Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

We read Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, for book club. I really enjoyed it and encourage everyone to read it - it was really hilarious and such a novel of our times (even though it's futuristic!)

It's written fromt he perspective of Lenny Abramov's diary and the electronic correspondence of Eunice Park. They live in the (not-so-distant) future, when everyone wears an äppärät (a device worn around the neck that makes an iphones look like an Apple II) which most people live their lives through - shopping, communicating, and assessing the vital stats - credit and "fuckability" - of everyone else.

Lenny works for Post-Human services, which helps HNWI (high net worth individuals) extend their lives indefinitely. Terrified of death, he's drawn to the young, lithe, Eunice and practically worships her into being his girlfriend. I was a bit leary that this was going to be one of those old-man-resurrected-by-youthful-tail tales, almost always completely unbelievable and largely if not exclusively written by aging old men, but Eunice is such an unlikable character she hardly resurrects anyone.

Shteyngart's novel is less sci-fi and more of a dead-on satire of today's culture. Consumerism, corporations infecting politics, hyper-sexualized people (he writes about "Juicy-Pussy for Men" and Onionskin pants - clear pants!), youth obsession - all are examined to hilarious (and terrifying!) extremes:
At least your Lenny lvoes you so much he'll never ever cheat on you. I can't understand why you're feeling so insecure about him. So he's brain-smart. Who cares??? It's not like he's some superstar Media guy or VP and LandOLakes. So he REALLY, REALLY READS instead of scans. Big whoop. Maybe you guys can read to each other in bed or something. And then you can sew your own clothes. HA HA HA. Anyway, looking good is the new smart, and I don't think you should have kids with him because you'll have really ugly children.
This book reminded a lot of us in book club of Feed - in which "book smart" intelligence is not only undervalued but ridiculed. What's coming across is a real sense of anxiety from some writers about the future of, I think, not just reading (physical) books, but reading at all.

I loved the juxtiposition of Lenny's style with Eunice's, and their telling of the same events. Shteyngart's structure and plotting were really clever and I admired it so much. There's actually so much to discuss I can't really fit it into a blog post and I don't want to give away to much of the story except to say: You must read this!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

One Amazing Thing

I've been a fan on Chitra Divakaruni for quite awhile. She often writes about Indian diaspora and sets most of her stories in San Francisco (where I used to live). I had the pleasure of seeing her read in San Francisco once and it really stuck with me - sometimes when I read her books, it's like she's reading to me. (It's not as creepy as it sounds...)

While One Amazing Thing ostensibly doesn't take place in SF (apparently Divakaruni now lives in Houston, of all places), to me it did - the fact that it's about a group of people stuck in an Indian consulate after a massive earthquake cements it for me.

What I really like about this quick read is that Divakaruni creates nine distinct characters, each of whom tell a story - one amazing thing - about their lives to their fellow captives to pass the time, and distract focus from their own terror, while they're trapped in an increasingly dangerous place. With that type of story, I think a lot of characters have a tendency to merge together and I have a hard time keeping them straight, but I never had that problem with this book.

It reminded me quite a bit of Douglas Coupland's Generation A, which I read last year. Both books are about how the stories of our lives, when shared, lead to a greater sense of community and understanding. This is a common theme in Divakaruni's books, in which characters from a wide variety of cultural and social backgrounds are forced to interact.

Here's one of my favorite parts:
"When had it happened? Looking back, I could not point to one special time and say, There! That's what is amazing. We can change completely and not recognize it. We think terrible events have made us into stone. But love slips in like a chisel - and suddenly it is an ax, breaking us into pieces from the inside."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tiger Mother

I haven't read this book, Tiger Mother, but it came on my radar when I was visiting my friend and her new baby. It's a book that's supposedly about Chinese parenting - or at least one Chinese-American's interpretation. The mother tells her children they're a big disappointment and not living up to her expectations of them. Huh, sounds a lot like Midwestern parenting!*

We practiced by telling the charming newborn what a failure and a disappointment she was and then laughing raucously (well, mostly just me and the dad, my friend could not even utter the words).

Judith Warner's review in NYT Magazine is worth reading, if only for the hilarious beginning paragraphs (even my baby wearing, co-sleeping friend agreed!):
There was bound to be some push back. All the years of nurturance overload simply got to be too much. The breast-feeding through toddlerhood, nonstop baby wearing, co-sleeping, “Baby Mozart” co-watching; the peer pressure for never-ending singsong-voiced Mommy niceness, the ever-maddening chant of “good job!”; compulsory school “involvement” (that is, teacher-delegated busywork packaged as a way to Show Your Child You Care), the rapt attendance at each and every school performance, presentation, sporting event — the whole mishmash of modern, attuned, connected, concerned, self-esteem-building parenting.

The reaction came in waves. There were expert warnings, with moralists claiming that all this loosey-goosey lovey-dovey-ness was destroying the hierarchical fiber of the American family, and psychologists writing that all that self-esteem building was leading to epidemic levels of pathological ninnyishness in kids. Then there was a sort of quasi-hedonist revolt, cries of rebellion like Christie Mellor’s “Three Martini Playdate,” mother-toddler happy hours (postpregnancy liberation from “What to Expect” sanctimony!) and take-the-kid-out-all-night hipster parenting. Then came “free range” parenting, an appellation with the added advantage of sounding both fresh and fancy, like a Whole Foods chicken; “simplicity parenting” (recession-era lack of cash dressed up as principled rejection of expensive lessons); and, eventually, a kind of edgy irritation with it all: a new stance of get-tough no-nonsense, frequently called — with no small amount of pride — being a “bad” mother.

read the article

*I kid, I kid. Sort of.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


I spent most of 2010 hearing about how great Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was, while stubbornly refusing to purchase the hardcover. Then I finally did buy it out of desperation for something excellent to read over the Christmas holiday and it turns out I didn't find it that excellent.

