What I’ve Been Reading – January 2020

History of Wolves

001

Author: Emily Fridlund

Published: 2017

Country: USA

Genre: Coming of Age

First Sentence: “It’s not that I never think about Paul.”

Review: I both did and didn’t like this book. I thought it was well-written, I loved the setting, and it tackled an interesting subject. And yet- somehow- I found that I wasn’t enjoying it. In some ways it’s a real paradox, because I seemed to only like the book when I wasn’t reading it. I read the book very slowly, and I took big gaps where I didn’t read it (or anything else) for weeks on end. It kinda fucked with my whole reading schedule. I started it back in October after erroneously believing it to be a horror novel, but barely touched it throughout November and December. I powered through the last of it in the first week of January and upon completing it I tried to think hard about what it was that the book was missing.

In short, it’s about a teenage girl in a small town in northern Minnesota who works as a babysitter for a mysterious couple that has moved into the cabin on the other side of the lake. That probably makes it sound like a thriller but it really really isn’t. The couple are Christian Scientists (I’ve yet to encounter a name that’s a more blatant oxymoron) and their little boy dies because they don’t believe in medicating him. And that’s not a spoiler because the book reveals the boy’s fate in the first few pages. That might be part of the problem- there’s no tension or mystery that makes you want to keep turning the page. I’m not saying the book ought to be a straight-up thriller, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with its literary pretentions, but I just didn’t find History of Wolves that compelling. The pieces that make up this novel were all very interesting, but put together they didn’t add up to something that grabbed me.

There’s also a side plot involving a poor girl from the local Indian tribe and a schoolteacher with somewhat suspect motivations. I liked these passages more than the main plot because it wasn’t clear where it was going. But in the end I didn’t understand what I was meant to take away from it. Maybe I just couldn’t work it out, but ultimately I wasn’t sure what the significance of that storyline was to the overall narrative.

All this aside, I loved the cynical narrative voice of the protagonist. I thought she was a really interesting character. She’s unsentimental, sardonic, and self-deprecating. As for the plot, it seemed to be constantly brushing up against something great without ever truly achieving it.

 

The Wayward Bus

002

Author: John Steinbeck

Published: 1947

Country: USA

Genre: Literary Fiction/Realism

First Sentence: “Forty-two miles below San Ysidro, on a great north-south highway in California, there is a crossroad which for eighty-odd years has been called Rebel Corners.”

Review: For the most part these days I tend to read contemporary fiction, but John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus reminded me how reliably pleasurable it is to dive into an established classic every now and then. I knew this book would be good. Why? Because it’s a Steinbeck novel. I had the same feeling reading this as I did from reading the works of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison- that I was experiencing timeless, authentic genius. The Wayward Bus just felt a cut above the other books in this post.

The premise of this novel is pretty mundane. It’s about a guy who operates a small bus in central California, and the passengers onboard. There’s no true main character per se, and the book is written in a third person omniscient style that rarely if ever gets used these days. In fact I remember my professors at university telling us not to use this technique. These days, authors who make use of multiple point-of-view characters (think Liane Moriarty or George R.R. Martin) usually designate which character is currently serving as the protagonist by separating their sections into chapters, often with the POV-character’s name at the beginning. In The Wayward Bus however, the perspective shifts without warning, multiple times, during a scene. The style works for this story though, and it reflects how it’s not really about any one person, but rather about the transitory nature of life as a whole. It’s a mesh of personal journeys, each of which are unimportant in and of themselves, but when taken together speak to a universal truth about the human condition. In particular it’s about the way we ponder our own lives and wonder what it would be like to be someone else.

All of the characters are dissatisfied in some way. The bus driver longs to break out of the comfortable routine he’s built for himself- or at least he thinks he does. His wife is depressed about her fading youth, feeling without her looks she has no worth as she’s constantly reminded of the importance society seems to place on physical beauty. In fact youth and sex serve as key themes for a lot of the characters in this book. You’ve got the old man whose meanness is a symptom of his fear of death, the young waitress with dreams of a fast-paced, carefree lifestyle, the pimple-faced teenager insecure about his looks, the bleak-as-fuck salesman that sees no point in anything and resigns himself to moment-to-moment, short term pleasures, the stripper that resents men for their dishonesty and yearns to be taken seriously, the repressed businessman trapped in a sexless marriage with his hypocritical, manipulative wife, their angry daughter who wants to shun her bourgeois upbringing in pursuit of vivid, sensual experiences, and last but not least a random bloke called Louie who’s a misogynist ass-hat.

If this book were told from the POV of just one of these characters, but with the exact same storyline, it would be a completely different experience. As I said earlier, it’s concerned with universal themes as opposed to personal ones.

