Lockdown Reading Part 3 – December 2020 to April 2021

Territory of Light

Author: Yūko Tsushima

Published: 1978-1979 (serialized in the literary magazine Gunzō)

Country: Japan

Genre: Literary Fiction

First Sentence: “The apartment had windows on all sides.”

Review: Territory of Light covers a year in the life of a single mother who moves into an apartment of her own after her husband abandons her and their 3-year-old daughter. The novel was serialized in a literary magazine as twelve stories published over twelve months. Although the stories themselves are distinguished by theme rather than the specific months that correspond with their dates of publication, the novel more or less follows that twelve-month chronology. This is definitely a novel, not a short story collection, but its twelve parts feel semi-independent, as though they are less than short stories but more than chapters. They each focus on a particular aspect of the protagonist’s struggle to raise her daughter as she adapts to independent living for the first time. It’s that adapting process that I find most interesting. The protagonist went straight from living with her parents to living with her husband and therefore has never been unassisted. You get the sense that events have progressed too fast for her to handle them, as though she has had no real time to grow and mature as her own person. At various points in the novel, she reflects on and dreams about her high school days, as though that period is distant in terms of lifestyle but near in terms of mentality. The way she held on to the fear of judgement by her classmates after so long, at a time when her life is now completely different, felt very relatable to me. When her husband, an impoverished filmmaker, suddenly decides he wants to separate, the protagonist is stunned. He feels as if he needs to pursue his destiny as an artist and can’t do that whilst being a father and a husband. What’s interesting however, is that he doesn’t want a divorce. He wants the benefits of being a father and a husband without the responsibilities, dropping in and out of their lives when convenient for him. This enrages the protagonist, who aggressively pursues her own independent living situation as well as divorce proceedings. The novel reads a lot like the work of Elena Ferrante- the protagonist being an abandoned wife and a sometimes-apathetic mother. It’s dark, gritty, and unsentimental in its treatment of motherhood, which I found really intriguing, although this was somewhat of a slow read for me. What I liked best about this novel was the nuance of its characters: the protagonist is flawed but nonetheless sympathetic, and her ex-husband comes across as more of a numpty than a true antagonist. By the end, he’s a sympathetic figure too, and you just want all these people to be able to find peace in their lives.

Little Fires Everywhere

Author: Celeste Ng

Published: 2017

Country: United States

Genre: Domestic Fiction/Realism

First Sentence: “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

Review: This is kind of a strange one for me. There was a lot I didn’t like about how the book was written. The characters feel a little underdeveloped, which I think is due in no small part to the roaming, omniscient third-person perspective that switches randomly from character to character. Sometimes the perspective shifts mid-paragraph and throughout the novel you don’t feel close to anyone in particular. Characters fade in and out of the events as the plot requires them, instead of maintaining a consistent presence throughout the story. For instance, when the book started, I thought there would be two POV characters: Moody and Pearl, each representing the two families. But Moody exists only to introduce Pearl to the Richardsons at the beginning before buggering off for most of the story and showing up right at the end. Not that I liked the little twirp, but I found his possessiveness interesting. Pearl is probably the closest to feeling like a protagonist, but I’m not sure this book has one. The TV show presents the story as being a Batman-vs-Superman style showdown between the two mothers, but that really isn’t the case in the book. For one thing, the rivalry is pretty much one-sided until the very end, and for another, both women are absent for large sections of the story. I also hated the fact that there was a giant flashback section that was a good 25% of the entire book- and a boring one at that. The ending makes little sense too and has all the subtlety of a landmine, with one character taking an obvious metaphor and applying it so literally that you lose any kind of empathy with them. It reads as though it was cobbled together at the last minute because the author had written herself into a corner. And the ending in the show is even more ridiculous. However, all of these complaints are ones that have emerged mostly in retrospect. The reason this was such a strange read for me was that, whilst there was a lot that bothered me, I really enjoyed it. Celeste Ng is doing something right. And I think that something is crafting a central conflict that inflames the reader’s sense of injustice. I felt like my emotional investment in the court case was nicely mirrored by the in-universe residents of Shaker Heights, who all feel drawn into the drama with strong opinions. By the end of the book, I really hated Mrs. Richardson, and I loved the way the book slowly unmasked her character’s nascent dark side, her obsession with Mia festering like an infection in her mind. Pearl was my favorite character, and I was rooting for Bebe the whole way. This was a book I was thinking about while I wasn’t reading it, and I read it ravenously. Most importantly, I enjoyed it, and I’m keen to check out more of Celeste Ng’s work.

The Future of British Politics

Author: Frankie Boyle

Published: 2020

Country: United Kingdom

Genre: Politics/Humor

First Sentence: “In this essay I have aimed for something approaching optimism, despite the fact that it was written during a Scottish winter so bleak that I found myself imagining my own funeral.”