It's a book about this midwestern family that has its fair share of problems and it follows them through their various foibles and silliness. It tackles a couple of pretty big themes like freedom and consumerism and conservation, but in the end, I never felt any connection to this family after spending 550 pages with them. I think that's because the entire book is written in the 3rd person and with a very dry and witty narration that makes the whole cast of characters look like a bunch of jackholes. It never moved me or touched me.

The third person really turned me off, particularly when the book was actually from the perspective of one of the characters who writes about herself in the third person. Ugh. I mean, honestly. This character, the mother (and I don't think I'm ruining it for you) writes about how she was raped as a teenager and that part read particularly untrue to me. Taking into account, naturally, that everyone's experiences are different and that a rape victim's reaction, whatever it might be, is not for anyone else to judge, not to mention that it's a work of fiction, but I just found it so untrue and it influenced the remainder of the book for me.
The indignity was that Ethan had considered her such a nothing that he could just rape her and then take her home. And she was not such a nothing. She was, among other things, already, as a junior, the all-time single-season record holder for assists at Horace Greeley High School. A record she would again demolish the following year! She was also first-team All State in a state that included Brooklyn and the Bronx. And yet a golfing boy she hardly even knew had thought it was OK to rape her.

I'm a big fan of The Corrections and would like to read it again. I find it curious that Franzen writes another book about a midwestern family that's sort of fucked up, in which the son goes to far-flung places for dubious business dealings, and everyone has sort of inappropriate sexual adventures. Meanwhile, Franzen gets credited with writing about EVERY family and continues to get such praise as the "masterpiece of American fiction", which I'm not sure it deserves. It's just such a classic that the man gets credited with capturing the human condition while a similar book, written by a woman, would be tucked in the "chick-lit" section. (Or, well ok, maybe it might win the Pulitzer.) There's a great article/story on NPR about feminist reaction to the praise that Franzen receives - check it out.

Freedom is quite funny, and there's a hilarious bit at the end about the father's dealings with his neighbors' cats. I also quite liked how he wrote about consumerism and over-population, but, I do regret buying the hardcover.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Huck Finn and the N word

What's the use you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?

There's an interesting debate going on right now about a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which is about to be published, with the numerous instances of the "n" word replaced with the word "slave."*

An educator and Twain scholar is behind the new edition, supposedly because he wanted it to be more easily taught and less offensive. More

I really love that book, despite the repetition of that noxious word. I agree that it's difficult to teach, because I foolheartedly tried to do so myself back when I was younger and slightly stupider and didn't think too far ahead. But, I disagree with re-writing history, especially when it's done to gloss over an unhappy part of our history. Facing up to our shameful past is difficult, but it can lead to greater understanding and compassion. It's really disappointing to me when I hear that educators censor, because they're passing up on such a perfect opportunity to have a thoughtful dialogue about the material. Luckily, I don't think I'm alone, because I've seen a number of articles condemning the new book, but, it looks like it will be published and will be available in schools.

I presume that the reason this is even possible is because the book is older than 100 years old, but I don't understand the copyright issues. I would assume that the Twain estate might have some control over the rights. Can anyone republish an edition of a book older than 100 years and change whatever they like?

Word of the Day: Bowdlerize

Here's an article with a pro-new addition slant.

* Apparently also "Injun Joe" is changed to "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" to "half-blood."

Sunday, January 02, 2011


Oops, I just realized my chart was wrong because I forgot to review a couple of books - Winter's Bone and the Satanic Verses.

Anyway, the numbers look like this, for posterity's sake:
43 Fiction books
7 Non-fiction books
25 books by women
25 books by men

For some reason, I'm having trouble processing the Satanic Verses, which is an amazing and challenging book to read. We read it for book club and everyone loved it although most agreed it totally kicked their ass.

Winter's Bone (by Daniel Woodrell) deserves a longer write-up too, which I'm not sure I'll be able to provide. It's a fine little book that can be quickly read but better off savored. It's about a young woman who is searching for her meth-cook father in order to save their family shack, which is, nevertheless, the only thing they have. It's language and imagery is brutal - she's described as someone who looks like she had been "smacked and smacked again." There was an amazing part where she sleeps in a cave during a snow storm. She builds a fire and takes off her wet clothes and survives the night like a wild animal (or a resourceful pre-historic woman, perhaps). That part reminded me very much of an early novel by Margaret Atwood book called Surfacing where the protagonist goes into the woods to live. From Winter's Bone:
She stood in sunlight and stretched, a great long body pale and twisting at the brink of a cave. She walked to water dripping from the rock above the cave mouth, cupped her hands to the trickle and drank and drank deeply of the falling new water.

Here's my updated graph:

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010: Books in Review

I continue my analysis of yearly reading. In 2010, I read:
41 Fiction books
7 Non-fiction books
25 books by women
23 books by men

It was a great year for terrific YA Fiction, I greatly enjoyed the entire The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and Feed by M.T. Anderson. I was also impacted and effected by a couple of non-fiction books, How To Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ and Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. I re-read everything by J.D. Salinger this year - he'll always a favorite of mine.

I have a few Reading/Writing resolutions for 2011, which are to read new books in hard-cover even though I don't really like reading hardcover books (just because they're heavy and a pain in the ass, but I really want to read newer material) and to do some writing of my own.

Here's a comparison chart to previous years:

2008 in review
2009 in review