 

Tea of Ulaanbaatar

2

Author: Christopher R. Howard

Published: 2011

Country: USA

Genre: Literary Fiction/Psychedelic Fiction

First Sentence: “The words come to him then.”

Review: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it was a gamble that paid off. It’s about a disenfranchised American Peace Corps volunteer in 1990s Mongolia who stumbles upon a mysterious red “blood tea” named Tsus that absolutely consumes him. It’s left ambiguous as to whether the Tsus is actually the long-awaited revenge of the Great Khans upon the modern world, or if it’s all one giant paranoid acid trip. The idea is that the drug is so potent that it drives non-Mongolians into self-destructive, violent hysteria. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but it kind of works because of the surreal and dreamlike tone of the narrative, all of which is from the perspective of an American expat that is in a fragile mental state from the outset. I liked the way the blood tea was tied to the history of the Mongol Empire and the Black Death, that it is this ancient, mystical drug that fueled the conquest of the known world, and that the Mongol people have been quietly biding their time before unleashing it again. There’s an apocalyptic tone to the book, which is appropriate I think, since the campaigns of the Mongol Khans during the Middle Ages would have felt like an apocalypse to the civilizations they conquered.

The novel reads a lot like the Beat Generation writings of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Kesey. It’s a trippy kaleidoscope that’s underpinned by a strong sense of anguish on the part of the protagonist. It also reminds me of Henry Miller, in that it features an American expat that feels alienated by the cold, vapid consumerism of his homeland, and now wanders about lost and lonely, causing trouble and indulging in various forms of self-destruction. Don’t expect any of the Peace Corps volunteers in this novel to be enacting any kind of positive good on the local populace. They all come across as self-centered, depressed, and incompetent. In fact they all seem to resent Mongolia and the people they are ostensibly meant to be helping. It took me a while to get comfortable with this book. I don’t think it would make for enjoyable reading for the American Peace Corps or the Mongolian Tourist Board. The post-Soviet Ulaanbaatar of this book is portrayed as a filthy, decrepit place with piles of festering garbage as far as the eye can see. The lack of sympathy toward the Mongol people made this difficult to read at first, but as I kept reading I came to think that this was a deliberate point the author was making; this was an integral part of the narrative and its descent into madness, that these volunteers who were meant to be helpful were in fact the exact opposite. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s own views of Mongolia (at least I hope not). You have to remember that the whole book is about the protagonist’s state of mind, and that his impression of everything around him is filtered through his depression and paranoia.

Overall I thought that this book was exceptionally well-written, and it kept my interest by using a tone that was familiar and applying it to a setting that was completely new for this genre.

 

River of Teeth

3

Author: Sarah Gailey

Published: 2017

Country: USA

Genre: Alternate History

First Sentence: “Winslow Remington Houndstooth was not a hero.”

Review: Sigh. I really didn’t like this book. It’s very short and yet it was slog that I had to force myself to get through. And it wasn’t a slog in the sense that it was difficult to read- the language is very simple and straightforward. The problem was that the characters were so annoying it was all I could do to keep my hands turning the page instead of fastening around my own throat.

River of Teeth has a great title, some intriguing cover art, and an interesting premise. It also comes highly recommended- it has pretty good reviews and has been considered for some awards. All of these things compounded my disappointment however, when I actually got to reading the text. It’s an alternate history novel set in the Mississippi Delta during the late 19th century, in which hippos were brought to the US to be farmed as a new source of meat. A dam was constructed in the Mississippi to create a large swamp, which has now been overtaken by feral hippos that attack anything on site. I like hippos and I like American history, so I thought this novel was going to be a good choice for me.

However, it seems less interested in its promising setting and more interested in desperately trying to convince us that its one-dimensional stock characters are “cool”. The book seems like it was written without any historical, geographic, or biological research. For an alt-history book this is a pretty big flaw, as the sense of time and place is so important. I know it’s meant to be a fun, light-hearted romp, but the sheer lack of world-building kills this novel. Nothing is believable. The hippos don’t behave like hippos. The people don’t behave like 19th century people in the Deep South. And the Mississippi River does not behave like the Mississippi River. No amount of effort seems to have gone into fleshing these things out with vivid, well-researched details.

