What I’ve Been Reading – March 2019

Of the Farm

11

Author: John Updike

Country: United States

Review: I’ve always admired Updike’s writing for its ability to render the mundane profound. Updike writes about ordinary, middle class families and finds the poetry in their lives. I love the examination of trivial and ordinary events because if you go deep enough, they reveal greater truths. I am very affected by the idea that everyday life can be as epic and immortal as the stuff of myth. In short, this book is about a New York advertising executive that returns to his family farm in Pennsylvania with his new wife and her son from a previous marriage. Awaiting them at the farm is the protagonist’s mother, and the story is basically the four of them failing to get along for a weekend. It’s a subtle narrative that lacks the excitement of Rabbit, Run, but it is well put together. Sometimes the characters’ troubled thoughts rang true, but other times their words and actions left me confused and annoyed. The best thing about the book is the writing itself. John Updike is at his best in the novel’s stellar descriptive passages. Like Rabbit, Run, there are vulnerable, angst-ridden males and fearsome, sassy females, and these are always compelling characters that he writes well and that I enjoy reading. The book lost me a little bit with the Christian stuff at the end, but then again I have about as much tolerance for Jesus in my fiction as I do asbestos in my kitchen. On the whole the novel is an interesting look at themes of divorce, marriage, and family, but I wasn’t gripped by the narrative the way I was with Rabbit, Run.

 

 

Rape: A Love Story

8

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Country: United States

Review: This was my first time reading prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates. I’d always been aware of her but I’d just never got around to investigating her work. I came across this short novel while on my recent second-hand book haul and decided it was time to give Oates a go. I wanted an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a challenging social issue, and the book very much delivered in that regard. Nothing is subtle. The reader is spared no detail, and I think that is the most effective way to tackle the subject. The novel opens up with a horrific gang-rape and the details of the assault are repeated again and again throughout the book ad nauseam- reflective of the way the victim has to relive the events of one evening over and over again for the rest of her life. I like that Oates decided to make the reader uncomfortable, because people should be made to feel uncomfortable. The issue should be portrayed in a way that makes you feel sick to your stomach.

This is also the first novel I’ve read that’s written completely in the second person. The story is told from the point of view of the 12-year old daughter of the victim, who is present during the attack. Having the story written in the second person works really well in my opinion, because the plot is so gritty and realistic, and were it written in a more conventional way, might seem like a mere journalistic summation of events. The second person style instead gives the book a more psychological, introspective tone, as if the whole text is in fact a letter from the narrator to her younger self. And the book is not just about the issue of rape per se; it is, as the title states, a love story. Alongside the very realistic accounts of grief, trauma, and the legal process, is a narrative of something good growing out of something bad. From the horrific events surrounding the assault and its aftermath emerges something tender. It’s not a love story in the romantic sense. But rather, it’s about how this heroic person came to mean so much to the girl during the darkest times of her life. The book shifts from a very gritty and realistic beginning to focus on these more literary concerns as the plot progresses. In fact, the events get less and less realistic, although the characters and their motivations remain quite believable. I can’t say too much without spoiling it. But it’s an interesting blend of social realism and straight up thriller fiction.

 

 

Jamilia

7

Author: Chingiz Aitmatov

Country: Kyrgyzstan

Review: Of all the books on this list- and indeed, the year so far- I enjoyed Jamilia the most. I didn’t think I would, for the reasons that it’s a fairly old book (mid-20th century) and it’s a translation of a translation. The original book was written in Aitmatov’s native Kirgiz, and he then translated it himself into Russian, and it was this version that was then translated into English. I think my hesitance was due in no small part to my experience of reading The Beautiful Summer– another very short novel, written at a similar time period, with ostensibly similar themes about love and art. But as you’ll no doubt remember from my blog post on The Beautiful Summer, the translation was terrible and the plot was vague and insubstantial. I wondered if I was taking a risk with Jamilia, given that it’s a novel from a very remote and sparsely populated part of the world whose culture is no doubt vastly different from my own. I wondered if there would be too many references I’d misunderstand, and that my decision to read such an obscure novel would come off as an ostentatious statement to make myself look cultured and worldly.

As soon as I started reading, however, all of my doubts and anxieties subsided. I’m very glad I took a chance on it, because it was just so darn readable. The plot is not convoluted or hard to understand- in fact it’s very straightforward and deeply accessible. The translation is fantastic, so good in fact that you’d assume the book was written originally in English if you didn’t already know otherwise. The fact that books like this one (and Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, which I reviewed last month) exist to be enjoyed by those who don’t speak the native language has made literary translators my favorite people in the world. The descriptive passages in Jamilia are some of the most beautiful I have ever read. Devouring each sentence was like snorting a line of coke from a hooker’s sternum. Seriously- get a load of this shit:

 

“The sun, quivering and shapeless, shimmered in the salty, whitish haze.”

 

“The ripened dove-grey wheat awaiting harvest rippled like a lake surface and the first shadows of dawn flitted across the field.”

 

“Dark rocks overhung with briar towered over the road, while far below the irrepressible Kurkureu gushed out from behind a thicket of rose-willow and wild poplar.”

 

“The cool wind from the steppe brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat.”

 

“The last crimson rays slid past the fast-moving line of skewbald clouds along the hills, and all at once it grew dark.”

 

The story itself is what I’d call a tasteful romance. The narrator recalls an affair that developed during the war between his brother’s wife and a wounded soldier. At the time, the narrator was a teenager, and in many ways the focus of the novel is about how the affair affected his life forever. I found the story to be thoroughly human and universal in its themes. This is a novel that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their reading level or where they come from. It’s all about forbidden love, tradition versus passion, family obligation versus self-determination, community versus the individual, small town scandal, coming-of-age, changing times, the importance of art, and a bunch of other stuff. I also think the setting and time period is very interesting- it depicts an era of rapid modernization in Central Asia under Soviet rule, in which the nomadic traditions of the steppe gives way to collectivization. I imagine this novel would have been even more striking at the time when it was written; modern readers are familiar with the idea of choosing partners based on emotional decisions. Not too long ago the institution of marriage was far different, and you really need that historical context to appreciate how shocking it would have been to abandon your domestic role in pursuit of something as lofty as the idea of love.

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