Monday, August 3, 2015

My July Reading ... Part 1

Now that half the year's over, time to take stock of my reading list. I started out the year with a—in retrospect—ginormous list of books. Taking into account my reading record of the past years but forgetting to account for the large number of slow, non-romance reads, I was Very Ambitious. Instead of a one-year-plan, I had launched a five-year-plan. Naturally, since then, new books have been added to my list due to recommendations by other people (the new shiny is always more entrancing than the good old). The original list saw few books being taken off it. As a result, it stands stalwart in guilting me well into the late 20-teens.

I read a fair bit this month, so I've divided my reading account into two parts. I'll post the second part tomorrow.

Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim
Categories: memoir
Diversity: Based in North Korea featuring North and South Korean people in addition to volunteers from other countries.
Commentary: What a fantastic look behind the curtain into North Korean life for its youth. The author is Korean-American, born and brought up in Seoul, who moved to the US with her family in her teens. She has maintained close ties with South Korea, traveling there for academic and journalistic work (she writes for Harper's among others) very regularly. Before publishing this book, she traveled to North Korea multiple times, every time worrying and enraging her family. She has written extensively and critically about the country. However, this is the first book she's written about her personal experience. Her Korean ancestry made for strong and conflicting emotions about her journey. She writes about it with a kind of "coming home" yet distancing tone that is by turns achingly sad, warm, confused, and at times patronizing. I liked her for this, except the last, because her feelings and thoughts felt authentic.

I'm still reading it.

The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: By a male author
Commentary: Say, what? Kafka, you ask? This is addressing "the lack of humanities in my education" with a vengeance. I admit readily that I would've benefitted from having read this in a classroom setting so salient points and important suppositions could've been pointed out to me. I loved the fable approach to highlighting what he had to say. Brings back childhood memories of Aesop's Fables among others.

The first part of the eponymous story was taken up with analyzing how the Great Wall was built and how the morale of the workers affected how the construction went. Initially, they started building from one end and continued going along. Then they realized that quite a few workers stuck in an inhospitable region for weeks and months on end lost hope and thus their work suffered. So the wall was built piecemeal for many sections so the workers had a small project in hand that they could finish in a short amount of time and start another project in a different region.

The workers were divided into two groups: one group was where the workers didn't mind how the wall was built or where they had to live to work at it and the other group was where workers needed constant encouragement, appreciation of their work, and reassurance of their purposefulness. This allowed the second group of workers to step out of their preoccupation with their inner self into thinking about the community and working together for a common goal. One thing I felt Kafka was at pains to point out was that everything about a communal goal isn't always laudatory. He took a step back from the flag-waving ideals of socialism there.

The narrator not only narrates the story and analyzes the nebulous characters but he or she also posits questions. Doubt is expressed about the piecemeal construction method but also about the purpose of the whole project. Was it really set up to protect against the northern hordes or was it something else or nothing at all? Defending against the nomads is a tacit acknowledgment that the command of men survives only if there are precise tasks detailed in a precise order of things. Thus, according to Kafka, men cannot survive "outside the law."

I could write and write about this and still not fully comprehend it.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Categories: literary fiction
Commentary: Recommended by Rohan Maitzen. I loved Eloisa James's memoir Paris in Love. It's a joyful chronicle of her sabbatical year in Paris, and it's written in small vignettes of everydayness elevated to the extraordinary through her writing. So when Rohan wrote about Speculation that it's also a story told in vignettes, I immediately put a hold on it at the library.

This is very much a "Brooklyn Book." It's self-conscious, stylistic, self-absorbed, spare. Hang on, you say, it's a fictional memoir so it's going to be about self. Well, there's memoir and then there's navel gazing. This is the latter. Many reviewers call it funny. That it is not. It aims for profound but doesn't get there.

It is not a book that celebrates life. It's a book that looks at life sideways and comments on the less savory aspects of it. I was not much in sympathy with the character for most of the book. She genuinely had difficulties—a colicky baby and a troubled marriage, for examples—but some were imagined or manufactured.

"So lately I've been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, 'I'll tell you later. Don't pester me.' But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. 'We're married, remember? Nobody's breaking up with anybody.'"

I was in sympathy with her husband for most of the book, till I found out he had an affair with someone who was "easier."

Offill's prose describing the state of her main character's feelings and thoughts on this very difficult time in her marriage—as she is surprised by the affair, as she realizes she does love him, as they both try to reconcile with each other—is superb. Her character's reactions are unique and recognizable as ordinary at the same time. She reads a book about how different cultures handle repairing a marriage after an affair. She starts referring to herself in the third person as "the wife," disassociating herself from what was happening to her.

"The wife has taken to laughing maniacally when the husband says something, then repeating the word back incredulously back. Nice??? Fun???"

"Afterwards, the wife sits on the toilet for a long time because her stomach is twisting. Their towels are no longer white and are fraying along the edges. Her underwear too is dinged nearly gray. The elastic is coming out a little. Who would wear such a thing? What kind of repulsive creature?"

She's justifiably angry at him and makes him suffer through rants and fights. She seems to want to continue with the marriage as does he. He starts to make amends, to return to liking her. She refuses to respond, or perhaps she cannot (?). She's always been her own worst enemy. And now, with her mental balance being questionable—she's on medication and seeking therapy—it makes it all the more difficult for her to respond appropriately to the situation. This aspect of the novel was difficult reading and rendered very well by Offill. I was very much in sympathy with the character here as she was portrayed.