Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My September Reading

This month, I decided to abandon planning my reading. What with two kids in school and after-school activities every day, my days were too full and my nights too short. With the pressure off, I was able to read leisurely and enjoyed the experience more, rather than racing through the books in order to put my thoughts down here in the monthly recap blogs. I had a mix of books this month: literary fiction, a short story, essays, poems, children's and adult nonfiction, mystery, and romance.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: Just started reading....

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
Categories: fiction, short story
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: A great satirical story in which Gogol skewers a vainglorious man. I wrote about the story in detail here.

Three Poems by Edward Hirsch
Categories: poetry
Diversity: Jewish male writer
Commentary: I have read Special Orders before, so it was good to revisit two of his poems from there: "A Partial History Of My Stupidity" and "Branch Library". The latter is naturally my favorite, extolling the virtues of being lost between the pages of books in a library as a boy. The poem is also a lament for those lost childhood days of carefree existence. "Stupidity" deals with the heedlessness with which he perceives he lives his life. He moves through life like a caged tiger waiting to spring; instead of reflecting on things, he reacts to things; instead of worrying about people dying in the thousands in the world, he is concerned about what other people think of him. In "Early Sunday Morning," he realizes that that which he had derided in his father, he was now living in his own life. This is one thing that I have found about Hirsch's poems—they're a stark, unflinching examination of his own life without the veil of highfalutin ideas or technical phrasing.

By Possession by Madeline Hunter
Categories: romance, medieval
Commentary: I evasdropped on a conversation between Willaful and a couple other people where she recommended this book, Hunter's first medieval. Hunter really does the medieval well with period feel conveyed through specific details of household goods, clothing, foods, dwellings, warfare, and so on, and also through language (no accents), events, and most importantly, through thought processes (no medieval window dressing here). This really anchors the story into the Middle Ages.

Addis and Moira knew each other as children: he a golden youth enamored with a golden girl, she a bondwoman's daughter and the golden girl's shadow. Moira was infatuated with Addis, he barely knew of her existence. Fast forward to present day, Addis has returned from his crusade where for six of the eight years, he'd been enslaved. He resurrects bond-hood (is that a word?) for Moira even though she was a landholding serf. Adventures ensue with warfare, much emotional back-n-forth, and sexytimes. Through it all, the story remained well-paced and my immersion in it was total.

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret
Categories: children's, nonfiction, memoir
Diversity: suffers post-polio disabilities
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. An achingly sad, true story of a child suffering from polio at the height of the disease and its lifelong aftermath. And Kehret was the lucky one. She learnt to move all her limbs, was able to talk, and was eventually able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer. Most sufferers either die, get paralyzed, or are besieged by agonizing afflictions their whole life. To all the naysayers of vaccinations, I say, "Read this! Read how much this twelve-year-old innocent child suffered. Read how much her life changed for the worse once she had the disease. Read and forever hold your peace." I grieved for that little girl as I read the book. So much suffering at such a young age.

To Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, I say, "Thank you!" for keeping my children safe and for saving hundreds of millions of children the world over by refusing to patent the vaccine, thus making it widely available. Yet, it is only in recent months that The Gates Foundation was finally able to make inroads into tough polio-afflicted areas to eradicate the disease. The world is 99% free now.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: race and microaggressions in the context of African-Americans
Commentary: Recommended by Liz McCausland. Her review is here and The New Yorker review is here. I also read Rankine's essay on Serena Williams.

I was drawn to this book, because I had just finished reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and it dealt with race in the 1960s and 1970s. Citizen is 21st C, so it seemed like an ongoing conversation to have. I agree with Liz on this: "One thing lyrical poetry does well is convey intensity of feeling and experience." This was exactly my experience with Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Citizen to better understand what The New Yorker writes: "...realities [that]include the acts of everyday racism—remarks, glances, implied judgments—that flourish in an environment where more explicit acts of discrimination have been outlawed."

These days, as societal events have shown and #BlackLivesMatter and #IStandWithAhmed have highlighted, racism is no longer under-wraps but very much out in the open. But there are also some people who consider themselves post-racial and are still involved, perhaps unknowingly, in microaggressions. What do these microaggressions feel like by the recipient? That's the thrust of Rankine's book.

I could not possibly write more eloquently about Rankine's book than Rankine herself. So I'm merely going to quote a few things that stood out for me.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words.

You take in things you don't want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?

...there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people expose to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure..