Review: Frankie Boyle is without contest my favorite comedian of all time. I discovered him while at university, when a friend of mine introduced me to his stand-up material. I loved his dark humor and brutal delivery, but after going through a period of binging on videos of his live performances, I gradually stopped watching. Then, several years later, I rediscovered him during a period of my life where I was becoming rapidly more political. My outrage toward Brexit and Trump (which are part of the same racist, anti-intellectual movement) clarified my political identity and sparked an impulse in me to reengage with politics. It was in this climate that I returned to Boyle’s work, only this time through his TV show New World Order and his written columns for The Guardian. The Future of British Politics continues in the vein of both of these, and exemplifies why this particular phase of his career appeals to me so much, in that it makes eloquent sociopolitical insights while being downright hilarious. It’s such an addictive synthesis for me, and I really think Boyle has found his niche with this particularly dark and cynical brand of political satire. This book, which takes the form of a 60-page essay, is one I will probably return to and reread quite regularly. In it, Boyle argues that any discussion of Britain’s political future must first be contextualized by its imperial past. It’s the kind of thinking that I’ve admired in Prisoners of Geography and The Zahir; viewing current events in the context of history, the idea that you can’t effectively handle a present situation unless you understand the roots that lie beneath it. The problems the U.K. faces today will never be solved unless it reconciles with its history and takes responsibility for its atrocities. Only then can we move forward. All in all, I loved this book and I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

The Gifts of Imperfection

Author: Brené Brown

Published: 2010

Country: United States

Genre: Self-help/Sociology

First Sentence: “Once you see a pattern, you can’t un-see it.”

Review: As this list shows, I’ve been trying to incorporate more non-fiction into my reading. In my first post in this “Lockdown Reading” series, I wrote about how Prisoners of Geography was the first non-fiction book I truly read cover-to-cover. A book on geopolitics and history was a very easy way in for me. What really took me out of my comfort zone was The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. I’d never read a self-improvement book before and had never imagined myself reading one. It’s not that I looked down on them or anything like that, but I always imagined that if I tried to read one, I would get bored. I also doubted my ability to apply what I learned from a self-help book to my everyday life. I felt that the wisdom would be wasted on someone as hopeless as myself. However, a few months ago The Gifts came recommended to me from my close friends across the Atlantic. There was something about the title of this book that jumped out at me and made me intensely curious about its message. The message suggested by this title became all the more enticing when I learned more about Brown’s credentials; this was a work of science, not the waffling of some guru. I was eager to find out what the years of research that went into this book revealed about human behavior- in short, how science could help me to understand my own life. And that’s exactly why I ended up enjoying this book so much- it seemed to present my own memories back to me, only now they were annotated and explained. My biggest takeaway from this book was the way it illustrated how so many of our emotions, issues, and experiences are interconnected and interdependent. For example, Brown specializes in shame research. I didn’t think a book about shame would apply to me that much. It’s such a dramatic word; if you ask someone if they feel shame, they’re not likely to say yes. But once she defined it and outlined examples of shaming experiences from her own life, I realized that I had experienced a lot of shame too. I started to recognize the impact of shame on the behavior of myself and those close to me. We are all well acquainted with it. Brown argues that when we shame ourselves, we are more likely to shame others- whether intentionally or unconsciously. And similarly, she writes that our ability to love others is limited by our ability to love ourselves. We can’t pick and choose. I find that idea very compelling. This is a book I would recommend to anyone, regardless of their background or situation. Young and old, rich and poor, confident and shy. You don’t have to have any prior knowledge of sociology to read it. There’s no alienating, scientific jargon. What makes this book so good is the way it translates research data into accessible, engaging language.

The Zahir

Author: Paulo Coehlo

Published: 2005

Country: Brazil

Genre: Literary Fiction/Spirituality

First Sentence: “Her name is Esther; she is a war correspondent who has just returned from Iraq because of the imminent invasion of that country; she is thirty years old, married, without children.”

Review: Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated with the nomadic cultures of the central Eurasian steppes, from Hungary to Manchuria. I’ve been trying to find novels about the steppes, particularly those from Central Asia. Translations are hard to come by, so I decided to expand my search to novels merely set in the steppes. It’s not the same as reading from a native voice, but I figured so long as it’s well-researched then it’s certainly worthwhile. This search led me to The Zahir, which I found at the top of a list of books set in Kazakhstan. I knew the name of the author, Paulo Coehlo, and that he was a big deal, though I’d never read one of his books. The premise really intrigued me: the wife of a famous writer disappears, and he’s not sure if she has left willingly or unwillingly. She’s a war correspondent covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so there is a very real possibility that she could have been abducted or murdered. On the other hand, she may simply have walked out on their marriage. After a long period of uncertainty, a man shows up whom the writer suspects is or was his wife’s lover, and so he presses him for clues to the mystery. Admit it- you’re intrigued! I was. So much so that I bought the book. It turned out however, that the novel was quite different to how I imagined it. The premise implies something that’s quite plot-heavy; teasing either a thriller or a relationship drama, both of which I’m always down for. But this isn’t the case at all. If I’d have known anything about The Alchemist and Coehlo’s other works, I might have realized this. I wasn’t disappointed however- just surprised. And perhaps it’s good I knew so little going in, because if I thought the book was about spirituality, I almost certainly would never have touched it. I tend to favor earthy stories and stay clear of abstract ones. But I think it’s good to get outside your comfort zone now and then, and I found The Zahir a fascinating read. Little of it actually takes place on the steppes, but it does give an extensive insight into Tengriism (the ancient Turko-Mongolic religion of the steppes) which I found really interesting. There are some great passages in here discussing the nature of love (marriage in particular), and of owning one’s story. What I liked best was how the protagonist had to go back in order to go forward- to examine why his marriage stagnated so as to find the answer of how to save it.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Author: Mary Beard

