormé DeLarverie has, in fact, claimed to be that person, and several other witnesses have supported her claim. I’m not sure when DeLarverie identified herself, but Duberman didn’t identify her at all in the book, so it stands to reason he didn’t know about her claims when he wrote the book.

I liked the structure of following the six individuals, and the six chosen represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s nice to see that balance. As much as I appreciate the balance of perspectives, it comes at the cost of focusing on individuals who were not involved at Stonewall itself, though it’s hard to deny their importance in the Gay Rights Movement.

The February motif for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge is to read a book with one word in the title, which is one of the reasons I read Stonewall this month. I obtained this book from my local library.

four-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House Trade ISBN: 0812971833
on September 30th 2008
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 286
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four-stars

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

I can’t remember anymore why I decided to read Olive Kitteridge. I had it in my head somehow that I wouldn’t like it. I do think it’s a bit uneven in that the stories that don’t feature Olive herself seem tangential. In a few cases, Olive is mentioned in a way that seems forced as though Strout was attempting to tie together stories that weren’t tied together. She explains this in the interview in the back: “I chose this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well” (276). The episodic manner works very well for revealing Olive’s character, as Strout suspected it would.

The best stories told from an alternative point of view are “Pharmacy,” told from Henry Kitteridge’s point of view and “Incoming Tide,” told from Olive’s former student Kevin Coulson’s point of view. The other stories were fine, but in terms of belonging in a collection of stories about Olive, they didn’t quite fit for me. Olive was easily the most intriguing character in the book. It was her personality—at once completely recognizable and by turns compelling and repellent—that kept me turning the pages in this book.

We all know an Olive. She’s hard to like, but I quibble when she’s described as “abrasive.” If she were a man, I’d lay odds that’s not a word anyone would use to describe her. That adjective seems to be applied almost universally to women, who are supposed to be nice and are supposed to be easy to like. Olive would not approve of my saying this, but fuck that. It’s more important to have character. For example, in “A Little Burst,” when Olive draws on her new daughter-in-law’s sweater and steals one of her shoes and a bra after hearing the young woman make fun of the dress Olive had worn to the wedding, all I could think was good for Olive. No, I wouldn’t have liked it if my mother-in-law had done that to me, but I also wouldn’t have been mocking my mother-in-law behind her back at my wedding. Christopher, Olive’s son, seems to have a great deal of difficulty with his mother, and she might not see her parenting in the most accurate light, but he’s a difficult son as well. Henry, the character who suffers most from Olive’s personality, emerges as genuine and caring, and his fate is perhaps most tragic.

Of the stories in the collection, my favorites were “A Little Burst”—which reminds me in the best way of Flannery O’Connor’s writing—and “River,” the final story in the collection. There were moments when I put this book down for a long period of time, but I picked it up thinking I’d like to cross one more unfinished book off my list before the end of the year. Truthfully, the moments when I put the book down were the times when Olive was offstage. She drives the entire book, and I enjoyed the ride very much when she was behind the wheel.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I lied. I thought Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters would be the last book I’d finish for the Backlist Reader ChallengeOlive Kitteridge probably is.

four-stars

Review: 1984, George Orwell

Review: 1984, George Orwell1984 by George Orwell, George Orwell, Erich Fromm
Published by New American Library ISBN: 0451524934
on July 1st 1950
Genres: Classic
Pages: 328
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four-stars

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

1984 is one of those books I’d been meaning to get to for a long time, and I didn’t for one reason and another—partly perhaps because I didn’t much like Brave New World; partly because I knew it was pretty depressing; and partly because as an English teacher, I knew the plot and pretty knew much how it would end. It’s an occupational hazard. At any rate, the story is depressingly relevant in ways I’m not sure it was even ten years ago when I read Brave New World. I am glad to be able to cross it off my list. It’s one of those books people are surprised to learn I haven’t read. I guess most people read this novel in school, but I was never assigned many class texts to read until junior year when I moved to Georgia. I can’t even remember reading a book in English class at all in the tenth grade. I don’t feel there is any such thing as a required text that everyone should read. If we want to read classics, we will get to them when we get to them. On the other hand, I also see the value of books that show us who we are and help us understand ourselves and others.

I struggled with how to rate this book because while I can’t say I truly liked it—and it is possible, I think, to like dystopian fiction. I didn’t like the characters or really care too much about them. However, I can also admire it from a philosophical standpoint as a precursor to dystopian fiction that—in my opinion—is both more compelling and better written, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. I can also admire Orwell’s prescience in predicting the ubiquity of television and the creepy surveillance culture, though I’m not sure it existed in 1984 the way it does today. It’s hard to deny the book’s influence on our culture. Most distressing, perhaps, is the way in which our current president’s lies and the “doublespeak” presentation of “alternative facts” makes the book too alarmingly close to reality. Ultimately, I want to have too much faith in the people to prevent a vision like Orwell’s from happening in our time. Yet, Suzanne Collins has said about her series The Hunger Games that there isn’t anything in her books that hasn’t happened in history in one form or other. The same can be said of 1984. I am hoping we all stay vigilant.

Beat the BacklistI’m not sure if I’ll count any additional books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge this year, as 2017 is drawing to a close. This is only the sixth book out of twenty that I had planned to read, but I’ll save my reading challenge progress reflection for another day.

four-stars