Rankine writes that it is very difficult for black people to express rage because the stereotype of the angry black man is so prevalent that most people bend over backwards to stifle even normal human anger. Controversially, the stereotype has been used by black artists successfully. However, this is what she calls "sellable anger" not real rage, which remains bottled up. She gives the example of Serena Williams who when she expressed genuine anger was penalized and fined by the establishment and excoriated in the press. On the other hand, the times when she swallowed her anger at wildly unfair calls, she was called to be displaying grace under pressure.

When such things happen, he [France's soccer star Zinedine Zidane] must grit his teeth, walk away a few steps, elude the passerby who draws attention to him, who gives other passersby the desire either to follow the example or to come to his defense.

And this one about the past really connects to the comment about the past that Helen McInnes makes below.

The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stores in you.

The Venetian Affair by Helen McInnes
Categories: mystery/thriller
Commentary: Recommended by Janet Webb. I enjoyed reading this fast-paced spy thriller that read like a police procedural. It certainly wasn't a "guy book" but far more quiet and introspective.

The main protagonist is a male newspaperman named Fenner, a hard-hitting investigative journalist turned drama critic. A soul-searing incident with his ex-wife Sandra led to his change in career. He's sent to Paris by his boss presumably to interview an ex-college professor. This gets him accidentally foisted with ten $10,000 bills. (Remember this was written in 1963 when this was a lot of money.) And his involvement in a cloak-n-dagger affair starts with the American, British, French, and Italian intelligence services and takes him from beautiful Paris to gorgeous Venice. His sidekick is the lovely Claire, an American amateur agent. By luck and sheer smartness, the two manage to stay ahead in the game till almost the end when emotional involvement with each other leads to their downfall.

I never know how much to write in a spy/mystery book that won't give away details of the plot.

There were a couple sections that I really liked.

...the past was never over. As long as you lived, you carried it with you. It shaped your life: what you were, today, depended on all you had seen and felt and heard yesterday; and what you now accepted or rejected would mold your tomorrow. We are, because of what we were....Shall we be, because of what we are?

and here's a description of a bedroom:

It was marked by simplicity, comfort stripped down to the essentials, a place to sleep deeply, with no intrusions except from the closet (cleared for his use and the only one left unlocked.) which had a haunting scent, faint, delicate, lingering. Behind the shower curtain in the bathroom, he found a flowered cap, a charming piece of rubberized froth, forgotten on a faucet.

Essays from Tropical Classical by Pico Iyer
Categories: nonfiction, essays
Diversity: South Asian male writer
Commentary: I love, love, love Pico Iyer's writing—wit, verve, and old English public school. And sharp! And acute! While not as densely allegorical as Salman Rushdie's books, the Oxbridge writing style is allegorical in nature with parenthetical remarks and shorthand references to events and people in popular culture and books.

"The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said—could it not?—of the humble comma." So starts Pico Iyer's essay "In Praise of the Humble Comma." He, then, goes on to write: "Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it, and the mind is deprived of a resting place. By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words. Punctuation, then, is a civic prop, a pillar that holds society upright." I wrote more about the essay and Iyer here. Read the entirety of the piece here. It's marvelous, isn't it?

In "Excusez Moi? Speakez-vous Franglais?," Iyer tells you that "The best way to deal with a foreigner, any old-school Brit will tell you, is to shout at the blighter in English until he catches on." Then he goes on to describe the dilemma that faces every tourist in a foreign country. "It comes down to a question of whether 'tis better to give, or to receive, linguistic torture." Iyer is a nomad, so this essay, despite its humorous ponderings is a discourse on what it means to find yourself in a foreign city and how that experience changes you.

Iyer's musings on being dogged by the manuscripts that land on his doorstep demanding blurbs are so funny—you can feel his exasperation and his puzzlement. "Not long ago, almost simultaneously, I received tomes on Hasidic children, wine-making impresarios, and the whorehouses of Saigon (who do these people think I am?)." He's well aware that while the marketing departments assiduously hound authors for those blurbs, "seasoned book-lovers, and people who simply recall that 'blurbing' is an anagram of 'burbling,' come now to relish the art of judging a book by its cover." And who can really believe all that hyperbole, all those 'high concept' similes.

He takes a potshot at Salman Rushdie: "The great problem with Salman Rushdie, I have often felt, is that he is simply too talented. And no writer I know has seemed more captive to his gifts: his powers of inventions and imagination are so prodigal and so singular that he often gives the impression of not knowing when to stop."

His two pieces on Tibet and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama are superb! I really want to read the book he wrote on the Dalai Lama. I have another of his books where he talks about his travels through Bhutan and other Himalayan kingdoms. He seems to really understand the region on a level much deeper than most journalists and most travelers. He travels with his heart, rather than his head—trite, but in this case, true—and with a rare clarity of vision.