Published: 2015

Country: United Kingdom

Genre: Ancient History

First Sentence: “Our history of ancient Rome begins in the middle of the first century BCE, more than 600 years after the city was founded.”

Review: Even though I’ve read history books as long as I’ve been able to read, starting with the beautiful, illustrated encyclopedias my parents introduced me to as a child, Mary Beard’s SPQR was a new experience for me. I’ve always read from history books, interacting with them the way you do coffee table books, dipping in and out at random, reading specific passages and admiring the illustrations. But I never read them cover-to-cover. And the ones I did read were all in a style distinctly different from SPQR; they were oversized, had plenty of maps, diagrams, and images, and most significantly they were straightforward summaries of historical events. They were purely informational, like textbooks. I decided to read SPQR because I wanted the most definitive, up-to-date, authoritative account of Ancient Rome I could find. But what I found was even more interesting. SPQR isn’t a textbook. It’s more like a 600-page essay. It has a thesis statement, and only includes concrete details insofar as they are relevant to that statement, which is the story of the Ancient Romans as a people and why it is relevant to us today. Everything is contextualized by written records and archeology; Beard presents only what can be inferred by the limited evidence we have, and stresses the need for a healthy skepticism when engaging with the past. I think that skepticism was my biggest takeaway from the book- I felt like a completely different person in terms of how I approach history by the end of it. I loved the way this book tied everything back to big macro questions, how tiny archeological details are representative of larger societal trends within Rome’s history. The history books of my youth filled my head with knowledge- the dates of coronations, battles, and assassinations, the names of important people and places, the weapons they used, the food they ate, the buildings they constructed, et cetera- but they didn’t make me think. There was no sense of the author behind the words. SPQR, in contrast, has a voice. It makes arguments, it debunks popular assumptions, and it uses evidence to draw comparisons to the present. For the first time ever, history didn’t feel static; rather, it felt like I was interacting with something in a state of constant, dynamic flux. I no longer felt like a passive receptacle of incoming facts, but an active participant in an ongoing discourse.

The Lying Life of Adults

Author: Elena Ferrante

Published: 2020

Country: Italy

Genre: Literary Fiction

First Sentence: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.”

Review: Absolutely fantastic, from start to finish. Elena Ferrante is my favorite writer that’s writing today and the one whose talent I’m most jealous of. Her latest title, The Lying Life of Adults, is already one of my favorite books of all time, because it delivered exactly what I look for in a novel. Firstly, there always seemed to be something happening that was important and exciting. Every few pages seemed to deliver a fresh plot revelation or a significant piece of character development. By the end it felt as though a lot had happened, and that the protagonist Giovanna had been through many mental states. Not a word was wasted. Secondly, this was a book that I was actively thinking about when I wasn’t reading it, which is always a great feeling. It has a wide cast of richly nuanced characters and explores an equally wide array of compelling themes. One of the most prominent of these is the theme of social class, with the two halves of Giovanna’s family each representing the two sides of Naples, a duality reflected in education, language, and economic opportunity. Giovanna straddles this divide throughout the narrative, at various points adopting the cultural personas of each to her advantage. At the beginning of the novel, she is studious, timid, and well-behaved. By the end she draws upon both bourgeois sophistication and working-class passion according to her needs, slipping between refined Italian and vulgar Neapolitan, weaponizing knowledge one minute and sexuality the next. There’s an undercurrent of Freudian thinking throughout the novel, particularly the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. At times Giovanna feels like a force of nature. Although she remains vulnerable throughout the narrative, she definitely becomes less helpless and more empowered. On the surface, the ending is disturbing, but the more I think about it the more it seems to me that Giovanna did what she did on her own terms, and that perhaps it is the culmination of her agency, and the definitive end of her childhood. I wish the book had gone on for a thousand pages longer, because I found the protagonist’s life so fascinating, but I can see why Ferrante ended it where she did. There is speculation online that this book could be the first in a new series, and I really hope that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just left as the story of those tumultuous teenage years of Giovanna’s life.

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