The characters are also completely lacking in nuance- defined not by complex inner struggles, but instead by trivial surface details. They’re meant to be this highly-skilled team of fighters embarking on a risky sabotage-come-heist mission, and yet one of them is an obese French woman and another is like 8-months pregnant. You’d think these details would be pretty significant given the physical demands of the book’s events, but they’re only there out of some cockeyed idea that it’s empowering to show them pull off amazing feats without the slightest difficulty. This would be like hiring a partially-blind guy with chronic narcolepsy as your getaway driver, or calling on someone with severe delirium tremens to perform an eye surgery. It’s not offensive to say that a heavily pregnant woman doesn’t make the best ninja assassin. Even if she’s the Sword Saint of Ashina, she’s not exactly going to be bringing her A-game when she’s hitting her third trimester. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a pregnant woman be a strong character- you just have to demonstrate an understanding of what it means to be pregnant. Look at Fargo, for example.

A great deal of effort seems to have been made to have a diverse cast of characters- which is great. I’d like to see more historical and alt-history books told through the lens of people of color, LGBT people, or people with disabilities. But all of the minorities in this book are defined only by their minority status, as though they’re boxes to be ticked rather than interesting characters to be explored. And there are no indigenous characters, which is a pretty big oversight for a book set in Mississippi in the 19th century. There’s also a character whose gender is never revealed, and is infuriatingly referred to throughout by plural pronouns such as “they”. Confusing pronouns aside, this is another example of a character being defined by their appearance rather than their personality. One of the reasons I was looking forward to this book was that I was interested in the perspective of a non-binary character in 19th century America. That’s an intriguing premise right there. What was it like for non-binary people back then? What did they feel? How were they treated? But once again, this character’s minority status isn’t explored, but left as a kind of token in the lazy hope that it will garner praise for its inclusivity. So at first I was just confused and disappointed by this character, and by the end I was just angry because the book kept telling me none-to-subtly how great this character was. As the reader, I think I’d rather be the judge of that.

 

New Boy

4

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Published: 2017

Country: United Kingdom

Genre: Tragedy

First Sentence: “Dee noticed him before anyone else.”

Review: I first saw Othello at the Tobacco Factory in February 2017, and it instantly became one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. In fact, the ones I like best are all tragedies, and I wonder why that is. They always end in the worst way possible- by definition. And yet they’re one of the oldest and most enduringly popular genres of storytelling. I don’t want to get off-topic, but I just thought I’d mention that because it seems like a paradox. Why would we seek out a depressing narrative for entertainment?

Anyway, I got wind a few months back of a series of books called the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which famous authors were enlisted to re-contextualize Shakespeare plays for modern audiences. I’m very interested in retellings of Shakespeare, particularly in the medium of fiction. So far they’ve got big names such as Anne Tyler, Jeannette Winterson, and Margaret Atwood to take part. I decided to try New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, which is based on Othello. I figured I ought to start with a play I really like and know fairly well. New Boy transposes the Renaissance tale of a Moorish general in the Venetian army being manipulated by his treacherous ensign to an American high school in the 1970s. It’s a natural fit, in my opinion, because the timeless themes and strong narrative fundamentals of Shakespearean storylines are easily applied to various settings, and the politics of a school playground in turn make for an easily adaptable setting for various storylines. The specifics really don’t matter too much- and all the bloodier aspects of the source material can easily be replaced on the surface level in a way that makes them no less tragic in the eyes of the reader. Othello’s military prowess becomes Osei’s natural ability to dominate a game of kickball. Iago’s professional jealousy becomes Ian’s social jealousy. In the play, Brabantio is opposed to his daughter Desdemona marrying Othello. Even though the latter is a highly respected and decorated general in the Venetian army, Brabantio declares it “unnatural” for Desdemona to desire Othello’s “sooty bosom”. In New Boy, this dynamic is cleverly changed, with Dee (Desdemona) being the star pupil and Mr Brabant (Brabantio) being her teacher. His discomfort at Dee and Osei kissing on the playground is reflective of the psychology of racism in 20th century America, which was infused with patriarchal fears about black people “stealing” white women. And these white women were pedestalized as unsullied, virtuous angels that had no agency and needed to be protected by white men- which is how Mr Brabant thinks of Dee. I thought this was the most interesting adaptation from the source material, because what seems to be a simple, harmless dynamic between a teacher and his favorite student is revealed to be a point of obsessive fixation that buttresses his racist paranoia about the changing times of the 1970s.

In conclusion I quite enjoyed New Boy. I don’t think you have to know Othello in order to enjoy it either. In fact I’d be interested to see how someone unfamiliar with the play takes to it, because if they enjoy it (which I suspect they will) then it’s a testament to Shakespeare’s enduring genius. In fact, the less a Shakespearean reimagining references its source material on the surface, the better it is in my opinion. I don’t want to see Shakespearean retellings that use Elizabethan language or ones whose events only make sense if you know the play. And in my eyes, New Boy is a good novel because it avoids those tendencies.

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